August 10, 2008

Chief Bender's Burden

Long before Jim Thorpe, an American Indian pitched in the major leagues and eventually made the Baseball Hall of FameIt’s possible that the first “gameface” in professional sports belonged to Charles Albert Bender.

Bender, pitching mostly for the Philadelphia Athletics in the early 20th century, won 212 games and was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1953.

What makes him of scholarly interest today, however, is that Bender’s mother was a member of the Ojibwe tribe. Performing at a high level in the country’s dominant sport, Bender probably was the nation’s most famous American Indian athlete, several years before Jim Thorpe.

What this meant in practical terms, at least during the games themselves, was war whoops from the fans and brutal bench-jockeying from the opposition.

Later, after the presses rolled, the chorus continued. In contemporary newspaper accounts of games, Bender routinely received the title of “Chief.”

Sportswriters felt free to traffic in vivid metaphor, either by way of James Fenimore Cooper (one sportswriter, after Bender won a World Series game in 1911, referred to him as “a child of the forest” ) or from a chair in the anthropology department.

Bender, wrote one sportswriter during the 1905 World Series, was “a typical representative of his race, being just sufficiently below the white man’s standard to be coddled into doing anything that this manager might suggest …”

1 comment:

Rob said...

For more on the subject, see:

Groundbreaking pitcher

Charles Albert Bender, White Earth Ojibwe, broke ground and struck out batters as a professional baseball pitcher in the early 20th century.

Bender entered into baseball at a time in which African Americans were banned from playing organized baseball. Though Native players were not banned they did play in a time of extreme political incorrectness in which society, as a whole, rarely recognized in a respectful manner his Native American heritage.

Instead, he was stereotyped, along with the other Native players in the league, and expected to fit the Hollywood Western ideas of the cowboy and Indian days. He was often referred to as “chief,” a nickname Bender was never fond of. The prejudices he and the other Native players encountered included trite war cries and innumerable racial slurs, among other things.