Thursday, April 03, 2008

Chief Bender’s Burden

Tom Swift was an editor and writer in GameDay, and some of you may even remember him writing for back in 2003. Or was it 2004? Anyway, for the last few years, he has been working on a biography of Charles Bender, AKA Chief Bender, Minesota's first Hall of Famer.

Tom is going to be at the Twins game tonight, signing copies of his book, which will be available at a 20% discount (I think). He'll also be at Magers and Quinn on Saturday the twelfth talking baseball with some other baseball writers. I encourage you to take advantage of these opportunities to talk with someone who is knowledgable and passionate about baseball.

The following story is in the April issue of GameDay:

Chief Bender’s Burden: The Silent Struggle of a Baseball Star is a new acclaimed biography of Charles Albert Bender, Minnesota’s first representative in the Baseball Hall of Fame and for nearly fifty years its only one. Bender, who was born near Brainerd and spent his early years on the White Earth Reservation, was the greatest American Indian player of all time. A bright, courageous pitcher who thrived in front of lively Deadball Era crowds and was forced to face constant racial prejudice, he helped lead the Philadelphia Athletics to five American League pennants and three World Series championships.

Tom Swift, author of Chief Bender’s Burden, will sign copies of the book in the concourse inside the Metrodome on Friday, April 4, before and during the Twins-Royals game. He sat down with GameDay to discuss Bender and the book.

GameDay: You’ve already gotten some positive reviews — congratulations. Let’s start at the start. Why did you write this book?

Tom Swift: I think what’s behind the generous feedback some have offered the book is what drew me to write it — Bender’s life story is compelling. After his name popped up in newspaper articles, when other Minnesota-born players began receiving Hall of Fame consideration, I became curious. The more I learned the more I wanted to learn. I discovered a man who had a rare ability to throw a baseball. But I was especially fascinated by the reasons why his success was so improbable. It’s funny, but I never would have known about Charles Bender if I wasn’t a baseball fan, but I never would have written the book if he had been just a great baseball player.

GD: It’s written in a different style than most baseball bios. Was that intentional?

TS: For better or worse, I decided early on not to chronicle every game or season of his career. I think baseball fans have plenty to chew on here. But I was after a story that, personally, I found inspiring. I tell people kind enough to show up at readings that they may have many reasons to not read this book. That its subject played baseball is, at least I hope, not one of them.

GD: You write a lot about how bright Bender was. Is it true he invented the slider?

TS: I don’t know. No one knows. That’s the most accurate answer. The most interesting answer — and this comes from historian Bill James, not just me — is that Bender is the first pitcher we know definitely threw the pitch.

GD: This book obviously required a great deal of research. You delve into regular seasons, the World Series, the prejudice, Bender’s surprising number of hobbies. I had no idea, for example, he was one of the best trapshooters in the country or that he was a terrific golfer. What is the most interesting thing you found on the research trail?

TS: One answer that comes to mind, looking at the arc of his life, was just how much he changed over time. Bender arrived in the big leagues as a skinny 19-year-old kid from nowhere and found himself in a racially intolerant business. He was introverted and noticeably shy. Using intelligence and poise, he essentially taught himself to be a great pitcher. He was constantly improving — his ERA dropped for eight seasons in a row — and over time he embraced the spotlight and, eventually, of all things, became a people person.

GD: He was also pretty funny, wasn’t he?

TS: You’re right. He liked to make people laugh. Late in life he was a regular speaker on the rubber chicken circuit. At one banquet, a man who had had too much to drink kept asking him obvious questions, such as what he had done for a living and what country was he born in. Bender replied, deadpan: “I sell blankets at the railroad station in Albuquerque.”

Chief Bender’s Burden, published by the University of Nebraska Press (April 2008), is available where books are sold. For information visit

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