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 www.chiefbendersburden.com.