Steven Goldman writes that, throughout his career as a manager, John McGraw
maintained the stubborn belief that he could take troubled ballplayers and change them, if not into good citizens, at least into reasonably professional ballplayers. The history of McGraw’s teams is littered with players like Bugs Raymond, Bill Dahlen, Turkey Mike Donlin, and even the relatively benign but occasionally disgruntled Casey Stengel. All were considered, to varying degrees, to be difficult personalities.
By far the hardest, and most doomed, reconstruction project McGraw would undertake was in 1919, when he acquired Hal Chase. But first, some background:
In the midst of the 1916 season, one in which the Giants would finish fourth, McGraw began to reconstruct his team. He needed an infielder, and he no longer had use for a thirty-six-year-old pitcher who’d only won four times in thirteen starts. McGraw contacted Reds owner Garry Herrmann and proposed the unthinkable: in exchange for the Reds’ third baseman-player manager Buck Herzog and outfielder Red Killefer, the Giants would send the Reds Edd Roush, Bill McKechnie, and as new Reds manager, Christy Mathewson. Herzog had twice before been a Giant, and he and McGraw hated each other, but after Herzog promised McGraw he would give the Giants his best efforts despite their differences, the deal was agreed upon. Sad as it was for Mathewson and the Giants to part ways after seventeen years, Matty would always be grateful to McGraw for making it possible for him to manage.
Mathewson would manage at Cincinnati until August of 1918, helping to remake them from the seventh-place team he inherited into a third-place team by the day he abruptly resigned to enlist in the army’s chemical warfare service. By the time he resigned, Mathewson had endured a contentious relationship with his first baseman, Hal Chase. Chase, who’d been a major-leaguer since 1905, had a reputation as a good hitter and the most skilled defensive first baseman in the game. He was handsome, charming, and a popular figure among players and fans. But there was a malevolent side to Chase. As a New York Highlander, he’d subverted manager George Stallings, and convinced club president Frank Farrell to fire Stallings and give him the job in 1910. Chase’s record of disloyalty to managers was accompanied by doubts about his honesty on the playing field. Those suspicions followed him from team to team. Chase liked to make bets, and he knew gamblers all over the country. Sometimes he bet on his own ball club; often he bet on the opposition and thus left himself open to accusations that he’d deliberately let his team down.
Chase’s unsavory reputation was well established by the time he came to the Cincinnati Reds. When Mathewson took over the club, Chase found himself playing for a man who’d been the most revered and respected player up to that point in the game’s history. It was an incongruous pairing. By 1918, Mathewson had a catalog of Chase’s offenses — Chase, the consummate fielder, making poor throws to pitchers covering first on grounders wide of the bag; Chase taking himself out of games because of “illness;” opposing players yelling at Chase, “Well, Hal, what are the odds today?” When Chase approached Giant Pol Perritt with a bribe offer at the Polo Grounds on August 6, Matty had finally had enough. The next day, after a bitter exchange with Chase, the Reds manager suspended him for the rest of the season without pay for “indifferent playing and insubordination.”
A January 1919 hearing before National League President John Heydler, prompted by the Reds, resulted in perhaps the greatest whitewash in the history of baseball. Although Heydler found Cincinnati justified in suspending Chase because he had acted “foolishly” and “prompted many rumors,” he found Chase innocent because there was not enough evidence of game-fixing in the particulars. No one familiar with Chase’s career could doubt that the charges were true, particularly when supported by testimony or affidavits from Perritt, Reds teammates and Mathewson.
True to form, John McGraw was within a week on a train to Cincinnati to make a deal, trading Walter Holke, Bill Rariden, and Slim Sallee to the Reds for Hal Chase. Then came the oddest twist of all. Early in March, two weeks after he returned from Europe. Christy Mathewson signed on with McGraw as the Giants’ “assistant manager.” The willingness of Mathewson, a man whose integrity had always been beyond question, to take a position in which he would be expected to work with a player whom he’d accused of crookedness and presumably despised, can be explained only by his ambition to eventually manage the Giants. McGraw fed that ambition, telling the press that in a few seasons, maybe, he wished Matty to succeed him. For his part, Mathewson now denied he’d ever quarreled with Chase, had ever charged him with anything but indifferent play, and had only brought the matter before the league because some of Chase’s teammates had made accusations against him.
Ironically, the 1919 National League pennant race was a dogfight between the Giants and Reds. By winning four of six games at the Polo Grounds August 15-18, the Reds moved six-and-one-half games in front of the Giants. (Mathewson looked on impassively, realizing Pat Moran of the Reds was doing the job with his former players.) Hal Chase committed four fielding errors in the August 15 doubleheader, one a crucial misplay that let in three runs in the fourteenth inning of the opener. Fred Lieb wrote in the New York Post that “Chase has been playing through these games as if he’s in a trance.” Late in the nightcap, McGraw removed Chase for a pinch-hitter who was not half the batter Chase was, and Chase played no more in the series. At the time, both McGraw and Chase explained that he’d sprained his wrist.
But McGraw still did not suspend Chase. Chase remained with the team, sometimes coaching at first base, sometimes playing, sometimes on the bench. Then, on September 11, after the first inning of a game at Chicago, Giant pitcher Fred Toney told Mathewson that he needed to be replaced. Toney later told McGraw that teammate Heinie Zimmerman had said it would be worth his while not to bear down against the Cubs. Soon Art Fletcher told McGraw that Chase and Zimmerman had offered money to both Rube Benton and Benny Kauff if the pair would help them throw games. By the time the team reached St. Louis on the same road trip, Zimmerman was suspended and sent back to New York, but the public explanation was that he had broken curfew. Chase still stayed with the team.
Turning the team over to Mathewson on September 15 in Cincinnati (the Reds would clinch the pennant on the 16th), McGraw took the train back to New York, where he later claimed he and Giant owner Charles Stoneham met with Zimmerman and extracted a confession. Meanwhile, Chase accompanied Mathewson and the rest of the Giants to Pittsburgh and back to New York, frequently coaching at first base and, to all appearances, dutifully serving his ball club. But Chase was finished as a ballplayer, and would be informally banned from organized baseball after the season ended.
So contrary to what McGraw would subsequently claim, he did not send Chase from the club weeks before the season ended. In fact, Chase was with the club until the next-to-last day of the season, while McGraw, was absent after that September 15 game in Cincinnati. Presumably McGraw was so disgusted by what had happened that he could not bear to be with the team. Yet while he’d suspended Zimmerman and claimed to get a confession from him, he’d never taken any formal action against Chase, never even accused him of misdeeds. McGraw’s genuine fondness for a man he and his wife had known for thirteen years apparently kept him from acting on what, by his own account, he had suspected as early as August, when Chase had played so poorly at the Polo Grounds in the series against Cincinnati. “In my opinion, Chase deliberately threw us down,” McGraw would say later. “I never was more deceived by a player than by Chase.”