Book review: The Black Prince of Baseball by Donald Dewey and Nicholas Alcocella
by Bob Timmermann
Until I read the Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract back in 1985, I had never heard of Hal Chase. And from that book, I assumed that Chase had to be the most evil character who ever lived. James wrote, “There is an evil, a smallness, lust, and greed that lives inside all of us. And the secret of Hal Chase, I believe, was that he was able to reach out and embrace the evil.”
In 2004, authors Donald Dewey and Nicholas Acocella set out to write a thorough examination of the life of one of baseball’s most infamous players in The Black Prince of Baseball: Hal Chase and the Mythology of the Game. And while Dewey and Acocella show Chase’s life with its considerable foibles and failings, such as game fixing, alcoholism, marital infidelities, kleptomania, and contract jumping, they won't explicitly condemn Chase.
Chase was regarded in his day as one of the greatest fielding first basemen, although today he might be considered reckless. Chase felt that he could get to any ball and make any throw. Whether or not Chase was actually going to be able to turn the play into an out was another matter. But Chase did have range factors at first base way above the league average. Chase was considered to be such a good fielder that he even played second base, shortstop, and third a few times, despite being a left-handed thrower. Like Rickey Henderson, Chase hit right-handed, but threw lefty.
The authors make it clear that they don’t want to make a moral judgment about Chase. They just want to present the facts. And there are a lot of facts in this book. Dewey and Acocella thoroughly researched Chase’s life and tried to separate the myth from reality. And that’s not an inconsiderable task since Chase was a larger than life character and he loved to spin yarns and people liked to spin yarns about him as well. No one makes up stories about third string catchers. Or if they do, no one cares unless they're about Moe Berg.
So was Chase as bad as James thinks? Or was Chase just another corrupt player in a corrupt age? Dewey and Acocella resolutely refuse to make a stance. You’ll have to make your way through the book. If you want a book that is full of salacious stories, this is not the book for you. But if you want a thorough examination of the seamier side of the Deadball Era, then you will find this a great book to dive into. But since Hal Chase is involved, check to make sure you still have your wallet.