Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Talking to Darrel Chaney: An Important Cog in the Big Red Machine





I had the good fortune recently to talk to former Cincinnati Reds player Darrel Chaney, a good baseball player and an even better person. Darrel Chaney wasn’t a household name in the 1970s—except to Reds fans who realized his importance to the team known as the Big Red Machine. 

Chaney could handle a glove at second base, third base or shortstop with equal ease. He pinchhit, pinchran and could lay down a bunt or steal a base if needed. And just as importantly he was a good guy to have around the clubhouse with his selfless attitude and sense of humor. 
A three-sport star in high school in the northwest Indiana town of Hammond, Darrel was a Parade All-American quarterback on the football field. A slight of hand master on offense, he also intercepted 27 passes in three years while moonlighting on defense. He received more than 30 college football scholarship offers but turned them all down for a whopping $8,000 bonus to sign with the Cincinnati Reds who had drafted him in the second round (33rd overall) in the 1966 draft (the Reds first pick that year went to California high school pitcher Gary Nolan). While Chaney was a standout in basketball and football, it had always been his dream to play major league baseball and he never had any second doubts about his choice.
After military obligations wiped out most of Darrel’s 1967 minor league season, he turned in a solid year for Asheville in AA while playing for an unknown manager named Sparky Anderson. Sparky had managed a few years in the low levels of the Cardinal organization and was brought to the Reds system by new general manager Bob Howsam. Playing alongside future Reds Bernie Carbo and Wayne Simpson, Chaney hit 23 home runs and Asheville finished 32 games over .500 and cruised to the Southern League pennant. “I always told Sparky, ‘if it wasn’t for me you never would have made it to the big leagues,” Chaney says.

As for Chaney, it was his handy glove that helped him make the big leagues. His showing at AA earned him some reps with the big team in the spring of 1969 and the last day of camp manager Dave Bristol called the 21-year-old into his office and delivered the news he had waited his whole life to hear: “Congratulations Darrel, you made the club.”
“I had a really good spring,” Chaney says. “But it was kind of good and bad. I was happy to make the majors, but because I was one of the only guys who could play second, third and short I kind of got labeled as a utility player right off the bat. That’s unusual for someone 21 years old.”
The early move to the majors cost Chaney the much-needed time in the minors to perfect his hitting against high-level pitching. He traveled north with the Reds in the spring of 1969 with only 776 minor league at bats under his belt. It would ultimately prove to be damaging to his career. 

In June of 1969, Chaney experienced one of those moments every kid dreams of—a ballfield close encounter with his childhood idol. “I grew up a huge Ernie Banks fan,” Darrel explains. Hammond is just south of Chicago. “I admired the way he played and the way he acted. After my 12-year-old season in Little League [1960], Ernie Banks was the guest speaker at our banquet. I can still remember the speech he gave. He told us, 'When you go to work, work hard. When you play, play hard, when you pray, pray hard. And always tell the truth so you never need to remember what you said.' After Ernie talked I got to go up and meet him and get his autograph. He signed it, ‘I’ll see you in the big leagues.’ I still have that autograph framed in a collage.

June 7, 1969 the Reds were in Chicago for Darrel’s first series at Wrigley Field as a major leaguer. Ernie Banks was playing first base for the Cubs. “I got a double early in the game and so I didn’t get to stop at first. But later I got a single. I was standing on first and suddenly I felt an arm around my shoulder. I looked up and Ernie Banks said, ‘Darrel Chaney. I knew you’d make it. Welcome to the big leagues. It’s a long way from that banquet in Hammond, Indiana isn’t it.’ There had been a personal interest story in the paper the day before and maybe Ernie had read it, but it was so great to be standing there on first base in Wrigley Field with my parents and friends in the stands, with Ernie Banks giving me a hug.”

Chaney played solidly in the field during his rookie year, splitting time at shortstop with Woody Woodward and filling in as needed in late innings around the infield. The Reds narrowly missed winning the division that year. “We had a lot of talent in 1969,” he says. “That’s the first year they started calling us the Big Red Machine.” The Reds were tied for first as late as September 11, but a rash of pitching injuries slowed them to 12-10 the rest of the way while the Braves went 14-4 and took the flag.
That was the excuse Bob Howsam needed to give Dave Bristol the axe. “I was really surprised when Dave was let go,” says Chaney. “I loved the guy. Still do. Everybody on the team liked him. He was always in there fighting--and I mean fist fights sometimes--just to back us up. You knew if you ever got in an argument with an umpire or got thrown out he was going to back you up. Comparing the two managers, I think Dave knew more baseball than Sparky. I know that’s saying a lot because Sparky won a lot of games, but Dave really knew the game inside and out. But he was from the previous regime and Howsam wanted to bring in his own man. It’s unfortunate because Dave should be remembered as the man who helped build the Big Red Machine. He had all those guys--Bench, Pete, Perez, Helms, May—all of them in the minors. He brought them along. And we were so close in ’69.”

Under Anderson, Chaney initially platooned with young Venezuelan shortstop Dave Concepcion who struggled at the plate his first few years. “I outhit him in 1972 [.250 to .209] but when we got to camp in 1973 Sparky gave him the job fulltime.” The multi-talented Concepcion had a breakout year in 1973, winning the first of what would be nine All-Star selections over the ensuing decade. 

With second base manned by future Hall of Famer Joe Morgan, Chaney found himself starved for playing time. “You get on a great team like that and it’s hard to get in the lineup," Chaney says. "Sure, I wanted to play every day, but it was great just to be a part of a team that good.” 

Fans sometimes forget that everyone with enough talent and drive to make a major league roster was a star in high school and wants to play all the time. It's difficult to accept a reduced role for the good of the team, but that's what Darrel Chaney did. Once he had a heart-to-heart talk in Sparky Anderson's office about his place on the team and his future. Sparky explained that with a future Hall of Famer at every position, there was little place for Darrel as a starter with the Reds. But he reminded him that he was still valuable for all the things he could do. "Be ready when the time comes."

"And that's what I tried to do," Chaney says. "When I got my chance, whatever was needed, I tried to contribute."




Perhaps Darrel Chaney's most valuable season as a Red came in 1973. Concepcion broke his ankle sliding into a base July 22 and was lost for the year. At the time the Reds were beginning to roll--fighting their way back from a deficit to the first-place Dodgers which had been 11 games July 1--and had drawn to within five and a half games. With Chaney playing shortstop almost every game the rest of the way the Reds went 42-21, caught the Dodgers September 3 and never looked back, cruising to a 99-win season. “That was an exciting year because the Dodgers had such a big lead. But we just played great and they didn’t and their lead slipped away. We had so much hitting on that team, all I really needed to do was just catch the ball.” 



But being a part of a team that good meant that Chaney could never coast. “I went to spring training every year for seven straight seasons playing to win a roster spot. I never could relax in the spring. It was a great time, but there was a lot of pressure. I never knew what was going to happen, if I was going to get traded or something.”
The trade came in 1976. Dave Bristol had taken over as the manager of the rebuilding Braves. It says a lot that he remembered Chaney from 1969 and wanted to bring him in to the middle of his new infield. Chaney was a starter for the Braves in 1976 and hit a solid .250. “It was good that I got a chance to start in Atlanta,” he says, “but it was hard leaving Cincinnati. I had a lot of friends on the Reds.  It was such a great city and a magical time for the team; to be able to walk down the street in Cincinnati and have people say, ‘Hey, you’re Darrel Chaney. Great job.’ I was part of arguably the greatest team in baseball history.  I sat and cried when I watched them win the Series again that fall because I wasn’t a part of it anymore.”


Chaney played four years for the Braves then hung up his cleats after an eleven-year major league career. He made the Atlanta area his home and worked briefly in broadcasting before launching a successful business career. He also was involved for years in the Major League Alumni Association and as a public speaker. Now comfortably retired in the mountains of northern Georgia, he and his wife will celebrate their 50th anniversary next year. They raised one son and now enjoy watching another baseball Chaney—a 17-year old grandson rising senior who has been noticed by college and pro scouts.
Darrel keeps busy as a motivational/inspirational speaker. Faith has played a important role in his life and he is a big believer in the importance of character in the lives of young people. In 2013 Chaney and a minister friend published a book Welcome to the Big Leagues--Every Man's journey to Significance: The Darrel Chaney Story. More than your average baseball memoir, it is an inspirational faith-based book that takes lessons from the triumphs and struggles of his career. 

Darrel learned the value of a good role model when he was young and he tries to carry on the message. He has a strong desire to help the future generation and be a good role model. "It was so great to meet my idol Ernie Banks and have him turn out to be such a nice guy. I tell kids, 'Find out about your heroes. Don't just like a guy because he's a great player. Find out what they're really like.'"
“Baseball gave me a platform. If I can use that to make an impact on someone else’s life, especially a young person, there's nothing better than that."  You can contact Darrel to speak to your group at his website: Darrelchaney.com


Looking back on his baseball career, Chaney picks two moments that stand out above all the rest. The Ernie Banks episode of course is tops. “The second was riding down the street in Cincinnati in the parade after the 1975 World Series [the Reds’ first championship since 1940]. People were hanging out everywhere, paper and things were raining down on us from the buildings. Everybody loved everybody. You can’t realize what that felt like.”

Reds beat reporter Earl Lawson wrote in Sporting News that one winter in the early 1970s the Reds installed a universal weight machine in the clubhouse. After watching the trainer give the players a demonstration, Chaney asked one of the coaches, “If I do this will it help my batting average?”
“No,” came the smirking reply, “but you’ll look better while you’re sitting on the bench.”
Darrel Chaney always looked good for the Reds, both on the bench and the field. Every great team needs a Darrel Chaney, a good character guy willing to fill whatever role is needed.














Thursday, July 6, 2017

Book Review: The Black Prince of Baseball: Hal Chase and the Mythology of the Game






Hal Chase is generally viewed as baseball’s all-time leading crook, a degenerate gambler and general ne’er-do-well who had a hand in every scandal in the early days of the game and was a major force in establishing the landscape that led to the Black Sox scandal of 1919. The Black Prince of Baseball: Hal Chase and the Mythology of the Game informs readers that this may not be quite a fair legacy.  Yes, he was a crook and all the rest, but maybe not so monolithic, and in his nefarious activities he definitely had company, including some of the biggest names in baseball’s Hall of Fame.

Hal Chase was drawing raves on the baseball field by his mid-teens as he played throughout California in the early part of the twentieth century. Working his way up from town teams to semipro squads, as an unenrolled ringer on a college team and finally in various professional leagues, he often played for several teams at the same time. He quickly developed a reputation for two things: flamboyant, often brilliant, play in the field and the penchant for jumping to whichever team offered him more money, regardless of previous commitments.

After being a top drawing card in the Pacific Coast League for several years, the 22-year-old Chase joined the major league New York Highlanders in 1905. Charismatic, well-spoken, and a good-timing guy in the bars of Manhattan, the much-hyped rookie quickly became a favorite of both fans and the media. By his second year he was being proclaimed as one of the best players in professional baseball.

 While he was a better-than-average hitter, the enduring legacy of Hal Chase’s play was his excellence on defense. Quick, daring, with a strong arm and great instincts, he was exceptional at taking away bunts--in an era when bunting was a major part of offenses—and acrobatic catches became routine. He was considered by many, fans and enemies alike, to be the best fielding first baseman in the first half of the twentieth century.

But there was another side to Hal Chase, one that would ultimately overshadow his playing ability. Throughout his career, he is shown having difficulty getting along with teammates and undermining managers he did not like. He had a propensity for holdouts and jumping teams; he skipped practices, missed games with mysterious illnesses and behaved generally as a clubhouse cancer. In viewing the discord around him, it was perhaps no coincidence that Chase never played on a pennant winner, despite several teams that went into the season with high hopes.  

Traded to the White Sox in 1913, he continued his habit of personally thriving in dysfunctional clubhouses. He jumped his contract the next year to join a team in the rival Federal League, winning the ensuing court case but making powerful enemies of both White Sox owner Charles Comiskey and American League President Ban Johnson, men who controlled the game and knew how to nurse a grudge. The authors insinuate that it is these two grudges more than anything else that contribute to Chase’s ultimate reputation as the worst of the worst among  baseball’s rogues.

Back in the majors in 1917, but blackballed from the American League, Chase signed with the Cincinnati Reds. It was in Cincinnati that his luck began to play out. He had always enjoyed a flamboyant lifestyle, living far above his means, as likely to swindle a friend out of a poker hand as to spring for drinks for an entire bar after he had done it. As the authors note, at 35 years old in 1918, Chase was one of the oldest regulars in either league and “Chase didn’t have to be told that his big pay days were winding down to a precious few and that he hadn’t provided for even an overcast day." 

Exactly when Chase began throwing games for gamblers is not known. As early as 1913 he was being accused of laying down in the field, however, at the time it was felt that he was doing it to cause an unpopular manager to lose his job. Chase had long ago perfected the subtle moves of short-arming throws and arriving late to the bag to make missed throws look like errors on the infielders—the hustler’s art of playing poorly while still looking good.

Considerable evidence exists that by 1917 Chase was making money on baseball skullduggery.  There was a string of suspicious losses for Cincinnati late in the season, often due to uncharacteristic errors or baserunning blunders. Hall of Fame teammate Ed Roush told an interviewer years later, “He was the best first baseman I ever saw. He was also the worst if he wanted to lose a game. . .  You could tell after an inning or two whether he was in there to win or to lose."

Another Cincinnati teammate later testified that Chase approached him on the mound one day with “I’ve got some money bet on this game. There is something in it for you if you lose."

By 1918 Chase, emboldened by meeting little resistance from baseball’s establishment, was regularly meeting with well-known gamblers around the league and also attempting to enlist teammates and opponents to throw games. Reds manager Christy Mathewson, unable to tolerate what he felt to be Chase’s open disregard for rules or the team, suspended him in August, 1918 with the official explanation of “indifferent playing.” 

The suspension and subsequent evidence of dirty play led to a highly publicized hearing in front of Baseball’s National Commission. But while Chase’s motivations were well-known to players, proving it in court was another matter when the only witnesses were other dirty players and gamblers. Chase lawyered up and beat the charges.

Although the National League President was enraged at the outcome of the hearing, the head of the commission, Reds owner Garry Herrmann did not take the news so badly. He had earlier implored the other baseball leaders that if overwhelming evidence warranted expelling Chase from the game, it should be kept private to avoid any public appearance of wrong-doing within baseball.

This feeling among the baseball powers to overlook gambling in order to protect the image of the game provides a dark undercurrent to the book. While telling the tale of Chase, the authors provide an excellent look at the rough and tumble state of major league baseball in the early days of the twentieth century. The public was fed a constant reminder that the game was beyond reproach as “a model of morally uplifting athleticism.” This squeaky-clean image is shown to be misleading, however, as unscrupulous egomaniacal owners fought savage power struggles with league officials, routinely pillaged other franchises and exploited players bound by the reserve clause. Meanwhile ruffian players and managers showed little regard for rules and gamblers openly plied their trade in box seats. In short, there was little morally uplifting about the game, on or off the field.

The authors show baseball of the time to be a game thoroughly entwined with gambling. Owners and players alike routinely enjoyed gambling over high stakes poker tables, in pool halls, casinos, racetracks, and on baseball games, and often they were business associates of well-known gamblers and bookies. In fact, betting on baseball games by baseball players and managers was not even expressly prohibited until an edict by the National League president in early 1919.

Major league baseball in New York particularly was lousy with gamblers and racketeers. The Highlanders owners were Frank Farrell, well-known as one of the biggest gamblers on the East Coast and Bill Devery, a Tammany Hall crony who had amassed his fortune as one of the most corrupt Police commissioners in the city’s history. New York Giants czar John McGraw and a professional gambler co-owned a popular Manhattan pool hall which was frequented by many prominent bookies and lowlifes, including the notorious Arnold Rothstein. This was business as usual within the game of baseball at the time and no one thought twice about it, except maybe to double check the odds of the next day’s games before laying down their money.

There was no true will among owners to seriously combat gambling, in part because most agreed that gambling was good for the turnstile. “Betting had been so grafted onto the roots of baseball that there was little certainty in the sport’s boardroom that it [cracking down on gambling] was bad for business.” Even crookedness among players of the time was tolerated as long as it didn’t become too public, less fans at large perceive a gambling problem and lose confidence in the effort of the teams (and stop spending money to watch them). Although there were numerous complaints of throwing games, no player was ever sanctioned as the cases were quietly settled.

Of the whitewashing efforts of the owners, the authors write, “If Herrmann, Johnson and the National League President of the moment [members of the ruling commission] were not out and out crooks, they were sitting on a library of suppressed reports identifying who was.” The authors imply that the keepers of the game were as culpable as the gamblers and the crooked players in the growing corruption of the game. “If the stink in the air wasn’t that of institutional immorality, it was of the closest thing to it—random morality. Executives of both leagues acted satisfied with the sliver of difference.”

Assisting in the public whitewash were the writers who were indebted to baseball owners for their very livelihood. They went to great lengths to perpetuate the myth that all was wholesome and clean within the professional game. The authors state, “The subject of gambling in baseball brought out the worst intellectual contortions . . . Albert Spalding had made it abundantly clear that it [baseball] was an uniquely American enterprise . . . this seemed to call for a patriotic protectiveness in which only clear thinking stood as a scoundrel.”

And so it was in this environment of casual rubbing elbows with gamblers and tacit acceptance by owners that men like Chase saw the opportunity to improve their meager pay.

After he was exonerated by the National Commission, Chase played one more year, joining McGraw’s 1919 Giants. In the period following the Black Sox scandal, in which he was widely reported to be somehow involved without any evidence, the 38-year-old Chase became a pariah. He continued to play baseball for another decade, however, blackballed by organized baseball but making his way through the outlaw leagues of California, Arizona and Mexico. While plying his trade for peanuts in dusty towns, Chase was unable to outrun his reputation even though he had never formally banned by Baseball Commissioner Landis. Broken down, unable to make a living with anything other than a baseball glove or a pool cue, Chase eventually played out his days in sad obscurity as an alcoholic, frequently dependent on his sister.

The book is exhaustingly researched and provides great history. It flows smoothly in chronological order and is well-written in the academic style, but it is not for light readers. At times it is a slow read, especially during his offseason California ballfield exploits. Baseball historians will find this an excellent addition to their knowledge on the early game and the general topic of gambling in baseball.

The authors are neither apologists nor crucifiers, but present a fact-filled portrait of a flawed man. The question of Hal Chase is not an easy one to answer and should not be undertaken flippantly. He was a man with gifted hands, equally adept at palming cards, hustling pool and digging errant throws out of the dirt. He was an unrepentant womanizer, an uncaring absent father, a philandering husband, a gambler and at times seemed completely selfish and amoral. But perhaps no more so on any of these charges than many other ballplayers, some of whom reside permanently in baseball’s Hall of Fame.