The 2020 MLB season is on hiatus during the coronavirus pandemic, so we’ve got some time to burn and a baseball void to fill. Fortunately, there are decades of Oakland A’s history to look back on, and even rerunball is better than no ball at all. Let’s reminisce!
Here’s the latest “this date in history” from A’s info manager Mike Selleck:
On May 12, 1910 Chief Bender tosses a no-hitter in the A’s 4-0 win over Cleveland…on May 12, 1992 Dave Stewart records his 1000th strikeout in an Oakland uniform in the A’s 3-0 loss at Toronto. #ThisDateInAthleticsHistory— Mike Selleck (@MikeSelleck) May 12, 2020
For the fourth time in six days, we’re celebrating the anniversary of an A’s no-hitter. On May 7 it was Mike Fiers, on May 8 it was Catfish Hunter, and on May 9 it was Dallas Braden, with the efforts by Hunter and Braden being perfect games. I promise this is the last A’s no-hitter until the end of June.
Charles Albert “Chief” Bender was with the Philadelphia A’s almost from the beginning of the franchise, joining in 1903 as a 19-year-old. He pitched 12 seasons for the Athletics, and along the way went to five World Series with them and won three rings. His career, spent almost entirely with the A’s, earned him a spot in the Hall of Fame.
One of Bender’s best performances came on this day in 1910. He was facing the Cleveland Naps, who are now known as the Indians but were then named after their star player, Nap Lajoie.
Coincidentally, Lajoie and Bender just missed being teammates for the A’s on both ends of Bender’s tenure in Philadelphia. Lajoie was on the original team in 1901 but left early in ‘02, the year before Bender arrived. Bender stuck around through 1914, but after that season he got poached away by the Baltimore Terrapins of the new (and short-lived) Federal League; the next year, 1915, a 40-year-old Lajoie returned to the A’s to finish out his career.
And so on this day, as always, the two future Hall of Famers suited up as opponents. The A’s were a vastly better team at the time — they would go on to a 102-48 record and win the World Series, marking their first triple-digit win total and first championship in franchise history, while the Naps finished 10 games under the .500 mark. The discrepancy showed in this contest.
Bender’s performance goes down as a no-hitter, but he was nearly perfect. He allowed just one walk for his only baserunner, and even that runner got eliminated when he was caught stealing (though you won’t see that in the box score, because caught stealing wasn’t consistently recorded as a stat until decades later). Therefore, Bender faced the minimum 27 batters. He also went 1-for-3 at the plate in the 4-0 victory — the same score as we saw in the Hunter and Braden perfect games.
The final batter of the game was Elmer Flick, another Hall of Fame almost-teammate of Bender’s who briefly played for the A’s in 1902 before moving to Cleveland. However, 1910 was his last season in the majors at age 34, and he’d only play a couple dozen more games before retiring. In this one he pinch-hit for the pitcher’s spot with two outs in the 9th, but popped out to the catcher to end it.
Aside: Old-timey baseball is full of amazing names and nicknames. Bris Lord is one of my favorites. And it’s not even a nickname; it’s short for Bristol. Later that season, he’d be traded to the A’s, for his second stint with the team; part of the return package to Cleveland was a player to be named later, who ended up being Shoeless Joe Jackson.
If you want to read more about this no-hitter, then you’re in luck! In the book Chief Bender’s Burden, biographer Tom Swift gives a detailed account of much of the play-by-play, including a running shoestring catch for the first out of the day; the basestealer caught in the 4th inning by A’s catcher Ira Thomas; a deep foul ball by Lord that outfielder Danny Murphy “risked his sanity to catch” near a cement wall; and Bender not noticing he had a no-no until after seven innings.
Click that link in the preceding paragraph to check it out — scroll to the start of Chapter 13, on Page 131. (Or, just buy the book.)
To wrap things up, let’s learn a bit about Bender. After all, he is one of our team’s Hall of Famers, but from so long ago that few of us know more than just his name. Here are three interesting things.
First, Bender did not like his nickname Chief, which was a racially charged nod to his Native American (Ojibwe) heritage. From SABR’s detailed profile on his life (written by Swift):
Though proud of his American Indian heritage Bender resented the bigotry and the moniker he and nearly every other Indian ballplayer of the time received. “I do not want my name to be presented to the public as an Indian, but as a pitcher,” he told Sporting Life in 1905. The writers didn’t listen. Though his manager called him Albert, prevailing stereotypes rarely were absent from baseball coverage and bench jockeying. Bender didn’t publicly protest, but he signed his autograph as “Charles” or some derivative.
Wikipedia offers the following anecdote (via Swift):
He also faced discrimination on the field. Swift writes that taunting from the bench was common in Bender’s era and that the opposition or the fans often made war whoops or yelled taunts such as “Back to the reservation!” Bender usually remained calm, sometimes smiling at the insults. After an inning in which he had pitched particularly well, he might yell back, “Foreigners! Foreigners!”
However, I can’t decide if this line from SABR is a heartwarming conclusion, or a heartbreaking concession, though I’m leaning toward the latter.
Eventually, he was called “Chief” so often (and so often with affection) that he allowed the name to be etched into his tombstone.
Second, by all accounts Bender was an exceptional person overall. Wiki (citing mostly Swift) notes how much other players liked him, with one referring to him as “one of the kindest and finest men who ever lived.” He was also praised for his intelligence, including his ability to identify and exploit hitters’ weaknesses and also to read opposing pitchers. Under pressure, he was known as an unflappable competitor, confirmed by his strong postseason performances.
Third, Bender is considered either an innovator or even outright inventor of the slider. From the biography by Swift:
According to prominent baseball historian Bill James, Bender is the first pitcher who clearly and unarguably threw a modern slider. Though that’s different from saying unequivocally that he alone is responsible for the pitch’s creation.
If Bender didn’t invent the slider then it can at least be said he largely came to throw it of his own volition. And wouldn’t it be scrumptious irony if a man named Bender invented a pitch that could be accurately called by his surname?
Swift goes on to note that the pitch was called a “nickel curve” at the time. Bender also had good control on his fastball, and threw what Swift refers to as a “submarine fadeaway — a pitch that moved like a screwball, away from a left-handed hitter.”
Bender’s no-hitter was the second in franchise history, and the first to come at the team’s home park. It was nearly their first perfect game, but for the one walk. They now have 13 no-nos overall in 120 seasons of play.
It’s no wonder that Bender had what it took to achieve this feat, though, between his great skill and his reputation for being unfazed by pressure. After all, manager Connie Mack had this to say about him, via Swift/SABR:
“If I had all the men I’ve ever handled, and they were in their prime, and there was one game I wanted to win above all others,” said Philadelphia Athletics icon Connie Mack, who managed fellow all-time pitching greats Lefty Grove, Herb Pennock, Eddie Plank, and Rube Waddell, “Albert would be my man.”
On this day, Albert was indeed the man.