MN Now and Then: When famed baseball pitcher Charles Albert Bender and his biggest rival tried a new sport

A black-and-white photo of a man in a baseball cap.
Charles Albert Bender was a Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher from the White Earth Reservation. But in 1915, his career was on a downward slide when he got an opportunity to tour the country with a trapshooting tournament.
Paul Thompson via Wikimedia Commons

Are you a baseball fan? For this next story in our history series Minnesota Now and Then, we meet a pitcher from the White Earth Reservation. His name was Charles Albert Bender and he is often credited as the inventor of the slider.

But he was on the downward slope of his career in 1915, when he got the opportunity to participate in a trapshooting tour with one of his biggest rivals from the pitcher’s mound. MPR News contributors Robbie Mitchem and Jamal Allen tell this story with help from writer Britt Aamodt.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

Cathy Wurzer: Quick question, are you a baseball fan? You might be. Maybe the good news from the Twins is turning you into one, right?

For this next story in our history series, Minnesota Now and Then, we'll meet a pitcher from the White Earth Reservation. His name was Charles Albert Bender. He's often credited as the inventor of the slider. But in 1915, he was on the downward slope of his career when he got the opportunity to participate in a trap shooting tour with one of his biggest rivals from the pitcher's mound. Here's the story by NPR News staffers Robbie Mitchem and Jamaal Allen, with writer Britt Aamodt.

[JAZZ MUSIC]

[TRAIN WHISTLE]

[BRAKES SQUEALING]

[TRAIN WHISTLE]

Jamal Allen: It was November 18, 1915. And that morning, a train from Des Moines had deposited four Major League players in the Twin Cities.

[RUSHING]

But the crowd of onlookers at the Fort Snelling traps--

[THUDDING]

--only seemed to care about two of them.

[CHEERING]

Star pitchers, maverick moundsmen, baseball royalty.

[LIVELY CHATTER]

The first was Christy Mathewson, who'd been with the New York Giants since 1901. His signature fadeaway had felled batters from Detroit all the way to Baltimore. The other pitcher was Charles Albert Bender--

[CROWDS CHEER]

--better known as Chief Bender, the master of the nickelball, the coolest head on the pitcher's mound. For 12 seasons, he'd been the twirler that the Philadelphia Athletics turned to when they were in a crunch. Both were in their 30s and had just come off the worst season of their careers.

[INDISTINCT CHATTER]

JOURNALIST: Is it time to hang it up?

Jamal Allen: --a journalist asked Bender.

[CAMERAS CLICKING]

CHARLES ALBERT BENDER: I'll play ball until they tear the uniform off my back.

Jamal Allen: --he said.

JOURNALIST: But that's baseball for you.

Jamal Allen: It broke your body--

JOURNALIST: --and then it broke your heart.

Jamal Allen: Anyway, November was their offseason, and the pitchers--

[THUDDING]

--longtime rivals, had agreed to participate in a 20-day, 17-city, 15-state barnstorming tour for trapshooting. Heh. They had nothing else to do, so why not get paid, shine their spotlight on the sport of blasting clay pigeons right out of the sky? The press ate it up. The Minneapolis journal writers couldn't believe these powerhouses were in their backyard-- Mathewson, the greatest pitcher, and Bender, a famous native son.

JOURNALIST: They couldn't resist the wordplay.

Jamal Allen: Bender was born in Minnesota but he was also Ojibwe--

[NATIVE AMERICAN CHANTING]

--raised on the White Earth Reservation. That's how he got the nickname, Chief.

CHARLES ALBERT BENDER: I do not want my name presented to the public as an Indian, but as a pitcher--

Jamal Allen: --he told reporters, but they never listened. Today, the baseball team was up against the Twin Cities Trapshooter's Association.

[BELL DINGS]

That's how it went at every stop on the trapshooting tour--

[WHOOSH]

The ballplayers versus some local club.

[THUDDING]

[GUNS FIRING]

The Minneapolis papers built up the competition for the readers. The Twin City boys, they said, had retreated from the duck fields and cast aside their hunting togs to blow these visiting ball handlers out of the water.

JOURNALIST: The gauntlet had been cast-- at least in print.

[THUDDING]

Jamal Allen: Bender-- all 6' 2" of him-- didn't bat an eye. He knew game, and this wasn't it. Now, you're talking about 1905, that was another story.

[ADVENTUROUS MUSIC]

That was the year Bender and his Philadelphia Athletics went head to head with the New York Giants at the World Series.

RADIO ANNOUNCER: --that have ever represented--

Jamal Allen: And who was the Giants' big pitcher that year? None other than Christy Mathewson, the same one who, in their first game of the Series, denied the Philadelphia Athletics even a single run.

RADIO ANNOUNCER: --and deciding game--

Jamal Allen: That's when the Athletics manager went to the Chief. He was going to pitch game two, he told Bender, and he was going to win it. Because the guys had lost their confidence and they needed it back.

RADIO ANNOUNCER: New York possesses the pitching marvel--

Jamal Allen: Bender must have seemed like an odd choice. Only two months ago, he'd been on a sickbed.

JOURNALIST: Indian twirler in bad shape, will probably never pitch another game--

Jamal Allen: --the papers wrote. Didn't the Athletics have anything better?

[SCOFFS]

I mean, what could this weak-bodied hurler do against the mighty Giants?

RADIO ANNOUNCER: --superhuman accomplishment during--

Jamal Allen: The day of game two, 21-year-old Bender put on his hat and glove and decided, win or lose, he would give it his all. He not only won, but wiped the Giants off the scoreboard. Let it be known, Christy Mathewson wasn't the only pitcher who could throw a shutout.

[JAZZ MUSIC]

Still, the Giants did end up walking off with the World Series. 10 years had gone by since then. By 1915, Bender and Mathewson, they were the old men of baseball. Writers were building up new stars like that kid in Boston who had a great pitching arm and a hell of a swing-- none other than Babe Ruth.

The old pitchers didn't know what jersey they'd be wearing next year, if any. So they went on this tour. How did they do against the Twin Cities Trapshooting Association? Well, they lost.

Didn't matter though. They still got paid. Anyways, the fans didn't come for trapshooting. They came for Charles Albert "Chief" Bender and Christy Mathewson, two of the greatest pitchers in the history of baseball. Aces.

Cathy Wurzer: That's NPR news staffers Robbie Mitchem and Jamaal Allen with writer Britt Aamodt-- put together this piece on pitcher Charles Albert Bender from the White Earth Nation. The story was made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendments Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

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