By Tom Knight
Brooklyn Baseball Historian
Today we remember Ben Chapman, a firebrand and temperamental Yankee outfielder of the 1930s.
Chapman, a 6-foot, 190-pound right-handed hitter could fly on the basepaths. He did something unusual for a major leaguer. He broke in with the Yankees as an infielder in 1930, then switched to the outfield the following season. After 11 years as an outfielder with a few American League clubs, Chapman went to the minors to manage. The baseball world was surprised when Chapman returned to the big time in 1944 as a pitcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers!
In 1931, Chapman led the A.L. in stolen bases with 61, as he hit .315 while knocking in 122 runs. In 1932, he shared the outfield with Hall of Famers Babe Ruth and Earl Combs. That great Yankee team had seven other Hall of Famers — first baseman Lou Gehrig, second baseman Tony Lazzeri, third baseman Joe Sewell, catcher Bill Dickey and pitchers Red Ruffing, Lefty Gomez and Herb Pennock. A 10th Hall of Famer was manager Joe McCarthy. They beat the Chicago Cubs in four straight to win the 1932 World Series!
Chapman batted .299 that year, had 107 RBIs and again led the league in steals with 38. In 1933, he swiped 27 sacks to again lead the pack as he hit .312. He played exciting ball in New York in 1934 and 1935, but on June 14, 1936, he was traded straight up for Jake Powell of the Washington Senators.
The following June, he was swapped along with pitcher Bobo Newsom to the Boston Red Sox for outfielder Mel Almada and the famous brother battery, pitcher Wes and catcher Rick Ferrell.
Chapman pleased the BoSox fans with a .340 BA in 1938. He was traded again in December of that year to Cleveland for pitcher Denny Galehouse. The speedy ball hawk had two fair seasons with the Indians, hitting .290 and .286. He faded in 1941 and found himself back in Washington. Before the season was over he was dealt to the White Sox and it appeared as if his exciting big league career was over.
There never was a dull moment when Chapman was on the field. He once climbed into the stands at Yankee Stadium to take on a fan who had become a little too vocal. Once, after Chapman had struck out, Detroit catcher Birdie Tebbetts passed an unkind remark to the outfielder. Chapman socked him and down went Birdie! On another occasion, Chapman threw a ball at umpire Johnny Quinn, but, fortunately, the ball missed the arbiter.
Chapman’s minor league career was just as stormy. He managed Richmond in the Piedmont League in 1942. It was there that he decided to try pitching. The 33-year-old right-hander won six, lost three and had a 1.71 ERA. The hot-headed Chapman blew his top one day and slugged an umpire. This cost him the entire 1943 season, as he was suspended for one year.
The wartime Dodgers needed pitching help in 1944 and, on Aug. 1, Chapman joined manager Leo Durocher’s team in Brooklyn. In the 20 games in which he appeared (some as a pinch hitter), he won five, lost three and hit .368!
I remember seeing him pitch and win one of those games. In 1945, after breaking even in six decisions for Brooklyn, Chapman went to the Phillies, where he was named manager. He had a lifetime batting average of .302.
The Phils couldn’t climb out of the second division and Chapman was let out as skipper in July 1948.
Much has been written about the rough treatment Chapman gave Jackie Robinson during 1947. Years later, Chapman, mellowed with age, said it was all in fun. I doubt if Jackie would have agreed with that!
Chapman was 84 when he died in his native Alabama on July 7, 1993.
CAPS: Ben Chapman is depicted on an old baseball card.