Believe it or not, two of the greatest baseball teams in the history of the game played in Philadelphia. What makes that unbelievable is there has been more lost games from Philadelphia baseball teams than any other. In fact, heading into action on Thursday night, Philadelphia teams in Major League Baseball have lost 14,441 regular-season games and 63 more in the playoffs.
Only a team from Philadelphia could win 99 games and go to the World Series one year and lose 109 games the next season and 117 the year after that. More notably, of the top 10 worst single-season winning percentages in league history, Philadelphia holds 40 percent of the spots. That total increases to 45 percent of the top 20 worst seasons.
Oh, but when things go well in Philly we don’t know what to do with ourselves. Surely the reasons for this are better left for sociologists and trained professionals, so we’ll just leave that type analysis alone. However, when it comes to baseball in Philadelphia there are two eras that are on the top of the list and everything else kind of just filters in behind.
From 1929 to 1931, Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics tore through the American League to win three straight pennants with an average of 104 wins per season back when they only played 154 a year. Baseball historians regard the 1929 A’s club as a bit below the ’27 Yankees when ranking the greatest teams of all-time, though the three-year run by the A’s is amongst the greatest ever and had the distinction of ending the Babe Ruth-Lou Gehrig dynasty.
But before Babe Ruth, the Yankees or the A’s that knocked them off in three straight seasons, the 1910 Athletics set the standard for which all Philadelphia baseball teams are based. That was the season Connie Mack guided Philadelphia to four trips to the World Series in five years, capturing three championships. In ’10, the A’s rolled over the Cubs in five games, six games over the Giants in ’11, a five-game victory over the Giants in ’13 before it came to an end in four games to the Braves in 1914.
The first dynasty of baseball history came to a crash landing in 1915 when Mack sold off his great players or the jumped to the upstart Federal League and spent the next seven seasons in last place.
Could you imagine what we would have written and said about Mack in this day and age if he sold Home Run Baker, Eddie Collins and Chief Bender to make a little cash though it meant a decade in the second division? That would be like David Montgomery being told by the Phillies’ partners to dump Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Roy Halladay in order to line the team’s coffers.
Strangely, Mack chose to sell out when his core group of stars were just coming into their primes and it’s not far-fetched to think that the Philadelphia Athletics and the Philadelphia Phillies could have played in the 1915 World Series. The first two games would have been played at the Baker Bowl on Broad and Huntingdon in North Philly, packed up the gear after the games, and walked down Lehigh for five blocks to Shibe Park.
Forget a subway series; Philadelphia could have hosted the Lehigh Avenue series.
Anyway, over the next few months we will write about the 100 years since Philadelphia started baseball’s first dynasty. Look for some stylings about the 1910 Philadelphia Athletics here over the next few months. We’ll revisit the “Deadball Era” where Frank “Home Run” Baker hit just two homers in 1910, but he led the league the next four straight years with totals of 11, 10, 12 and 9.
So here’s a little slice of the Deadball Era for the Digital Age. We’ll start with a little story about my favorite player from those teams:
Charles “Chief” Bender
The Chief, part Chippewa, led Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics to five pennants in the early part of the 20th Century and was a predecessor of Jim Thorpe’s at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. Bender was easy-going, but he was not one who didn’t like to get in his subtle digs at those who treated him poorly because of the relevant racism. His teammates were always impressed that Bender withstood the racism of the era with aplomb and patience.
That didn’t mean they didn’t tease him. However, when Bender’s teammates made racist cracks to him, the pitcher called referred to them as “foreigners.” When admiring children crowded around him in the street and sought to ingratiate themselves with war whoops and rain dances, he never lost his patience. He was not unaware of the racism around him, but the easygoing Bender weathered the worst while doing his job, kind of like how Jackie Robinson bore the brunt during his first years in the majors nearly four decades later.
“You ignorant ill-bred foreigners,” Bender used to shout at his tormentors. “If you don't like the way I'm doing things out there, why don't you just pack up and go back to your own countries.”
At that time, as it is even now, teammates, fans, and the media called most players of Native American background “Chief.” In 1910, that was an epithet roughly equivalent to calling an African-American male “boy.” Not to mention, it doesn’t take a whole lot of creativity to call an Indian, “Chief.” But known as Chief to nearly everyone in baseball, Bender didn't complain. However, he always signed autographs “Charles Bender.” Notably, Connie Mack always called him by his middle name, Albert. He also said that if he ever needed one pitcher to win him a game, he would call on “Albert Bender.”
“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,” Mack was quoted as saying, “Albert would be my man.”
That was for good reason, too. Bender pitched a four-hit shutout in his first World Series game on Oct. 10, 1905 for a win in Game 2 against John McGraw’s Giants, before dropping the clincher with a five-hitter to the great Christy Mathewson in a 2-0 defeat.
In all, Bender started 10 World Series games and completed nine of them. In the 1911 World Series he started three games, completed them all, and allowed just three runs. In his first seven World Series starts covering 61 2/3 innings, Bender posted a 1.31 ERA and 47 strikeouts to 18 walks.
His best pitch was one he was credited with inventing called the “nickel curve,” which today is known as the slider. According to Baseball Reference, Bender compares to modern pitchers like Bert Blyleven and Greg Maddux.
In 1910, Bender put together his best regular season when he went 23-5 with a 1.58 ERA in 30 games. Perhaps best explaining his dominance in 1910, Bender had a 0.916 WHIP, allowing just 182 hits in 250 innings with a no-hitter against Cleveland on May 12.
During the World Series that season, Bender won the opener with a three-hitter over the Cubs at Shibe Park, but lost in a chance to sweep the series in Game 4 when the Cubs scored with two outs in the 10th inning off him.
Bender played with the A’s until 1914 when he jumped to the Federal League after the World Series. Following a season with Baltimore, Bender returned to pitch in Philadelphia with the Phillies for two seasons. After his playing days, he managed, coached and sometimes pitched with a bunch of minor league teams. Ultimately, he settled back in Philadelphia and lived in the Olney section of town on 12th Street behind the current location of the Albert Einstein Medical Center. Back in Philly, Bender operated a couple of businesses, including a jewelry shop in Conshohocken and a sporting goods store on 13th and Arch Streets in Center City. He also worked at Gimbels in Center City and coached with the A’s beginning in 1945until his death in 1954.
In September of 1953, the veterans committee elected Bender to the Hall of Fame, but eight months later — and three months before his induction at Cooperstown — Bender died of cancer at Graduate Hospital. He was buried at the Hillside Cemetary in Roslyn, Pa.
His legacy, aside from being the ace on the staff of the first dynasty in baseball and inventing the slider, Bender was known for his kindness off the mound and his smarts on it. Ty Cobb claimed Bender was the “braniest” pitcher he faced as well as the era’s “money” pitcher.