Tom Swift,
Chief Bender's Burden: The Silent Struggle of a Baseball Star
(University of Nebraska Press, 2008)

Like Fernando Valenzuela, Charles Albert Bender came out of nowhere to step onto the pitcher's mound in the major league and rock the world with an individualistic style, an uncanny perception and exploitation of batters' weaknesses, and a winning streak to impress the most critical. Unlike Valenzuela, Bender did not disappear after his burnout. Also unlike Valenzuela, Bender faced open discrimination, mistreatment, ridicule and humiliation because of his race every time he left his home or his name appeared in the media. He was even physically thrown out of a cafe in Washington, D.C., where his team was playing a game.

Chief Bender's Burden: The Silent Struggle of a Baseball Star is the story of this Baseball Hall of Fame legendary pitcher.

Charley, born in May 1883, was the son of a white German-American Minnesota homesteader, Albertus "William" Bliss Bender, and an Ojibwe woman believed to be of the Mississippi Band, Mary Razor Bender (Pay shaw de o quay). They moved to the White Earth Reservation with the Anishinaabeg and settled on Mary's 160-acre allotment. Charley's early years were spent seeing the worst of poverty and squalor.

Charley was sent to the Educational Home when he was 8 and he remained for five years. Upon returning to the reservation, he quickly decided that he wanted a different type of life. He and older brother, Frank, ran away, went to work as field hands, then volunteered to go to Carlisle Indian School. They likely hold the record as the only two Indian children to run to the school instead of away from it.

In a time when most Americans never went past elementary school, Charley graduated from Carlisle Indian School with roughly a 10th-grade education. He was often referred to as a scholar and a gentleman. He had managed to acculturate to the dominant society and he never looked back. He married a white woman, had white friends and socialized with whites. He became one of the leading trap shooters in America, could hold his own on a golf course and was none too shabby in billiards.

Yet through it all, the racial slurs slapped him in the face. The press usually referred to him in colorful terms, such as "the grim Chippewa chief," "the artful aborigine" or "the Carlisled son of the forest." The fans taunted him. The opposing teams goaded him. He took up drinking and encountered severe health problems. Finally, the burnout caught him during the opening game of the 1914 World Series, though the exact causes of the team's losses during that series are still being questioned and the circumstances investigated.

The author examines the tough questions. Did Bender throw the game for gambling reasons? Did Bender already have a contract with the newly formed Federal League? Was Bender drunk? Was Bender hung over? Did the pressure simply become too powerful when Bender saw all the people, even on the rooftops surrounding the ballpark?

This is the book that baseball fans have long dreamed of reading. It is as close as we will ever get to knowing what exactly happened to Charley "Chief" Bender preceding that ill-fated, career-killing game. Tom Swift has investigated and evaluated all the angles in this fine biography. His writing combines a flowing narrative style with crack reporting. He keeps you totally immersed in the story, though I would have preferred that he remain in chronological order. The changes were abrupt and a couple were jarring transfers between time and place.

However, Swift's tactic was solid. He feeds you just enough about that game to keep you on pins and needles throughout the entire book. Thus, the leaps in time work to heighten the tension far above what would have been achieved if he had written the book in chronological order.

Even with the abrupt time leaps, this is an outstanding, and long-awaited, biography of a national hero. Chief Bender's Burden is a must-have for every baseball fan or student of race relations or Native American Studies. If you like a great human drama story, here it is. Bender is the model for struggling to overcome adversity.

Tom Swift is an award-winning journalist and a member of the Society for American Baseball Research.

[ visit the author's website ]

book review by
Alicia Karen Elkins

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