OK, Red Sox fans, who was Ben Chapman?
Here’s a hint. His uniform number is displayed in the distinguished row of retired numbers that hang above the rightfield bleachers in Fenway Park.
But ole Ben is even more famous for his connection with a third retired number.
Unless you’re a baseball historian, older than dirt or just happen to have stumbled over the information like I did, you probably have as much of a clue about who Chapman was as opposing batters have about trying to hit a Chris Sale slider. So, I’ll tell you.
Chapman wore seven different team uniforms over the course of a 15-year major league career, including the Washington Senators uniform twice. He began his career in 1930 with the New York Yankees and wrapped it up as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies in 1946. In-between, he played for the Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians, Brooklyn Dodgers, the Red Sox and, in-between, played two seasons in the minor leagues.
Chapman’s first season in Boston was 1937 after being traded by Washington. He appeared in 113 games as a outfielder, hitting .307 with 57 RBI and adding to his legacy as a base-stealer with 27. From 1926-1943, Chapman had more stolen bases than any player in big league baseball and led the American League four times. In his second and final season with the Red Sox, the fleet outfielder hit a career-high .340 in 127 games with six home runs and 80 RBI. He also stole 13 bases. Boston said thank you by trading Chapman to the Indians following the season.
Chapman wore two different uniform numbers as a Red Sox outfielder.
In 1937, he wore No. 1 before it was taken over by the legendary Bobby Doerr the following season. Doerr wore that number proudly for the next 14 seasons and it was officially retired in his honor on May 21, 1988, although it was broken-in nicely by Chapman who wore the No. 1 with distinction in 1937.
A year after relinquishing the number, Chapman was given the No. 9. He celebrated by posting the highest batting average of his major league career and “warming it up” for the man who went on to become who many believe still is baseball’s greatest hitter of all-time. Ted Williams compiled a career batting average of .344 over a 19-year career and continues to be the last big league player to hit .400-or-better (.407 in 1953) for an entire (qualifying) season. On May 29, 1984, the No. 9 was officially retired in honor of “Teddy Ballgame” but the last player to do the numeral justice pre-Ted Williams was Ben Chapman.
The latter ended his big league career was some pretty decent numbers.
As a rookie with the Yankees in 1930, Chapman batted .316 as an infielder. The following season he was moved to the outfield to take advantage of his speed and strong throwing arm and led the American League in stolen bases for three consecutive seasons. As a Yankee, he hit better than .300 and scored 100-or-more runs four times while driving in 100 runs twice. Statistically speaking, Chapman was a borderline Hall of Famer.
But any hopes of crossing that border and entering said hallowed hall, ended during his time as manager with the Philadelphia Phillies.
With his team floundering about in the lower half of the National League standings and 1946 having been the first year of the postwar boom in baseball and last season in which the color barrier was in effect, Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play in the major leagues when the Dodgers made him their regular first baseman. The Phillies were not alone among the big league teams who opposed segregation and during an early-season series with Philadelphia, Robinson was peppered with vile, verbal abuse. Most of it was allegedly led by the southern-born (Tennessee) Chapman. According to one published report, the verbal abuse got so bad that whenever his pitchers had a count of 3-0 on Robinson, Chapman ordered them to bean Jackie rather than walk him. In the end, however, Robinson went on to become a baseball icon while Chapman became little more than a controversial afterthought.
At least that’s how I see it, like every time I glance out at the row of retired numbers hanging above the rightfield bleachers where, in my mind, the name Ben Chapman will forever be linked with the likes of Bobby Doerr (No. 1), Ted Williams (No. 9) and, ironically enough, Jackie Robinson (No. 42).
Buddy Thomas’ column appears on Thursday in The Standard-Times.