Damon Runyon on Hal Chase and the Game's Greatest Fielding First Basemen
Hal Chase, who played in the Majors from 1905 to 1919, is arguably one of the most corrupt men ever to play the National Pastime. He was involved in numerous game-fixing schemes. He had a knack of making spectacular plays at his first-base position. In some instances, he purposely would get to first just after the runner arrived, yet he made the play look so difficult that he was not suspected of contributing to the opponent's reaching safely.
Many, if not most of those who saw him play, felt he was the greatest fielding first baseman ever to play the game, from a defensive position. (He was also an impressive offensive force, with a career batting average of .291, with an on-base percentage of .391). Yet modern-day fielding measures, though still not as sophisticated as those that measure hitting and pitching, simply do NOT confirm this belief. He simply does not appear to have covered much more ground than the average first baseman.
In this July 21, 1921 column in the New York American, Damon Runyon discusses his impressions of Chase, in the context of the game's greatest-fielding first baseman ever.
One of our correspondents asks me to settle an argument. "A" says Grimm of Pittsburgh is the best fielding first baseman that has ever played big league ball. "B" says Hal Chase. "C" says George Sisler. We will have to pass this one. "The best fielding first baseman that ever played big league ball" makes it a little too broad for us.
Back beyond this trio were many wonderful first basemen that we ever saw. Many old-timers say that in their opinion Chase was the greatest "doorkeeper" that ever guarded the station in point of fielding alone, but we have heard other old-timers say that [Fred] Tenney [1894-1911] could field as well as Chase, and before Chase, Comiskey.
Of the past ten years, the stormy character from Southern California was obviously the greatest. For all the things that have been charged against Chase, the fans cannot help but remembering his astonishing fielding feats around first.
"Prince Hal" could do things with his hands that no other first baseman of the last decade has ever attempted. He had wonderful natural grace, and amazing speed in covering ground. Without a thought of attempting anything fancy, he would make one-handed grabs that left the spectators speechless.
Comiskey is generally credited to having been the first of the first basemen to cover territory beyond the bag. The present owner of the White Sox dropped back into short right field, as all first basemen do now, but which no other first baseman had ever before attempted . . . He revolutionized the position. After Comiskey, the old time stationary first basemen were gone. Chase came along, and extended his operations even further than Comiskey. It was a real treat to watch Hal play, in the days he was the young and active star of the old Hilltop.
"The Sizzler," great hitter and base runner, and perhaps a greater all-around player than Chase ever was, does not, in the opinion of the writer, class with Hal in fielding around first base any more than the best pitcher of baseball today classes with Christy Mathewson when "Big Six" was at his best.
Grimm, the Pittsburgher, is a great fielder, but he is as yet not even close to Chase. In the first place, he has not had the experience. In the second place, he has not demonstrated in his playing in New York that he has anything of Chase's playing intuition.
Chase had a baseball brain that worked with his hands. It is doubtful a smarter player, using smart strictly in a baseball sense, ever wore cleats. At times he was well nigh uncanny. And this is the player said to have sold his birthright.
"Stuffy" McInnis of the Boston Red Sox, is also a great first baseman from a fielding standpoint. He must still be mentioned with the best in the big leagues. In 1920, "Stuffy" led the American League "doorkeepers" with an average of .996. He made but seven errors out of a total of 1,677 chances in 148 games. In 148 games, with 1,599 chances, Grimm of Pittsburgh made but eight errors, his average being a single point below that of McInnis.
Hal Chase never equaled the last season averages of either Grimm or McInnis. He holds the American League record for first base errors made in a single game—four, in 1913. Few who remember Hal at the top of his form will challenge the statement that neither McInnis nor Grimm as ever yet come up to Chase's dazzling brilliance of play....
Figures do not tell the entire story of a man's play, however. If you go by figures alone, "The Sizzler" would rank below McInnis, Johnston, Pipp, and Griffin in the American League. Frank Chance of the old Chicago Cubs holds the National League fielding record among the first basemen with .996, the same as McInnis's 1920 average. Chick Gandil, a now discredited and outcast member of the Sox, beat the mark in 1919, the year of the "phoney" [sic] world's series, with .997.
Among the names you find in the fielding records of the first basemen are some that will recall many fond memories to the fans. They are not necessarily the greatest first basemen since the beginning of the game, but some of them must be rated with the greatest.
Fred Merkle's name does not get in the records for exceptional fielding feats, yet Merkle was a great first baseman. Ball players will tell you that there was never a better man for thrown balls. He could grab them at any angle, and dig them up out of the dirt with amazing facility.
Dick Hoblitzel, Ed Konetchy, Jake Beckley, Jake Daubert, Fred Tenney, Fred Luderus, Kitty Bransfield, Bill [illegible], Jack Fournier, Adrian Anson, "Candy" LaChance, Jiggs Donahue, Tom Jones, [Lefty] Houtz, [Guy] Hecker, [Dan] McGann, George Stovall, Jerry Freeman, and Roger Connor are among the [illegible].
Were any of them better than Chase? The old boys say no.