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May 18, 2004

You Could Look It Up

The Ben Christensen of 1938

by Steven Goldman

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In the New Testament, one of the major figures in the Judeo-Christian mythology went on at great length about how if you don't have charity, you have nothing. John Lennon, a dedicated debunker of mythology, sang all you need is love, which, ironically, is merely the thought in the Good Book turned inside out. Abraham Lincoln said we should have malice towards none and charity for all. Good thoughts.

On the other hand, Mary Wollstonecraft said that it is justice, not charity, that is wanting in the world. It's also awfully judgmental to insist that an unrepentant cretin receive your love when they're going all out to recruit your hate. You've got to respect a fellow's feelings. As such, let us be satisfied to say that Lincoln and Lennon were better people than we, and rejoice in the downfall of pitcher Ben Christensen, released by the Cubs last week.

Christensen, you will recall, was the collegiate pitcher who caused severe, permanent injury to a batter by hitting him with a pitch. The batter was standing near the on-deck circle at the time. His release is a form of minor key cosmic justice.

To celebrate the occasion, I intended this week's YOU to be a tale of one of baseball's great reprobates, a square table of scum and villainy that Christensen will now not have a chance to join. It's hard to pick just one. It's easy to dispense with Cap Anson, Dixie Walker, Ben Chapman. They were racists, sadly common rather than arch-villains. Chick Gandil and the other game-fixers of 1919 are closer to the mark, but everyone knows their story. They were the subject of a classic book and an excellent film. Hal Chase, the serial cheat, would have been a great subject, but in the last couple of years he's been rediscovered, with two full biographies hitting bookstores. Denny McLain's story is just distasteful and travels to too many places far removed from the ball field. Rogers Hornsby and Ty Cobb were anti-social and paranoid, respectively, but that's all.

For today, that leaves us with a more obscure figure, not one of the game's spectacular evildoers, but simply a consistently bad guy, one who, like Christensen, went out of his way to cause injury. Jake Powell played the outfield for the Washington Senators, New York Yankees, and Philadelphia Phillies in the 1930s and 1940s. He spoke rashly, acted rashly, and ultimately paid the price for his way of living.

Alvin Jacob Powell was born in Silver Spring, Md. in 1908. Then, as now, Silver Spring was a bedroom community to Washington, but whereas today the District of Columbia is only a small town playing host to a few minor government offices, at that time it was major league territory, home to the American League's Washington Senators. Powell was scouted and signed by the Senator's owner-operator, "The Old Fox," Clark Griffith. A slashing, aggressive center fielder, Powell first appeared for the Senators in 1930, but Griffith farmed him out for the next five years, as much to work on his emotional maturity as his baseball skills. Powell bounced to Chattanooga, New Haven, Springfield, Youngstown, Dayton, and finally to Albany, where a .361 average convinced Griffith he was finally ready. Rejoining the Senators in 1935, he hit .312, posting a .788 OPS against a league average of .777, equating to a .278 EqA. Though by no means a great season, it was better than it looks now; Griffith Stadium was a no-fly zone, one of the worst hitter's parks in history. Powell actually led the team with six home runs.

Senators fans took to him at first. "He is a hustler and a crowd-pleaser, too," noted The Sporting News, which also praised Powell's speed, calling him "one of the fleetest runners in the game," and took note of his "bunting ability, hitting power, his strong arm and his sureness in judging the flight of a batted ball." It was hard to miss Powell on a baseball field. He wore his pants down to his shoes in the manner of present-day players, and he was quick to put up his fists if calls of "Alvin" or "Alvie" came out of the opposing dugout. He was also the player most often causing his manager to throw up his hands in disgust. "Jake has brains and knows how to use them, even though he has a reputation of missing signals and doesn't like curve-ball pitching." Missing signals or ignoring them? It was difficult to tell.

A few miles to the north, the Yankees were having trouble with their own slashing center fielder, Ben Chapman, who at the surprisingly early age of 27 had come to the intersection of his declining talent and his prickly personality. Casey Stengel once said of the reliever Mike Marshall, "He has wonderful stuff and wonderful control and throws strikes, which shows he's educated. But then, say you're educated and you can't throw strikes. Then they don't leave you in too long." In baseball, Stengel was saying, talent is the only thing that matters. Everything else is mere detail. A player lasts only as long as his skills do. This rule particularly applies to problem personalities. They are tolerated as long as they produce, but the moment they tail off, they are purged faster than a Soviet commissar on the wrong side of a leadership change. Players who are perceived to have intangibles, like a sunny personality--think Luis Sojo--stay around forever. The surly types disappear as soon as their bats can't carry their attitude.

Chapman would learn this lesson first-hand. He was temperamental, feuding with management, his teammates, and opposing players, but his speed and gap power made a nice complement to the slugging of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. It's important to note, though, that the team, although winning around 60% of its games, won just one pennant during Chapman's stay with the team. Further, despite batting .310/.385/.456 in his first five seasons, Chapman was thought to have failed to develop his many talents.

In 1936, Chapman held out, was slow to get untracked once he reported, and then was injured. This was extraordinarily bad timing, as the Yankees had a rookie, Joe DiMaggio, who could do everything Chapman could, only better. Suddenly manager Joe McCarthy's patience for his eccentricities evaporated. On June 14, Chapman was shipped to the Washington Senators in exchange for Powell.

Ironically, each player was already known and disliked in his new town. Both were baserunning commandos who slid spikes high whenever it was called for, and often when it was not. One of the most notorious brawls in baseball history occurred at Washington in 1933 when Chapman spiked Senators captain Buddy Meyer on a play at second base. The two started throwing punches and soon both were ejected from the game. As he was leaving the field, Chapman became enraged by taunts from the Senators and charged their dugout. This was not the smartest thing he could have done, as the entire Washington team proceeded to pound his guts out. The Yankees charged in to rescue him. Fans charged in to rescue the Senators, and a full-scale riot ensued. Police intervention was required to restore order both on the field and in the stands. Chapman was suspended five days and fined $100.

Clearly, Chapman could be more trouble than he was worth. Griffith was willing to let bygones be bygones and take on Chapman because he was less afraid of fan reaction than he was of Powell--the Senators were becoming a bit frightened of him. Griffith had determined to rid himself of Powell that May, when the outfielder put Detroit's Hank Greenberg out for the season with a broken arm by deliberately crashing into the first baseman on a routine play; living with Powell on your team was a bit like having a daily dose of Robert Fick. Powell had hit first basemen before. This was a problem. Baseball was more intensely competitive then than it is now, but this kind of play was over the line.

Worse, Powell seemed to be proud of himself. "Protect yourself," Powell spat as Greenberg writhed in pain. This was not competitive intensity, but rather unprovoked violence. Before the series with Detroit was over, Powell had also put catcher-manager Mickey Cochrane out of action by sliding into his ankle on a play at the plate.

The Greenberg incident was the climactic episode in a series of acts by Powell that served to alienate him from the ballclub. Shirley Povich wrote:

There had been trouble with Powell in spring training... [Senators manager Bucky] Harris fined him once for late hours, and when the club started north on the only train out of Orlando, Powell wasn't on it. But mysteriously Powell showed up in time for the exhibition game the next day... He had chartered an airplane from Orlando. That was fine, except that Harris learned a few days later that Powell had chartered the plane at the club's expense. Another fine for Powell.

The Senators, who may also have received $20,000 from the Yankees in the Powell-Chapman deal, were widely considered to have gotten the best of the Yankees in the trade, although the New York Herald-Tribune quoted one baseball insider as saying that, "Powell is as good a player as Chapman thinks he is." Frank Graham wrote:

On the face of it, it wasn't an even trade... Chapman for all his natural ability, was not McCarthy's type of ball player--and Powell was... Powell was tough and hard talking, but he played earnestly every time he walked on the field and never got into jams with his teammates. He took orders unquestioningly and slipped easily into the spot McCarthy had prepared for him.

Powell was superficially successful during the remainder of the 1936 season, posting a .306 batting average and scoring 62 runs in 87 games. In reality, the numbers were nothing special--Powell's OPS was .799, the league's .813--and his baserunning exploits were disturbing to the precision-minded McCarthy. The manager praised his new player, but threw in an ominous note. "Jake takes insane chances and has no business going for the extra base most of the time, but he's so lucky somebody ends up throwing the ball away and Jake winds up with two extra bases." McCarthy did not say what would happen if Powell stopped being lucky. He didn't have to.

Though he was smart enough not to break curfew on McCarthy, the polar opposite of Bucky Harris when it came to discipline, Powell had not changed. As if to prove it, during the first meeting of the Senators and the Yankees after the trade, Powell triggered a brawl when he crashed into Joe Kuhel in a replay of the collision with Greenberg. When Washington fans threw bottles at him from the bleachers, he simply picked the bottles up and returned fire.

The Yankees were to face the New York Giants in the World Series that year. The Giants boasted the best pitcher in the National League, 26-game winner Carl Hubbell. Powell was unimpressed. "This guy Hubbell is just another pitcher," he said. "He won't bother me." For once in his life, Powell was right. He hit .455 for the Series, and set a record by scoring eight runs in six games. His play seemed to intimidate the Giants, especially shortstop Travis Jackson, who twice threw away Powell grounders. In Game Six, the decisive contest of the series, Powell's second-inning two-run homer tied the game, and his fourth-inning single ignited the rally that put the Yankees on top for good.

With the Yankees, last year never counted for much. In 1937 Powell was just another outfielder. The Yankees had DiMaggio, George Selkirk, Myril Hoag, and Roy Johnson, with Tommy Henrich on the immediate horizon. In early May, McCarthy was fuming over a split of a double-header. Johnson had the temerity to suggest that, hey, you can't win them all. He was immediately released and Henrich was called to New York. Powell found himself in an awkward timeshare with Hoag, a journeyman who not only batted from the same side of the plate as Powell (right), but whose skills were essentially inferior versions of Powell's own. Powell had clearly slipped in McCarthy's eyes, and only a severe injury to Selkirk kept Powell from seeing his playing-time further reduced. As it was, McCarthy gave him only one at-bat in the 1937 World Series.

In 1938 Powell was slated to start only against left-handed pitchers. It was while serving in this capacity that Powell spoke out of turn and derailed his life. On July 29, prior to an away game against the Chicago White Sox, a WGN broadcaster named Bob Elston asked Powell to say a few words on the air.

Radio was a relatively new development in baseball, and the players had not learned to be guarded with a medium capable of instantaneous transmission of their words, or they had been lulled into a false sense of security by years of off-the-cuff bull sessions with the baseball writers, who did not report what they heard. Elston asked an innocuous question: What did Powell do during the off-season? Powell responded that he worked on the police force of Dayton, Ohio. Asked how he kept in shape during the winter, Powell replied: "Oh, I crack n-----s on the head."

The moment the words were spoken, WGN cut off the interview, but it was already too late. Seemingly within moments protests were organized and petitions demanding Powell's permanent suspension were circulated. The next day Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis suspended Powell 10 days for making an, "uncomplimentary remark about a portion of the population." Such was organized baseball's discomfort with matters of race in the days of the color line that the group affronted by Powell would remain officially nameless.

Ironically, baseball officials seemed less concerned with the content of Powell's remarks than the fact that a naive young ballplayer had been "buttonholed" into making impromptu remarks on the radio. "The ball players do not want to engage in these broadcasts," said McCarthy. "In fact most of them are afraid of them... But they are pestered and pestered until finally one of them gives in. Then in an unguarded moment something is said." Judge Landis felt the same way, and in the aftermath of the incident there were several reports that the commissioner would prohibit ballplayers from participating in unscripted interviews.

Only Hugh Bradley of the New York Post pinpointed the real significance of Powell's blunder:

At the worst Powell merely exhibited himself as one of those rattle-brained shouters for the high ideals of the Ku Klux... It is more difficult to deal with the smug hypocrisy such as is displayed by the high-toned baseball gents... They express outward horror at Powell's hasty and uncouth comment. Then, they calmly proceed with their own economic boycott against this minority people. I refer, of course, to the rank discrimination which prevents colored men from playing in what is known as organized baseball.

Powell vehemently denied making the comments and insisted he was not a bigot. Reportedly, he found a unique way to show it. After the Yankees returned to New York, Powell took it upon himself to make a personal apology. Traveling alone, he went to the northernmost bar in Harlem. Walking, he worked southward, stopping at every open bar in his path. In each he introduced himself, told all who would listen that he had made a foolish mistake, and he was sorry. He then bought drinks for the house and moved on.

It is unknown whether the recipients of this gesture were appreciative, though he made it home, if he went at all, without receiving the beating he had been coming to him for years. McCarthy was clearly unmoved. Although the suspension was to last only 10 days, McCarthy did not return Powell to the lineup until Aug. 17, perhaps not coincidentally in Washington, where Powell was again barraged by bottles. "I had to send Powell out there and let him face the music," the manager said dryly. "Once Powell got in the game I wouldn't have taken him out if we'd all been killed."

Powell would never play regularly for the Yankees again. In 1939, behind DiMaggio, Henrich, and rookie Charlie Keller, he received only 86 at-bats. After a concussion and lack of opportunity limited him to 12 games in 1940, the Yankees sold him to the minor leagues. Powell stayed there for three years, until the player-shortages of World War II created a demand for the services of veteran ballplayers. Griffith, a sentimental man who brought dozens of Senators back for return engagements, signed him for 1943. He reported sporting a black eye, the result of a brawl in his last minor league appearance. In 1945 he moved on to the Phillies, where Chapman was the manager.

After the war, Powell worked his way back down through the minors in the same way he had worked his way up. In November 1948, three months after Powell had been given his release by Gainesville of the Florida State League, Powell was arrested in Washington, D.C. on charges of passing $305 worth of bad checks. He was accompanied by Josephine Amber of Deland, Florida, "a tall, good-looking blond clad in a bright red dress." Amber claimed to be Powell's fiancée, apparently unaware that he had a wife and daughter living in Silver Spring. Upon his arrest, Powell had been given a quick frisking and was taken to police headquarters for questioning.

There, Powell asked the detectives to give him a moment alone with his fiancé. They withdrew to about 10 feet away from the outfielder. Amber told Powell she was dumping him and going home to Florida. "You've lied to me and everyone else," she told him. "You've reached the end of your rope and you might as well face the music."

"I'm going to end it all," Powell said quietly.

As Amber rose to inform the police of Powell's intentions, he pulled a .25 caliber automatic from his shirt pocket and shot himself once in the heart and once in the right temple. He died instantly.

After the suicide, police revealed that Powell had been charged with passing bad checks on three other occasions. All of the checks were from a bank in Dayton, Ohio, the city where Powell once, in his words, "patrolled the Negro district."

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

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