“Gibson Comes as Close to Ruth as You’ll Ever get”

24 Mar

In July of 1944, Jim McCulley of The New York Daily News sat with two men watching a game:

“’The greatest ball players I ever saw?’ Said the fellow on my left. ‘That’s easy.’

“’Pitchers? Well, there was Christy Mathewson, old Pete Alexander, Walter Johnson and Three-Fingered Brown. There was Ty Cobb, a fat guy named Ruth and Joe Jackson in the outfield. Catchers? Let’s see now; there was Roger Bresnahan and I guess I have to put Ray Schalk in there along with Roger; There was (Pie) Traynor at third and the old Dutchman at short, of course, but do I have to tell you his name, Hans Wagner? Rogers Hornsby at second and Georg Sisler at first. They were the greatest I ever played against or saw, anyway, and I don’t think they can come much better.

“’Speaker? He was great all right, but naw, not in their class.”

McCulley’s other companion responded that Hal Chase belonged in place of Sisler.

“The fellow on the left smiled and said: ‘Leave me out of it.”

Hal Chase, 61 years old and in failing health, was on the East Coast “on a little vacation” attending games and attempting to rehabilitate his reputation. Although he shaved three years off his age and told McCulley his birthday was in a “couple of days, July 21st to be exact;” Chase’s birthday was February 13.

Chase

McCulley said the former first baseman, despite his many illnesses and injuries, “still has that athletic figure and moves around quickly and with the same grace which made him so outstanding on the ball field.”

Chase said he watched a dozen games on his trip East:

“Even went out to see Josh Gibson play the other day. There’s a hitter. One of the greatest of all time. He hit two home runs and they were belts. Say, if he played in the Polo Grounds 75 games a year, he’d hit 75 home runs.”

Chase even told an apocryphal story about the Negro League star:

“’You know how Gibson happened to start playing pro ball?’ asked Chase. ‘Well, one day the old Pittsburgh Crawfords were moving out of Pittsburgh in a bus. They happened to stop along side of a sandlot diamond on account of a traffic tie up. So they all took a look out the windows to watch the in progress. There was a mighty loud crack and a couple of seconds later a ball bounced off the top of the bus, which was parked about 400 feet from the home plate. Oscar Charleston, who managed the Crawfords at the time, got right out of the bus and hot-footed after the kid who had socked the ball.”

It is not clear whether the story was invented by Chase or a story he had picked up, but it ignores that Gibson began his professional career with the Homestead Grays and was well-known as a semi-pro player before his first professional game.

Chase said Gibson was the second-best player he’d ever seen:

“That fat guy was the greatest, of course. Nobody can come close to Ruth. He was the greatest that ever lived, better than Cobb or anybody else. If Ruth ever shortened up on the bat, he’d have hit over .400 every year. But Gibson comes as close to Ruth as you’ll ever get.”

Gibson

As for his own legacy:

“Chase still gets emotionally upset when the talk gets around to his final days as a player. It’s a well-known fact that he didn’t leave the game of his own accord, but we won’t go into that here.”

McCulley said the “name of Chase belongs alongside those of other all-time greats of the diamond,” and:

“The fact that his name isn’t listed in the Cooperstown museum cuts deeper and deeper into Hal as time goes on. It’s the one regret and the one dark thought in an otherwise brilliant baseball saga.”

Chase was dead less than three years later with thesame regret and dark thought unresolved.

His first major league manager, Clark Griffith told Shirley Povich of The Washington Post:

“You wouldn’t believe a man could do all the things on a ball field Chase could do. There wasn’t a modern first baseman who can come close to him. There wasn’t ever any ‘second Hal Chase.’ He was in a class by himself.”

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