The swirl of world events threw a few knuckleballs into major league baseball in 1918 — namely a deadly flu pandemic and World War I.
At a shipyard just outside Philadelphia that summer, you would have found a 34-year-old hammering rivets into transport ships for the war. He just might have been the best Minnesota-born baseball player ever.
An Ojibwe from the White Earth Reservation, Charles Albert Bender left northern Minnesota for white-run boarding schools in the 1890s. He then overcame the overt racism of his era to forge a Hall of Fame pitching career for the Philadelphia Athletics in the early 1900s.
Decades before St. Paul natives Dave Winfield, Paul Molitor and Jack Morris were enshrined in Cooperstown, Bender won six World Series games and became the Hall's first native Minnesotan.
"He wasn't the greatest pitcher of all time," A's manager Connie Mack once said of Bender, but he was the man to put on the mound "if I had a pennant or world's championship hinging upon the outcome of one game."
Bender's big league days were over by 1918, but the New York Yankees paid a waiver fee to coax him back. They failed. "Baseball is a secondary consideration with me," Bender said, "and while I realize that the fellows who are doing their bit [for the war] need amusement ... I also realize that we need ships and all the men we can get to build them."
That's just one of the nuggets in the definitive Bender biography written in 2008 by Tom Swift of Northfield. If you've exhausted your COVID reading list and miss baseball, crack open "Chief Bender's Burden: The Silent Struggle of a Baseball Star."
"There is a limit to how long a man can carry the burden of race on his shoulders," Swift writes, adding that "the institutions and mores of the day, white created and controlled, had forced Charles Bender to straddle a blunt color line. He knew two different worlds but didn't sit comfortably in either one."
Bender bristled over "Chief," the nickname he was given on the field. "I do not want my name to be presented to the public as an Indian, but as a pitcher," he said in 1905.
No one listened. Sportswriters and opposing teams pelted him with racist epithets. The descriptions, according to Swift, were prejudiced and "almost unyielding."
"He was called Chief so often — and so often with affection — that he allowed the name to be etched into his tombstone" in a cemetery north of Philadelphia, Swift writes.
Bender was called "a child of the forest" during the 1911 World Series, which his A's won. When he died in 1954 of prostate cancer at 70, the Sporting News headline proclaimed: "Chief Bender Answers Call to Happy Hunting Grounds."
For all his success and fame, Bender's story is in many ways a sad one. The son of an Ojibwe mother and German-American father, Bender was born in Crow Wing County in 1884, about 20 miles east of Brainerd near Partridge Lake. He was the fourth child in a family with around a dozen kids that moved to a log cabin on his mother's 160-acre White Earth reservation land allotment in Mahnomen County.
Bender later recalled throwing stones at gophers as a boy on the reservation: "That is how I laid my foundation as a pitcher."
A train took him at the age of 7 to boarding school in Philadelphia. "There were so many of us at home and so little to feed us that Mother didn't mind giving me up," Bender said.
He returned to White Earth five years later, finding his family struggling. He ran away with his brother Frank after his father kicked him in the rear end because he wasn't fetching a bucket of water eagerly enough.
While a young Bender was working in White Earth's farm fields in 1896, a recruiter offered him a spot at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, which educated Indian children while stripping them of their tribal identities so they could fit into the white world.
At Carlisle, Bender met his first real baseball coach: Pop Warner, the legendary football coach, who made him a pitcher. Bender was pitching for a semipro team when a scout for the A's signed him. As a teenage rookie in 1903, he recorded the first of his 212 career victories by beating none other than Boston's Cy Young.
Bender combined brains, his 6-foot-2 frame and pinpoint control. "He takes advantage of every weakness," umpire Billy Evans said, "and once a player shows him a weak spot he is marked for life."
From 1909 to 1914 Bender won at least 17 games for six seasons in a row, including a 23-5 season in 1910 when he posted a career-best 1.58 earned run average. He threw a no-hitter that season and won the World Series opener in one of three championships he helped the A's win in a four-year span.
Some baseball scholars credit Bender with developing the slider, a curving pitch so popular today.
"A man named Bender," Swift says, "has to have one."
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: http://strib.mn/MN1918.