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Unranked: Prince Hal Chase

Hal Chase played so long ago there wasn’t even a Yankees team. Chase got his AB’s from 1905-1913 when the team was known as the Highlanders. Hal put up very good numbers during those years, finishing for the Yankees with a .284/.311/.362 line.

That all went with his 1,182 hits and 494 RBI’s. Chase played in the dead ball era when home runs were devalued; he hit only 20. But getting on base and then causing havoc was in vogue, and Hal’s 248 stolen bases, 165 doubles, and 50 triples loom large.

Those accomplishments garnered accolades and after eight seasons with the bombers, Prince Hal…

"…established himself as one of the biggest stars in baseball. Those seasons had highs, though they were mostly individual rather than collective: the Highlanders went through six managers, including Chase himself, and only twice posted winning records, but Prince Hal finished among the AL top ten four times in RBI, three times in batting average, and twice in stolen bases. In addition, he earned a reputation as perhaps the best batter in the league at executing the hit-and-run. For the most part, though, Chase was better known for his defense, and his relaxed ethical standards, than his offense."

His Defense Sometimes Rested

But as any sane baseball fan knows, numbers do not tell the story of the man. That might never have been truer than in Chase’s case. By all accounting, Hal Chase is the greatest defensive first baseman of all time, and maybe the best defensive player ever. This from Baseball Almanac:

"Walter Johnson, Baseball magazine and Babe Ruth all named Chase as the greatest first baseman of all time. Ruth’s choice is perhaps the most curious, as he played either with or against Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx and George Sisler."

And this from baseball historian, Bill James:

"No other player in baseball history was so richly praised for his defensive skill – no one. His (Hal Chase) brilliance with the glove is easier to document than Ty Cobb‘s temper, Hack Wilson‘s drinking or Walter Johnson‘s fastball; it is all over the literature of the sport."

This from the Sporting News in 1913:

"That he can play first base as it never was and perhaps never will be played is a well known truth.  That he will is a different matter."

And, finally, this:

"In 1981, 62 years after his last major league game, baseball historians Lawrence Ritter and Donald Honig included him in their book The 100 Greatest Baseball Players of All Time."

Accolades and Anecdotes

By 1913, Chase was among the upper echelon of players in the league and his reported good looks and personality made him a prince of both baseball, and New York City. Thus the nickname.

Why then has this amazing player been forgotten? Again, because numbers never tell the whole story. Prince Hal thought more of himself than of his teammates or winning. He might not have been the first cancer on a team, but he was probably the biggest.

"Once, when a reporter complimented him on a particularly outstanding play, he grinned and replied, referring to his less-talented teammates, “I could make plays like that every day, only I am afraid to turn the ball loose because I might hit one of those dopes in the head.”"

And it didn’t stop there. Chase was known for gambling on baseball, including his own team, and bribing both teammates and opponents to ensure he would win. Even his high errors are probably attributed to choice more than talent.

Prince Hal played hard when he felt like it and committed errors when it helped him, no matter how it affected the team.

Again, It’s All Part of Yankees First Basemen’ Lore

I could probably write another complete article on the enigmatic Chase: His eventual trade for an “onion and a bunion”; Hal’s involvement with the 1919 Black Sox scandal; the secret wink and nod arrangement with John McGraw that kept him in baseball over the objections of Christy Mathewson; and his eventual end as a penniless, “shambling derelict” roaming the streets of Tucson.

But none of that has a place here or helps to rank the player. How can the greatest defensive first baseman of all time end with a WAR of 22.8 at the end of his fifteen-year career? All of this makes ranking the Prince impossible.

I will end my discussion of this conundrum with one of my own. Chase should never have been a Yankees player; he stands for everything the Yankees are not. He is a disgrace to the game and humanity. And even his massive regrets at the end of his life cannot redeem his transgressions against the Yankees and the baseball gods.

But, my lord, I wish I could see him play. In fact, there is only one first baseman I wish I could have seen more, and he is among the greatest players who has ever played this game.