Case of John Bender     

The Curious Case of John Bender
By Rich Necker

Banned from organized baseball over a three year span in 1908, according to “The Baseball Page” (1),  light-hitting outfielder John Charles Bender returned to the diamond in the spring of 1911 with the Charleston Sea Gulls of the Class C South Atlantic (better known as the Sally) League. Hitting below the Mendoza Line (.189 in 38 games), he was released and picked up later in the season by the Edmonton Eskimos of the W.C.B.L. where he continued to pile up unimpressive offensive statistics. In 33 games with the Edmontonians, he accumulated but 20 hits (2) in 94 at bats for a .213 batting average.

Bender’s main claim to fame was that he was the brother of future Hall-of-Fame pitcher Charles Albert “Chief” Bender whose best seasons were spent with Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics during the early twentieth century. (3)

Information is conflicting as to their father’s racial heritage, some sources claiming that the brothers were full-blooded Ojibwa Indians. Yet, I am most inclined to accept what the Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society (4) has to say on the subject: that their mother (Mary Razor) was of half Ojibwa parentage while their father (Albert Bliss Bender) was a Minnesota homesteader/farmer of German-American descent. In any event, both Bender brothers were born on a reserve near Brainerd MN and attended the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, the first U.S. government off-reservation school for American Indian children, where they starred in athletics, especially baseball and football. (5) One newspaper, the News and Courier, Columbia SC, September 27, 1911 reported that both John and his brother graduated from Carlisle. However, another source maintained that John’s stay at Carlisle was cut short when, for some undisclosed reason, he was expelled before graduating (“Death at the Ballpark: a comprehensive study of game-related fatalities 1862 - 2007").  After embarking upon careers in professional baseball, the siblings faced racial taunts and discrimination wherever they played but were able to endure for the most part. Having been stripped of his cultural identity while at Carlisle, John was never able to adjust to white society with the same degree of success as his well-known brother.

His three year exile from organized baseball reportedly stemmed from the 1908 stabbing of his field manager, Win Clark, while playing for the Columbia Gamecocks (a.k.a. the Comers) of the class C South Atlantic (Sally) League. (6) During a road trip which saw the team traveling on July 19, 1908 to Charleston SC by steamboat from Jacksonville FL following a series of games there, Bender, who had been drinking heavily and acting in a disorderly manner, got into an argument with Clark who had been summoned by the vessel’s Captain to quiet Bender down. An argument and scuffle ensued , Bender using a knife and Clark his fists. Bender subsequently stabbed his manager several times on the left shoulder, near the heart, and in the stomach (“Bender ran amuck on steamer”, News and Courier, Charleston SC, July 21, 1908). John was then overpowered by teammates and reportedly placed in irons while a telegram was relayed to Charleston calling for an ambulance and the police patrol wagon.

Fortunately for Clark, there was a physician aboard the Clyde Liner “Iroquois” and fifty four stitches were required to close all the wounds. Since the altercation had occurred on what was regarded as the high seas, Bender was turned over to the United States Commissioner and ultimately released on $1,000 bond. The News and Courier, in the same article, indicated that Bender, on the advice of his attorney, refused to make any statement to the press regarding the incident.  League president Charles W. Boyer made no bones of the fact that he wanted Bender suspended for all time and added: “He will never again play in the South Atlantic League, at least while I am president”. In response to the incident, as reported in the July 24, 1908 edition of the News and Courier, Charleston SC “Bender fined and benched”, the Columbia club simply fined Bender $100 and placed him on indefinite suspension without salary. No information has been uncovered as to the legal ramifications of Bender’s actions or whether he was ultimately incarcerated. Whatever the case, he was banished from professional baseball and appeared to not be entirely problem-free when he returned to the game in 1911.

While with the 1911 Eskimos, he covered the pasture in right field for the most part. His name wasn’t included in the box scores of Edmonton’s final two league games, a doubleheader played against Calgary on September 2, 1911. His last game played in the W.C.B.L. appears to have been on September 1, 1911 versus Calgary, a 6-inning contest in which he batted in his usual spot (second in the line-up) while patrolling right field. In this his final game, he walked four times in as many plate appearances and scored a pair of runs (Edmonton Daily Bulletin, September 2, 1911) as the Eskimos triumphed by an 11 to 7 count.. Edmonton manager Johnny Mackin, while discussing proposed changes for the 1912 season (Edmonton Daily Bulletin, September 6, 1911), indicated that Bender had already been given his walking papers and would not be invited back. It is not apparent whether the season-ending rebuff was totally due to his paltry offensive production or whether other factors were involved.

Nevertheless, Bender remained in Edmonton during September after the W.C.B.L. schedule had been completed as the website Baseball Reference (7) lists his place and date of death as Edmonton AB on September 25, 1911. Why he continued to reside in Edmonton for this period of time following the end of the season and his ultimate release by the ball club is not known. His last known residence was the Pendennis Hotel in Edmonton where he had continued to live until a few days prior to his death.

The September 25, 1911 evening edition of the Edmonton Daily Bulletin confirmed that Bender had indeed passed away “suddenly and without warning” that morning. The report indicated that Bender had just entered  a downtown eating establishment (Lewis Brothers Café at 627 First Street) and was about to order breakfast when he dropped dead at approximately 9:15 a.m. A rival intra-city newspaper, the Edmonton Journal (September 25, 1911 edition), reported much of the same with their story differing from that of the Daily Bulletin in that their version claimed that Bender had already consumed his meal, left the restaurant and then returned later to meet friends at 9:05 a.m., at which point the sudden death occurred. Three of the four acquaintances whom Bender had met for breakfast were identified by the Journal, none of whom were members of the Edmonton ball club. It is not clear if any of these friends were old baseball cronies from previous seasons although the names of two of those identified as being present could very likely have been such. One of those revealed to be present was a man named Harry St. Claire who may or may not be the same Harry St. Claire who is listed by Baseball Reference (8) as a former minor league player who had last played in the International League in 1898. One of the others singled out as being on hand during Bender’s demise was one Frank Morris. Whether this man was the same Frank Morris revealed by Baseball Reference (9) to have been the manager of the 1907 Kokomo club of the class D Ohio - Indiana League is not known.

Deacon White, who had signed Bender to play for the Eskimos before resigning as manager and who had apparently known the deceased for a number of years dating back to the 1904 season in the class D Northern League, immediately wired John’s famous brother, Charles “Chief” Bender, in Philadelphia. The articles in both Edmonton newspapers confirm that Bender had developed a bad case of heart disease which had manifested itself earlier that year and which was the suspected cause of his quick departure. Bender’s age was revealed by the Daily Bulletin to be about 30 and it was stated that his permanent residence was in Charleston, South Carolina where, it was understood, his wife still resided. The Charleston News and Courier, September 27, 1911, “Bender dies of heart failure” authenticates his residency in that city for the previous five off-seasons during which time he apparently had became a restauranteur. 

Somehow, news of the circumstances surrounding his death, after being relayed to his surviving family in the United States, became exaggerated and sensationalized. It is not clear as to exactly how and why the details got blown out of proportion but two known 1911 newspaper sources cited by authors Robert M. Gorman and David Weeks in their book “Death at the Ballpark: a comprehensive study of game-related fatalities 1862 - 2007" convey that his sudden passing occurred while on the playing field. Articles entitled “Bender dies of heart failure, News and Courier, Charleston SC, September 27, 1911" and “John Bender dies in baseball game, Evening Sentinel, Carlisle PA, September 30, 1911" definitely transmit such a message.

As well, in more recent times, baseball guru and noted statistical analyst, Bill James, in both his initial publication “The Bill James Historical Abstract” (first published in 1985) as well as in the follow-up “The New Bill James Historical Abstract” (published in 2001) wrote that Bender had died on the mound of a massive heart attack during the course of  a game while playing ball in the Western Canada League on September 25, 1911. James went to great lengths in portraying  Bender as somewhat of a folk hero by suggesting that exiting life while pitching brought John even more glory than that which his celebrated brother had achieved in being inducted into the Hall of Fame.

The Baseball Page (10) in one of its pages devoted to “Chief” Bender, corrected James’ assertion on one count, that being that John’s death had occurred while he had been pitching. The website, while making no mention of the fact that the W.C.B.L. schedule had ended some three weeks prior to Bender’s passing, rebuked James only for referring to Bender as a pitcher, then pointed out correctly that he was an outfielder. However, the internet site backs James up on the assertion that Bender expired on the playing  field.

Finally, after almost a full century of utter distortion within American publications, some semblance of truth emerged in the writings of Robert M. Gorman and David Weeks when, in 2008, they published their fully researched findings in the book entitled “Death at the Ballpark: a comprehensive study of game-related fatalities 1862 - 2007". The authors went into detail in describing their findings, acknowledging the facts within the Edmonton newspaper articles and correcting the long-held notion that Bender had been an on-field fatality.