By Lynn Bevill
In 1923 former major leaguer Harold Homer Chase was chosen to manage the Nogales Internationals, a conglomerate of baseball players from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Chase, called Hal or Prince Hal in recognition of his talents as a first baseman in the big leagues, continues to be one of the most controversial and enigmatic figures ever to play the game.
Chase was born in 1883 and grew up in the small town of Los Gatos, CA, just outside of San Jose. Some reports say that he attended and played baseball at Santa Clara College but the school has no record of his having attended classes there. He joined organized baseball in 1904 as a player for the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League, playing his first game on March 23 and going 0-3 at the plate. Two years later he joined the New York Highlanders (now known as the Yankees) of the American League. Although he became a huge success in New York, he never lost his close ties to the west.
In 1905-07, Chase would return to play for San Jose of the California League after completion of the American League season. Many West Coast leagues played well into November and major leaguers traveled to California to play in these leagues. Some played for the money and others for the experience. The California League was not recognized by the National Commission of Baseball, the official body of Major League Baseball. After the 1907 season, the commission declared that any individuals playing in the California League would face expulsion from the major leagues. All of the major league players except one quickly dropped out. Chase refused to conform, changed his name to Schultz and continued to play. It was one of the most poorly kept secrets in baseball and Chase was banned from returning to the major leagues.
The ban did not hold up however as Chase petitioned the National Commission to return and was reinstated for the 1908 season. When he returned the popular Chase was presented with a silver loving cup from his teammates. It did not take Chase long however to find himself in trouble again. He began to feud with Kid Elberfeld, the Highlanders' manager, and with a month-and-a-half left in the season, Chase jumped the New York club for Stockton of the California League vowing that he would never play baseball in the east again. Like many of his declarations, this one was also quickly forgotten. Although the Oakland club offered him $9,000 to play for them in 1909, he declined and quietly returned to New York.
Again he could not keep away from controversy. In 1910 New York manager George Stallings accused Chase of throwing games. The charges were never proved and Chase replaced Stallings as the club's skipper for the last 14 games of the season. In 1911, Chase's first full season as player-manager, the Highlanders finished in sixth place with a 76-76 record. The following year he relinquished the job as manager. His fame was such at this time that during the off season he was acting in a movie, Hal Chase's Home Run.
Chase hit .274 and led the American League in errors as the Highlanders finished in last place (50-102) in 1912. During the 1913 season Hal was traded to the Chicago White Sox. The following year he displayed more of the audacity that was to make him a thorn in the side of organized baseball. The newly formed Federal League offered Chase a contract to play with their team in Buffalo. Chase, however, was still under contract to Chicago. In 1914 there was a clause in every player's contract that gave management the right to cancel any contract with just 10 days notice. Chase reasoned that what was fair for management was also fair for players. He gave the team 10 days notice and then jumped to the Buffalo squad. Upheld by the courts, Chase played the remainder of the 1914 season and all of the 1915 campaign in the Federal League and was one of the circuit's major stars. Unfortunately for Chase, the 1915 season was the last for the new league. Chase's rights were traded to Cincinnati and he joined the Reds for the 1916 season.
Prince Hal's first season in the National League was undoubtedly the best of his career. He continued to demonstrate his fielding talents while leading the National League in hitting. Although he played well, Chase once again ran afoul of management. This time he took on Reds' manager Christy Mathewson, one of the most respected figures in the history of baseball. Mathewson accused his first baseman of dogging it, doing poorly and making money by betting against his team. Mathewson reported his allegations to the League President before leaving for France where he was stationed during WW I. National League President John Heydler cleared Chase of the charges.
In 1919 the New York Giants acquired Chase from Cincinnati. Before the season was over, Giant's manager John McGraw suspended Chase for "poor play." Whispers of throwing games continued to be heard whenever Chase's name came up. He would never play in the major leagues again. When the Black Sox Scandal of the 1919 World Series came to light in 1920, Chase's name appeared in the document that indicted eight members of the Chicago White Sox. The court sent a subpoena to California but the state refused to extradite Chase and no further action was taken against him. Chase spent the 1920 season playing with San Jose in a weekend Class D league. In August of that year, the Pacific Coast League banned him from ever again entering a PCL stadium for attempting to bribe a pitcher to throw a game.
After playing for various outlaw leagues in California, Chase was recruited and hired by the Nogales Internationals to play first base and manage the club for the 1923 season. The team was made up of players from Nogales, AZ and Nogales, Sonora. They played their home games in both towns against teams from both the U.S. and Mexico.
Chase was popular in Nogales and was successful as a manager. The team beat traditional rivals Tucson and Phoenix and finished off on a barnstorming tour of Mexico that began in Sonora and ended up in Mexico City. Hal left at the end of the year but would return to Nogales from time to time.
When the 1924 season opened, Chase was in Northern Arizona in the town of Williams. It is likely that Hal was given a 'job' at the local Saginaw Manitee Box Company, well known for providing extensive help to the city teams including giving jobs to key players. Chase only played for about six weeks but during this short time he made a strong impression upon the boys of the town. Thomas Way, a local Williams' historian, was a junior in high school when he and other boys would go to the baseball field and shag balls so Hal could practice hitting. Sixty five years later, Way remembered Chase as one of the nicest and friendliest men he ever met.
Chase also impressed his opponents, but was unable to help the struggling Williams team. After a series with Jerome, he was recruited by the Miners to join their team as a player and manager. Jerome was like many of the small mining towns of Arizona. They took their baseball seriously. Their arch rival was the team from Clarkdale, the smelter town five miles down the hill. The rivalry between these two teams was intense and often degenerated into violence. During the first series between Clarkdale and Jerome, the Miners had been humiliated. Chase appeared to be just the cure for the sagging fortunes of the Jerome team. Williams however, was not very excited about releasing Chase. Finally a deal was struck that allowed Chase to go to Jerome. In return for his release, Chase was to come back to Williams to play in the big Fourth of July series against Flagstaff. Chase kept his word and Williams captured two out of three games in the annual Independence Day grudge game.
With Chase at the helm, Jerome quickly became the powerhouse of the region. In the climatic final series with Clarkdale, the Miners beat the Smelters decisively. The rivalry was reported to have reached such a fever pitch that the United Verde Copper Company refused to sanction two teams for the following season and forced the two towns to field only one combined squad. Company employees that were only hired to play baseball were let go, including Chase who was accused of pilfering from the stores at his job in the company hospital dispensary. Although the charges were never proven, Chase left Jerome and never returned.
In early March 1925, newspapers reported that Chase was negotiating with the President of Mexico to become the commissioner of a new Mexican Baseball League. Chase said he was going to become the 'Landis of Mexico', referring to Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the commissioner of Major League Baseball. A follow-up article two days later confirmed that Chase was in direct contact with the Mexican government. This is where the story ends. It is unknown if the discussions were serious or if they were just the product of Chase's vanity, trying to recapture a part of his fleeting fame.
Within two weeks of these strange news releases, Chase entered into negotiations with directors of the Douglas, AZ team. Douglas, known as the Blues, had been an off and on member of a loose association of teams along the border. At various times teams from Arizona, New Mexico and Texas were represented as well as clubs from Sonora and Chihuahua. The league was called in various years, the Cactus League, Frontier League and the Copper League. The quality of play varied from year to year but many of the teams had evolved into semi-pro clubs where the players received at least a cut of the gate receipts as well as benefits such as a salary or a 'job' with a local employer.
In its 1925 incarnation, the league was called the Frontier League and consisted of teams from El Paso (TX), Juarez (Chi), Fort Bayard (NM) and Douglas. The league had a standing rule prohibition against using ineligible or outlaws, players that had been banned from playing organized baseball. Douglas petitioned to allow chase to manage and play. Without the Douglas team, the league would have had only three teams so they were forced to accept Douglas with Chase. Even the league president allowed that Chase would probably be a strong gate attraction.
Hal Chase arrived in Douglas in early April ready to assume the leadership of the team. But his first few days there were unsettling. Upon his arrival he parked his borrowed car close to the border and visited the cross border town of Agua Prieta. When he returned to his car all four wheels and tires had been stolen. Fortunately, his suitcase in the rear of the car had not been disturbed. Four games into the season he received word that his mother was seriously ill. He rushed off to California where he was at her side when she died. His personal problems were also accompanied by problems on the field. Besides managing and playing first base, Chase would take the mound when his team ran out of pitchers. All of this was not enough to compensate for the lack of talent on the rest of the club.
The league was divided into a first and second half. When it became obvious that Douglas was going to finish dead last for the first half, Chase departed to California to do some recruiting. When he returned he brought tow big leaguers, members of the infamous Chicago Black Sox, Charles 'Chick' Gandil and George 'Buck' Weaver. With Chase, Gandil, Weaver and an infusion of local talent, the Douglas advanced to the head of the league standings.
Going into the last weekend of the season Douglas led Juarez by three games. Juarez won both games of the two game series to draw within one game of the first place. There had been a disputed game earlier in the season between the two clubs and the league ordered the game to be replayed giving Juarez a chance to catch Douglas for the second half title and the opportunity to play first half winner Fort Bayard for the championship. Douglas refused to play and saying the season had ended, they left town. The game was declared a forfeit and Juarez was in a tie with Douglas. After much discussion, Douglas finally agreed to a best-of-five playoff. Juarez won the series three games to one and Chase took the brunt of the blame. He was removed as manager but came back to play in 1926.
The newly constituted Copper League consisted of six teams with Bisbee (AZ), and Chino Mines (a team from Santa Rita, NM) joining the returning clubs. Competition intensified as teams spent large amounts of money and recruited more outlaw players. The league instituted a $2,000 per month salary cap. In spite of the efforts of Chase and Weaver, Douglas sank into mediocrity. In August while returning from a series against Fort Bayard, Chase suffered serious injuries from a car accident including facial lacerations and a severe cut to his right knee. He was unable to return to action for the remainder of the season. At some point during the year, Chase's son lived with him but after a short time the young man returned to California.
In 1927 Douglas didn't field a team but Chase remained in the city selling Marmot autos at the local dealership. In July rumors surfaced that the El Paso Giants were recruiting Chase to help revive their sagging fortunes. After month long negotiations, Chase was induced to join El Paso. He arrived the second week in August and although he could still hit fairly well, he was obviously suffering from the effects of his knee injury and after the weekend he was quietly dropped from the career. His baseball career was winding down.
Chase returned to Douglas where he lived into 1928 before returning to California by 1929. His Arizona odyssey however, was not over. The club in Williams brought Chase back in July of 1930 for one last tour. Combining several minor league players and some local recruits with Chase, Williams became the powerhouse of Northern Arizona. Over Labor Day weekend, seven teams from the area were invited to play for the Northern Arizona Championship. Chase was given the title of Captain and the Williams club swept to the trophy.
By the start of the 1931 season Chase was no longer in the area and had moved on to perhaps Nogales or Tucson. In 1932 he suddenly reappeared in Williams and played one game. There were also reports that he also played in Winslow around this time.
By 1933 Chase had most likely settled in Tucson. In the 1935 Tucson directory he was listed as living in the town with an occupation of 'ballplayer'. He was still carrying his mitt in his hip pocket and was seen wandering about looking for a game. Local resident Roy Drachman remembers Chase asking him for 15 cents to buy a loaf of bread.
Some time in 1935 or 1935 Chase returned to California and lived with his sister in Calusa. Over the last ten years of his life he was to suffer various illnesses including beri beri, a vitamin deficiency sometimes associated with chronic alcoholism. Finally in 1947 at the age of sixty four Hal Chase died.
There is little doubt that as a role model Hal Chase was seriously lacking. He married twice and had little success. His son remembers little of his father and what he does is mostly negative. That he gambled, drank and was a womanizer is well known. Even so, he had an incredible aura about him. He was almost always wildly popular wherever he went and known for spending any money he had on others. While playing in New York he would often take rookies out for dinner and his sister's house in Calusa was reported to have been a wedding present from Hal. Stories of his pool playing and card sharking appear regularly. Chase sometimes beat pool sharks at their game and then returned the money to the victims that these sharks had fleeced.
It is most likely that Chase bet for and against his own team, it is also likely that he may have dogged it at times to throw a game. It is however questionable just how much one player can direct the outcome of a game, particularly when that player is not a pitcher. The 1919 White Sox had five starters involved in fixing the World Series as well as their two best pitchers. Still they lost only five games to three. Chase certainly never had any love for the owners and powers of baseball and most likely never cared where the dollar came from but just that he got it. There is however another side of Hal Chase that is more complex. Douglas resident Chon Bernal tells of one evening when Chase came to the Grand Theater in Douglas smoking his usual big cigar. Someone pointed to a 'no smoking' sign to Chase. Prince Hal loudly announced that "The sign does not apply to me." However a few minutes later when Bernal looked over at Chase, he noticed that the big redhead had not taken a puff on the cigar, letting it quietly go out. Perhaps this incident tells us something about the personality of Hal Chase the ballplayer. Perhaps rather than admitting he had booted a ball, he would rather wink, and say he missed it on purpose. Perhaps he would rather have people thing of him as colorful player than one whose skills had begun to deteriorate late in his career. Maybe he saw more glamour in being associated with the fast set of gamblers and crooks than just another fading ballplayer.
After leaving the big leagues, Chase began his Arizona odyssey that lasted for twelve years. Although Chase never recaptured the glory of his days in New York, he confidently traveled the bush leagues of Arizona as a big fish in a small pond. He was undoubtedly drawn to the rough and ready life style that was still prominent in border towns and the alcohol that flowed freely even during prohibition. His time in Arizona fluctuated between temporary highs and miserable lows before he finally returned to California a shell of who he had once been - Prince Hal, king of the first basemen.