"Is it true," I wanted to know, "that you said those things to Jackie Robinson? You know, the names, the words, that everyone said you used?"
"Heck, yeah," Chapman said with a loud guffaw. "Sure I did. Everyone used those kind of words back then. Heck, we said the same things to Joe DiMaggio and Hank Greenberg."
I was puzzled. "You mean you called DiMaggio a ....?"
"We tried to rattle him by saying, 'Hey, Dago' or 'Hey, Wop.'"
What about Greenberg? "Oh, we called him 'Kike.' It was all part of the game back then. You said anything you had to say to get an edge. Believe me, being a southerner, I took a lot of abuse myself when I first played in New York. If you couldn't take it, it was a case of if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen."
In one of the most intense scenes in the film 42, the story of Jackie Robinson that first season when he broke the color barrier, Chapman's abuse of Robinson is recreated with chilling effect. What hit me like a fastball to the side of the head, though, was the next scene where reporters grill Chapman (played by Alan Tudyk): The movie Chapman defends his behavior in almost exactly the same way the real Ben Chapman did to me.
It was then I realized that for more than three decades Chapman must have been telling reporters the same things he had told me.
Over the years, retired players and sportswriters I've talked to have confirmed that, yes, baseball banter was pretty harsh back then and ethnic slurs and insults were a big part of Depression-era and post-World War II baseball. They did say those things to DiMaggio and Greenberg, and, yes, a lot of northern players did harass southern boys mercilessly. (Sample: Ed Walsh, born and raised in Pennsylvania, loved to yell at. Georgia-born Ty Cobb, "Cobb, I hear you're from Royston, where men are men and sheep are nervous!")
But as Lester Rodney—"Press Box Red," who wrote about sports for the Communist paper The Daily Worker—once told me, "That Chapman, he was something special. He could taunt with a viciousness that would have made Ty Cobb blush." As Rodney pointed out, DiMaggio and Greenberg could give it right back, but Robinson wasn't allowed to: "Jackie had promised Branch Rickey that in his first season he wouldn't fight back."
What Chapman really wanted to talk about in our interview wasn't Jackie Robinson; it was why he (Chapman) had been slighted by the Hall of Fame and how the taint over his dismissal from the Phillies in 1948 (he had just one more stint in the majors, as a coach with Cincinnati in 1952) had unfairly kept him from being considered for Cooperstown.
I didn't buy his argument, but, as I said, Chapman had been a pretty good player. He survived 15 years in the majors with a batting average of .302, twice driving in more than 100 runs and six times scoring more than 100. He was quick to remind you that he had led the league in stolen bases in four seasons—which, when I checked the record book, I found out was true. But he neglected to tell me that he also led the league four seasons in being thrown out attempting to steal. He was a superb outfielder (though as a shortstop he made so many errors in his first season that the Yankees replaced him with another Alabamian, Joe Sewell). And Chapman had the distinction of being the first American League player to get a hit in the first All-Star game, 1933.