Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The day Bob Gibson's stardom began (in my home town!)


Not many years ago I accidentally stumbled into some 1958 pictures of Red Wing Stadium in Rochester, New York. They had nostalgic value for me because that stadium was within walking distance of my home, and was the first place I ever saw a professional ball game. The stadium in the photos looked exactly like the stadium in my memory. That was the first year I ever followed a baseball season, after the 1957 World Series had lassoed me into the ranks of fandom.


The stadium during pre-game prep.



An aerial view from the same era. The right field bleachers are temporary (overflow crowd).


As I looked at the color pictures above and below for a third or fourth time this year, I started wondering if I could find out precisely when the pictures were taken. Given the clues from the scoreboard and a bit of time travel through the Rochester newspapers, it turned out to be possible to pinpoint the game, and wonder of wonders, it turned out to be a significant game, perhaps not in the cosmic sense, but in the career of a future baseball superstar, Bob Gibson.



On the field for the national anthem that day (pictured above) for the home-town Wings were:
  • At first base, Ed Stevens. You may never have heard of him, but he played in 2240 games in organized ball, including almost 400 in the majors. He became semi-famous by being the guy sent down to Montreal so Jackie Robinson could play first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was pictured on a Bowman card in their 1949 set.

  • Second base: Johnny O'Brien. He and his twin brother Eddie sometimes formed the double play combination for the Pirates in the mid-fifties. They received a joint baseball card in 1954.

  • The Shortstop was Roy Smalley, who played eleven seasons in the majors and another 500+ games in the minors. Although usually a weak hitter, he had one season with the Cubs when he poled 21 homers with 85 RBI. His son, another shortstop named Roy Smalley, also had a lengthy career in pro ball. He played 13 years in the majors and topped his dad's best season in 1979 when he made the all-star team by contributing 24 homers and 95 RBI to the Twins' season.

  • Pencilled in at third that day in place of Loren Babe was Frank Verdi, the man who would later be most famous because he was clipped by gunfire in a game in Havana. He played about 2000 games in the minors over a span of eighteen years, then managed in the minors for more than two additional decades. His total career in minor league baseball spanned the period from 1953 to 1995, but Frank had only a Moonlight Graham career in the majors: one inning played in the field in 1953, no at bats. He came in as the Yankees' shortstop on a double-switch, played one inning in the field without touching the ball, then was lifted for a pinch-hitter when he was due to bat. At least Manager Frank could truthfully tell his hopeful minor league charges that he once played shortstop for the Yankees. (And it was a world champion Yankee team that featured Mickey and Yogi on the field and The Ol' Perfessor pulling the strings.)

  • The centerfielder in the picture is Lenny Green. Although Green's contract belonged to the Orioles and Rochester was a Cardinals farm team, Green was on loan to get some seasoning and playing time. He would later spend a decade in the major leagues, playing for various American League teams as a good-field-average-hit centerfielder. He seldom had enough at bats to qualify for the batting title, but he could handle a starting job when called upon. In his best season he had 33 doubles, 14 homers, 88 walks, 97 runs scored, and a solid .367 OBP.

  • In left field was Gene Oliver, who would later have a long major league career as a power-hitting catcher. He was a good player, but was not a good left fielder, a fact which will later prove significant in this story.

I can't identify the first base coach, #23 in the picture. I did manage to find a Red Wing Scorecard from another part of that season (below), but he is not listed among the coaches. Note that the players named on the scorecard and the players in the picture do not correspond one-to-one. Minor league rosters are every fluid, so the Rochester uniform was worn by some 51 different players that year, plus the manager and an assortment of coaches.



The players not pictured are the catcher and right fielder.

The catcher that day was Neal Watlington, who was Gene Oliver's back-up. His major league career consisted of 44 at bats in 1953 with a .159 batting average, no power and few walks, but his minor league career had started back before WW2, and he was still at it in 1958 after serving in a World War and playing more than 1000 baseball games. His only appearance on a baseball card (below) came in the obscure 1952 Parkhurst set of the minor league Ottawa Athletics. 1958 would be his last year and it was not a successful one. The game in today's microscope was one of his few appearances in a season when he batted a weak .169 in 77 at bats. As baseball wag Rocky Bridges might have noted, Neal was in the twilight of a mediocre career.



The right fielder was Tommy Burgess, one of the truly reliable players in the International League of the fifties. You could pencil him in at the start of the year to play every day while hitting .280 with 20 homers, as he did for a half-dozen seasons in Rochester and a few more here and there for other AAA teams. He had pretty much that exact same AAA season every year from 1955 to 1961. That's a level better than 99.99% of male human beings are able to achieve, but is not quite enough to earn a spot on a major league roster. He got 21 at bats for the 1954 Cardinals, failed to impress, and then toiled away in the minors until the major league expansion in 1961-62. He was a 34-year-old rookie by the time he got a shot with the 1962 Angels, and he never got any traction going, although he did post a respectable .354 on-base percentage. The Angels cut him after that season, whereupon he picked up 28 more at bats in the minors, then retired. Like Frank Verdi, he was a minor league manager for about two decades (1969-1987), some of that in AAA, but never got the call to the Big Show.



With all the experience and knowledge on that team, you might think they were an International League powerhouse, but the truth is that they were about a .500 team, a typical AAA squad of the era, consisting of players who had been solid major leaguers, but were past their prime and unwilling to give up baseball, mixed in with guys with major league potential who had not yet reached it, some other guys like Verdi and Watlington who never got more than a cup of coffee in the bigs, and even a few guys (eleven of the 51 who played at one time or another on that 1958 squad) who would never make it into the majors at all.



The starter that day, August 3rd, was not Gibson but Lynn Lovenguth, a guy who genuinely seemed to have major league talent, but had a minor league temperament. He was the International League's perennial problem child who would end up spending 12 years in triple-A ball. 1958 was the 9th such year, by which time Lovenguth was 35 years old and bitter that he had never gotten more than a quick look in the bigs. He would be 34 years old before he got a single major league start. His anger may have been well founded, because he had owned the International League in 1956 with a 24-12 record for the Toronto Maple Leafs (he's pictured below during that triumphant season), but that earned him nothing more than nine innings of major league ball in 1957 before he found himself relegated to Rochester, his fourth International League team. He would be there again in 1958, where today's story takes place.



After the first inning of that particular game, Lovenguth was complaining about and arguing with his teammates because they had failed him defensively. Manager Cot Deal had been tinkering with the line-up because his team was scoring fewer than four runs per game. His best hitter was his young catcher Gene Oliver, a future major league regular then hitting .292 according to that day's paper (left), who was scheduled for a day off from his duties behind the plate. Deal needed Oliver's bat in the line-up, so he stationed him in left field where the displaced catcher promptly made an inappropriate throw in the first inning. When Frank Verdi contributed an error of his own in that same inning, Lovenguth blew his stack. The pitcher was correct to believe that he had received poor defensive support, but carping about it in the dugout has always been and will always be a no-no, so manager Cot Deal told his malcontent to shut up or get fined and go home early. The prickly Lovenguth chose to go home.


This, of course, left the manager with no pitcher, and nobody warming up. Enter the future superstar Bob Gibson, then commonly called "Hoot" (after the famous Western star), who at that point was still sweating from his pre-game running drills.



Before that Sunday afternoon game, Gibson had been muddling through his season in Rochester with an undistinguished 0-3 record. After four unsuccessful starts, he had been demoted to the dreaded long-relief job, but that turned out to be just the role which allowed him to make his first mark in AAA ball on that August afternoon. He took the ball in the top of the second and went the rest of the way, winning the game by allowing no runs on only two or three hits (the box score to the right says two, but the accompanying article says three). The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle headed the box score with the phrase "Hurrah for Hoot."

To make the day even sweeter, Gibson did not just best any ordinary minor league pitcher. On the mound that day for the opposing Miami Marlins was a pitcher who some say is the best of all time - the legendary Satchel Paige!




By throwing shut-out ball and beating Satchel Paige, Bob Gibson had most definitely arrived.



----------------------

After-thoughts

Red Wing stadium looked about the same in the late fifties and early sixties as it had when it was first constructed in 1929, and nearly identical to its appearance in the 1930s, when a bullpen was created behind the left field fence. That fence had no ads, but was a wire fence which permitted everyone in the park to see through it. My dad and I saw essentially the same park when we were nine-year-old boys, 28 years apart. The only substantial change from the thirties to the fifties involved the fence separating the field from the bullpen, which originally had a jog in it, to be replaced by a completely straight line in the 1950s. This .pdf file details the changes in the dimensions and angles, and the aerial photograph below shows the fence as it was before the jog was straightened. (Compare that to the aerial photograph in the main body of the story above, which shows the straightened version.)




The economics of minor league baseball being what they are, the beloved see-through fence, which allowed generations of fans to watch majestic homers bouncing on the grass or rattling around the bleachers, was eventually plastered over with ads, and then topped with two additional levels of garish ads (see below). The iconic scoreboard, manned by actual humans carrying giant numbers into inning slots, was also the victim of budget cuts. While my father and I could view the same park when we were the same age, my sons and I could not. As Deep Throat sagely advised, the management followed the money. They had no choice. That is the reality we live in now, which is no longer the world we once knew.







Monday, May 16, 2016

The Black Sox, Part IV: Follow the Money



Unless you are an expert in baseball history, you probably owe all of your knowledge about the Black Sox scandal to a book called, "Eight Men Out," or perhaps to the eponymous movie featuring John Cusack (as Buck Weaver), Charlie Sheen (Happy Felsch), David Strathairn (Eddie Cicotte), Michael Rooker (Chick Gandil), Christopher Lloyd (Sleepy Bill Burns), Michael Lerner (Arnold Rothstein), Kevin Tighe (Sport Sullivan) and other less familiar names.

If so, that is regrettable, because almost everything you think you know is wrong.

"Eight Men Out" (hereinafter called 8MO) has often been described as journalism, and has usually been considered a work of non-fiction. It is neither. It would be correctly defined as an historical novel, because it has the following characteristics in common with that genre:

  • 8MO interweaves genuine historical figures with fictional characters. Author Eliot Asinof has admitted that he fabricated a character called Harry F., a hit man who was hired to threaten pitcher Lefty Williams when the Sox seemed on the verge of tying the series at four games apiece. Asinof claimed that he created this character to see which authors were stealing his account without attribution. "Harry" is not only fictional, but is not based on any historical character, and his actions are not based on based on any historical circumstances. In fact, Lefty Williams testified that he told Joe Jackson on the way to the ballpark that day, "I am going to pitch to win this game if I can possibly win it."

    Asinof never revealed the identity of a second fictional character, but there is a minor character named Alfred Bauer, allegedly the head usher at Comiskey Park, who does not seem to have any basis in reality. Unlike the character Harry F., whose identity and exploits have been repeated by many later authors who assumed Asinof's account to be factual, the Bauer character does not seem to have been considered significant enough to enter the Black Sox canon.

  • 8MO uses imagined interior monologues and combines historically established lines with fabricated dialogue.

  • 8MO's central value is a good story with clear themes, not a meticulous recounting of facts. There are no reference notes, foot-, end- or other.

  • 8MO does not consider possible alternatives to its basic narrative, as any good historian or journalist would do. It establishes a consistent point of view and allows for only a single interpretation of the conflicting and complicated evidence in the Black Sox case.

As a historical novel, 8MO is brilliant. It tells a cohesive, tidy story with a beginning, middle and end, filled with clearly defined characters and motivations. The tale skillfully weaves humor, drama and poignancy. The reader is led into an underlying sympathy for the underdogs (Jackson and Weaver, and to some extent Cicotte, Felsch and Williams) whose lives and livelihoods were trampled under the jackboots of larger-than-life Bond villains in Comiskey, Rothstein and Gandil.

But it's important to establish and understand that it is only a historical novel. Among the important figures in the scandal, Asinof was able to talk only to one gambler, Abe Attell, and one ballplayer, Happy Felsch. (Those links lead to Asinof's summaries of the interviews in another book, "Bleeding Between the Lines.")

Among the ballplayers, Gandil, Risberg and Cicotte refused to talk to Asinof, and the other Black Sox had passed away before Asinof could reach them. Handsome, broad-shouldered Happy Felsch (left) seemed completely ingenuous, a co-operative and truthful contributor, but he had been just an overgrown kid who went along for the ride, not a conniving insider, so he knew almost nothing about how the scheme first developed. Asinof had to recreate the genesis of the plot using only court testimony as his source material, and he was unable to find the appropriate transcripts, so he had to rely on newspaper accounts which were not completely reliable, especially in summarizing secret grand jury testimony.

As for Attell (right), he had been a great prizefighter, but was not a man of dependable character. He told so many different stories through the years that all of his accounts must be called into question. More important still, Attell only knew of his portion of the scheme, which was basically based on a bluff, and which contributed only $10,000 to the players' pay-offs.

Most of the money which changed hands in the scandal went from the gambler Sport Sullivan to the first baseman Chick Gandil for redistribution. Gandil refused to talk to Asinof. Sullivan had been dead more than a decade when Asinof's research began. The other important gamblers, Rothstein, Burns and Evans, were also long dead by 1960, so Asinof had to fill in dozens of details from newspaper accounts and his own imagination.

There may have been many possible reasons for Asinof's factual errors, and it is not worthwhile to speculate about them, at least not in this context. It is more constructive simply to point them out and, to the limited extent possible, to correct them.

According to 8MO, the players were supposed to get $180,000: one hundred thousand from Attell and another eighty thousand from Sport Sullivan; but they ultimately received only eighty thousand from both sources (ten thousand from Attell, seventy thousand from Sullivan). The final individual tally, per Asinof: Gandil $35,000, Risberg $15,000, Cicotte $10,000, McMullin, Felsch, Williams and Jackson $5,000 each. The details of Asinof's accounting are detailed below, followed by comments in italics:
  • 8MO: The first ten thousand came from Sport Sullivan and ultimately went to Eddie Cicotte before the Series began, because he had insisted on that amount in advance.

    This payment has never been disputed, although nobody has established who handled the money before it appeared in Cicotte's room. It is assumed that the play should be scored Sullivan-to-Gandil-to-Cicotte, since Sullivan had to be the source of the money, and Gandil was not only the banker for the corrupted players, but also Sullivan's long-time pal.


  • 8MO: The next ten thousand came from Abe Attell after game two. The two go-betweens, Burns and Maharg, called on a suite occupied by Attell and several gamblers. There they saw an unimaginable amount of money throughout the room. Attell was supposed to hand over $40,000 to Burns at this time, but could only be persuaded to part with ten thousand, which was handed by Burns to Chick Gandil, who is presumed to have kept the money.

    According to the testimony of Bill Burns in the players' back-pay suits, Burns did dutifully pass the money on to the Black Sox players, but not just to Gandil. Seven of the alleged conspirators were in the room at the time, all except Joe Jackson. Risberg and McMullin counted it, then Gandil recounted it. It is not known how the money was distributed, but the presence of so many conspirators in the room makes it unlikely (but not impossible) that Gandil was able to retain all of it.


  • 8MO: The next twenty thousand came from Sullivan to Gandil during the Chicago homestand, either after game four or game five. It was split into four equal parts for Jackson, Williams, Felsch and Risberg. Williams was handed ten thousand, and gave half to Jackson, his roommate.

  • That account does reconcile with the grand jury testimony given by Jackson and Williams, as well as the newspaper interview given by Felsch. Those admissions account for $15,000. As for the remaining five thousand, it is pure speculation that it existed at all, or that it went to Risberg, although neither is an illogical assumption, especially given Risberg's insider status.


  • 8MO: The final $40,000 was presented by Sullivan and Evans to Gandil, McMullin and Risberg at the conclusion of the Series. Risberg got $10,000, McMullin $5,000, Gandil $25,000.

    This payment seems to be a fictional embellishment by Asinof. There is no evidence to support it.

Here is Asinof's delineation of that final $40,000 payment (8MO, p. 125):
"He (Sport Sullivan) met with Brown (Nat Evans) in the lobby of the Congress Hotel. Together they removed the $40,000 Evans had placed in the safe before the Series. Sullivan, as planned, would deliver the sum to Gandil at the Warner Hotel.

When Sullivan arrived at Gandil's room, Risberg and McMullin were waiting for him. Gandil had been right to suspect that the Swede was not going to settle for that earlier payment of $5,000. It could be said that Risberg had good reason: he had made a major contribution to the White Sox defeat. He had barely hit his weight (170) and was no great shakes in the field. He smiled as he saw the forty fresh $1,000 bills that Sullivan withdrew from his coat pocket. The Swede walked away with $15,000: $10,000 for himself and $5,000 for his friend, utility infielder Fred McMullin, who had not yet received a dime.

Gandil watched them all go and sat alone with the balance of the cash. He had collected $70,000 from Sullivan and $10,000 from Attell. Of this he had distributed $45,000, leaving a tidy $35,000 for himself."

There are multiple problems with that account:

First, there are only five men who could have testified to what happened that day. None of them ever talked to Asinof, and none of them ever told such a story elsewhere. Asinof started researching the book in 1960. Nat Evans died in 1935, and never discussed his role in the scandal with any journalists or authorities. Sport Sullivan lived until 1949, but kept mum about his role in the 1919 World Series fix, although he outlived all the pertinent statutes of limitations. Fred McMullin and Swede Risberg never discussed their roles in the fix with anyone. Chick Gandil refused to talk to Asinof, but did tell his side of the story in 1956. Unfortunately his self-serving version of events was riddled with holes, including a claim that he received no money at all, let alone the massive payday described above.

Second, the account is internally inconsistent. McMullin was present in the room when the meeting began, but Risberg ended up walking out with some money for himself and some for McMullin. If McMullin was there, why didn't he take his own money?

Third, the account is inconsistent with the rest of the book. In earlier chapters, Asinof accounts for $60,000 (actually $59,000) of the original $80,000 carried by Sullivan and Evans from New York. Therefore, there should have been only $20,000 left in the hotel safe, not $40,000. If the transaction occurred, the correct amount was $20,000, but it may not have occurred at all.

Fourth, Risberg did not "barely hit his weight" unless he was actually a 4th grader. He batted .080 in the Series. Asinof seems to have seen no need to look up the statistics of a World Series he was researching.

Fifth, it strains credulity to posit that Gandil made $35,000 on the Series. That represented a vast amount of purchasing power in 1919. Since Gandil also got the loser's share of the Series money, some $3,254, he would have walked away from the club with $38,254 that autumn, by Asinof's reckoning. According to the inflation calculator, that would be the equivalent of $530,000 in 2015. In an era when the average worker made $25 per week, Gandil would have been a rich man if Asinof's account were credible, but there was no evidence then, or at any later period in his life, that he actually possessed that kind of money. Club owner Charles Comiskey had Gandil investigated by detectives. The only unusual purchases he made after the Series were a house worth approximately $6,500 and a new car that cost about $2,000. In 8MO, Asinof incorrectly reported that the detectives discovered that Gandil had purchased “a sizeable quantity of diamonds.” The detectives actually made no such report, nor anything like it. Since Gandil received $3,254 from his World Series share and took out a mortgage of $3,300 on the house, only about two thousand dollars remain unaccounted for and were presumably acquired from his share the World Series pay-offs. For the remainder of his life, Gandil lived modestly and within his means as a blue collar laborer. In fact, as early as 1922 Gandil was said to be "broke and working as a house painter, writing pitiful appeals for aid to his old friends in Chicago."


We will probably never know precisely how the money was actually distributed, but the evidence points to the following:

  • In his grand jury testimony, Cicotte admitted to having received $10,000 before the first game of the Series.

  • In their grand jury testimony, Jackson and Williams admitted to having taken $5,000. Felsch admitted to a newspaper reporter that he received $5,000. All three of these payments were received during the Chicago homestand, after game four or five.

  • According to Comiskey's detectives, the family of Risberg's mistress believed that he had received $10,000. This belief does not seem to have come from a direct admission by Risberg, so it can't be considered authoritative, but there is nothing to contradict it.

  • Joe Jackson testified to the grand jury that he had heard McMullin got $5,000. This is another number which can't be considered reliable, but is the only known mention of McMullin's share.

  • Buck Weaver has never been accused of taking any money.

Nobody knows exactly how much was paid by the gamblers to the players, but the following outlines the likely possibilities:

  • Before game one: $10,000 from Sport Sullivan.

  • After game two: $10,000 from Attell through Bill Burns.

  • During the Chicago homestand: $20,000 from Sport Sullivan.

  • After the series: either nothing, or $20,000 from Sport Sullivan.

We can therefore make some guesses at the payday Gandil might have earned as the instigator of the plot, direct contact to the gamblers, and re-distributor of the players' shares.

Scenario one, assuming the final $20,000 was paid to the players:

If the total amount paid to the players was $60,000 and total amount paid to the other Black Sox was $40,000, as outlined above, then Gandil would have kept $20,000 for himself. While that amount seems more likely than the $35,000 posited in 8MO, it still means that Gandil left the White Sox with $23,254 including his World Series share. That is equivalent to $322,000 in today's dollars (based on 2015). If Gandil really had that much money, he kept it well hidden through the years.

In this scenario, Risberg and McMullin also did a brilliant job of concealing their ill-gotten booty. Counting their World Series shares, Risberg would have had $13,254 (about $184,000 in 2015 dollars) and McMullin $8,254 (some $114,000 in 2015 dollars) at the end of 1919, yet both continued to live simply, with no conspicuous consumption in evidence during their lives. If they truly received that much money, they never really got much enjoyment from it.


Scenario two, assuming the final $20,000 was not paid to the players:

If the final $20,000 was never paid, then there was only $40,000 to go around. Since Cicotte got his $10,000 upfront and Weaver got nothing, the other six most likely got $5,000 each, as Abe Attell told sportswriter Joe Williams in 1934:




I prefer scenario two, but not because Abe Attell supported it. Over the course of more than 40 years, he retold the story many times, and the tale was different every time he related it, depending on whether he was telling the truth, drunkenly pretending to be a big shot, or disingenuously posing as a victim. There is no easy way to tell honest Abe from crooked Abe or to separate his confessions from his posturing. Attell aside, there are a couple of reasons why that notion makes more sense than the other:

  1. Sport Sullivan had no reason to give the players their final pay-off when they had already lost the series. They had no recourse if he stiffed them. They couldn't go to the police, thus getting banned from baseball, confined to a jail cell, or both. They couldn't challenge Arnold Rothstein, which might have resulted in their confinement to a much smaller area than a jail cell, one about six feet below ground level.
  2. This scenario seems to reconcile more easily with how the players lived their lives from that point forward


Those scenarios are merely conjectural. Nearly a full century has passed since the Black Sox threw that Series and the whispers have silenced. The money trail is overgrown, and we know of no more evidence that can clear it. All we know for sure, perhaps all we will ever know, is that four players admitted to having received a total of $25,000 (Cicotte $10,000, Jackson $5,000, Felsch $5,000, Williams $5,000), that there was at least $10,000 more to spread around, and that poor ol' Buck Weaver has never been accused of taking a red cent. What the other three players received will probably remain an eternal mystery, since they have long since finished strutting and fretting their hour on the stage. Gandil, Risberg and McMullin were the guiltiest of the guilty, the coldest of the cold, the hard guys who never broke, but they can neither stonewall nor betray us any longer, for they have moved on - to a place beyond guilt, where a soft, warm breeze is always blowing out toward center, carrying their secrets with it.



Next, in Part V: Charles Comiskey, team owner, the Old Roman.



Saturday, May 14, 2016

The Black Sox, Part V: Commy



"Whatever his stature in professional baseball, however many his notable contributions to its turbulent history, to his employees he was a cheap stingy tyrant."
(Eliot Asinof writing about Charles Comiskey in Eight Men Out)


In addition to the inevitable constraints imposed by his lack of access to primary sources, as discussed in part four of this series, Eliot Asinof was also given a bum steer about how to approach his work thematically. In assembling 8MO, Asinof was greatly influenced by the work of two great Chicago-based writers who had been boys when the 1919 series was thrown. Nelson Algren and James T. Farrell were highly talented authors who had each penned short pieces about the Black Sox.

Algren was ten during the 1919 series and his favorite ballplayer had been Swede Risberg, one of the banned Black Sox. His bittersweet prose-poem of remembrance, "The Swede Was a Hard Guy," was published in The Southern Review in 1942, and was quoted extensively by Asinof in 8MO. Algren, in return, later wrote an expanded version of "The Swede Was a Hard Guy" called "Ballet for Opening Day" in which he quoted Asinof and relied on Asinof's version of the scandal.

Farrell was fifteen when the Sox took their dive, and his idol had been Bucky Weaver, another banned player whom Farrell would later interview. Asinof had started 8MO when he heard that Farrell already had a Black Sox novel in the pipeline. Asinof was going to drop his project, but when the two men met, it was Farrell who first offered to step aside. As Asinof described their meeting in his book "Bleeding Between the Lines," Farrell said "My book ... it doesn't seem to work. There's no reason for you not to go ahead, Eliot. In fact, you're the one to do it." He then proceeded to share everything he knew about the Black Sox, starting immediately and continuing throughout Asinof's researches, until 8MO was published in 1963 with a rave review from Farrell. James T. Farrell continued to write extensively about the game of baseball in general, and created several versions of his Black Sox novel, but never published it. After his death, scholars used three of his drafts to create a novel "Dreaming Baseball", which is the closest we will ever have to the Black Sox fiction Farrell had been planning. Eliot Asinof wrote the foreword to that novel about a fictional rookie who found himself on the White Sox bench in 1919.

Asinof's admiration for and collaboration with these two literary giants brought great positives to 8MO, but at the same time, led him down a misleading thematic path which was buttressed by inaccurate information, and from which he could never escape. Both Farrell and Algren had been staunch leftists, and they tended to see the Black Sox scandal in terms of the injustice in the worker/management relationship, thus portraying the Sox as the exploited chattel of the miserly team owner, Charles Comiskey, whose slave wages and broken promises drove his players to turn against him. Asinof was himself a proud member of the old left who had once fronted for blacklisted authors, then had been blacklisted himself. The Algren/Farrell point of view was so consistent with his own weltanschauung that he incorporated it into his own thinking about the scandal, and allowed it to permeate every aspect of his narrative, even when it led him astray.

In Asinof's view Comiskey was a parsimonious oligarch who ruled like a tyrant and became an arrogant plutocrat at the expense of his players. The Black Sox criminal trial is probably the source of that perception, because that had certainly not been the common view until it was generated by the defense strategy in that trial. There was really no way for the defense team to claim that the defendants had not taken money to throw the Series. Four of the players had confessed at one time or another, and the others were implicated by two eyewitnesses. But a defense had to be made, so the plan centered on three things: first: the technical legal strategy that their clients never actually did anything illegal even if all the accusations were true (throwing ball games was not a crime per se, nor was accepting money to do so); second, the obfuscation strategy of saying that the players and penny-ante gamblers were being prosecuted while the masterminds went free; third, the sympathy strategy of turning the tables, thus placing Comiskey on trial and positioning the ballplayers to the jury as desperate victims held under the thumb of a tightwad roughly on a par with Jacob Marley. Most of the anti-Comiskey arguments crumble under scrutiny, but once such a perception is erected, it is difficult to dismantle.

What was Comiskey like?


One of eight children in a working class family in Chicago, Charles Comiskey left school at 16 to become a plumber's apprentice, but set aside as much time as possible to play amateur and semi-professional baseball. He began his professional career as a pitcher in the independent minors with a team in Elgin, Illinois (left, picturing Comiskey at age 18). After a very brief minor-league stint, and a conversion to first base, his talent landed him on the St. Louis Brown Stockings of the American Association, which was then considered a major league. Within a year, the leadership skill of the 23-year-old Comiskey led to his nomination as manager of the team, an almost unheard of honor in light of his youth and inexperience. He continued in the role of player/manager throughout his career, with that team and others.

His playing career spanned thirteen seasons, mostly playing first base, where he is said to have innovated the practice of playing off the bag. His best season at the plate was 1887, when he batted .335 with more than 100 RBI. As a manager he accumulated a lifetime total of 840 wins with a .608 winning percentage. That is the second-highest winning percentage among managers with 700 or more wins. At one point he achieved four consecutive pennants as a player/manager, as well as an 1886 World Series triumph over the vaunted White Stockings in their prime, a team which had played .726 ball during the regular season! The four-time champs are pictured below, Comiskey in the center. (Click to study a very large version.)



He set aside enough money during his playing career to purchase a minor league franchise in 1894, the Western League team in Sioux City, which he soon moved to St. Paul and renamed the Saints. The Western League prospered so well that they were able to challenge the established National League. In 1900 Comiskey moved his team to the south side of Chicago as the White Stockings of the renamed American League, and in 1901 the league declared itself "major," justifying that claim by acquiring some of the NL's best players, including Cy Young and Nap Lajoie. Comiskey is pictured below with the very first major league White Sox team. Next to him (to your right) is another future team owner, his manager and star pitcher, Clark Griffith.



Back in 1886, as a player/manager, Comiskey had led the team to a World Series victory over the greatest team of that era, the mighty White Stockings. He managed a parallel feat as an owner when his 1906 squad (below) defeated the winningest team of the twentieth century, the formidable 1906 Chicago Cubs of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance fame. The Cubs had finished the regular season at 116-36. They fielded the best player in the National League at six of the eight non-pitching positions, and a Hall of Famer (Joe Tinker) at one of the other two spots. Their pitching staff had a team ERA of 1.76. They played .800 ball on the road. Many of their records still stand. They were considered all but invincible, yet they suffered the ignominy of a loss to Comiskey's Hitless Wonders, another team in the very same city. Most incredibly, the White Sox won all three games in the Cubs' home park.



"Commy" was as good in the owner role as he had been on the field. He built one of the first great ballparks; he fielded strong teams; he held ticket prices below those of the comparable franchises with modern parks (a bleacher seat cost 25 cents at Comiskey Field in the WW1 era, compared to 50 cents at the Polo Grounds).

Comiskey's biographer, Tim Hornbaker, wrote in 2014:
"A century ago, in his heyday as an owner, Comiskey was one of the most beloved men in baseball. He possessed an uncanny ability to connect to people and had turned his White Sox ballpark into a warm and welcoming venue that was the envy of his peers. Brimming with a genuine affection for his clientele, he always wore a smile and constantly mingled amidst the people before and after games."
And the press loved him as much as the fans did.

In short, Comiskey defied the Peter Principle. He had worked all the way up the baseball ladder without ever reaching a level of incompetence. He had once been just another blue-collar kid starting his rookie season with no special advantages, and eventually became a successful, beloved owner in his hometown, and he had done so without connections or family money, but on the strength of his own intelligence, preparation, thrift, ambition, and charm.

That monster!



Did Comiskey underpay his players?

In a word, no, with one possible exception.

8MO is filled with factual inaccuracies about the salaries of the 1919 White Sox. It is possible to offer some defense of Asinof's poor reporting by acknowledging that the Major League Transaction Cards, which are now available in the Cooperstown library for every team since 1912, were not available to Asinof in the early 60s. It is impossible, however, to defend the fact that he presented wildly inaccurate guesses as if they were facts, and used those errant numbers to support his central thesis about Comiskey being a skinflint who drove his players to mutiny. Here's a blatant example: Asinof reported that Cincinnati's ace pitcher, Dutch Reuther, was making twice as much as the White Sox' Eddie Cicotte. In reality, Cicotte made more than three times as much as Reuther that year ($8,000 vs $2,340)! 8MO also claims that Comiskey's ballplayers "were the best and were paid as poorly as the worst." This is wildly inaccurate. Although the team had finished sixth in the league the previous year, the White Sox payroll on opening day in 1919, excluding performance bonuses, was about $88 thousand in 1919, third highest in the American League, and only slightly below the Red Sox ($93K) and Yankees ($91K). They had five of the sixteen highest salaries in the league in 1919, and seven of the top seventeen in 1920. The team's 1919 payroll was far higher than that of their World Series opponents, the Cincinnati Reds ($76K), whose cumulative payroll amounted to only $800 per win in 1919, compared to $1005 for the White Sox.

The position-by-position salary chart (from the SABR Black Sox Research Committee Newsletter, December, 2015, pp. 13-15) shows that very few of the Sox had a cause to gripe:



Pitchers: Lefty Williams (#2 above), a banned player, may have been a bit undercompensated relative to his performance that year. His salary ranked only 23rd among the league's pitchers despite the fact that he won 23 games. His salary, however, was determined at the beginning of the year. It is reasonable to argue that his compensation was commensurate with the results from the previous year, when he won only six games. After his fine 1919 season, the team basically doubled his salary. Eddie Cicotte (#1 above), one of the ringleaders of the fix, had no cause to complain. His total compensation was the second highest among the league's pitchers, behind only Hall of Famer Walter Johnson.

First base: Chick Gandil (#4 above), another of the ringleaders, earned only the fifth highest salary among the American Leaguers at his position, but the four men above him were clearly better players, as were two of the other men - George Burns (lifetime .307 over 16 years) and Harry Heilmann (spectacular lifetime .342 and in the Hall of Fame). Gandil was the worst regular first baseman in the league, although he outperformed Cleveland's entry because they didn't have a regular at that position. Even at that, the Cleveland player with the most time at that position, journeyman Doc Johnston, still had a higher OPS+ than Gandil. Gandil was the only first baseman in the league with an adjusted OPS+ below 100, and had the lowest WAR among the starters except for Johnston, who had only 331 at bats.

Name, Club Salary OPS+ WAR
George Sisler, Browns 7200 156 6.1
Stuffy McInnis, Red Sox 5000 101 1.9
Wally Pipp, Yankees 5000 104 2.6
Joe Judge, Senators 3675 124 3.4
Chick Gandil, White Sox 3500 97 1.5
Harry Heilmann, Tigers 3500 137 3.8
George Burns, As 2625 119 2.0
Doc Johnston, Indians 2500 103 1.0


Based on the 1919 statistics shown above, Gandil could not reasonably contend that he was underpaid, but then again he was a malcontent not widely known for his inclination to engage in reasonable dialogue.

Second base: Future Hall of Famer Eddie Collins (Clean Sox) was paid more than the next two second basemen added together, and deserved it.

Third base: Buck Weaver (banned player; #3 above) had the second highest salary among American League third sackers. The only man making more was superstar Home Run Baker, a future Hall of Famer.

Shortstop: Swede Risberg (banned player; #5 above) had the sixth highest salary out of the eight starting shortstops. That was not out of line. He had the lowest range factor in that group by a wide margin, was also a weak hitter, had a below average fielding percentage, and was only 24 years old.

Catcher: Future Hall of Famer Ray Schalk (Clean Sox) was the highest-paid catcher in the league, and deserved it.

Left field: Joe Jackson (banned player; #6 above) had the second highest salary among the left fielders, which was exactly where he belonged, especially since he was coming off two bad seasons. You might be wondering who could possibly be worth more than Shoeless Joe? It was a young man named George Herman Ruth who, I've heard, was not a bad player in his own right.

Right field: Nemo Leibold (Clean Sox) had an excellent season in 1919. He was a dependable player and a solid singles hitter with a .404 OBP, which was second on the team, behind only the redoubtable Shoeless Joe. Nemo ranked only sixth in the league in salary among right fielders. In fact, he was paid only $25 per year more than his understudy, Shano Collins, a part-timer who played in only 63 games. Leibold's low salary was based upon his previous career, which had been nowhere near the level he attained in 1919. In six prior seasons he had never previously achieved an OPS at the league average. In response to his fine 1919 season, the club doubled his salary the following year.

Center field: Happy Felsch (#7 above) is probably the only one of the banned players who had a legitimate claim to be undercompensated. He received the fifth highest salary at his position, but was probably the third best player, behind only Hall of Famers Cobb and Speaker, and he had already posted two excellent seasons to support that claim. Relative to his own teammates, he was approximately as good a player as Schalk or Weaver but was getting paid about half as much. Felsch signed his 1919 contract in January of that year for $3,751.12 - for a whopping raise of $1.12 over his previous salary. Felsch was a simple, easy-going man with a 5th grade education and no skills in negotiation, so it may be reasonable to argue that the team took advantage of him.

Eliot Asinof and his two socialist muses, Farrell and Algren, were correct in believing that all professional ballplayers in those days were exploited by management, thanks to the "reserve clause," which bound a player in perpetuity to any team he signed with, even after his contract had expired, unless the team decided to sell or trade him to another team. This arrangement was completely one-sided in favor of the club owners, and was obviously in restraint of a player's fundamental right to sell his services for what they were worth in a competitive market. The baseball reserve system was not many steps removed from slavery. When a team made a final salary offer, the player could take it or find another line of work for that year. He could not sell his services to another team in organized baseball, whether major league or minor. As a result, virtually all ballplayers before free agency were underpaid relative to their value in an open market.

The 1919 White Sox were underpaid in that sense, but only in that sense. They were paid better than most of the other professional teams, so their salaries cannot be used to justify their unique level of corruption or to characterize team owner Charles Comiskey as a miserable tightwad. He was paying them at or near the top of the market, albeit a market both closed and rigged.

As unfair as the system was, it is worth noting that the ballplayers made far more money than common laborers, which most of them would have been without their baseball skills. The average annual salary in the United States in 1919 was $1,331 for almost 2,400 hours of work, averaging 56 cents per hour. Even bench-warmer Fred McMullin (banned player #8 in the illustration) made $2,750 in 1919 for working seven months in the year. On a monthly basis, that is almost four times as much as he would have earned in a blue collar job. It is certainly true that the ballplayers of that day were not compensated like the ones in the era of free agency, but they still led better lives than they would have lived outside of baseball.

If Asinof was wrong about the White Sox players being among the worst-compensated in baseball, was he at least correct about them being the best team? Well, they did win the pennant, and they seemed to be the best in the league in 1919. The golden haze of nostalgia has surrounded them with a special aura that seems to establish them as one of the greatest teams ever assembled, but they didn't impress people that way before the season began. The Syracuse Herald reported the 1919 pre-season odds in the April 18th edition, and the consensus of bookmakers was that the Red Sox would win the pennant. The White Sox were picked to finish fourth. Six days later, The Sporting News published the sportswriters' predictions, and their consensus ranked the teams in the same order as the bookmakers. The White Sox salaries at the beginning of the year were completely consistent with the general contemporaneous evaluation of the club.




Did Comiskey cheat Eddie Cicotte out of a deserved bonus?




"29 is not 30, Eddie."

There is a tightly scripted sequence of movie scenes that drives the plot of "Eight Men Out" in a perfectly logical way. Gandil asks Cicotte to participate in the fix, but Cicotte declines. Cicotte goes into Comiskey's office to ask for the $10,000 bonus Comiskey promised him. Comiskey weasels out of it. The wheels seem to turn in Cicotte's angry brain. He wants that ten grand. Cicotte storms back to Gandil and says he'll throw the Series if he gets ten grand in advance.

Great filmmaking.

In a fictional film based on a novel.

None of that, or anything similar, ever happened. In fact, it was about as far from the truth as anything could be.

The public legend of the Cicotte bonus seems to have originated in a gambling newspaper called Collyer's Eye in the December 13, 1919 edition. The story was alleged to have originated from Cicotte himself, as told to a sportswriter named Harry Bradford. It was obvious at the time that the article could not have been accurate, and probably was written by someone with no grasp of baseball, because the author claimed that Cicotte became truculent after winning his 30th game and getting the brush-off on the bonus he was promised for achieving that milestone. The major flaw of that contention is that Cicotte never won his 30th game at all, as anyone who followed baseball would have known two months after the season ended.

Asinof was never one to let some factual inconsistencies get in the way of a useful myth, so he cobbled the story to fit the facts. Surely Cicotte would have won 30 if Comiskey had not ordered him benched to avoid paying the bonus.

In the book version of 8MO, Asinof claims that Comiskey's treachery happened in 1917. That turned out to be not only a false claim, but a ludicrous one, given that Cicotte had never won more than 18 games in any previous season, so an incentive clause for winning 30 would have seemed laughable, about like promising Gus Triandos a bonus for stealing 50 bases. The part about Comiskey ordering Cicotte to be benched made the story even more surreal, since it was just about the opposite of what really happened. On August 22nd of that year, the White Sox clung to a narrow two-game lead over the Red Sox, whereupon they turned to Cicotte, their ace, to take the mound every time he could pitch without pain. He had only 18 wins at that point, but pitched in 11 of the team's final 33 games and got the decision in every one of those games, winning ten of them to finish the season with 28 victories. There were some periods when he got no rest at all. He pitched a complete game victory on September 2nd, then came right back the next day and pitched six more innings for another win. Five other times he took the mound after only one or two days of rest. Altogether he pitched 84 innings in little more than a month. It is just about inconceivable that he could have pitched any more, and he most certainly was never benched, with or without Comiskey's orders.

Asinof must have realized that he had made an error with this yarn, because the movie version of the story moved the incident to 1919. The situation was at least plausible in that season because Cicotte's 28-win season in 1917, and especially his ten wins in 33 scheduled games, had established that he was absolutely capable of winning 30. Such a bonus theoretically could have existed, but it did not. Although there was no ten thousand dollar bonus, Cicotte did have a smaller bonus built into his 1919 salary structure. What's more, he earned it, and it was paid! Yet again the truth was nearly the opposite of Asinof's claim, as baseball researcher and salary specialist Bob Hoie wrote in his foreward to "Turning the Black Sox White":
"After winning 28 in 1917, Cicotte was given a contract with a base salary of $5,000, a $2,000 signing bonus and an additional agreement that he would receive a $3,000 bonus if he had another season similar to 1917. In 1919 ... the $3,000 bonus was carried over so by the start of the eastern road trip he had 28 wins, thus assuring that he would get the bonus."
He finished the 1919 season with a 29-7 record and an ERA again below two, whereupon the White Sox paid his bonus, presumably with a grateful smile. As for the Comiskey-ordered benching, yet again it was the opposite of what really happened. Cicotte won his 28th game on September 5th, assuring that he would make his bonus, then took sick and missed about two weeks. Since Cicotte had earned his bonus and the team had a comfortable lead at the time, it was not considered a significant matter. He returned on September 19th to win his 29th game, and the pennant was all but assured, so it was Cicotte himself who then asked for some time off to spend with his family, obviously indicating that the 30th win did not seem critical to him. That request was granted. He also got two more starts after he returned, so it's clear that nobody on the club was trying to keep him from reaching 30.

So I think the famous line should have been:

"29 is more than 28, Eddie, so here's your check. Nice job!"

That shows you why I will never be asked to write a movie.



Did Comiskey pay his players a lower per diem meal allowance than other owners?

Yes, he did for a while.

To contend so is not an outright error, but is highly misleading. The standard per diem meal allowance had been three dollars per day in 1918, and this rate was applied just about universally throughout the majors. When World War One ended, the fans were expected to return, and some teams raised the rate to four dollars in anticipation of post-war prosperity. They did so on their own, not in concert or as the result of an agreement. The White Sox began the 1919 season at the old rate. On May 18th they acquired journeyman pitcher Grover Lowdermilk from St. Louis to shore up an ailing pitching staff, and he reported that the lowly Browns had raised the per diem to four dollars. This precipitated a controversy in the invariably contentious White Sox clubhouse, which led to a change. By the end of the season, the White Sox meal allowance had been raised to four dollars per day to match the new de facto standard.



Was Comiskey getting ever richer off his starving players?

No.

Contrary to the defense team's contentions in the Black Sox trial, many of which linger in today's conventional wisdom, Comiskey was not accumulating vast wealth by riding the backs of his players. Court records from 1915 to 1917 show that the White Sox made an average annual profit of  $141,000 and Comiskey himself earned a salary of $10,000 per year, substantially less than his second baseman, Eddie Collins ($15,000). The team's annual profit was modest in comparison to the New York Giants, who cleared $250,000 per year from 1912-1917, despite lower attendance than the White Sox during that decade, according to the biography "John McGraw" by Charles Alexander.

Of course Comiskey was frugal. That's how he managed to save enough to buy a team on a ballplayer's salary. Given that aspect of his nature, he took some actions which made him seem penurious to his players. Some of their criticisms of him were misinterpretations, deliberate or otherwise, but Comiskey made mistakes as well, for he was human. It is true that later in his life, especially after the Black Sox scandal, his personality did start to evince some of the negative characteristics that color our current attitudes toward him. But to take all of that out of context in order to limn the Old Roman as a cantankerous, avaricious miser whose penny-pinching ways drove his players to dishonesty in 1919 is to do a great disservice to a man who, while not without flaws, on balance was a good man as well as a great one.




Next, in Part VI: Wrapping it Up