“A Hard Guy”

The Swede

In some ways the least likeable of the eight Black Sox is Swede Risberg. He seems to be a particularly unloveable person. In Joe Jackson’s words, “a hard guy.”

Born in 1894 San Francisco, Charles Risberg was a third grade drop out (do you notice an educational pattern with a lot of these guys?). He excelled as a pitcher in semipro ball in the Frisco area. Between 1912 and 1916, he played for a series of Minor League teams in the West, doing well and eventually settling in as a shortstop. His last posting was with Vernon of the Pacific Coast League. His manager was 1906 World Series hero Doc White who recommended Risberg to his former boss Charles Comiskey.

Risberg made the big leagues in 1917 as a utility infielder but almost immediately became the every day shortstop. He hit .203 with no power and struck out more than he walked. As a shortstop he was nothing special. He led the American League in errors and finished fourth (of eight regulars) in putouts. Chicago made the World Series. Risberg batted twice, picked up a single and an RBI and helped the White Sox win.

1918 saw World War I intrude into baseball in a major way. Under a “work of fight” order a number of players like Risberg left the team during the season (he played 82 games) to work in Naval shipyards. Risberg went back to the West Coast to work in the Alameda Shipyard. Much of his job was to play ball and the whole idea bothered owner Comiskey. As with Happy Felsch (see earlier post) Comiskey felt Risberg was shirking his duty and held it against him for the rest of his career. Again, it’s difficult to determine how much this contributed to the crisis of 1919. One thing is certain, Risberg hated Chicago and the Midwest. He apparently was desperately homesick and spent as much time as he could back in California. This may also have contributed to what happened in 1919. Not liking the town, the owner, and a significant number of his teammates, Risberg was ripe for recruitment in the Black Sox Scandal.

He had a decent year in 1919, finally having 100 hits, hitting .256, and seeing his OPS rise to .662. I always hate writing something like that, because OPS was unheard of in Risberg’s day, but is so well-known today it needs to be quoted. During the World Series he hit a miserable .083 with one extra base hit (a triple), no RBIs, five strikeouts, and a World Series record eight errors at short. He blamed it on a cold.

Of course we know it was more than a cold. Risberg was one of Chick Gandil’s earliest recruits. A willing participant, he seems to have been the man who recruited both Lefty Williams and Jackson to the cause. He was responsible for getting Jackson’s money to him (via Williams) and is supposed to have threatened Jackson with physical violence when Jackson complained about the amount of money. That was Jackson’s story and Risberg never denied it (at least that I can find).

Risberg was having his best year in 1920 when the scandal broke. Acquitted by a jury, but banned by the Major Leagues, he played outlaw baseball and worked some in the minors, playing as late as the early 1930s. He told others he was making more money in the outlaw and minor leagues than he ever made in the Major Leagues. He ran a dairy farm, was involved in the Ty Cob/Tris Speaker gambling controversy (which came to nothing), lost a leg to osteomyelitis, moved back to California and ran a bar (another common thread among some of the Black Sox). He died in California in 1975, the last of the Black Sox.

I find it very difficult to like Risberg. I think that as a person he’s the one I’d least like to have known (which is different from saying which is most responsible for the fix). But he is intriguing because his career is the shortest. He seems to have been getting better when he was banned (as was Felsch) and I’d like to know how the “lively ball” era might have changed his stats. He was never going to be a big star, but he might have become a quality shortstop given time. That he didn’t give himself enough time lies with him.

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2 Responses to ““A Hard Guy””

  1. William Miller Says:

    This is an interesting look at the various members of the “Eight Men Out.” I didn’t know all that much about most of these players.

    One thing to perhaps keep in mind, though, as far as their educational levels are concerned, there were virtually no serious child labor laws in those days, and it was the expectation of many families that their kids would go to work to help support the family as soon as they were able. It’s not clear how many people back then simply dropped out of school out of choice vs. how many really didn’t have a choice. My paternal grandfather never got past the third grade, working from age eight until he joined the Marines at age 18, then worked in factories for all of his adult life. He taught himself to read Shakespeare and The Iliad, though, and he never complained about not having had the opportunity to go to school. It’s just the way it was back then.

    Always enjoy reading your stuff,
    Bill

    • verdun2 Says:

      I began this set with an idea of looking at what the 8 had in common (besides playing ball). I discovered a lack of education was one of the most common factors (no wonder they didn’t get along with Collins) while geography wasn’t (the post on Williams will make that point a little stronger).
      A large number of turn of the 20th Century ballplayers were from hardscrabble backgrounds (I mentioned Wagner in the Gandil post). Using sports as a way out of poverty isn’t new, as these guys attest.
      Thanks for a good comment that helps put things in perspective.
      v

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