“Pretend It’s Commie’s Wake”

Comiskey during his playing days

If you’ve been following along, I presume you’re expecting to see a short bio of Joe Jackson here. I’ve not gone that direction for two reasons. First, Jackson has been done to death. Second, I’ve done Jackson to death. Instead, I want to focus on the team owner, Charles Comiskey, a man many people blame as much as the players for the Black Sox Scandal. In the flick “Eight Men Out” as a measure of the player’s disdain for Comiskey, when it’s time for the team picture, how do you get the players to smile? You tell them to “Pretend it’s Commie’s Wake.” Whatever you think of the Black Sox or the scandal, it  happened on Comiskey’s watch.
 
Comiskey was from Chicago, born in 1859 to parents that had connections. His dad was at various times Cook County Clerk and a member of the City Council. So Comiskey, unlike his players, knew a little about politics. He took to baseball very early, apparently got into fights with his parents over it, left home at 17 to play ball, and became a successful pitcher and first baseman in the Northwest League.
 
In 1882, he joined the newly formed American Association’s St. Louis Browns as their first baseman. He was good in the field, not as good with the bat, and something of a team leader. By 1883 he was the team’s player-manager. Under Comiskey, the Browns ran off four consecutive Association championships, including a victory over the National League’s Chicago team in an 1886 version of the World Series.
 
I was surprised to learn that Comiskey was a follower of Monty Ward’s Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players Union (it doesn’t fit with his later record). He joined Ward and other Major Leaguers in the 1890 Player’s League. With the folding of the Player’s League (and the Brotherhood), Comiskey went back to St. Louis, was traded to Cincinnati, and retired as a player after the 1894 season. His record is unspectacular. He hit .264, with an OBP of .293, slugged .337 for an OPS of .630 (OPS+ of 82). He had 1956 total bases, 883 RBIs, and 992 runs scored. His postseason numbers are almost dead on with his regular season stats. He managed parts of 13 seasons, coming in first four of them, second twice, and fourth three times. His managerial winning percentage is .608.
 
In 1894, while still active, he joined with Ban Johnson, a Cincinnati sportswriter, to form the Western League. Comiskey bought the team in Sioux City, Iowa but immediately moved it to St. Paul, Minnesota. He eventually moved the team to Chicago, joined with Johnson in renaming the league the American League, and in 1901 won the first pennant for the fledgling Major League (His manager was Hall of Famer Clark Griffith.). His team repeated as champion in 1906, winning its first World Series over the crosstown rival Cubs. By 1910, his team was successful, the league was a success, and he was making a ton of money.

Comiskey about 1910

 
 To all the world the team seemed a success. Comiskey owned a big, modern ballpark, gave tickets away to children, lavished food and drink on reporters, and otherwise looked like a wealthy man. But how do you do that in 1915 Chicago while running a baseball team? Well, one of the ways you do it is by shorting your players. Comiskey was beginning to pick up a reputation as a miser when it came to his players. He paid them poorly, gave them less meal money than other teams, put them in cheap hotels, gave them flat champagne as a bonus (1917), and didn’t do the laundry very often. He was known to belittle them in public and complain that they loafed on the job when they lost. All of which led to a World Series victory in 1917 and a loss in 1919.
 
And it’s the loss in 1919 that was the problem. Eight of the players conspired to fix the Series (the level of complicity varies from player to player). Comiskey and others had suspicions from the beginning, Comiskey going so far as to hold World Series shares until a private detective investigation was finished (the players eventually got their money). In 1920 it blew up in public court, ridicule, and shame (but there were no late night comics to give it a funny undertone). The players were put on trial, Comiskey testified, the players were acquitted and Comiskey, who had been one of the first to urge the creation of an independent Commissioner, found his players barred from baseball by his handpicked Commissioner, Judge Landis.
 

The Hollywood version of Comiskey (Clifton James)

 Comiskey continued to run the White Sox through 1931. His team never again finished near first (and didn’t do so again until 1959). It never won another World Series in his lifetime (and only won again in 2005). He made the Hall of Fame in 1939.

When I was in the army people got screwed with in basic training. Then they were screwed with in advanced training. And when they got to their new post, they were screwed with again by the guys who’d been there a while. Well, eventually most guys reached a point where they were the old guys. People tended to learn one of two lessons. First, you got even by screwing with the poor guys who were new or under your command. Second, you refused to be a jerk because you recalled what it felt like to be screwed with and didn’t want other people to feel the way you felt when you were the bottom rung. Most people learned the first lesson. I’ve always been a little surprised that , as an ex-player, Comiskey treated his team with utter contempt. In light of my army experience maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. I know that my sympathy for Comiskey as wronged owner would be greater if he wasn’t a former player who knew what it was like to be the guy on the bottom. I understand why he’s in the Hall of Fame, but sometimes I wish he wasn’t.

 
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