Posts Tagged ‘Charles Comiskey’

The War to End All Wars

November 11, 2018


Hell” by George LeRoux

Today marks the end of World War I, one hundred years ago. At 11 am in France, the guns fell silent and an armistice took over. Ultimately a peace treaty was worked out and the guns remained silent until a greater, but not more significant, war broke out.

As with everything else, the war touched baseball in a number of ways. Here’s a sampling of how:

1. The 1918 season was shortened to 140 games from the standard 154. It led to some funny statistics as the season was simply chopped down without being reworked. Some teams played more games than others, some played one team a lot of times, other teams not so many.

2. A lot of great and good players were away from the diamond during the season. Many were in the military, others were off at “war work.” The government allowed players to join war-related industries (like ship building or munitions making) in lieu of actually joining the military. Many players took up the offer. Some of them found that “war work” generally consisted of playing exhibition games for the rest of the workers.

3. A handful of owners, notably Charles Comiskey, thought using the “war work” option was “shirking” and held it against their players when they returned to the field after the war. A number of 1919 “Black Sox” were in this category and some scholars feel it further soured the team’s relationship with their owner.

4. The careers of some players were changed. Grover Cleveland Alexander played a handful of games, went off to the war (not to war work) and saw combat. He suffered “shell shock,” which added to his drinking problem, was to plague his pitching for a number of years. The 1918 season was also the first year in which Babe Ruth played more games in the outfield than he did on the mound. Some of that had to do with Ed Barrow noting the Babe’s hitting prowess, but Duffy Lewis was off to war and the Red Sox needed outfield help.

5. Former New York Giants infielder Eddie Grant was killed in action while a training accident drastically shortened the life of Hall of Famer Christy Mathewson.

There are more, lots more, effects, but this should give you a short taste of how much this early 20th Century catastrophe changed the world, but also changed American sport.

“The Trench”–Otto Dix

First in St. Louis

March 3, 2016
Johnny Mize with the Cardinals

Johnny Mize with the Cardinals

Did you ever notice how certain teams breed players at particular positions? The Yankees do it at Second Base, in Center Field, and Catching. The Red Sox produce great left fielders. The Dodgers and Giants come up with superior pitchers. St. Louis is one of those. As the title of this little excursion should alert you, for the Cards it’s First Base.

The Cardinals began business in the 1880s as part of the fledgling American Association. They were then called the Browns and were immediately successful and began with an excellent first baseman. Charles Comiskey started at first for the Browns for most of the 1880s. He wasn’t that great a hitter, but he was considered a good fielder (for his era), an innovator in first base play, and spent much of the decade as the team manager. The team won four pennants with him as player-manager.

The team moved to the National League in 1892 and slipped back toward the bottom of the field. They got very little out of their first baseman until Jake Beckley joined the team in 1904. He had one great season, winning a number of league titles, but wasn’t much beyond that. He was followed by Ed Konetchy and Dots Miller as first basemen for the rest of the Deadball Era. They weren’t bad (Konetchy hit over .300 a couple of times), but weren’t particularly notable either and the Cards floundered.

That changed in the 1920s. St. Louis began a long drive toward the top of the standing that culminated in the 1926 National League pennant. Most of the glory had to go to Rogers Hornsby, but the Cards found a pretty fair first baseman to help the Rajah along. He was Jim Bottomley and he was good enough to enter the Hall of Fame, although some think he’s one of those guys who shouldn’t be there. Bottomley won a home run crown and a couple of RBI titles. He lasted through the championship seasons of 1926, 1928, 1930, and 1931 before being replaced by Rip Collins. Collins was a power hitter who fit in quite nicely with the raucous Cardinals team of the 1930s. He hit well, won a home run title, drove in a lot of runs, and became a mainstay of the “Gas House Gang.”

But by 1936 St. Louis had found another power hitting first baseman. His name was Johnny Mize and he became the dominant first baseman in the NL for several years. (I’ve never done anything on him and I need to remedy that). He won a batting title, and RBI title, and a couple of home run titles before being traded to the Giants. He did well there and later helped the Yankees to a couple of championships. But he left just as the Cardinals found the promised land again. The 1942 through 1946 Cards won three championships and four pennants. Ray Sanders did most of the work at first (with Johnny Hopp holding down first in 1942). He was no Mize, but he played well enough. His departure led to a long series of Cardinal first basemen that didn’t last long nor did they provide a lot of thrills. But in some ways it didn’t matter. If all else failed, St. Louis could always bring Stan Musial in from the outfield to play first. He did it a lot and no one cared if he could field or not. He was pretty good with the glove, but his forte was the use of the bat.

Things got back to normal for St. Louis at first with the arrival of Bill White in 1957. He would hold down the position through 1965 and become a major factor in the Cardinals championship run of 1964. He was good with the bat, good with the leather. He was one of the men who constituted an all-St. Louis infield in the All Star game of 1963 (Julian Javier, Dick Groat, and Ken Boyer were the others). White hung around until replaced in 1966 by Orlando Cepeda. Cepeda had been, with Willie McCovey, part of a terrible fielding left field combination at San Francisco. One of them could go to first, but the other would have to stay in left and leak runs or be traded. McCovey was younger, so he got to go to first and Cepeda was traded. The trade was to St. Louis where he ended up at first also. It worked. He won an MVP in 1967 and was part of two pennant winning teams in 1967 and 1968, the ’67 team winning the World Series.

But Cha Cha was getting old and was never much at first, so by 1969 the team was looking for a new first baseman. They tried a couple of different options, but finally settled on ex-catcher, ex-third baseman Joe Torre. He lasted a couple of years before moving on for Keith Hernandez.

Hernandez was the great fielding first sacker of his day. He was universally touted for his defensive skills, so much so that people forgot he could also hit. He won an MVP in 1979 (a tie with Willie Stargell of Pittsburgh), then joined in a championship season in 1982, before moving on to the Mets. And that was it for a while for St. Louis at first base. True they had Jack Clark for a while (and picked up a couple of pennants with him at first) and Pedro Guerrero but neither was a satisfactory answer to their woes at first. That changed with the arrival of Mark McGwire in 1992.

McGwire was the power hitting machine that eventually set a single season home run title. We’ve come to see that record as dubious because of the steroid issue, but for St. Louis it provided a boost in attendance and in winning. By 2001, after a couple of playoff appearances, injuries, questions about steroids, and age took McGwire to the showers. But St. Louis had one throw left at first.

Albert Pujols came to the Cards in 2001. He was rookie of the year and a heck of a hitter. But he had no set position. They tried him in the outfield, then at third. Finally they decided to move him to first. He wasn’t very good at first, at least not for a while. But he got better with the leather and there was never anything wrong with the way he swung the lumber. The team won a pennant, then two World Series’ with Pujols at first. He picked up a ton of hardware including three MVP awards. In 2012 he left for Southern California. St. Louis has yet to replace him.

Although there have been periods when St. Louis first basemen were pedestrian, it’s not all that common. Throughout most of their history they’ve managed to find excellent, if not truly great, first basemen. There’s no Joe DiMaggio to Mickey Mantle handoff nor a Ted Williams to Carl Yastrzemski baton pass, but over a century and a half, the Cardinals have produced an excellent first base tree.

 

Rebranding Charles Comiskey

September 4, 2014

I have a favorite niece that I adore. She’s bright, charming, whip smart, funny, and very good at her job. But she’s really into all this business jargon that sometimes confuses me. She’s worked with a job counselor, done all sorts of community service (which isn’t bad by any means), made sure her name is out there. She calls it “branding”, as in “establishing her brand” for prospective employers. When she says that, I always have images of John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Paul Fix, and Walter Brennan leading a roundup and branding cattle in the 1940s classic Hollywood Western Red River.

In many ways Charles Comiskey is a brand (in the sense my niece uses the word), usually seen as a bad one. The other day I put him in my personal Hall of Fame and got a lot of comments. Some of them didn’t show up on the post (see the post directly below this one) but came in emails directly to me. Uniformly they thought Comiskey was a scumbag and probably shouldn’t be allowed near sane people or little children. Most, however, acknowledged that Comiskey had a great impact on baseball. Kortas put it best when he mentioned he’d hold his nose but vote to let Comiskey into the Hall of Fame. That sums up my view of Comiskey.  But all of us, aware of what was to happen in 1919 have rebranded him from his status in 1907.

Between 1882, his rookie year, and 1901 the first year of the American League, Comiskey is one of the more important people in baseball. He joins the St. Louis Browns (now the Cardinals, not the Baltimore Orioles) in 1882 and by 1883 he is a player-manager (after the other guy is fired). In 1884 he again takes over as manager after the previous manager leaves and remains the manager through 1889 when Comiskey joins the Players League. So from the beginning he’s seen as both a fine baseball mind (and don’t forget credit for inventing the first baseman playing off the bag) and a good businessman (1880s managers also did a lot of general manager type stuff like booking hotels and seeing that uniforms were clean). In joining the Player’s League he indicated a devotion to the Brotherhood, making him an early advocate of player’s rights.

Although it’s true that Ban Johnson was front and center in forming the American League in 1901, Comiskey stood at his right hand. He’d joined Johnson in the 1890s looking to have a team of his own and looking to move into the Major Leagues (of which there was only the National League). With no ownership openings available, Comiskey ended up controlling a team in the Western League and both encouraged and joined Johnson in taking that league “Major” in 1901 under the name American League. He had a strong team and in 1901 picked up the first ever AL pennant. A strong team in Chicago gave the AL instant recognition as on par with the NL (although I’ll be the first to admit that Boston winning the 1903 World Series was surely more significant in granting parity between the two leagues). In 1906 his White Stockings won again. To this point a career to applaud.

But Comiskey’s career didn’t end in 1907. We all know what happened in 1919 (something 1907 contemporaries didn’t) and it destroyed the Comiskey Brand for anyone who is a baseball fan. But in defense of Comiskey (and, no, I can’t believe that I actually typed those words) he was a fairly typical owner of his era. Guys like Soden whose pennant winning Beaneaters left for the AL in droves, or the Robison brothers who destroyed the Cleveland Spiders weren’t significantly worse than Comiskey when it came to treatment of their players. There was one significant difference, Comiskey was an ex-player and he knew what it was like to be a player and be treated badly by ownership. There’s a wonderful moment in the movie Field of Dreams when Shoeless Joe states, “Shoot, I’d a played for nothing.” I’m certain Comiskey would have been more than willing to let him. But so would the other owners of the day and, frankly so would the current set of owners. So Comiskey isn’t really different from his contemporary colleagues, it’s just that he’s a degree worse.

And all of that was unknown in 1907, at least to most people (and I admit I have no idea how badly he treated the 1906 squad, but I doubt it was significantly better). The Comiskey Brand was still viewed with the aura of good player, great manager, innovator, winning owner. We know there was another side, but the rebranding of Charles Comiskey didn’t come until the 1920s.

 

My Own Little Hall of Fame: Class of 1907

September 2, 2014

It’s time for my monthly foray into the mind of Baseball Writers in the early 20th Century. I’m hoping to determine, at least to my own satisfaction, what a Hall of Fame established in 1901 rather than the mid 1930s would look like. Specifically I’m wondering how much it would differ from the current Hall. Here’s the Class of 1907, a class that adds a pair of greats that were overlooked for years.

Charley Comiskey

Charley Comiskey

Oops, that’s Clifton James, Hollywood’s version of Charley Comiskey

Charles Comiskey

Charles Comiskey

OK, that’s the right one.

Charles Comiskey was a player, manager, and owner who changed the game. As a stellar first baseman he invented playing off the bag thus cutting down the “hole” between first and second. As manager of the St. Louis Browns in the 1880s he had all his infielders follow suit thus cutting down on the number of hits available. His team won four consecutive pennants and four consecutive post season tournaments, winning one of them and tying a second. He helped found the American League by creating a team in Chicago. His “White Stockings” won the first ever American League pennant and in 1906 won the third World Series.

Slidin' Billy Hamilton

Slidin’ Billy Hamilton

William “Slidin’ Billy” Hamilton is the career leader in stolen bases, his totals peaking at 111 in both 1889 and 1891. His career average of .344 is among the highest in the 19th Century. In 1594 games he scored 1697 runs, with 198 in 1894 being the all time record.

Amos Rusie

Amos Rusie

Amos Rusie was a strikeout machine between 1889 and 1901 he struck out 1950 men, with a high of 341 in 1890 for New York. In 10 seasons he won five strikeout titles and led the National League in wins in 1894. His 246 wins are among the highest in National League history.

And now the commentary you’ve all been waiting for all this time.

1. Comiskey? It is incredibly difficult to like Comiskey, but this isn’t about likeability. His contributions to the game are significant. We was a successful manager with an very impressive record and winning percentage (.608). In 12 years managing he finished below fourth twice (the last two seasons). He was considered an excellent first baseman for his era, but didn’t hit much. The info about inventing playing off first was around in 1906. By that point there were already disputes about Comiskey inventing the action. Frankly, I doubt he did, but he was getting at least a little credit for it so I mentioned it. Ban Johnson is the primary mover in creating the American League, but Comiskey is a close second. He deserves credit for that. He was also one of John Montgomery Ward’s earliest followers in the Brotherhood (which makes his later career as a parsimonious owner even more awful). The early teams he owned were good and won it all in 1906 (and in 1901 when there was no World Series). My son suggested I hold until after the 1906 World Series to add Comiskey to my Hall. Considering the positive press he would have gotten in late 1906 and early 1907 that was a really great idea (and my son gets the credit for it). We do have to remember that the anti-Comiskey feelings most of us have relate to a much later time in his ownership. And BTW, doesn’t Clifton James look like what you want Comiskey to have looked like?

2. Billy Hamilton is a classic case of why I’m doing this entire exercise. He died in 1940 and made the Hall of Fame in 1961 (Vets Committee). Are you kidding me? Hamilton was one of the greatest players of the 19th Century, but by 1935, 1936, 1937, etc. had utterly disappeared from memory. I submit that in 1907 he would still be well-remembered and get a free pass into any Baseball Hall of Fame existing then. His games to run ratio was known as was his average. Having said that, as far as I can tell, there is almost no reference about how unusual it was to have fewer games played than runs scored. As mentioned in last month’s My Own Little Hall of Fame post Pete Browning was considered the man with the highest batting average in the 19th Century for much of the 20th Century. Baseball Reference.com, however, gives that title to Hamilton. The 1907 crowd most likely would accept a Browning answer as correct. And finally the way stolen bases were counted differed from the modern definition for most of Hamilton’s career.

3. Amos Rusie was the 19th Century’s version of Nolan Ryan. A lot of wins, a lot of losses, a lot of walks, and a heck of a lot of strikeouts. His career was short, but he successfully got through the mine field of changing the pitching distance and adding a mound to prove he could pitch at both distances and with different motions. He took even longer than Hamilton to make the Hall of Fame (1977), and I can’t imagine that would be true if there was a Hall of Fame set up within 10 years of his retirement, although I’d guess that Hamilton would gain the greater share of the vote total (but that’s only a guess).

4. Again no fourth or fifth player? Nope. I’ve got a list of nice eligible players and I keep looking at it and think “Wow this is a list of nice eligible players but not a list of great players.” And there’s not much coming along next year (1908). I will have to deal with Wilbert Robinson as a player. He’s in the modern Hall, but primarily as a manager, not a player. He’ll be one of the first people I will have to look at and seriously separate his playing from managing skills (McGraw will be another). At this point I’m more inclined to put McGraw in over Robinson based solely on playing skill (which doesn’t mean I’ll put McGraw in as a player).

5. Learning anything? Yes, quite a bit. As mentioned in 2 above, Hamilton is a great example of how this exercise is supposed to work. He was well-known and appreciated just after his retirement and within a few years (say 1920 or even earlier if you’d like) he’d dropped into obscurity. I haven’t done a lot of looking at the 1920s view of 1890s players because I’m supposed to be looking at 1907 views of players, but I wonder if the advent of Ruth and the homer relegated a lot of these guys to the dustbin of history (Is that a neat phrase or what? Wish I’d invented it). The great change in stolen bases that began in the late 1950s brought his name back to prominence and you’ll note he finally makes the real Hall of Fame in 1961, which is way too late. Also I’m noting how much the modern stats change the way we look at players. Again using Hamilton, I note the modern stats concentrate his numbers in such a way as to emphasize he scoring ability and his general hitting skills much more than his stolen bases, which predominate in the 1905 period. I’m also noticing, as I’ve mentioned before, how absolutely random the available stats are in the first decade of the 20th Century. They’re all over the place. Some players have a lot, others not so much (and it’s particularly true in the American Association) and sometimes one guy will have a stat and another guy on the same team won’t have that same stat. Makes it difficult to compare directly, so I’m finding myself using more reporting than I might normally use. Additionally it’s interesting how much the statistics differ in the era. By that I mean that I find one player credited with a specific number for a stat, then later find the same player with a different number of the same stat. Makes it kind of interesting to figure (so I tend, if there is a discrepancy, to go to Baseball Reference.com and use whichever number they use).

6. I’m also noticing the amount of mythology growing up about the game. The Comiskey story about inventing playing off the base is one example. Of course we’re reaching the period of the rise of the “Doubleday Myth” for the invention of baseball, so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.

 

“Pretend It’s Commie’s Wake”

February 2, 2012

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.

 

“A Hard Guy”

January 25, 2012

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.

“Please Help Me, I’m Falling”

January 22, 2012

Happy Felsch

In doing research for this post about Happy Felsch, I ran across an interview with him done back in the 1950s. In it he says he wanted to get some help from his friends in deciding what to do about fixing the 1919 World Series. I was immediately reminded of an old 1960s (I think) country song that contained the following lines: “Please help me, I’m falling. And that would be sin. Close the door to temptation. Don’t let me walk in.” The ethical blindness in both comment and song are much alike.

Oscar Felsch was born in Milwaukee in 1891, the son of immigrants from Germany. As with a number of the Black Sox, he was a drop out, not advancing beyond the sixth grade. He played sandlot ball, went into semipro ball, and finally made a local minor league team in 1913. He wasn’t very good in 1913, but improved. By 1915 he had been spotted and signed by Chicago. He was one of three Black Sox who spent his entire career with the White Sox (Weaver and Risberg were the others).

His first season wasn’t much, but he improved in 1916 and 1917. He hit .300 both years, had 100 RBIs in 1917, scored 70 runs both years, and had decent power for the era (13 total home runs). His OPS+ was 130 in ’16 and 128 in ’17.  He was also an exception center fielder for the era. He led the American League in both putouts and range factor in 1917 and was second in range factor in 1916. In the 1917 World Series he hit .273 with a home run and an OPS of .759.

After 53 games in 1918, Felsch left Chicago to perform war work at a naval shipyard. World War I was raging and he, along with other Major Leaguers, was faced with either joining the military or performing war-related service. Owner Charles Comiskey was upset at Felsch (and Lefty Williams and Joe Jackson who did the same as Felsch) for “shirking” the military in time of  crisis. The War Department was quite happy to get them, the ships needed to be built and the dockyard workers need entertainment (All three played a lot of ball for the shipyard team.). I’m not sure how much this incident added to the atmosphere that led to the 1919 fix, but it surely didn’t help.

Back fulltime in 1919, Felsch had another good year, hitting .275 with an OPS of .764 and an OPS+ of 113. He also led the AL in outfield assists. In on the World Series fix, he hit .192 with a double and three RBIs. He also had four strikeouts. Early in his career he was strikeout-prone (for the age), but had seen his strikeouts steadily decrease over the seasons.

In 1920 he was having an excellent year when the scandal broke. He took full advantage of the “lively ball” and hit .338 with a .923 OPS. He had 14 home runs, 40 doubles, and 115 RBIs in 142 games. All were career highs. But the breaking scandal cost him the rest of the season and banishment after his trial cost him the remainder of his career.

Back in Milwaukee he played some outlaw ball, sued for reinstatement to the Major Leagues, played in Canada, worked as a grocer, soda store operator, saloon keeper, and crane operator. In other words, he did what he could to make ends meet as his baseball skills diminished and his lack of education kept him in working class jobs. When Eliot Asinof began writing “Eight Men Out”, Felsch was still alive. He agreed to interviews and became one of the book’s leading sources. He died of a coronary blood clot in 1964, apparently no longer a “Happy” man.

“You Lied To Me, Eddie”

January 20, 2012

Eddie Cicotte with some guy named Ruth

In the wonderful baseball movie “Eight Men Out” there’s a scene involving Eddie Cicotte (David Strathairn) and Ring Lardner (John Sayles). Cicotte swears the White Sox are clean and Lardner, desperate to believe him, accepts him at his word. Later, when it becomes evident the fix is in, Lardner comments to himself “You lied to me, Eddie.” In many ways Cicotte is the key figure in fixing the World Series. It’s a lot easier to throw a game if the pitcher is in on it. And in 1919, Cicotte was the team ace.

Born in 1884 in Michigan, Edward Cicotte left school before graduation to work as a box maker and support his widowed mother and his siblings. And before I go any further, there’s the little matter of how the family name was pronounced. I’ve heard it See-Cot, Suh-Coat-e, Suh-Cot, and even Sha-Coat-e. If anyone knows which he used would you please place it in the comments below and tell us how you know that’s correct? I’d love to know. Now back to the main point of all this.

By the early 1900s, Cicotte was pitching in the Minor Leagues in his home state. He was picked up by Detroit, spent a summer in Augusta, Georgia (Ty Cobb was a teammate), then went to Detroit in September 1905. He was 1-1 (the win coming ironically enough against the White Sox) with a 3.50 ERA. That cost him a trip back to the minors where he stayed until Boston picked him up for the 1908 season.

His Boston years were nothing spectacular. In five seasons he was 52-46 with a 2.69 ERA (not bad, but not great for the age).  He did develop an array of pitches that insured he could stick in the big leagues. His major pitch was a knuckleball, and he is credited with being the first great knuckleballer. He also developed a “shine ball”. He would pour talcum powder on his pant leg, then  rub the ball against his pant leg before throwing it. This made one side shinier and rougher than the other and was supposed to help the ball move (not to mention providing an occasional cloud of talc around the mound). No one’s quite sure how it really worked, but apparently it did.

He was traded in mid-1912 to Chicago, thus missing the Red Sox run to the World Series title (I couldn’t find a reference as to whether he got a partial Series winners share or not). He hit his stride with the White Sox, becoming, along with Red Faber, the team ace. He won 20 games three times (and lost 19 once) and threw a no-hitter in 1917. He picked up an ERA title in 1917 and had ERA+ numbers ranging from 99 to 186. In the 1917 World Series he went 1-1 with a 1.57 ERA, 13 strikeouts in 23 innings, gave up two walks and had a WHIP of 1.087 (remember those numbers when we get to 1919).

In 1919 Cicotte won 29 games, led the American League in winning percentage and innings pitched, then went on to post a 1-2 record in the World Series. In 21.2 innings he gave up five walks, struck out seven, surrendered seven earned runs (2.91 ERA), and posted a WHIP of 1.108. Those numbers aren’t significantly worse than the 1917 numbers, but the subtle difference makes a world of difference in winning and throwing a World Series.

Cicotte was having a decent year in 1920 when the Black Sox scandal broke. He was summoned before a grand jury in Chicago where he admitted to helping fix the 1919 World Series for $10,000 cash up front (he used much of it to pay off a mortgage on his farm). As with the rest of the Black Sox, he was acquitted by a jury but Judge Landis banned him from the Major Leagues for throwing ballgames. He played outlaw ball for a few years then became in turn a game warden, the owner of a service station, and an employee of Ford Motor Company. He retired to his farm in 1944 and raised strawberries. He died in Detroit in  May 1969, not long after opening day fifty years after he threw the 1919 World Series.

A common thread among the Black Sox is how much they hated Charles Comiskey and how badly he treated them. In Cicotte’s case Comiskey is supposed to have ordered the manager to hold Cicotte out of games so he couldn’t obtain a bonus if he won 30 games in 1919 (he won 29). Maybe it’s true, but there’s a minor problem with it. In 1917 Cicotte started 23% of ChiSox games. In 1918, it’s 24% and in 1919 it’s 25%. That makes it sound unlikely that Comiskey was actually holding Cicotte out of games to save a bonus, especially as Chicago only won the pennant by 3.5 games (and it’s a short season, only 140 games played). I’m not sure what happened here, but I don’t find it a mitigating factor for Cicotte.

My Top List of Terrible Owners

September 19, 2011

Where these guys belong

Baseball is full of terrible players and coaches. I guess it’s not fair to call any player who makes it to the Major Leagues “terrible”, but there’s definitely a lot of players that are at best marginal. And coaches and managers can be real duds. But somehow owners tend to get overlooked by casual fans. Most people don’t seem to pay much attention to the impact of ownership. Well, baseball has had some really awful owners too. Here’s my Mount Rushmore (4 guys) of terrible owners in no particular order.

Charles Comiskey: The only owner who ever had his team mutiny to such an extent it was willing to dump a World Series. Ultimately the players themselves must take blame for their own actions, but Comiskey did more than his share to help them along with their choices. Comiskey was cheap, but so was Connie Mack. What Comiskey lacked was a shred of respect for his players, and that makes him lower on the ownership scale and thus higher on the Rushmore scale. And I’m not sure I understand it exactly. Charles Comiskey was a former player, actually a pretty good one. He was first baseman and manager of the St. Louis Browns team that won pennant after pennant in the 1880s. Having been a player, having seen the tussles with ownership and the league offices, I find it strange he seems to have had no sympathy at all for the plight of his players. Maybe it was an “I went through it, so can you” attitude. Maybe he was just a jerk. Whatever it was he gets a spot on my Mount Rushmore. And for what it’s worth, although Clifton James doesn’t look at all like Comiskey, his portrayal of the White Sox owner in “Eight Men Out” is pretty close (except that the flat champagne episode occurred in 1917, not 1919).

The Robison Brothers: Because there were two of them, the Robison brothers occupy two spaces on Mount Rushmore. Frank was the older brother. He married the daughter of the man who ran the Cleveland, Ohio streetcar company, Charles Hathaway. Today that doesn’t sound like a way to make a great deal of money, but in an era without subways, cars, or buses, the streetcar was the quickest, easiest way for someone to get across town to see the doctor or go to work or whatever. So the Robison’s made a lot of money, a whole lot of money. Very early on Frank brought in younger brother Stanley to help run the business. Between them they got very rich. Frank Robison was also a baseball fan (as was Stanley to a lesser degree). He decided that Cleveland should have a big league team and in 1887 he started up the Cleveland Blues, later renamed the Spiders. They joined the National League the same year. Mostly they weren’t very good. In 1892 that changed. Among other things, they picked up (the year before) a youngster named Cy Young who seemed to have some potential. It was the year of the first split season. Cleveland won the second half, then lost the playoff to Boston. In 1895 and 1896 they played for the Temple Cup, winning in ’95. It was the apex of the team and so far so good for the brothers as owners. But the Robison’s had a plan to make more money. In 1898 the National League forced St. Louis owner Chris Von Der Ahe to sell the Browns. The Robison’s bought the team. In 1898 it was legal to own two teams. It was called “syndicate baseball” and there were three of them, including the Robison’s. With St. louis being a much larger market (4th largest US city at the time),  the Robison’s immediately began stripping the Cleveland team of its best players and sent them, Cy Young included, to St. Louis. The Browns didn’t do any better and the Spiders were awful. At the end of the year, the NL shut down the team. Frank died in 1908, leaving Stanley in charge. In 1905 Stanley had tried his hand at managing the team. He went 19-31 (which was better than Ted Turner’s foray into managing). Now in charge, Stanley proceeded to watch his team continue to flounder. He died in 1911, leaving the team to Frank’s daughter.

The Robison’s make my Mount Rushmore because of their callous disregard for the fans and the city that made them, Cleveland. They had gotten rich off Cleveland and then they caused the town to lose its team and its finest players. Did it bother them? Apparently not. And they didn’t make St. Louis any better in the long run. The team went from last to fifth (but they had two rosters, theirs and Cleveland’s to use), but then stagnated topping out at fourth in 1901. About the only positive thing the Robison’s did was to change the uniform color from brown to cardinal red, thus giving the team its current nickname, Cardinals.

Emil Fuchs: Fuchs was the Giants attorney. In 1922 he joined with Christy Mathewson in buying the Boston Braves. Mathewson’s ill-health put Fuchs in charge. He proceeded to run the team into the ground. He knew nothing about baseball other than what he’d picked up as attorney for the Giants, couldn’t evaluate talent, couldn’t be bothered with the small details of keeping up a stadium. In 1928 he bought Rogers Hornsby as manager, found a way to make money, and sold Hornsby the next season to the Cubs. With no manager, he tried his hand at running the team on the field himself. They finished dead last. In 1935, out of money, unable to pay rent on the stadium, he bought Babe Ruth from the Yankees. He promised Ruth a vice presidency, a managerial job, and a share of the profits. Well, there were no profits, the vice presidency was nominal, and Fuchs admitted he wasn’t going to fire his current manager, Bill McKechnie  (who ended up a Hall of Fame manager). Ruth, not unreasonably, quit. At the end of the 1935 season, broke, short of players, out of options, Fuchs sold the team back to one of the men he’d bought it from in 1922.

So there they are, my four Mount Rushmore lousy owners. There are a lot of other people available; Arthur Soden who destroyed the great Beaneaters dynasty of the 1890s, Arthur Freedman who almost managed to destroy the Giants before John McGraw got there, Harry Frazee who sold away a rejuvenated Red Sox, Earle Mack who almost destroyed his dad’s Athletics, Frank McCourt who is currently destroying the Dodgers, the guys who’ve run the Royals and Pirates into the ground. And a host of others too. But for my money, these four are the guys I’d least like to see run my team.

The Player-Manager

September 15, 2010

 

Solly Hemus

Baseball changes all the time. Some of the changes are immediate and noticable, like changing the pitching distance in 1893. Some are more subtle. No one seems to have realized what changing the strike zone in the 1960s would do to offense. Other things just seem to drop out of use without much fanfare. Player-Managers are like that. Once upon a time there were lots of them. Now there hasn’t been one since Pete Rose hung up his glove in 1986.

It actually makes since that there should be a lot of Player-Manager’s in the early days of baseball. Small rosters, limited talent pools, poor conditions make for having one man responsible for running the team and holding down a position. Harry Wright played center field for the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings. He also managed the team. So the tradition goes back a ways and carries on through players like Cap Anson and Charles Comiskey who both held down first base and managed in the 1880s.

Further, the expansion of Major League baseball from eight to 16 teams in 1901 meant that more managers were needed and the talent pool was small. So what better way to pick up a manager than to assign one of the players the managerial job (and toss in a couple hundred bucks for his troubles)? In 1901, four of the eight American League managers were player-managers. In the more established National Leage three of eight managers were player-managers. This trend continued for most of the Deadball Era (although not in those proportions). If you look at just the World Series, player-managers rule for much of the Deadball Era, especially early. Between 1901 and 1912 at least one team was managed by an active player in each Series except two. In both of those, 1905 and 1911, John McGraw faced off against Connie Mack. But in 1903 player-manager Jimmie Collins won. In ’06 it was Fielder Jones; in ’07 and ’08 it’s Frank Chance. In 1909 Fred Clarke played left field and managed Pittsburgh, in 1912 it was Jake Stahl as both first baseman and manager for Boston.

The rest of the Deadball Era saw a continued use of player-managers, but they were being less successful. Between 1913 and 1920, only Bill Carrigan at Boston in both 1915 and 1916 (44 games played in ’15, 33 in ’16), and Tris Speaker in 1920 were player-managers who led their team to the World Series (each happened to win). In the 1920s Rogers Hornsby in 1926 and Bucky Harris in 1924 were successful player-managers. In the 1930s you get something  of a rebirth with Bill Terry, Frankie Frisch, Charlie Grimm, Joe Cronin, and Gabby Hartnett all winning pennants (although Grimm, Cronin, and Hartnett’s teams all lose). The 1940s, a time that, because of a lack of players, should have produced mostly managers who were done with playing in the field gave us only Leo Durocher and Lou Boudreau as successful player-managers. It it should be noted that both had their greatest success on either side of the war. Boudreau became the last player-manager to win the World Series. The trend away from player-managers continued into the 1950s. Solly Hemus was at St. Louis in 1959 (he got into around 30 games), and appears (I may have missed one or two) to have ended the tradition until Pete Rose shows up in the 1980s.

So why did the tradition end? I’ll be honest, I’m not certain. I have some guesses, and that’s all they are.

1. As teams got more professional, a full-time manager was necessary.

2. Expanding rosters made it difficult for part-time managers to spend the time necessary to address the needs of individual players, especially bench players.

3. Once you get beyond 1910, full-time “professional” managers are almost always more successful than player-managers.

4. It’s easier for a full-time manager to act as a buffer between players and press than it is for a player-manager.

5. Full-time managers don’t have to worry about their individual stats, other than win/loss record.

I’m sure there are others. Feel free to add your own to the list.