Posts Tagged ‘Eliot Asinof’

“We Don’t Want Any”

January 27, 2012

Lefty Williams

In the movie “Eight Men Out” there is a wonderfully subtle scene between Swede Risberg (Don Harvey) and Lefty Williams (James Read). Risberg is pitching the fix to Williams when we hear the voice of Williams’ wife (Nancy Travis) ask who’s at the door. Williams responds it’s a salesman and the wife replies that Williams should tell him “we don’t want any.”  It’s subtle because Risberg is actually selling something: the fix. Mrs. Williams is, in a throw off manner, offering excellent advice.  Every time I see the movie I mutter to myself, “Listen to your wife, Lefty.” He never does.

Claude Williams was born in Southwest Missouri in 1893. There seems to be a general belief that the 1919 White Sox were split along geographical lines with the Southerners and the Northerners squaring off in some replay of the Civil War. Ain’t so. Only Joe Jackson was from the South. None of the others were from anywhere near the South except for Williams. He was from one of those border states that tore itself apart during the 1860s. Four of the counties in deep southwest Missouri were evacuated and turned into something like a free fire zone by the Federal Government during the Civil War. The idea was that anyone found in those counties was a bushwhacker and subject to immediate arrest and/or execution. After the war the returned citizens in those counties became some of the biggest supporters of anti-government rebels (and general thugs) like Cole Younger and Jesse James. Williams’ family, from Aurora, came from one of those counties. I don’t know how seriously they identified with the South, but I suspect it had an impact on their son.

Williams became one of the rarest of baseball commodities, a good left-handed pitcher. He played semipro ball in Springfield, Missouri, starred in the Appalachian League, and was picked up by Detroit in 1913. He wasn’t an instant success going 1-4 over two years and picking up a save. He had a good curve, but neither his control nor the curve were what the Tigers wanted. They sent him to Sacramento after one game in 1914. He spent the rest of the season there, then slid over to Salt Lake City for 1915. He pitched well enough in Salt Lake (33 wins and 294 strikeouts) to get the attention of the White Sox.

He debuted in Chicago in 1916 and was a lot better than he’d been at Detroit. With better control and a wicked curve he became a staple of the ChiSox staff. He was 30-15 over two seasons, pitched a lot of innings, but didn’t finish many games. In the 1917 World Series he pitched in one game (one inning). He gave up a run on two hits and struck out three.

In 1918, he joined Jackson, his roommate, and others doing Naval shipyard work in lieu of joining the military. I’ve hit this before in other posts, so I’m not going into detail about it here. He was back for 1919 and won 20 games for the first time (23). He was third in innings pitched, first in games pitched, and for the only time in a full season had an ERA+ over 100 (121). The Sox went to the World Series for the second time in three seasons. Williams started and lost three games. In 1920 he was off to a 22-14 start with a huge ERA and led the American League in home runs allowed when the Black Sox scandal broke. Along with the other players he was acquitted by a jury but banned by baseball.

Williams, as with the rest of the Black Sox, played outlaw ball. He continued playing through 1927. He moved to California and opened a landscaping business and nursery. It was reasonably successful and provided both financial stability and a life away from the harsh glare of the scandal. He died in 1959.

There is a story in Asinof’s “Eight Men Out” that a gambler threatened Williams the night before game eight that the gambler would shoot Williams’ wife if Williams survived the first inning (it’s also in the movie). Asinof, years later, admitted he made up the story to catch plagiarism. I guess that’s so. The story always worried me, but you never know. In my book, Williams has been one of the more sympathetic figures in the Black Sox Scandal (at least as far as any of these jerks can be sympathetic). He seems to have agreed to throw the World Series, gotten a little cold feet, overrode them and decided that the money was good, eventually overriding his conscience. I have to admit that I’ve done that too (overrode my conscience, not thrown the Series). Still, Lefty, you shoulda listened to your wife.

“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.