Posts Tagged ‘Judge Landis’

“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.


“In Conference with a Bunch of Crooked Players”

January 31, 2012

Buck Weaver

It had eventually to come to this post; the one on Buck Weaver. Of all the Black Sox he is the hardest to get a handle on when it comes to the scandal. His guilt is as certain as his innocence. And I know that sentence sounds silly, but if you look at the Black Sox issue, he can come across as either guilty or innocent depending on where you place your emphasis. As a rule, that’s not true of the others.

Born in 1890 in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, Weaver came from a steel town. He was neither a particularly good nor bad student, but he was a good ballplayer. By 1910, after stints in semipro and outlaw ball, he was in the Minor Leagues in Northampton, Massachusetts. He moved between Northampton; York, Pennsylvania; and San Francisco in a Minor League career that lasted two years. He was considered a good hitter and an excellent fielder.

In 1912 he made the Chicago White Sox as the starting shortstop.  He hit all of .224 and led the American League in both outs and errors made, but was considered a work in progress. And he did progress. Between 1913 and 1916 his average slid up and down, peaking at .272 in 1913. His OPS peaked in 1915 at .671. He was, however, becoming a good shortstop. He led the AL in putouts and assists in 1913 (and in errors). With the arrival of Swede Risberg in Weaver began a shift to third base, playing 66 games at short and 85 at third in 1916. By 1917 he was the team’s regular third baseman, a position he would hold for the rest of his career (although he still spent a lot of time at short).

In 1917, the White Sox won the AL pennant. Weaver hit .284, saw his OPS at .694, and had his OPS+ finally go over 100 (110). He also led all AL third basemen in field percentage. In the World Series he hit .333, and an OBP of .333 (obviously no walks), slugged .381, had an OPS of .714, scored three runs and drove in one. The Sox won in six games.

Weaver was one of a group of White Sox who played the entire 1918 season with the team. Despite World War I, he was neither drafted nor went off to do war work. He hit .300 for the first time, but OPS dropped. In 1919, he dropped back under .300 but established career highs in slugging percentage and OPS (although his OPS+ dropped to 99). He ChiSox won the pennant and lost the World Series in eight games. Weaver hit .324, had an OBP of .324 (again, the man simply refused to walk), slugged .500 and had an .824 OPS. He scored four runs, had four doubles, a triple, and no RBIs.

And it’s here we need to step away from the playing field and into a “conference with a bunch of  crooked players” (Judge Landis’ phrase). A group of White Sox decided to throw the World Series to Cincinnati and make a ton of money (by era standards). There were a number of meetings between the eight players (seldom with all eight present). Weaver was asked to join and did so. He seems to have immediately rejected the idea and had no part in the fix. He failed, however, to inform anyone else about what was going on. That would cost him dearly.

The 1920 season was a career year for Weaver. With the new “lively ball” he posted career highs in most categories. He hit .331, had an OPS+ of 107, and for the first time racked up 200 hits. He also continued to play well in the field. With only a few days left in the season, the Black Sox scandal broke. Weaver was implicated and thrown off the team. Tried with the other Black Sox, despite requesting a separate trial, he was acquitted. Then Landis brought down the hammer banning all players who participated in the fix. Then the last sentence included the following, “no player who sits in conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing games are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it will ever play professional ball.” It was aimed directly at Weaver.

Out of the Majors, Weaver played semipro ball, worked for the city of Chicago as a painter, ran a drug store (he was not the pharmacist), and dropped dead of a  heart attack on the streets of Chicago 31 January 1956, exactly 56 years ago. He was, despite repeated attempts, never reinstated to the Major Leagues.

Before making some general comments about Weaver, this is a good place to note how good the White Sox defense was rated. In contemporary account after contemporary account there is general agreement that the Sox were a superb defensive team. Gandil, Weaver, Jackson, and Felsch were considered in the top-tier of defense players in the American League, as were Clean Sox Eddie Collins and Ray Schalk. A quick look at team stats bears out that the ChiSox were among the elite fielding teams of the era and if you take the individual players and line them up against their opposite numbers, it’s generally true that the Chicago players are well into the upper echelon on defense. Accounts of the Black Sox scandal tend to generally focus on the hitting and pitching but as a team, the White Sox were pretty good defensively too.

My grandparents refered to knowing what to do and not doing it as a “sin of omission.” Weaver got caught up in something like that in 1919. In some ways we’re dealing with that right now in American sport. As I understand it, Joe Paterno was essentially accused of not doing enough in the Penn State scandal and that (not doing enough) is what got Weaver into trouble. Now I don’t want to compare the two incidents too closely, the specifics have almost nothing in common and the difference between the victims, a 10-year old in 2002 and a group of loud and sometimes obnoxious fans in 1919, makes the particulars totally unlike. And that leads to the question of how much sympathy to show towards Weaver. On the one hand, you’re taught to be loyal to your friends, but on the other hand there’s the question of knowing something is wrong and simply letting it slide. Ultimately I come down on the anti-Weaver side, but I certainly understand those who do not.

Having said all that, I agree with Judge Landis on banning those who are “in conference with a bunch of crooked players.” Making it a cause for banning was a shot across the bow of the players. Now even knowledge of a fix, not just the fix itself, was a banning offense. I’m not a big fan of Landis, but he got this one right.

“You’re in, Fred”

January 29, 2012

Fred McMullin

Without question the most obscure member of the Black Sox was Fred McMullin. I’ve always kind of wondered why he was involved at all. He was a sub and one not likely to play much in the World Series. The movie version of “Eight Men Out” has him overhearing the plot while in a bathroom and getting in at that point. Others say it was the locker room. Why not. In the movie, when McMullen (Perry Lang) tells Chick Gandil (Michael Rooker) and Swede Risberg (Don Harvey) he wants a cut, the response from Risberg is a simple “You’re in, Fred.” If Hollywood is right (and it usually isn’t),with that matter-of-fact line Fred McMullin slipped into infamy.

McMullin was born in 1891 in Kansas and moved to California at age 14. He graduated from High School, unlike most of his colleagues, played a little sandlot and semipro ball, and apprenticed as a blacksmith (the only one of those I found). He spent the early teens roaming from team to team in the Northwest League, a West Coast minor league that was a rung lower than the Pacific Coast League. It had a lot of ex-Major Leaguers in it so he picked up a lot of inside training from them. It earned him a one game tryout with the Detroit Tigers (he struck out in his only at bat and made an error in the field). That sent him back to the minors for 1915.

Chicago came calling for the 1916 season. McMullin got into 63 games at third base (and a handful elsewhere), hit .257 with three doubles, nine stolen bases, and 10 RBIs. He got into another 52 games as the backup third baseman in 1917. With the Sox in the World Series, he played all six games at third (Buck Weaver went back to shortstop because Swede Risberg, the regular shortstop, was in a terrible slump.). He hit a buck 25 with a double, two RBIs, a walk, and six strikeouts (and led the team in at bats with 24). Chicago won the Series and McMullin pocketed a nice piece of change.

With war raging in 1918, McMullin went back to being the regular ChiSox third baseman (Weaver went to short and Risberg to the Naval Shipyards), hit .277 with no power and few RBIs. By 1919 he was back on the bench spelling Weaver at third in 46 games. He got into two games in the World Series managing a single in two plate appearances. The hit was in game one, a game the Sox lost. The out occurred in the next game, another Chicago loss.

McMullin was back riding the pine in 1920 when the scandal broke. Interestingly enough, he was not placed on trial with the other seven Black Sox. I’ve been unable to find out exactly why. So he was neither charged nor acquitted in the scandal, but was banned by Judge Landis. Out of baseball he worked as a carpenter and eventually settled in as a deputy marshal in Los Angeles (I have to admit the irony here is stunning). He died of a stroke in 1952.

In many ways McMullin is the hardest of the Black Sox to figure out. He’s a substitute, a bench player, someone not likely to have much of an effect on the World Series, but he’s a major player in the plot to fix the Series. Some sources claim that once he was in, he became one of the ringleaders. I guess that makes his accidental entry into the plot sound more likely. But it also makes him seem more than just an innocent fluke. He comes off as an opportunist who had no problem with throwing a game.

Happy Talk

March 9, 2011

Happy Chandler

If you’ll take the time to go to The On Deck Circle (see blogroll at right), you’ll find an interesting article by Bill Miller about Bud Selig. It got me to thinking about the office of commissioner and about the men who held the job. Some of them did well, others not so much. If I had to pick the most underrated, and that’s hard to say because he made the Hall of Fame, it would be Albert “Happy” Chandler.

Chandler was born in Kentucky in 1898, attended Transylvania University in Lexington, and was in some ways a typical jock. He played baseball, football, and basketball, did some work in semipro baseball during the summers and graduated in 1921. He went to both Harvard and the University of Kentucky Law Schools, getting his degree from the latter (and to think I’m about to say some good things about both a lawyer and a politician, EEK!!!). He coached as an assistant in football at Center College in Kentucky while practicing law. In his autobiography he calls the period one of his favorite times. He had a new wife, the got to practice law, and he was still active in sports.

In 1928 he went into politics, running for the Kentucky state senate and winning. By 1931 he was lieutenant governor and in 1935 governor of Kentucky. He was 37.  A New Deal Progresive (which isn’t the same as a modern “progressive”), he got rid of the sales tax and prohibition. I always wondered how well prohibition went over in Bourbon County. Anyway, he was quite popular and in 1939 was appointed to the US Senate (the sitting Senator died in office). He was confirmed in office in a 1940 special election and elected to a full term in 1942. He supported the President and the war effort, although he favored attacking Japan first over Germany. He also began to look around to find ways to integrate the military. That came to nothing, but baseball came calling.

In 1944 Judge Landis died and baseball needed a new commissioner. In April 1945, Chandler got the job, resigning his US Senate seat for a higher calling. Because of his lack of a baseball background, he was controversial from the beginning (but remember Landis was a judge, not a sports executive). In 1947 he tossed Leo Durocher from the game because of Durocher’s perceived association with gamblers and “loose women” (there’s a gag here, but my wife tells me I shouldn’t use it on a family oriented blog). He tended to favor players in arguments with owners and was instrumental in setting up the first player’s pension fund. But overshadowing his entire term as commissioner was the issue of integration.

When Branch Rickey sent Chandler the contract for Jackie Robinson, there was instant opposition from most of the owners. They bluntly urged him to void the contract and as he was a Southerner they seem to have expected he would. In a secret meeting they voted 15-1 (Rickey being the one) against integrating the big leagues. Chandler steadfastly backed Rickey and Robinson and accepted the contract. He told Rickey that as a Senator he had seen black soldiers fight and die for the US and he was sure that “I’m going to have to meet my Maker some day. And if he asks me why I didn’t let this boy play, and I say it’s because he’s black, that might not be a satisfactory answer.”  The Robinson experiment was a success, but most everyone agrees it cost Chandler his job. When his term was up in 1951, he wasn’t rehired as commissioner. As a short aside, considering the reputation the South has when it comes to race, it’s surprising how many border Southerners (Chandler, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson) have been instrumental in shifting  race relations toward equality. Maybe it’s “border” that’s the key word. I dunno.

Chandler went back to Kentucky, won another term as Governor, where he enforced the Brown vs Board of Education ruling to integrate schools and helped set up the Medical Center at the University of Kentucky. He went back to law after the term ended. Although he threw his hat in the ring a couple more times, his political career, like his baseball career, was over. In 1968 George Wallace considered him as a Vice Presidential running mate, but chose another. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1982 and died in 1991.

Chandler’s Grave. Note mention of his baseball honors

Nobody pays much attention to Chandler anymore. If they do, it’s because of his connection to Robinson. But his ability to take the side of the players and his support of the pension system are almost as significant because they represent a departure from the commissioner’s normal position as spokesman for the owners (And I don’t mean to imply that Landis never went his own way. He did on occasion.). I don’t think Chandler gets enough credit for being a first-rate commissioner. If forced to rank the commissioners, I’d probably place Chandler second, right behind Judge Landis.

Why 1910 Matters

October 11, 2010

Since April I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time running all over the 1910 baseball season. Part of that is simply because it was 100 years ago and a centennial is worth remembering. It’s also because the season is interesting in itself. But primarily I’ve been focusing on the 1910 season because it is a watershed season for Major League Baseball. There are a lot of reasons why. Here are some in no particular order.

1. The appointment of Hal Chase as manager of the Highlanders (Yankees) is not, for managerial purposes, all that important. What is important is the ability of the owners and the National Commission (which ran baseball before Judge Landis) to look the other way when it came to gambling in the big leagues. Failure to crack down on this sort of activity meant that it was going to get worse and that eventually something like the Black Sox scandal was bound to occur. The players likely to participate in this kind of thing now had proof that not only were the powers that be not going to do anything about gambling,  but might actually reward a player if the situation was right. I don’t want to compare it directly with the steroid situation of the 1990s, but it does seem that Malamud was right, we really don’t learn from our mistakes (The book “The Natural”–not the movie–has this as one of its central themes.).

2. During the 19th Century the National Association, the Union Association, the American Association, and the Player’s League had all existed, as had the National League. By 1892 they were all gone. Only the American Association survived 10 seasons, and by the tenth was on life support. By contrast the American League, founded in 1901, was now ten years old and flourishing. The 1910 season marked a decade of success both as a business and on the field. Frankly, baseball had not had this kind of stability in its history. Ban Johnson had managed to create a new Major League and made it work. By 1910 there was no question the AL was here to stay and that the National League finally had a partner co-equal to it. 

3. The Athletics had created the first successful AL dynasty. From league founding in 1901 through 1910, four teams won all the AL pennants: Chicago (1901, 1906), Philadelphia (1902, 1905, 1910), Boston (1903-1904), and Detroit (1907-1909). None of the pre-1910 teams created a dynasty. OK, Detroit won three years in a row, but was defeated in all three World Series matchups, which is kinda hard to call a dynasty. Let’s be honest, dynasties work, especially if they happen to be your team. Baseball seems to do best in attendance and popularity when there is a dynasty. They give fans both a hero and a villain (depending on whether you like the team or not) and 3500 years of drama tell us that nothing  in entertainment sells like heroes and villains. On top of that, it was easy to like the A’s. Connie Mack was a nice enough human being (except when it came to paying his players–a common problem in the era). You hear very few negative comments about Eddie Collins, Frank Baker, or Stuffy McInnis. And in the case of  Chief Bender, he was a sympathetic figure to many fans because of all the racial riding he took (he was an American Indian). All those things went together to help boost attendance and cash.

4. The Cubs dynasty had come to an end. If one dynasty was born in 1910, another died. The “Tinker to Evers to Chance” Cubs had their last fling in 1910. Between 1906 and 1910 the Cubs dominated the NL. They won four of five pennants (losing in 1909 to Pittsburgh) and two World Series’ (1907-8). But 1910 was the end. In the Cubs Postmortem post I detailed what went wrong, so I don’t intend to do it again. But the loss of the Cubs dynasty is signficant because it allowed for a more wide open NL. If having a dynasty is good for baseball, having two isn’t. One league has to remain open for fans to believe their team has a chance to win. With the death of the Cubs dynasty hope could rise for other teams in the NL, notably John McGraw’s New York team, but also in the next ten years Boston, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, and Cincinnati would also win pennants (as would the Cubs in 1918). The end of the Cubs dynasty also ushered in the beginning of the Cubs mystique as the “loveable losers.” With only sporadic exception, the Cubs have been non-factors in the NL since.  After four pennants in five seasons, the Cubs have won the NL title exactly six times (1918, 1929, 1932, 1935. 1938, 1945). They are now a synonym for “loser”, a tradition that began with the end of the 1910 season.

5 The AL became the dominant league. I said earlier that the reasons 1910 mattered were in no particular order, but this one is last on purpose because it’s the most important. Between 1903 and 1909 there were six World Series matchups. The NL won four (1905, 1907-09) and the AL only two (1903, 1906). By 1910, the AL hadn’t beaten the NL in four years. All that changed in 1910. Take a look at the next ten years, actually 11 because I’m going to ignore the 1919 “fixed” Series. Between 1910 and 1920 inclusive the NL wins one untainted World Series, 1914. And it took a team known as the “Miracle Braves” to do that.  The AL won everything else: Philadelphia in 1910-11, 1913; Boston in 1912, 1915-16, 1918; Chicago in 1917; and Cleveland in 1920. And that kind of dominance continues in some measure all the way to 2010. Here’s the World Series wins by league by decade since 1910 (going from the zero year to the nine year to determine a decade, thus 1920-29, 1940-49, etc.) 1910-19: AL-8, NL-2 (including 1919), 1920-29: AL-6, NL-4, 1930-9: AL-7, NL-3; 1940-9: AL-6, NL-4, 1950-9: AL-6, NL-4, 1960-9: AL-4, NL-6, 1970-9: AL-6, NL-4; 1980-9: AL-5, NL 5, 1990-9: AL-6, NL-3 (and no series in 1994): 2000-9: AL-6, NL-4. In each decade except the 1960s, when the NL actually wins more World Series championships and  1980s when the each win five, the American League has won the more often. I think this is much more significant than the results of the All Star game which saw the NL have along period of dominance in the 1960s and 1970s. I’m not really impressed with winning an exhibition game. So the American League has been the superior league in most of the last 100 years, and that began in 1910.

I’ve enjoyed going over the 1910 season. I learned a lot, some significant, some trivial. I’ve begun to celebrate the players of the era more by having done this, and I consider that a good thing. Hope you enjoyed it.