Posts Tagged ‘Lefty Williams’

Before the Sox Turned Black: the Chisox

June 20, 2017

“Pants” Rowland

A lot of people who know about the 1919 Black Sox and throwing the World Series don’t know that it wasn’t the first Chisox pennant winner. They’d won the very first American League pennant in 1901 and followed that up with a World Series victory in 1906. More to the point of the Black Sox, they’d also won a pennant in 1917, two years before infamy, and 100 seasons ago this year.

Manager Clarence “Pants” Rowland was a former minor league catcher who’d managed long enough to get the attention of the White Sox. For those curious, the nickname came from his childhood when he wore his father’s trousers while playing ball. He took the reins of the Chicago American League team in 1915 and stayed through 1918 (he was fired in a disagreement with ownership). He led his team to 100 wins. They led the AL in runs scored, triples, stolen bases, OBP; were second in both walks and slugging; and third in batting average, home runs, and hits. The staff was first in ERA, shutouts, and allowed the fewest walks; second in runs allowed; and third in strikeouts.

The infield consisted of Chick Gandil at first, Hall of Famer Eddie Collins at second, Buck Weaver at third, and Swede Risberg at short. If they sound familiar, they’re the same four that were the primary infield in 1919. Collins led the group with a .289 average, one of only a handful of times he hit under .300. He also led the infield in most other offensive categories (doubles, triples, runs, even RBIs). His 128 OPS+ was third among all starters and his 5.0 WAR was second among non-pitchers. And of course, being Collins, he led the team in stolen bases. Gandil and Weaver both hit above .270 and Weaver’s OPS+ was 110. His WAR was 2.9, while Gandil checked in at 1.2. Risberg was only 22 and new to the big leagues. He wasn’t a particularly great shortstop, even with the lower fielding numbers of the era, and managed to hit all of .203 with only a 76 OPS+ and -0.3 WAR. Fred McMullin was the only backup infielder to play more than 20 games. He primarily substituted for Weaver at third and for Risberg at short. He hit .237 with 14 RBIs.

The primary outfield consisted of four men playing three position. Right field was a platoon situation between right-handed hitting Shano Collins (no relation to Eddie) and lefty Nemo Lebold. Leobold hit .236 while Collins hit .234 and had the only home run. Between them they had 41 RBIs, 25 doubles, 160 hits, and 206 total bases. Leobold’s WAR was 1.2 and Collins was absolutely average with 0.0. Center fielder Happy Felsch led the team in hitting at .308 with an OPS of .755 (OPS+ of 128), had 4.7 WAR, and was considered a superior outfielder. So was left fielder Joe Jackson (“Shoeless Joe”). He hit .301, had five home runs (Felsch had six) and 82 RBIs (to Felsch’s 99) had an .805 OPS, an OPS+ of 143, and led the hitters with 5.8 WAR. Backup outfielder Eddie Murphy (obviously not the modern comedian) got into 53 games, hit .314, had a 135 OPS+, and produced 0.3 WAR.

Ray Schalk and Bird Lynn did almost all the catching. Hall of Famer Schalk hit .226, had both home runs, all five triples, and 12 of the 14 doubles. Lynn hit .222. Schalk produced 3.0 WAR but only had an OPS+ of 89. Schalk was a fine backstop. In a league where the caught stealing rate was 45%, he was at 54%, having caught 101 of 186 base stealers.

They caught a small, but competent staff. Dave Danforth was one of the first pitchers designated for use as a reliever. He’d played some before, but by 1917 was a main cog in Chicago’s pitching. He had a 2.65 ERA over 50 games (nine starts) and 173 innings (obviously not a modern closer). He struck out 79 (but walked 74), gave up 155 hits, 51 earned runs (one homer), and had nine saves (retroactively figured). It was one of the first big relief seasons. Four men started 20 or more games. The ace was Eddie Cicotte (of 1919 infamy). He was 28-12 with an ERA of 1.53 (ERA+ of 174) with seven shutouts, 150 strikeouts, and a team leading 11.5 WAR. Hall of Fame pitcher Red Faber was 16-13 with 84 strikeouts and 85 walks over 248 innings. His ERA was 1.92 with an ERA+ of 139 and 2.6 WAR. Reb Russell was also under 2.00 in ERA (1.95) with 54 strikeouts in 185 innings and 4.2 WAR to go with a 15-5 record. Twenty-four year old Claude “Lefty” Williams (also of 1919 infamy) was the youngest hurler. He was 17-8 with an ERA of 2.97 and 1.5 WAR over 230 innings.

The Chisox managed, in 1917, to break the Boston stranglehold on the AL pennant. They would face the New York Giants in the World Series (I did something on the Giants a week or so ago, so look down the page for them.). Because of American League domination in the recent Series’ Chicago was favored to win.

 

 

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Opening Day, 1913: American League

April 3, 2013
Walter Johnson (later than 1913)

Walter Johnson (later than 1913)

In 1913, the American League opened its season one day later than the National League. Opening Day was 10 April. Among other games it saw Philadelphia win its first game of the season.

Although the Red Sox were defending World’s Champions, Connie Mack’s Athletics were the loaded team. The 1913 A’s boasted the “$100,000 Infield” of Stuffy McInnis at first, Jack Barry at short, and Hall of Famers Eddie Collins and Frank Baker at second and third. Of outfielders Rube Oldring, Amos Strunk, Eddie Murphy (obviously not the modern comedian), and Jimmy Walsh, only Oldring was older than 25 (he was 29) and only Walsh hit below .280. Jack Lapp and rookie Wally Schang shared catching duties with Schang being much the better hitter. Aging Danny Murphy was solid of the bench. It was a strong team that looked good for many years. They had won the 1910 and 1911 World Series and finished third in 1912. The fall back was primarily because of the pitching. Ace Eddie Plank was 37 and former ace Jack Coombs was ill from typhoid. There was nothing wrong with Chief Bender, however, and he managed 21 wins with a 2.21 ERA and 13 saves. The A’s would win the pennant by 6.5 over Washington and beat up on the Giants in the World Series, winning four games to one.

The Senators would finish second primarily because they had Walter Johnson and no one else did. Johnson had a season for the ages. He went 36-6, had an ERA of 1.14, struck out 243 men, and ended with an ERA+ of 259. It got him the pitching triple crown and the AL’s Chalmers Award (an early form of the MVP). The Chalmers lasted four years (eight total awards) and Johnson is the only pitcher to win one. Washington’s top hitter was probably Chick Gandil, who became infamous in the 1919 Black Sox Scandal.

Defending champ Boston would finish in fourth (Cleveland was third) 15.5 games back. Tris Speaker hit in the .360s but the pitching collapsed. Notably, Smoky Joe Wood went from 34 wins to 11.

Ty Cobb won another batting title, hitting .390, while Baker won both the home run and RBI titles. Collins led the AL in runs, while Cleveland’s Joe Jackson had the most hits.

1913 saw a number of rookies who would make their mark. On 28 June Wally Pipp played his first game for the Tigers. He would anchor first base for the initial Yankees pennant winners before losing his position to Lou Gehrig. Hall of Fame outfielder Edd Roush made his debut on 20 August with Chicago. On 4 August Cleveland brought up Billy Southworth. He was an okay players, but made the Hall of Fame as a manager. Finally on 17 September Detroit brought Lefty Williams to the Major Leagues. He would eventually lose three games while helping the 1919 White Sox throw the World Series.

“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.

“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.

Game Six: The Manager Makes a Move

July 28, 2011

I don’t know anyone who claims game six of the 1981 World Series was a great game. Neither do I. It is, however, a good way to look at one of my obsessions, the effect a manager really has on a game.

Bob Lemon as Yankees manager

1981

Game six of the 1981 World Series occurred on 28 October in Yankee Stadium. The Los Angeles Dodgers had a 3 games to 2 lead on the Yanks and sent Burt Hooton to the mound. He was 0-1 for the Series. He faced former Dodgers ace Tommy John (of elbow fame).  John was 1-0. New York broke through in the bottom of the third when Willie Randolph homered off Hooton. The Dodgers responded by tying up the game in the top of the fourth.

The turning point of the game was the bottom of the fourth. With one out Graig Nettles doubled. The second out failed to advance him.  Eight hitter Larry Milbourne was walked intentionally, bringing up John. John was pitching reasonably well. He’d given up six hits, but only the one run and struck out two with no walks. Yankees manager Bob Lemon decided to pull him and send up a pinch hitter. Lemon decided that he wanted to get ahead in the fourth and let the bullpen take over. So he sent up Bobby Murcer to pinch hit. Murcer flied to right to end both the inning and Tommy John’s participation in the World Series. I remember being surprised at the time by Lemon’s decision. I also recall the announcers being stunned by the call. John was furious and you could see his frustration in the dugout. As an aside he was traded late the next season.

Lemon brought in reliever George Frazier to face the Dodgers. Frazier had been in two previous games, lost both, and given up four runs in just over three innings. In other words, the Dodgers could hit him. They did. They tallied three runs in the fifth to take a 4-1 lead and coasted from there. They added four more in he sixth and one in the eighth to win the game easily 9-2 (the Yanks got a late run in the sixth) and Frazier joined Lefty Williams of the 1919 Chicago White Sox as the only pitcher to lose three games in one World Series (and Williams, of course, was trying to lose).

I’ve spent a lot of time on this site trying to fathom the role of the manager. How really important is he? How much of a team’s success is talent? That sort of thing fascinates me. I still don’t know the exact answer to that, but this is one time when a managerial decision truly changed a game. John had done well in his other game, was doing well in this one, while Frazier had been awful. But Lemon made the change and things fell exactly as a Dodgers fan would want. Obviously down 3-2 Lemon wanted to take advantage of a situation and try to get a lead, a victory, and a chance at game seven. He can be faulted for taking out John, but the major mistake, it seems to me, was inserting Frazier. By the way, I don’t fault Lemon for using Murcer as the pinch hitter (although Murcer went 0-3 with a sacrifice in the Series).  Anyway, it came back to haunt Lemon in the game and later. He lasted fourteen games into the 1982 season before being fired. He never managed again.