This day in baseball: Charlie Grant

On March 11, 1901, John McGraw, manager of the American League’s Orioles, attempted to surreptitiously integrate the major leagues when he signed Charlie Grant.  McGraw tried to pass off the black infielder as a Cherokee Indian named Tokohoma. When the team later traveled to Chicago, however, McGraw’s ruse was uncovered by Charles Comiskey, who recognized the second baseman’s true identity.  Grant maintained his disguise, claiming that his father was white and that his mother was a Cherokee who lived in Lawrence, Kansas.  McGraw initially persisted with the scheme, but later claimed that “Tokohama” was inexperienced, especially on defense. Grant returned to the Columbia Giants of the Negro Leagues and never played in the major leagues.

Charlie_Grant

Charlie Grant (Wikipedia)

 


This day in baseball: Comiskey established in Chicago

Owners of the emerging American League met on December 22, 1899 in an attempt to strategize a way to substantiate themselves in the face of an already-established National League.  As part of their strategy, they decide to place a team in Chicago with Charles Comiskey as the owner-manager of the club.

Charles_Comiskey

Wikipedia


Eight Men Out, by Eliot Asinof

I finished reading Eliot Asinof’s Eight Men Out this past week, the latest book assignment in my baseball literature class.  It proved itself an eye-opening book.  While I possessed a working familiarity with the Black Sox scandal of 1919, Eight Men Out goes into great detail regarding the various individuals involved in the scandal and how the whole thing might have gone down.

Amazon

Amazon

Charles Comiskey’s Chicago White Sox were already a divided team going into the 1919 season.  Half the team was uneducated, from relatively poor backgrounds, while the other half came from more affluent families, with the ability to afford the luxury of an education.  Thus the division in the team formed.

As a whole, the White Sox players did not get paid as they felt they should have been paid, as Comiskey was a notorious tightwad.  Granted, all baseball owners during this time did not give ballplayers their due, thanks to the reserve clause.  But considering that he owned what was arguably the best team in baseball, Comiskey was the worst offender of all.  He even went so far as to refuse to pay for the laundering of team uniforms.

According to Asinof, it was Chick Gandil, the White Sox first baseman, who first approached his gambling friend Sport Sullivan with the idea for the fix.  Thus the labyrinth of mistrust, ill intentions, and back-stabbing began, and it continued to grow as more players and more gamblers became involved in this get-rich-quick scheme that involved the manipulation of the American pastime’s championship series.  Asinof chronicles the games of the Series, describing sketchy plays and performances.  He also details what I can only presume are his perceptions on the thoughts of the players and gamblers involved, including the growing uneasiness of Joe Jackson and Buck Weaver, as well as the concerns of Eddie Cicotte and Chick Gandil that they would be double-crossed by the gamblers.  The White Sox lost the World Series five games to three to the Cincinnati Reds, and the players involved in the fix never received the full amount of money they had been promised.

In spite of the large number of people involved in the fix, and even in spite of an awareness by Kid Gleason (the White Sox manager) and Charles Comiskey himself that something was not quite right about the Series, nothing happened for almost a year.  Finally, however, in the wake of a fix between the Cubs and the Phillies, the 1919 World Series came into the national spotlight.

Signed confessions were given by Lefty Williams, Joe Jackson, and Eddie Cicotte.  The eight players involved in the fix — Williams, Jackson, Cicotte, Gandil, Swede Risberg, Happy Felsch, Fred McMullin, and Buck Weaver — were put on trial before a Grand Jury.  Interestingly, however, none of the gamblers were tried.  The players were found not guilty of conspiring to defraud the public.  In spite of this, the new Commissioner of Baseball, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, banished all eight men from baseball for life.

umkc.edu

umkc.edu

I thoroughly enjoyed Asinof’s account of the Black Sox scandal.  It is rich with detail and eloquently written, making it highly readable by the layman.  It reads more like a narrative than a history text — and really, I hesitate to use the word “history” with regards to this particular book.

One thing I learned in our discussions about the book is that not all the details included are necessarily accurate.  For example, Asinof describes a threat that was laid on pitcher Lefty Williams and his family if he did not carry out his part in the fix.  However, Asinof later admitted that he invented this particular anecdote as a way of being able to tell if anyone was using his material.  More importantly, Asinof does not cite his sources in the book.  There are no footnotes, no bibliography.  As I previously mentioned, his accounts of the thought processes of the players and gamblers appear to be largely speculation, as we cannot determine his sources for these descriptions.

In class, the professor challenged us to think about who is to blame for the 1919 World Series fix.  Charles Comiskey?  The players?  The gamblers?  The media?  But really, there is no hard and fast answer to this question.  While it does seem that Comiskey deserves the largest part of the burden, Asinof’s book clearly shows that there is nothing clear about this scandal.  Charles Comiskey was not the only team owner who underpaid his players, the gamblers and the players all knew the immorality of their conspiracy to throw the Series, and the media hesitated to break the story even when they suspected something was going on.  At the end of the day, the Black Sox scandal shows us that no one is immune to the temptations that easy money presents.  It is a tragedy, no doubt — a devastating blow to the game of baseball and to the American public.


“You Know Me Al,” by Ring Lardner

Last week in baseball literature, we read Ring Lardner’s novel You Know Me Al.  This story was actually first written as a series of fictional letters published in the Saturday Evening Post beginning in 1914.

goodreads.com

goodreads.com

The letters are written by Jack Keefe, a ballplayer who, at the book’s start, has made it to the Major Leagues as a pitcher for the Chicago White Sox.  He writes home to his good friend Al Blanchard in Bedford, Indiana about his experiences.  As a reader, you pick up very quickly from the myriad of misspellings and usage issues that Jack is uneducated, gullible, and a bit of a rube.  It also doesn’t take long to realize that, in spite of this, Jack is rather full of himself.

Jack’s first round in the majors does not go very well, and he is quickly sent back to the minors.  In spite of his coaches insisting that he needs to learn to field his position and to hold baserunners, Jack stubbornly insists that he already knows how to do all that.  As the professor for my class points out, Jack is a thrower, rather than a pitcher.  At the end of the day, the only thing that seems to save his baseball career is his ability to throw a fastball.

Jack does make his way back to the White Sox organization, though it remains difficult to ever take him seriously as a ballplayer.  He has no respect for the likes of Ty Cobb or Walter Johnson.  He does manage to do well enough to boast of a 10-6 record at one point, although he insists that his six losses are the fault of his teammates while his ten wins are completely his own doing.  One of his coaches, Kid Gleason, tries, but fails miserably, to guide Jack, insisting that he work on his weak spots and that he take better care of himself physically.

Off the field, it seems that everybody goes out of their way to take advantage of Jack’s ignorance and gullibility.  Charles Comiskey continuously dupes him during contract negotiations.  His teammates trick him into picking up the tab during a night out.  He marries a girl named Florrie who becomes pregnant with what may or may not be his child.

In truth, I spent much of the book coping with a desire to punch every one of the characters in the story, including Jack himself.  Jack is unabashedly rude to everyone he interacts with, including those who are trying to help him.  He also proves that he is little more than a coward, often threatening to punch someone in the jaw, but never carrying out the deed.

It would be nice to be able to point to a fairy tale ending to this book, but with this set of personalities, I’m sure Lardner found such an ending impossible.  Rather, the story ends with Jack, after much waffling back and forth, taking off for Japan on an exhibition tour.  There is no true conclusion, the book simply ends.

In spite of my frustration with the characters, You Know Me Al nevertheless proved itself an enjoyable read.  I polished off the book over the course of a weekend, eager to find out what kinds of messes poor Jack would get himself into next.  It’s an easy read, and it’s not difficult to see why it was so popular even in its time.


This day in baseball: Comiskey Park is born

Ground broke on February 10, 1910 for the construction of Charles Comiskey’s new “Baseball Palace of the World,” located in Chicago at the corner of 35th Street and Shields Avenue.  This palace was to be a concrete and steel stadium, built to replace the outdated South Side Park.  Originally named White Sox Park, the stadium opened on July 1, 1910 and soon became known as Comiskey Park.  The stadium was particularly spacious, with dimensions of 362 feet down each line and 420 feet to straight-away center field.  The first night game in Chicago was played at Comiskey Park on August 14, 1939.

Comiskey Park under construction in 1910 (Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum)

Comiskey Park under construction in 1910 (Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum)


The Black Sox scandal

“Shoeless” Joe Jackson.  Eddie Cicotte.  Buck Weaver.  Claude “Lefty” Williams.  Fred McMullin.  Arnold “Chick” Gandil. Oscar “Happy” Felsch.  Charles “Swede” Risberg.

These are the men known today as the “Black Sox.”  Accused of deliberately throwing the 1919 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds, these men were tried and acquitted of criminal charges.  Unfortunately for them, however, acquittal was not enough to save their careers.  They were banned from baseball for life.

Black Sox players pictured with their lawyers (Photo source: University of Missouri – Kansas City)

Having acquired outfielder Joe Jackson, second baseman Eddie Collins, and centerfielder Happy Felsch in 1915, the Chicago White Sox had put together one of the most successful teams in baseball.  They won the 1917 World Series, and during the 1919 season had the best record in the American League.  They won the AL pennant and were the favorite to win the nine-game World Series.

Surrounded by so much success and promise, what could possibly possess these players to even consider throwing away the championship series?  It has been suggested that the reason lies with the White Sox founder and then-owner, Charles Comiskey.  A lot of professional ballplayers during this period were underpaid (especially according to today’s standards), and this was particularly the case with the White Sox.  In spite of his dedication to and success in building a strong baseball team, Comiskey was notoriously stingy.

During this period, players were bound to their teams by the “reserve clause,” which forbade them from switching teams without the owner’s permission.  As a result, players had no leverage when it came to negotiating their salaries.  Comiskey took full advantage of these circumstances, dishing out as little as possible as far as player salaries and team management.  For example, on top of their low wages, Comiskey required players to pay for the laundering of their uniforms.  When the team protested by refusing to wash their uniforms, allowing them to grow dirtier and dirtier for several weeks, Comiskey responded by removing the uniforms from their lockers and fining the players.

(Photo source: U-S-History.com)

Then, on 18 September 1919, White Sox first baseman Arnold “Chick” Gandil met with gambler Joseph “Sport” Sullivan, who convinced him that the World Series could be “bought,” and that such a fix could prove to be immensely profitable.  It wasn’t long before Gandil was joined in the plot by the other members of what would be known as the “Black Sox.”  Those involved in the scandal had salaries of $6,000 or less, which was at the low end for a team that was already underpaid overall.  It’s not hard to see how these players could be drawn into such a scheme, in spite of its illegality.

The gamblers are said to have bet nearly half-a-million dollars in favor of the Reds winning the Series while agreeing to pay the eight White Sox players $100,000 to split.  Once divided, that meant that each player would take home two to three years’ worth of pay.

Naturally, the players hoped that the arrangement would remain a secret, but a large number of people were involved just to make the plan work, and as folks hinted to their friends about who to bet on, word quickly spread.  When the World Series concluded, rumors and complaints ran rampant in protest against the “fixed” World Series.  By the end of 1920, the “Black Sox” nickname had become well-known, and the players were indicted.  The trial proved to be a bit of a circus, however, as evidence went missing and testimonies blurred the story more than they cleared things up.  The players were cleared of criminal charges.

In spite of their acquittal, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who was charged with investigating the scandal and became the first Commissioner of Baseball, was not entirely convinced of the Black Sox’s innocence.  In a statement, he declared,

“Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player who throws a ballgame, no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ballgame, no player that sits in conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing a game are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.”

The players were banned for life.  Most of the Black Sox confessed to their involvement in the scandal (it is unclear as to how many actually did so), but on behalf of one who did not, controversy sprang up.  Joe Jackson’s involvement in throwing the Series continues to be a topic of many debates among baseball fans.  Jackson hit .375 during the Series, which certainly goes against the idea that he was intentionally playing below his ability.  Some have argued that Jackson’s best games of the Series were the ones that the players were not intentionally trying to lose anyways.  According to some reports, Jackson did make an effort to back out of the fix, but still collected $5,000 at some point during the Series.

“Shoeless Joe” Jackson (Photo source: SABR.org)

Without a doubt, the Black Sox scandal had a negative impact on baseball’s image.  Landis’s decision to ban the players, followed by a crusade he led against gambling of any kind in baseball, helped to regain the confidence of fans and restore baseball’s place in American culture.  Nevertheless, it is an event that has and will continue to live on in the minds and hearts, not just of baseball fans, but of American history in general.

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Sources:

Everstine, Eric W.  “1919 World Series: Black Sox Scandal.”   Montgomery College.  Gaithersburg, Maryland, 1998.  Web.   Accessed 19 July 2013.  http://www.montgomerycollege.edu/Departments/hpolscrv/blacksox.htm

Fleitz, David.  “Shoeless Joe Jackson.”  SABR Biography Project.  Society for American Baseball Research.  2013.  Web.  Accessed 20 July 2013.  http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/7afaa6b2

Linder, Douglas.  “Famous American Trials: The Black Sox Trial, 1921.”  University of Missouri – Kansas City (UMKC) School of Law.  2010.  Web.  Accessed 18 July 2013.  http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/blacksox/blacksox.html

“The Black Sox.”  The Chicago Historical Society.  1999.  Web.  Accessed 18 July 2013.  http://chicagohs.org/history/blacksox.html