Thursday, September 24, 2015

Old Roman Myths

A few years ago I wrote the following for a baseball website regarding the event known as The Black Sox Scandal, where eight members of the Chicago White Sox took part in a conspiracy with gangsters to throw the 1919 World Series:
One could delve into the motivations of the players to "play ball" with the gangsters, but most likely the biggest was resentment of their parsimonious boss, Charles (The Old Roman) Comiskey.... They say (Comiskey) was so cheap, he made his players clean their own uniforms which led to the rebellion where the team played in dirty uniforms, hence the moniker, "Black Sox." Comiskey paid his players well below market value, knowing full well that baseball's reserve clause prevented them from playing for another team and negotiating a better deal. Legend has it he benched his star pitcher Eddie Cicotte on the eve of winning his 30th game of the 1919 season, and collecting his $10,000 bonus for doing so...
Few would argue with what I wrote as it's generally accepted that much of the blame for the players' actions lay at the feet of Comiskey, the owner and founder of the Chicago White Sox baseball team. Comiskey is popularly regarded as the stingiest of baseball magnates, whose players made a fraction of what players on other major league teams were paid. It's also widely accepted that the"unscrupulous" Comiskey knew the fix was on during the World Series, but did nothing to stop it as he didn't want to risk exposing himself and his investment to shame, scandal, and ruin.

These themes pop up virtually everywhere you look up the story of the 1919 White Sox.

A team that will forever live in infamy, the 1919 Chicago White Sox

But just as the case with Ty Cobb, of whom I wrote a few months ago, it appears that the recorders of history of the past fifty years or so, myself included, have given old Charlie Comiskey a raw deal. Also like Cobb, much of the negativity about him springs from one source. In Comiskey's case, that source is what many believe to be the definitive work on the Black Sox Scandal, the 1963 book Eight Men Out by Eliot Asinof. That book would later be made into a popular film with Asinof along with director John Sayles writing the screenplay.

Eight Men Out the book is very detailed in chronicling the events surrounding the scandal, however it must be treated as a historical novel as the narrative weaves between fact and fiction. The book and especially the film depict Comiskey as a real bastard; imagine a pre-redemtion Ebeneezer Scrooge mixed with old man Potter and Simon Legree without the good side, and you get the picture. It's not surprising that Asinof, a dedicated left wing, anti-authoritarian writer/journalist, whose street-cred includes having been blacklisted for a time in the fifties, would include a character like this in one of his novels, all of which center around the struggle of the working class against the injustices of society. Asinof's Comiskey perfectly jibes with the stereotypical turn of the twentieth century robber-baron capitalist pig whose puts his own profit above all else. The character is the perfect foil for working class heroes, (in this case the players), struggling against the Man, (as represented by Comiskey). Eight Men Out doesn't exonerate the players, they clearly are guilty, well most of them according to Asinof, of accepting money in exchange for playing to lose the World Series. But the implication is that their existence under the employ of Charles Comiskey was so desperate, they had no other option. The players' ultimate fate, banishment from the game of baseball, is treated as the ultimate injustice.

It makes for a compelling story and the book and film are well made and entertaining. Unfortunately, the generations of folks who have read the book and seen the movie are unaware that they are works of fiction, especially Asinof's one dimensional depiction of Comiskey. This includes scores of storytellers who have used Asinof's work as the jumping off point for telling their own version of the 1919 team and its boss.

Curiously, the forward of Tim Hornbaker's 2014 biography, Turning the Black Sox White: The Misunderstood Legacy of Charles Comiskey, begins where I began my piece on Ty Cobb, with a quote from Daniel Okrent, as seen in Ken Burns's epic 1994 fantasy titled, Baseball.

Here's what Okrent, who apparently was cast by Burns to be the judge, jury and executioner of people's reputations has to say about Comiskey:
(The White Sox players) were abused horribly by Charles Comiskey, who was a man of small mind, tight fist, and a nasty temperament.
The author of the forward to Hornbaker's book, baseball historian Bob Hoie, goes on to quote other notable writers who have uncharitable things to say about Comiskey. Not surprisingly, all of them promote the idea that it was Comiskey, not the players should have been banned form the game. Hoie then goes on to point out that virtually everything mentioned in these comments comes straight out of the novel, Eight Men Out.

Hoie has done significant research on the scandal, studying documents that have been unearthed since 1963 when Asinof wrote his book. Among the material were thousands of contact cards which contain information on player salaries, bonuses and modifications to player contracts that occurred during each season.

The popular assumption is that, in words taken from the Ken Burns movie:  "no team played better than the Chicago White Sox...and few were paid as poorly." Well it turns out that Comiskey's teams actually carried some of the highest payrolls in the majors for the time, more than 20 percent higher for example than their 1919 World Series opponents, the Cincinnati Reds, the team that Ken Burns erroneously claims was "better paid but far weaker." Eddie Cicotte for example, when you tack on signing and performance bonuses (not including the $10,000 bonus he was allegedly promised by Comiskey) on top of his regular salary, was second only to Walter Johnson in earnings for pitchers in 1919. Catcher Ray Schalk, not one of the conspirators, ended up being the highest paid catcher in the majors and the sixth highest player overall in the majors. In terms of comparison, the Reds' Heinie Groh, arguably a better third baseman the Buck Weaver of the Sox, after all was said and done, was paid ten percent less than Weaver.

Then there was Joe Jackson, one of the greatest hitters in the game who made a paltry salary of $6,000 per year. The reason for that amount is that he was in the middle of a multi year contract in Cleveland when his contract was purchased by Comiskey in 1916 from the Indians. Comiskey was under no obligation to change the terms of that contract, so quite reasonably, he did not. When the US entered World War I late in 1917, the government declared that all men not employed in occupations essential to the war effort were eligible for the draft. This included ball players. Three weeks into the 1918 season Joe Jackson, whose draft status was bumped up to 1A, chose to defect from the White Sox in favor of working, but mostly playing ball for one of these "essential" businesses, the Harlan Shipyards in Wilmington, Delaware, and convinced two other Sox players, pitcher Lefty Williams and backup catcher Byrd Lynn to join him. If there was one thing Comiskey would not tolerate, it was disloyalty. To him, Jackson's act amounted to nothing more than mutiny for the sake of draft dodging, in his words:

I would be willing to give up every player on my squad if they wanted to do their duty by their country, but can't bear to see any of my men going to the ship yards, where they do a little work and draw a lot of money.

Nineteen members of the White Sox organization did end up going to war and one of them, a young prospect by the name of Leo Constantineau, died.

Armistice was signed in November 1918 and by then the fans had forgiven Jackson and Williams of their transgressions. The new Sox manager Kid Gleason talked a still skeptical Comiskey into accepting the two players back onto his team in 1919 for only slightly more money than they were making before they jumped the team.

One of the moore memorable scenes in the movie Eight Men Out was a confrontation between pitcher Eddie Cicotte and Comiskey. Cicotte asked for the $10,000 bonus Comiskey allegedly promised if he won 30 games that year. Cicotte stood at 29 wins but had been benched for several weeks by the team allegedly to "rest his arm" for the World Series. Comiskey coldly told him that "29 wins is not 30" and denied the bonus. This was the final straw for Cicotte who at that very moment decided he would participate in the fix. Incidentally, the book places the incident of the bonus offer two years earlier in 1917.

In either case, Hoie makes a very good case that the story of the bonus is pure fiction. For starters, bonuses that exceeded a player's salary were simply unheard of at the time. Furthermore, checking the records for the two seasons, in 1917, Cicotte did not miss any starts at the end of the season and ended up with 28 wins. In 1919, when he was at the 29 win mark, Cicotte asked for and received time off  from the team to go home to do some work on his farm in Michigan. After two weeks, the Sox requested he re-join the team as they had yet to clinch the pennant. He pitched one game but was removed in the seventh inning as the team was down 5-2. That would be his last game of the regular season. Given his need for money (he was deeply in debt), had Cicotte been one win short of a $10,000 bonus with a few weeks to go in the season, it seems highly unlikely that he would ask to be excused before getting the chance to win his prize.

In a similar vein, Hoie and Hornbaker dispel virtually all the other legends involving Comiskey's penuriousness, including the tale of the origin of the "Black Sox" appellation coming from their dirty uniforms.

Unlike Eight Men Out, Hornbaker's Comiskey biography is a scholarly work, thoroughly foot-noted, and especially different from Asinof's work, somewhat tedious. The author goes through Comiskey's life, season by grueling season, including his playing days in the late 1800s with the old St. Louis Browns (today's Cardinals). The Comiskey portrayed in this biography is anything but nasty, small minded and tight fisted. He was gregarious and well liked, especially early on. The only real character flaw in the man is exposed in his mercurial relationship with Ban Johnson, his partner in the creation of the American League. Originally the two men were as close as you could get, but their friendship was strained eventually to the breaking point by then American League President Johnson's rulings against club owner Comiskey and his team. Hornbaker describes Comiskey as petty, bullheaded and stubborn in his reaction to Johnson's edicts. By 1919, the two men were for all intents and purposes bitter adversaries. Comiskey experienced a good deal of suffering in his life, beginning with the premature deaths of two of his closest brothers and several close friends, all within a small period of time. His own fragile health as well as that of his wife and son were a constant struggle and it must be noted by the mid 'teens, his personality had soured considerably as a result.

It's not mentioned in this biography, but I think it is likely that much of Comiskey's business acumen was developed early on during his time in St. Louis under the owner of the Browns, Chris von der Ahe. Von der Ahe was quite the character, a German-born barkeep who got into the baseball business after discovering that he sold copious amounts of beer after ball games. He bought the Browns and with the help of Comiskey as player/manager, made the team a champion and a huge financial success. Unfortunately for von der Ahe, he became a little too full of himself and his success, (in broken English he famously referred to himself as "der poss bresident of der Prowns"), and lost his fortune almost as quickly as he found it. In his later years he depended upon the charity of Comiskey in the form of a monthly assistance check. One can imagine that Comiskey's most valuable lesson from von der Ahe was learning everything not to do as an owner, especially when it came to holding on to his money.

It's true that Charles Comiskey as a boss was no Old Fezziwig, but he was no Scrooge either. Every spring he spared no expense by sending his players off in style on first class private trains to spring training. Comiskey was especially good to his customers, the fans. Despite taking a tremendous hit to his profit margin, Comiskey refused to raise ticket prices to the levels of his counterparts in the major leagues. He said:
When we came to Chicago we wanted those 25 cent admissions. Those bleacherites made this new plant (Comiskey Park) possible. Baseball has grown but the pocketbooks of some of our friends haven't. Never while I'm living will their space be cut down. The fellow who can pay only twenty-five cents to see a ball game always will be just as welcome in Comiskey Park as the box seat holder.
And never during his thirty year tenure as owner and president of the White Sox did Charles Comiskey raise ticket prices.  In 1910 he built the ballpark on the south side of Chicago that would bear his name for eighty years, but was originally dubbed the "Baseball Palace of the World", so rich in amenities it was, (at least by 1910 standards) even for the twenty five cent fans. As a result, the White Sox constantly outdrew other franchises, including their Chicago rivals the Cubs in the early years of the twentieth century, despite fielding many teams that failed to make it out of the second division.

As someone who actually played the game, Comiskey was intimately aware of the players' concerns, and especially their worth. In contract negotiations, at times he offered players more money than they requested. It's true that more often he rejected demands he considered excessive. When his great star pitcher Ed Walsh demanded more money than Comiskey thought he deserved, Comiskey gave Walsh a flat out no. Walsh held out in the beginning of the season and Comiskey called his bluff. Walsh blinked first and was back within the fold soon enough.

Were the players who took money to throw the 1919 Series dissatisfied with what Charles Comiskey paid them? Probably, after all, how many people do you know who are satisfied with the amount of money they make? But the notion that Charles Comiskey dealt with his players unfairly or differently than of his fellow owners is a myth, as is just about everything else we have been led to believe about him and his relationship to the 1919 scandal.

Charles Comiskey in happier days, 1916
The truth is that Charles Comiskey was one of the pioneers of the game of baseball. As a player he was an innovative first baseman, one of the first if not the first player in that position to play off the bag in order to prevent ground balls from going into the right field for base hits. He continues to be in the record books as one of the all time leaders in stolen bases.(1)  He was a very successful player/manager in St. Louis and along with his on again off again friend Ban Johnson, was one of the fathers of the American League, whose founding ushered in the beginning of the Modern Age of baseball, and a period of unprecedented stability in the game. He created one of the charter organizations of that league, a team with a glorious, if not a winning history. The one dark spot was a season of much promise which was destroyed by the greed of several unscrupulous men. That greed not only destroyed the baseball careers (justifiably in my opinion) of seven ball players (2), but it also came close to destroying Comiskey who could never come to terms with the betrayal of his players. He lived another ten years, essentially a broken man.

Comiskey, a native Chicagoan, loved this city and gave back to it in spades. He offered up his stadium free of charge to any worthwhile cause brought before him. Tickets to games were handed out gratis to servicemen and schoolchildren. Hornbaker quotes Al Monroe of the Chicago Defender as saying:
Half of the churches on the South Side that had risen from store fronts to magnificent buildings had been aided in their climb through gifts from Mr. Comiskey.
Comiskey was also a proud supporter of many progressive causes such as Women's Suffrage and labor unions.

Despite all that, Charles A. Comiskey was demonized as a villain, a man who symbolized everything that was wrong with American capitalism in the early twentieth century.

Having been reduced to a plot device by an author with a clear political agenda, but few facts to back it up, Charles Comiskey's good name and reputation were all but destroyed. Most people today only know the man as the mythical tyrant created by Eliot Asinof.

Just this morning I ran into an old friend who is a life-long White Sox fan. I pulled out my copy of the Hornbaker book with a picture of Comiskey surrounded by one of his early White Sox teams on the cover. My friend took one look at the picture and said: "Oh THAT old prick." I told him about the book and the new revelations about him. Somehow I don't think he bought into it.

Wouldn't you know it, we have such a hard time letting go of our heroes and especially our villains.

(1) In the nineteenth century, stolen bases were recorded differently than today as base runners who took one extra base than the batter, (i.e.: taking two bases on a single or three on a double), were awarded a stolen base.

(2) First baseman Chick Gandil, the supposed leader of the eight players who were part of the conspiracy, retired after the 1919 season, so his banishment from the game did not affect his career, as a player at least. 

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