Wednesday’s Book Review: “Turning the Black Sox White”

pMLB2-18953670dtTurning the Black Sox White: The Misunderstood Legacy of Charles A. Comiskey. By Tim Hornbaker. New York: Sports Publishing, 2014.

The dominant interpretation of Charles Comiskey was established for most in the United States by  Eliot Asinof in his 1963 book 8 Men Out, made into a superb movie of the same name by John Sayles in 1988. It emphasized Comiskey’s penny-pinching, capricious, and obnoxious ownership of the Chicago White Sox American League franchise as THE reason for the players on his team throwing the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. This book takes on that interpretation and presents a convincing alternative to that dominant interpretation.

Tim Hornbaker offers a fine biography of Charles Comiskey from his time as a star first baseman with the St. Louis Browns in the 1880s to the establishment and building of a powerful American League team, the Chicago White Sox. The Browns ran away with the pennant in 1885 and won the American Association championship each year between 1885 and 1888 under Comiskey’s leadership. When he first came to St. Louis from the Dubuque Rabbits minor league team, Comiskey received a measly $90 a month. Comiskey worked wonders with the team then demanded, and received, top pay of $5,000 per year. During that four-year period when the St. Louis Browns were the rulers of the American Association, they played post-season series with the winners of the National League pennant, although the term “World Series” had yet to be dreamed up. The Browns tied Chicago’s White Stockings (3-3-1) in the 1885 World Series and defeating them four games to two the next year for the American Association’s only Series triumph over their NL rivals.

In his post-playing years Comiskey helped to found the American League, and built the White Sox into one of its powerhouses. His teams won pennants in 1901, 1906, 1917, and 1919, and the World Series in 1906 and 1917. Of course, the White Sox would have won the 1919 World Series except for a betting scandal in which eight players were implicated for throwing the series. The so-called “Black Sox” have forever been tied to Comiskey and his reputation has suffered through it.

As presented in this very convincing book, Comiskey has received a bad rap. He was presumably an imperious, penny-pinching, aristocrat. He was anything but. He was a self-made man; he had a commitment to presenting quality baseball to the masses for a reasonable price. He paid his players reasonable money, the White Sox had one of the highest team salaries of 1919. There were 15 players in the American League with salaries of $6,000 or more; five of them were members of the White Sox.

One of the most onerous criticisms of Comiskey in the Black Sox scandal was that he underpaid Eddie Cicotte, who went 29-7 in 1919 and then denied him a promised $10,000 bonus if he won 30 games. To make matters worse, the legend is that Comiskey ordered Cicotte benched for the last part of the season so he had to no opportunity to win that 30th game. It was because of this that Cicotte agreed to throw the series; in return he received $10,000 from gamblers.

The problem with this story is that it is untrue. Cicotte had a $5,000 base salary and earned a $3,000 bonus in 1919. In 1918 and 1919, the years when Cicotte was a leading pitcher in the league, he earned $15,000 in salary and bonuses. Only Washington Senator Walter Johnson, clearly the best pitcher in the league, earned more at $19,000. There is no evidence that Cicotte was promised $10,000, and there is certainly no reason to believe he was benched at the end of the season.

So if Comiskey was not the skinflint rumored, what led the White Sox to throw the series? The answer, as Hornbaker makes clear, is both more complex and less easily understood. Each of the players had personal reasons for seeking the main chance with the gamblers. Chick Gandil wanted to go back to California and needed a stake; Cicotte had a garage and a new farm in Michigan and needed to resolve cash flow problems. Other players had differing reasons. None of those banned blamed Comiskey at the time for throwing of the series.

When reading this book I was reminded of my own work on Charlie Finley, owner of the Kansas City/Oakland As in the 1960s and 1970s, who was well known as a penny-pinching, capricious, and obnoxious owner whose players hated him. Some players hated him; some didn’t. Finley was not a penurious as some believed. He was also committed to making baseball available to larger numbers, and brought innovation to the game. One big difference between Comiskey and Finley: Comiskey is in the Baseball Hall of Fame but Finley is not. I believe Finley belongs there just as much as Comiskey.

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One Response to Wednesday’s Book Review: “Turning the Black Sox White”

  1. _OM_ says:

    …The answer is to finally split the difference. Pardon/Clear Shoeless Joe, admit him to Cooperstown, use it as the justification for a “Black Sox” exhibit with the agitprop geared towards “Kids, don’t gamble! Just spend your money on baseball cards and lousy bubblegum like a REAL American. And don’t hang around with gangstaz, or you’ll wind up getting screwed over like Shoeless Joe did, and he was innocent!”

    …Then you lobby for an Act of Congress calling for a Presidential Pardon for Pete Rose, which includes a POTUS directive for the Commish to either instate Pete in the HoF, lift the ban on his having anything to do with the Majors, and if he doesn’t like it, there’s always work selling overpriced hot dogs at one of the stadiums.

    Penalties must fit the crime. If players, coaches and medics only get a slap on the wrist over steroids, then gambling doesn’t deserve much harsher penalties. Period.



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