Posts Tagged ‘Charles Comiskey’

The Black Sox: Fact vs. Fiction

Friday, December 30th, 2016

Eliot Asinof’s 1963 book Eight Men Out provided the source material for the eponymous 1988 movie written and directed by John Sayles, who also played sportswriter Ring Lardner.  Starring Charlie Sheen, John Cusack, Bill Irwin, Gordon Clapp, Clifton James, Christopher Lloyd, Kevin Tighe, David Strathairn, and John Mahoney, Eight Men Out revived the debate about the involvement of eight White Sox players in fixing the 1919 World Series as part of a conspiracy engineered by gangsters.  Scandalized, the players suffer eternal banishment from Major League Baseball, thanks to a 1920 ruling by the newly installed baseball commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

Jim Murray, sportswriter for the Los Angeles Times, clarified the undercurrent of Eight Men Out.  “They say baseball pictures don’t make it at the box office,” wrote Murray.  “Well, this isn’t about baseball.  It’s about greed and ignorance and betrayal.  The Lou Gehrig story, it ain’t.  The actors are wearing baseball uniforms, but they could be wearing Roman togas.  Their story is universal, timeless.  It’s as old as Adam and Eve.  It’s an immorality play.  Man loses to temptation—again.”

Praising the aura in Eight Men OutChicago Tribune sportswriter Ed Sherman wrote, “With the exception of a few lapses into Hollywood sappiness, director/writer John Sayles does a nice job of sticking to the facts as recorded in Asinof’s book,”  He added, “Sayles captures the tension and ambivalence of the eight players as the conspiracy grew and was revealed.”

Sherman also commended ex-White Sox outfielder Ken Berry, the film’s technical adviser, for accuracy in the game scenes.  Citing Sayles’s need for “perfection,” Berry recalled a scene for Sherman involving Charlie Sheen, who played centerfielder Happy Felsch, one of the infamous eight players.  “We had a play where Charlie had to make a throw to the plate, and the runner was out, but the umpire called him safe,” Berry said.  “It was a bang-bang play.  We did 10 takes, and Charlie’s arm was about to fall off.  But on the 10th take, Charlie made the perfect throw.  That’s the way John wanted it.  He went out of his way to portray the game as it was.”

D.B. Sweeney strove for authenticity in his portrayal of Shoeless Joe Jackson, one of the greatest baseball players of all time, and, perhaps, the most vilified of the “Black Sox” of 1919.  Training with the Minnesota Twins’ farm team in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Sweeney greatly improved his baseball skills.  In a 1988 feature article about Sweeney in the New York Times, George Vecsey detailed the actor’s journey in playing Jackson.  Quoting Sweeney, Vecsey wrote, “The first week, I couldn’t do anything in the batting cage.  But I got a batting tee and set it up on the hotel, and after a week I started to make contact.  Don Leppert and Dwight Bernard were coaching there, and they helped me a lot.  Cal Ermer would come through and give me pointers.  By the time I left there, I had more power from the left side than the right.”

As with any movie concerning historical events, facts are sacrificed for artistic license, continuity, and time.  In the 1950 movie Jolson Sings Again, a sequel to 1949’s The Jolson Story, Larry Parks plays legendary performer Al Jolson.  Told about the interest in a movie about his life, Jolson dismisses the importance of factual accuracy in favor of his story’s emotional impact.

Eight Men Out replaces fact with fiction at several points in the story.

During a trial scene, White Sox owner Charles Comiskey testifies that he “informed [American League] Commissioner Ban Johnson” about the “possibility of a conspiracy.”  Comiskey explains that his suspicions occurred “shortly after the series began.”  However, he found “hearsay” after hiring private detectives.

Actually, the American League and the National League do not have commissioners; Ban Johnson was the American League’s president.  Further, James Crusinberry of the Chicago Daily Tribune reported that Comiskey “was not on speaking terms” with Johnson, so he approached National League President John A. Heydler after the first game because he believed his players fixed the series.

On September 26, 1920, Comiskey testified to this action.  Heydler confirmed it upon arriving in Chicago to testify.  “Commy was all broken up and felt something was wrong with his team in that first game,” quoted Crusinberry of Heydler.  “To me such a thing as crookedness in that game didn’t seem possible.  I told Comiskey I thought the White Sox were rather taken by surprised, that perhaps they had underestimated the strength of the Cincinnati team.

“The matter was dropped for the time.  That day the Reds won again and we moved to Chicago for the third game.  Comiskey called me on the telephone early that morning, and with John Bruce, secretary of the national commission, I went to his office at the ball park.  Once more he stated he felt sure something was wrong.”

Crusinberry added, “Comiskey also called Heydler into conference after the second game, more thoroughly convinced that certain White Sox players were trying to throw the games to Cincinnati.”

However, accuracy abounds in the scene regarding Comiskey’s initial belief that rumors of a fix did not amount to fact.  On December 15, 1919, I.E. Sanborn of the Chicago Daily Tribune quoted Comiskey:  “I am now very happy to state that we have discovered nothing to indicate any member of my team double crossed me or the public last fall.  We have been investigating  all these rumors and I have ha men working sometimes twenty-four hours a day running down clews [sic] that promised to produce facts.  Nothing has come of them.”

Another example of fictionalization involves White Sox player Dickie Kerr telling manager Kid Gleason that he saw Gleason pitch a no-hitter against Cy Young—Gleason never pitched a no-hitter.

Of course, the apocryphal quote “Say it ain’t so, Joe” is, perhaps, the best example of fiction replacing fact.  Eight Men Out would not be complete without depicting a kid expressing disappointment in Shoeless Joe Jackson and the White Sox.  The authenticity of this iconic quote is dubious, at best, because of the lack of evidence.  Nonetheless, it is part of baseball lore.

As a companion to Asinof’s book and the movie, Bill Lamb’s book Black Sox in the Courtroom: The Grand Jury, Criminal Trial and Civil Litigation analyzes the legal angles of the 1919 World Series fix.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on July 13, 2015.

The Innovative Charles Comiskey

Monday, December 19th, 2016

Decades before he elevated to the executive suite as owner of the Chicago White Sox, Charles Comiskey pioneered a fielding concept during his playing days.  Or so the legend goes.

After Comiskey died in 1931, a series of Chicago Daily Tribune articles examined his life, focusing, in part, on his playing and managing tenures.  In the article “Comiskey Worked as Train Butcher to Play Ball,” Irving Vaughan wrote of the 1880 season in Dubuque, “Commy conceived the notion that there was more to first basing than anybody had as yet realized.  He and Manager Ted Sullivan discussed the theory that a first baseman’s defensive value could be doubled if he could move away from the bag, thus protecting much of the vacant territory between first and second.  They put the theory to a practical test and found it a success.  That is, it was successful except in one particular.

“Commy discovered that by playing away from the bag he was able to field batted balls which ordinarily would have been safe hits.  But he couldn’t get over to the bag in time to retire the runner.  Necessity being the mother of invention, he and Sullivan figured out that a pitcher could cover the base.  After experimenting on this feature they decided it couldn’t fail.”

On the other hand, baseball historian David Nemec offers a contrasting view of Comiskey’s contribution to the first base position.  In Major League Baseball Profiles, 1871-1900, Volume 2, Nemec stated, “Historians traditionally have credited Comiskey with pioneering techniques such as playing a considerable distance off the bag, stretching to receive wide or high throws, and having the pitcher cover first on ground balls to the right side of the infield, but while none of these techniques was actually invented by him, his success at employing them popularized them to the extent that defensive play at 1B swiftly began to evolve into a more sophisticated style once he appeared on the scene.”

As a player-manager for the St. Louis Browns, Comiskey led his team to four straight American Association championships in the 1880s.  Moreover, he reshaped the team’s image.  “Under Comiskey’s strong hand the Browns shed their reputation solely as drunks and troublemakers and created a disciplined, aggressive squad that would win AA championships in his first four full seasons at their helm,” noted Nemec.

Comiskey embraced pugnacity as part of his style, though.  “Charlie Comiskey, the manager and first baseman for the St. Louis Brown Stockings, was a mild-mannered, cerebral man off the field, but on the field, he could act like a common thug,” described Peter Golenbock in The Spirit of St. Louis: A History of the St. Louis Cardinals and Browns.  “He played the game with a controlled aggression designed to ground the opposition into dust.  His focus was on victory, and he never permitted anyone to lose sight of the fact that he was there for one reason only: to win.”

In turn, the team’s performance reflected Comiskey’s leadership.  Golenbock stated, “Comiskey encouraged his players to try to intimidate the opposition any way they could.  He was a nineteenth-century role model for Leo Durocher and Billy Martin.  He encouraged his players to knock over an opponent in the field or on the base paths, and if you didn’t like it, that was just too bad.  On the base paths, Comiskey was a terror.  In one game against Cincinnati, Comiskey threw himself into second baseman John “Bid” McPhee, causing him to throw wild to first, enabling the winning run to score.  Ty Cobb, who came to the game twenty years later with a similar nasty disposition, had nothing on Comiskey.

“His players followed his example.  The next day Curt Welch did the same thing, throwing himself at McPhee ‘as if hurled from a catapult,’  Said Welch, ‘Well, we’re playing ball to win.'”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on March 19, 2015.