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.
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