Book tells of a different kind of Comiskey
Author shares stories that run contrary to the legend of the 'Old Roman'
Everybody knows that one of the driving forces behind the 1919 Black Sox scandal was that the White Sox players were so upset with the penny-pinching ways of owner Charles Comiskey that they conspired with gamblers to throw the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds.
But what if what everybody knows is wrong?
That's the bold premise of Tim Hornbaker in "Turning the Black Sox White: The Misunderstood Legacy of Charles A. Comiskey." And with the patience of a defense attorney, he builds a compelling case.
To say that point of view is contrarian is an understatement. The Old Roman, as he was known, has been consistently vilified in popular works such as Ken Burns' acclaimed "Baseball" documentary and the book and movie "Eight Men Out" by Eliot Asinof.
Hornbaker documents numerous occasions when Comiskey went out of his way to show concern for the welfare of his players. As early as 1895, when he owned the St. Paul Saints of the Western League and organized a postseason barnstorming tour that went badly, he saw to it that the players weren't stranded even though he lost money on the enterprise. On numerous occasions, Comiskey bought players new clothes and handed out bonuses after big wins.
In 1903, as owner of the White Sox, it was written that Comiskey stayed in the hospital with catcher Bill Sullivan as he went through an operation for near-fatal appendicitis. In 1904, he gave a holdout player, Fielder Jones, more money than he would have gotten when he tried to defect, first to New York and then to an outlaw league, just to make sure there were no hard feelings. The following year another player, Frank Isbell, told the press, "I've stuck to Comiskey quite a while, and he has treated me squarely, always. I've learned that I can't do better than to stick as long as he wants me to."
On another occasion, a player named Martin Walsh told the Chicago Tribune: "I'd rather be canned by Mr. Comiskey than by any other man in the baseball business. He is the nicest man I ever met in my life." Which was interesting because Walsh's brother, "Big Ed" Walsh, was a White Sox holdout at the time.
Wrote Hornbaker: "During the course of his career as an owner, few athletes held out for larger salaries and most of the time, contract negotiations were swift and painless. If the issue of a raise came up, it was considered on a case-by-case basis, and Comiskey had shown willingness to compromise."
In this analysis, several more subtle influences combined to create baseball's darkest hour. The formation of the rival Federal League pushed salaries upward and gave players the impression that they were worth more than they were getting. That helped breed suspicion that all management decisions were made with an eye toward maximizing profits at their expense. Owners lamented the lack of loyalty from players who jumped their contracts for better deals elsewhere.
Players changed. Comiskey did, too. Health problems, both his own and those of his family, took an inevitable toll. Comiskey's once-stellar reputation was smudged after repeated battles with American League president Ban Johnson. After fulfilling a lifelong dream by winning the 1917 World Series, he was left searching for another challenge.
The '19 White Sox developed a reputation for being especially willing to follow the money. This chilling comment appeared in the Aug. 18, 1919, edition of The Sporting News from writer George S. Robbins: "The Sox are great money players. Show that gang a bunch of coin and they'll do almost anything except commit murder."
What is lacking is evidence demonstrating that Comiskey had anything to do with creating that culture.
What is shown is that Comiskey was anguished when he first got a whiff of the possibility that the Series had been fixed, and that he was more determined than anyone to find out the truth.
In the end, eight players were banished from baseball for life, including Shoeless Joe Jackson, who has become a romantic and sympathetic figure in the years that have elapsed. Comiskey is enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Jackson, despite occasional groundswells of support, remains barred.
Those who revile Comiskey see this as a gross injustice. After reading this book, they just might change their minds.