In explaining his messages to Comiskey, published recently, J.P. O'Neill, president of the Pittsburg Club, of the National League, says J.I. Rogers asked him to try and get Comiskey for the Philadelphia Club. He wired Comiskey to come and see him and bring King with him, as Pittsburg wanted King. The reply was: "Both are under contract." The day after Rogers' interview, in which he said O'Neill was unauthorized to negotiate with Comiskey, the Pittsburg president received a telegram from the Philadelphia magnate, saying that he hadn't authorized him to transact business by wire, but in person.
-New York Clipper, April 4, 1891
I'm not sure that O'Neill and Rogers really helped themselves with their explanations. I guess their real excuse here, unstated, is that, once they discovered that Comiskey and King were under contract, they ended negotiations. I think that future events will prove that to be untrue.
The charge of conspiracy against Pitcher Mark Baldwin, of the Pittsburg National League team, comes up for a preliminary hearing in the Court of Criminal Correction to-day. It is doubtful if it will go to trial, however, as Secretary Munson, of the Browns, is in Cincinnati organizing the Association club there, and President Von der Ahe will be busy at the Democratic primaries, he being a candidate for a place on the Council ticket.
I think, with this piece from The Sporting Life, some of what motivated Von der Ahe to press charges against Baldwin. Not only was Baldwin coming after Silver King but O'Neill, acting as an agent of the Philadelphia Club, was coming after Comiskey. So it's not just that Silver King might have been induced to jump his contract but that multiple League clubs were, essentially, raiding the Browns. And this was a year after Von der Ahe had lost most of his stars to the Players League. Von der Ahe was just in the process of getting his best players back and here he sees League clubs trying to steal them. There was nothing he could do to stop the defections to the PL but he wasn't going to stand around and watch the National League raid his club.
Charles A. Comiskey, owner of the Chicago White Sox, on the night of Monday, February 17, gladdened the heart of his old employer, Chris von der Ahe, who has a secure niche in base ball history as President of the famous St. Louis Browns, four-time pennant winners in the old American Association. Comiskey came from Chicago to visit Von der Ahe. He was met by Chas. C. Spink, who tried to inveigle him to a banquet. "I came down to see Chris von der Ahe," said Comiskey, "take me to him." Spink whisked Comiskey to Von der Ahe's home. "That's the same house in which Chris lived when he first signed me to play ball at $75 in 1882," said Comiskey, as the car drew up in front of a stone house Chris built in his palmy days. "This is the proudest moment of my life," said Von der Ahe, who physicians say is stricken with an incurable malady. "It certainly makes me feel good to think that you came here just to spend three hours with your old boss." "How are you fixed," asked Comiskey. "I've got a lot and a nice monument already built for me in Bellefontaine cemetery," replied Chris as the tears began to fall. Comiskey brushed away a tear too, and into the hand of his old "boss" the magnate slipped a check. Von der Ahe wept like a child and a physician signified that the visit must end. Comiskey will plan a benefit for Von der Ahe if the old boss is spared until the White Sox return from California.
The really interesting thing about this deathbed meeting between Von der Ahe and Comiskey is the mention of the statue at Bellefontaine Cemetery. We have no real idea when the statue was built and when it got to Bellefontaine. There are all of these stories about the statue standing outside of Sportsman's Park or New Sportsman's Park back in the 1890s but there is no contemporary evidence supporting that. It's likely just a myth. But here we can show that the statue was already at Bellefontaine Cemetery in 1913.
The Dubuque base ball team, the crack organization of the Northwest, came to grief at the Grand Avenue Base Ball Park, yesterday afternoon, the popular Brown Stockings adding another well-earned victory to their long list of triumphs this season. It was the best week-day attendance seen at the park thus far this year, and while the spectators were very impartial in distributing applause, it could be seen that they were gratified at the success of the home players. Recognizing the fact that the task on hand was a difficult one, the Brown Stockings presented as strong a team as they have placed in the field in many a day, Baker being the only absentee. McGinnis was in the pitcher’s square, Seward behind the bat, and the Gleason boys in their home positions. This is a rare sight in week-day contests, and one that lent confidence to the other members of the nine and the club’s many well-wishers.
This was kind of a reunion of the 1879 championship Dubuque club, with five of the members of that great team on the field in this game. The Gleason brothers, Charles Comiskey, Tom Loftus, and Ted Sullivan were all members of the club that won the championship of the Northwestern League. Loftus had also played a few games for the NL Brown Stockings in 1877. So I'm not surprised that this game drew a nice crowd. I know I would have liked to have seen it. It's a shame that they couldn't get Radbourn to come to town and take part in this.
This game is also historically significant. It was, as far as I can tell, the first time that Comiskey played in St. Louis. The following season, of course, he would be playing with Von der Ahe's new AA Brown Stockings and would go on to achieve great things in St. Louis. But his first time stepping onto the field at the Grand Avenue Grounds was in 1881 as a member of the Dubuque Rabbits.
"I expect to be on top again next season," said Chris, "and expect to have Charlie Comisky as manager and captain of the club. I am satisfied that he will re-enter my employ whenever I am ready to place him in charge of the club. Charlie built up the Cincinnati Club, only to be turned loose by John T. Brush the season the fruits of his years of labor began to ripen. I used to pay Commy $5000 and $6000 as my base ball captain. That's better than taking chances as an owner of a club in one of the minor leagues. Charlie is about ready to take this view of the matter. This will make it easy for us to get together when the right time comes.
It is rather sad to see a man like Von der Ahe, who was a such a baseball visionary, looking backwards with regret. All of his talk of hiring Comiskey is almost pathetic, in that Comiskey had out grown VdA and was in the process of implementing his own visionary plans. There was no chance that Comiskey would return to St. Louis to manage the Browns and Von der Ahe probably knew that. The invocation of Comiskey was really nothing more an appeal to remembrance and nostalgia. Those championship days were gone and there was nothing Von der Ahe could do to bring them back. All of it - the success, the championships, the glory, the money -had slipped away and all that was left was a sad man, filled with regrets, struggling to regain something he had lost.
The study of history, for me, has always been about people, rather than events. It's about humans rather than things. It's about how our ancestors and forefathers lived. It's about what made them different than us and, more importantly, what made them similar. By studying the history of something as common and familiar as baseball, we discover people like ourselves and can place ourselves and modern culture within a tradition that stretches back centuries. The past may seem alien but, by focusing on the common, we discover that the people who lived in that past were not necessarily different than ourselves.
While I love to read and write about the game on the field, it's really the story of the people who played the game that captures my imagination. It's the story of Edward Bredell, suffering through the siege of Vicksburg and dying, far from home, in the Shenandoah Valley. It's Henry Gratiot, forging a new life on the Illinois-Wisconson border. It's Asa Smith, trying to bring a vision to life. It's Chris Von der Ahe, coming from nothing and succeeding beyond his wildest dreams. I've had the pleasure of discovering details about so many fascinating people, from all walks of life, bound together by their love of baseball, and because of my own love of the game, I feel a kinship to these men. The research and writing that I do has never felt like work because I am constantly amazed, entertained, humored, saddened and awed by the stories of the ordinary and extraordinary people of the 19th century who were involved in building up the game of baseball.
Another area of historical inquiry that has always been important to me has been the pursuit of truth. Baseball history, especially its early history, is full of myths and legends and it takes a great deal of time and work to separate fact from myth. The stories surrounding the origins of the game, in general, and its origins in St. Louis, specifically, have left a muddle for historians to wade through in our efforts to discover the reality of how the game began. After a decade of inquiry, I still don't believe I've sorted through the muddle sufficiently and there is much more work to be done.
There has been decades of solid, fantastic work done by outstanding historians who have applied scholarly reason to the study of the game and yet we still find Abner Doubleday mentioned when people talk or write about the origins of baseball. Despite fantastic efforts, people believe that Jackie Robinson was the first black player in major league history. They believe that the Cincinnati Red Stockings were the first professional club and that Candy Cummings invented the curve ball. It has been the constant work of baseball historians to separate fact from fiction and to debunk legends in the pursuit of truth.
Turning The Black Sox White, a new biography of Charles Comiskey by Tim Hornbaker, combines both of these areas of historical study. It gives us a detailed and well-researched look at Comiskey as he was, warts and all, while at the same time debunking well-entrenched myths about Comiskey's role in the 1819 Black Sox scandal.
Anyone who has been a regular reader of this site probably knows that I am an admirer of Charles Comiskey. But, due to my peculiar interests, I most likely have a unique view of the man. To me, he has never been the man who founded and owned the Chicago White Sox or the man with his name on the stadium. To me, he has never been “the Old Roman.” Comiskey, in my imagination, has always been the young, athletic field manager of the Four Time Champion St. Louis Browns. I've always thought of him as an upright, honest leader of men – The Captain. That Comiskey was a great ballplayer, who finished in the top ten in total bases three times, in stolen bases four times, in runs batted in eight times and in fielding percentage nine times. I would make the argument that Comiskey earned his spot in the Hall of Fame based solely on his accomplishments as a baseball player in the 19th century.
But Comiskey was much more than a great baseball player, as Hornbaker makes clear. He was, without a doubt, one of the greatest baseball men who ever lived. The book does a fantastic job of describing Comiskey's fifty years in the game – as player, field manager, and owner. It highlights his role in the creation of the American League and as one of the driving forces behind the league's success. It is difficult to imagine the American League succeeding and becoming one of the two major leagues without Comiskey's work in establishing the Chicago White Sox as the league's most successful club.
While most of the focus of the book is naturally on Comiskey's time with the White Sox, Hornbaker does an admirable job detailing his time as a young baseball man in the 19th century. One of the highlights of the book, for me, was the chapter on Comiskey's time in Dubuque, as a player on Ted Sullivan's Rabbits. That Dubuque club was, in my opinion, one of the most interesting minor professional clubs of the 19th century and it's fantastic to see them get their due in print. Hornbaker also does an outstanding job describing the relationship between Comiskey and Chris Von der Ahe, which is rather rare in a baseball history. To my eternal delight, the book is extremely fair to Von der Ahe, who, even more than Comiskey, has suffered from a misunderstood legacy. Hornbaker should be applauded for seeing through the myths and legends surrounding Von der Ahe and portraying the man as he was – brilliant, flawed and human. Towards the end of the book, he includes the story of Comiskey's visit with the dying Von der Ahe and captures the emotion of the moment and what it meant to both men.
The live-long relationships that Comiskey maintained, as described by Hornbaker, are really at the heart of the book and at the heart of the man himself. In many ways, Comiskey was defined by his relationships with others. His marriage to Nan Kelley was obviously the bedrock relationship that sustained him more than any other and you get a sense of Comiskey as a loving family man through the lens of that relationship, as well as that of his relationship with his parents, his brothers, his son, his nephew and his niece. The friendships that Comiskey made and sustained over the course of a lifetime are also chronicled in the book and you come to understand the man through his relationship with Ted Sullivan, Ted Loftus and numerous others. The most important relationship described in the book was that between Comiskey and Ban Johnson and it's through the lens of this relationship that one can see the totality of Comiskey's personality, for good and ill. Hornbaker uses these relationships – with family, friends and community – to create a living and breathing characterization of Comiskey, rather than relying on myth, legend or cliche.
The central thesis of Turning The Black Sox White is that Comiskey has been demonized over the course of time, through his association with the 1919 Black Sox. Hornbaker argues that Comiskey has been made the villain of the story and, if all one knows of the scandal is the book and movie Eight Men Out, than he is certainly correct. One needs only go to the Wikipedia article on Comiskey or the Black Sox scandal to see this. The book does a fantastic job destroying the myth of Comiskey the cheapskate owner and notes, time and again, how much money Comiskey spent to buy players, how much he paid them and placing all of this in historical context. No one can read this book and come away with any other opinion except that Comiskey was a victim of the Black Sox scandal, which broke his heart and, essentially, ruined his health. The Comiskey of Eight Men Out is a myth with no basis in fact and Hornbaker has done a great service in destroying that myth.
The book is not without its flaws. It almost becomes tedious in its season-by-season account of Comiskey's life but it's a difficult task to write biography in anything but a chronological manner and, in the end, I almost found this year-by-year account of the ups and downs of the White Sox to be charming, as that was what Charles Comiskey's life was all about. He was a baseball man and he lived and died with his club. It's impossible to separate the man from the club and the travails of the club was the travails of the man. But, personally, I really don't need all that much information about a sixth place finish in 1910 to get to the heart of Comiskey's character.
I also think that there were several things left out of the book that would have improved it. The first was the refusal of the Browns to play the Cuban Giants in 1887 and, more specifically, Comiskey's reaction to it. My interpretation of what was one of the milestones in the drawing up of baseball's color line was that it wouldn't have happened if Comiskey hadn't been injured and away from the club. However, Comiskey did defend his club, to a certain extent, and it would have been interesting if Hornbaker had taken up the question of Comiskey's feelings towards African-Americans in organized baseball. I was actually a bit shocked that this event was not mentioned in the book.
Another thing left out of the book, and I believe that this is a much more serious flaw, is any sort of historical context with regards to the Black Sox scandal and gambling in baseball. The Black Sox were not the first club to throw a game and probably weren't the first club to throw a World Series. There is a long history of gambling and game-fixing in baseball going back to the antebellum era and it would have furthered the book's thesis if this was made clear. The Black Sox didn't throw games because of anything Comiskey did but, rather, because they believed they could get away with it. They believed that because players had been getting away with it for years. The idea to throw the World Series in 1919 was the culmination of a long-standing game-fixing tradition in baseball and the book would have been improved by pointing that out.
Also, the book fails to supply any sort of context for its use of baseball statistics. Hornbaker quotes the normal baseball card stats of batting average, runs batted in, home runs, wins and earned runs average but without putting these numbers in the context. There is a lot written in the book about the Hitless Wonders and the chronic inability of the White Sox to hit but I don't believe the phrase “Dead-ball Era” was ever once used. Did they not score runs because they couldn't hit or because they played in a low-run environment? Did Ed Wash have low earned run averages because he was a great pitcher or because he pitched under conditions that suppressed runs? I certainly understand the difficulty in introducing the concept of modern baseball metrics in a general baseball biography but, in this day and age, some context must be given when using baseball statistics.
But even with these minor flaws, Turning The Black Sox White is a good piece of baseball history that is also extremely well-researched, as the chapter notes and bibliography make clear. It is also a much needed book. The last biography of Comiskey that I'm aware of is G.W. Axelson's Commy, which came out almost a century ago and is more a work of hagiography than one of history. The book is well-written and Hornbaker's prose style makes it difficult to put down. Finally, I want to point out that it is a difficult task to write about 19th century baseball without falling into the traps of myth, legend and anachronism but Hornbaker manages to avoid those traps. He is certainly to be commended for his effort in producing an honest, human portrait of Charles Comiskey.
As I always say, when making a book recommendation, if you're reading this site then I'm certain that you'll enjoy Turning The Black Sox White.
I got an email last week from Tim Hornbaker, asking me if I'd be interested in reviewing his new book, Turning The Black Sox White. As the book happens to be a new biography of Charles Comiskey, I jumped on the opportunity.
Comiskey, of course, is one of the great figures in baseball history and, due largely to Eight Men Out (movie and book), one of the most misunderstood - and that's one of the main themes of Tim's book. I find that fascinating. Anybody that has spent much time here at the site knows how I feel about Chris Von der Ahe and my obsession with correcting his historical legacy. I've never really thought about Comiskey in the same manner because I think of him as the first baseman and field manager of the Four Time Champions rather than as the owner of the White Sox and "villain" of Eight Men Out. I think of him as a great leader of men and someone who earned his Hall of Fame credentials on the ball field. To me, the elder Comiskey - the "Old Roman" - is almost a separate person and someone that I, focusing on the 19th century game, don't really have to deal with. But I'm an odd duck and the image of Comiskey among general baseball fans is as misconstrued as Von der Ahe's. Turning The Black Sox White is an attempt to fix that.
I plan on writing up a longer review next week, once I finish reading the book, but I have two quick points I'd like to make. First, this book is needed. The only other biography of Comiskey that I'm aware of is G.W. Axelson's Commy, which was published almost a hundred years ago. Baseball scholarship has advanced substantially since then and a modern biography of Comiskey is long overdue. Second, Turning The Black Sox White is a piece of baseball scholarship. It's not pop history. It's not baseball fluff. The first thing I did when I got the book was check the bibliography and the notes (yes, I'm a history dork) and I was impressed by the depth of Tim's research. He went through the contemporary newspaper sources as well as the necessary and significant secondary sources. The book is well researched and is a serious work. Having said that, I should also mention that it's not some dry piece of historical writing. It's readable, accessible and has a nice narrative flow to it. So I guess I should say that my first impression is that the book is both well researched and well written.
Like I said, I'll have more to say about the book next week but I wanted to mention its existence because I know that you guys would be interested in it.
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