Pop history gave a bad shake to 1919 ‘Black Sox’ owner Charles A. Comiskey

A single book and movie, “Eight Men Out” permanently tarred the reputation of a man who until 1963 had been remembered as one of the game’s great pioneers.

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Charles A. Comiskey, founder of the Chicago White Sox.

Chicago White Sox founder Charles A. Comiskey never managed to field a championship team after the 1919 Black Sox scandal, and he increasingly spent his days at his second home in Wisconsin

The historian James McPherson argues that revisionism “is the lifeblood of historical scholarship. History is a continuing dialogue between the present and the past.”

In the case of the 1919 “Black Sox,” who conspired 100 years ago this month to throw the World Series to the underdog Cincinnati Redlegs, revisionism came at a terrible personal cost to the reputation of Charles Albert Comiskey, a founding father of the American League and the White Sox.

The Black Sox Scandal altered the course of professional baseball and the fortunes of Chicago’s South Side team for decades to come. It was one of several defining moments in the immediate post-World War I period that separated the old order from the new.

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In Chicago that summer, the city experienced a violent race riot. A streetcar strike underscored tensions between capital and labor. Political corruption, gangsterism and post-war lawlessness were endemic.

Also fueling a sense of cynicism over the next year was the revelation that eight Sox players — the Black Sox — had sold their services to a clique of gamblers and underworld characters.

How this scandal has been interpreted ever since is a case study in how a historical event can be bent and shaped to reinforce a particular point-of-view or, more specifically, a political agenda.  

Since 1963 and the publication of the late Eliot Asinof’s quasi-novel “Eight Men Out”, the reading public and Hollywood have accepted at face value Asinof’s premise that a greedy Comiskey abused his star athletes and cheated them at every turn. Asinof peppered his narrative with numerous errors of fact and dubious assertions.

By doing so, Asinof permanently tarred the reputation of a man who until 1963 had been remembered as one of the game’s great pioneers. He was beloved by generations of White Sox fans. At one point in 1908, he was urged to run for alderman.

After the scandal broke, the dispirited Comiskey failed to rebuild his championship team despite investing lavishly in high-priced rookies. Top prospects did not develop into stars or restore the team to respectability. Increasingly, Comiskey withdrew to his hunting lodge in Eagle River, Wisconsin, known as “Home Plate,” to live out his remaining years as a recluse.

In death, baseball fans eulogized Comiskey as a benevolent sports magnate. He was seen as the real victim of the Black Sox scandal — not “Shoeless” Joe Jackson or the other seven Sox players banished from the professional game.

But in 1963, Asinof’s book created quite a sensation, and overnight Comiskey went from victim-hero to villain.

As an author and White Sox historian, I was asked to consult on the 1988 John Sayles’ movie version of “Eight Men Out.” Like most readers, I accepted at face value Asinof’s interpretations. I met him on the film set in Indianapolis and told him how much I appreciated his work. However, over the next few years, as I probed deeper into the book, I discovered that he was wrong on many critical points.

Was he deliberately wrong in order to reinforce his pro-labor, anti-capital views?

I have to wonder.

Asinof claimed that star pitcher Ed Cicotte was “withheld” from winning his 30th game of the 1919 season so that Comiskey would not have to pay a promised $10,000 bonus. In fact, Cicotte won three of four games in September 1919, and he had the opportunity to win the pennant-clinching game on Sept. 24 in St. Louis.

Cicotte pitched ineffectively and had to be removed. The game went into extra innings and the Sox won.

Earlier in the month, Cicotte closed on the purchase of a farm near Detroit. It is easy to speculate that Cicotte’s down payment was made with gambler money. There is no compelling evidence that Comiskey conspired to withhold the great star’s bonus.

Moreover, the White Sox carried the highest team payroll in baseball in 1919. Of the eight Black Sox, only Charles “Swede” Risberg and Charles “Chick” Gandil had legitimate salary grievances.

Asinof alleges that the wife of pitcher “Lefty” Williams was threatened with violence if he broke his agreement with the gamblers. This was a plot device to heighten suspense. There is no record of a verbal threat ever being made to Mrs. Williams.

Many years ago, I was on the radio with Asinof. I asked him about the Cicotte allegation. He had no reply. Moreover, he conveniently looked past evidence that the eight players were likely throwing games at the end of the 1920 season, again doing the gamblers’ bidding. 

In the final analysis, Charles Comiskey was a man of his times. He shared the same 19th Century value system of thrift and hard work as the other owners who required their players to launder their own uniforms. Asinof made an issue of this, but it was common practice.

Comiskey was both generous and tight with a dollar. If the system of baseball in 1919 was deserving of indictment, then the Sox owner should not be singled out for the ills of the game of that era. Organized baseball failed badly in separating gamblers from ballplayers. From the 1870s through 1920, there were many allegations of players throwing games in return for generous coin.

Asinof’s book fails on so many levels to offer a balanced, unbiased account of Charles Comiskey, who has been the whipping boy of Hollywood and documentary film producers ever since.

I understand the anger of the late Chuck Comiskey, grandson of the founder, who told me that he walked out of a movie theater showing “Eight Men Out” a half-hour into the film. 

Had I known better, I would have walked off the set in Indianapolis in 1987.

Richard Lindberg is the author of 20 books of Chicago history, including “Total White Sox,” a franchise history published in 2011.

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