October 23, 2017

Notes From the Shadows of Cooperstown: A Song For All Sinners

February 26, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

This issue’s curious title comes from the last item below, a poem featuring Shoeless Joe Jackson, that I found tucked neatly inside a column by Grantland Rice, in the Atlanta Constitution, October 22, 1929. The poem is not Rice’s — it was penned by Eugene Manlove Rhodes, and while you can Google him, I don’t think you’ll find his poem on line. Until now.

I borrowed Rhodes’ title because these days, I am getting asked a lot about A-Rod. And let (s)he who is without sin, cast the first stone, or verbal equivalent. Yes, it’s too bad about A-Rod, too bad that he might have been among a majority. Too bad that baseball has not come clean itself about its “don’t probe, so you have nothing to tell” policy that opened the doors for all the players who experimented with stuff that might make them more potent offensive weapons for their team, or stronger arms. Too bad that many took foolish risks with their health, by doing it without sound medical knowledge, or their doctors’ advice. But it’s nothing really new, and we can all think of worse deeds.

When the A-Rod disclosures hit the news, the first folks I thought of were those who were championing Rodriguez, cheering him on already to pass that tainted mark set by Barry Bonds. Now what? Let the numbers fall where they fall, they are not worth worshipping, never were. Let’s learn from our mistakes and move on, baseball is bigger and better than its stats.

GETTING STARTED

Back in Notes #472 (1/6/09) is this note:

At their Board meeting last November, the SABR directors approved a proposal to establish a new Research Committee — one devoted to Black Sox research. To me, this is a logical next step in putting together the B-Sox puzzle. Burying the Black Sox was a team project; many of those who helped have stayed in touch, via the Yahoo group organized by Rod Nelson. One of the probable ramifications of this new committee is that Notes may no longer be the place to go for the latest findings — the committee will be publishing its own newsletters. No better time for all those interested — OK, addicted, too — to join SABR and the Yahoo group. Questions or comments, please e-mail me.

Since then, the new Research Committee has taken its first small steps forward, setting some goals, and getting its 70-some SABR members organized around them. I was reminded that not all B-Sox researchers (or addicts) are SABR members, nor do they all participated in the B-Sox Yahoo group. Some follow this mystery-solving activity through Notes. So let me extend the invitation here to all those interested to join the new B-Sox committee, by joining SABR and then (if not already in), the Yahoo group.

BENEFITS

I’ve recited here many times the benefits of joining SABR. And I’ve repeatedly confessed that without SABR, there is no Burying the Black Sox. We would still think 1963’s Eight Men Out was the final word on the topic; Collyer’s Eye would still be collecting dust in a Chicago area library basement (at UIUC); the 1924 Milwaukee trial would still be the one that nobody noticed; and I can go on. But I won’t — I’m not trying to sell SABR here.

Instead, I want to report that already there have been benefits from getting the B-Sox Research Committee from proposal stage into reality. I’ve been contacted by author Ray Robinson, who has a questionairre completed by Dickie Kerr, prior to being interviewed by Robinson for a NY Times article in 1984. (If you have access to ProQuest, you can look it up easily: October 7, 1984, pg S2, “No Glory in Winning What Others Lost.” In the article, Kerr gives his opinion about why he was not approached by the gamblers: “I think the reason was that if Cicotte and Williams got beat in the first two games, [manager Kid] Gleason would not dare to take a chance and pitch anyone else but them until we evened up the Series with the Reds.” It’s a theory that I’ve seen before, possibly from other Kerr interviews; in one version, Cicotte is actually warming up for Game Three, then told to give it a rest, and Kerr is a surprise, not the scheduled starter.

Kerr added that had he been approached, he’d have gone straight to Comiskey, and failing there, to Ban Johnson. Which shows how little Kerr knew, in October 1984, about what Commy and Ban both knew before Game One in October 1919.

I’ve also heard from the grandson of one of the 1919 Cincinnati Reds pitchers (like Robinson, a SABR member). And from someone who has a cancelled check (for $15,000) that was very likely an exhibit in the 1921 B-Sox trial — connecting gambler Ben Levi with Cincinnatian Fred Mowbray — Levi had won the $15 G betting on the first two games, and didn’t want to carry the cash to Chicago, so he asked Mowbray for a personal check for that amount. See Susan Dellinger’s Red Legs and Black Sox, pages 316 ff, for all the details on the check.

Of course I’m hopeful that the Research Committee will become an even more powerful magnet, within SABR, for more pieces of the B-Sox puzzle — as we continue to do research, and to publish it in occasional newsletters — not here in NOTES.

BITS & PIECES

My research on other things has meant spending time with the Player Questionairres at the National BB Library in Cooperstown. Not everyone who has played baseball has completed one, of course, and not every questionairre is very interesting — one wishes that the survey, started in the 1940s, I think, had asked a wider variety of questions, and encouraged some open-ended story-telling. Now’s your chance.

But among the nuggets I’ve found, related to the B-Sox, are these: Swede and Mary Risberg had two sons, Robert and Gerald (I’m not sure, but I think they are both still living); Eddie Cicotte never got further in school than Elementary; neither did Chick Gandil — who insisted on “Chic” (no K); Lefty Williams’ survey was completed by his wife, Lyria, and she signed it — thus putting to rest a small controversy. When he was deposed for Jackson’s 1924 trial, Lefty insisted his wife spelled her name “L-Y-R-A.” On the survey, perhaps getting even or perhaps being accurate, Lyria spelled her husband’s name “Claud” (no E at the end).

I’ve also strayed away from those other things, and onto the B-Sox trail itself, from time to time. I have scanned, for example, the American League minutes from 1919-21, as well as those of the National Commission, and some of the Garry Herrmann papers. (The Herrmann papers are still in process, some still out being preserved, some accessible on microfilm.) No gems, but a couple nuggets.

Remember, even before the tainted World Series, the feud between Sox owner Comiskey and AL president (and de facto baseball czar) Ban Johnson was in full heat. On September 16, 1919, Johnson was censured at a special meeting of the AL owners for not substantiating “certain written statements derogatory of the integrity of the games played” — Johnson had complained publicly about the lack of cooperation he had received, in his effort to curb gambling at the ballparks, and he cited the AL and NL Boston owners, especially the management of Fenway Park, so far as gambling is concerned.” No doubt Comiskey was the loudest voice behind the censure, and as we look back to what Commy did (or failed to do) when he learned of the World Series bribery, just two weeks later, the phrase let’s give him something to talk about comes to my mind.

With the rumors of bribery and “the fix was in” flying (no, make that swirling) thickly in the wake of the Series, you might expect the National Commission or the AL owners to put up some defense, or at least address the rumors officially. But they do not, they are really focused on the authority crisis in MLB. Ban Johnson is being squeezed hard, as the Yankees take him to court over the Carl Mays case; and if Mays’ wins as a Yankee in 1919 are tossed out, it means Detroit, not New York, will receive third-place money. Huh? What rumors you talkin’ about?

Meeting at the Biltmore in NY City on December 10, 1919, Comiskey addresses his fellow owners and comments off the record (it made the transcripts, not the minutes), that “Baseball today is rottener than it was in 1876.” But Commy is not talking about gambling, but about player tampering — owners making offers to build up their rosters, offers which might cause salaries to rise. The next day, the National Commission does touch on gambling — by declaring that a letter regarding that evil in El Paso, be copied and forwarded to Comiskey. Not our problem, Commy says he’s investigating.

Now it’s 1920, and on January 8, the National Commission has decided to address those rumors after all:

After considerable discussion relative to gambling, the Commission decided to issue the full statement:

The Commission is thoroughly cognizant as to its duty relative to the alleged charges of gambling in baseball and the entire proposition will be followed up under a thorough and emphatic manner and satisfactory to the public.

But nothing much happens on the gambling front. And the topic doesn’t come up again. Not even in late September, 1920, when the Cook County grand jury is collecting all sorts of evidence. On September 27, the day before Cicotte’s grand jury appearance shatters the cover-up, the Commission meets and decides that the coming World Series will be a format of 3-4-2. For that Sept 27 meeting, John Bruce is the Commission’s secretary; the next day, as Cicotte and Jackson are shaking the foundations of baseball, John Bruce signs the Commission’s minutes as “Acting Chairman.” Garry Herrmann has been trying for months to end his term; now seems like a good time.

I have no more notes from scanning (and I mean scanning) the official records of Baseball Officialdom. But the project confirmed an impression, suggested, I think, by Hugh Fullerton, who was clamoring in the months after the 1919 Series for the owners and the Commission to wake up and smell the rumors, and start to investigate them … to remove the dark cloud hovering over baseball. To Hughie, their failure to address the gambling menace “strangling” baseball was like Nero fiddling, while Rome burned. Officially — that’s the way it looks to me, too.

The tiny fraction of the Herrmann papers that I viewed were a reminder of how large a fraction of any executive’s time is taken up with the mundane, the routine. With stuff that can be (and often is) handled quite nicely by a capable secretary. Page after page of letters, telegrams, incoming and outgoing; mind-numbing to scan today, and probably mostly dull back then, too.

But buried within the pile are some treasures, and they will vary with the person doing the sifting. I was struck by the long legal document, tucked in with the rest, pertaining to the Carl Mays controversy. Because the Yankees sued the AL, Ban Johnson and other notables were deposed, and Ban’s statement amounts to a short biography, with a history of the American league tacked on.

Another find, probably of little interest to most historians, was a letter to Herrmann dated “Chicago, April 6, 1915,” from (I believe — the signature is fairly illegible) Edward G. Heeman. Heeman was sending Hermann a billfold, donated with compliments by Mr Robt. E. O’Callaghan, a loyal White Sox Rooter (capital R). It seems that the Woodland Bards were planning a big opening day parade and demonstration on April 22, and the Commish was invited to “join the Club.” 300 friends of manager “Pants” Rowland were going to be there, coming from Dubuque, Iowa.

What is most interesting to me about this letter is not who it is from, or its contents. It’s the stationery. Heeman and Herrmann were both Woodland Bards, and both are among the 130+ names that border the letter, in columns left and right. The letterhead announces The Woodland Bards as “The Most Exclusive Organization in Existence” — this was before [insert your favorite contemporary club or clique here]. Below that modest claim, “Initiation Grounds, Camp Jerome, near Mercer, Wis.” — their annual north woods hunting and fishing expeditions were held there, and I suspect you really had to know where you were going, to actually get there.

Among the Bards listed: Charles A. Comiskey (#1) and right behind him, Ban. B. Johnson — those were happier times for that duo. Garry Herrmann has the lucky #13 slot, two behind J. Louis Comiskey, Commy’s son. Two below Garry is Judge C. A. McDonald, who would preside over the Cook County grand jury in 1920.

IS A PUZZLEMENT

The story of the “Black Sox scandal” may never be fully told. As more pieces of the puzzle are found, more seem to be missing. As I recently worked on a jigsaw puzzle with my wife, I was reminded of another phenomenon — the puzzle piece that is missing, but not visibly so, because its color resembles the color of the surface on which you are making the puzzle. So if you finish the puzzle, it appears you have pieces left over, extra pieces, or duplicates. Only after further review, maybe using your sense of touch instead of sight, so the “holes” in the puzzle finally appear, and those surface-color pieces fit in.

I started collecting pieces of the B-Sox puzzle here in Notes in September 2002, starting with issue #268, which was all about Hugh Fullerton. Hughie’s advice still seems like the best anyone can give or receive, when we talk about finding more pieces and fitting them together: Thou shalt not quit. There are times when I wish I had stepped onto the B-Sox trail fifty years ago. What I’m really wishing for, of course, is that I could keep at this for another fifty years.

I can’t (I’m closing in on 63). My hope is that the SABR Research Committee will take root, and live on long after I’m gone, maybe after all the current members are gone — who knows? Look at the research into the Civil War, the steady flow of books on that event, that continues today, nearly a century and a half after it began.

I suspect that the appearance within SABR of the B-Sox Committee has raised a few eyebrows. No other committee has such an apparently narrow focus. To which I respond a couple ways. First, I believe the subject has both depth and width, and needs a coordinated effort if it is to be properly researched — and I think it is worth the effort. Why? Well, because it can help us understand not just one event, but many others, then and now, and the people involved — then and now.

My other response has to do with SABR. Why not have committees with a narrow focus? If there are fifty people on the planet who are really fascinated by Ruth’s Called Shot, or the Eddie Gaedel at bat, or (closer to home) the Mitchell Report — why not let them network within a SABR Research Committee, dig as deeply and widely as they can, publish their findings, and then, if they are satisfied that they have exhausted the topic, check out. If baseball franchises can come and go, surely committees can do the same, without shaking up the country of baseball.

JUDGE NOT, LEST YE BE JUDGED

So goes one of the Bible’s better-known and hardest-to-follow admonitions. It comes to my mind, sometimes, when the steroid controversy comes up in discussion. Let he (or she) that has never done a thing to enhance their performance at anything, throw the first punch. Since having bypass surgery seventeen years ago, I’ve taken thousands of different pills, and don’t ask me what they are or exactly what they do — I used to know, but can’t keep track anymore. Sure I’d rather not take any, and when I can drop one (as I did last year), I celebrate. When is cheating OK? When you are cheating death? I guess so, yet I know not everyone on the planet would agree.

But that’s not my point here. All I want to do is offer a twist on that old saying. Be not judged, lest ye must judge. Or something like that. After my book Burying the Black Sox was judged for SABR’s Ritter Award — and won — I was asked to serve as a judge for this year’s competition. Saying Yes was not easy, I do not read nearly as fast as I once did. And I like to review here in Notes the baseball books that I do read. But of course I agreed, and recently finished my tenth and final Deadball Era book.

I am pleased to say that the chore was easier than I had imagined, and that none of the books were tedious. I think the future of baseball writing is bright, even if that of the publishing industry is uncertain. To anyone reading this who is asked someday to be a Ritter judge, I say — go for it.

DAYS OF OUR LIVES

On February 11, my desk calendar told retold the story of the “double no-hitter” — for nine innings, that is — on May 2, 1917, at Wrigley Field. It was Hippo Vaughn of the Cubs versus Fred Toney of Cincinnati; attendance, about 3,500. This is another one of those games where you like to imagine that one of those 3,500 is at their first game, and new to baseball, and they grow increasingly impatient to see some action. Their friends are getting antsy, too, anxious to explain what a ground-rule double is, or a “hit,” for that matter. To the rookie fan, baseball is just too difficult — and way too slow.

I remember a cartoon, ages ago, where Dagwood is glued to his TV watching a no-hitter in progress, when Blondie wanders by. He explains the situation, and she comments something like, “Sounds mighty dull to me.” A panel later, Dagwood blinks, turns off the TV, and follows her out of the room. Which makes you wonder how many of the 3,500 stayed around to finally see a hit.

February 13, the calendar asked me who has the most grand slams of any active player. It was multiple choice, but I had no idea. Well, Manny Ramirez now has 20, just three behind Lou Gehrig. Once upon a time, the Iron Horse’s record seemed secure. And this makes me wonder if we shouldn’t think of keeping records in a different way. Instead of Pre-1900 and Post, why not Deadball Era, 1920-1990, and Contemporary — or something like that? You can draw the lines a hundred different places. Some records should reflect the length of the season. But not grand slams. Yet some players have an unfair edge there, too — leadoff batters (or those who bat second or third) will have fewer shots at slams. So will sluggers on weaker teams. So it goes.

I had the weekend of Feb 14-15 to figure out who was the most recent pitcher to complete 300 games. Not win, complete. Well, it’s Gaylord Perry, with 303. Will he be the last? For pitchers, draw those lines in the record book to mesh with the Age of Relievers.

A runner on first stumbles in his excitement while racing home after a teammate’s home run, and a coach helps him up. He continues home. According to my calendar, citing rules 5.02 and 7.05a, his run counts. “If the runners legally touch the bases while advancing home, they can touch anybody they wish.” I’m not sure if that’s the exact wording, but it makes me wonder … could a runner take a slap at an umpire, then whip out the rulebook to say, “Hey, I can touch anybody I wish!”?

PROQUESTING AGAIN

I have called the year or two when SABR members had free access to ProQuest “the golden age of baseball research,” a time when we could sit at home and browse through the NY Times, LA Times, Chicago Tribune and many other papers, and read all about the nastiness of October 1919, or the Civil War, or the coverage of an event you just watched, re-enacted on The History Channel. Check the footnotes of baseball books written a couple years ago, and see if they are not sprinkled with lots of citations from The Washington Post, Atlanta Constitution, and the Boston Globe.

I recently subscribed to ProQuest again (apart from SABR), and again have access to all those papers, and a few more. Like the Hartford Courant. Testing my theory — that you can go to almost any newspaper in the country, look up the coverage of the B-Sox scandal breaking (September 28, 1920, and the days right after), and find something new — I dipped into the Courant. Sure enough, in an article dated 9/29/1920, “Cicotte Breaks Down as He Tells Jury His Part,” I read something that I had not seen elsewhere. According to the Courant,

Joe Jackson received $5,000. Like Cicotte, he found the money in his bed when he returned to his room on the night before the first game. Jackson said that throughout the Series he either struck out or else hit easy balls when hits would have meant runs.

We don’t know exactly when Jackson received $5,000 from Lefty Williams — after Game Four, or Five, or Eight — but no where else does he get his up front, like Cicotte. If you were not skeptical before about the “letting up in the clutch” statements attributed to Jackson, their proximity to the assertion that he found the money in his bed might make you so. Personally, I don’t think Jackson ever made these statements, they were guesses by pressmen trying to beat a deadline. And we do know that they simply do not mesh at all with what Jackson actually told the grand jury and stated for the record ever after.

I found another interesting Courant article while searching for more on Shoeless Joe Jackson. On July 4, 1972, UPI sports writer Milton Richman was writing about golfer Jane Blalock, who was then under a cloud of suspicion (”Say it ain’t so, Jane!”) for an apparent breach of the rules, improperly marking her ball on a green. What got my attention was this:

To his dying day, Shoeless Joe always insisted that he was innocent of any real wrongdoing…. Before he died in Greenville, S.C., I spoke with Jackson, who was then approaching 60, and in the course of our conversation he told me what really bothered him the most was the general reaction of “the kids.” … “I know what I did, and in my heart I know it wasn’t what they said it was,” he told me, “but how do you explain that to the kids?”

Jackson turned 60 in July 1949, so Richman spoke with him sometime before then. Has anyone seen a piece by Milton Richman, circa 1948-49, containing an interview with Jackson? I haven’t. The quotation in the 1972 article suggests to me that Jackson may have had a clear conscience, but not so clear memories of the events then nearly thirty years in the past. It must have been a terrible blur to Jackson, starting the day he spoke to the Cook County grand jury, only to have the press report that he had confessed to throwing games. When he protested — immediately — he was stifled, and then probably advised by lawyers to say no more, to let the trial unfold. Found innocent at the 1921 trial, he was nevertheless banished. In the 1924 trial, finally represented by a lawyer working for him, Jackson again seemed to triumph, only to be socked with perjury charges. By then he had heard so many versions of the Fix story, that there is little wonder than he was confused. He never was on the inside, and if the insiders themselves are not telling what really happened, what is he supposed to think?

Anyway, the news here is that I am once again mining for nuggets via ProQuest, and who is to say that we won’t find something shiny in an obscure editorial in The Christian Science Monitor? In the world of the B-Sox, you never know.

THAT POEM I MENTIONED UP TOP

A SONG FOR ALL SINNERS (Written during the 1929 World Series)

I think that in some country town,
When keen October breezes blow,
A tall man, silent bearded, brown,
His hat above his eyes pulled low,
Reads the wild tale the scoreboards show
Of giants battling for a crown,
Of Cub and Mackman, hit and run.
– Why should I shiver in the sun?
A touch of winter in the air
Prickles and tingles in my hair –
What has become of Shoeless Joe?

Shoeless Joe Jackson! How the mob
Rose up to cheer him, long ago!
Lajoie, Wagner, Speaker, Cobb,
Mathewson, Bender — one with these.
Oh, lost star of the Pleiades!
Hard is the heart that feels no pang
Of pity for his pride brought low,
Ho, the brave song his black bat sang!
What has become of Shoeless Joe?

Luckless and loved, immortal, lost,
Blackened and shamed forever … Yes,
A sinner, let him pay the cost.
His birthright bartered for a mess
Of poor red pottage? Even so
Let us forget his youth forlorn,
How much, how much his boyhood lacked;
Heap on his proven guilt your scorn,
A trickster taken in the fact.
– Let us write only, in our pact,
That our own deeds be judged but so …
Needing no mercy, merciless,
Come, let us judge him, Shoeless Joe!

Prince, if we all had our deserts,
“Who could ’scape hanging?” Well, I know
Not I; not you … The question hurts.
Let us have done with puny lies;
Looking each other in the eyes,
Shall we not grieve for Shoeless Joe?

– EUGENE MANGROVE RHODES

Ten years after the 1919 World Series, this was the only mention of Shoeless Joe that ProQuest yielded, for October 1929. Nor was there much in Octobers ‘39 or ‘49. Baseball did not much want to remember, let alone mark the anniversary, of the B-Sox.

Let us have done with puny lies. And does the line What has become of Shoeless Joe? remind anyone else of Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?

We are closing in on nine decades later. What once seemed like Jackson’s “proven guilt” in the public eye — never the private — has for some time now seemed less than proven. Isn’t it time to restore this star to his place in the constellation from which he was plucked? For Jackson, Cobb, Matty, Wagner — yes, A-Rod and Bonds — are not real stars, we know; they are exceptional baseball talents. And all too human, just like us.

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