June 25, 2017

Notes From the Shadows of Cooperstown: Pennsylvania Digging

May 19, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

BUT FIRST, THIS JUST IN:
The documents purchased by the Chicago History Museum in December 2007 at auction for about $100,000 are now accessible! If this is news to you, see NOTES #425426. I am planning to travel to Chicago to spend some time with them, May 26-29. I suspect they will provide material for many future issues of NOTES — and with some luck, Chapter One of my next B-Sox book.

It’s been a funny month, May 2009, so far. My Pirates, over .500 in April, started a nosedive at the end of that month and continued in May until they were well below .500, and fighting their way back to the surface. Well, hey, they have all season to make it up — not to panic. And how about those Steelers — oops, I mean Penguins!? Which is what Pirate fans reply, when asked how the Bucs are doing. Keep “the Penguin Factor” in mind — all the rooting energy focused on the rinks, until the Stanley Cup games are over, will return to the Pirates, one of these days.

I attended a Little League game recently. It’s been a while, but there’s nothing like a LL game to remind you of how terribly difficult a game baseball really is. Of how hard it can be to throw strikes, to make contact with the bat, to hang onto a thrown or a batted ball. It is also fun to watch a game where none of the players are getting paid a penny (altho I recall one LLer who hit a homer and was greeted at home plate by an uncle or maybe a grandpa, who pressed a couple dollar bills into his hands). To be honest, I would have probably enjoyed more watching a game where there were no adults on the field or in the dugouts, where the kids chose up sides (tossing the bat to see who picks first), then just played, making up rules and policing themselves, and having a ball. Little Leaguers seem too serious, because they are in games that count in the standings, and there are all these adults and siblings watching, and the coaches are shouting a constant stream of advice. Did I say probably? No, there is no doubt that I’d have enjoyed watching “sandlot ball” more … but at least these kids are learning the game.

IN THIS ISSUE are a number of items, but the main two inspired (?) the headline about Pennsylvania. After a brief look back at two early B-Sox authors, and a brief detour into an old exhibition game that might have been billed as “The Babe in the ‘Burgh,” we go Digging Up Old Stuff (there will be dinosaurs, for the kids in us), and then (after a few more detours), we look at Buck Weaver, from Pottstown, PA, a fellow Pennsylvanian for whom I have advocated only lightly since I’ve been at this B-Sox thing. I’m sure that I’ve written about Buck’s appeals for reinstatement here before, especially the one in 1927, but in this issue I try to bring them all together and take a new look at Buck, and if anyone wants to send a copy to Bud Selig, you have my permission. But don’t get your hopes up. When Bob Dylan coined the phrase the blind Commissioner, he was talkin’ baseball. Enough intro, enjoy #487; I think there might be one more issue before I head off to Chicago, but — you never know.

EARLY ENCOUNTERS ON THE TRAIL

Back in NOTES #478, I wrote about several meetings between two of the writers who stayed on the B-Sox trail long enough to be considered guides. Both were youngsters in 1919, and White Sox fans. Nelson Algren had adopted Swede Risberg as his hero, while James T. Farrell became a friend of Buck Weaver, and interviewed Buck toward the end of his (Buck’s life).

In An Honest Writer: The Life & Times of James T. Farrell (Encounter Books, San Fran, 2004) we can finally read more about the meetings between Farrell and Eliot Asinof, to whom Farrell gave a strong shove down the trail — as well as everything he had collected while trying to write a Black Sox novel. We can read Asinof’s side of their relationship in Bleeding Between the Lines (1979), which is kind of a “The Making of 8MO.”

Asinof had signed a contract to write a B-Sox book when he heard that Farrell, a more established writer in 1961, already had a book in the works. Asinof was about to drop his project, when Farrell said:

“I’ll tell you what. My book is no good at all. Besides, it’s a novel. I will give you my book, and you can use anything in it that you wish, and what’s more, I’m going to tell you everything that I know. Now, get out your damn pencil and let’s go to work.” And it was the damndest thing I ever had been through in my life.

Farrell then poured out from his memory, for about 90 minutes, everything he could recall from the 1919 Series and its shrouded aftermath. He also told Asinof whom to interview — “sensational helps.” Asinof continued to meet with Farrell, he was “a constant help throughout the book.” I suspect someone will eventually write their thesis, using the papers of Asinof now being preserved at the Chicago History Museum, on just how much Asinof relied on Farrell for the main outline of 8MO.

The great Black Sox novel remained elusive for Farrell, and we can only guess at its final shape from Dreaming Baseball, edited by Ron Briley and others and published in 2007. Eliot Asinof wrote the three-page Foreword for that novel, supplying, at least for now, the last word about their “partnership.”

DOUBLE TAKE

It was September 8, 1920, and while a grand jury was warming up in Cook County, Illinois, fans in Pittsburgh were excited about an exhibition game at Forbes Field. The Yankees — no, make that the Yankees of Babe Ruth — were taking a job on their way to Cleveland. Pittsburgh papers were ready to turn out in big numbers to see “the Son of Swat,” the “King of Willow-Wielders,” the big guy who was pulling in big crowds all over that other league.

About 25,000 saw the Yanks top the home team Pirates, 7-3, and they did not go home disappointed. Ruth whacked a ball in the ninth inning — grooved for the occasion, perhaps — “over the right field bleachers.” One account said that Ham Hyatt was the only player who had accomplished that feat before the Bambino. Max Carey saw both, and said Ruth’s was longer.

Wait a minute. I grew up believing that the first ball hit over the right field roof at Forbes Field was hit by Babe Ruth, all right, but that was in 1935, when Ruth played for Boston in the NL. It happened to be Ruth’s third homer of the game — and #714, the last of his career. Ham Hyatt? Ham played for the 1909 World Champion Pirates his rookie year, but only hit ten HRs in his seven MLB seasons (five as a Pirate).

Well, here’s the story, I think. The roof that Ruth cleared in 1935 was not added to Forbes Field until 1925. In 1920, any clout that went for a HR to right field was a truly long ball, as the bleachers were 382 feet away, down the RF line. In 1925, the double-deck grandstand was extended into RF, and it was an imposing 86 feet high, but now it was just a 300? poke down the line, where the batter had to clear a tall screen.

So Ruth’s HR on 9/8/1920 may indeed have cleared the bleachers, but the grandstand that he cleared in 1935 was not there yet. About Ham Hyatt, I don’t know when he poled his long HR at Forbes, but I did find a note on the internet that Hyatt was believed to have hit the only ball out of Forbes’ immediate predecessor, Exhibition Park III — a poke of 380 if it went down the line, where it had to clear a ten-foot wall and, apparently, some bleachers. But maybe that was in an exhibition game, too — because 1909 is the only year Hyatt could have played at that park (Forbes opened at the end of June), and Hyatt’s record shows zero HRs in his rookie season.

Incidentally, after the 9/8/20 game, the Yankees boarded a train and were off to Cleveland. Suddenly there were rumors that the train had wrecked — Ruth was injured, other players killed. The rumors caused a sensation on Wall Street, where there was much betting; brokers used wire services, like those who gambled on baseball. It didn’t take long to prove the rumors false, and everyone’s best guess was that someone made up the story to change the odds on the Cleveland-New York series.

BUCK WEAVER VERSUS BASEBALL

I have written a short book about Buck Weaver here in Notes by now, perhaps not as much as about Cicotte or Jackson. Weaver was interesting to me long before I ever stepped onto the B-Sox trail; “Who Mourns for Buck?” appeared in Notes #157, back in April 1998. When I started finding out more about Buck’s case in my research, I summed it up once in “Defending Buck,” which was in Notes #345, and is easy to find in the Notes Archive. But to be honest, while Buck seemed to be the most sympathetic of the 8MO, the easiest to defend, he seemed to have plenty of supporters; defending Gandil, now there’s a challenge. So my writing about Buck tended to be more abstract — linked with the Landis Edict. Banning Buck in 1921 for what was not against any rule in 1919 seemed unfair, especially if (and this is arguable) Buck sat in on those meetings to do his damndest to talk his teammates back into their senses; and maybe he succeeded, so that only a few actually did anything to help the Reds win. Buck stood for a principle, he refused to accuse without certain knowledge; precisely what Comiskey did, when he withheld the WS checks of players he suspected, then went ahead and signed up all but Gandil, giving generous raises to boot. Ironically, Buck never seemed like the other seven, yet Landis condemned him, because “birds of a feather flock together.”

But lately, I’ve become interested in Buck Weaver all over again. And here is what I’ve found lately.

So far, I’ve documented four formal appeals that Buck made to Baseball, and one other appeal that I’m not sure was filed. The first three involved Judge Landis; the second, Landis’ successor, Happy Chandler; and the last appeal was made to Ford Frick. Each time Buck knocked on Baseball’s door, he was refused re-entry. But each time, I think he gained new supporters — he always had some.

The “Black Sox trial” in the summer of 1921 had found Buck and everyone else “not guilty” of conspiring to toss games, etc. But “regardless of the verdict of juries,” Judge Landis banished the players involved. This sent the right message to ballplayers and to fans. But on further review, the edict also insured that this story would stay in the news a long time. So here we are nearly nine decades later, debating that sentence and arguing over whether that punishment really fit the crime — whatever the crime was! And was it harshest on Weaver?

Buck had reason to be hopeful when he appealed to Landis the first time, in January 1922. He had powerful men supporting him, from Charles Comiskey to John McGraw, who really wanted to see Buck playing third for his NY Giants. Buck was thought to be “clean as a hound’s tooth” by the investigator on the staff of Collyer’s Eye, soon after the 1919 Series ended, and as late as the B-Sox trial, Rube Benton classified Buck among the clean Sox, with Schalk and Eddie Collins. Few thought Buck had given less than 100% effort in the 1919 Series; few thought him capable of playing without an intense competitiveness. And Buck had been honest, it seemed, admitting he had some knowledge of the bribery, but not enough to say for sure that the Fix was in, and, if it was, who was in and who was not. All he knew for sure was that he was not. No one accused him of taking a penny of bribe money, not even Gandil or Abe Attell. Buck had been ultra-loyal, not just to his teammates, and his team, but to his manager and to Comiskey, who may have known more than Buck. Weaver never said that Kid Gleason spoke to the team early on about a possible Fix, that could put the Kid on the spot. So Kid Gleason was in Weaver’s corner, too. His appeal looked — promising.

Landis sat on it for nearly a year, then, on December 11, 1922, turned Buck down. The Judge, who should have known better, said Buck should have spoken up at the 1921 trial, to clear his name; Buck may have wanted to testify, but his lawyers chose a different strategy, one which, to Landis’ dismay, no doubt, had succeeded. Maybe Buck was philosophical about the response: maybe it’s just too soon … I’ll try again later.

The next opportunity Buck took to beg entry from Landis, was at the 1927 hearing. Risberg and Gandil had opened that can of worms, vintage 1917, and Landis responded with a hearing in Chicago, gathering over thirty people to testify. Again, Buck had reason to be optimistic — he sided with the majority, against Swede and Chick. He was welcomed warmly by Ty Cobb and others. The press coverage was thick, and Weaver’s plea was dramatic — he had “begged” for a separate trial, he didn’t testify in ‘21 because his lawyers wouldn’t let him. Apparently after the hearing, Buck and his lawyer met with Landis.

This time it took the Commish less than three months to say No. Landis referred back to his 1922 call. He underlined Buck’s “guilty knowledge” of the possible bribery — as if Buck alone knew something rotten was afoot.

In this 1927 reply — easiest to look up in the Chicago Tribune of March 13 — Landis mentions that Buck testified that he had been approached during the 1920 season by a teammate (not Cicotte, but someone saying that Eddie had sent him), about his interest in throwing some games. Buck said no, but again kept quiet about it. “Buck Weaver to Play Ball in Chicago” went the teasing Trib headline two weeks later — but no, not with the Sox; Buck had signed to play semi-pro ball. He was signed by William Niesen, a longtime club owner and apostle of “clean baseball.” This set up a showdown with Landis. The Judge had just cleared Cobb and Speaker, icons too popular to be turned out. Why not Weaver, a Chicago icon? Weaver was ecstatic: “I’m goin’ to play the best game I can for old Bill Niesen, and the lily whites who kicked me out of the racket are going to be the most jealous birds around town.” (This Trib account also notes that after the January hearing, Buck found himself “outlawed by the outlaws” — he’d not be invited to play with Risberg and Gandil.)

I have to mention that one of the Trib’s columnists, Don Maxwell (”Speaking of Sports”) noted in his March 16, 1927, column, the inconsistency of Landis — who reinstated Cobb and Speaker (and tossed out the 1917 charges) because he doubted the word of Risberg and Gandil, calling them confessed framers of games; but now he refuses Weaver, based on stories told by Eddie Cicotte. Maxwell: “Baseball law is a bit thick.”

Then in May 1930, Buck was in the news again, and this is the time when it’s not clear if he ever made a formal appeal for reinstatement. What is certain is that he and his lawyer, Louis J. Rosenthal, were prepared to make a “new plea” — based on “new evidence.” [Attention, Chicagoans: Rosenthal’s old files on Buck just might be sitting around in some archive.] As near as I can tell, the “new evidence” was that Buck had settled with the White Sox on his old claim for his 1921 salary. Buck had signed a three-year contract, for 1919-20-21, for $7,250 per season. Suspended at the end of 1920, Buck could (and did) sue for that 1921 money, since in the eyes of the law he was innocent and did nothing to deserve being released. In 1930, he settled for $3,500. Buck contended that if he was guilty of conspiracy, the Sox never would have settled with him. One place you can look this up is in the Valparaiso, IN, Vidette-Messenger of May 7, 1930.

I have not found a response by Landis, if he gave any, which makes me wonder if this appeal went any farther than the newspapers. I have the same feeling about an appeal Weaver made soon after Judge Landis passed away. In May 1946, Happy Chandler was Commish, and I think Buck appealed then.

What was certainly Buck’s last formal appeal, while he was alive, was made in 1953. Ford Frick was now on baseball’s throne.

Buck took a simple 9? x 6? piece of paper, and a pencil, and began: “Mr Commission[er] Dear Sir.” It was January 29. Buck would not mail the letter until February 15; when it arrived at Frick’s desk, it was stamped Received February 21, morning. Buck had filled both sides of the letter with his own handwriting. He assumed Frick knew nothing of his case. He noted his three-year contract, his 1920 suspension “for doing some thing wrong. Which I [k]new nothing about.” He had played “a perfect” WS in 1919, had stood trial and was acquitted.

“You know Commission the only thing we have left in this world is our judge and the 12 jurors and they found me not guilty. They do some funny things in base ball.”

Buck again argued, as he had in 1930, that his settlement with the Sox for his 1921 pay — “that makes me right and Comiskey wrong. So Commission I am asking for reinstatement into organized Base Ball. Yours Very Truly, George Buck Weaver.”

In December 1953, Buck was still waiting for a reply. At 63, he had just a few years left, although he did not know it at the time. “All I want out of life now is to eat, and take care of my folks — and clear my name,” he told Jack Mabley, a Chicago Daily News sports writer. (I read the account in the Oakland (CA) Tribune, December 28, 1953.) Buck was ever hopeful. Reinstated, maybe he could scout, or teach some kids how to play third base.

“Even if I knew something — my God, why punish a man this long. Even a murderer serves his time. I got life. It hurts.”

“I had no evidence. Suppose I thought you were doing something wrong, and I told somebody about it. And suppose I was wrong. What have I done to you! I’m the worst —- in the world I didn’t have any evidence.”

“Judge Landis would call me and try to get me to talk. He was nice to me as anybody could be. Said ‘Come in, Buck. Sit down. Have a plug of tobacco.’ Then he’d try to get me to tell him what went on. How could I tell him when I didn’t know.”

“Then they made the decision. The Judge wouldn’t even look me in the eye. He said, ‘I’ve sent the decision by letter.’ Didn’t have the nerve to tell me to my face. I would have grabbed him by the throat, and he knew it.”

“And they call baseball a sport. Why — —- them! Well I’ll tell you this. I’ve got more friends than all of them put together. You’d think Frick would at least answer my letter. I done nothing in my life that wasn’t for the good of baseball.”

After Buck passed away, on January 31, 1956, many sports columnists paid him tribute. Many people recalled him as the best defensive third baseman they ever saw. History, if not Landis, refused to lump him together with the other B-Sox. He was the one who had consistently protested his innocence. Bob Considine repeated in his column of February 5 for INS (I’m reading the Charleston (WVa) Gazette), the words of Jim Kilgallen: “Buck Weaver had a code of his own…. Judge Landis had a different conception of integrity than Buck — and Buck paid the price.”

That is at the core of Buck’s story — his code, versus that of Landis, who became Baseball.

Let me end with this. In 1917, there was an exhibition game played in Boston, a benefit for the family of baseball writer Tim Murnane. This game is considered by some as the first All Star Game, although the Addie Joss benefit in 1911 is competition. Joe Jackson played in both, as did Cobb and Speaker and others. On the 1917 squad, at third base, was Buck Weaver. It must have been a peak experience for Buck — to be out there with Babe Ruth (he pitched), Walter Johnson, and the rest. Buck went 0-for-3 and the hometown Red Sox beat the AL Stars, 2-0, but somehow, I see Buck smiling all day long. Birds of a feather, indeed.

The above is an excerpt from Issue #487 of Gene’s Notes From the Shadows of Cooperstown. To read the rest of the issue (or past issues), click here.

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