October 20, 2017

Notes From the Shadows of Cooperstown: Notes on the Run

May 27, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

I am fond of saying that my favorite issue of Notes is the next one (Picasso used to say that about his paintings) — but this time, I really mean it. Because the next issue will be from the other side of three days of research in Chicago.

I was delighted when the Chicago History Museum purchased a huge collection of documents, apparently roused out of hibernation in the law offices of Alfred Austrian — the lawyer to whom Eddie Cicotte, Joe Jackson and Lefty Williams spoke, and trusted their careers with, before they spoke to the Cook County grand jury in late September 1920. I saw a glimpse of the “new archive” before the Mastro auction, in November 2007, and you can look that up in Notes #425426.

I have some idea of what I’ll find, reading all or as many of the documents as I can manage, in three days. But I’m trying to go in without theories or assumptions, I really don’t want to bend anything I find, to fit my notions of what happened. The way I see it, this new material will keep a lot of folks busy in the coming years, the way Jackson’s grand jury testimony has remained a source of controversy. There is almost certainly going to be a lot of argument stirred up over how some items can be interpreted. I expect debates over what some of the handwritten notes actually say, let alone mean.

I’m going, by the way, thanks to a second SABR-Yoseloff grant. A first grant enabled me to make a return visit to the Milwaukee trial material (see “New Light on an Old Scandal” in Baseball Research Journal #35). This means that I will be writing a report for a SABR publication again, and that I might not be able to report everything here in Notes right away. But I’m sure that there will be plenty to write about, for a long time.

I am also going to make my first-ever visit to Wrigley Field. As it happens, my Pirates are in town, and needing every fan they can get, as they climb back to .500. So look for a story about Wrigley next time, too. WEATHER PERMITTING (I just checked the forecast – doesn’t look good.)

Till then, here’s another issue of Notes with a mostly B-Sox flavor. Happy Memorial Day!

TOUCHY SUBJECT INDEED

“Black Sox Scandal of 1919 Still a Touchy Subject for Some,” was the title of Melissa Isaacson’s article in the Chicago Tribune on October 15, 2005, when the White Sox were working on putting their team’s “curse” to rest. I think I read her story at the time, but maybe not. It has a couple tidbits that I know I have not shared here before.

She contacted Donald Gropman, who wrote Say It Ain’t So, Joe! in 1979 — good grief, thirty years ago! Say it ain’t so! I recommend Gropman these days mostly for the appendices in his revised second edition, and for the material he gleaned from the transcripts of the 1924 Milwaukee Trial, Jackson vs White Sox. Gropman said his book was “like a pit bull, it just won’t let go of my cuff.” Gropman was one of the few B-Sox authors whom I contacted in my research, who really didn’t want to talk; he did, however, send me a copy of that revised second edition. In exchange, I let go of his cuff.

Melissa also contacted Jerome Holtzman. Mr H. had also seen the Milwaukee transcripts, and when I contacted him about them, he was very willing to talk. In 2005, he recalled conversing with Ted Williams about Joe Jackson — Ted was a strong advocate, while Jerome was convinced that Jackson was guilty. Ted cited the movie Eight Men Out, Holtzman cited newspaper stories quoting Jackson as saying he let up in the clutch. Neither were on strong footing, in my view. (B-Sox Trivia Time: Did you know that Holtzman’s son Merle played Harry Grabiner in 8MO?)

To illustrate the touchiness of the B-Sox today, Isaacson had a couple more anecdotes. Eliot Asinof came to Chicago after 8MO was released in 1963, to speak with a group of Chicago baseball writers, Ray Schalk happened to be there. When Asinof was introduced, Schalk yelled, “Get that (guy) out of here.”

Gropman told Melissa that in research his book, he called on Nemo Liebold, a teammate of Jackson in 1919. When he told Nemo he was writing about the Black Sox, Nemo promptly hung up.

Studs Terkel had the last line in her story: “People forget. Even though this became a part of celebrated history, people do forget. We have a national Alzheimer’s disease politically, and assuming the Sox win the World Series, the Black Sox will be a memory.”

They won, but I’m not sure that Series did anything lasting for the memories of the B-Sox. I think most people still know about them mostly from the movie Eight Men Out. And that will not change until there is another movie made, more research-based.

HERE’S WHAT I MEAN

There’s a chapter on the B-Sox scandal in Crimes and Trials of the Century, edited by Chermak and Bailey. Written by Jason R. Ingram, it takes up most of sixteen pages. It reads a bit like a term paper, and maybe I should not be too harsh, because the author does suggest, for further reading on the scandal, my book, along with 8MO. And the chapter indeed draws heavily on both those books, as well as Dan Nathan’s Saying It’s So. But while the title promises to tell the story of the scandal as “more than Eight Men Out” — it seems to lean too much on Asinof to go much beyond him. Ingram has all eight players meeting in Gandil’s hotel room in New York on 9/23/1919; Chick has already met with Sport Sullivan. I’m not sure where he got that, but there is no real evidence that Jackson ever attended a meeting, if any were conducted. That the idea of the fix originated with the players was revealed at the B-Sox trial, but never really caught on, did it? And it won’t, as long as we recall Sleepy Bill Burns and Billy Maharg, “scouting” the Sox from the grandstand, figuring out which ones are vulnerable. Oh well.

SPEAKING OF B-SOX DOCUMENTS
http://www.cookcountyclerkofcourt.org/?section=RecArchivePage RecArchivePage=black_sox

Is the link to the Cook County Circuit Court web site … there you can click on and open up 9 pages related to the B-Sox indictments; 12 pages related to “the particulars of the case”;
and 9 pages related to the verdict. None related to the cover-up.

SPEAKING OF SWEDE

Thanks to Jacob Pomrenke who passed along an article from the collection of Alan Muchlinski, “Swede Risberg’s Silence Costs Him Fortune; Landis Locks Door; It’s Too Late Now.” This appeared in The Argus-Leader, Sioux Falls, SD, May 23, 1931. The Swede played a lot of ball in the northwest, and this article is further proof that he occasionally talked about his last years with the White Sox.

By 1931, Risberg calculated that Landis’ edict cost him between $150,000 and $200,000 dollars. That seems high to me, because Risberg had not yet topped $4,000 a year when he was suspended and then banned. Had he stayed with the Sox, and continued to improve, he might have been making $15,000 by 1931, but for the decade, I’d guess closer to $100,000.

More importantly for me, is Risberg’s claim in 1931 that he was innocent of any conniving with gamblers, and never received any bribe money. “They say $1,200 was my share, but who would risk his livelihood for that small sum?” Well, most often Swede’s share is estimated to be $5,000, but there never was any evidence of that, and Comiskey’s detectives did check the banks.

“What did they have on me? Nothing.” Swede then pointed to his records in the 1919 Series — 53 chances, 31 assists (my books say 30); Swede did not mention his four errors. “they said I hit into double plays. They were all line drives and it was just tough luck they didn’t go safe.” There is some evidence that Risberg was robbed of a few hits by the Cincinnati defense. But Swede went 2-for-25; his better argument was that he was playing with a bad cold and being treated by the Sox trainer.

Swede had kept quiet — well, they all did. Buck Weaver became almost a hero, to some, for his unwillingness to talk about what he knew, lest he unfairly ruin someone’s reputation. Baseball kept quiet. But Swede’s silence seemed to be calculated, he really thought he’d be reinstated after a while. The judge in the 1921 trial, according to Risberg, advised him to ask at once for a new hearing. Unfortunately — and I have said this about Weaver, too — the players were found not guilty in 1921. We can only guess what would have happened if the verdict had been different.

And so in May 1931, Swede Risberg is getting in shape for yet another season of semi-pro ball. He was moving on from the Jamestown, ND, club, to the Sioux Falls Canaries.

SKELETONS IN THE CLOSET

The reporters who tracked down the B-Sox, or maybe ran into them by chance, must have wondered if maybe, just maybe, they asked the right question, they’d have a terrific story. But few players knew that much — I think Cicotte and Gandil knew the most, and Eddie was pretty tight-lipped; Gandil did talk, but his version was never corroborated much by others.

I recently ran across a good example of making a juicy headline out of nothing at all. Davis J. Walsh’s story ran in the Lincoln (NE) Star, the Hammond (IN) Times, and the New Castle (PA) News, around July 24, 1933.

BONES RATTLE IN BIG LOOP CLOSET

Shoeless Joe Tries Sell Alleged Expose of 1919 Series, the sub-head teased. Joe Jackson, in Walsh’s view, was “a source least expected.” Walsh has Jackson approaching several national magazines and a couple newspaper syndicates, shopping his story.

Most of Walsh’s story (about twelve column inches long) is taken up by rehashing the story of the fix and listing the 8MO. “Jackson was the most famous. He was a fool-proof hitter, an instinctive ball player who did not know why he did it, being content only to know how.” He also tells how he thinks Shoeless Joe got that great nickname.

But regarding the Fix, Walsh opines that “There doesn’t seem to be too much to know right now. Landis is in charge, and scandal has become less fashionable. He skims thru Dolan/O’Connell, Speaker/Cobb, and “Risbergate” (it had “a carnival touch”), but that’s it. He has made a story out of a rumor.

The above is an excerpt from Issue #488 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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