December 12, 2019

The Chicago Black Sox: What Might Have Been

September 29, 2019 by · Leave a Comment 

The 1919 Chicago White Sox (aka Black Sox) were the one of the most famous and infamous teams of all time. After going 88-52 in the regular season, they rolled into the World Series to face off against the Cincinnati Reds as heavy favorites, but surprisingly looked clumsy and disinterested in the field; ultimately losing five games to three. It wasn’t long before it was alleged that eight of their players had known about/participated in a plot with gamblers to throw the Series. Although the culpability of those eight players has been debated over time, and they were acquitted in court, they were all permanently banned from baseball following the 1920 season—careers of varying ability cut short for their accused transgressions. But how good were these players and what would their futures have looked like if their careers had not been ended? Let’s take a look.

Swede Risberg, Shortstop- A supposed ringleader of the World Series plot, Risberg was a decent fielder, but not very good with the bat (83 careers OPS). An even 6’0”, he was a converted first baseman and big at the time for shortstop. However, he posted positive dWAR in each of his last two seasons. At 25, he was the youngest of the eight players when they were banned following the 1920 season. Since he played when shortstops had lower expectations offensively, he might have had a career that was long in length, but short on production.

Chick Gandil, First Base- The former bare-knuckle boxer was a large muscular man (6’1” and 190 pounds), who never produced the way you might expect from someone of his stature. In nine big-league seasons, spanning 1,147 games, he hit .277 with just 11 home runs. Even during the Deadball Era, those numbers are pretty underwhelming for a first sacker. 31 at the time of his banning, his career was already in decline. After having led the Washington Senators in RBIs for four straight years (1912-1915), 1920 was his fourth consecutive season of having less than a 100 OPS (league-average offensive production is 100 OPS). He was also a below average defender, who at 32, was likely looking at the end of his career anyways.

Buck Weaver, Third Base- Perhaps one of the most overrated players of the group. Some have suggested that he may have been a candidate for the Hall of Fame if not for his punishment. However, the 21.2 WAR he accrued through his first nine seasons indicate that was not the reality. That being said, he was a superior defender, who was coming into his won with the bat. His final season was his best at the plate, as the 30-year-old hit .331 with 208 hits, 102 runs scored and 74 RBIs in 1920.  He has always been one of the more popular Black Sox, as he hit .324 in the World Series, was banned because of his knowledge of the plot and not his participation. He unsuccessfully appealed for reinstatement multiple times throughout the remainder of his life.

Joe Jackson, Outfielder- The left-handed batter was easily the best player of the group. His .356 career batting average is still third-best of all time. Quiet and illiterate, he was never the most popular player, especially with his peers, however, fans loved watching his wickedly effective left-handed swing. Although he turned 33 during the 1920 season, he still finished with it being one of his best; hitting .382 with 218 hits, 12 home runs, a league-leading 20 triples and 121 RBIs. Although it was said his “glove was the place where triples went to die,” his career -6.1 dWAR suggest that was more anecdotal than truth. His 62.2 career WAR combined with still being in a productive phase of his career would have made him a near-certain Hall of Famer.

Happy Felsch, Outfielder- Perhaps the greatest example of “what might have been,” Felsch was 29 and coming off his best season when he was banned. In 1920, he hit .338 with 40 doubles, 15 triples, 14 home runs, and 115 RBIs. His rugged athletic build would have made him an excellent candidate to transition well to the lively ball era. With a 19.3 WAR and 123 OPS+ when his career ended, he could have possibly ended up as a fringe Hall of Fame candidate if his play continued to progress well and be sustained deep into his career.

Fred McMullin, Infield- The career backup was subpar offensively (85 OPS+) and just average defensively. He was a roster filler, who could step in if needed and acquit himself, but drew minimum salary. He his just .256 with a lone home run and 72 RBIs across 304 career games in six seasons when his career ended at the age of 28. He had just two plate appearances in the 1919 World Series (singling in one of them) and was only included in the plot/money taking because of his friendship with teammates like Risberg.

Eddie Cicotte, Pitcher- The sore-armed junk baller seemed to get better with age. After going 29-7 with a 1.82 ERA in 1919, he followed that up with 21 more wins in 1920 at the age of 36.  With 209 career victories, a 2.38 ERA and a 57.3 WAR, he would have been a strong candidate for the Hall of Fame had he been able to finish out his career naturally. The 90 wins and 111 complete games he threw in his final four seasons are a testament to the late success he found, due in large part to a shine ball and knuckler that all helped keep batters off stride. Even pitching in the Deadball Era, he was extremely stingy when it came to allowing home runs; coughing up just 32 in 14 years. He even went the entire 1914 season, spanning 269.1 innings, without a long ball.

Lefty Williams, Pitcher- Although he won a combined 45 games between 1919-1920, the tiny southpaw was more solid than star in quality. 27 at the time of his banishment, he had a career 82-48 record and 3.13 ERA. However, his 99 ERA+ (100 is average) show that he was essentially average when it came to his production. With pitching always being at a premium, there would have no shortage of opportunities for Williams to have had a lengthy career. Assuming steady health and ability, he would have been a good candidate to hit the 150-victory threshold if his career had continued uninterrupted.

Andrew Martin is the founder of “The Baseball Historian” blog where he posts his thoughts about baseball on a regular basis. You can also reach him on Twitter at @historianandrew or on Facebook.

He has also authored a number of books (eBook and paperback) on baseball that are available on Amazon

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