April 14, 2021

It Ain’t So: A Might-Have-Been History of the White Sox in 1919 and Beyond


blacksoxcover.jpg

spacer.jpgMichael T. Lynch, Jr.

ISBN ISBN 978-0-7864-4189-1
40 photos, tables, notes, bibliography, index
softcover 2009
$39.95

Available Fall/Winter 2009 from McFarland Publishing.

blank.jpg

 
 
 

In 1919, eight members of the Chicago White Sox famously conspired to throw the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. The players, including Shoeless Joe Jackson, were banned from organized baseball for life. But what if the Black Sox scandal had never happened? Using computer simulation, this book provides an alternative history of the American League, the White Sox, and the banned players from 1919 through 1932 while chronicling the White Sox organization’s real-life struggles to rebuild its roster.

Introduction

Approximately three weeks before the start of the 1919 World Series, members of the Chicago White Sox began formulating a plot to throw the Series to the Cincinnati Reds for $100,000, setting in motion a chain of events that would alter Organized Baseball’s landscape forever. Within a year of the fix, seven members of the White Sox were suspended, pending further investigation, which affected the outcome of the 1920 American League pennant race (Chick Gandil was not among them because he retired after the 1919 season). Within two years of the fix, eight White Sox were banned for life by baseball’s first commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who issued this infamous decree on August 3, 1921. “Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player who throws a ballgame, no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ballgame, no player that sits in conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing a game are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.”

Since then, historians have wondered aloud about many unanswered questions: Could the Reds have beaten the heavily-favored White Sox had the latter not thrown the World Series? Could the White Sox have captured the 1920 A.L. pennant had the core of the team not been suspended during the last week of the season? Could the White Sox have challenged the Yankees for American League supremacy in the early 1920s? Where would Joe Jackson rank among the game’s greats had he the benefit of a full, uninterrupted career? And what of the other players who were banned?

To that point in baseball history, the White Sox were considered one of the best teams ever assembled, and Ed Barrow insisted they were, indeed, the best. They had three future Hall of Famers in second baseman Eddie Collins, pitcher Red Faber, and catcher Ray Schalk, and it can be argued that, at the very least, Jackson and pitcher Eddie Cicotte were borderline Hall of Famers who more than likely would have been elected had they enjoyed a few more productive seasons. Centerfielder Happy Felsch, third baseman Buck Weaver, and pitcher Lefty Williams had MVP-caliber talent and perhaps outside shots at a Hall of Fame berth as well.

Rob Neyer feels the White Sox would have challenged the Yankees for the A.L. pennant for at least the first three years of the new Yankee dynasty and I agree. “If not for the suspension of six of their best players,” Neyer wrote in his Big Book of Baseball Lineups, “the White Sox would likely have competed with the Yankees for American League pennants from 1921 through 1923, and perhaps beyond.”

And while it’s impossible to know whether they would have captured the 1920 A.L. flag, it certainly would have been more likely had they a full roster to compete with an Indians team that boasted only a half-game lead at the time of the suspensions, and won the pennant by only two games.

This book attempts to answer the above questions and more. I shed no new light on the gambling scandal, and if that’s what you’re looking for I highly recommend Gene Carney’s book, Burying the Black Sox: How Baseball’s Cover-Up of the 1919 World Series Fix Almost Succeeded; Eliot Asinof’s Eight Men out; Susan Dellinger’s Red Legs and Black Sox: Edd Roush and the Untold Story of the 1919 World Series; and William A. Cook’s The 1919 World Series: What Really Happened.

This book is a combination of both fact and fiction, alternating between what really happened and what might have happened. It includes both the actual history of the American League and an alternate history that begins with the 1919 World Series and ends with the 1932 season when the last member of the “Black Sox,” shortstop Swede Risberg, “retired.”

While this book attempts to answer many of the questions left behind by the Black Sox scandal, there’s no way I can definitively say that I, or anyone else for that matter, know what the answers are. The following account is merely one of an infinite number of possibilities. But it’s the only one I have to offer. I hope you enjoy it.

Chapter One: The Black Sox

The greatest scandal in Major League Baseball history involved the American league’s Chicago White Sox in the fall of 1919. The White Sox were the American League pennant winners, and with that honor, they advanced to the Fall Classic to take on the Cincinnati Reds, champions in the National League.

It was a turbulent time in American history. Gambling was rampant—the 1919 World Series was just the pinnacle of the problem, and the one most focused upon by historians today. Those games were not the only ones thrown, however. Hal Chase was thought by many to be crooked, and he bounced from team to team when his managers decided that his talent didn’t make up for his inconsistent efforts. He, Lee Magee, and Heinie Zimmerman were among eighteen active players who were suspended and banned between 1917 and 1927 for fixing major league games, some as early as 1906.

The White Sox were regarded as one of the best teams in American League history to that point. Long- time baseball executive Ed Barrow insisted they were the best, ranking the 1919 White Sox ahead of the 1927 Yankees. Sportswriter Fred Lieb called them, “one of the most compact ever put together.” Twenty-five years after the 1919 season ended, sportswriters still considered them one of the top two teams of all time, placing them second to the ’27 Yankees.

The Reds, on the other hand, were in their first World Series. American League teams had won eight of the previous nine World Series, including a 4-2 victory by the White Sox over the New York Giants just two years prior. Needless to say, the Reds were not expected to be able to break the A.L.’s monopoly on the title.

Rumors that the White Sox were going to throw the World Series to the Reds began to surface even before Sox ace Eddie Cicotte plunked Reds second baseman Morrie Rath with his second offering to lead off the bottom of the first inning of the first game. The strategically placed pitch allegedly served as a signal to gamblers that key members of the White Sox team had agreed to throw the Series.  Suspicions grew when the Reds claimed the title, especially in light of the obvious mistakes Chicago made in the series.

Accusations were tossed about throughout the winter and the next season before a grand jury inquiry aimed at an alleged gambling scandal involving the cross town Cubs extended to the White Sox in September of 1920. At White Sox owner Charlie Comiskey’s urging, some key White Sox players admitted to the fix, all but sealing their fate as professional ballplayers.

Comiskey subsequently suspended Joe Jackson, Eddie Cicotte, Lefty Williams, Happy Felsch, Swede Risberg, Chick Gandil, and Fred McMullin for accepting money to purposely lose games during the 1919 World Series. Third baseman Buck Weaver was also suspended for having knowledge of the fix and not reporting it. The suspensions served as a death knell for the White Sox, who were in a tight race with the Cleveland Indians for the American League pennant and could scarcely afford to lose so much talent at such a crucial time.

The eight members of the White Sox team were indicted by a grand jury for, among other things, “conspiring to defraud the public…conspiring to injure the business of the American League,” and “conspiring to injure the business of Charles Comiskey.” They were eventually tried in a court of law for their actions in June of 1921. But their signed confessions were conveniently “lost” before the trial, leading to an acquittal on August 3. At the time, there were no laws against the fixing of professional baseball games, so the players assumed they would walk away from the scandal unscathed. They were wrong.

landis1.jpgJudge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, baseball’s first commissioner

Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis had been appointed commissioner of Major League Baseball in November of 1920 and he was determined to rid baseball of the gambling element that had poisoned the game for years. Immediately after the verdict was handed down, Landis, using the powers granted to him in a new National Agreement, banned the players for life.

“Regardless of the verdict of juries,” Landis decreed, “no player who throws a ballgame, no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ballgame, no player that sits in conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing a game are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.”

None of the eight players ever played in the majors again.

Chapter Two: The 1919 World Series

With all things considered, the White Sox should have expected to have their hands full with the Reds. Based on their World Series championship of two years previous and the American League dominance in the recent years preceding the 1919 World Series, many people expected Chicago to prevail. In fact, oddsmakers had the White Sox at 7 to 10 favorites to take the championship. But it appears that on paper at least, the Reds were just as strong if not stronger.

Baseball games, as they say, aren’t played on paper, though. Nor are they played on computer screens, but it’s the closest I could come to replicating the events surrounding the 1919 World Series without planting corn in Iowa and coaxing “Shoeless Joe” Jackson’s ghost from the stalks to shag flies with me.

Game One (Actual)

The first game of the 1919 World Series pitted Sox ace and 29-game winner Eddie Cicotte against 19-game winner Dutch Ruether. Cicotte was the better and more experienced hurler of the two—he had almost 3,000 career innings under his belt and had appeared in three games in World Series play in 1917; Ruether was appearing in his first Fall Classic and had less than 325 career innings on his resume—but it had been reported that the White Sox hurler was suffering from a lame arm. He was also suffering from a desire to purposely lose.

cicotte.jpgWhite Sox ace Eddie Cicotte lost Game One of the 1919 World Series. Did he redeem himself in the computer simulation?

Reds manager Pat Moran was confident that his team could not only compete with the White Sox, but could beat them. “We will play as well as we did to win the pennant,” Moran told reporters at a press conference the day before Game One. “That means we will put up the hardest kind of fight. The Cincinnati players realize that they are going up against a great ball club, but they are not the least bit worried.”

“I have told them that Cicotte and Williams can be defeated. Our pitchers in my opinion can prevent nearly all the White Sox from hitting when bases are occupied. If we beat Cicotte in the first game we ought to win the series…”

Moran was right on all counts. Cincinnati’s hitters pounded Cicotte, Roy Wilkinson, and Grover Lowdermilk for nine runs on 14 hits, two walks, and two hit batsmen, while Ruether held White Sox batters to only one run on six hits and a walk. The Reds left as many runners on base (7) as the White Sox put on base. Cicotte lasted only 3 2/3 innings and allowed six runs on seven hits, two walks and a hit batter. By the time Kid Gleason removed his ace from the game, the White Sox were down 6-1 in the fourth inning. They would eventually lose 9-1. The eight-run margin of victory was a record for the first game of a World Series, and the loss marked an omen of bad things to come for Chicago—only three times in the first 16 World Series had a team lost the first game, then gone on to win the series (1903, 1911, and 1915).

The Boston Globe’s James O’Leary called Ruether “the hero of the opening contest,” while reserving sarcasm for Cicotte. “Eddie may have shined the ball today, but that is the only shining he did, and it is doubtful if he shines brilliantly again in the series.” Harvey Woodruff wrote in the Chicago Tribune that not only was Ruether the hero of Game One, but he was the hero of Cincinnati. James Crusinberry blamed the loss on Chicago’s overconfidence and insisted that being beaten so soundly was the best thing that could have happened to the White Sox. Gleason agreed, “A beating like that was just what my gang needed. You’ll see them fighting out there tomorrow. Just wait and see.” Christy Mathewson disagreed. “…it appears as if Moran’s Reds will win in seven games at the outside. I never bet on a ball game, but if we get another warm day tomorrow and Sallee starts for Cincinnati, I think I will get down a little wager on the Reds.”

Whether Gleason actually believed his rhetoric is doubtful. According to Susan Dellinger, Gleason interrupted a meeting the conspirators were holding in Cicotte’s room after Game One and threatened the players. Apparently they reached an agreement, as each player shook Gleason’s hand while leaving the room. “Before he left,” wrote Dellinger, “Gleason turned back into the room and said, ‘This will all be behind us now, Eddie.’ The door closed and the room went silent again. The show was over for tonight. The fix was off, or so it seemed.”

Whether the fix was off at that point is debatable. After the 9-1 drubbing, Bill Burns and Billy Maharg went looking for Abe Attell to collect the $20,000 the players had been promised for losing Game One. Attell told Burns and Maharg he didn’t have the money because it was “out on bets.” When Gandil learned that no money was forthcoming he was livid and accused Attell of not “living up to his agreement.” Attell told Burns he’d get the money to him in the morning before Game Two. He was lying.

Game One (Simulated)

Unlike the actual opening of the World Series, Game One of the simulated series was a tight, hard-fought affair that went 11 innings before a victor emerged and, unlike the actual Series, that victor was Chicago.

Chapter Three: The Method To My Madness

Before I continue on to 1920 I should explain my methodology. Most simulation results are based on thousands of head-to-head match-ups in order to determine one team’s statistical superiority over the other. If Team A beats Team B 650 times out of 1,000, Team A is clearly the better of the two. I chose not to adopt that approach, however. Baseball games, or any sporting event for that matter, aren’t played that way. Teams have one chance to beat each other; two if the game has been suspended due to rain, and that’s how I handled it. Besides, I didn’t have the time on my hands needed for such an exhaustive study.

I wasn’t looking for the statistically superior team; I was just trying to produce the most realistic results possible, given what I had to work with. And I’m not trying to prove anything; I was simply trying to produce statistics that would allow me to paint a moderately accurate picture of what might have happened.

So how did I ensure accuracy? I used Out of the Park baseball, mostly because I had experienced good results with it in the past, and because it contained a “career” feature that none of the other baseball simulations had (at least at that time). I started by importing the 1920 teams into the simulation and allowing the simulation to determine ratings for each player based on his statistics. After replaying the final games of the 1920 season and the World Series, I proceeded to 1921, allowing the simulation to adjust ratings as it saw fit. For example, older players typically suffer a decline in ratings, especially in speed and triples, while players reaching their prime typically enjoy an increase in ratings. That’s where OOTP’s “career” feature kicked in.

I then deleted all the teams from the simulation, which caused the players to be dumped into a free agent pool. The reason I did this was so I could import the actual 1921 teams and stats back into the computer program in order to get the most accurate results. After importing the 1921 teams into the simulation, I reassigned the seven White Sox players (Fred McMullin wasn’t included) to the White Sox roster from the free agent pool. Then I deleted the remaining free agents since they were all 1920 players and I no longer needed those stats.

Once the importing and deleting of free agents was completed, I went about the business of ensuring roster accuracy. I printed a list of transactions from the 1921 season and cross-referenced the rosters with trades that were made during the season. For example, on May 31, 1921, the Senators traded third baseman Frank Ellerbe to the Browns for outfielder Earl Smith. I put Ellerbe in Washington’s lineup and Smith in St. Louis’ until May 31, then I switched them around and moved Ellerbe into St. Louis’ lineup and Smith into Washington’s after the trade was made. If I didn’t do it that way, Ellerbe and Smith would have played for both teams at the same time.

Chapter Four: Down to the Wire: 1920

In 1920, the White Sox resumed their winning ways, but were strongly challenged by two other American League clubs—the Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees. The White Sox’s roster was composed of primarily the same players that led the team to the pennant in 1919, with one exception. Chick Gandil retired, thanks to a large sum of money he’d made in the scandal. But that was only part of the reason for Gandil’s retirement. According to I.E. Sanborn of the Chicago Tribune, Gandil had three reasons for not reporting to the White Sox’s camp in the spring of 1920. All three reasons had to do with money; the fact that Comiskey wouldn’t pay him what he wanted, his claim that he could make as much money managing in Idaho, and because rents in Chicago had increased. “The rent profiteering in Chicago has been read about by all the players and is causing considerable loss of sleep already,” wrote Sanborn.

Gandil requested his release from the White Sox so he could pursue a job managing in Seattle, but Comiskey refused. It was then reported in February of 1920 that the White Sox first baseman had signed a contract to manage the St. Anthony club in the Idaho Independent League.

gandil.jpgChick Gandil, seen here with the Washington Senators

Gandil was 32 years old. Shano Collins, who was two years older than Gandil, but not quite as adept a hitter, replaced the retired first baseman in the White Sox line-up. Collins appeared primarily as the team’s fourth outfielder in 1919, but played eight games at first base. His brief experience made him the club’s best option at the time.

The White Sox pitching staff set a new record with four different pitchers winning 20 or more games. The four aces were the same four men who had anchored the 1919 staff—Red Faber (23-13), Lefty Williams (22-14), Dickie Kerr (21-9), and Eddie Cicotte (21-10).

The pennant had not been decided in the last week of the season as the White Sox, Indians, and Yankees continued to battle for the American League crown. Chicago’s task became increasingly difficult when, on September 28, Comiskey suspended the players suspected of conspiring to throw the 1919 World Series. The White Sox had three games remaining on the schedule with the St. Louis Browns. Without their regulars, they dropped two of the three games, and finished two games behind the pennant-winning Indians.

This leads to the second part of my “what if” scenario. If the White Sox had remained pure, Gandil may have played in 1920 absent his windfall from the scandal, and the suspended players also would have suited up in the series finale, giving them a chance to win the pennant and face the Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series.

I reinstated the missing players and simulated the final three games against the Browns and, sure enough, the results were as I expected.

Chapter Five: The Yankees: 1921-1923

The Deadball Era that had dominated baseball since the founding of the American League in 1901 had been gradually coming to an end since 1918 when major league teams averaged only 3.63 runs per game. That figure rose to 3.87 in 1919 and 4.36 in 1920, and was even more pronounced in the American League, climbing from 3.64 in 1918 all the way to 4.76 in 1920. From 1901 to 1918, the highest single-season home run total in the A.L. was 16 by Socks Seybold in 1902, and the average number of homers hit by the league leader was 10. But in 1919 Babe Ruth ushered in a new game with his majestic home runs. He shattered all records, belting an astounding 29 round trippers that year, followed by an unfathomable 54 in 1920.

In the wake of the Black Sox scandal, Ruth’s style of play was welcomed by team owners, where typically it would have been shunned. “Under those unique circumstances, the owners did not do what they would have done at almost any other time, which would have been to take some action to prevent Ruth…from making a mockery of the game,” wrote Bill James. “Instead they gave Ruth room to operate, allowed him to pull the game wherever it wanted to go.”

The game gravitated towards the long ball and owners and fans alike were captivated by it. But that was only one of a handful of factors that contributed to the increase in offense since the end of World War I.

Prior to the 1920 season, Major League Baseball introduced a rule that prohibited pitchers from applying a foreign substance to the ball; spitting on the ball or in their glove; rubbing the ball on their glove, person, or clothing; defacing the ball in any manner; or delivering “shine” balls, “spit” balls, “mud” balls, or “emery” balls.

Pitchers who were throwing the spitball at the time of the ban were allowed to continue using it, but pitchers who joined the league after the ban or who hadn’t already been throwing it were exempt from using the pitch.

A second factor in the demise of the Deadball Era was the death of Ray Chapman, Cleveland’s talented shortstop, who was killed by a pitch from the Yankees’ Carl Mays late in the 1920 season. The fatal ball thrown by the Yankees hurler was scuffed-up and badly discolored, and was hard to see in the afternoon dusk, made darker by the gloom of an overcast day.

After Chapman’s unfortunate death, it was ordered that new baseballs be introduced into games more regularly. The balls were easier to see and in much better condition than the old ones and, thus, were “livelier.”

The Black Sox scandal also contributed to the end of the Deadball Era—the game had to change to help people forget how the White Sox tainted America’s Pastime. But the emergence of Ruth, the death of Chapman, and the banning of the spitball were enough to ensure that the game was going to change.

schalk.jpgHall of Fame catcher Ray Schalk, one of the “clean Sox”

The Black Sox scandal guaranteed the Reds would win the 1919 World Series and the suspension of the eight conspirators in the last week of the season may have prevented the White Sox from catching the Indians in 1920. But the suspensions had a longer-lasting effect, since the players did not play in 1921 and beyond.

The White Sox had a strong roster that captured a championship in 1917 and a pennant in 1919. And they may have won another ring in 1920. But would they have remained strong into the twenties? Could they have competed with the New York Yankees, who won three straight American League pennants from 1921 to 1923?

 

1921 Season Replay

[Joe] Jackson made his move towards the top of the leader boards over the first three weeks of June, going 30-for-62 (.484) to raise his average to .398 on June 23, putting him only two points from the coveted .400 mark and in third place just behind Tris Speaker.

American League Batting Averages

Player Club G AB R H HR SB PC.
Heilmann, Detroit… 61 249 51 105 8 1 .422
Speaker, Cleveland… 53 205 50 82 3 1 .400
Jackson, Chicago… 58
226 40
90
7
6
.398
Cobb, Detroit… 63 265 67 105 9 9 .396
Sisler, St. Louis… 53 221 56 83 4 16 .375
 

Chapter Six: First in War, First in Peace: 1924-1925

The Yankees’ three-year run of dominance came to an end at the hands of its own front office, and the surprising Washington Senators, who won their first American League pennant and set a then-franchise record by winning 92 games. The Yankees sold surly pitcher Carl Mays to Cincinnati in the winter of 1923 and weakened their pitching staff, although at the time, getting rid of Mays looked like a no-brainer. He was not only a headache in the clubhouse, but he was also suddenly ineffective, going 5-2 for the Yankees in 1923, but with a 6.22 ERA, prompting the Washington Post to write, “Mays is through as far as major league effectiveness goes. [Miller] Huggins had him sized up properly when he kept him on the bench all last season.”

But the Post was wrong. Mays went 20-9 with a 3.15 ERA for the Reds, while the Yankees had only one pitcher, Herb Pennock (21-9, 2.83) who was comparable to Mays. The other four starters—Waite Hoyt, Joe Bush, Bob Shawkey, and Sam Jones—suffered declines and underachieved. Going into the season, the Yankees were expected to win another pennant, and few predicted the Senators would make a run at anything higher than fifth place, let alone win the flag. In a series of articles written by baseball “experts,” the Yankees were the favorites, but not overwhelmingly so.

“The Yankees are young enough to move at a rapid gait for some time yet,” wrote W.B. Hannah of the New York Tribune. “They expect no such walk-over as last year, reasoning that several rivals will be stronger this year. In fact, they expect a hard fight to win. Nevertheless, they believe they are strong enough to win the pennant again this year.”

The White Sox’s offseason was eventful for many reasons, and it continued to be so all the way up to opening day and beyond. Kid Gleason resigned as manager after he became discouraged by his attempts to rebuild the team in the wake of the 1919 gambling scandal and he was replaced by former Cubs star Frank Chance. But Chance was felled by a severe case of influenza that kept him in California all winter and into the spring. Then he had a sinus operation that caused him to miss much of spring training. Finally his doctor ordered him back to California to recover from surgery.

Chance’s former Cubs teammate Johnny Evers assumed duties in his absence. While the White Sox were dealing with their managerial situation, they were also trying to trade Eddie Collins for the second straight year, first to Washington, where Collins was expected to take on the Senators’ managerial role as well as play second base, then to the Yankees. But the teams couldn’t agree on which players to include—the Senators wouldn’t part with Sam Rice and Bucky Harris, and the Yankees refused to part with Aaron Ward.

Off the field, the gambling scandal continued to rear its ugly head, this time in the form of a lawsuit filed by Joe Jackson against Charles Comiskey. Jackson attempted to recoup his $18,500 salary he said the team owed him because “the ‘ten-day clause’ was placed in Jackson’s contract unknown to him because he was unable to read.”

Although a jury awarded Jackson most of his salary, the judge in the case overturned the ruling, then had Jackson arrested for perjury “in connection with the testimony he gave under oath before the Chicago grand jury.” Happy Felsch was also charged with perjury and arrested.

archdeacon.jpgWhite Sox speedster Maurice Archdeacon (shown here) split time with Johnny Mostil in center field in 1924

In his assessment of the White Sox’s chances on the field, Warren Brown of the Chicago Herald-Examinernoted a “marked improvement in the pitching, an outfield that will contain two and possibly three new members, and a manager who will command the respect of certain temperamental athletes now on the pay roll.” He also predicted the White Sox would finish no higher than fifth place but “only after a merry scramble.”

1924 Season Replay

Going into the 1924 season I realized the team was starting to get old and that some decisions would need to be made, especially in the case of Chick Gandil, who turned 36 on January 19. Gandil was coming off a decent season…but the sim forced me to keep an eye on him when it began reducing his ratings. It was the first significant ratings reduction in three simulated seasons and I was excited to see it in action, to be honest.

Gandil’s ratings were reduced in four categories—average, triples, stealing, and defensive range—with the largest reduction coming in his ability to hit triples, which went from a 5 to a 2 (on a scale of 1-10), and from “Average” to “Fair.” Since three of the categories that suffered a ratings reduction were essentially speed categories and one was on defense, I figured Gandil’s days were numbered since he was making his living with speed and defense.

JULY

[Lefty] Williams went 5-2 to improve to 13-6 on the year, and he recorded his second consecutive sub-3.00 ERA month with a 2.81 mark. Williams was mostly brilliant in July, allowing two runs or less in five of his eight starts, including a two-hit shutout over the Red Sox on July 30. But he was blasted in two of his starts, allowing five runs to the Indians on July 6 and seven runs to the Yankees on July 26, and lasted only one inning in his July 21 start against the Senators.

Chapter Seven: The Beginning of the End: 1926-1932

The balance of power in the American League had shifted back to New York following Washington’s back-to-back pennants in 1924 and ’25. The Yankees won three pennants and two more World Series titles from 1926-1928, finished either second or third from 1929-1931, then won another pennant and world championship in 1932.

The Senators lost their stranglehold on the A.L. title in 1926, but they finished in the first division in all but one of the next seven years, before winning their last pennant in 1933.1 Otherwise, the only real threat to the Yankees’ dynasty came from Connie Mack’s Philadelphia A’s, who, after years of languishing at or near the bottom of the league, returned to former glory and finished third or higher from 1926-1931, winning three pennants and two world championships from 1929-1931.

The Indians remained strong, finishing in the first division five times in seven years, but they were hardly a threat to the top teams, finishing 26 games out of first place on average. The Browns and Tigers typically finished in the second division, and the Red Sox, still decimated by lopsided deals made by former owner Harry Frazee that sent most of Boston’s stars to the Yankees, finished in last place every year but 1931 when they came in sixth.

The White Sox stayed close to the first division from 1926-1928, finishing in fifth place each year, before dropping to seventh in 1929, 1930, and 1932, and last place in 1931.

The 1926 American League pennant race appears to have been one of the better races in league history. There had been previous races that came down to the last week of the season, but those were typically between two teams. In 1926, the A.L. had six teams that finished over .500, and five teams that finished within 9 ½ games of first place.

But appearances can be deceiving. It wasn’t much of a race early on as the Yankees jumped out to a nine-game lead through the end of July. But they suddenly collapsed and went 25-29 in August and September and watched their lead shrink as the rest of the pack chewed into it.

The other four contenders posted winning records over the same period and almost caught the front-runners in late September. Cleveland went 30-22 down the stretch and trimmed New York’s lead to two before finishing three games back. Philadelphia went 19-9 in August and went from 14 games back to nine games back with 22 to play. They eventually landed in third place, six games out of first. Washington went 32-22 in its last 54 games to finish in fourth place, eight games out of first, and Chicago went 30-22 in its last 52 games, and won 18 of their last 24 contests to finish the season in fifth place, 9 ½ games behind New York.

Before the season began, oddsmakers had the Athletics and Senators as the favorites, both getting 2 to 1 odds to win the pennant, with the Yankees third at 5 to 2. The Giants (8 to 5) were deemed slight favorites over the Pirates (2 to 1) in the National League, and many believed the Fall Classic would feature the A’s and Giants for the fourth time since the inception of the World Series in 1903.

The scribes agreed. Most had the Athletics and Senators battling for the top spot in the A.L., and the Pirates and Giants dueling in the N.L., and many had the Yankees finishing in the middle of the pack. “In the straw vote now being taken the Mackmen stand out as the popular choice for the 1926 pennant,” James Harrison wrote about A’s. “One thing to be remembered,” he cautioned, “is that the Senators are still champions. Flooring the titleholder is rarely an easy task. On the other hand, the third pennant is always harder than the second.”

While opining about the White Sox, James Crusinberry really went out on a limb when he predicted the Sox would finish anywhere from first to sixth place. “There are four or five doubtful factors in the makeup of the White Sox,” wrote Crusinberry. “If they turn out well, the Sox are quite likely to be a pennant contender; if they turn out bad, the Sox may drop to fourth, fifth or even sixth place.” Crusinberry listed among his concerns the health of Eddie Collins’ legs, the mileage on Everett Scott’s body, the condition of Ray Schalk’s hands, the ineffectiveness of Sloppy Thurston in 1925, and the need for another strong starting pitcher in the rotation.

In the end, the prognosticators turned out to be wrong. The Yankees copped the American League flag, while the Cardinals edged the Reds by two games to win the N.L. pennant. The favored Giants lost more games than they won (74-77) and finished in fifth place, 13 ½ games out of first. Cleveland, an 8 to 1 long shot, took second in the A.L., while the Athletics and Senators took third and fourth place, respectively. The White Sox finished fifth.

1926 Analysis

As I’ve already stated, the 1926 simulated White Sox were nearly identical to the actual White Sox, at least as far as the standings were concerned. But a closer look shows that the simulated team should have done much better than they did, based on the Pythagorean Theorem. They scored 734 runs, only four more than the actual team, but allowed only 589, which was 76 fewer than the actual team. They should have had a winning percentage of .608, which translates to 93 wins and a possible pennant, but instead they won 83 games and finished in fourth place. Otherwise, the simulation did an incredible job capturing the environment—A.L. teams scored 5,796 runs or 4.70 runs per game in the sim, as opposed to 5,831 runs or 4.73 runs per game during the actual 1926 season.

cobbjacksonsmall.jpgJoe Jackson (right) seen here with Ty Cobb in earlier days

It’s also interesting to note that the talent gap between the actual players and the Black Sox had narrowed considerably, and in the case of Joe Jackson vs. Bibb Falk, the team would have been better off with Falk in left field. Jackson was clearly in the decline phase of his career, and though he was still productive, he was mostly just racking up career milestones at that point. Meanwhile Falk, who was almost 10 years younger than Jackson, had become one of the league’s best hitters and was creating more runs per game than Jackson. Falk ended up in right field in the simulation, replacing Bill Barrett, and produced numbers that were eerily similar to those he actually recorded in 1926. So, in the end, a combination of Jackson and Falk was better than one of Falk and Barrett, but it wouldn’t be long before that was no longer the case.

Chapter Eight: Player Analysis

Like Happy Felsch, Buck Weaver jumped right into Chicago’s starting lineup as a rookie and started cranking out 500 at-bat seasons with regularity, reaching that mark five times in his first five seasons. Unlike Felsch, however, Weaver was among the worst hitters in all of baseball during those five seasons, posting the fourth worst OPS among hitters with at least 2,000 at-bats from 1912 to 1916.

weaver.jpgWhite Sox third baseman
Buck Weaver

It wasn’t until 1917 when, at the age of 26, he improved his OPS by more than 100 points over the previous season and it looked like he’d finally contribute offensively. Suddenly he was a different hitter. After batting only .247 over his first five seasons, the White Sox infielder batted .305 from 1917 to 1920 and finished in the top 10 in multiple categories all four seasons.

So what might have been expected of Weaver in 1921? According to the Brock2, Weaver’s 1921 season should have looked a lot like his 1919 season, but it would have been Weaver’s last season as a regular. It showed him becoming a backup in 1922 and coming off the bench for the last six years of his career, in which he amassed only 840 more at-bats.

Here’s Weaver’s career based on what he actually did and what the Brock2 Projection system expected him to do beyond 1920:

  G AB R H HR RBI AVG OBA SLG
Actual 1254 4809 623 1308 21 420 .272 .307 .355
Brock2 397 1453 178 420 4 130 .289 .321 .368
TOTAL
1651
6262 801 1728 25 550 .276 .302* .358

* The Brock2 doesn’t include HBP, hence the lower-than-expected OBA

The Brock2 clearly didn’t expect him to do much more with his career than he’d already done, even when I entered his adjusted 1920 stats to account for the games I simulated from the last week of that season. The most similar player to Weaver’s Brock2 totals is former Brewers infielder, Jim Gantner, a nice but unspectacular player.

Here are the 10 most similar players to Weaver through age 29:

  G AB R H HR RBI AVG OBA SLG
Buck Weaver
1254 4809 623 1308 21 420 .272 .307 .355
Bobby Richardson 1263 4776 572 1279 27 348 .268 .302 .336
Alfredo Griffin 1372 4902 570 1263 22 396 .258 .290 .336
Red Schoendienst 1140 4693 700 1320 31 403 .281 .325 .372
Steve Sax 1249 4963 662 1423 35 396 .287 .342 .360
Willie Randolph 1210 4522 746 1238 29 361 .274 .370 .355
Frankie Gustine 1242 4563 552 1211 38 478 .265 .359 .322
Luis Aparicio 1200 4684 646 1221 34 379 .261 .339 .308
Rennie Stennett 1199 4434 492 1219 40 425 .275 .360 .307
Tim Foli 1292 4721 460 1185 20 378 .251 .312 .286
Bill Russell 1262 4368 490 1157 32 389 .265 .347 .308
Average*
1244 4663 589 1252 31 395 .268 .348 .321

* Includes only most similar

maranville.jpgHall of Fame infielder Rabbit Maranville, the 11th most similar player to Weaver through age 29, provides a clue as to how Buck might have done in his later years

Of the players on the list, only Aparicio and Schoendienst had any significant playing time left in them after the age of 29. Aparicio appeared in almost 1,400 games from 1964 to 1973, when he retired at 39. Schoendienst played 11 more seasons after turning 29, but in the last five of them he averaged only 50 games and 99 at-bats a year. Randolph played another nine years. None of the rest did much, although Richardson could have had he not retired in 1966 at the age of 31 to “devote more time to his family and his youth guidance work as a leader in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.” Richardson’s 1966 OPS was only 24 points lower than his career OPS and he amassed 600 at-bats for the sixth straight season, so there’s no reason to believe he couldn’t have continued playing at that level for a few more years at least.

Regardless, there’s not much here to indicate that Weaver would have had much of a career left. In fact, had he matched the average career that the 10 most similar players had after the age of 29, his numbers would have been very similar to what the Brock2 projected.