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"Then Ozzie Said to Harold ..."
The Best Chicago White Sox Stories Ever Told
By Lew Freedman, Billy Pierce
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2008 Lew Freedman and Billy Pierce
All rights reserved.
Dead-Ball White Sox
The origin of the Chicago White Sox really dates back to a son's disobedience to his father, though like George Washington when he chopped down that eternal cherry tree, Charles Comiskey did not tell a lie.
Charles A. Comiskey was 17 years old in 1876 and on the job toting bricks across Chicago's West Side for a remodeling project at City Hall. His horse-drawn transport came upon a baseball game. He stopped to watch as pitchers from both teams were battered one after the other by hitters clouting safeties. He was heard to utter the phrase, "Gee, I can pitch better than that." As his load of bricks went unattended, a manager took Comiskey up on his boast.
Eventually the player's father, Honest John Comiskey, found him. Whatever career Dad had in mind for the young man died on that sandlot. Comiskey devoted himself to baseball after that. He became a masterful fielding first baseman for the St. Louis Browns, introducing innovative techniques around the bag and becoming the first to venture far from the foul line. Over time Comiskey emerged not only as a first-rate ballplayer over a 13-year major league career, but also as an astute businessman.
When Ban Johnson, commissioner of the Western League, changed the name to the American League for the 1901 season to compete against the National League's monopoly, Comiskey was operating the St. Paul, Minnesota, franchise. He asked to move the team to Chicago. Grudgingly, through political maneuvers, permission for the move was granted; but as part of the agreement Comiskey was bound not to construct a ballpark farther north than 35th Street, to avoid competition with the North Side Chicago Cubs. To this day the White Sox have never occupied a stadium farther north in Chicago. The team's modern home, U.S. Cellular Field, is located at 35th and Shields Avenue, across the street from the original 1910 Comiskey Park that the owner built.
Comiskey was the first ballplayer to morph into an owner. At various times during his tenure as boss of the White Sox — until his death in 1931 — Comiskey was regarded as a cheapskate by his players. But he was appreciated by newspaper reporters as sociable, friendly, and a guy willing to pick up the tab. Comiskey was nicknamed the Old Roman. It was a term of affection and respect, not a derogatory appellation, as if he was Nero fiddling while Rome burned. That viewpoint was ascribed to him later, during the infamous Black Sox Scandal of 1919.
Somehow, for most of his baseball career, Comiskey obscured his age. As he got older and his playing days receded in the rearview mirror, Comiskey pretended to be six years younger. In 1913, at a party, he revealed that he had really been born on August 15, 1858. It was part of Comiskey's schtick to say that he had a birthday every day. That left his listeners laughing and confused enough to preserve his secret. At least once he publicly denied that he celebrated his birthday twice a year.
In 1913, at a splashy gathering where city, state, and national officials were present to honor Comiskey for his service to baseball, he was presented with a new collection of office furniture. Comiskey joked that the new furniture was so fancy he would no longer sign players' contracts in his office because they would think it was so plush he could afford to pay them more.
Reporters who heard Comiskey announce his birth date were skeptical. So were researchers in later years. The Baseball Encyclopedia does grant August 15 as Comiskey's birthday, but says he was born in 1859.
Comiskey was a party animal, but he most assuredly had a competitive side. A story recounted in the book The Chicago White Sox, written by longtime Chicago journalist Warren Brown, indicates that Comiskey once lost his temper over a lobster.
Comiskey had ordered lobster at a prime Chicago restaurant, and he was the charming host of a small gathering until his dish arrived. Staring at the lobster on his plate, Comiskey was disappointed to see a claw broken partially off. He asked the waiter how the damage happened. The thinking-on-his-feet server replied that lobsters in the wild sometimes break their claws while fighting.
Mustering the type of wrath more suited to learning that his star pitcher might have suffered a broken wing, Comiskey yelled, "Then take the damn thing away and bring me the winner!"
Rarely has a major league team been so bad on paper and won so handily on the field as the Chicago White Sox of 1906. During the dead-ball era of baseball — pre–Babe Ruth and the 1920s — teams hit few home runs. Offense was built around advancing a base at a time, scratching out one run at a time. A typical run might be scored on a bunt single, a stolen base, the runner going to third on a groundout to second and coming home on an error.
Baseballs were not so tightly wound and, unlike in the modern game, were not replaced by umpires for the slightest scuff mark. In baseball's early days, fans were expected to throw back foul balls, not keep them as souvenirs. Except for ballparks where it has become chic to throw a visiting player's home-run ball back onto the field, such a notion seems quaint. The political fallout of ushers wrestling wide-eyed little boys for the balls their dads caught would not be a pretty picture. Decades ago fans returned the balls willingly, and they were often used in play until they became soft and lopsided. Advantage pitcher, disadvantage power hitter.
Yet even by the mild hitting standards of the day, the 1906 White Sox could barely hit their way out of the infield. Still, they finished the regular season 93–58, won the American League pennant, then upset the crosstown Chicago Cubs, winners of a record 116 games, in the World Series. Frank Isbell hit .279, the club's best average, and as a team the Sox hit an anemic .230. It was the lowest batting average ever for a pennant winner. On their run to glory, the inexplicable White Sox won 19 games in a row, also a record.
With their 116–36 record, the Cubs expected to roll over the White Sox in what at the time was called the Trolley Car Series. Many Hall of Famers competed, including the Cubs' famed double-play combination — Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers, and Frank Chance — and immortal pitcher Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown. The Sox countered with Big Ed Walsh, Doc White, and timelier hitting to win the Series 4–2. Although there were several well-pitched games, Walsh's two-hitter with 12 strikeouts in a 3–0 Game 3 victory was pivotal. The Sox were without injured regular shortstop George Davis, too. Somehow the Hitless Wonders delivered a championship while batting just .198 for the Series, thus living up to their nickname.
The pitcher who helped the White Sox set the tone in the opener was left-hander Nick Altrock, one of baseball's great characters. Altrock, who made his major league debut in 1898 and played through 1924, was the 2–1 victor over the Cubs in the first game. A brief portion of Altrock's career was exceptional when he won 19, 20, and 23 games for the Sox in 1904, 1905, and 1906, respectively. But after becoming a vaudeville-type overnight sensation in the coaching box, Altrock converted to a fielder to better take advantage of playing opportunities.
Otherwise Altrock was known as a baseball funnyman whose clowning on the diamond provided more fan satisfaction than his attempts to locate the strike zone. Altrock possessed an expressive face, and he employed it energetically while dispensing his comedy. He was once described thus: "He has palm-leaf ears projecting like propellers. His nose reminds one of an inflated hot dog and his pachydermatous countenance of a dried elephant's pelt." The general interpretation would be that Altrock had big ears and a rubbery face. Altrock was the Clown Prince of Baseball before Max Patkin inherited the title.
Altrock, who performed at ballparks for decades, found that fans booed his humor more than his fastball. Once he tried to silence a fan by knocking his ears with debate. "If I had your mouth full of dollars bills, I'd retire," Altrock said. "If I had your ears full of nickels, I'd retire," the fan retaliated. Altrock merely laughed and said, "I guess the fan was right, but I wouldn't trade them ears for his mouth. Not even with the world's greatest tenderloin steak thrown in. Why, them ears are my trademark."
Sometimes Altrock teamed up with Al Schacht, a pitcher who had a brief fling with the Washington Senators between 1919 and 1921, and who also had a better sense of humor than control. Altrock introduced himself to Schacht by making fun of the other player's oversized nose. "Is that your schnozzle, or are you eating a banana?" Altrock asked. A beautiful partnership was born. For a time Altrock and Schacht reenacted the Jack Dempsey–Luis Firpo heavyweight championship bout. Dempsey won by knockout. The imitative duo always pulled their punches until the day Schacht thought it might improve the act if he connected on the KO bomb. This time when Altrock's facial muscles proved as flexible as silly putty, it was the real deal.
Altrock enjoyed playing golf, but he didn't have the ready cash for membership at the finest country clubs. He sometimes used his well-known, easily recognizable face as a calling card. Once Altrock was on an excursion in the Deep South and felt the itch to play the local links. He rented a limousine and directed it to a private club. Altrock unloaded his clubs and tipped a servant to carry the bag into the clubhouse. He hung around a moment or two until a group noticed him and, sure enough, one player recognized him. "Don't you gentlemen know that guy?" the player asked. "Why, he's Nick Altrock."
The golfers flipped a coin for the right to include Altrock in their foursome.
Before every mother admonished her son for spitting in public, Big Ed Walsh buttered his bread with saliva, so to speak. The greatest pitcher in Chicago White Sox history relied less on a fastball and curveball than on the spitter, which was legal to use during his early-20th-century career.
Walsh is a mythical figure in White Sox history. Although he led a long life, he is little-known to Sox fans of today except through the astounding numbers next to his name in the record books. Walsh was born in Pennsylvania in 1881 and died in Florida 78 years later. He stood 6'1" in his prime, tall for the early 1900s. Except for four appearances in his final season of 1917, Walsh pitched entirely for the White Sox starting in 1904. His career record was 195–126.
Reviewing some of Walsh's individual season totals leaves observers openmouthed. In 1908 Walsh won 40 games with a 1.42 earned-run average while throwing 464 innings and completing 42 of the 49 games he started. That was only the third-best ERA of Walsh's career, and four other times he threw between 368 and 422 innings in a season. You could almost hear Walsh saying, "I don't need no stinking relief pitchers." He was more of a workhorse than a Budweiser Clydesdale.
A modern manager who allowed a pitcher to throw that many innings would be arrested, ordered to repent, and sent to a reeducation camp in Afghanistan, probably for good reason. Walsh's spectacular career was cut short by arm miseries. His right arm probably dangled six inches longer than his left by the time he retired. In a career switch unfathomable to most baseball people, Walsh actually became a big-league umpire for a season in 1922. He also coached for the White Sox during their lean years in the 1920s.
For decades the debate raged over who was the best player that ever lived — Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth. But Walsh never hesitated in picking the 4,000-hit man over the 700–home run man. Not that he conceded much to the old Detroit Tiger, either.
"I never had any trouble with Ty," Walsh said. "He'd hit me. I'd stop him. He was the greatest. Ruth was a great pitcher when he was in it. Hitting the home runs, he had it. But the greatest was Mr. Ty Cobb. That's Mister Baseball for me."
Throughout his life, Walsh, who estimated that he signed 1.5 million autographs — more than Paris Hilton, Jessica Simpson, and Britney Spears combined — advocated for the return of the banned spitball to the sport he loved. It was no surprise that he admired the play of master strategist Cobb more than that of smash-'em-over-the-wall Ruth. Walsh was a product of the dead-ball era, and the way the game should be played was fixed in his mind from his youth and was never dislodged as power hitters took over the sport.
"The ball is too lively," Walsh, who never lived to hear of steroids, said in the early 1950s. "Everybody can hit a home run now. Why, I remember in '06 when we had a team batting average of .225 [actually .230] we had only three home runs all season [actually five], and I hit one of them. And to top it off, they took away from the pitcher a great pitch, the spitter.
"Unsanitary, my foot. You didn't slobber on the ball. Elmer Stricklett, the father of the spitball, taught it to me when we were rookie teammates in Chicago [in 1904], and I got it so I could break it different ways — straight down, down and away, or in — and if I came underhanded I could move it up-and-in on a hitter, too. Yet I barely wet two fingers before gripping the ball."
Walsh thought baseball was conspiring against pitchers even making a living because of the popularity of the home run.
"Livelier baseballs, smaller ballparks," he said. "They've practically got the poor pitchers working in straight jackets. They say removing the spitter cuts down on hit batsmen. Bah! They still allow the knuckleball, and that's three times as hard to control as the spitter."
In 1958, with Walsh in a wheelchair and suffering from arthritis and cancer, the White Sox toasted him with a special day at Comiskey Park. At the end of the Ed Walsh Day ceremony, Walsh spoke and said, "This day I'll remember as long as I live."
Then Walsh prepared to toss out a ceremonial first pitch to his old catcher, Ray Schalk, another Hall of Famer. "Throw him a spitball, Ed," someone teased Walsh. The idea tickled Walsh, and his face lit up. Then Walsh licked two fingers, gripped the ball, and threw to Schalk. The "pitch" traveled only about five feet into Schalk's mitt, but the old man made his point.CHAPTER 2
Prosperity and Scandal
Around the World
Travel was a bit slower in November 1913 when the Chicago White Sox and the New York Giants embarked on an around-the-world mission to spread the good word about baseball to unsuspecting nations that didn't know the hit-and-run from ring-around-the-rosy. It was a plan hatched by Comiskey and Giants manager John McGraw, and in an era without air travel, they traveled by ship to numerous exotic ports of call.
Actually, the players were not all Giants or White Sox, but representatives from many teams under the umbrella of those two clubs. The most notably misassigned player was young pitcher Red Faber, a White Sox minor leaguer who soon blossomed into a Hall of Famer. Farber was lent to the Giants for the duration before playing a single major league game for the Sox.
From a worldwide standpoint, the most famous player in the group was Jim Thorpe. Few people outside the United States knew anything about baseball, but Thorpe was at the peak of his fame. He had won the gold medal in the decathlon in the 1912 Summer Olympics and was heralded as the greatest athlete in the world. Although the term Native American was not in vogue at the time, when Comiskey welcomed Thorpe to the troupe, he said, "Why not? He's the only real American in the party, isn't he?"
The Americans sailed across the Pacific Ocean from Vancouver, Canada, and first played in Japan. They proceeded to China, the Philippines, and on to Australia, competing in three cities on that continent. Sometimes the touring major leaguers played head-to-head with indigenous clubs. But any baseball played overseas in 1913 was a far cry from the quality exhibited when teams from Japan and Cuba, most notably, pursued Olympic gold medals nearly a century later. The locals took beatings of 10–1 and 18–0 from the Giants and Sox in Australia. G'day, mate.
A most humorous exchange occurred in Egypt when the traveling teams played in Cairo before the royal head of state, Abbas Hilmi II, the khedive of Egypt. The leader brought his 43 wives to the game along with their 100 servants. Talk about filling a skybox. During the game the White Sox pulled off a rare triple play. The spectacular occurrence drew no special appreciation from the head guy, however, most likely because he didn't really gather its significance. Still, Norris "Tip" O'Neill, one of Comiskey's assistants (he traveled with fewer than 100 servants), seemed miffed and took the lack of demonstrative reaction as a slight.
"He didn't even notice that triple play!" O'Neill said to Comiskey.
Comiskey gazed at his man and said, "He's got enough to do. If you had 43 wives to watch, you wouldn't notice a triple play, either."
Excerpted from "Then Ozzie Said to Harold ..." by Lew Freedman, Billy Pierce. Copyright © 2008 Lew Freedman and Billy Pierce. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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