Grave Story: Charles Comiskey (1859-1931)

Here lies Charles Comiskey, one of the pioneers of baseball and a founder of the American League. Unfortunately, his legacy in the game has been tarnished, as his (inaccurate) portrayal as the miserly owner of the Chicago White Sox has been tied to the Black Sox scandal of the 1919 World Series. What is true is that he is a Hall of Famer and the only person who can lay claim to being a baseball player, manager and sole owner of a major-league team. Comiskey, an innovative first baseman, played for the St. Louis Brown Stockings/Browns of the American Association (1882-89, 1891), Chicago Pirates of the Players League (1890) and Cincinnati Reds (1892-94). He owned the White Sox from the start of the American League (as a major league) in 1901 until his death in 1930.

Charles Albert Comiskey was born in Chicago on August 15, 1859. His father, John Comiskey, was a city alderman who had emigrated from Crosserlough, County Caven, Ireland. The elder Comiskey wanted his son to become a plumber. However, Charles grew up in a city that was one of the base ball hot spots in the country. Comiskey decided to heft a bat instead of a pipe wrench and signed up to play third base for a team called the Alerts for $60 a month when he was 17.

The Comiskey mausoleum at Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Evanston, Ill.

While attending St. Mary’s College, Comiskey was discovered by manager Ted Sullivan, an incredibly influential figure, not only for baseball in general but for Comiskey’s career in particular. Sullivan, notes author Edward Achorn in his book The Summer of Beer and Whiskey, whisked the youngster away from school and into amateur baseball. He followed Sullivan around the Midwest, playing in places like Milwaukee and Elgin, Ill. He developed into a decent change pitcher – the guy who took the mound when the team’s regular pitcher was too exhausted to start. However, first base became his best position. Many first baseman of the era played close to the bag. Comiskey, with his athleticism, was able to play off the bag and still field his position well. Tom Brown, a contemporary player, noted that Comiskey sometimes employed a shift against right-handed hitters, where he moved to short right field and let the pitcher cover first base.

By 1879 he was playing for Sullivan’s team in Dubuque, Iowa, alongside past and future major-leaguers like the Gleason brothers (Bill and Jack), Old Hoss Radbourn and Tom Loftus. The Iowa squad became a fierce semipro team, even taking on the major league teams in exhibitions.

The Dubuques played the St. Louis Browns in 1881 in an exhibition game. The Browns, owned by Chris Von der Ahe, were a year away from being one of the inaugural American Association teams. Sullivan advised that Von der Ahe sign Comiskey to play first base, and before the 1882 AA season started, Comiskey was one of the Browns’ prized offseason signings.

Comiskey’s first season with the Browns was a decent start. He batted .243 with one home run, but he played very well at first base. He pitched in two games, including a start against the Louisville Eclipse. He threw a complete game but lost 8-3, with all 8 runs being unearned. His biggest contribution to the team was probably the way be talked about Ted Sullivan to Von der Ahe. The team’s owner was disillusioned with his manager, Ned Cuthbert, and many of the team’s veterans were in favoring of replacing him with Sullivan. Von der Ahe persuaded Sullivan to act as the team’s manager in 1883, and Comiskey became a team captain at the age of 23.

Comiskey improved greatly in 1883, slashing .294/.313/.397 with 17 doubles and a couple of home runs. While stolen bases weren’t recorded at the time, he was one of the fastest players on the team. The Browns finished the season in second place, in spite of behind-the-scenes problems. Von der Ahe couldn’t help but interfere with his manager from time to time. On August 30, after accusing Sullivan of being too lax with his players, Sullivan angrily quit and took a train back to Iowa. Von der Ahe put Comiskey in charge of the team, and he led the Browns to 12 wins in 19 games to finish off the season with a 65-33 record.

A peek through the mausoleum bars at Charles Comiskey’s final resting place.

Comiskey slumped in 1884 and was bothered by injuries and batted just .237, albeit with 84 RBIs. The Browns were once again in turmoil, as Von der Ahe had hired Jimmy Williams, former American Association secretary, to be the team’s manager. It was not one of the owner’s best moves, as it was widely assumed that Williams would be out of his depth trying to wrangle ballplayers instead of paperwork. Sure enough, he quit with 23 games left in the season, and Comiskey once again took over the team to finish off the season with a disappointing fourth-place finish.

Faced with having to hire a third manager in as many seasons, Von der Ahe decided to just stick with Comiskey as the Browns’ player/manager for 1885. It ended up being one of his best on-field decisions, and Comiskey and the Browns captured four straight American Association pennants from 1885 to 1888. For Comiskey, it was the start of a long career as a player/manager.

As a manager, Comiskey’s best season came in 1886, when he led the Browns to a 93-46 record. Pitchers Dave Foutz (41-16 record, 2.11 ERA) and Bob Caruthers (30-14, 2.32) were the pitching leaders, while Tip O’Neill (.328 average, 107 RBIs) and Arlie Latham (.301 average, 60 stolen bases) provided much of the offense. As a hitter that year, Comiskey batted .254 and drove in 76 runs. He also stole 41 bases in the first season that they are counted as a stat on Baseball Reference. The American Association and National League champions played an exhibition series of games in a proto-World Series, and the Browns defeated the Chicago White Stockings four games to two.

“Their hard, steady and all-pull-together style of playing landed them on top on more than one occasion when defeat seemed inevitable,” reported the St. Louis Globe-Democrat as the paper praised the Browns for outclassing the Stockings at every turn.

Comiskey enjoyed his finest overall season at the plate in 1887. He slashed .335/.374/.416, stole 117 bases and drove in 103 runs while scoring 139 times. The Browns went 95-40 to once again lead the AA, but they lost in the 15-game(!) postseason to the Detroit Wolverines 10 games to 5.

By the time the Browns’ dynasty was ending, Comiskey was regarded as one of the finest captains (aka managers) in the game, compared favorably to the likes of Cap Anson, Jimmy Wood and even Harry Wright. “He teaches his men to sacrifice everything in order to advance the interests of the club, but unlike Anson he never humiliates his men on the field,” one reporter noted. “When it is necessary to reprimand any of them for an error or misconduct he does it quietly.”

Source: Library of Congress

Comiskey’s relationship with the Browns and Von der Ahe temporarily ended after the 1889 season, when Comiskey jumped to the new Players League (or The Brotherhood as it was called) to become the player/manager of the Chicago team. Comiskey believed The Brotherhood was after the best interest of the players.

“I believe that if the players do not this time stand true to their colors and maintain their organization they will from this day forward be at the mercy of the corporations who have been running the game, who drafted the reserve rule and give birth to the obnoxious classification system,” he wrote to the Sporting News, explaining his decision.

Comiskey took a good chunk of St. Louis’ offense with him to Chicago in Tip O’Neill and Arlie Latham. The Chicago Pirates also had veteran Fred Pfeffer, Jimmy Ryan and youngsters like Hugh Duffy and Silver King. However, the team finished in fourth place in the League’s only season, and Comiskey, now 30, batted .244 in a part-time role at first base.

After the Players League folded, Comiskey went back to the Browns for the 1891 season. He managed the ballclub to a second-place finish in the AA, but the relationship between he and the team had been strained, and he left after one season to join the Cincinnati Reds after Von der Ahe rejected his $7,000 salary request. “St. Louis fans are not weeping at the prospective departure of Charlie Comiskey,” reported the papers. “The latter’s name and fame are on the wane.”

As far as a player goes, the news was pretty accurate. Comiskey batted .227 for the Reds in 1892 in his last season as a full-time player. His ended his playing career with a decent 1894 season, as he batted .268 and drove in 38 runs in 63 games. He managed the Reds to plus-.500 seasons in 1892 and ’93 before a 10th-place finish in 1894. When he and the Reds parted ways after the season, he ended his major-league playing and managing career.

In 13 years in three different major leagues, Comiskey slashed .264/.293/.337, with 1,529 hits that included 207 doubles, 68 triples and 28 home runs. He stole 416 bases in the nine seasons where the stat was counted. He had a career OPS+ of 82 and was worth 7.7 Wins Above Replacement. As a manager for 12 years, he had an 839-540-29 record, won four pennants and one “World Series” in 1886.

Comiskey had a definite idea on how baseball should be structured into the future. In 1892, after the American Association had folded, he was asked how to “fix” baseball. “I think the proper remedy is a return to two leagues of eight clubs each, with one championship and a shorter season,” he replied. When asked if the formation of another league would lead to another war, he added, “I do not think there is a good fight left in any baseball magnate in the country. For that reason I am confident they would get along peacefully.”

Comiskey spent the next decade trying to make that vision a reality. He developed a friendship with Ban Johnson, and the two became big names in the launch of the new Western League. Johnson was elected president of the new league, and Comiskey ended up with the St. Paul franchise. Comiskey, who was 35 years old when the Western League began play in 1895, played a little, but he mostly focused on being the owner and field manager.

The St. Paul Saints were one of the constants of the Western League for the next five years, along with the Detroit Tigers, Milwaukee Brewers, Minneapolis Millers and Kansas City Blues. The League had savvy baseball men in charge. Comiskey built up a talented and financially successful team, but he and Johnson wanted something larger.

At the close of the 1899 season, the Western League was transformed into the American League. The AL, with designs of becoming a major league, kept the WL teams in cities that had no National League clubs like Detroit, Milwaukee and Kansas City. Cleveland was added after the National League’s Spiders had been contracted out of existence. Instead of two Minnesota teams, it was announced that Comiskey would take over the reins of an AL club in Chicago, placing the two leagues in direct competition in one of the game’s largest markets. James Hart, owner of the NL Chicago team (called the Orphans at this point after parting with long-time manager Cap Anson), didn’t object to the move (as if he had a choice) provided the new team stay on the South Side, while his team had the North Side. Comiskey called his team the White Sox – a nod to the NL team’s old “White Stockings” name.

Source: New York Public Library digital collection.

The National League tried to broker peace with the AL by allowing them to be an 8-team minor league. The AL had powerful leadership with Comiskey, Johnson, Cleveland owner Charles Somers, Milwaukee owners Matt and Henry Killilea and Milwaukee manager Connie Mack, and they held firm. And they won. After the 1900 season, the American League was considered a separate major league, with new teams in National League cities like Boston and Philadelphia. Comiskey’s vision of two leagues had come to pass. He would get the championship series he envisioned as well, though that took a couple more years and considerable negotiations before the World Series came to be.

Comiskey had managed the 1900 “minor-league” White Sox to the league championship, but starting in 1901, he kept to the front office. The White Sox finished in first in 1901 with an 83-53 record under player/manager Clark Griffith. Comiskey, at 43, was considered by one columnist “the brainiest man in the American League and believed to be the real power behind the throne.”

By 1905, the tight relationship between Johnson and Comiskey had unraveled, throwing the balance of power in the AL into disarray. Comiskey alleged that Johnson was conspiring with National League management to merge the two leagues to the NL’s favor – remember, the American and National Leagues were two separate entities once upon a time. Johnson denied the charges and said that he had to make a couple of rulings against Comiskey when he and his team’s abusive behavior toward umpires led to complaints.

Johnson had a tumultuous reign as AL president. However, a casual glance of 115-year-old newspapers makes it seem like he was trying to coexist with the Senior Circuit, while Comiskey preferred cutting throats and emerging as the sole survivor of the baseball wars. “At one time we had the National League on the rush and could have put it out of business had we continued to pursue the right policy, but some of those in the American League allowed the wool to be pulled over their eyes and the National got back what it had lost, if not more,” he said in a prepared statement just before the AL winter meetings in 1905. He accused the National League of conspiring to crush the AL and Johnson of being complicit. “I will fight the National League to a finish,” he concluded.

The “Hitless Wonders” Chicago White Sox won their first World Series in 1906 by knocking off their crosstown rivals the Cubs four games to two. After the Series was over, Comiskey walked into manager Fielder Jones’ office and gave him a $15,000 check, to be distributed equally among the players. That money was not part of the regular postseason share that the players received, but a bonus that represented about half of Comiskey’s share of the gate receipts. Comiskey was on top of the baseball world and even set aside his feud with Johnson to propose a raise in the president’s salary at the winter meetings.

The White Sox wouldn’t return to the World Series for another decade. Comiskey spent that time continuing his bitter feud with Johnson and trying to vote him out of office. He built White Sox Park, a brand-new stadium for his team, for the 1910 season. It would eventually bear his name and remain home to the White Sox until 1991. The Sox, meanwhile, became a middle-of-the-road team until 1915, when they finished in third place with 93 wins. The big news of the season was a trade Comiskey engineered with Cleveland that brought Shoeless Joe Jackson to Chicago’s South Side. The acquisition of Jackson was part of a $100,000 spending spree to acquire or retain talents like Eddie Collins, Jackson and Ray Schalk. Comiskey’s spending was justified when the White Sox won the AL pennant in 1917 and knocked off the New York Giants in six games to win the World Series again. Giants manager John McGraw stated that he would rather lose the Series to Comiskey than any other person connected with baseball.

A syndicated sketch of Comiskey from 1913.

If you want to read about the ins and outs of the Black Sox scandal, then I will direct you to “Eight Myths Out,” which has been put together by SABR and SABR Black Sox expert Jacob Pomrenke. It’s a wonderful collection of articles that help to debunk many of the misconceptions and inaccuracies that have sprung up around the event, thanks largely in part to Eliot Asinof’s Eight Men Out.

Charles Comiskey was, prior to the 1919 World Series, as popular an owner as baseball had at the time. He was a former player who worked his way up to the very top of the food chain, and he ran the White Sox with the same fire and passion that made him a successful player/manager decades ago.

By 1913, he had become one of the wealthiest men in the game, but he could have been richer still if, as a syndicated column noted, “he wasn’t so good to so many of his friends. It was ‘Commy’ who made comfortable the last days of Von der Ahe, and if his private check book could be examined it would show that his charity runs to thousands a year.”

But how did he treat his players? According to that same column, “he takes his White Sox on transcontinental training trips in a private train and does everything upon a large scale. His heart is so big that he is never happier than when making it possible for someone to have a good time.”

Doesn’t sound like the kind of guy who would force his players to wear dirty uniforms to save on laundry bills, does it?

By 1919, The Old Roman, as he was known, was 60 years old and had been involved in professional baseball for nearly 40 years. When rumors of the World Series fix began circulating, he staunchly defended his players, offering a $10,000 reward for any proof of wrongdoing. “I am driven nearly crazy for the last four days with these stories about my players. They arose before the Series ended,” he said on October 15, about a week after the Series concluded. “Smart men have told me these reports, but I personally have no knowledge of them. Nobody has produced a thing to show that these rumors have any solid foundation.”

Privately, Comiskey met with Sox manager Kid Gleason during the winter meetings to compare notes, and he maintained that there was no evidence of a fix. He even hired private detectives to look into the matter. The truth of the scandal broke wide open on September 28, 1920, when eight White Sox players were indicted by a Cook County grand jury. Seven of the players were still with the team, and Comiskey promptly suspended all of them. In doing so, he removed three .300 hitters (Jackson, Buck Weaver and Happy Felsch) from the lineup and two 20-game winners (Ed Cicotte and Lefty Williams) from the starting rotation while they were still fighting for back-to-back pennants. The White Sox lost two of their last three ballgames, while the Cleveland Indians split their final four games. Cleveland won the AL pennant by 2 games on their way to winning the World Series. Even if the Sox had won their remaining games, they couldn’t have caught Cleveland, but Comiskey’s move virtually guaranteed the team a second place finish.

Incidentally, the Yankees ownership wired Comiskey and offered all their players to help the depleted White Sox get through the rest of the year. Comiskey declined the offer, noting that the trade deadline had already passed. But can you imagine if the White Sox had “borrowed” Babe Ruth and Carl Mays at the end of the year?

The feeling toward Comiskey at this point seemed to have been one of sympathy, if anything. The Sox, deprived of so many star players, fell into a tailspin that lasted for decades. Comiskey himself was never really allowed to move past the scandal. In 1922, Felsch filed suit to recover the remainder of his 1920 salary. In his suit, he alleged that the White Sox paid off the Detroit Tigers to lose a key game in 1917, with Comiskey deducting $50 from each player’s paycheck to pay certain Tigers pitchers. In return, the Sox threw games to the Tigers after they clinched the 1919 pennant. Comiskey flatly denied the charges and stated that his “enemies” were backing Felsch.

Jackson would later state that the Sox knew about the fix before they signed him to his 1920 contract, contradicting everything the owner had said previously. The scandal would haunt Comiskey for the rest of his life.

Comiskey poses with some locals during a visit to Dubuque, Iowa, where his baseball career really took off. He’s shown holding a bass that he caught — presumably while wearing something other than that suit. Source: The Des Moines Register, May 26, 1907.

Nan Comiskey, his wife of 40 years, died on October 28, 1922, after a long illness. The owner began to stay away from the owners’ meetings as his own health ebbed and flowed. He returned to the meetings in December 1924, after a four-year absence, to launch another attack on his old foe, Ban Johnson. “Johnson called our esteemed leader [Commissioner Kenesaw] Landis, a ‘crazy nut.’ This man Johnson has done more to hurt the game in recent years than any other influence. He should be kicked out, right now,” Comiskey said. The result was a resolution commending the Landis administration, which was a slap in the face to Johnson’s authority.

Comiskey continued to invest in Comiskey Park, spending $900,000 on a renovation in 1927 that boosted the seating capacity of the stadium. He went through a series of managers, but nobody had luck in pulling the White Sox out of the second division. “I’ll live to see my ball club up there again,” he predicted in 1929. “It’s a hard job to build up a pennant winner, but I’ve done it many times before and since God has spared me, I’m going to do it again. I am the sole owner of the White Sox and I will be as long as I’m on this earth. So the fans of Chicago needn’t be looking around speculating who’s going to rebuild the White Sox.”

Charles Comiskey died in his sleep on October 26, 1931, in his summer home in Eagle River, Wis. He was 72 years old and had been suffering from heart and kidney ailments that had kept him confined to his home for weeks. He was the last surviving owner from the formation of the American League who was still active in the game. (The Indians former owner Charles Somers was still alive but had been out of baseball for years.) He had outlived his nemesis Ban Johnson by seven months.

His body was brought back home to the Chicagoland area, and he is buried in the family mausoleum in Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Evanston, Ill. In 1939, Comiskey was elected to the Hall of Fame, along with 19th-Century legends Albert Spalding, Old Hoss Radbourne, Cap Anson and Buck Ewing.

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