This is game 13 of the 2011 baseball season.
In the first inning let’s take a look at This Week in Baseball History for the 1 week of April.
1923 Expelled players Happy Felsch and Swede Risberg, both who were indicted on fixing the 1919 World Series, file suit against the White Sox for back salary and $400,000 in damages.
Oscar Emil Felsch, nicknamed “Happy”, was probably born August 22, 1891 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Broad and powerful, Felsch was a natural at playing the game; a superb centerfielder with exceptional range and a rifle arm. When the Black Sox scandal came out and he was barred from baseball, he was just emerging as a top power hitter in 1920.
From 1916 to 1920, Felsch was one of the best hitters in the American League, finishing in the top 10 in more than a few major batting categories. Warm, smiling, and amiable, he loved silly riddles, whiskey, ribald jokes, and playing baseball.
The 1919 Chicago Black Sox scandal shocked the sporting public and led to fundamental changes in the governance of professional baseball.
Sox left fielder “Shoeless Joe” Jackson and third baseman George “Buck” Weaver have garnered the most attention of the “Eight Men Out,” becoming mythologized in books and movies. Happy Felsch was just a common Milwaukeean caught up in momentous events of the turbulent 1910s and 20s. More than forty years later, his account of those events would be the primary source for Eliot Asinof’s book Eight Men Out and the movie that molded present-day understanding of the fix.
Felsch’s birth certificate does not exist but many baseball historical resources list his birth date as August 22, 1891 or unspecified dates in 1893 or 1894. However, his 1943 Social Security application and 1964 death certificate both state that he was born on April 7, 1891.
He did not read or write in 1900 but eventually could after receiving only a sixth grade education. This lack of formal education proved to haunt Felsch when he had to deal with shrewd baseball executives, underhanded gamblers, lawyers, and college-educated teammates.
Felsch’s easygoing nature and wonderful smile made the family nickname “Happy” a perfect fit.
In 1914, the muscular Felsch showcased his major-league potential both at the plate and in the outfield. He set home run distance records in Milwaukee and Kansas City and led the American Association in home runs with 19. Felsch batted a potent .304 with 41 doubles, and 11 triples.
On August 8, the White Sox acquired Felsch for $12,000. The Brewers were delighted that Chicago allowed their “fence breaker” to remain in Milwaukee for the duration of 1914. Felsch then signed a two-year contract with Chicago at a salary of $2,500 per year.
The 1915 White Sox started their steady ascent toward the top of the American League by rising from sixth to third place with a 93-61 record. This was due to the addition of energetic 33-year-old manager, Clarence Rowland, and five new position players including Hall of Fame second baseman Eddie Collins, “Shoeless Joe” Jackson and Felsch.
The newcomer in center finished with a .248 batting average, three home runs and 16 stolen bases in 121 games as a semi-regular. Felsch’s numbers could have been stronger except for a nagging leg injury he suffered early in the season.
The upcoming baseball season surely brought hope to Felsch and the White Sox. The promising club advanced to second place, overcoming a slow start to finish only two games behind the Red Sox. Charles Comiskey, the White Sox owner, was spending money to make money. Adding a pitcher of the caliber of Claude “Lefty” Williams to a staff that already included stars Eddie Cicotte, Red Faber, and Reb Russell helped the Sox break their attendance record with 679,923 fans, 140,462 more than in 1915.
Comiskey Park loyalists enjoyed watching Felsch belt seven home runs, out of a team total of 17. He led the Deadball Era Sox and tied for third in the American League. Suddenly he was in the upper echelon of American League hitters as he batted an even .300 and finished sixth in the league with a slugging average of .427.
For Happy Felsch it would never get better than 1917. In only his fifth season of professional ball, he became a national hero, thanks to a remarkable regular season and an exceptional World Series. The Sox center fielder was in a class with Hall of Fame outfielders Tris Speaker and Ty Cobb, thanks to his 1917 statistics: a 308 batting average, 102 runs batted in, and six home runs (which tied for fourth in the American League).
The White Sox captured their first pennant since 1906 with their finest record ever at 100-54, nine games in front of Boston. The champs led the league in stolen bases, triples, runs scored, on-base percentage, clutch hitting, shutouts and earned run average. Even as Chicago was winning in front of record-setting home attendance, clubhouse strife was beginning to fester. In response to his team’s remarkable performance, Comiskey reneged on promised cash bonuses.
Comiskey had picked up shortstop Swede Risberg and first baseman Chick Gandil to round out the starting lineup. Although both players were welcome additions on the diamond, they helped form divisive cliques in the clubhouse. Gandil also retained his connections to gamblers. Felsch fraternized with the boisterous, card-playing Risberg/Gandil group that was often in conflict with the higher-educated Ray Schalk/Eddie Collins faction. The seeds of discord that led to the 1919 scandal were sown.
Climaxing this year of destiny was the 1917 World Series, the last one the White Sox have won.
Game 1, played at Comiskey Park on Saturday, October 6, was decided by a long home run to deep left field by Felsch, giving the White Sox a 2-0 lead in a game they eventually won 2-1 over the New York Giants.
In Game 2, Chicago continued its winning ways as Felsch contributed to the 7-2 victory with a hit-and-run single and several outstanding fielding plays. That Sunday evening the Sox and Giants left for New York, arriving on Monday afternoon. Game 3, scheduled for Tuesday at the Polo Grounds, was rained out.
The Giants recovered to tie the Series at two games each with back-to-back shutouts of the hard-hitting Sox. Comiskey Park hosted Game 5 on Saturday, October 13.
The White Sox came back from a 5-2 deficit to win 8-5 with Felsch going 3 for 5. The teams traveled again to New York where, on Monday, Chicago captured the Series, four games to two, with a 4-2 victory.
In addition to his World Series check of $3,666 (almost matching his salary of $3,750), the popular star received presents including a gold watch, a set of silverware, and $100 worth of shares in American Aircraft. The papers glorified Felsch by claiming that he made $10,000 a year and accepted enough complimentary drinks to start his own brewery.
Events surrounding World War I had some effect on the White Sox and major league baseball in 1917 as the United States declared war on Germany five days before the season opened. In June, all men ages 21-30 were required to register for the first universal military draft in U. S. history.
Club owners were pleased that they lost very few draftees or volunteers. Teams participated in promotions to raise funds for Liberty bonds and the Red Cross. Patriotism was advanced by allowing free admission to servicemen and staging military parades at ballparks.
The White Sox even donned unique red, white and blue uniforms complemented by white stockings with red and blue stripes. These were worn only during the World Series and then retired.
The government also suspended all horse racing. Author Harvey Frommer, in his 1992 book, Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball, described how these closings increased the presence of gamblers in baseball circles:
“With racetracks closed down, gamblers seeking another outlet to ply their trade turned their attention to the national pastime. The lobbies of hotels where major league teams stayed became conspicuous congregating places for gamblers and their assorted retinue. And they vied with each other for the bragging rights to which games and which players they had been able to fix.”
Major league baseball, the White Sox and Felsch experienced tough times in the intensified war year of 1918. The season was shortened so that baseball could comply with the “work or fight” edict of May 18. This decreed that any male between ages 21 and 31 in a nonessential job must enlist, secure a war-related job or be reclassified with a lower draft number.
Owners wanted an extension of the July 1 deadline and asked for October 15. The government gave baseball September 2, except for the two World Series teams, granted September 15.
Players who did not enlist hurried to take exempt jobs in shipyards, steel mills, war-production factories and farms. Many of them, now subject to criticism as slackers, then played ball in industrial leagues. Owners and the press resented athletes who avoided military service by working for companies with baseball teams. A disgusted Comiskey, alluding to Felsch, Jackson and Williams, went so far as to say, “There is no room on my club for players who wish to evade the army draft by entering the employ of ship owners.”
The defending champion White Sox got off to a rocky start as the train transporting them to spring training derailed March 18 in Texas. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but Felsch missed the beginning of camp due to a sudden illness. The season continued downhill as the Sox lost many key players to the war effort. The club finished in sixth place with a 57-67 record before only 198,081 Comiskey Park customers. This was a significant decline from the 684,521 who watched the 100-54 pennant winners of 1917.
The glory of 1917 must have seemed like a distant memory to Felsch as he struggled both on and off the field in 1918. The star outfielder left the Sox for 12 days in May as he visited a seriously injured brother in a Texas Army camp.
Alarming his family and manager Rowland, the distraught Felsch remained incommunicado during the entire trip.
Surprising the defending champs with a sudden resignation on July 1st, Felsch announced that he was taking a war-effort job at the Milwaukee Gas Company for $125 per month plus earnings from weekend semipro ball. This paled in comparison to the $3,750 contract he walked away from.
Sportswriters believed that the distractions of the “work or fight” edict and the Sox’ anger over the length of his May trip to Texas caused Felsch to play below his normal standards. Comiskey tried to downplay any strife by claiming, “I regard Felsch as one of the most promising young ball players that ever entered the major leagues. But he was not much use to us in the last few weeks as his mind was not on baseball. However, when in form, he is a real star, as he is a born ball player.”
Normally a modest man, Felsch kept quiet about the dispute until July 18. That day, the Milwaukee Sentinel reported the disgruntled star’s desire to return to the American League with any team other than the White Sox. TheSporting News reported that Felsch departed due to disputes with Comiskey regarding pay, abstinence from drinking, and the Texas journey, plus a personal conflict with Eddie Collins.
After the 1918 season, Comiskey replaced manager Rowland with popular long-time White Sox coach “Kid” Gleason, stating that Rowland had lost control of the team. Even though the war ended on November 11, heading off the expected shutdown of the 1919 season, it had a profound impact upon the White Sox. The club was torn by dissension due to internal wage disparities and disputes between players who enlisted in the military versus those who took exempt war-effort jobs.
Comiskey alienated his players by giving them less meal money than other clubs and attempting to make them pay for laundering their uniforms. Meanwhile, the owner maintained his superb public image by lavishing journalists and politicians with first-class food, drink and travel accommodations. His penny-pinching of players went unreported by a beholden press that was fed inflated salary figures. This practice made Comiskey and his stars look exceptional. The stage had been set for the tumultuous 1919 season.
With Gleason serving as a capable mediator, the White Sox promptly brought back stateside war workers Felsch, Jackson and Williams. Felsch quickly regained his form in 1919, leading the American League with 32 outfield assists and 15 double plays. Four of the assists came on August 14, allowing Felsch to tie a major league record that stands to this day.
Felsch batted a solid .275 for the top run-producing team in the majors and slugged seven home runs, tying Jackson for the club lead.
Many of these statistics could have been more impressive had the owners not shortened the 1919 campaign. Anticipating lower attendance as the public recovered from the war, the baseball moguls cut the regular season from 154 to 140 contests. In addition, American League rosters were reduced from 25 to 21, and salaries were depressed in anticipation of lower gate receipts. These concerns proved to be unfounded as war-weary fans flocked back to the national pastime.
Attendance rose to 627,186 from 195,081 for the American League champion White Sox and to 6.5 million from 3 million in the majors. In an effort to recoup some revenue lost to the ill-advised shortened season, the owners extended the upcoming World Series between the Cincinnati Reds and the White Sox from seven to nine games.
Some of the White Sox, playing in an atmosphere poisoned by unchecked wagering and lower-than-market salaries, were eager to cash in. Owners and league executives generally ignored betting as they encouraged any interest in their sport. Baseball was revered as upright and patriotic. Charles Comiskey stated in an authorized 1919 biography, “To me baseball is as honorable as any other business … It has to be or it could not last a season out. Crookedness and baseball do not mix.”
In this era long before free agency, many ballplayers received wages far below their market value. Bound to their teams by the reserve clause, they could sign for what the owners offered or go home. Black Sox such as Felsch, Jackson and fix organizer Gandil were rightly upset that their three salaries combined were less than the $15,000 made by college-educated Eddie Collins. The eight Black Sox averaged $4,300 in 1919.
To this day it is still unclear exactly how the Series was fixed and who the principals were. However, many of the favored Sox did play poorly, whether it was because they took money from gamblers, feared retribution from gangsters, or endured an ordinary slump. Felsch himself was full of contradictions, both in his on-field performance as well as in interviews in later years.
At the plate, Felsch produced only a .192 batting average with one extra base hit, a double, in the eight-game Series loss. The hard hitter made satisfactory contact but was robbed several times by superb Cincinnati fielding. In hindsight, some sportswriters looked at his sudden inability to advance runners and several questionable running and fielding misplays as possible proof of Felsch’s involvement in a fix.
After botching catches in both Games 5 and 6, the normally sure-handed centerfielder was demoted to right field for Game 7.
After dropping the World Series, the defeated Sox returned home with promised losers’ shares of $3,154 and without their normal triumphant attitude and the $5,207 winners’ portions, the largest in baseball history. Comiskey, responding to what he called “nasty rumors,” even publicly offered a $20,000 reward to anyone with evidence of a fix, but added, “I believe my boys fought the battles of the recent World Series on the level, as they have always done.” Later he announced that he was withholding the losers’ shares from eight of his players, “pending further investigations.” Despite his protestations of ignorance, Comiskey chose the correct eight.
Rumors of a fix were flying even before the first game. Many sportswriters heard them, but they never appeared in print. The day after the Series ended, one of the most prominent writers, Hugh Fullerton, urged his readers to “forget the suspicious and evil-minded yarns that may be circulated.” However, he added, “There are seven men on the team who will not be there when the gong sounds next Spring. . . .”
Later Fullerton wrote that he had been present when manager Gleason told Comiskey that the rumors were fact.
The off-season proved disturbing for Felsch. In November, he and other Black Sox were the subjects of a private investigation. Comiskey hired detectives to check if his players were making suspiciously large purchases or lifestyle changes.
Operative #11 of Hunter’s Secret Service conducted the Felsch surveillance only to uncover contradictory information. The investigator discovered that Felsch recently moved from his father’s home on North 26th Street back to his in-laws’ neighborhood on Teutonia Avenue. While the slugger was on a duck-hunting trip, #11 gained access to the Felsch apartment under the pretense of renting a furnished room. The eight-room, no-bath living quarters above Mrs. Lamber’s grocery were crowded as the Felsch family lived with Marie’s parents, sister, and the sister’s two small children. The private eye believed the neighborhood to be poor. He found Felsch’s recent purchase of a new $1,800 Hupmobile — a solid automobile bought by those rising from the working class-inconsistent with living in a cramped $22-per-month apartment.
After the secret investigation, Comiskey was left with no choice but to mail the $3,154 checks. He could find no evidence that anyone but Gandil went on a spending spree.
Felsch then received an unexpectedly generous contract from the White Sox. Comiskey’s top assistant, Harry Grabiner, made a special trip to Teutonia Avenue in late 1919 to sign the centerfielder to a 1920 contract that included a surprising $3,000 raise.
Felsch, taken aback by Comiskey’s sudden generosity, signed even as Grabiner reminded him that he could not play with anyone but the White Sox. In addition, Grabiner mentioned the swirling scandal rumors and called for Felsch’s silence, both with the press and with American League inquisitors. It was apparent that Comiskey desired his stars back and was finally willing to invest in salaries commensurate with their talents in order to purchase their silence. Further investigations could result in ruinous player punishments.
In a cruel bit of irony, Felsch’s finest year on the diamond was to be his last. He established career highs of 14 home runs, 188 hits, 88 runs, 40 doubles, 15 triples, 115 runs batted in and a .338 batting average.
1920 batters enjoyed a livelier ball, the new requirement that umpires only keep fresh, unmarred spheres in play, and the outlawing of trick pitches (except for the grand-fathered spitball pitchers).
The Sox proceeded to stay in the 1920 pennant race until the events of a turbulent September caused them to succumb to the Cleveland Indians.
September of 1920 proved to be the final month of Felsch’s brilliant career. On September 7 a Chicago grand jury was impaneled to investigate the possible fix of an August 31 Cubs-Phillies game.
After the hearings began on September 22, the focus quickly shifted to the tainted 1919 World Series. On Monday, September 27, the seven remaining Black Sox (Gandil had retired) suited up for the last time.
The unsophisticated Cicotte and Jackson, counseled by Comiskey’s attorney, confessed to the grand jury on September 28 after ignorantly signing waivers of immunity. That very same day, immediately after the indictments, Comiskey suspended the seven implicated players.
By now, the fix story was front-page national news. Reporter Harry Reutlinger of the Chicago Evening American was looking to secure his scandal facts first-hand from one of the players. He was advised to visit Felsch, who was uneducated but considered affable enough to talk. Armed with a bottle of Scotch, Reutlinger quickly got Felsch to open up.
In a September 30, 1920, article, Felsch verifies Cicotte’s confession:
“Well, the beans are all spilled and I think that I am through with baseball. I got my $5,000 and I suppose the others got theirs too. If you say anything about me, don’t make it appear that I’m trying to put up an alibi. I’m not. I’m as guilty as the rest of them. We were in it alike. I don’t know what I’m going to do now… I’m going to hell, I guess… I wish that I hadn’t gone into it. I guess we all do…
I never knew where my $5,000 came from. It was left in my locker at the clubhouse and there was always a good deal of mystery about the way it was dealt out. That was one of the reasons why we never knew who double crossed us on the split of the $100,000. It was to have been an even split. But we never got it… But when they let me in on the idea too many men were involved. I didn’t like to be a squealer and I knew that if I stayed out of the deal and said nothing about it they would go ahead without me and I’d be that much money out without accomplishing anything. I’m not saying this to pass the buck to the others. I suppose that if I had refused to enter the plot and had stood my ground I might have stopped the whole deal.
We all share the blame equally. I’m not saying that I double crossed the gamblers, but I had nothing to do with the loss of the world’s series. The breaks just came so that I was not given a chance to do anything toward throwing the game. The records show that I played a pretty good game. I know I missed one terrible fly but, you can believe me or not, I was trying to catch that ball…I got $5,000. I could have got just about that much by being on the level if the Sox had won the series. And now I’m out of baseball-the only profession I know anything about, and a lot of gamblers have gotten rich. The joke seems to be on us.”
1920 ended with Felsch, Swede Risberg, Buck Weaver and utility infielder Fred McMullin hiring an attorney as they began their fight for reinstatement. Meanwhile, the owners set the tone for baseball’s future by hiring their first commissioner, stern federal Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis.
Two strikingly different versions of justice were meted out to Felsch and the Black Sox in 1921.
A jury acquitted the ballplayers as no state statute prohibited throwing games.
The following day Judge Landis, in his relentless effort to redeem baseball’s credibility, gave this famous edict:
“Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player that throws a ball game; no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ball game; no player that sits in a conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing games are planned and discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.”
Felsch spent the next 15 years touring the country with various amateur and semi-pro teams. After his playing days ended, he opened up a grocery store as well a number of drinking establishments.
Eliot Asinof. author of the book 8 Men Out, published in 1963 (and inspiration for the movie Eight Men Out, released in 1988), recounts his interview of Felsch for his authoritative 1963 chronicle of the scandal. Asinof started his detailed research in 1960 when only four of the eight Black Sox were still alive. Cicotte, Gandil and Risberg either refused or stonewalled Asinof’s inquiries. Felsch became his primary source.
Asinof detected hurt, guilt, and remorse in Felsch’s voice as he said, “I shoulda knew better. I just didn’t have the sense I was born with. It matters. It still matters.”
Asinof described Felsch as a fine storyteller who was humble and amusing. He did express great contempt for the penny-pinching Comiskey and his fawning sportswriters.
Regarding the scandal, he told Asinof, “It was a crazy time. I don’t know how it happened, but it did, all right.” He went on to say, “God damn, I was dumb, all right. Old Gandil was smart and the rest of us was dumb.”
If not for the Black Sox scandal, Happy Felsch might be remembered as one of the best all-around center fielders in baseball history. His superb skills induced reporters and managers of his era to compare him favorably with future Hall of Famers.
Philadelphia Athletics manager Connie Mack referred to Happy as “the greatest all around fielder in the country today, not barring Tris Speaker and Ty Cobb.”
Cobb himself proclaimed, “Hap Felsch was a wonder.”
None other than Babe Ruth ranked Felsch as the best center fielder of his era, asserting, “I would rate Hap Felsch of the old White Sox and Tris Speaker far superior to Cobb on the defense. Felsch was a greater ball hawk than Speaker, and what an arm he had!”
Happy Felsch died August 17, 1964 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin at the age of 73.
A large part of this biography comes from the SABR Baseball Biography Project written by Jim Nitz. It can be found online at http://bioproj.sabr.org
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Well, that’s it for today’s Baseball History Podcast. I’ll see you later at the ballpark.