I began a journey 25 years ago that took a long break only to pick up again last week. It’s a search for the final resting place of the eight Chicago “Black Sox”. The Black Sox were members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox who allegedly conspired with gamblers to throw the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds.
There is considerable debate on the specific merits of the allegations. Legally, the accusations were dismissed in a court of law just as those against Ryan Braun were by Major League Baseball’s tribunal. Unlike Braun’s case, however, MLB’s decision maker and first commissioner, Kennesaw Mountain Landis, unilaterally ruled the eight men out of organized baseball for life.
The eight were all certainly involved in a conspiracy to throw the World Series to varying degrees. A few of them, Chick Gandil, Lefty Williams and Eddie Cicotte, likely took large amounts of money and committed errors of omission and commission to aid the outcome in favor of the Reds. A few likely accepted small amounts of money, but for a large part played their regular roles without intentionally contributing to the Reds win - Swede Risberg, Oscar “Happy” Felsch and Fred McMullin. Two of them, the great Shoeless Joe Jackson and Buck Weaver, took no money and played the 1919 World Series above reproach.
Joe and Buck likely had no part in the conspiracy and were merely guilty of possessing knowledge of the setup. In 1949, Furman Bisher, a legendary sports writer with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who recently died at age 93, conducted the only interview of Jackson about the scandal. President (then Senator) Obama has written Commissioner Bud Selig seeking Weaver’s reinstatement. Selig wrote him back and has yet to reinstate either Weaver or Jackson, which is a shame.
The eight players formed the core of what was considered baseball’s greatest team in the history of the game at the time the players were banned. Suddenly losing eight players, including seven starters, decimated the White Sox and sent them into a downward spiral that lasted more than 30 years. The White Sox didn’t win another American League pennant until 1959 or a World Series until 2005.
As a young boy, I first learned about the sacrilege from my dad who grew up on the south side of Chicago. He was born a few years after the eight were banned. Dad was an ardent fan of the poor excuse of a baseball team that the Sox had become and he supported the Pale Hose through thin and thinner. His description of the banned players was generally sympathetic, but he made no attempt to whitewash the players’ guilt.
Later in my childhood I learned more details of the case through books and motion pictures that immortalized the eight dishonorably discharged ball players. In 7th grade I read Eliot Asinof’s Eight Men Out and began to realize that it was a complicated case. The book painted the gamblers and White Sox owner Charles Comiskey as the real villains. The gamblers lured a group of mostly naive players to sell out the team’s owner who treated them poorly with low pay and broken promises. The conspiracy was painted in the book as an extension of a practice that was not uncommon during the period.
The film version of Eight Men Out, starring John Cusack, D.B. Sweeney and Charlie Sheen, dramatized Asinof’s book. Like any movie adapted from a non-fiction book, the film version exaggerates the characters’ traits demonizing Comiskey, the gamblers and Gandil, the players’ ringleader. Similarly, Weaver and Jackson had their innocence emphasized in the movie.
I read WP Kinsella’s Joe Jackson inspired novel Shoeless Joe in 1983 then fell in love with the film based on it, Field of Dreams six years later. Both the book and film are fantasy. They both convey the search for redemption and fulfilling missed opportunities that are central to the true life story of the Black Sox. The book inspired me to make a pair of visits to Jackson’s grave and the movie led me to two pilgrimages to its Dyersville, Iowa film location.
For most of the last 20 years the Black Sox were nothing more than a backdrop to my lifelong support of the White Sox. The eight men rarely came to the front of my conscience outside of occasional screenings of Field of Dreams or Eight Men Out on cable television.
Then last week I was reminded that Felsch, “the Pride of Teutonia Avenue” , lived out his life in Milwaukee. After finishing his blacklisted career playing outlaw baseball in Wisconsin, Montana, the Dakotas and Canada, he returned home and lived out his life in a second floor flat at 2460 N. 49th Street. In Milwaukee he worked as a saloon owner on Center Street and later as a crane operator for the George Meyer Company. Felsch died from a coronary blood clot due to arteriosclerosis on August 17, 1964, at Milwaukee's St. Francis Hospital. A quick internet search showed he was interned at Wisconsin Memorial Park just a couple miles from my office in Brookfield. On Thursday, with Felsch’s final resting place data in hand courtesy of www.FindAGrave.com, I ventured over to 13235 W. Capitol Drive to pay my respects.
Wisconsin Memorial Park is a large cemetery with several mausoleums and beautifully kept grounds. The crypt for Felsch and his wife Marie are in “The Gardens of the Last Supper” mausoleum at the south end of the park. Before spotting Felsch’s crypt, I came upon a historic piece of statuary. Close followers of this blog will recall that I have a fondness – some would say obsession – for statues. So the serendipitous discovery of the world’s largest carving made from a single block of marble blew me away by itself. And then to find out that this magnificent carving of the Last Supper was less than 20 feet from Felsch’s crypt was stunning. It really drove home the philosophy that some of the most wonderful parts of life are in the journey and not the destination.
The visit to Felsch’s crypt brought back memories of my earlier trips to Greenville, South Carolina to see Jackson’s grave. I remembered how wonderful those journeys were and decided that I would make visiting the final resting places of all eight black listed Chicago White Sox players a life goal. While I’m at it, I thought I should also visit the graves of the two other major actors in this morality play: Comiskey and Landis.
It won’t be simple, but it won’t be impossible either. The Find A Grave website has detailed information on all eight that I have yet to visit. Cicotte in Livonia, Michigan and Weaver and Landis in Chicago are all very doable as is Comiskey who is buried at Calvary Cemetery in Evanston. The other four are all in California, but spread throughout the state. McMullin and Williams are in southern California, Gandil’s in Napa County and Risberg is in Mt. Shasta near the Oregon border.
Weaver will be the next one I visit – probably before the White Sox opening day. I already have two Michiganders who have offered to travel to Livonia with me for the Cicotte visit. The four in California may take awhile.
The two in southern California can be accomplished during a single trip, which may happen in conjunction with another trip to Los Angeles before the end of the year. I occasionally travel to the San Francisco Bay area making a Gandil grave visit possible over the next several years.
Risberg in Mt. Shasta is the outlier. I have no other reason to visit that part of the country, so his grave will likely be my final destination. If I make it to all eight, that will be great. If not, that's ok, too, because the reward is in the journey, not the destination.