While I love to read and write about the game on the field, it's really the story of the people who played the game that captures my imagination. It's the story of Edward Bredell, suffering through the siege of Vicksburg and dying, far from home, in the Shenandoah Valley. It's Henry Gratiot, forging a new life on the Illinois-Wisconson border. It's Asa Smith, trying to bring a vision to life. It's Chris Von der Ahe, coming from nothing and succeeding beyond his wildest dreams. I've had the pleasure of discovering details about so many fascinating people, from all walks of life, bound together by their love of baseball, and because of my own love of the game, I feel a kinship to these men. The research and writing that I do has never felt like work because I am constantly amazed, entertained, humored, saddened and awed by the stories of the ordinary and extraordinary people of the 19th century who were involved in building up the game of baseball.
Another area of historical inquiry that has always been important to me has been the pursuit of truth. Baseball history, especially its early history, is full of myths and legends and it takes a great deal of time and work to separate fact from myth. The stories surrounding the origins of the game, in general, and its origins in St. Louis, specifically, have left a muddle for historians to wade through in our efforts to discover the reality of how the game began. After a decade of inquiry, I still don't believe I've sorted through the muddle sufficiently and there is much more work to be done.
There has been decades of solid, fantastic work done by outstanding historians who have applied scholarly reason to the study of the game and yet we still find Abner Doubleday mentioned when people talk or write about the origins of baseball. Despite fantastic efforts, people believe that Jackie Robinson was the first black player in major league history. They believe that the Cincinnati Red Stockings were the first professional club and that Candy Cummings invented the curve ball. It has been the constant work of baseball historians to separate fact from fiction and to debunk legends in the pursuit of truth.
Turning The Black Sox White, a new biography of Charles Comiskey by Tim Hornbaker, combines both of these areas of historical study. It gives us a detailed and well-researched look at Comiskey as he was, warts and all, while at the same time debunking well-entrenched myths about Comiskey's role in the 1819 Black Sox scandal.
Anyone who has been a regular reader of this site probably knows that I am an admirer of Charles Comiskey. But, due to my peculiar interests, I most likely have a unique view of the man. To me, he has never been the man who founded and owned the Chicago White Sox or the man with his name on the stadium. To me, he has never been “the Old Roman.” Comiskey, in my imagination, has always been the young, athletic field manager of the Four Time Champion St. Louis Browns. I've always thought of him as an upright, honest leader of men – The Captain. That Comiskey was a great ballplayer, who finished in the top ten in total bases three times, in stolen bases four times, in runs batted in eight times and in fielding percentage nine times. I would make the argument that Comiskey earned his spot in the Hall of Fame based solely on his accomplishments as a baseball player in the 19th century.
But Comiskey was much more than a great baseball player, as Hornbaker makes clear. He was, without a doubt, one of the greatest baseball men who ever lived. The book does a fantastic job of describing Comiskey's fifty years in the game – as player, field manager, and owner. It highlights his role in the creation of the American League and as one of the driving forces behind the league's success. It is difficult to imagine the American League succeeding and becoming one of the two major leagues without Comiskey's work in establishing the Chicago White Sox as the league's most successful club.
While most of the focus of the book is naturally on Comiskey's time with the White Sox, Hornbaker does an admirable job detailing his time as a young baseball man in the 19th century. One of the highlights of the book, for me, was the chapter on Comiskey's time in Dubuque, as a player on Ted Sullivan's Rabbits. That Dubuque club was, in my opinion, one of the most interesting minor professional clubs of the 19th century and it's fantastic to see them get their due in print. Hornbaker also does an outstanding job describing the relationship between Comiskey and Chris Von der Ahe, which is rather rare in a baseball history. To my eternal delight, the book is extremely fair to Von der Ahe, who, even more than Comiskey, has suffered from a misunderstood legacy. Hornbaker should be applauded for seeing through the myths and legends surrounding Von der Ahe and portraying the man as he was – brilliant, flawed and human. Towards the end of the book, he includes the story of Comiskey's visit with the dying Von der Ahe and captures the emotion of the moment and what it meant to both men.
The live-long relationships that Comiskey maintained, as described by Hornbaker, are really at the heart of the book and at the heart of the man himself. In many ways, Comiskey was defined by his relationships with others. His marriage to Nan Kelley was obviously the bedrock relationship that sustained him more than any other and you get a sense of Comiskey as a loving family man through the lens of that relationship, as well as that of his relationship with his parents, his brothers, his son, his nephew and his niece. The friendships that Comiskey made and sustained over the course of a lifetime are also chronicled in the book and you come to understand the man through his relationship with Ted Sullivan, Ted Loftus and numerous others. The most important relationship described in the book was that between Comiskey and Ban Johnson and it's through the lens of this relationship that one can see the totality of Comiskey's personality, for good and ill. Hornbaker uses these relationships – with family, friends and community – to create a living and breathing characterization of Comiskey, rather than relying on myth, legend or cliche.
The central thesis of Turning The Black Sox White is that Comiskey has been demonized over the course of time, through his association with the 1919 Black Sox. Hornbaker argues that Comiskey has been made the villain of the story and, if all one knows of the scandal is the book and movie Eight Men Out, than he is certainly correct. One needs only go to the Wikipedia article on Comiskey or the Black Sox scandal to see this. The book does a fantastic job destroying the myth of Comiskey the cheapskate owner and notes, time and again, how much money Comiskey spent to buy players, how much he paid them and placing all of this in historical context. No one can read this book and come away with any other opinion except that Comiskey was a victim of the Black Sox scandal, which broke his heart and, essentially, ruined his health. The Comiskey of Eight Men Out is a myth with no basis in fact and Hornbaker has done a great service in destroying that myth.
The book is not without its flaws. It almost becomes tedious in its season-by-season account of Comiskey's life but it's a difficult task to write biography in anything but a chronological manner and, in the end, I almost found this year-by-year account of the ups and downs of the White Sox to be charming, as that was what Charles Comiskey's life was all about. He was a baseball man and he lived and died with his club. It's impossible to separate the man from the club and the travails of the club was the travails of the man. But, personally, I really don't need all that much information about a sixth place finish in 1910 to get to the heart of Comiskey's character.
I also think that there were several things left out of the book that would have improved it. The first was the refusal of the Browns to play the Cuban Giants in 1887 and, more specifically, Comiskey's reaction to it. My interpretation of what was one of the milestones in the drawing up of baseball's color line was that it wouldn't have happened if Comiskey hadn't been injured and away from the club. However, Comiskey did defend his club, to a certain extent, and it would have been interesting if Hornbaker had taken up the question of Comiskey's feelings towards African-Americans in organized baseball. I was actually a bit shocked that this event was not mentioned in the book.
Another thing left out of the book, and I believe that this is a much more serious flaw, is any sort of historical context with regards to the Black Sox scandal and gambling in baseball. The Black Sox were not the first club to throw a game and probably weren't the first club to throw a World Series. There is a long history of gambling and game-fixing in baseball going back to the antebellum era and it would have furthered the book's thesis if this was made clear. The Black Sox didn't throw games because of anything Comiskey did but, rather, because they believed they could get away with it. They believed that because players had been getting away with it for years. The idea to throw the World Series in 1919 was the culmination of a long-standing game-fixing tradition in baseball and the book would have been improved by pointing that out.
Also, the book fails to supply any sort of context for its use of baseball statistics. Hornbaker quotes the normal baseball card stats of batting average, runs batted in, home runs, wins and earned runs average but without putting these numbers in the context. There is a lot written in the book about the Hitless Wonders and the chronic inability of the White Sox to hit but I don't believe the phrase “Dead-ball Era” was ever once used. Did they not score runs because they couldn't hit or because they played in a low-run environment? Did Ed Wash have low earned run averages because he was a great pitcher or because he pitched under conditions that suppressed runs? I certainly understand the difficulty in introducing the concept of modern baseball metrics in a general baseball biography but, in this day and age, some context must be given when using baseball statistics.
But even with these minor flaws, Turning The Black Sox White is a good piece of baseball history that is also extremely well-researched, as the chapter notes and bibliography make clear. It is also a much needed book. The last biography of Comiskey that I'm aware of is G.W. Axelson's Commy, which came out almost a century ago and is more a work of hagiography than one of history. The book is well-written and Hornbaker's prose style makes it difficult to put down. Finally, I want to point out that it is a difficult task to write about 19th century baseball without falling into the traps of myth, legend and anachronism but Hornbaker manages to avoid those traps. He is certainly to be commended for his effort in producing an honest, human portrait of Charles Comiskey.
As I always say, when making a book recommendation, if you're reading this site then I'm certain that you'll enjoy Turning The Black Sox White.