It is beginning to assume its rightful place in society. To me baseball is as honorable as any other business. It is the most honest pastime in the world. It has to be or it could not last a season out. Crookedness and baseball do not mix. It has become immeasurably more popular as the years have gone by. It will be greater yet. This year, 1919, is the greatest season of them all."
"Formerly sport was not regarded as a proper calling for young men.
-- Charles A. Comiskey, quoted in "Commy"
"The game was saved by two men. One was Comiskey's ally, now his bitterest enemy, Ban Johnson. The other was a man Comiskey could never have comprehended, a man with a great lust for everything except money. Put Joe Jackson in the Hall of Fame? How about if we kick Comiskey out? Bury them all in a common grave, and put up a marker with an eleven-word epitaph. They all wanted the money, and they all wanted it all."
-- Bill James, essay, "A Decade Wrapped in Greed," "The [Original] Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract"
Jeebus, where to start with this thing?
Obviously, knowing what's coming, it's impossible not to pick out the ironies in quotes such as the first one here while reading this book, a too-glowing portrait of one of the game's pioneer players, managers and owners.
But it's also tough to come away from it reviling Comiskey as much as James did 60 years after the Black Sox.
Comiskey's story, at least as the author tells it, was one of those now-cliched deals where a boy stops in the middle of his work day to initiate himself in the joys of baseball, much to his father's dismay ... You know how this goes. However, this boy eventually made good. Comiskey was a key player in many events in the early days of organized baseball. He was a so-so offensive first baseman (though somewhat innovative; he may have been the first first baseman to play off the bag, covering more ground) for St. Louis in the American Association, starting in 1882. He had a season in 1887 where he drove in 103 runs and stole 117 bases, but mostly he was a submediocre hitter..
However, he had the smarts and the drive to become a player-manager in 1883, at age 23 (!), and guided the Brown Stockings to four straight pennants and a World Series championship. Oh, you didn't know there was a World Series before 1903? That's one of the things this book is very good for, providing some history of the game before the so-called "modern era" line was drawn at 1900. What was it like to play ball in the 19th century? Comiskey is a particularly good subject to place at the center of that story, because he was in the middle of much of the more colorful history of that era. He played and managed for the often blustery and clueless Chris Von der Ahe, jumped to the Players League in 1890, and eventually wound up his playing days in the National League, with the original pro team, the Cincinnati Reds.
His road to owning the White Sox is detailed here too, of course, and I don't know that I've ever seen a more detailed description of what it was like for two teams of Major League all-stars to take a lengthy barnstorming trip around the world one off-season, a trip, it appears, largely financed by Comiskey.
That's where the portrait painted by Axelson, apparently a longtime sportswriter of the day who claims some objectivity but clearly adores Comiskey, gets muddled. Comiskey seems to have no problem tossing his money around (his generosity is cited several times here) for everything, one supposes, EXCEPT his players. As evidence of the players' supposed financial contentment, Axelson notes that no one on the White Sox jumped to the Federal League (I assume this is true, without researching further). But James wrote that Comiskey's teams "drew the largest crowds in baseball during this period ... yet the White Sox were one of the lowest-paying teams." His view is that this eventually soured some of the players to the point they sold the World Series.
That's not necessarily a contradiction in his personality, since Comiskey could well have been extravagant about everything except for paying the help well. But there's no explanation for the dichotomy in this book, because, of course, the fix and the rationale behind it hadn't been exposed yet (and whether Axelson, given his clear bias, would have been the right reporter to explain it is questionable anyway).
Unless ... you read that quote from Comiskey as a pre-emptive statement about what he somehow knows is coming. The book was published in 1919, and therefore touches only briefly on that World Series. Was Comiskey aware at the time that something was fishy? Or was he just trying to oversell the game's virtues to the ticket-buying public? He must have heard rumors. After the series, he offered a reward of $20,000 to anyone who could provide information about the rumored fix.
Unfortunately, perhaps, this story ends before that one begins. It would have been interesting to see how Axelson spun this episode in his hero's life.