Comiskey, Charles Albert

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COMISKEY, Charles Albert

(b. 15 August 1859 in Chicago, Illinois; d. 26 October 1931 in Eagle River, Wisconsin), baseball player and manager and owner of the Chicago White Sox.

Comiskey was the third of eight children born to John Comiskey, a Chicago politician, and Mary Kearns, a homemaker. Comiskey's love of baseball began early in life despite the fact that his father wished him to be a plumber. He attended Saint Ignatius High School and played baseball throughout Chicago before his father sent him to Saint Mary's College in Dodge City, Kansas, hoping to get baseball out of his life. There Comiskey met Ted Sullivan, who became his mentor in the late 1870s and the early 1880s. Never graduating from Saint Mary's, Comiskey followed Sullivan to teams in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Elgin, Illinois, and Dubuque, Iowa, where he played his first official minor league ball in 1878 and 1879. He continued to play for Dubuque under Sullivan's tutelage until 1882, when Sullivan moved to St. Louis to manage the Browns of the American Association. Comiskey moved to St. Louis with Sullivan.

Comiskey began his professional career as a pitcher, but he injured his arm during his first year in Dubuque and became an outfielder and then a first baseman. Legend has it that he revolutionized first base play by standing off the base and fielding a larger territory, but that is not a verified fact. Beadles Dime Book (1867) already advised first base-men to play off first base to increase the range of coverage. In 1882 Comiskey married Nan Kelley; they had one son.

Comiskey's intelligence and knowledge of the game impressed the St. Louis owner Chris Von der Ahe, and when Von der Ahe fired Sullivan in 1883, he named Comiskey the new manager of the Browns. The team subsequently won four consecutive league championships and even defeated the Chicago White Stockings in the World Series in 1886 after having tied them in that series in 1885. Comiskey stayed with the Browns through 1889 but left in 1890 to become player-manager of the Chicago Pirates in the newly organized Players League. That league, organized by the players union called the Brotherhood, lasted only a year, and Comiskey returned to the St. Louis Browns in 1891. In 1892 he joined the Cincinnati franchise in the National League, where he played and managed until 1894. An average hitter and a strong defensive player, Comiskey believed in aggressive base running and intelligent play as the key to winning games.

Comiskey became convinced that baseball would be a profitable business in the 1890s. When his major league playing career ended in 1894, he bought a minor league franchise in what was then the Western League. Ban Johnson, a noted sportswriter from Cincinnati, had taken over the league, and he convinced Comiskey to buy the Sioux City, Iowa, franchise. Johnson and Comiskey intended eventually to challenge the National League with a new organization. Comiskey moved the Sioux City team to Saint Paul, Minnesota, and subsequently moved it to Chicago in 1900 as part of the organization of the American League.

Comiskey's White Sox, as he named his new team, were successful during the first twenty years of existence. They garnered three American League pennants, in 1906, 1917, and 1919, and two World Series championships, in 1906 and 1917. In 1910 Comiskey built a modern steel and concrete stadium at Thirty-fifth Street in the south side working-class section of Chicago, where the Players League team had once played. He purposely kept ticket prices low to attract a cross section of people and to ensure a steady flow of patrons coming to games. In 1918 he contributed part his proceeds to the Red Cross to assist World War I relief activities.

In 1919 a crisis occurred when eight White Sox players conspired with gamblers to purposely lose the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. While rumors persisted and tensions continued throughout the 1920 season, nothing was proven until newspaper charges came before a grand jury near the end of the season. White Sox players had been paid well below the typical salaries for quality baseball players. Comiskey paid only $3 in meal money compared to the $4 most other teams paid. This team became known as the Black Sox, not only because of the reputation earned in 1919 but because he charged his players twenty-five cents to wash their uniforms after games.

The role of Comiskey throughout the scandal was nebulous and has always been questioned. Reportedly he had heard rumors of the involvement of gamblers, but he neither did anything about it nor reported it to the league president Johnson, with whom he had had a serious falling out earlier in the decade. Comiskey's testimony before the grand jury failed to clarify his role, and because he angered the jurors and judge with his defensiveness, they dismissed him without getting the full story. While the grand jury eventually acquitted the players, controversy remained because some of the testimony and evidence had disappeared only to reappear again in 1924 in the possession of Comiskey's attorney. Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, appointed commissioner of baseball in 1920, eventually threw the eight players out of the game, but Comiskey continued to own the White Sox.

Comiskey, who came to be known as "the Old Roman" or "the Noble Roman," had been a highly respected player, manager, and owner up to 1920. His reputation as a penny-pincher and a person who did not back up his players surpassed his previous reputation as a baseball innovator and entrepreneur. His place in history continued to suffer as scholars, players, and politicians of the late twentieth century campaigned for the inclusion of Joe Jackson, the most polished of the eight players implicated in the scandal, into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Former players, most notably Bob Feller, Ted Williams, and Pete Rose, wanted Jackson included and Comiskey, who was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1939, removed.

Comiskey owned the White Sox until his death in 1931, though his son, J. Louis Comiskey, gradually took over the responsibilities for the team. The White Sox tried in vain to return to the luster of the early years, but they made first division only once in the 1920s. Comiskey died at age seventy-two of a heart attack at his retreat in Eagle River, Wisconsin. He is buried at Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Evanston, Illinois.

The best sources on Comiskey's life are Johnny Evers, Baseball in the Big Leagues (1910); Gustav Axelson, "Commy": The Life Story of Charles Comiskey (1919); Warren Brown, The Chicago White Sox (1952); Eliot Asinoff, Eight Men Out: The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series (1963); and Eugene Murdock, Ban Johnson: Czar of Baseball (1982). See also Harry Grayson, "Charles A. Comiskey—Baseball Innovator," Baseball Digest (Apr. 1945).

Harry Jebsen, Jr.