Academic journal article Base Ball

1919 Baseball Salaries and the Mythically Underpaid Chicago White Sox

Academic journal article Base Ball

1919 Baseball Salaries and the Mythically Underpaid Chicago White Sox

Article excerpt

For more than ninety years, it has been widely believed that the perfidy of the Black Sox was prompted by low player salaries paid by Chicago team owner Charles Comiskey. This article examines the soundness of that premise, popularized by Eliot Asinof, premier chronicler of the Black Sox saga. A survey of other commentary on Comiskey's treatment of his players, most of it negative, is also presented. A counterpoint to such sentiment resides in verifiable player salary data, much of it only recently made available. Such information permits comparison of 1919 White Sox player salaries to those paid their American League rivals. Similar scrutiny is extended to the payroll of the World Series champion Cincinnati Reds. In the end, analysis of fact as opposed to popular perception admits but one conclusion: the Black Sox were paid the prevailing 1919 wage, and then some.

Conflicting Claims at the Black Sox Criminal Trial

The depiction of Chicago players as woefully underpaid by a tightwad boss was initially unveiled as a defense stratagem at the 1921 criminal trial of the Black Sox. At the outset of a pre-trial hearing on June 29, 1921, defense attorney Benedict J. Short alleged that "while it is presumed these men got enormous salaries, most of them got only $2,700 or $2,900."1 While examining prospective jurors, the defense lowered that figure, asserting that the players only received about $2,000 a year. The following day, Special Prosecutor Edward Prindiville responded, revealing the actual (and much higher) salaries of the indicted players. The wire services ran the payroll figures (salaries, bonuses and World Series per diem payments to the eight Black Sox) for both 1919 and 1920.2 Then during the July 19 testimony of White Sox Secretary Harry Grabiner, the prosecution submitted as exhibits 1919 contracts and cancelled paychecks for the Black Sox, manager Kid Gleason, and nine of the Clean Sox. Although such bona fide salary data were published in several newspapers,3 it appears that little, if any, of same found its way into Eight Men Out or any other Black Sox commentary for almost a century. The notion that the Black Sox had been underpaid had taken hold.

Westbrook Pegler and Other Pre-Eight Men Out Commentators

Probably the foremost proponent of the claim that the 1919 White Sox were underpaid was Westbrook Pegler. Pegler was a major syndicated columnist, first specializing in sports and later general interest commentary with an emphasis on politics. For three decades, Pegler would periodically write about the Black Sox and their purported mistreatment at the hands of Charles Comiskey. In his prime, Pegler's columns were undoubtedly read by far more people than would ever read Eight Men Out or see the motion picture of the same name. Pegler started his assault on Comiskey innocently enough. In a column dated February 19, 1927, devoted to the recent signings of Ty Cobb by the Philadelphia Athletics and Tris Speaker by the Washington Senators, Pegler took up the issue of player compensation. While estimating the amount of the Cobb and Speaker salaries, Pegler wrote that "when I hear that such a fellow as Dick Kerr being underpaid and run out of baseball for requesting a raise, I can gather a crowd and say 'will you look at that cheap screw of a magnate paying a great ball player a salary like that.' ... I would rather have access to the payroll of the Chicago White Sox when Eddie Cicotte, Lefty Williams and the rest of them were still technically pure, than to the correct figures on Cobb, Speaker or even Babe Ruth."4

On March 29, 1927, Pegler reported that "Ray Cannon [who had represented Joe Jackson, Happy Felsch and Swede Risberg in 1922 lawsuits against Comiskey] writes in response to a recent remark by your correspondent that in the year of the fake World's Series four members of the White Sox received an aggregate of $12,500 a year."5 Even after Comiskey died in October 1931, Pegler remained indignant on the subject. …

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