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I'm 52 now, so I barely remember what I had for breakfast. But I think it was in "The Hustler's Handbook" that Bill Veeck told the story of moving into Comiskey Park and finding old betting slips in a desk that suggested the previous owner had himself wagered on the Reds in 1919. Then came "Eight Men Out" with its devastating portrayal of a miserly Comiskey cheating his players out of their due, virtually forcing them to throw the World Series, and I don't know that I ever after gave a thought to the possibility that there was more to the Old Roman than that.

Mr. Hornbaker's biography of Comiskey offers a massive corrective to that shallow impression and, as such, is must reading for baseball fans. The Comiskey who emerges in these pages is, first of all, a baseball innovator as a player, coach and owner. While he was never much of a hitter, he was a great first basemen and pioneer of such things as playing off the bag and flipping to a pitcher covering first base on grounders. And as an owner, he not only played a central role in establishing the American League as we know it, but was always especially solicitous of the fans.

The first surprise comes with the revelation that, far from being the sort of hardscrabble Irish immigrant we associate with old time baseball, he was the son of a successful Chicago politician,. who looked down on sport, rather than seeing baseball as a way up. But Comiskey loved the game and parlayed it into a career.

His big break came when Chris Von der Ahe, owner of the American Association St. Louis Browns, made him a manager. Comiskey won four league titles and an early version of a world series title over the Chicago White Stocking of the National League. Later, with his friend-later enemy or frenemy (?)--Ban Johnson he helped form the Western League and eventually moved his Minneapolis franchise to Chicago, adopting the White Sox name.

In 1899 they changed the name to the American League. Bitter competition between the upstarts and the more established National League more or less ended with the inauguration of the World Series in 1903 and the National Agreement in 1904. In 1913, Comiskey's White Sox went on baseball's first world tour with the National League's New York Giants.

Mr. Hornbaker not only uses all this detail to demonstrate that Comiskey has a much deeper baseball legacy than we tend to realize, he humanizes the man by showing the illness and tragedy that shadowed him, with family members frequently dying young. And he makes good use of the tortured relationship between him and Ban Johnson--built around a shared love of baseball and hunting, but torn apart by the politics of the game.

All of which provides the build-up to a dispositive discussion of the Black Sox scandal. Never again will folks be able to claim that Comiskey was uniquely unfair to his players and many of the specific allegations--like preventing Ed Cicotte from reaching a supposed games won bonus--are demolished. If anything, Comiskey comes off as more generous with, and more personally concerned about, players than his peers.
,br> Of course, given the realities of the reserve clause, we would have to say that no player made what he was "worth." So Comiskey can't get off the hook completely. But his anguished reactions when the possibility of the series being thrown begin to surface suggest that he was truly unaware of the dark dealings.

The research that went into this book is exhaustive. Unlike many sports books it is thoroughly footnoted. Unfortunately, the author has such a personal command of the history of the era that he seems to assume the reader will recognize obscure players and long-forgotten franchises. Additionally, the writing is extremely prosaic, rather than lyrical and many sentence constructions are awkward. A no-nonsense editor would have been helpful.

But there's so much here that's good and interesting that we can forgive the book if it's more workmanlike than poetic. It is certain to be the definitive portrait of Comiskey generally and the Black Sox scandal specifically for a long time to come.


(Reviewed:)

Grade: (B+)

  

Websites:

See also:

Sports (Baseball)
Tim Hornbaker Links:

    -BOOK SITE: Turning the Block Sox White (Sports Pub Books)
    -GOOGLEBOOK: Turning the Black Sox White
    -TWITTER: TimHornbaker
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-INTERVIEW: Q&A with Tim Hornbaker, author of Legends of Pro Wrestling (SLAM!, 8/07/12)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Ringside Rap with Tim Hornbaker (Georgia Wrestling History, 8/01/12)
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-REVIEW: of Turning the Black Sox White by Tim Hornbaker (Allen Barra, Chicago Tribune)
    -REVIEW: of Turning the Black Sox White (Kirkus)
    -REVIEW: of Turning the Black Sox White (Paul Hagen, MLB.com)
    -REVIEW: of Turning the Black Sox White (Jim Margalus, SB Nation)
    -REVIEW: of Turning the Black Sox White (Richard C. Crepeau, History Department, University of Central Florida)
    -REVIEW: of Turning the Black Sox White (Don Liable, Utica Observer Dispatch)
    -REVIEW: of Turning the Black Sox White (This Game of Games)
    -REVIEW: of Turning the Black Sox White (Travel Easy)
    -REVIEW: of Turning the Black Sox White (Harvey Frommer, Epoch Times)
    -REVIEW: of Turning the Black Sox White (Brett Rohlwing, Library Journal)
    -REVIEW: of Turning the Black Sox White (Picasso Mio)
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Book-related and General Links:

   
-WIKIPEDIA: Charles Comiskey
    -INFO: Charles Comiskey (Baseball Reference)
    -Famous American Trials : The Black Sox Trial (1921) (University of Missouri Kansas City Law School)
    -BIO: Charles Comiskey (Irv Goldfarb, SABR)
    -BASEBALL HALL OF FAME: Charles Comiskey
    -ETEXT: Commy : The Life Story of Charles A. Comiskey by G. W. Axelson
    -EXCERPT: Book excerpt: Charles Comiskey (Evaluating Baseball’s Managers by Chris Jaffe)

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