The 1919 Comiskey Park Fire
By Chris Oakley
Adapted from material previously published at Othertimelines.com
Throughout most of the summer of 1919 the Chicago White Sox had looked predestined to win the American League pennant; with a pitching rotation that included aces like Eddie Cicotte and a batting order whose centerpiece was hard-slugging outfielder "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, Charles A. Comiskey’s ballclub got off to an impressive start in the regular season by the middle of July had build up a respectable lead in the standings that its rivals seemed unable to overcome. Even the National League-leading Cincinnati Reds, who had themselves built up an outstanding regular season record, were thought to stand little chance of stopping Comiskey’s team from winning the 1919 World Series. But in early August, Chicago’s fortunes abruptly started taking a turn for the worse and Sox manager William "Kid" Gleason saw his club’s pennant hopes in jeopardy.
Conversely, right around this same time the second-place Detroit Tigers began going on a tear, aided by the ill-tempered Georgia Peach, shortstop Ty Cobb-- one of the few men in the American League who could hit better than Jackson. For the rest of the season, the pennant race would be a seesaw battle between the Tigers and White Sox, and the final day of the regular season Detroit and Chicago were tied at the top of the AL standings. League president Ban Johnson ordered that a one-game playoff be held at Comiskey Park to decide who would face the Reds in the World Series...and in doing so may have inadvertently signed the death warrants of hundreds of people.
The road to the Comiskey Park disaster began on August 8th, 1919 when the Philadelphia Athletics swept the White Sox in a doubleheader at Shibe Park. Six days later, with Sox first baseman Chick Gandil suspended for assaulting an umpire, his teammates suffered a 15-6 drubbing at the hands of the Boston Red Sox, allowing Detroit to tie Chicago for first place in the American League by virtue of a 6-5 win over the New York Yankees. By August 16th, when a collision between second baseman Eddie Collins and shortstop Swede Risberg resulted in in Boston thrashing Chicago again, this time 12-7, the White Sox were two games behind the Tigers and "Kid" Gleason privately admitted to a friend that he was beginning to worry his team might be jinxed.
Watching all of this with great interest was former pitcher-turned- gambler "Sleepy" Bill Burns. For weeks he and his sidekick, onetime featherweight boxing champion Abe Attell, had been conspiring with New York City underworld figure Arnold Rothstein to make the three of them a financial killing by fixing the World Series; their plans had hinged on the American League pennant going to the White Sox, whose players were known to resent their tight-fisted boss Charles Comiskey. Now it looked as if Burns, Attell, and Rothstein might have to revise or even abandon their scheme....
Burns, however, was nothing if not adaptable. As a contingency plan he and Attell had agreed among themselves to pitch their fixing plot to Ty Cobb, believing that Cobb’s hunger for wealth would motivate him to join them in the conspiracy. Neither Burns nor Attell was aware of one small but important detail: that Cobb had begun taking steps to feather his own financial nest by investing in a tiny Atlanta soda bottling plant that would soon become one of America’s great corporate empires-- Coca-Cola.
Nor, apparently, did they understand that as great as his appetite for fortune was, his desire for success on the field was even greater; Cobb was one of the most competitive men in baseball history, fighting to win as if his life depended on it. When Burns and Attell approached the Georgia Peach with their proposition in the Tigers clubhouse one afternoon in late August, his reaction was swift, blunt, and decidedly negative-- he pulled a gun on both men and rejected the idea, abusing them with epithets that would make a pimp blush. Firing a warning shot into the ceiling, he told them: "The next time I catch you bastards in here, I’ll kill you." Burns knew this wasn’t an idle threat; Cobb was notorious throughout the majors for having once attacked a hotel night watchman and for rushing into the stands to beat the living daylights out of a heckler who’d taunted him about his background.
Even Arnold Rothstein, hardly anyone’s idea of a shrinking violet, was reluctant to tangle with Cobb again, and so the would-be Series fixers found themselves back at square one. They hoped against hope that the White Sox would recover from their nose-dive in time to take the pennant and allow the original fix plot to be put into action....
However, that particular hope would go unrealized. The White Sox spent the rest of August and most of September playing catchup with the Tigers, and every time they did catch up something would happen to knock Chicago back into second place. This constant fluctuation at the top of the American League standings prompted Washington Senators pitching great Walter Johnson to quip that "if this Chicago club is as dead as some folks say, it’s got to be the liveliest corpse you ever saw."1 Echoing these sentiments, Yankees home run king George Herman "Babe" Ruth told teammate Wally Pipp between games of a late season doubleheader at Comiskey Park: "These Chicago boys sure are hard to lick, ain’t they?"
Tired of the endless flip-flopping at the top of the American League standings, league president Ban Johnson issued a directive two weeks before the end of the regular season that if Detroit and Chicago were still tied for first when the season was over, a tiebreaker game would be played in early October at Comiskey Park for the pennant. Johnson’s decision made front page headlines all over America and sent baseball fans throughout Chicago stampeding to the ticket window in hopes they would be witnesses to history. Sure enough, the final day of the 1919 regular season ended with the White Sox and the Tigers deadlocked once more for the AL lead. The tiebreaker game was officially scheduled for October 2nd; the mayor of Chicago, expecting to host a massive victory celebration for the Sox after the game was over, proclaimed that day a civic holiday.
Except for Arnold Rothstein, who would follow the action via ticker tape at a Manhattan hotel, and Sox outfielder Oscar "Happy" Felsch, who was laid up with a sprained arm in a Cook County hospital, nearly all the potential accomplices in the Burns-Rothstein-Attell fixing scheme were present at the tiebreaker game. Burns and Attell, in fact, had secretly made arrangements to meet with Chick Gandil and Swede Risberg after Chicago won the game to tie up the final loose ends in regard to the payoffs Gandil and his teammates would receive for their co-operation with the fix plot.
Claude "Lefty" Williams, one of the best lefthanders in the majors at the time, would toe the mound for Chicago; Detroit countered with righthander and 21-game winner Hooks Dauss, who’d been a persistent thorn in the White Sox’ side during their late season swoon. For the first three and a half innings Dauss and Williams held each other in check; neither team got a man on base until Dauss walked Sox catcher Ray Schalk with two outs in the bottom of the fourth. Up in the press box Ring Lardner and Hugh Fullerton, two of America’s best-known sportswriters, recorded the action down to the smallest detail. In the grandstands Burn and Attell were on pins and needles, hoping their moneymaking scheme wouldn’t go up in smoke.
The scoring drought ended for the Sox in the bottom of the fifth when Freddie MacMullin, normally a reserve third baseman but on that day substituting for Happy Felsch in center field, scored from second base on a double by infielder Buck Weaver. Tigers shortshop Donie Bush tied the game in the sixth with a solo home run to center; a sacrifice bunt by Chick Gandil brought left fielder Nemo Liebold home from third in the bottom of the seventh to give the White Sox a 2-1 lead. After Detroit catcher grounded into a double play in the top of the eighth inning, Chicago seemed to have matters well in hand.
However, a walk to Detroit first baseman Harry Heilmann in the top of the ninth allowed Ty Cobb to retake the lead for the Tigers when he smashed a one-out homer to right to put Detroit ahead 3-2. Chicago’s last hopes for salvaging a win, and the season, rested squarely on the shoulders of "Shoeless" Joe Jackson as he came to bat with two out in the bottom of the ninth....
The Comiskey Park crowd muttered angrily when Detroit reliever Doc Ayers blew a fastball past Jackson for strike one; those mutters then turned to boos after an Ayers hanging curve eluded the lanky Chicago outfielder to put him behind on the pitch count 0-2-- and nowhere were the boos louder than in the seats directly behind "Sleepy" Bill Burns and Abe Attell, who were wincing at the prospect of their perfectly planned fix going down in flames. In his personal luxury box Charles Comiskey, whose patience with "Kid" Gleason had long since worn thin, promised himself that he’d fire Gleason on the spot if the White Sox lost this game. In the park press box, Ring Lardner and Hugh Fullerton started preparing to file their account of the game under the headline "SOX COMPLETE FOLD AS TIGERS TAKE PENNANT". Hundreds of miles away in Detroit, Tiger fans were following the action via ticker tape just as Arnold Rothstein was doing in New York.
Then Jackson ran the count up to 2-2 and hope was rekindled for Sox fans that they might be able to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat after all. Detroit skipper Hughie Jennings, bracing himself for the possibility of having to take Doc Ayers out of the game, told Ayers’ teammate Slim Love to start warming up in the bullpen. At that point, the park was literally so quiet you could hear a pin drop; Ayers was about to deliver his payoff pitch to Jackson. At a signal from his catcher, he leaned back and hurled a slider at Shoeless Joe; Jackson swung at it with all his might...
....and missed. "Strike three!" bellowed the home plate umpire. The Detroit Tigers had won the 1919 American League championship. Not that Joe Jackson was willing to concede the point; even as Ayers’ teammates were swarming the mound to congratulate him for sealing the victory, Jackson was berating the umpire, insisting that Ayers’ 3-2 pitch had been a ball and that the Detroit reliever should be charged with a walk. His ire over the strike call was shared by most of the Comiskey Park crowd, who threw trash and insults down on the field in protest of the strike call. One particularly outraged Sox fan went a step further in venting his displeasure and took a match to his souvenir game program-- and in doing so wound up touching off what would later be remembered as the worst conflagration Chicago had seen since the Great Fire of 1871.
The Comiskey Park tragedy has obscured the Tigers’ amazing comeback drive to reach the 1919 World Series;2 absent the fire, their recovery from early season doldrums to win the American League pennant and the World Series championship would be now remembered as one of the great turnarounds in baseball history, ranking alongside the 1951 New York Giants’ September surge to beat the Brooklyn Dodgers for the National League crown or the 2004 Boston Red Sox’ miraculous climb out of an 0- 3 hole to defeat the New York Yankees in the ALCS and later sweep the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series.
But once that game program was set ablaze, Detroit’s accomplishment would become only an appendix to one of the most horrible catastrophes in American history. The fan who lit the match had neglected to put it out before throwing it away, and it set off a larger fire in a section of the grandstands; since Comiskey Park was made largely of wood like most other ballparks of the era, the flames spread quickly and within minutes a panicked stampede ensued as people sought to get away from the blaze.
Charles Comiskey nearly dislocated his arm lunging for his private phone to call the fire department. Across the street Hugh Fullerton and Ring Lardner, shaken but unhurt, commandeered an empty office to phone a running account of the fire back to Fullerton’s editor on the other side of town. Abe Attell and "Sleepy" Bill Burns got separated by the hordes of frightened people trying frantically to get away from the onrushing flames; Attell was trampled to death under their heels, while Burns was hospitalized with a broken nose and five cracked ribs. Freddy MacMullin’s spine was severed when heavy falling debris landed on top of him as he was pushing Ray Schalk to safety; the injury would leave MacMullin confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
Eddie Cicotte, who’d come to the park to do an interview with Ring Lardner and to cheer on his White Sox teammates, succumbed to smoke inhalation as an ambulance was rushing him to the same Cook County hospital where Happy Felsch was recovering from his sprained arm. Sox team secretary Harry Grabiner saved his boss’ life at the cost of his own; hustling Charles Comiskey to a fire exit, Grabiner accidentally slipped on a stair and cracked his head against a railing, sustaining a fatal skull fracture.
Nemo Liebold and teammate Shano Collins both suffered second-degree burns in the fire; swift action by a doctor, however, kept them alive and they would return to the majors midway through the 1920 season. Relief pitcher Bill James wasn’t so lucky: he would die from third- degree burns 8 hours after the fire. Reserve outfielder Edward Murphy, his mind shattered by the carnage he’d witnessed that afternoon, would commit suicide the day of the second game of the 1919 World Series.
By luck or divine intervention-- or maybe just quick thinking --Kid Gleason managed to get the rest of his players and coaches out of the burning ballpark without further physical injury. But the trauma of the Comiskey Park fire would leave them with psychological scars that lasted long after the last embers had been extinguished; Gleason would have nightmares about it for the next ten years.
It took the Chicago Fire Department three engine companies and six hours to get the blaze under control; by the time the last flames were put out just after sunset, the fire had not only gutted Comiskey Park itself but claimed at least two blocks’ worth of buildings within the surrounding neighborhoods. Ring Lardner, in an article about the fire for the Saturday Evening Post, would later recall: "The whole city was so covered in smoke it looked like it was made of ashes...it reminded me of those history books I read back in school about Mount Vesuvius blowing its top." The clouds of smoke the fire produced resulted in a haze on the Chicago skyline that Happy Felsch could see from out the window of his hospital room. Not yet aware of the calamity which had happened at the ballpark in his absence, he at first thought the smoke was the result of a large forest fire. When he finally learned what had really caused it, the news left him shell-shocked.
The Detroit Tigers, eager to get back to their hotel for their post-game victory party, had already left Comiskey Park by the time the fire started; they didn’t learn of the fire until Hughie Jennings showed them an extra edition of the Chicago Tribune as the players were boarding a train at Union Station for the trip back to Detroit. They were appalled at the destruction and loss of life the fire had caused, and even the normally hard-to-faze Ty Cobb was stunned by the extent of the calamity. Years later, in an interview done as part of research for a series of articles by the Detroit Free Press marking the thirtieth anniversary of the fire, he would remember thinking in reaction to the description of Eddie Cicotte’s death: "That’s a hell of a lousy way to go."3
Arnold Rothstein had initially been depressed about the final collapse of his scheme to fix the 1919 World Series, but soon that depression morphed into anger when he learned of Abe Attell’s death. Vowing to make whoever was responsible for Attell’s demise pay the full consequences, he hired private detectives to track down the fan who’d lit the match that started the Comiskey Park fire and sent his top hired gun, Monk Eastman, west to Chicago to kill the individual in question as soon as the detectives had learned his identity. Six weeks later, Eastman would wire Rothstein with word that the fan in question had committed suicide just as Rothstein’s detectives were starting their investigation.
Official estimates of the casualty toll from the Comiskey Park fire came to 893 dead, 1650 injured, and 567 missing or otherwise unaccounted for. It was a minor miracle, said Chicago’s fire chief, that the body count hadn’t been even higher. Property damages from the blaze were calculated at nearly $500,000-- a highly substantial sum even by today’s standards.
There was a brief rumor that Shoeless Joe Jackson had been among the casualties of the Comiskey Park fire, but that was the result of mistaken identification of a body found near the ruins of the White Sox dugout. The corpse initially thought to be Jackson’s turned out instead to be that of Billy Maharg, a Philadelphia resident and ex- replacement player who like Abe Attell had been closely associated with "Sleepy" Bill Burns and Arnold Rothstein.4
But though Jackson himself wasn’t dead, his major league career certainly was; the day after the 1919 World Series ended, he walked into Charles A. Comiskey’s office and told him point-blank that he was quitting baseball and leaving Chicago for good. He held a press conference at the Ansonia Hotel later that day to make his decision public, and in doing so sent shock waves throughout America. Even the most hard-bitten sportswriters were stunned by his announcement, while White Sox fans felt as if the world were coming to an end-- as he was leaving the hotel to go home and start packing his things, one young fan could be heard frantically pleading "Say it ain’t so, Joe!" But it was-- for the South Carolina native, ballparks could never again be anything but a chamber of horrors, and his old enthusiasm for the game had perished along with the victims of the Comiskey Park blaze.
To Lefty Williams, Jackson’s retirement came as no surprise; he and Jackson had been friends for years, and from the second that the fire was extinguished Shoeless Joe had been hinting to Lefty that he felt psychologically unable to continue his baseball career; the day that Jackson officially made up his mind to quit, the first person other than Comiskey to learn of his decision was Williams. The southpaw pitcher wished him well and typed out the formal letter of resignation on Jackson’s behalf.5 Not long after Jackson’s retirement, Williams began to consider retiring himself after the 1920 season ended. But circumstances intervened to delay the end of Lefty’s career; just after New Year’s Day 1920, Charles A. Comiskey accepted an offer from the Philadelphia Phillies to buy out Williams’ contract for the then- astronomical sum of $150,000.
It was an important transaction for both clubs: the woefully underachieving Phillies needed a proven winner to boost their pennant hopes and Comiskey, despite his considerable personal fortune, needed the cash. No sooner had the first of the survivors of the Comiskey Park fire been released from the hospital than the Chicago police and fire departments hit the White Sox owner with a joint class-action suit on behalf of the families of those killed or hurt in the blaze. The lawsuit charged him with criminal negligence, manslaughter, and failure to comply with city building and fire codes. Comiskey, known by his friends as "the Old Roman" because he somewhat looked like a Roman emperor, had never been one to shy away from a fight and filed a negligence suit of his own against the Chicago city government; for good measure he accused the city fire commissioner of slander.6 To wage his legal cold war against the administration of then-mayor William Hale Thompson, Comiskey had assembled a battery of the best private attorneys he could find, and their services didn’t come cheap.
Lefty Williams wasn’t the only player to be cut loose in Comiskey’s desperation to free up cash for his legal fight; the same week that Shoeless Joe Jackson retired, Chick Gandil was informed his contract with the White Sox would not be renewed for the 1920 season. While the official explanation was that Gandil hadn’t been pulling his weight in the final month of the 1919 regular season, unofficially it was (and still is) suspected in many quarters that Comiskey didn’t want to pay the $4000 salary Gandil would have been owed in 1920 for fear it might hamper his ability to mount his legal defense against the Thompson administration.
Unwilling to abandon his major league career just yet, Gandil tried out with four other ballclubs during the spring of 1920, eventually latching on with the Cleveland Indians as a utility infielder. He was substituting for their regular shortstop, Ray Chapman, on August 16th of that year when his career and life abruptly ended; batting against Yankees pitcher Carl Mays, Gandil was hit square in the temple with a fastball that smashed his skull. Within minutes he was dead, the first major leaguer to be killed during a game.
When Nemo Liebold and Shano Collins finally rejoined the White Sox in late June of 1920, it was a team radically different from the one they’d left behind when they went in the hospital almost nine months earlier. "Shoeless" Joe Jackson had quit. Chick Gandil had been let go. Eddie Cicotte, Bill James, and Edward Murphy were all dead. Freddy MacMullin languished in a convalescent home. Lefty Williams was now a National Leaguer, as were Swede Risberg and Happy Felsch, who in March had both been traded to the Brooklyn Dodgers7 for infielder and former dental student Casey Stengel. Likable righthanded pitcher Dickie Kerr, who likely would have started the third game of the 1919 World Series had Chicago won the American League pennant, had had his contract sold to the Yankees at the beginning of the season and was now the number three starter in their rotation. Only Ray Schalk, Buck Weaver, and Eddie Collins remained from the 1919 White Sox starting roster. And one by one, they too would soon be gone as Comiskey’s legal slugfest with the Chicago city government escalated.
Eddie Collins was released near the end of the 1920 season; the following year he joined the Washington Senators, where his bat and the pitching skills of Walter Johnson would play a key part in their 1924 World Series victory against the New York Giants. From there Collins, who’d started his baseball career in Philadelphia as part of the Athletics’ famous "$100,000 Infield", returned to the City of Brotherly Love in 1927 when the Phillies picked him up in a trade that sent Lefty Williams to Washington. Williams would finally retire after the 1928 season; Collins would play in the majors until 1933, moving on from the Phillies to a brief stint with the Boston Braves and then being rehired by the Athletics, who he would help to win two American League pennants and a World Series championship before he hung up his spikes.
Ray Schalk was waived by the Sox in February of 1921 and spent a year and a half on the semi-pro circuit before joining the St. Louis Browns late in the 1923 season; he retired from the majors in 1926 and moved west to California, where he coached San Francisco’s largest public high school to six citywide championships and three California state titles during a tenure that lasted over fifteen years. Following his death in 1970, the San Francisco Giants established a youth sports fund in his memory.
Buck Weaver was let go by the White Sox before the start of the 1923 season; Charles Comiskey would have waived him even sooner, but Sox fans were already in such an uproar over the departure of other popular players that some of them had threatened to boycott the team if Weaver were cut. Weaver would continue playing in the majors until 1929, spending most of his final seasons with the Boston Red Sox;8 he then joined the Chicago Cubs scouting department and by 1940 would be appointed their third base coach, a position he would hold until he was killed in a Hollywood auto accident in 1952 shortly before he was due to finish a six-week stint as technical consultant on the set of a John Ford movie about the Comiskey Park fire.9
Charles A. Comiskey’s courtroom scuffle with Chicago City Hall spanned more than a decade; ironically, when it was all over the one figure from the 1919 White Sox still on Comiskey’s payroll was William "Kid" Gleason, the very man Comiskey had intended to fire if the Sox lost their tiebreaker with Detroit. Nemo Liebold suffered a psychotic breakdown during the home stretch of the 1922 season and would spend most of his remaining years in various mental hospitals, finally dying of a head injury in 1936 as the result of a botched escape attempt at an Indiana sanitarium.
Pitcher Urban "Red" Meyer, the number four man in Gleason’s starting rotation during the 1919 season, was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1923 and finished his career in 1927 with the Cincinnati Reds. Enlisting in the US Army Reserve shortly after Pearl Harbor, Meyer would be killed during the Anglo-American campaign in Italy. As for Shano Collins, he retired in 1925 to manage in the farm system organized by then-Cardinals general manager Branch Rickey; nine years later he would serve as hitting coach for the parent club in their notorious "Gashouse Gang" incarnation. When Rickey moved east in 1941 to take over the Dodgers’ front office, Shano went with him and became Brooklyn’s new first base coach. Before his death from heart failure in 1960 Collins would also serve as manager of the Dodgers’ Montreal minor league affiliate; color commentator for their first televised games in the early ‘50s; head of their West Coast regional scouting department after they moved to Los Angeles; and GM of their Florida State League affiliate in Vero Beach.
The same heavy debris that severed Freddy MacMullin’s spine also broke his spirit; he sank into an incurable depression and refused all visitors, even his own family. Despite doctors’ best efforts, the ex- White Sox reserve infielder withered away to a fragile shell of the lively man he’d once been. In November of 1923 "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, who by then was running a liquor store back home in South Carolina, sent him a Thanksgiving letter only to have it come back marked RETURN TO SENDER: NOT ACCEPTED BY ADDRESSEE. The same thing happened to "Kid" Gleason a month later when he tried to mail MacMullin a Christmas card. Even when Kennesaw Mountain Landis, the august federal judge who had been appointed to the newly established post of Commissioner of Baseball prior to the 1922 season, wrote an impassioned plea to MacMullin to resume contact with his family and friends, the highly embittered former third baseman simply discarded the judge’s message.
Three times between 1924 and 1927 MacMullin tried to kill himself only to be stopped by a doctor or nurse at the last second. He finally succeeded in commiting suicide in 1928, intentionally swallowing a lethal dose of strychnine he’d hoarded for just such an occasion; his death sparked a three-year investigation of the convalescent home in which the suicide occurred.
"Sleepy" Bill Burns died on February 11th, 1920 of gunshot wounds to the chest sustained in an ambush outside a Kansas City speakeasy four days earlier, becoming one of the first and most notorious casualties of America’s Prohibition-era gang wars. But before Burns breathed his last, he would light the fuse for the explosion which blew up Arnold Rothstein’s bookmaking empire. The day after Burns was shot he asked for a pen and a stack of paper and wrote a letter to the Chicago US attorney’s office in which he fingered Rothstein as the prime mover behind the aborted scheme to fix the 1919 World Series. He then gave the letter to a friend and told him to mail it immediately. By the time it reached its intended recipients Burns had already passed away, preventing the authorities from questioning him; however, the letter gave the Justice Department a starting point from which to launch their investigation of Rothstein.
To this day, it’s a matter of controversy why Burns sent the letter. Was he simply trying to shield himself from prosecution for his own role in the conspiracy to rig the 1919 World Series? Was he trying to get revenge on Rothstein for having caused Abe Attell’s death? Or did he feel genuine remorse about his involvement in the conspiracy? Whatever his motivation, Burns guaranteed that Rothstein would end his days as a guest of the state of New York.
In March of 1921, six weeks after the White Sox released Ray Schalk, Rothstein was arrested and indicted on nine criminal counts including two counts of violating federal and state anti-gambling laws. His trial, which spanned the entire summer and most of the fall of 1921, gave a foretaste of the media circuses that would surround subsequent high profile court cases in America; indeed, one of the journalists covering the Rothstein trial, Baltimore Sun writer H.L. Mencken, would gain national attention four years later for his work regarding the Scopes monkey trial in Tennessee.
In early November a Manhattan jury convicted Rothstein on seven of the nine charges against him; he was acquitted on the eighth and the ninth was dismissed when a jury deadlock could not be broken. For the seven counts on which Rothstein was found guilty, the presiding judge in the case sentenced him to consecutive prison terms of 10-15 years each; he was in the first year of his second jail term when he died of a stroke on May 16th, 1932.
Swede Risberg remained with the Brooklyn Dodgers until 1926, when he was released in the final week of the regular season that year. In 1927 he returned to the American League as a utility player with the Yankees, for whom he and Dickie Kerr would play small but critical roles in their World Series victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates. Kerr, after missing the first two games of the Series due to illness, would pitch in relief in the third game and be credited with a save; Risberg would hit a solo homer early in the fourth and final game to spark a Yankee offensive surge that squashed the Pirates’ last hope of winning the Series.
Risberg’s playing days ended in 1930 with the Cincinnati Reds; in 1932, he followed in the footsteps of ex-teammate Ray Schalk and moved west to California. He would stay there as manager of the Hollywood Stars minor league club until 1946, when the White Sox brought him back to Chicago as their new hitting coach. By 1959 he was the new Chicago skipper; that season he guided them to the AL pennant that had narrowly eluded "Kid" Gleason’s team 40 years earlier. In the 1959 World Series they gave a highly good accounting of themselves against the Los Angeles Dodgers, taking Walter Alston’s team down to the wire before finally being vanquished in Game 7 when Carl Furillo hit a two- out ninth inning homer to clinch the Series for the Dodgers.10 Risberg died of cancer two years later and was posthumously inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1964.
Kerr retired in 1932 to begin a new career as a pitching instructor with the Yankees minor league system; in 1946 he became pitching coach for the parent club and by 1952, he’d become an indispensable part of Yankee manager Casey Stengel’s brain trust. When Stengel was fired after his 1960 World Series defeat by the Pirates, Kerr followed him over to the expansion New York Mets and served as that club’s pitching coach until his death in 1966.
Happy Felsch remained with the Brooklyn Dodgers until 1925, when they released him following a 1-for-34 batting slump in mid-June. He briefly thought about trying to make a return to the White Sox, but decided against it and opted instead to try for a slot with another National League team. By an interesting coincidence, New York Giants manager John McGraw was looking for a solid defensive outfielder who could also hit with power. Right after the 4th of July holiday McGraw came to visit Felsch at his Milwaukee home and offered him a sizable contract to come to New York; Felsch was quick to accept, and by 1933 Felsch’s skills had helped boost McGraw’s successor, Bill Terry, to a National League championship and a World Series pennant.
Felsch, who by the time of the Comiskey Park fire’s fifteenth anniversary in 1934 was the only player from "Kid" Gleason’s star- crossed 1919 team still active in the majors, finally retired in 1936 and went into the sporting goods business. In 1953, just after the Boston Braves moved to Milwaukee, he went to work for the club as a part-time scout and in that capacity played a major role in building the 1957 team that upset the Yankees to win the World Series; on days when the club had no games scheduled, he would work with their best hitter, Henry Aaron, to help Aaron refine his home run swing. When Felsch died in 1964, Aaron was among the pallbearers at his funeral; ten years later, when Aaron hit his historic 715th career home run, he dedicated his record-breaking homer to the former White Sox outfielder who’d been one of the first to set him on the path to reaching that plateau.
Following his retirement in 1928, Lefty Williams moved back home to South Carolina and started a resort hotel in Hilton Head; though it wasn’t quite as grand as, for instance, the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, it did well enough to let Williams live out his post-baseball years in a certain measure of comfort. Even at the height of the Great Depression, when many other hotels were losing money or closing their doors altogether, the resort attracted a steady flow of guests, many of whom came precisely to seek respite from the Depression’s troubles. As the Depression receded and America’s economic health improved in the mid-1930s, the resort became a popular upper class destination; during World War II it catered to servicemen on leave from the front lines of Europe and the Pacific. In 1950 Williams sold the resort to the Hilton hotel chain and retired to Greenville, where he bought a house just a few doors down from that of his friend and ex-teammate "Shoeless" Joe Jackson.
The two men remained neighbors until Jackson’s death on December 5th, 1951. Williams gave the eulogy at his funeral; in October of 1956 Williams himself would pass away while watching the TV broadcast of Yankee pitcher Don Larsen’s epic World Series no-hitter against the Dodgers.
The Chicago city government’s class action suit against Charles A. Comiskey would not be the only court case to come about as a result of the 1919 Comiskey Park fire. In March of 1931, while on his way to see old friend Connie Mack about a possible front office position with the Philadelphia Athletics, William "Kid" Gleason, who’d finally resigned as White Sox manager at the end of the 1930 season, vanished from a train station in Pennsylvania; he was found dead four days later, his skull mashed to a pulp.
Gleason’s murder touched off one of the largest manhunts in U.S. history, with several of his former players reuniting to put up a $300,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of their onetime manager’s killer. The man responsible for Gleason’s death was finally captured in Wisconsin in mid-June and identified as a former White Sox fan whose sister had been among the victims of the 1919 fire; in a confession given to police shortly after his arrest, the killer said he’d committed the murder in revenge for his sister’s death-- which he blamed on Gleason. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole, dying of a stroke in 1977.
Charles Comiskey, used to having his way on things, found himself often coming out on the losing end of his lengthy court battle with the Chicago city administration. His first defeat occurred in April of 1923, when the Cook County civil court ruled in favor of the Chicago police and fire departments in their negligence suit against the Old Roman; he was granted an appeal on a technicality regarding witness procedure, but the county appeals court upheld the original verdict and found Comiskey guilty on the additional count of attempting to bribe the foreman of the jury in the original case.11 In July of 1925 he was defeated again when the Illinois state appeals court upheld both previous verdicts against him; desperate to keep himself from going bust, the White Sox principal owner sought and was granted a hearing at the 7th District Federal Court two months later. But in the end, even Comiskey’s significant political and financial influence wasn’t enough to reverse the prior judgements against him; in March of 1930, the 7th ruled that Comiskey had indeed been negligent and was therefore legally bound to pay restitution to the families of the 1919 fire’s victims and survivors.
In May of 1930 the United States Supreme Court rejected a request by White Sox attorneys to hear Comiskey’s case; in order to satisfy the financial judgements related to the original civil suit and the subsequent appeals Comiskey, who’d already sold off countless player contracts, was forced to sell principal ownership of the team itself to outside interests. Less than a year later, worn out by his legal troubles and the psychic toll the 1919 fire had taken on him, he died at the age of 79.
The Detroit Tigers would handily win the 1919 World Series, sweeping the Cincinnati Reds in the best five-out-of-nine contest. Ty Cobb solidified his reputation as one of the greatest hitters of his generation, batting .507 in the Series and driving in fifteen runs; he lit up the Reds’ starting rotation for nine home runs, including two grand slams. His teammates weren’t by any means quiet at the plate either, hitting a collective .423 during the Series. By the time Cobb finally retired at the end of the 1928 season he’d amassed 4205 hits, a major league record that would stand until it was broken by the Reds’ Pete Rose in 1985.
Quite a few of those hits would come off Dickie Kerr, for whom the Georgia Peach would become the Moby Dick to Kerr’s Captain Ahab. No matter how often he might be able to strike out other batters, Kerr only managed to fan Cobb once every fourteen at-bats; in one of the most embarrassing instances for Kerr, Cobb went 6 for 6 against him in a 1924 Yankees-Tigers doubleheader. Understandably, the former White Sox righthander was relieved when Cobb called it quits.
The years between 1920 and 1959 were mostly lean times for White Sox fans; during those years the team seldom got any closer to the American League pennant than third place. Indeed, during World War II the club endured a string of last-place finishes; in 1944 the Sox had the misfortune to be swept twice at home by the normally hapless St. Louis Browns. With construction on the club’s new home field, South Side Park, delayed until the mid-1930s by Charles Comiskey’s legal problems and the onset of the Great Depression, the White Sox had to share Wrigley Field with the Cubs-- and it was an ill fit for all parties involved. Sox outfielders kept losing balls in the ivy that covered Wrigley’s walls, while Cubs executives groused about having to split gate receipts with their crosstown competitors. When South Side Field finally opened at the start of the 1940 season, it was a great relief not only for the Sox but also for the Cubs, who had Wrigley to themselves once again.
In 1969 the Chicago City Council unveiled a statue honoring the victims of the Comiskey Park fire as part of ceremonies commemorating the fire’s 50th anniversary. The statue’s dedication offered some much- needed catharsis for Chicagoans, many of whom still grieved over the suffering the fire had caused and many more of who were traumatized by the 1968 Democratic Convention riots; another exorcism of the ghosts of 1919 came in 2005, when the White Sox rallied from a 3-2 hole to beat the Houston Astros in seven games in the World Series. Yet the recall of that grim October afternoon when Comiskey Park burned to the ground still lingers in Chicago’s collective memory, hanging in the air like the clouds of smoke that billowed from the ruined ballpark’s grandstands for hours on end. Chicago firefighters work 24 hours a day to ensure that the former South Side Park, now known as U.S. Cellular Park, doesn’t meet a similar catastrophic fate.
1Quoted from the September 6th, 1919 New York Post.
2For most of the early part of the 1919 season, Detroit had been hovering somewhere between second and third in the AL standings, and some modern sports historians speculate that they might have even finished in fourth place had it not been for Chicago’s late season collapse.
3Quoted from the article "Tragedy at Comiskey: Baseball Remembers Part 1" in the October 2nd, 1949 edition of the newspaper. 4 Maharg’s true identity was established through the use of dental records.
5Jackson was illiterate.
6In a statement to the press, the commissioner had put the blame for the fire squarely on Comiskey.
7Then known as the Robins.
8For those who think the use of corny puns in sports headlines is strictly a recent phenomenon, it should be noted that the Boston Herald-American announced the Weaver signing with the masthead BUCK WEAVER CHANGES SOX.
9The movie in question, originally titled Conflagration but subsequently renamed Ten Men Out, is generally considered today to be Ford’s most underrated film.
10It was the first time in MLB history that the Series had been decided by a home run; Bill Mazerowski would duplicate this feat a year later for the Pittsburgh Pirates, but after that it wouldn’t happen again until 1992, when a Kelly Gruber solo shot earned the Toronto Blue Jays their first World Series championship.
11Shortly before the verdict in the original civil case was rendered, the presiding judge in the trial got an anonymous tip that Comiskey had sought to pay off the jury foreman in exchange for an acquittal on all counts. The tip was then passed on to the Cook County district attorney’s office, and as soon as the jury in the original lawsuit rendered its verdict Comiskey was brought up on jury tampering charges.