Philosopher and writer George Santayana told us, basically, that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. The key idea here is one that we all buy – people will make mistakes, and they’ll continue to make the same mistakes (unless they get really lucky) if they don’t understand the steps that led to making those mistakes in the first place. Some mediocre history teachers use lines like Santayana’s in failed attempts to convince teenagers to study the Boer War. Absolutely failed attempts.
But I digress. What if history is murky enough that we can’t quite learn it? What if we don’t really know all of the answers? What do we learn then? I was thinking about these questions yesterday when reading a post about Dickey Pearce, the man who may or may not have been baseball’s first shortstop, written by fellow blogger and friend of the HoME, Verdun2.
Our pal used one caveat after another when writing his post – and rightfully so! There’s a lot that we just don’t know. And there’s a lot that we think we know but don’t know for sure.
And that cryptic – and long compared to the rest of the post – introduction leads me to this week’s inductee into the Pioneer/Executive wing of the Hall of Miller and Eric, Charlie Comiskey.
His SABR biographer, Irv Goldfarb, says it better than I could, so I’ll let him.
“One of the most influential figures in the history of the sport, Charles Comiskey had a 55-year odyssey through professional baseball that ran the gamut: captain of one of the greatest teams of the nineteenth century; league-jumper during the 1890 players’ rebellion; one of the chief architects of the American League’s emergence in 1901 as a major league; longtime owner of one of the league’s most successful franchises, the Chicago White Sox; and a central figure in the 1919 Black Sox Scandal.”
Comiskey, indeed, was all Goldfarb says. And that’s because Goldfarb doesn’t make many of the hard and fast claims some of us do. In many quarters, for example, Comiskey is known as the reason the Chicago White Sox threw the 1919 World Series.
As it’s often told, Comiskey worked hard to keep player salaries down, not washing uniforms, not letting his players reach their contract incentives, and just being cheap all around with his employees. That disposition, though either historically questionable or plain inaccurate, led many to the false cause or single cause fallacy that his team threw the World Series because of him. Since he wouldn’t give them the money, they had to get it from somewhere. Gamblers.
This is a single cause fallacy because life is complex enough that there’s almost never one thing that brings about another huge thing. Even if Comiskey were cheap, there were dozens of other factors that contributed to the White Sox throwing games. Perhaps they were greedy, or they were needy. Perhaps they weren’t thinking about Comiskey at all and were just interested in supporting their families. Perhaps there was peer pressure, or the thought that they might as well collect some money if the fix was in anyway. I think part of the reason must have been that the players saw baseball as a job, as a means to earn money. We err in our conclusions about players because we romanticize their job as something far more special. We hold ballplayers to a standard we’d not apply to other employees. And I believe we do so unfairly.
It’s a false cause fallacy too – meaning that there’s a good deal of evidence that Comiskey wasn’t so cheap with his players. Goldfarb tells us, for example, that there’s no actual evidence that Comiskey refused to wash uniforms to save money. Historian Bob Hoie, in his article, 1919 Baseball Salaries and the Mythically Underpaid Chicago White Sox, pretty much says it all with just the title. Among other things, he challenges the contention that Comiskey failed to pay off incentives. Thanks to great work by the folks at Retrosheet and BBREF, we can see that claims made about Comiskey not letting Eddie Cicotte reach an incentive to be paid if the hurler won 30 games are simply false. From August 20 through September 19, Cicotte won seven straight starts to get to 29 wins. And the four days after his 29th victory, he started against the Browns, giving up five runs in seven innings before being relieved by Dickie Kerr. This is one of six starts on the year that Cicotte didn’t complete. He also didn’t complete his final start, tossing only two innings of one-run ball against the Tigers three days later. Maybe it’s from that start we get the apocryphal story? I don’t know. Clearly though, Cicitte had a chance to win his 30th.
Those 800ish words are really just a stream-of-consciousness about how we think, or choose not to think. They’re not the reason Comiskey is a HoMEr. He reaches HoME-status because of the work he and Ban Johnson, among others, put into the construction of the Western League, which became the American League, which was finally able to end the National League’s monopoly, offer players more money, fans more options, and the game more competition. And ultimately, Comiskey needs to get some of the credit for the National Agreement that was signed, which led to the World Series.
Hey, you can’t throw a World Series unless there’s one to throw.
So we think we know about Comiskey. And there’s a considerable amount we do know. Of course, some of what we think we know is just wrong. Some of what we think we know has been bastardized by time, by poor and creative story-tellers, and perhaps by the self-serving. But if we think and if we trust more credible sources of information, we can know a great deal.
Even though I studied history in college, I’m nobody’s idea of a real historian. I know that. Still, there are two things I want to leave you with. First, if you don’t know, take a lesson from Verdun2, and don’t claim you do. There’s no harm in admitting uncertainty, particularly when such uncertainty is the only real answer you can come up with while still maintaining your integrity. Second, Boer War or not, there’s tremendous merit to thinking about Santayana’s words. If Comiskey and company didn’t learn from the mistakes of the National Association, the Union Association, the Players League, the American Association, and the Federal League, perhaps the American League would have gone by the wayside like all of those. Perhaps we wouldn’t have a World Series. Imagine that.
Next week we’ll introduce our eighth inductee into the Pioneer/Executive wing of the Hall of Miller and Eric. Until then.