Losing teeth, losing games: Eddie Cicotte and Swede Risberg fight on 1922 Black Sox tour

This article was originally published in the SABR Black Sox Scandal Research Committee’s December 2017 newsletter.

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One year after they were banned from Organized Baseball, several Black Sox players embarked on a baseball tour of the Midwest in 1922. Pictured second row, starting fifth from left: Happy Felsch, Buck Weaver, Swede Risberg, and Eddie Cicotte with the “Ex-Major League Stars.” (BlackBetsy.com)

In the spring of 1922, just months after the Black Sox were banned from professional baseball for life, Eddie Cicotte and Swede Risberg partnered with a Chicago theatrical executive to form an independent traveling baseball team called the Ex-Major League Stars. They planned to tour throughout the Midwest, hoping to capitalize on their fame from the 1919 World Series scandal and giving small-town fans a chance to see big-league talent up close.

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Swede Risberg

Following their banishment from Organized Baseball, the players involved in the Black Sox Scandal found an enthusiastic, if not always lucrative, market in which to continue earning a living playing ball during the 1920s and ’30s. In the era between the world wars, when baseball was truly the national pastime, every American town of any significant size fielded its own competitive baseball team. Most teams were strictly amateur, but some paid their players a stipend or salary. Revenue was generated by sponsorships from local merchants and municipal officials, gate receipts and, of course, America’s other favorite pastime — a wager or two placed on the games.

Their business manager, William C.V. Meek, was a 42-year-old New York City native who served in the U.S. Navy during the Spanish-American War. He left his job as treasurer of Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre to launch a promotional agency called the Entertainment Service Bureau.1 The agency was based at the Garrick Building on Randolph Street in the Loop, and the Black Sox were one of Meek’s first clients. His assistant at the time was David Idzal, an up-and-coming star in the film industry who later went on to manage the prestigious Fox Theatre in Detroit.

Meek and Idzal had no contacts in baseball, so they left the building of the roster to Risberg and Cicotte, who quickly recruited Happy Felsch and Buck Weaver to play ball with them. The rest of the team was composed of a group of undistinguished amateur, collegiate, and semipro players, some of whom they picked up along the way. The Ex-Major League Stars wore gray pinstriped jerseys with the team name on the front in a cursive script. The amateur players were promised $100 a week2, while the four Black Sox and Meek were to divide up the rest of the profits.

Portrait of Buck Weaver

Buck Weaver

Weaver’s involvement might have surprised some fans, because it had been widely reported in a syndicated newspaper column3 that he refused to play with his old teammates after they were banned from the majors. When some of the Black Sox formed a team during the summer of 1921 to play ball on weekends at a Chicago amusement park while they were awaiting trial, Weaver backed out because he thought the venture wouldn’t be profitable; he was making good money working at his brother-in-law’s drug store instead.4 But Weaver would go on to play with and against the other Black Sox on many occasions throughout the 1920s.

To advertise their new team, Meek and Risberg sent out dozens of postcards asking for games: “WANTED — Open Dates for Baseball Games With World’s Champions.”5 Some teams wanted nothing to do with baseball’s black sheep. One manager in Michigan said, “We don’t care how much money it would mean to us to have a game with players of this kind. We are willing to sacrifice a hundred dollars or so to keep our clean name in the national pastime.”6

Meek was able to schedule a series in early June against teams from northern Wisconsin, and the summer seemed to get off to a promising start. With Cicotte overpowering the semipro hitters, the Ex-Stars beat up on teams from Stevens Point, Waupaca, Marshfield, Marinette, and Hurley. Risberg, who had a strong arm and had been a pitcher in his youth, took a regular turn on the mound, too. His talent far outmatched the local nines.

The Wisconsin tour drew crowds of up to 3,000 for some games, and the fans were generally friendly toward the banished players. But the venture was marred by bad weather and a lack of funds stemming from high hotel and transportation costs. Despite the Black Sox running up the scores, they were also accused of indifferent play at times. Felsch and Risberg sometimes spent their mornings on a nearby lake or river with a fishing pole and a case of beer, showing up to some games half-sober, just before the first pitch.

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Eddie Cicotte

Cicotte and Risberg stirred up more controversy on June 11 when they were recruited, along with amateur catcher Charles “Buck” Moore, to play in a game for the last-place Appleton team against Menasha in the independent Fox River Valley League. By the time the three players showed up in the second inning, Menasha had already built a six-run lead and won easily. Appleton owner August Brandt’s decision to use the exiled Black Sox set off a firestorm that nearly got his team kicked out of the league.7 While the Fox River Valley League was outside the purview of Organized Baseball, commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis had warned that any player participating in a game with the Chicago outcasts would also be blacklisted from professional baseball, as well.

In the meantime, the Black Sox players were also preoccupied by a new round of legal battles following their acquittal in a criminal trial on conspiracy charges. In Chicago, Buck Weaver filed suit seeking back pay and bonuses he claimed he was owed by the White Sox and owner Charles Comiskey. Swede Risberg, Happy Felsch, and Shoeless Joe Jackson soon followed with their own lawsuits. The cases would take several years to resolve, and headlines across the country criticized the players for airing baseball’s dirty laundry once again.8

Two weeks after the Appleton debacle, the Ex-Stars were scheduled to play a game on June 23 in Merrill, Wisconsin. Cicotte wasn’t keen on pitching, weary from the travel and lack of compensation. Who took his place on the mound? Ray Cannon, one of the Milwaukee lawyers representing Felsch, Risberg, and Jackson in their lawsuits against the White Sox.

Cannon’s purpose in making the 200-mile trip to Merrill was likely just to discuss the players’ cases, but he also happened to be an accomplished semipro pitcher. He acquitted himself well against the Merrill nine, allowing just two hits over seven innings. Cicotte pitched the final two innings and preserved a 4-3 victory for the Ex-Stars at the Lincoln County Fairgrounds.9

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Attorney Ray Cannon, a talented semipro pitcher, often visited the Chicago Cubs spring training camp in the 1920s. He played one game for the Black Sox’s traveling team in Merrill, Wisconsin, in 1922. (Author’s collection)

Afterward, Risberg told the team he had booked them to play about twenty more games on the Mesabi Iron Range in northern Minnesota. Tired of being away from home for so long, Cicotte demanded to be paid for his participation in advance — he had famously made the same request before the 1919 World Series — or else he would quit the team. Risberg, never known for diplomacy, responded by punching Cicotte in the mouth and knocking him to the ground in front of a downtown moonshine tavern.

Leonard Schmitt, a college student at the time and later an attorney in Merrill, witnessed the scene and recalled:

Risberg figured Cicotte was running out on him, which he was, and started the fight. Risberg took Cicotte down in the gutter right on the corner and I remember Cicotte had his arms over his face. Risberg was the bum of the bunch. Anyway, Felsch, who really was just a big kid, pulled Risberg off and threw him halfway across the sidewalk and back to the tavern. Risberg then challenged Moore [the catcher who was] sitting in a chair in the corner. Risberg asked him where he was going. I remember that Moore picked up a bat, laid it across his knee, and said, ‘I’m staying right here.’”10

The fight was picked up by the Chicago Tribune and the Associated Press, and some version of it was reported in hundreds of newspapers. Cicotte’s sudden departure signaled an end to his collaboration with his old major-league teammates. Although he continued pitching for a few more years, he never again stepped on a field with any of the other Black Sox players. A few weeks later, while visiting his brother’s cabin at Muskallonge Lake in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Cicotte took the mound for a team from nearby Newberry. Against Marquette on August 27, he used his “shine ball” that once dominated American League hitters to record 17 strikeouts in a thrilling 17-inning game.11

Cicotte then went home to Detroit, took a job as a game warden, and continued to pitch semipro ball in southeastern Michigan before embarking on a second career in the service department at the Ford Motor Company.

Without Cicotte and the catcher Moore — who never did leave Merrill, living there for the rest of his life12 — the Ex-Major League Stars traveled by train to Hibbing, Minnesota, and resumed their tour in early July. Their new starting pitcher was another familiar face: Lefty Williams, one of the American League’s top young left-handers before he was banned for life in the Black Sox Scandal.

When the 29-year-old Williams got the call to join the team, he was having trouble keeping a job in Chicago and had developed a severe drinking problem. But he still knew how to pitch. On his way to Minnesota, he tuned up with a 19-strikeout performance for the Crivitz, Wisconsin, team against Wausaukee at an American Legion picnic.13 But he never reached those heights with the Ex-Stars. Williams was not in shape and his arm was constantly sore; he played first base more often than he pitched in the three weeks he was with the team.

The Ex-Stars played 12 games, winning just four, against teams from Hibbing, Eveleth, and Chisholm. Hibbing, which defeated the Black Sox team in five out of seven games, was also stocked with a handful of former big-leaguers, including Bill Rumler — who had been implicated in a 1919 Pacific Coast League gambling scandal — Bill Upham, Lee Dressen, Joe Fautsch, and Harry Niles. The fans were more upset that the Black Sox’s biggest stars, Eddie Cicotte and Shoeless Joe Jackson, failed to show up as advertised.

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Archibald “Moonlight” Graham, circa 1905

Chisholm was the home of Dr. Archibald “Moonlight” Graham, a one-time New York Giants outfielder who gained lasting fame when his name was used in W.P. Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe and the film Field of Dreams. Some writers have claimed Jackson once played against Graham’s team in Chisholm, but there is no evidence this ever happened.14 However, his Black Sox teammates Felsch, Risberg, Weaver, and Williams did play two games in Chisholm during the Ex-Stars tour on July 2 and July 6, losing both games. The ballplayer-turned-physician Graham did not participate in these games, but perhaps he was in the grandstands to watch. That tantalizing possibility may remain lost to history forever.

Midway through their tour of the iron-mining country, the Ex-Stars’s business arrangement with William Meek abruptly collapsed. Some players had not received a dollar in salary during the trip, and the team refused to take the field for a July 4 doubleheader against Eveleth until Meek handed over a little cash.15 Their games so far had reportedly brought in about $6,000 in gate receipts, but when the former major-leaguers asked for their share of the revenue, Meek only produced $500, claiming he needed the rest to pay off hotel and transportation bills. The players began to suspect he was double-crossing them and called a meeting to overthrow their manager.16

The Black Sox players engaged in talks with officials from Duluth and Virginia, Minnesota, to stick around and play in the Mesabi Range independent league, but ultimately they couldn’t work out a deal. So they decided to play their final scheduled game on July 16 in Duluth and then go their separate ways. Fittingly, Williams was outpitched by Hibbing’s Bill Upham and they lost 7-3. The tour had been a financial failure; by the time the bills and other players were finally paid off, the former major-leaguers earned only about $100 apiece for their two months on the road.17

On the field, the Black Sox outclassed the inferior competition — Weaver and Felsch both hit over .400 in the ten games where box scores are available, and Risberg hit .317 while recording a 2.63 ERA in 48 innings pitched — but the rest of the team played poorly no matter who they were facing. By the end of the summer it was clear that if they wanted to continue earning a living playing ball, a barnstorming tour wasn’t the answer. They managed to find other ways to hold down steady jobs and still spend quality time on the baseball field. But never again would this many of the banished Black Sox play together on the same field.

After the 1922 tour fizzled out, Swede Risberg stayed in Minnesota, marrying a woman from Rochester and buying a farm there, where he sold eggs and vegetables to the nearby Mayo Clinic. He continued pitching for many years, which he had discovered was a far more lucrative position in independent baseball than his usual shortstop. From 1923-25, he was the captain and star for the Rochester Aces semipro team. He played ball — somewhere — every summer until at least 1934 before making his way west and settling in Northern California.

Happy Felsch went back home to Milwaukee and continued playing ball for semipro teams there until well into his forties. He and Buck Weaver joined forces to play together in Wisconsin during the summer of 1924 and he and Risberg toured western Canada, Montana, and the Dakotas for several years in the late 1920s. Later, he opened a successful tavern in his hometown and was one of the main primary sources for author Eliot Asinof’s Eight Men Out.

Buck Weaver and Lefty Williams both returned to Chicago. In 1925, fellow exiles Hal Chase and Chick Gandil recruited Weaver to Douglas, Arizona, a copper-mining town just north of the Mexican border, to play ball in the outlaw Copper League. The next year, Williams joined them and became one of the league’s pitching stars while based in Fort Bayard, New Mexico. That seems to be the last of his playing days. He got sober, found religion, and then planted roots in Southern California. Weaver spent two seasons in the Copper League before heading home to Chicago, where he played ball until the mid-1930s and lived out the rest of his days. He never stopped trying to clear his name.

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1922 Black Sox tour results

  • June 3: Ex-Stars 5, Marinette (WI) 3
  • June 4: Ex-Stars 15, Marshfield (WI) 2
  • June 12: Ex-Stars 4, Waupaca (WI) 1
  • June 15: Ex-Stars 8, Hurley (WI) 2
  • June 18: Ex-Stars 7, Stevens Point (WI) 0
  • June 23: Ex-Stars 4, Merrill (WI) 3
  • June 25: Hibbing (MN) 8, Ex-Stars 6
  • June 27: Hibbing 13, Ex-Stars 12 (at Eveleth)
  • July 1: Hibbing 4, Ex-Stars 3
  • July 2: Chisholm (MN) 12, Ex-Stars 9
  • July 3: Hibbing 9, Ex-Stars 6
  • July 4: Ex-Stars 4, Eveleth (MN) 0 (at Virginia)
  • July 4: Eveleth 3, Ex-Stars 2
  • July 5: Ex-Stars 6, Eveleth 3
  • July 6: Chisholm 13, Ex-Stars 10
  • July 7: Ex-Stars 3, Hibbing 2
  • July 8: Ex-Stars 8, Hibbing 6 (at Superior)
  • July 16: Hibbing 7, Ex-Stars 3 (at Duluth)

Notes

1 1920 US Census; 1922 Chicago City Directory, accessed via Ancestry.com.

2 Randy Schultz, “Black Sox Scandal Revisited,” Palm Beach Post, July 21, 1977.

3 James L. Kilgallen, “ ‘Black Sheep’ Can Play, But Their Morale Hangs Low,” Dallas Morning News, June 14, 1921.

4 Al Spink, “Al Spink’s Column,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 6, 1922.

5 Jess Puryear, “Sport Comment,” San Diego Union, April 17, 1922.

6 “It’s-All-In-The-Slant,” Ironwood Daily Globe, May 4, 1922.

7 “Appleton bows to Menasha despite Black Sox,” Green Bay Press-Gazette, June 12, 1922; “Playing of Black Sox in Appleton condemned,” Oshkosh Northwestern, June 13, 1922; “Valley League has fuss over Black Sox use,” Sheboygan Press, June 13, 1922; “Appleton will retain team in Fox Valley league,” Wausau Daily Herald, June 21, 1922.

8 For more detail on the Black Sox civil lawsuits against Comiskey and the White Sox, see chapter 17 of William F. Lamb, Black Sox in the Courtroom: The Grand Jury, Criminal Trial, and Civil Proceedings (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2013).

9 “Ray Cannon Pitches for Black Sox Nine,” Green Bay Press-Gazette, June 24, 1922; “Black Sox in dispute, may end the tour,” Manitowoc Herald-Times, June 26, 1922; Bill Haglund, “Fight on Merrill street corner brought an end to the Black Sox,” Wausau Daily Herald, October 15, 1970.

10 Haglund, op cit.

11 “17 inning game gives Newberry 2 to 1 victory,” Sault Ste. Marie Evening News, August 28, 1922.

12 Buck Moore stayed in Merrill after the Cicotte-Risberg fight and lived there the rest of his life. After his own playing days ended, he managed Merrill’s powerhouse semipro team and became the town’s American Legion youth baseball director. Dave Christenson, “Sport Chatter,” Wausau Daily Herald, January 2, 1953.

13 “Black Sox hurler beaten 6 to 3 in ten inning clash,” Green Bay Press-Gazette, June 26, 1922.

14 See Jimmy Keenan’s biography on Moonlight Graham at the SABR BioProject (https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/a054b3d6) for details on the legend of Jackson playing in Chisholm. Jackson’s outlaw baseball career is fairly well documented between 1921 and 1925, and there is no evidence that he ever played in Minnesota.

15 “$6,000 a Year Would Be Princely Salary For Black Sox Now,” Hibbing Daily Tribune, July 13, 1922.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid.