This article was originally published in the June 2021 edition of the SABR Black Sox Scandal Committee newsletter.
In the months leading up to their criminal trial in the summer of 1921, the eight Chicago White Sox players accused of fixing the 1919 World Series faced a more tedious dilemma than the prospect of a prison sentence. Before they could face conspiracy charges in a Cook County courtroom, they suddenly found themselves out of work.
The legal proceedings that would determine the Black Sox players’s fate were moving at a snail’s pace. Following their indictments in October 1920, the defendants were forced to wait through lengthy delays that pushed back the opening of their trial for months. The team of prosecutors leading the case had been overhauled in the wake of a contentious election that fall, and the new State’s Attorney made a strategic decision in March 1921 to dismiss their charges and re-indict the accused players in order to buy more time.
Shoeless Joe Jackson, Eddie Cicotte, and the other players were technically free men, but they were effectively stuck in limbo until the trial was finally scheduled to begin in late June. As prosecutors worked to round up all 13 defendants — eight players and five gamblers involved with the World Series fix — from their homes around the country, the players found themselves with no money coming in and little to do in Chicago.1 They could not earn a living playing baseball with the White Sox, having been suspended by new commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis before Opening Day.
As lawyers for both the prosecution and the defense engaged in pre-trial machinations without them, some of the Black Sox players spent their days at Joe Jackson’s pool room on Chicago’s South Side,2 but there was only so much near-beer to drink in those early days of Prohibition. Their recognizable faces precluded them from taking jobs where they might have to interact with the general public. So how best to pass the time — and maybe bring in some extra income — while waiting for their trial to open?
The answer, naturally, was to get back on the ballfield and do what they did best.
In the 1920s and ’30s, Chicago was a hotbed of amateur and semipro baseball, with many former and future professional players — including big names like ex-Cubs pitcher Jim “Hippo” Vaughn — coming together every week to play games at local parks all over the city. These games, which often drew thousands of fans, were covered by Chicago’s Tribune, Daily News,and other newspapers. There were more than a dozen baseball leagues around the city in 1921 and, thanks to the caliber of the players involved, many of them were extremely competitive.
These games were also occasionally integrated, with powerhouse all-Black teams such as Rube Foster’s Chicago American Giants — founding members of the year-old Negro National League — and Robert Gilkerson’s rival Union Giants squaring off against any independent team willing to play them.
In 1921, the most glamorous new baseball park in the city was at the White City Amusement Park, Chicago’s version of Coney Island, which had opened in 1905. At 63rd Street and South Park Way in the Woodlawn neighborhood, the 14-acre White City park was a popular entertainment venue known as “the city of a million lights,” with carnival rides, a roller skating rink, dance hall, Ferris wheel, and a 300-foot-high electric tower with lights that could be seen up to 15 miles away.3 It all revived memories of the park’s namesake, the 1893 World’s Fair, which had also been nicknamed “White City.”4
The new baseball park on White City’s southwest end could accommodate up to 5,000 fans — all of them White, since the segregated amusement park was not open to Black customers — some of them undoubtedly with their hearts still racing after riding the Whip, the Pep, the Chutes, or the Great American Racing Derby carousel.5 The city’s public high schools scheduled their championship tournament at the White City ballpark and the Woodlawn Lions semipro club, managed by former Cubs catcher Jimmy Archer, held their regular home games there.
With nothing else better to do, Swede Risberg decided he wanted to form a team and play there, too. The erstwhile White Sox shortstop enlisted the services of George K. Miller, a publicity-minded investment broker based at the Harris Trust and Savings Bank on Monroe Avenue in the downtown Loop, where they began sending out telegrams to semipro teams all over the Midwest.6 Miller named their new team the South Side Stars, and Risberg recruited Joe Jackson, Lefty Williams, and Happy Felsch to star as the main attractions. “I think we’ll go big, whether we are panned [booed] or not,” Jackson told one reporter.7
The backlash to their plan was swift and strong. Their first scheduled game, on Sunday, April 17 against a team called the Aristo Giants, was canceled when the Commonwealth Edison company threatened to revoke the Aristos’ permit to play at its ballpark in Irving Park.8 One by one, the city’s biggest semipro leagues announced that their players and teams would not be allowed to take the field with the disgraced Black Sox. The National Baseball Federation, a loose governing body of amateur sandlot leagues, also barred its teams from participating in games with the South Side Stars. So too did a local umpires association.9
One semipro club owner said: “We might play them one game and they would draw well — maybe better than usual. But on the way home, the average fan would say to himself, ‘By George, half of my money … is going to the fellows who double-crossed me in 1919.’ And that fan would not come back to our park.”10
But public curiosity is a curious phenomenon, and not everyone was opposed to the idea of seeing major-league caliber players in action. The White City ballpark had already been booked up for early-season games by the time the South Side Stars formed their team, but Frank P. Conroy, who operated a ballpark at Grand Crossing Park on 75th Street and Greenwood Avenue, invited the Black Sox to open their season at his venue instead.
On Sunday, May 8, 1921, Risberg, Jackson, Felsch, and Williams took the field for the first time as the South Side Stars — just over seven months since their final appearance in a White Sox uniform at Comiskey Park.11 Conroy must have been delighted to see an overflow crowd of 6,000 fans show up to see the game despite little advance publicity: “There were no handbills, dodgers or other forms of advertising to secure the crowd. Tickets were placed in drug stores and billiard halls on the south side, and the advance sale was said to be large enough to fill the park.”12
The Aristos were captained for several years by Jack Ness, who had recorded a 49-game hitting streak in the minor leagues in 1915 and then spent part of the 1916 season as a backup first baseman with the White Sox before jumping to the semipro circuit.13 It’s unlikely Ness was still on the team in 1921, but the Aristos were no match for his one-time teammates, as Lefty Williams dominated the semipro batters for a 7-2 victory. According to syndicated columnist Al Spink, the players received $25 each for their efforts that day.14
Some were dismayed by the rousing reception that Chicago fans gave to the indicted ballplayers. One Texas sports writer remarked, “A gent has a lotta trouble trying to keep his faith in the human race.”15 Oscar Reichow of The Sporting News wrote, “[It’s] just like nuts to go see a murderer.”16 But fans continued showing up to see the Black Sox.
The following weekend, Chick Gandil made his first appearance with the South Side Stars. One of the few Black Sox defendants who had not already returned to Chicago, Gandil had been arrested at his home in Los Angeles on April 26, on orders of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office. He produced a pre-paid train ticket to Chicago and was released on bail with orders to report to court officers by May 1.17 As prosecutors continued to round up trial witnesses and participants, Gandil took the field at first base for the Stars in their 16-3 blowout victory over a visiting team from Omaha, Nebraska. The crowd reportedly surpassed 7,000 — twice as high as some White Sox home games that season18 — with some fans turned away for lack of space. The Black Sox players “were given a great hand … throughout the game.”19
On May 22, the South Side Stars faced the Gilkerson Union Giants at Conroy’s Grand Crossing park. The Giants were a popular, independent all-Black team that spent their summers barnstorming around the Midwest playing lucrative games against local semipro teams. Giants center fielder Bill “Happy” Evans — who gained posthumous fame as the great-great uncle of Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex20 — told author John Holway in a 1972 interview that he picked up some batting tips from the Black Sox:
“If you get Cum Posey’s memoirs, you’ll see where he said he would rather see me at bat with a man on third than anybody he’s ever seen. And I learned it from Buck Weaver and Happy Felsch of the Chicago Black Sox around 1921. See, I keep my hands in tight to my stomach when I bat. And I don’t watch the ball, I watch the pitcher’s left shoulder. … Josh Gibson, Ray Brown, Roy Partlow, Sammy T. Hughes, Felton Snow, those were my pupils. And Buck Weaver and Happy Felsch taught me.”21
While Weaver never played22 for the South Side Stars in 1921, he did play some games against the Gilkerson Union Giants in later years. Evans also played at least eight other documented games against Swede Risberg while barnstorming in Minnesota in 1923-24. He told Holway, “There wasn’t a great deal of difference in our scores; they would win sometimes and we would win sometimes.”
The Black Sox’s success on and off the field ruffled the feathers of Chicago’s business and political elite. In mid-May, Sheldon “Frank” Govier introduced a resolution in the Chicago City Council to revoke Conroy’s ballpark license. Among the aldermen who expressed support for the punitive measure were future Chicago mayor Anton Cermak, Chicago Bears minority owner George Maypole, and former University of Chicago football star Walter P. Steffen.23
Govier, a Scottish-born soccer star who had played on the 1912 US Olympic team, may have had a personal reason for wanting to punish the Black Sox and anyone who associated with them: His brother, Benjamin Govier, had once captained a professional soccer team owned by White Sox owner Charles Comiskey.24
The conflict came to a head at a City Council meeting on June 13, when Frank Govier baited Risberg and Gandil into a shouting match. At one point, Govier said Risberg “would not even be allowed to play [ball] in his hometown.” Risberg yelled back, “Bet any kind of dough I can.” To which Govier retorted, “Don’t talk dough with me. Bet dough on you two years ago and lost. That was when you sold out.” When the dust settled, the city council’s Judiciary Committee voted to turn down Govier’s resolution and the Sox were free to continue playing ball.25
By then, the White City ballpark had finally opened up for their use. After several weeks of declining crowds at Grand Crossing, the South Side Stars’s first appearance at White City on June 5 was a spectacle. According to Al Spink, the crowd numbered around 5,000 and the players received $50 apiece for a couple hours of work in front of the amusement park rides.26
Many sports writers could barely contain their disgust for the rowdy scene at White City. The Chicago papers stopped carrying reports of their Sunday afternoon games as the trial date approached in June. One City Hall employee wrote in to the Chicago Tribune — the only newspaper still accepting George K. Miller’s small, 1-inch display ads promoting the South Side Stars’s upcoming games — to complain: “After refraining from giving them publicity as long as you have, do you not think it would have been advisable to hold off until after their trial?”27 An Associated Press report was published with the headline “Black Sox Are Forgotten Now,” pleading with fans to pay more attention to their less talented replacements at Comiskey Park instead.28
The following Sunday, syndicated columnist James Kilgallen ventured out to White City to look over the “alleged baseball crooks.” He watched as the South Side Stars “toyed with their opponents,” the Woodlawn Lions. The “only feature” of the game, he wrote, “except the show-off tactics of the former Sox, was a long home run by Jackson, who was ‘all in’ when he finished circling the bases.” He gave an exaggerated account of Shoeless Joe Jackson’s weight and said the outfielder “wouldn’t run for any ball that wasn’t hit right into his hands. … He drank pop and ate cracker-jack throughout the contest.” Kilgallen added with obvious disdain, “The morale of all of them is low. They figure they’re ‘through.’ ”29
The Black Sox continued to schedule weekend games right up until the Fourth of July — a week after their trial finally began at the Cook County Courthouse downtown, a few miles north of White City. Jury selection opened on Monday, June 27, less than 24 hours after the South Side Stars played an Elks Club team in the shadow of the 300-foot-tall Electric Tower, just down the boardwalk from the mirror maze funhouse called 1001 Troubles. This time, there weren’t even a thousand fans in the ballpark to watch them play; the players reportedly only collected a few dollars apiece from their share of the admission gate.30
By the time they finished their final game on the Fourth of July against a team calling itself the World Nations31 , the Black Sox had seemingly worn out their welcome after 10 weeks of playing ball in the carnival atmosphere of White City. Fans were tired of the spectacle and ready to find out if their former idols would be back in the big leagues anytime soon.
Inside the courtroom, jury selection continued for another two weeks, finally concluding on Saturday, July 16.32 The players had had their fun, passing the time while prosecutors prepared their case all summer, but now they would have to exchange their spikes and stirrups for shirts and ties in order to find out what the future had in store for them. The real-world roller-coaster ride was about to begin.
After they were acquitted on August 2, 1921, by a group of 12 working-class Chicagoans, the White Sox players celebrated through the night with those same jurors at a South Side restaurant that had ties to Al Capone’s mob.33 Their jubilation was short-lived, as baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis announced the following day that they would never be allowed to play in the major leagues again.
The Black Sox were free from a life behind prison bars, but still barred from the highest levels of the game they loved. Once again, they turned to baseball to eke out a living as best they could. Three weeks after the trial, the South Side Stars — with Jackson, Gandil, Felsch, and Risberg, plus Eddie Cicotte replacing Lefty Williams on the mound — traveled to Oklahoma and played a series of games around the state against local amateur and semipro teams. They won every game they played before returning north after Labor Day.34
Their names, and their infamous reputations, would continue to be a draw for many small-town fans around the United States for the rest of the decade. Since the American League and National League did not extend farther west or south than St. Louis, the “outlaw” Black Sox offered fans in other cities a glimpse at the elite skills possessed by real major-league talent. Even after they were forced to look for regular civilian jobs to make ends meet, most of the Black Sox players continued playing ball every summer into the early 1930s.
The disgraced White Sox never returned to play at Chicago’s White City ballpark after their trial ended. In 1927, the amusement park’s iconic Electric Tower, the popular ballroom, and several other buildings were destroyed by a fire. The Great Depression delivered the final blow, and the park’s owners filed for bankruptcy a few years later. The rest of the park was torn down in 1950 to make way for a public housing project.35
1 Not all of the Black Sox players were living in Chicago during the spring of 1921, but everyone except Fred McMullin returned voluntarily in order to stand trial. McMullin claimed he could not afford to travel from his home in Los Angeles to Chicago for the trial. The state of California refused to extradite him and he did not stand trial with the other seven players. His charges were dismissed after the jury returned a not-guilty verdict.
2 Jackson’s pool room and cigar store was located at 1202 E. 55th Street. In October 1921, he sold the property for $1 to his friend Lefty Williams.
3 George Estep, “The Roller-Coaster Life of Towering and Tawdry White City,” Chicago Tribune, April 6, 1986.
4 Steven A. Riess, “Leisure,” The Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago, Chicago Historical Society, 2005. Accessed online at http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/735.html on April 24, 2021.
5 “White City Construction Co. scrapbook, 1914-33,” Chicago History Museum, Chicago, Illinois. The unused ticket book with a list of active rides is dated July 11-12, 1921.
6 James L. Kilgallen, “New Start Sought by Barred Stars,” United News, April 9, 1921. “Chicago Brokers Back Accused Ball Players,” Associated Press, April 9, 1921.
7 Kilgallen, “New Start.”
8 “ ‘Black Sox’ Baseball Game is Canceled,” Chicago Daily News, April 16, 1921. That game was scheduled at a park at N. Elston Ave. and Kedzie Ave. in the Irving Park neighborhood.
9 “Slam Ball Park Gates on Indicted Sox,” Chicago Tribune, April 17, 1921, 17.
10 “Semi-Pro Ball Dead If Indicted Sox Play, Is Cry,” Chicago Tribune, April 18, 1921.
11 Adam Berenbak, “September 27, 1920: ‘The end of some inevitable chain’: Chicago’s final Black Sox game,” SABR Games Project, accessed online on May 17, 2021.
12 “Six Thousand Fans See Ex-Sox Ball Players Win,” Chicago Daily News, May 9, 1921. Stanley Parsons, “Fans Crowd Park to See Indicted Sox Play,” Collyer’s Eye, May 14, 1921, 4.
13 William F. Lamb, “Jack Ness,” SABR BioProject, accessed online on May 17, 2021. There is no box score available for the May 8 game, and the Aristo Giants were mentioned only briefly in local newspapers in 1921. A Chicago-based club called the Aristos, with Jack Ness as their cleanup hitter and first baseman, was very active from 1917-19 and their box scores appeared regularly in local newspapers.
14 “Al Spink’s Column,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 6, 1922. Spink claimed to have talked with an unnamed player who had been a member of the South Side Stars. Besides the five Black Sox players, he named four other members of the team who have yet to be identified, “Conroy, c; O’Malley, 2b; Wells, 3b; Adams, rf.” The catcher may have been one of Frank Conroy’s younger brothers, Michael, Thomas, or William, who all worked as switchmen for a railroad company. Little is known about their baseball skills or experience. “Wells” may have been James Webb, a Pullman freight mechanic from Chicago who is known to have played third base with the Black Sox touring team in 1922.
15 William B. Ruggles, “The Passing Hour,” Dallas Morning News, May 11, 1921.
16 Oscar C. Reichow, “Just Like Nuts Go To See A Murderer,” The Sporting News, May 19, 1921.
17 William F. Lamb, Black Sox in the Courtroom: The Grand Jury, Criminal Trial, and Civil Litigation (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2013), 97-98.
18 The White Sox drew 3,500 fans for a midweek game against the St. Louis Browns on Tuesday, April 26. See “1921 Chicago White Sox Schedule,” Baseball-Reference.com.
19 “Indicted Sox Drawing Record Crowds,” Fort Wayne News Sentinel, May 22, 1921.
20 For more on Bill Evans’s family, see this author’s story, “Meghan Markle, the Royal Wedding, and the Black Sox,” in the June 2018 edition of the SABR Black Sox Scandal Committee Newsletter.
21 John Holway, Black Giants (Springfield, VA: Lord Fairfax Press, 2010).
22 Weaver declined Risberg’s initial offer to play — not because he refused to play with his “guilty” teammates, as was widely reported, but because he was making too much money working at his brother-in-law’s drug store. See “Weaver Not in Sunday Ball Game on South Side,” Chicago Daily News, May 10, 1921. After the trial ended, Weaver did play with and against the other Black Sox players into the early 1930s.
23 “Proceedings of the City Council of Chicago,” Vol. 92, p. 185, May 13, 1921. The Newberry Library, Chicago, Illinois. Accessed online via the Internet Archive at http://archive.org/stream/proceedingsofcit92chic on May 16, 2021.
24 Benjamin Govier, who was elected to the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 1950, played for many years on the Chicago-based Pullman F.C. company team. In 1901, he captained Comiskey’s Chicago team in a short-lived Midwestern league with teams in St. Louis, Detroit, and Milwaukee. Gabe Logan. “Soccer,” The Encyclopedia of Chicago, Chicago Historical Society, 2005. Accessed online at http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/1157.html on November 18, 2013.
25 James L. Kilgallen, “ ‘Black Sheep’ Can Play, But Their Morale Hangs Low,” United News, June 14, 1921. “Proceedings of the City Council of Chicago,” Vol. 92, p. 416, June 13, 1921. The Newberry Library, Chicago, Illinois. Accessed online via the Internet Archive at http://archive.org/stream/proceedingsofcit92chic on May 16, 2021.
26 “Al Spink’s Column,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 6, 1922.
27 T.H. O’Neill, unpublished letter to the editor, Chicago Tribune, June 25, 1921; found in “Chicago White Sox and 1919 World Series Baseball Scandal Collection,” Chicago History Museum.
28 “Black Sox Are Forgotten Now,” Associated Press, June 5, 1921.
29 James L. Kilgallen, “ ‘Black Sheep’ Can Play, But Their Morale Hangs Low,” United News, syndicated in Dallas Morning News, June 14, 1921.
30 “Al Spink’s Column,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 6, 1922.
31 Because there is no box score or published game account, it cannot be determined if this “World Nations” team was the same as the Kansas City-based All-Nations barnstorming team that occasionally included star Cuban pitcher José Méndez, a future Baseball Hall of Famer.
32 Lamb, Black Sox in the Courtroom, 106-07.
34 Ron Coleman, “The 1921 Black Sox Tour of Oklahoma,” SABR Black Sox Scandal Committee Newsletter, June 2018.
35 Wallace Best, “Greater Grand Crossing,” The Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago, Chicago Historical Society, 2005. Accessed online April 24, 2021, at https://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/547.html.