Birds of a feather: Darby Rathman and the Black Sox baseball ban

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

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At 24 years old, Darby Rathman played second base on a traveling team organized by Eddie Cicotte and Swede Risberg in 1922. Later in life, he claimed he had been barred from playing professional baseball by Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis because of his association with the Black Sox. (Photo: Esquire, October 1984)

Banned from professional baseball during the prime of their careers, Happy Felsch or Buck Weaver might have expressed a lament like this later in life: “I’ll never know what kind of ballplayer I could have been. I might have been in the Hall of Fame.”1Instead, those are the words of their one-time teammate, a Chicago-born infielder named Harvey R. “Darby” Rathman, who gave interviews to an Esquire magazine writer and several other reporters about his fateful experiences with Felsch, Weaver, and Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

You won’t find Rathman’s name listed on Baseball-Reference.com or in any other sources. He never played in the minor leagues, let alone the majors — and he claimed that his association with the Black Sox was the reason why.

Back in 1922, just a few months after the Black Sox were banned for life by baseball commissioner Landis, Buck Weaver applied directly to the judge for reinstatement to clear his name. Weaver was adamant that he hadn’t accepted any bribe money to throw the 1919 World Series with his teammates, but he had attended pre-Series meetings and knew about the plot all along. For the first time (but not the last), Landis rejected Weaver’s effort to resume his professional career. The commissioner’s words were ominous: “Birds of a feather flock together.”2 Landis’s statement made it clear that Weaver could not expect any leniency because of his close ties to the World Series fixers. But his message had a deeper meaning, too. He was also warning other players who associated with the Black Sox that they could expect to receive similar treatment in the future. They might put their own careers in jeopardy. It was a message that many aspiring professional players took to heart.

Landis formalized his threat in a letter to a team in Saginaw, Michigan, that attempted to hire Eddie Cicotte to pitch for them: “Any baseball player engaging in the sport with or against Eddie Cicotte in a scheduled semi-pro game here Saturday will be placed on the ineligible list, fined, and barred from further participation in professional baseball.”3 While some amateur and semipro teams refused to play against the Black Sox for fear of being ostracized, there were still plenty of teams without a connection to Organized Baseball that wanted to share the same field with real big-leaguers. In the spring of 1922, Risberg and Cicotte formed a traveling team with Felsch and Buck Weaver called the Ex-Major League Stars, and they made plans to embark on a summer tour of the Midwest, playing a series of games against independent teams from towns in the Fox River Valley in Wisconsin and the Mesabi Iron Range of northern Minnesota.

The four Black Sox players recruited a misfit collection of talent to fill out their lineup card. There was James Webb, a Pullman freight mechanic from Chicago who had played with the suspended major-leaguers in 1921 when they formed a team called the South Side Stars to pass the time while waiting for their criminal trial to begin. He filled in at third base and right field, and occasionally pitched in place of Cicotte and Williams. John Zillmer was a big, strapping first baseman from Marion, Wisconsin, a depot man for the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad who played competitive baseball until he was 50 years old. Catcher Clarence Croke grew up near Happy Felsch in Milwaukee; he was an Army veteran in World War I and a one-time Marquette University football player.

After watching the team play, one Wisconsin reporter remarked, “Half of their club is composed of players of ordinary semi-pro ability who were picked up to fill in. … The Ex-Stars have several ‘weak sisters’ in their organization.”4

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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. The Black Sox are pictured in the top row: Swede Risberg (third from left), Happy Felsch (fifth from left), Buck Weaver (sixth from left), and Eddie Cicotte (far right). (Photo: BlackBetsy.com)

This was the team that 24-year-old infielder Darby Rathman joined in 1922. Rathman, a Chicago native, was working as a stockyards superintendent and his only apparent connection to baseball was his position as a coach at Mt. Carmel High School. His name does not seem to show up in any box scores for prominent semipro teams in Chicago, which were stocked with former major-league players such as Jim “Hippo” Vaughn, Jack Quinn, and Vic Saier. Rathman’s baseball pedigree remains unclear, but it certainly wasn’t noteworthy — which means he fit right in on the Ex-Stars’ makeshift roster.

Rathman portrayed himself as being on par with the big-leaguers. He said he must have been as good as Risberg and Weaver “or they wouldn’t have let me stay.” He once told a reporter that he grew up in Chicago going to White Sox games in Comiskey Park. “I used to sit in the bleachers … and watch Eddie Collins, who ended up in the Hall of Fame, and I knew there wasn’t much difference between us.”5 He said he joined the team because the Black Sox promised him a salary of $100 per week.

Surviving box scores show that Rathman mostly played second base and hit at the bottom of the lineup during the Ex-Stars tour. Like most of the players recruited to play, he struggled at the plate, hitting just .176 with one double and one home run in nine documented games.6 The quality of their opponents was mixed. Ex-Boston Braves pitcher Bill Upham was one of five former major-leaguers who suited up for the Hibbing, Minnesota team, but other than the Black Sox, almost everyone on the field in any given game was someone who never sniffed a big-league roster.

One of Rathman’s favorite stories to tell about the tour was when an angry fan approached him at the team hotel and accused him of fixing a game after he made a crucial error in the late innings.7 “That was the first time it occurred to me that my own good name might be blemished, too,” he said. “I took my glove and got on a train home.”8Rathman’s last known appearance for the Ex-Stars came in a July 4 doubleheader at Eveleth, Minnesota. Although the Ex-Stars lost the second game 3-2 in 10 innings, Rathman (who went 0-for-4) made no errors and the winning run was scored cleanly on a walk-off single against Lefty Williams.

When Rathman got home to Chicago, he wrote a letter to the Newark Bears of the International League, who he claimed had expressed interest in signing him to a minor-league contract. But Judge Landis found out he had played with the Black Sox and — according to Rathman — added his name to professional baseball’s official blacklist.

In an interview with Esquire magazine in 1984, Rathman offered more details of his exchange with the commissioner:

I sat outside Judge Landis’s chambers every day for two weeks. His secretary would smile and say, ‘Oh, I’m afraid the judge can’t see you now.’ Finally, he saw I wasn’t going to disappear and he brought me into his office. I explained the story, start to finish, of how I came to play baseball with the Major Stars. He heard me out and then he leaned over the desk and said, ‘Mr. Rathman, you can talk your goddamn ass off, but you’re not going to play baseball for anybody, now or ever.’ And then he said, ‘You don’t know it, but I’m doing you a favor. Anywhere you played, people would think you were on the fix. Birds of a feather flock together.’ ”9One can easily imagine the scene of Landis hauling a young ballplayer into his office and reading him the riot act about associating with the Black Sox, squashing a promising pro career. But his threat about banning anyone who played with or against the exiled Chicago players usually had more bark than bite. Dozens of players in Rathman’s situation did go on to play professionally — and some of them even made it up to the major leagues.

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Ernie Wingard

A year after the Ex-Stars tour ended, Ernie Wingard and Verdo Elmore, teammates at the University of Alabama, joined an independent semipro team based out of Bastrop, Louisiana — which was captained by Shoeless Joe Jackson.10 Jackson took Wingard under his wing and when the young pitcher signed with the St. Louis Browns before the 1924 season, Jackson accompanied him north to help him get acclimated to the big leagues.11 Both Wingard and Elmore made their major-league debuts with the Browns that year; their connection with Jackson apparently did not ruffle too many feathers in the commissioner’s office.

In 1926, Syd Cohen and Vern Underhill played regularly against Chick Gandil, Buck Weaver, Lefty Williams, and Hal Chase in El Paso, Texas, as part of the outlaw Copper League. Underhill went on to pitch for the Cleveland Indians in 1927-28 and Cohen later spent parts of four seasons with the Washington Senators. Roy “Hardrock” Johnson, who pitched briefly for the Philadelphia A’s in 1918, was Lefty Williams’s manager and teammate in the Copper League; he later served as the Chicago Cubs’ manager for a short stint during World War II. Emmett Nelson, who was teammates with Swede Risberg for one season with the independent Sioux Falls Canaries in South Dakota, later pitched with the Cincinnati Reds in 1935-36.

These were just a few of the thousands of players who stepped on a baseball field with one or more of the Black Sox in the years after they were banned. Most of the players who turned pro languished in small Class D leagues, but a few rose to the cusp of the majors in top-flight circuits like the International League or Pacific Coast League.

If Judge Landis was serious about keeping players with connections to the Black Sox out of Organized Baseball, he wasn’t always diligent about enforcing that hard line. Given Darby Rathman’s demonstrated abilities while on tour with the Ex-Stars — his .176 batting average was nothing to write home about — and a lack of documentation about his possible opportunity with the Newark Bears, it seems necessary to be skeptical about his story.

Rathman also had a tendency to exaggerate other qualifications throughout his life. After his baseball career ended, he claimed to have graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. However, school officials there have no record of his enrollment.12 After Rathman moved to Florida in the 1940s, he became a publicity director for the minor-league Miami Marlins and was involved with a local baseball old-timers’ association. The Miami News frequently misreported that he had been an infielder “in the major leagues” with the Chicago White Sox in the ’20s.13 This error continued appearing in print for more than a decade.

Rathman gave his first interview about the Ex-Stars tour to the Palm Beach Post in 1977.14 Then, he clarified that he had never played professional baseball and he blamed Judge Landis for ruining his career. For the rest of his life, until his death in 1986, he told the story to anyone who would listen. There are no letters or public statements from Landis to confirm or deny Rathman’s claim.

Perhaps baseball’s first commissioner did single out Darby Rathman and make him an example for any other aspiring ballplayer who associated with the Black Sox. If so, Rathman would have been one of the only players punished for that transgression. In that way, he would have had something in common with his old teammate Buck Weaver, who wasn’t alone in his “guilty knowledge” of the 1919 World Series fix but was banned for life anyway. Birds of a feather, indeed.

Notes

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

2 “Buck Weaver Asks For Reinstatement,” New York Herald, January 14, 1922.

3 “Landis to Bar Players in Game with Cicotte,” New York Tribune, September 22, 1921.

4 “New Hurler to Make Debut in Stiff Contest,” Stevens Point Daily Journal, June 17, 1922.

5 Pete Dexter, “Black Sox Blues,” Esquire, October 1984, 265-67.

6 Special thanks to author Alan Muchlinski for sharing his research files on the 1922 Minnesota tour, which include articles and box scores from the Hibbing Daily Tribune. Muchlinski wrote the first extended study of Swede Risberg’s outlaw career in After the Black Sox: The Swede Risberg Story (Bloomington, Indiana: AuthorHouse, 2005).

7 See, for example, Shelby Strother, “A man’s guilt by association,” Florida Today, June 26, 1985.

8 Dexter, “Black Sox Blues.”

9 Ibid.

10 For more details, see John Bell, Shoeless Summer (Americus, Georgia: Vabella Publishing, 2001).

11 Kevin T. Czerwinski, “Wingard carved out a career to remember,” MiLB.com, August 20, 2008.

12 Rathman claimed to graduate from Northwestern in a May 28, 1985, interview with the Palm Beach Post and the claim also appears in his December 25, 1986, obituary in the same newspaper. Two university officials were unable to find any record of his matriculation. E-mails to the author from Brittan Nannenga of NU Libraries on October 11, 2017, and Abigail Smith of the NU Registrar’s Office on October 16, 2017.

13 See Miami News articles on February 23, 1949; March 18, 1956; and July 17, 1960, among others.

14 Schultz, “Black Sox Scandal Revisited.”