Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Buck Weaver's (yes, that Buck Weaver) Greatest Day in Baseball Revisited

Buck Weaver

While working on posts about Ty Cobb and Casey Stengel's greatest days in baseball, I used my copy of John Carmichael's book of the same name which is the third and final edition published in 1951.  It isn't the same book that I remember reading in the 1950's so I bought a copy of the first edition published in 1945 before the end of World War II.  There's also obviously a second edition which I want to seek out as the first edition also doesn't seem to be the version I remember.  The oral histories which make up all three editions appeared first in the Chicago Daily News and the selections in the first and third editions aren't identical.  That by itself wasn't surprising, but I was more than a little taken aback to find the first edition included the story of one Buck Weaver, famous third baseman of the infamous 1919 Chicago White Sox, better known as the Black Sox.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle - October 14, 1917

As far as I know Weaver is the only one of the eight White Sox banned from baseball to have his story included in these anthologies which may be because Weaver is pretty much viewed as the least culpable and most sympathetic of those who felt the wrath of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis.  From what I've read and heard there seems to be consensus that Weaver's only sin was to learn of the conspiracy and not tell anyone about it.  During the series itself he played hard and it seems more than a little unfair that Weaver should receive the same lifetime banishment imposed on those who not only knew, but participated.  This sympathetic view of Weaver got further ammunition from John Cusack's portrayal of Weaver in the movie "Eight Men Out" based on Eliot Asinof's book.  Cusack presents Weaver as a decent, sincere hard working ball player, at worse perhaps guilty of being naive about what is going on around him.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the verbal picture Weaver paints of himself in describing his greatest day in the game is quite different than Cusack's portrayal and, at least to me, more than a little unattractive.  The game in question is the 5th game of the 1917 World Series between the Giants and the White Sox, with the latter team featuring a number of those who would play a major part in the 1919 scandal.  Weaver sets the stage for his account by describing the  1913-1914 world tour where Weaver says he and some teammates spent a lot of time "riding" the Giants on the opposing squad with Weaver in particular going after legendary manager John McGraw.  Although fisticuffs were averted, Weaver claimed his parting shot was to hope the White Sox would some day get to play the Giants in the World Series where they would show them "what a real fighting ball club is."

New York Herald - October 14, 1917

In 1917 Weaver got his wish and he describes how part of the White Sox preparation for the Series went beyond planning pitching and defensive strategy to evaluating how each member of the Giants responded to what was called "riding" or "bench jocking,"but today would more likely be called trash talking or even verbal abuse.  The key claimed Weaver was to know which players let  "riding" get to them and which only raised their level of play so the Sox would know who to harass and who to leave alone.  According to Weaver while discussing this immediately prior to the series someone suggested they simply give the Giants the silent treatment which would confuse their opponents even more.  Whether it was this strategy or some more logical reason, Chicago won the first two games in New York, but came home only to lose two straight with a important fifth game to be played on October 13th at Comiskey Park.

Chicago Sunday Tribune - October 14, 1917

At this point, Weaver said the White Sox knew the silent treatment wasn't working so they planned go back to their original plans with a new twist.  Borrowing a page from Ty Cobb's approach to baseball intimidation, Weaver said the Sox "took files and sharpened our spikes till they were like razors" with every intention of sliding in high at ever opportunity.  Supposedly the only White Sox who didn't go along was Eddie Collins who supposedly feared retaliation so much he would avoid taking throws at second if a "tough gent" was trying to steal the base.  Weaver dismissed the future Hall of Famer as a "great guy to look out for himself."

Chicago Sunday Tribune - October 14, 1917

Weaver and his teammates probably didn't know that the day had already gotten off to a bad start for their chances as club owner Charles Comiskey lost a coin flip to determine the location of a seventh game if one was necessary.  Since the sixth game was already scheduled for New York, winning their last home game became even more imperative for Chicago.   Unfortunately the game itself couldn't have gotten off to a worse start as Reb Russell walked George Burns on four pitches, gave up a single to Buck Herzog and then a double to Benny Kauff, scoring Burns and putting runners on second and third with none out.  Chicago manager, Clarence "Pants" Rowland wasted no time pulling Russell and bring in Eddie Cicotte.  Deadball Era teams were known for aggressive base running and none more so than John McGraw's Giants, but this time the strategy backfired.  Cicotte was not much more effective than Russell allowing a "hot grounder" to Heinie Zimmerman and a "hot smash" to Art Fletcher, but both times the runner on third tried to score only to be thrown out.  Dave Robertson did single in one additional run, but the White Sox got out of the inning only down 2-0.

New York Sun - October 14, 1917

Cicotte stayed in the game for five more innings, allowing two more runs while Chicago could only manage one tally off Slim Sallee.  However, the White Sox rallied for a run in the sixth scored by Weaver after the running a gauntlet between the Giant shortstop and second baseman who tried to block his path even though they didn't have the ball.  Claude "Lefty" Williams, another future Black Sox, took the mound in the seventh and allowed another run so the White Sox trailed 5-2 facing a trip to New York down 3 games to 2 hardly a good situation for players who had bragged so much about their superiority.  Writing in the Chicago Daily Tribune, I. E. Sanborn said the Sox were "apparently beaten - hopelessly, disgracefully licked" at that point.  Seldom, however, has a game and a series turned around so quickly.

Chicago Sunday Tribune - October 14, 1917

With one out Chicago had runners on first and second when Chick Gandil (another Black Soxer) doubled to cut the margin to just one run.  Up came our hero Buck Weaver, did he come through in the clutch to tie the game?   He did not!  After fouling off five pitches, Buck grounded weakly to shortstop allowing Gandil to move to third.  Ray Schalk was the next batter and with the pitcher's spot up next, Sallee walked the White Sox catcher bringing up Byrd Lynn as a pitch hitter.  Now the White Sox had first and third and two out in an era that favored the double steal with multiple defensive strategies against it.  Not surprisingly Schalk broke for second and Bill Rariden, the Giant catcher whipped the ball not to second, but back to Sallee who seeing that Gandil wasn't going, decided to try to nip Schalk at second, but ball got away from Buck Herzog and Gandil scored with tying run.  Clearly on this occasion, Sallee would have been better advised to hold the ball.

Chicago Sunday Tribune , October 14, 1917

Although the score was only tied, momentum had clearly switched to Chicago as witnessed by Red Faber setting the Giants down in order in the top of the eighth.  Chicago then scored three times aided once again by Giant throwing miscues to take an 8-5 lead which Faber preserved with another 1-2-3 inning in the ninth.  Afterwards the two teams boarded separate trains for New York which one writer said was fortunate since if they had shared the same train, "there would have only been a few shreds of clothing between them."  Before making the trip east themselves, sports writers tried to find adequate adjectives for a game that featured 26 hits, 13 runs, 9 errors and 21 runners left on base.  William Hanna of the New York Herald claimed that "two teams of the caliber of these never before exuded so much poor baseball, but it was exciting as it was mottled."  Sanborn of the Daily Tribune agreed writing "it was the rottenest, most uproariously exciting, rowdiest, and gamest fight ever seen in more than a decade of word's combats."

Chicago Sunday Tribune, October 14, 1917

But what of Buck Weaver, what did he do this day that made it so memorable?   In terms of his own role, Weaver's devotes more attention to the pre-game than the game itself.  Earlier in the day while the White Sox were taking batting practice, the Giants were loosening up by throwing down the right field line.  When his turn came, Weaver directed the pitcher to throw on the outside of the plate so he could hit ball after ball into the unsuspecting Giants without a word of warning from any of the White Sox.  After the third time, the New Yorkers had enough and sat down until Weaver stepped out.  Exactly what that had to do with the game is hard to see, but according to Weaver that "started the ball rolling."  Perhaps not surprisingly after losing game five the way they did, the Giants were done and lost the sixth game and the series by a score of 4-2.  In ending the story, Weaver mentions one more thing "I'll never forget," which probably explains his choice of greatest days.  Supposedly when the sixth game ended, John McGraw himself ran across the field to Weaver, not to lay hands on him, but to say, "I wanta shake your hand, kid.  You're the best, and I wanta take my hat off to you."  Most likely the compliment from the legendary John McGraw and the memory of the dramatic fifth game turn around were conflated into one story to become the ill-fated Weaver's greatest day in baseball.

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