“In the Centennial year of 1876 there appeared on Chicago’s diamonds a tall and lanky youth known to local fame as a pitcher. Be brought into the game a sinewy right arm, a pair of speedy legs and a strong individuality. An eventful career of forty-three years has well-nigh robbed him of all but the last.”
–G. W. Axelson in the authorized biography “Commy” (1919).
“He was a wonderful figure in baseball. He was one of the real strong men of the league. Comiskey was the power behind the throne. His judgment was always best.”
– -Detroit Tiger owner Frank Navin
Charles Albert Comiskey was the third of eight children born to an Irish immigrant (County Craven-arrived 1848) on August 15, 1859. His father was a prominent Democratic alderman of Chicago’s seventh ward, the Irish ghettos of the near West Side. The younger Comiskey trained as a plumber’s assistant and drove a delivery truck but had a hard time concentrating on anything but baseball playing outside downtown Chicago. An independent team in Elgin in 1877 was his first chance at organized ball but joining the 1878 Dubuque Rabbits really got his career under way. Playing primarily first base on this semipro squad he also was employed as a train news “butcher” of the Western News Company. Earning $50 per month Charlie became a teammate of Hoss Radbourne when the Iowa team transferred to the Northwest League in 1879. His 1882 contract was purchased (originally as a pitcher) by St. Louis Brown owner Chris Von der Ahe, then of the major league American Association.
Lining up well off the first base bag to field more territory allowing the pitcher to cover and the universal infield shift are his credited innovations. Impressed by his 6’, 180 pound right-handed hitting solid, but not spectacular batsman, Von der Ahe named the intelligent young talent team captain, manager and first baseman for the 1883 campaign. Four consecutive pennants followed starting in 1885 as he earned the title which was eventually shortened, “The Noblest Roman of the National Baseball Field”. A Chicago sportswriter, Hugh Keough is credited with assigning the sobriquet in reference to Comiskey’s striking facial features. “The Old Roman” changed allegiances in 1890 when the upstart Brotherhood Players League enabled him to own and manage back in his hometown of Chicago. A career .264 hitter, Comiskey’s team performed poorly and drew the same so when the league collapsed after its only season, he returned to St. Louis to guide his team to a second place finish in 1891. The National League absorbed the American Association in 1892 and “Commy” became the manager of the Cincinnati Reds, never fishing above fifth (in a field of twelve teams) in three lackluster seasons. There, a friendship was forged between with Cincinnati Commercial-Gazette sports editor, Ban Johnson. Comiskey, a dashing, bow-tied, fedora sporting man lobbied to establish Johnson as the president of the new Western League in 1895. The St. Paul franchise became Commy’s next venture assuming ownership, managerial reigns and what would be his last season as a player. Operating as a minor league club through the 1899 season, Comiskey petitioned to join the National League as a Chicago franchise. The terms were not amenable and he moved the club to the Windy City in 1900 under the White Stockings moniker. He is recognized along with Ban Johnson as co-founders of the American League, in their challenge to the formidable National League monopoly. This idea was conceptualized at Cincinnati’s “Ten-Minute Club” tavern and upon adoption of the charter he occupied an office at 1645 Marquette Building in Chicago. As sole proprietor and president of the now American League franchise, Commy won the first American League pennant in 1901 and another one followed in 1906 with his “Hitless Wonders” collectively batting only .230. By 1910, the lovable Charlie borrowed enough money to build the 52,000 seat Comiskey Park at 35th Street and Shields Avenue which stood and functioned until 1990 yielding to the new field was constructed across the street. Comiskey holds the distinction of holding power over the only solely owned franchise in major league history. A combined world tour to exhibit baseball in concert with his old foe John McGraw and his New York Giants sailed to port of calls like Tokyo, Manila, Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Cairo, Naples, Nice and London in 1913.
The Sox won the World Series in 1917 and donated 10 percent of his gross receipts to the American Red Cross. Other generosities included inviting hundreds of guests to his Wisconsin estate and paying Notre Dame tuitions for the sons of pitcher Ed Walsh and catcher Billy Sullivan, Sr. He was the first team owner to admit free into the stadium returning World War I vets. His underpaid champion players were not impressed, being the malcontents of his otherwise greed-driven, penny-pinching ways. He would renege on promised bonuses and have a case of cheap champagne delivered for the victory celebration. When his team returned to the Series in 1919, eight of his players conspired and seven accepted money from known gamblers to throw the games in favor of the Cincinnati Reds. The heavily-favored White Sox were defeated and Comiskey insisted on an investigation but feuded with his former friend Ban Johnson. “Commy” blamed Johnson for digging too deep after the series instead of halting play after the second suspicious consecutive loss. Johnson dismissed his plea by quipping, “That is the whine of the whipped cur”. The story became public, the players were exonerated in a courtroom, nevertheless the new Commissioner Judge Kenesaw Landis, in 1920, banned all eight “Black Sox” from playing in the majors again. Comiskey’s team was devastated by the fix and Johnson, who ruled in 1918 against him in the Jack Quinn player assignment favoring the Yankees, now, became his arch enemy. At one time Johnson was among the many hunting cronies Comiskey entertained at his summer retreat in Eagle River, WI, referring to them as the “Woodland Bards”. Commy appointed Ban to hunt pheasants for enjoyment of the lodge. Dejected because he missed his targets and returning empty-handed, he was greeted with jeers of laughter when the prank of substituting his bullets with blanks embarrassed and infuriated him. This was the beginning of the soured relationship between the two once inseparable friends. A few years later when Johnson’s emasculated presidency (via Landis) of the American League was debated amongst the team owners, Comiskey sought vengeance. ”The Old Roman” surfaced out of semi-retirement, echoing Johnson’s acerbic unsupportive statement, “That is the whine of the whipped cur.”
Comiskey, one of baseball’s wealthiest millionaires, fell into depression and became withdrawn from the operation of his ball club after 1921. Consumed with guilt and accused of being a cheapskate had tarnishing his widespread perceived sterling reputation. A long drawn period of seclusion was further complicated by the deaths of his child and his wife of 40 years, Nan Kelly of Dubuque in 1922. His son John Louis “Lou” Comiskey, team treasurer, (born 1885) assumed some of the administrative duties until his death in 1939. Longtime employee and trusted team secretary Harry M. Grabiner handled most of the business matters pertaining to the club. His association with the club began twenty-five years prior as an office boy. Lou’s daughter was actress June Travis who played opposite James Cagney in Ceiling Zero. Charlie’s grandchildren, Charlie, Jr. and Mrs. Dorothy Comiskey Rigney squabbled with the family owned business until 1960, losing their operational control of the club in 1958. Comiskey’s feeble health steadily declined as he observed from a distance his hapless team never regaining winning status. For several weeks in 1931 he became gravely ill and was confined to bed listed in critical condition the final month. “The Old Roman” slipped into a coma the final 24 hours then passed at 1:25 am on October 26, 1931. A heart aliment claimed his life at his Eagle River summer home at the age of 72. His body lay in state at the Comiskey home in Chicago followed by mass at St. Thomas the Apostle Church. The body was laid to eternal rest in a prominent mausoleum at Calvary Cemetery in Evanston, IL. His estranged friend, Byron Bancroft Johnson, harboring similar misery, ironically died earlier the same year on March 28. Comiskey remains the only person to have accomplished winning a major league championship as a player, manager and owner.
Before history’s cruel hand could write the negatives of his life’s shortcomings, the Old-Timers Committee selected (#20) Charles Albert Comiskey to the Baseball Hall of Fame early in 1939. Posthumous enshrinement ceremonies were held in Cooperstown on June 12, 1939 with the grandest set of individuals the game has ever assembled. The 1988 popular movie “Eight Men Out”, is writer Eliot Asinof’s 1963 depiction of the Black Sox scandal. Actor Clifton James plays the unflattering role of the baseball magnate.
Typically signing “Chas. A. Comiskey” regardless of the item type, his autograph went through an intriguing transformation that may have mirrored his life’s troubles. In the early days of the American League, his lively signature showed well formed rounded characters, fine flow and conviction expected from a successful and confident man. As the pressures of is life began to take their toll, a deterioration of his mark became evident with signs of tremors, slowness and weakly formed letters. The majority of the examples that remain are from the final quarter of his life (1909-1931). The capital “C” the most volatile of all the letters experienced the most noticeable change. At first, it was of a circular formation, the initial stroke arching into the core creating an eyelet, and then perfectly curling upward to the tall looped stem of the “h”. By 1913, the “C” evolved into a slanted half moon configuration with a retraced “beak”eyelet pointed downward. By 1920, the capital “C” resembled a bull’s eye, or more like an endless abyss of uncertainty, perhaps the direction of his life. An angular hump would complete the carefully shaped lower case “h” followed by a robust retraced conventional “a” and open looped “s” that’s eyelet may or may not be retraced. Without lifting the fountain pen, another similar “a” is evenly spaced with dotted punctuation placed on or below the baseline. Again without pause, another hemispherical capital “C” umbrellas over the next two to four letters. This time the “beak” eyelet widens, comes back elevated from the baseline into a acutely-slanted narrow “o” that tends to be open or retraced. The first hump of the “m” could be considered arcade in style but the second leans more toward angular design. The non-descript “i” contains a small vertical dash slightly to the right. The connector stroke leads into the slightly smaller than the former “s” this time sans subsequent connector stroke. Prior to 1919, he eliminated the break between the “s” and the “k”. Interesting that this occurred around the same time the other variations became prominent. The tall lower case “k” resembled the previous “h” but in the pre-1919 era was far more distinguishable kicking back to form an open loop. A filled in “e” ensued before finishing his signature with a two retraced lines that formed the upper portion of the “y”. As expected, flourish below the decender was typical but diminished and shortened the lifeless vertical stroke in the later period. Very few examples can be found between 1922 and 1929 when his self-imposed isolation seemed most reclusive.
I have examined very few valid album pages ($1800) and never have seen a U.S. Government postcard in the marketplace. Player contracts ($2000 and up) and the even more familiar typed signed letter (TLS-$2000 and up) are the most common form of his signature. The finest example of this version is accompanied by its postmarked envelope is addressed to Hall of Famer Ed Walsh. The 1909 correspondence on Chicago Base Ball Club letterhead forbids Walsh to have his contract negotiated by a third party and that his $3500 contract is “…what you are worth to me.” Totally handwritten letters would be considered scarce; I know of one 1901 example ($5000 plus). The ornate and colorful embossed stationery used from 1918-1931 is especially eye catching but most examples from the final few years are ghost signed by team secretary Harry Grabiner. Season ticket passes displayed in leather folded covers unfortunately bear the same entrusted manuscript. His style is far more rounded, faster and upright. Most noticeably, Chas’ “h” towers above the “C” whereas Harry’s version cowers enveloped beneath. The content of Grabiner’s signed typed signed notes ranges from offering games gratis to VIPs or rejection notices for employment requests. Although Lou Comiskey’s signature is eerily similar to that of his father’s, I have yet to find a case where he pinch hit for daddy’s manuscript. Comiskey’s 1919 biography “Commie” produced 200 numbered signed copies and should sell for $3000 in decent condition. An autograph bound book from the 1913 World Tour sold in Hunt auction that had all the participants’ names. The lone personal check via mid 1990s Robert Edward’s Auction ($1200, way under priced) made out for only 60 cents (doesn’t help the cheap issue) comfortably rests in an established collection. A couple of team signed balls, faded as expected, from the same era are the choice few examples in which his inked name can be found. Charlie’s absence from the Chicago scene post-1921 often resulted in a rubber stamp application to player contracts. The final two years of his life, 1930 and 1931, The Old Roman did acknowledge several birthday well wishers with form letters and his frail signature. Also, regrets to attend testimonial banquets and the like were answered with signed RSVPs of regret.