Sports Collectors Digest: Commy

By Marty Appel

“This year, 1919, is the greatest season of them all.”

So said Charles A. Comiskey, owner of the White Sox, in his biography, “Commy,” published just months before the Black Sox lost the World Series and nearly destroyed the public trust in baseball when eight of its players conspired with gamblers to throw the World Series.

If only he knew.

How amazing that Comiskey, whose life in baseball went back to 1877, would choose 1919 of all years to have his life story told.

Of course, “Commy” would also be an odd name for a book, when he was really known as “The Old Roman,” (despite being Irish), which would have seemed a more apt title for this book. And “Commy,” well, it certainly wouldn’t have worked in the ‘50s.

Published by Reilly and Lee of Chicago, the book was written by Gustaf W. Axelson, who had written for the Chicago Record-Herald before The Great War. Swedish born in 1869, Axelson came to the U.S. at the age of 14, and graduated from the University of Chicago in 1896. He became a charter member of the Baseball Writers Association of America in 1908. Comiskey either liked him more than more notable Chicago writers of the time, or Axelson had the good sense to sell a publisher on the idea of a book, and then sell it to Comiskey. There had not been many baseball biographies written by 1919, so it was essentially fresh territory, especially for a small Chicago publisher. (Alexson died in Chicago in 1927).

The 320-page hardcover book is introduced with a fine overview of early baseball and an equally fine description of Chicago as it grew up with the emergence of the pro game. A series of single page glossy photos are spread throughout the 19 chapters, the earliest being pictures of Comiskey, as manager/first baseman of the American Association’s St. Louis Browns, posed to accept a throw barehanded, and an oddly composed team photo from 1884 of 13 of their 23 players at their ballpark.

Comiskey’s first foray into ownership came in 1895 with the St. Paul team in the Western League, and in 1900 he was owner and manager of the White Sox. The team became a charter member of the American League the following season (Comiskey abandoned managing at that point). Among his contributions to the game were said to be using two umpires instead of one, and creating coaching boxes outside first and third bases. Since Comiskey was cooperating with Axelson on this book, one can assume that information can directly from him.

“Comiskey and Bill Gleason {as coaches} used to plant themselves on each side of the visiting catcher and comment on his breeding, personal habits, skill as a receiver, or rather lack of it, until the unlucky backstop was unable to tell whether one or half a dozen balls were coming his way,” wrote Axelson.

The 18th chapter is especially interesting – almost a psychological profile which touched on Comiskey’s “shrewd” business practices, later to be seen as “cheapness” which helped send his eight players into the hands of gamblers. “During his first ten years in Chicago, he got along without the services of a bookkeeper,” wrote Axelson. “Each year he had to invest fifteen cents for a new book, but not a penny went astray. The handling of the funds was simplicity itself. Each day’s receipts were dumped into a satchel and taken to a downtown bank. Necessary payments were made by check. What was left at the end of the season was reckoned as profits.

“Comiskey’s fixed principle was always to gauge the outlay for ball players by his receipts. If the income did not match the expenses the team would be trimmed down. Thus, he did not start out as an owner with special trains nor put up in the finest hotels. As soon as the bank roll permitted, nothing was too good for his men.”

The final chapter was in Comiskey’s own words, and he offers that “Baseball is the greatest sport in the world. It is the cleanest, besides affording more people the right kind of amusement than any other.”

Little did he know what was going on right under his nose.

“Commy” was brought back to print by McFarland in 2003, and copies of the original sell for $200 and up, with the dust jacket version, quite scarce, at over $500.