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The 1917 White Sox stayed the course

Charles Comiskey avoided slashy moves, retained manager despite frustration

Clarence “Pants” Rowland.
Bain News Service / Library of Congress

For most of the lives of most of our readership — unless the majority of the South Side Sox community is 22 or younger — the 1917 White Sox loomed infamously large as Chicago baseball’s most recent world champions.

Entire generations came and went without seeing another World Series winner, so the achievement lost just about all of its luster by the time the 2005 White Sox took the franchise and city off the hook. In fact, the title probably corroded within a few years. All of the eight men who were banned from baseball as a result of the game-fixing scandal in the 1919 World Series also played prominent roles on the championship team two years before.

Despite the subsequent baggage, it remains just one of the White Sox’ three championships. Today marks the start of the 100th anniversary of that team, and this post marks the start of our coverage of the centennial.

As eventful as the season would turn out to be, the preceding winter had precious little activity. They had already done their heaviest lifting, since Charles Comiskey opened the pursestrings to acquire his two biggest stars over the previous two years.

In December of 1914, he seized an opportunity that opened from a fractured Philadelphia clubhouse and bought Eddie Collins for $50,000. The following August, Comiskey sent Harry Grabiner to Cleveland and told him to come back with Shoeless Joe Jackson. It took $65,000 worth of cash and players (Bobby Roth, Larry Chappell, Ed Klepfer), but Grabiner got the job done.

The expenditures were worth the trouble, even if it hadn’t yet resulted in a division title. The White Sox had steadily closed the gap and were within striking distance of the pennant.

  • 1914: 70-84; sixth place (30 games back)
  • 1915: 93-61; third place (9½ games back)
  • 1916: 89-65; second place (two games back)

Frustration started eating at Comiskey, whose team hadn’t finished first in the American League in 10 years despite the spending. The 1916 season was the latest of a few close calls, and they couldn’t blame a late collapse this time. On Sept. 19, they trailed the Red Sox and Tigers by 1½ games, but rallied to win eight of their last 11. Even with the surge to end the season, they couldn’t help but lose a half-game of ground to Boston, which went 10-4.

So Comiskey toyed with the idea of switching managers, even though Clarence “Pants” Rowland had gone 2-for-2 with winning seasons. Rowland was probably used to the doubts, though. Comiskey hired him out of obscurity — Peoria specifically — at the tender age of 33, on the strength of player recommendations he had made as a manager in the Three-I League. Comiskey trusted his eye for talent, but due to Rowland’s age and lack of major-league experience, the media took its time buying into him. Considerable/unreasonable preseason hype didn’t help matters.

Neither did the presence of Bill “Kid” Gleason. A coach on Rowland’s staff, Gleason was everything Rowland wasn’t. He was a dozen years older, had a 20-year major-league career to point to, and had the grittiness and gravitas that came with the experience. Gleason was considered a future White Sox manager as a coach.

For a period of time during the 1916-17 offseason, though, neither were favorites against the field to lead the White Sox going forward. A Chicago Tribune article from Nov. 10, 1916 shows the uncertainty:

Dame Rumor, first vice president of the Hot Stove league, worked overtime yesterday and picked the 1917 managers of both Chicago teams. According to the w.k. old lady, Jack Hendricks is to succeed [Joe] Tinker as boss of the Cubs and George Stovall will replace Rowland on the South Side.

The article mentions that Comiskey couldn’t be contacted, as he was off inspecting a Wyoming cattle ranch with American League President Ban Johnson.

Dame Rumor was cute in selecting this time to give the White Sox job to Stovall and adorned her tale with several frills, including the report that Comiskey and Stovall were to meet on this trip west and that a reconciliation was to be effected at the same time between President Johnson and Stovall. It will be recalled that the veteran first baseman and manager put himself out of the American league by spitting on one of Ban’s umpires, which act was responsible for the loss of his job as manager of the Browns.

That is the next thing to an unpardonable offense in the American league and in consequence not much credence can attach to the rumor, unless Comiskey can qualify as a miracle man as a peacemaker.

The Sporting News didn’t play as fast and loose — and flowery -- with rumors. From the same week:

Every indication points to the reappointment of Rowland as leader of the White Sox for next season.

The first and best reason for arriving at the conclusion that Rowland will be retained is the fact that he has been reserved for Comiskey’s team for next season. Were Rowland to go, he would hardly be placed on the reserved list. Kid Gleason is also on the list, and that probably means that this pair will handle the Sox next season, one as manager and the other as assistant and coach.

The story noted that Rowland’s predecessor, Jimmy Callahan, wasn’t retained until late in the fall, so Rowland was still on the same timetable. The more grounded take turned out to be the correct one, even if Comiskey stretched the decision into the winter. The papers didn’t announce Rowland’s reappointment until around Christmas. The Chicago Tribune on Dec. 27 reported that Rowland received the backing of key veterans:

Rowland received letters from three of the leading lights of the Thirty-fifth street aggregation vowing their support for the coming year.

The letters were from Eddie Collins, king of second basemen; Joe Jackson, chief slugger, and Buck Weaver, former captain and always intellectual fielder. E. collins expressed considerable pleasure in the fact that Rowland had been given another chance to lead the south siders and stated that he believed next year would be the big year for the team. Joe Jackson promised to hit ‘em just as far as just as hard as he ever did in his life, and Buck Weaver stamped his approval upon the choice of manager and declard that the Sox haven’t yet doe for hi what they are capable of doing and might do this season.

Completing the role reversal, the Sporting News played the role of wet blanket this time. On the front page of its Dec. 28 edition, a portrait of Rowland with a fat caption occupies a big portion of the top right quarter. Above the portrait is an overline: “MAKING IT HARD FOR HIM.” Below, some shade for Chicago baseball fans, who had also supposedly beat the drum for Tinker’s dismissal on the North Side:

You can’t beat the Windy City baseball public for assurance. Having panned Clarence Rowland quite severely off and on because he didn’t breeze through a championship with his White Sox last year, Chicago experts and near-experts now greet notice of Rowland’s reappointment with the announcement that he is expected to win next season and that no excuses will be accepted. Exactly, brothers, and Rowland will have no excuses to make, provided he gets a couple of outfielders, a frist baseman and possibly another seasoned infielder, and maybe another pitcher — and on top of all that if Eddie Collins played ten-thousand-a-year baseball for his boss. Given these things and if Rowland doesn’t win he should quit and go back to Dubuque. It ought to be easy.

While the stakes weren’t overstated, the shopping list was. Comiskey didn’t have to fill even half of the prescribed blanks. He had already signed the needed infielder the previous August -- he just wasn’t a veteran. Upon recommendation of former Sox great Doc White, Comiskey signed 21-year-old Swede Risberg out of the Pacific Coast League for $4,000. Comiskey had also already installed his next great pitcher in 23-year-old Claude “Lefty” Williams, who broke out in 1916 by going 8-3 with a 2.50 ERA over the second half. First base was the only gaping void that couldn’t be solved from within, but Comiskey and Grabiner eventually shook one loose.

The coming year wasn’t as stormy as it seemed for Rowland and Co. Hopefully we can say the same for us. Happy 2017, everybody.