When we last left the 1917 White Sox, they had just re-upped with manager Clarence “Pants” Rowland and signed a promising young shortstop named Swede Risberg. Acknowledging the risk of handing a position to a rookie, that left first base as the last remaining potential sinkhole on the roster.
One-hundred years ago today -- more or less* — the White Sox signed Arnold “Chick” Gandil off the Cleveland Indians to address that liability.
(*When it comes to offseason transactions in days of yore, the exact date is often nebulous. A Chicago Tribune story from March 2, 1917 reported the Gandil signing happened “yesterday.” Richard Lindberg’s “Total White Sox” says it happened on Feb. 16. The Cleveland Indians’ version of the team encyclopedia says it happened on Feb. 25, which is the date Baseball-Reference.com uses.)
At any rate, Charles Comiskey purchased Gandil from Cleveland for $3,500 around this time. That represented some depreciation, as the Indians bought Gandil off the Washington Senators just the year before for $7,500.
With Washington, he had developed the reputation as a reliable first baseman, hitting .293/.344/.397 (116 OPS+) from 1912 through 1915. Senators owner Clark Griffith was initially a huge fan, calling Gandil the “missing link.” Yet after four years, Griffith ended up shipping Gandil to Cleveland, reportedly because Gandil’s chain-smoking annoyed him.
Gandil lasted only one season with the Indians, although this one seems to be a baseball decision. He had a down year by his standards, hitting .259/.312/.341 with no homers and 13 stolen bases, down from an average from 23 swipes during his four-season run.
The White Sox didn’t need him for his hitting, though. They wanted his glove — along with a competent bat -- after years of making major sacrifices at first base.
The funny thing is that the White Sox could’ve had Gandil all along. Back in 1909, Comiskey acquired him from Sacramento of the Pacific Coast League late in the season, then gave him plenty of run with the White Sox in 1910. Gandil struggled, hitting .193/.267/.262. Late in the season, Comiskey sold Gandil to Montreal, causing the first salary dispute.
In the time between Gandil’s departure and return, they tried a number of solutions. Utility man John “Shano” Collins gave way to weak-hitting Rollie Zeidler, who was replaced by Jack Fournier.
Now, Fournier could actually hit. He staked his claim to first base by hitting .311/.368/.443 in 1914, then followed up by leading the American League in slugging in 1915. The problem was that his production took a big step back in 1916 ...
- 1915: .322/.429/.491, 172 OPS+
- 1916: .240/.328/.367, 108 OPS+
... and when he didn’t hit, his atrocious fielding was all the more annoying. A Tribune story from Jan. 16, 1916 summed up the dilemma:
For the last two years White Sox baseball fans have had arguments regarding the ability of Jack Fournier, the sturdy and heavy hitting French boy of Comiskey’s squad of warriors. They all agree that he can hit and they all agree that he is a poor fielder, and the argument starts when some one says the Sox would be better off to keep him out of the game, except as a pinch hitter.” [...]
Perhaps there never was a ball player who loved a base hit more than Fournier. When he is hitting in his regular stride, he is as gay and happy as a school boy. But if he gets into a slump and goes a couple or three days without a blow, it is unpleasant to be in his company.
Fournier must have been plenty unpleasant, as his 1916 season ended in a platoon with light-hitting Jack Ness. The position was a sore spot on a team that finished just 2½ games behind the Boston Red Sox after a dramatic pennant chase, and Comiskey wanted to address it with a surer bet.
Gandil returned to the Sox seven years later as a seasoned pro who was expected to address the biggest hole on the diamond. How high were expectations? Well, here’s that Tribune headline from March 2:
Gandil indeed took over first, while Fournier struck out in his sole plate appearance for the 1917 White Sox. Comiskey sold him to the Pacific Coast League, and while Fournier raked in the minors and during a brief stint with the Yankees as Wally Pipp’s World War I replacement, he couldn’t get another unfettered MLB opportunity until 1920.
Part of that was Fournier’s choice. Comiskey tried to bring him back to the White Sox for the 1919 season, and the pursuit set off a lengthy contractual argument between Comiskey and the league. It was one that Fournier was happy to foster, according to his SABR bio:
The episode was not without irony, though. As it turned out, the White Sox had indeed offered Jack a contract. However, while the contract had been dated February 1, Fournier claimed that the envelope had actually been dated February 3. Since "baseball law [stated] in order to retain title to a player, [a team] must mail (author's italics) him a contract not later than February 1," Jack, who preferred to remain on the West Coast, ignored it, and returned instead to Los Angeles.
And that was the end of Fournier's dealings with Charles Comiskey.
When Fournier resurfaced in the National League, he mashed for five whole seasons, hitting .332/.408/.520 (148 OPS+) with the Cardinals and Dodgers. That’s the kind of performance that can make people forget about a league-leading amount of errors.
That postscript invites a pretty deep what-if scenario, because Fournier already set a precedent for the kind of production with the Sox in 1915. If the White Sox rode with Fournier for one more season, would he have reestablished his value? And would his bat-first brand of baseball have meshed well with the rest of the roster to finally get the Sox over the hump?
Those are the questions that Comiskey didn’t want his hopes to rely on. Instead, he went for the first baseman with the higher all-around floor by acquiring Gandil. Unwittingly, he also invited the ringleader of the 1919 Black Sox Scandal into the fold. The White Sox solved one problem with the Gandil signing, but they set the course for a whole host of others two years later.