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Snapshots from White Sox spring training in 1917

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World War I created the biggest difference in preseason 100 years ago

Mineral Wells, Texas, in the early 1900s.
H. Clogenson / Library of Congress

As you might expect, the White Sox did spring training a little differently 100 years ago.

Unlike the modern-day Cactus and Grapefruit leagues with sprawling complexes and organized standings, the White Sox were among many teams with temporary spring training destinations. In 1917, the White Sox were in the middle of a four-year run at Mineral Wells, Texas, which Charles Comiskey chose after three years in Paso Robles, Calif. Natural springs were a popular choice, since spring training helped players shed winter weight.

And while most players today arrive in Arizona on their own schedules — if they don’t already live there — most of the 1917 White Sox made their way to Texas from Chicago via Comiskey’s train.

Unique to this particular year, the White Sox spent some of spring training participating in military drills, in the event that the able-bodied men would be pressed into service in World War I. At the time, the United States was still sitting on the sidelines, although the Zimmermann Telegram had emerged this month.

Yet despite the differences, once spring training began in earnest for the 1917 White Sox, it found a rhythm that today’s fans would find familiar. Maybe not the marching and arms practice, but other elements like contractual questions, rookie evaluations, health updates, positional battles, and even the occasional trade rumor, all of which helped pass the time in the run-up to Opening Day on April 11.

A sample from the Chicago Tribune reports:

March 4: Twenty-five players gather in Chicago to take Charles Comiskey’s deluxe special train to Mineral Wells, Texas. Among them: Red Faber, who was the last of the returning Sox to sign a contract. Not among them: Ed Walsh. The White Sox legend’s career had been on life-support, as he made just 13 appearances over the previous three seasons. When he didn’t show up to the La Salle Street station, the Tribune’s John Alcock presumed Walsh’s career over, writing, “Thus it is established finally that Ed Walsh is true as a big leaguer.” Not quite — he pitched in four games for the Boston Red Sox, then hung them up.

Just like the White Sox’ trip around the world with the New York Giants in the 1913-14 offseason, Comiskey wasted no expenses on amenities, appointing his train with “large quantities of freshly manufactured eggs, real potatoes, onions of undoubted strength, newly churned butter and sundry other foods almost beyond the common purse.”

March 5: While the bulk of the team is making its way to Mineral Springs, the Tribune reported that several ballplayers had already arrived directly from their offseason hangouts, including Joe Jackson (South Carolina), Dave Danforth (Granger, Texas), Jim Scott and Jack Fournier (California).

March 6: The train rolls into Mineral Springs at 10:30 a.m., and after a few hours to unload and eat lunch, the players participated in a uniformed light workout.

March 8: After a brief holdout -- more to understand the ramifications of his move from Cleveland rather than any specific grievance -- Chick Gandil arrived at spring training to round out the roster. He made it just in time for the start of military drills. A drill sergeant, Walter Smiley, starts them with marching and calisthenics.

March 9: Gandil signs with the White Sox, expressing “the determination to make south side fans like him better than they did the other time,” referring to his unsuccessful rookie season. He made his debut with a double against a team of White Sox rookies in an intrasquad scrimmage. Staff Sgt. Smiley adds armed exercises to his drills, with players using baseball bats instead of rifles.

March 10: Pants Rowland, Eddie Collins, Jim Scott, Ray Schalk and Reb Russell are “promoted to the rank of corporal ... in command of the White Sox company, B.N.G. (Baseball National Guard),” with each leading a division of players in drills.

March 11: The Sox used the early going to evaluate young players. An intrasquad scrimmage featured all rookie/semipro pitchers, while Swede Risberg and Bruce Hartford battled for the shortstop job. Hartford, a Chicago native, was said to be at a disadvantage since Risberg spent his winter playing ball in California.

March 12: The first injuries of spring training are reported. Chick Gandil and Happy Felsch exited another scrimmage against the rookies with sore feet, while Eddie Murphy battled tonsillitis. Cubs owner Charles Weeghman sent a telegram to Comiskey asking about Risberg’s potential availability. “Not yet,” Comiskey responded.