This installment of Comiskey Park history comes to us vicariously through James T. Farrell.
Farrell (1904-1979) was an American fiction writer, most remembered for his three Studs Lonigan novels published in the early 1930s. Studs Lonigan resonated with a few notable 20th century authors. The books were among Richard Wright and Norman Mailer’s early favorites, and Louis Terkel‘s more recognized moniker was adopted from Farrell’s tragic anti-hero. But more than a powerful story teller, Farrell has become indispensable to Chicago historians.
Farrell wrote in an unsentimentalized, realistic style, and based his stories on his experiences as a second generation Irish-American kid growing up on the South Side. In his fiction, Farrell gave voice to the common folks of early twentieth century Chicago. Often the upwardly mobile Irish-American lower-middle class—their families, their parishes, and neighborhoods—the children (though mostly sons) of Carl Sandburg’s hog butchers, tool makers, and stackers of wheat, largely forgotten by history.
In 1957, Farrell published a collection of thoughts and stories regarding his obsession with baseball and the White Sox titled My Baseball Diary. Farrell concludes the Preface to my 1998 edition with a short anecdote involving his close friend Ralph Kiner:
Not long ago, someone asked me why I had chosen to become a novelist. Ralph Kiner was standing next to me and laughed.
‘I’ll tell you why James T. Farrell wrote books. He wanted to play second base for the Chicago White Sox, and couldn’t.’
We all laughed. But everyone in the crowd knew, as I did, that for those of us who love the game the way we do, it wasn’t altogether a joke.
My Baseball Diary is a collection of personal recollections, interviews, and baseball stories that appeared in Farrell’s fiction writings. Some of the book concerns Farrell’s many trips to Comiskey Park as a boy growing up in the Washington Park community from 1911 to 1919, which is extremely convenient because that’s the timeframe I intend to illuminate with this post.
When we left Comiskey Park, it was the sparkling new, architectural marvel known as the “Baseball Palace of the World.” However, despite its grandeur, the park remained affordable to patrons of modest means during its formative years. As a boy, Farrell lived with his Irish immigrant grandparents—not poor but by no means rich—and attended forty to fifty games a season at Comiskey Park during the 1911, ’12, and ‘13 campaigns.
While varying the cost of seats in different sections of the ballpark in effect separated spectators by social class, crowds remained relatively mixed. These were the days before television, or even radio, and the only way to experience the White Sox live was to buy a ticket. The economics of baseball were simpler, and owners were not at all inclined to price out working people at the ballpark.
Below is a list of some of the costs associated with admission, travel, and concessions at Comiskey Park in the early years, according to Farrell. In parentheses is each cost in 2012 dollars according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI Inflation Calculator (which has its limitations but provides a useful general comparison).
Lower box seat: $1 ($23.21)
Grandstand seat: $.75 ($17.41)
Pavilion seat: $.50 ($11.61)
Bleacher seat: $.25 ($5.80)
Public transportation adult fare: $.05 ($1.16)
Public transportation child (under 12 years) fare: $.03 ($.70)
Scorecards/root beer/Cracker Jacks/popcorn: $.05 ($1.16)
Hot dog: $.10 ($2.32)
Prices were affordable, and a certain behavior and decorum was expected. Men and women wore their Sunday bests, and no alcohol was sold at the ballpark.
Farrell wrote in his preface that, with the exception of home runs being rare and pitchers throwing gobs of innings, “The game itself was essentially the same.” One thing is for sure though, the lingo has changed. Sitting in the seats, watching Ed Walsh one the mound, one might have heard someone in the section bellow “Put a lot of saliva on it for this boy, Ed!” (the spitball was legal), or “Come one, you Bull Moose!” Sox fans wanted players to do a lot of stuff “green.” As in, “Come on, you White Sox, skunk them green!” or “Come on, Matty, sock it green!”
White Sox players were much more accessible to the public in early twentieth-century Chicago. They lived and worked in the community, and interacted with people from the neighborhood. Partly, this was because the athlete as a separate, marketable brand in his own right hadn’t been invented yet. Neither had athlete-stalkers, for that matter.
But it was also because athletes were underpaid relative to owner profits. Baseball was a legal monopoly; owners conspired against players through the reserve clause, which bound players to one team until they were traded or released. A player who got paid like a shoe salesman traveled in a lot of the same circles as the actual shoe salesman who paid to watch him play.
On the way home from Comiskey Park, White Sox pitcher Doc White picked up a young Jimmy Farrell’s trolley fare, after recognizing him as a regular from the stands. On another occasion, Farrell and his brother Earl spotted outfielder Pat Dougherty (known as Patsy) entering Comiskey Park and the player told the boys to “Get the hell out of here.” Farrell had a relationship with another ballplayer because his old man was Farrell’s father’s landlord.
Jimmy’s Uncle Tom knew a few ballplayers, including Reds outfielder Wade Killefer and Cleveland backup catcher Grover Cleveland Land, not to be confused with Hall of Fame contemporary Grover Cleveland Alexander. I’m suddenly led to believe that were quite a few Grover Cleveland Whatevers bouncing around in those days, the irony of course being that the former President himself was named Stephen Grover Cleveland!!! Anyways…
Perhaps the story that best embodies the seamlessness of club and player and neighborhood would be the one about “Ma” McCuddy and Ray Schalk. Later in his life, Farrell got to know Schalk pretty well. The writer recounts that one day during the 1912 season, White Sox owner Charles Comiskey walked in Schalk to Elizabeth McCuddys home, adjacent to the famous tavern owned and operated by her husband. Comiskey requested that the woman (who was of Italian descent, of course) feed the skinny young catcher. “Ma” McCuddy (as she was known to many ballplayers who enjoyed her fare and boarded in her home) fed the future Hall of Famer daily from that day on, in the garden of her frame house across the street from Comiskey Park on 35th Street.
Perhaps most touching among Farrell’s reflections are those about his grandmother, described as an Irish “peasant woman,” for whom “baseball was part of the excitement and strangeness of her new country.” Farrell’s grandmother first attended Ladies Day at Comiskey Park (women were admitted for free) escorted by her grandson in 1912. In the years after, without telling anyone she began going to the park by herself, by streetcar in her Sunday black dress. “She loved baseball and understood absolutely nothing about the game,” wrote Farrell.
Comiskey Park was a shared piece of Americana for a diverse South Side population, which by the 1910s included older immigrant groups from Ireland and Germany, as well as newer arrivals from Eastern and Southern Europe. It helped White Sox fans overcome ethnic rivalries through a shared appreciation of players on the field of various cultural backgrounds.
Young Jimmy Farrell’s favorite White Sox player was Ping Bodie, who was born Francesco Stefano Pezzolo. And because he was known among White Sox fans as the “Fence Buster,” cries for Bodie from the Comiskey Park grandstands like “Give it the spaghet, Ping!” were not out of derision but affection.
However, African Americans remained social outsiders. If anything, Comiskey Park helped to normalize racial separation. They played exhibitions at Comiskey from time to time, but Rube Foster’s American Giants played games at 39th St. and Wentworth Ave. against other all black teams. While there were no official Jim Crow laws in Chicago, the de facto exclusion of African Americans from certain neighborhoods, parks, and beaches was the norm.
Despite Comiskey Park’s close proximity to the racially segregated section of the South Side known as the Black Belt, young Farrell felt uneasy traveling through the area from Indiana Avenue station to the ballpark. The walk along 35th street took Farrell across State Street, known as the Stroll, the early twentieth-century epicenter of black community and culture in Chicago. Nothing Farrell experienced at Comiskey Park or in his white Washington Park neighborhood helped to alleviate his trepidation. Later as a writer, Farrell grappled with racial tension quite openly in his many fictional stories and novels.
Conversely, Jimmy Farrell felt completely at home at Comiskey Park. By the age of eight he was regularly attending games by himself. In October 1917, Farrell and his brother Earl rose at 4 A.M. to begin the trek to the park. It was still dark when they arrived at the bleacher ticket office and took their place in a line of about three-hundred unfamiliar adults.
The men about us in line greeted our coming with friendliness. They liked seeing such a young and devoted fan waiting as they were. . . . It was a bit raw, and here and there, men had built fires. Venders were out with hot coffee and we bought and drank quite a quantity of it. About every hour, we ate. I felt important and I was very happy.
At 10 A.M. the bleacher gate opened, and Farrell witnessed the great Eddie Cicotte lead the White Sox to a World Series game one victory over the New York Giants. The Sox would go on to win the series; the only championship team ever to call old Comiskey Park home.
In 1919, Farrell saw three World Series contests at Comiskey Park. The first was Dick Kerr’s gem in game three, beating the Cincinnati Reds 3-0, to pull the White Sox back into the series, which they trailed 2-1.
Eddie Cicotte was on the hill for game four. The game was tight in the fourth inning when Cicotte blocked Joe Jackson’s throw to home plate that would have beat the runner. “The play didn’t seem right, especially for a player as smart as Cicotte,” recalled Farrell. He and Earl “agreed that it was a boner. But I never imagined that this play was deliberate.” Cicotte later admitted to booting the play on purpose.
Farrell also witnessed the eighth and final game of the series, a 10-5 drubbing for a Reds championship. Farrell believed that the White Sox had lost the World Series to an inferior team but, the writer insisted, “The thought that the games were being thrown never entered my head.”
The idea that the White Sox fixed the series would not enter Farrell’s consciousness until September 1920, when the shocking news appeared in Chicago’s daily newspapers. But that’s a story for another decade of old Comiskey Park history . . .
My baseball diary / James T. Farrell ; new foreword by Joseph Durso.
Author: Farrell, James T. (James Thomas), 1904-1979.
Publisher: Carbondale : Southern Illinois University Press, c1998.