Fifty years ago, I had been released from the U.S. Army and had taken a “European” discharge.
After getting the necessary documents, including a passport and documentation that I had the means to support myself, that discharge was approved. While living with relatives in Sweden, I began searching for a job back in America.
To that end, I’d written to several newspapers in the Midwest since the main access to those opportunities were included in magazines that were two to three weeks outdated by the time they arrived at newsstands in Sweden. One of the papers to which I’d written was the Wausau (Wis.) Daily Record-Herald. I’d chosen that publication because I had a good college friend living in nearby Nelsonville, near Stevens Point.
Eventually, that’s where I landed, and my first location was in Merrill, about 15 miles north of Wausau. I spent a year as a news/sportswriter before the new high school — West — opened in Wausau and I moved there.
I’ve always enjoyed looking through newspaper “morgues,” those issues of past newspapers which always give me some sort of historical background information. What I found in those “Merrill Herald” morgues caught my attention and sent me searching for more information and more details.
What I’d found in those yellowed pages not only piqued my curiosity but left me seeking more. Finally, I came up with information that I included in a three-part series that I hoped, at least, brought closure to a final chapter of the infamous “Chicago Black Sox” scandal that’s now almost a century old.
After the eight Chicago White Sox players had been banned from baseball forever for deliberately losing the 1919 World Series against Cincinnati, several had formed a barnstorming team that traveled the country playing local teams. Those players were first baseman Arnold “Chick” Gandil, pitcher Eddie Cicote, centerfielder Oscar “Happy” Felsch, star outfielder “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, utility infielder Fred McMullin, shortstop Charles “Swede” Risberg and third baseman George “Buck” Weaver. They hoped their notoriety would be enough to fill local grandstands and line their pockets with money they couldn’t hope to earn otherwise.
It worked for a time, but soon wore thin. No longer were the players the big draw at the ticket office they’d once enjoyed. For the most part, they lived one “paycheck” to another and rifts had developed among the disgraced players. All eight players initially signed on to play with the traveling bunch, but tensions had festered until one night in Merrill, Wis., that led to the final chapter in the Black Sox story.
I wrote a story in October 1970 about that final chapter and actually interviewed three Merrill residents who had witnessed the final game and also knew first-hand about the fight that brought an end to the Black Sox. By the time the final episode of the Black Sox was written, only four members of the team remained, probably because all hailed from the Midwest — Cicotte from Michigan, Weaver from Chicago, Felsch from Milwaukee and Risberg from Rochester, Minn.
The four added local players to their team and played another group of locals. The last game they ever played was on a warm afternoon in Merrill, a day after they’d played in nearby Wausau. Normally, the team arrived by train in the morning, played a game in the afternoon, then remained overnight before leaving the next morning.
One of the men who saw the game in Merrill, the late A.V. “Debs” Loud, recalled to me, “I stood by a fence down the first base line. I remember that Cicotte once struck out the side with Buck Moore (the catcher, who remained in Merrill afterward) sitting on a nail keg.”
Joe A. Chilsen, co-owner of the Merrill Daily Herald then, and brother of the owner, Val Chilsen — who was my first post-Army boss, said the fight broke out in front of what was at the time Nelson’s Rexall Drug — a moonshine tavern with sleeping rooms above. The fight broke out about 7 p.m.
“They (the traveling Black Sox) weren’t making any money. They were all probably depressed and tired from travel even though they didn’t barnstorm long. They drew good crowds but there was no money in it — they weren’t as big an attraction as they thought they’d be.
“I think what caused it (the fight) was that Risberg wanted to go to Rochester from Merrill and Cicotte didn’t want to go. Risberg figured Cicotte was running out on him, which he was, and started the fight. Risberg took Cicotte down in the gutter right on the corner and I remember Cicotte had his arms over his face. Risberg was the bum of the bunch. Anyway, Felsch, who really was just a big kid, pulled Risberg off and threw him halfway across the sidewalk and back to the tavern. Risberg then challenged Moore (who had signed on with the Black Sox as a catcher).
“Moore was sitting on a chair in the corner and Risberg asked him where he was going. I remember that Moore picked up a bat, laid it across his knee, and said, ‘I’m staying right here.’”
The next day, the Black Sox went their separate ways — Risberg to Minnesota, Cicotte to Michigan, Felsch to Milwaukee and Weaver to Chicago.
The Black Sox played off and on until 1927, but never again, after the fight in Merrill, Wis., did they attempt to reunite their group. It’s also pretty well documented that they never again spoke with each other and never discussed the infamous 1919 World Series.
Bill Haglund is a retired writer for the Boone News Republican and Dallas County News. He can be reached at Bhaglund13@msn.com.