WLIS & WMRD Baseball Talk – Dr. David Fletcher discusses the book he coauthored with Jacob Pomrenke, about the dramatic complexity of the Joe Jackson vs Chicago American League Baseball Club trial in 1924.
Originally aired August 27, 2023
Eddie: This is baseball talk WLIS WMRD on a Sunday in August. Our podcast is with Dr. David fletcher, co-author of the book Joe Jackson, Plaintiff vs. Chicago American League Baseball Club, Defendant – The Never Before Seen Trial Transcript. It’s author is Jacob Pomrenke. Dr. Fletcher’s also the coauthor of Chili Dog MVP with John Owens which came out in February of 2022 and is the founder and president of the Chicago Baseball Museum. Dr. Fletcher, thank you again for coming on the show.
Dr. David Fletcher: Well Eddie it’s a real privilege to be back on your show. I have fond memories of the interview before of the Chili Dog MVP book so I’m delighted that you wanted to talk to me again. Thank you.
Eddie: I’m glad Sharon Pannazzo reached out and in doing the research this book looks very, very interesting and to get the conversation going your co-author is Jacob Pomrenke. I want to ask you how you got connected with Jacob. I know your relationship goes back a few decades.
Dr. David Fletcher: Jacob is a very passionate baseball researcher and outstanding writer. He’s about to move to Chicago, his wife Tracy just got hired at the Sports Center. Jacob and I have a 20 year relationship because of our common interest in the Black Sox scandal. He actually had the Society of American Baseball research the Committee on Black Sox scandal. So we’ve had a connection for a long time. He’s also a big champion of ban Sox 3rd baseman Buck Weaver. In fact his email is buck weaver is his eponym for his own personal email, so that’s my connection to Jacob. A very, very passionate baseball researcher who also happens to be the editor in chief for the society of American baseball research – so he’s very connected in the baseball research field.
Eddie: So you mentioned how you both have an interest in the early 20th century, the 1990 Chicago Black Sox. How did the two of you come about doing a book on the Joe Jackson trial from 1924 against the White Sox?
Dr. David Fletcher: That’s a great question. Last fall the Supreme Court of Illinois did a symposium on historical trials. They did a symposium in Springfield at the Museum and they did one at the Chicago Cultural Center October of last year and it was about the Black Sox scandal and about the legal aspects of it. Retired Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke (it was just about her last day on job) was Chairwoman of this conference and they hired Jacob to be the moderator. I went over and heard him in Springfield and said “Jacob, in 2024 it will be the 100th anniversary of the 1924 trial when Joe Jackson sued Charles Comiskey for back pay after he got kicked out of baseball.” I told him its really important we finally get the transcript out into public. Until we published the book probably only 10 people in the world had ever seen the transcript which is over a little over 1700 pages long and 330,000 words.
Eddie: And you have a great story about how you were able to obtain those transcripts.
Dr. David Fletcher: I certainly do. I first saw the transcript in person in 2003. This was in the office of Thomas Cannon who is the grandson of the attorney who represented Joe Jackson in his lawsuit against Charles Comiskey, who was Raymond Cannon. His grandson had the transcript and it was almost lost to history because the Milwaukee court system was going to throw it out in the trash even though it had 15 signed checks from Joe Jackson’s payroll which would be unbelievable value for collectors. So I saw the transcript with another baseball researcher, Gene Carney who wrote a very seminal book called Burying the Black Sox which talked about the cover up of the scandal. Unfortunately, Gene passed in 2009. But we were the first to take a crack at it and look at how important it was to research. I developed a relationship with the author of Eight Men Out (Eliot Asinof) who wrote that book which came out in 1963 and I believe there was a lot of factual errors in that book and we felt going to Milwaukee and looking at that transcript could provide important research information that could correct historical records.
Eddie: Our guest on baseball talk, the podcast is Dr. David Fletcher, co-author with Jacob Pomrenke of the book Joe Jackson, Plaintiff vs. Chicago American League Baseball Club, Defendant – The Never Before Seen Trial Transcript. Dr. Fletcher let’s talk about the trial. I’ve read that it was a dramatic trial. Could you elaborate a little bit more about that?
Dr. David Fletcher: I certainly can. This was national news. I mean think about how this would never happen today. Famous stars of baseball who have been kicked out because of the gambling scandal was suing Charles Comiskey the Chicago American Baseball club for his backpay. He had signed a three year deal in February 1920 after the Black Sox lost the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. The White Sox obviously knew Jackson was involved and knew he was taking $5000 from the gamblers to be part of this plot. So you have a trial which is riveting as far as those personalities. Front page, New York Times, obviously well covered in Chicago and Milwaukee where the trial was, the trial was there because the White Sox were a Wisconsin Corp. rather than Illinois. So it was just a really emotional trial because you have Joe Jackson actually testifying for four days om the stand and you also have Charles Comiskey testifying four days on the stand. Why it was so dramatic is basically Joe Jackson had repudiated his 1920 Grand Jury testimony and denied his involvement in the Black Sox scandal. He says he played to win he was not part of the plot. He tried to tell Comiskey about it. Just a lot of fireworks. There was a lot of expert witnesses, newspaper reporters, ball players that testified Jackson had performed well. Then you had Judge McDonald who was in the Grand Jury who talked to Jackson before he testified where Jackson said he didn’t always play to win that he let up at times, despite the fact he had a .375 batting average in the World Series and was the best hitter in the series. The drama came because the emotional back and forth battling between the attorneys about whether he was part of the fix or not and so forth. So at the end just before the jury is going out to rule on the merits of the case, the Judge brings Jackson to the front of the courtroom and places him under arrest and throws him in jail for perjury, that his testimony in 1924 was in conflict with what he had testified in 1920. So that’s the dramatic spoiler alert at the end, that he was jailed even though the jury entered up voting 11 to 1 awarding him $16,000 in back pay. So just a really entertaining transcript that reads like a movie script.
Eddie: Along with Joe, three of his teammates were also in the same situation as Shoeless Joe. How come Joe Jackson was the only white Sox player to have his case taken to trial?
Dr. David Fletcher: Well, three other Black Sox members, George Weaver, Happy Felsch and Swede Risberg also sued for back pay. Weaver did his in Illinois, and eventually it went to federal court, the Northern District of Illinois because that’s where the White Sox wanted venue because they could do that because they were Wisconsin corporation. That didn’t go to trial and eventually settled in 1930 for a couple thousand bucks. Happy Felsch and Swede Risberg settled after the resolution of the Joe Jackson case even after Jackson had been thrown into jail. In fact Happy Felsch had also been thrown into jail because he had repudiated on the stand at Jackson’s trial that he signed his 1920 contract and after the Jackson case was dismissed in February 1924 there was still action on the Happy Felsch case. In fact they were trying to get Comiskey to come up to Milwaukee for a deposition and Comiskey said he had ill health and couldn’t travel to Milwaukee, and so they were going to require him to have a doctors examination, a lot of what I do in my day job is do these independent medical examinations on patients. Eventually they decided to settle the case. Jackson was the only one to ever stand trial and it’s the only actual transcript we have where there’s cross-examination of witnesses and their under oath. It’s a really, really important piece of the puzzle never before out there is the public domain and it certainly celebrates the 100th centennial of the trial in 2024.
Eddie: You mentioned how Joe and his teammates had different testimony in 1920 and also in 1924. Yet the jury still sided in his favor with their decision 11-1 before it got shot down by the Judge. Why do you think the jury sided in Joe Jackson’s favor?
Dr. David Fletcher: Basically the case resolved around the fact his contract was in 1920 which was a 3-year deal (1920, 1921, 1922). He played most of 1920 until he was suspended 9/28/20 – basically the jury found they did not see any evidence that he fixed any games, that he had performed well. There was also this belief of a legal theory called condonation that the White Sox knew he was involved in the fix, that he had gotten the money and they didn’t care and in February 1920, Harry Grabiner the General Manager/Secretary of the White Sox signed Jackson this 3 year deal. There was a fight over whether the 10 day reserve clause was in or out in that contract because Jackson didn’t want it removed. So basically the jury said Jackson was willing to play in 1921 and 1922 and the White Sox didn’t really care about him being involved in the World Series thing because they already offered him a contract after having that knowledge.
Eddie: We’re talking to Dr. David Fletcher on our baseball talk podcast for Sunday, August 27, 2023. He’s the co-author of Joe Jackson, Plaintiff vs. Chicago American League Baseball Club, Defendant – Never Before Seen Trial Transcript, co-author with Jacob Pomrenke. Dr. Fletcher we talked about this a moment ago. You brought it up in our conversation Joe Jackson did accept money to throw the World Series in 1919 along with many of his teammates. He admitted to not always trying his best but based on what you were able to gather with your research what is your thought on whether or not he actually did that? Because you did say, and I’ve heard this before, that he did hit .375 in 1919 against the Reds.
Dr. David Fletcher: My feeling is there is a lot of conflict in the story. This does provide a lot more documentation than ever existed in all the research beforehand. The only person that directly heard it from Jackson that actually testified was Charles McDonald. That may be considered hearsay but in a case like this it would be acceptable to a jury to hear his statement that Jackson didn’t play to win all the time. I think with that statement there is, in my opinion, some guilt on his part that he could’ve done better. I know some joe Jackson supporters would disagree with me but I feel if you read the entire transcript, certainly in my mind, it says he knew what he was getting into. He may not have been an active participant, his level was much less than the other players, but he certainly accepted money and in fact the transcripts got discussions on how he spent the money on his sisters medical bills. They even have testimony from the banker from Savannah, Georgia where he deposited these large bills that he got from Lefty Williams after game 4 of the World Series in Chicago. So, that’s kind of how I see things, that he’s a tragic character, he’s much smarter than people make him out to be, he was a very good businessman. In 1919 when with the White Sox he had a very successful pool hall business. After he was out of baseball obviously everyone knows he continued to play semi-pro and so forth but he also had several successful businesses – dry cleaning, laundry, liquor store – so he was certainly someone who had some business savvy.
Eddie: He played until his early fifties I saw.
Dr. David Fletcher: Yes, he played for a long time. He certainly was one of the best hitters of all times, obviously third best batting average at .356. Babe Ruth had his swing after him. He was an iconic character. Obviously, the movie “Field of Dreams” has elevated his status as an American folk hero. What we’re offering to the public is a true story as far as in the courtroom, word for word, no filtering and we provide not only the transcript but we have index of exhibits over the years, the attorneys who provide a lot of the back story. This is the first of a two part book series. We have a second book we’re working on called Shoeless Joe versus Charles Comiskey. It’s a book that’s a legal analysis that provides more of the back story about the significance of the trial and events at the time to try and recreate what America was like in 1924 especially post-pandemic, the flu epidemic in 1918, 1919 America, sort of like the same thing with COVID, we all talked a lot about immigration in 1924 which is still an issue and also the ironic aspect of gambling, in 1924 gambling was terrible, now in 2023 you got gambling embraced by baseball. That will be what will be in the companion book which will be out in early 2024.
Eddie: And that’s with George Castle?
Dr. David Fletcher: Yes, George Castle. Jacob will edit it. We’re really excited about it, but we had to get the transcript out first, the was the most important thing. I know the researchers that have purchased it really liked it. We have an electronic version, a kindle version, plus the book itself is huge. I got one stuck in the mail, you lift it up, it’s 6 pounds that how big the book is. It’s a beautiful book. It’s a nice book product.
Eddie: Talking about the size of the book, for those people interested in purchasing the book, as Dr. Fletcher said, it’s about six pounds and its over 1,100 pages?
Dr. David Fletcher: The E-book is 1400 pages and the actual paperwork is 658 pages.
Eddie: So as you were doing this research and gathering information you and Jacob, what if anything was new that you learned about this trial in 1924 with Joe Jackson and the White Sox?
Dr. David Fletcher: Well, because I had possession of the second copy of the transcript which I got from Jerome Holtzman in 2007 I read the transcript quite a bit before but this is the first time I exhaustively looked at it line by line. Just the fact how the White Sox knew what was going on. How much there was a cover up as a scandal. The very unique aspect of the transcript is it actually has testimony from Alfred Austrian who was the lawyer for both the White Sox, I call him the Michael Cohen fixer for Charles Comiskey, he testified at the trial. And they talked about how they knew the players, who was involved right away. He actually named the name of Bert Collyer who was somewhat lost to history until I rediscovered in 2005 Collyer’s Eye in a stack of the University of Illinois library close to my office. Collyer’s Eye actually named names right after the World Series and this is the first time it was publicly acknowledged the White Sox had actually read Collyer’s Eye and knew exactly who was involved even though it was ignored because it was considered a horse racing rag publication. But Burt Collyer revealed the case right after it happened. Unfortunately, baseball ignored him till September of 1920.
Eddie: You and Jacob were involved with the “Clear Buck” campaign. When I say Clear Buck (www.clearbuck.com) I’m talking about former White Sox 3rd basement Buck Weaver who was involved in this Black Sox scandal for the 1919 throwing of the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. You’ve written this book on the 1924 scandal, and you’ve got another one coming out very, very shortly. Jacob is very intrigued with this whole situation of the Black Sox scandal. What’s intriguing to you guys about the Black Sox that makes you want to do something like this?
Dr. David Fletcher: It’s a mystery. It’s a cold case but its not done. And finding these clues has been just fascinating for me the last 20 years and this is another important piece to get it out there. Its obviously all scandals in sports were always measured against the Black Sox scandal. As a huge White Sox fan its very personal to me. I identify with Buck Weaver who was played by John Cusack in movie Eight Men Out as the tragic character getting caught up in this who does attend meetings with his fellow teammates but doesn’t participate in the fix. Like Jackson, Weaver had a great World Series and for the rest of his life tried to clear his name. I became very close with his family. I still represent the Weaver estate. Unfortunately, our efforts were unsuccessful in getting him at least reinstated. But its been a fun project. It’s just the history for me that I love about it. Its sort of all that “South Side” guilt. I went to med school at Rush and I used to be able to walk to Comiskey Park and I just have that “South Side” connection.
Eddie: Dr. Fletcher I have a couple more questions then I will let you go on your merry way. With betting now a big part of baseball in 2023 do you think players like Joe Jackson, Buck Weaver, Pete Rose, will ever stand a chance of gaining election into the baseball Hall of Fame?
Dr. David Fletcher: I really don’t think so. I know a lot of people think because of gambling it’s going to change, basically baseball seems to be very fixed on this. When I got the letter from Commissioner Manfred about not reopening the Buck Weaver case, and basically, he’s guilty, I think it was a very damming letter. I think the same with Jackson. Jackson admits he took money. No one ever proved Buck Weaver took money. I think the notoriety is more attractive in my opinion but I don’t see it happening. It’s ironic because you have this embracement in gambling but you ban these players.
Eddie: The last question I want to ask you is this. You came out with John Owens in February of 2022 with Chili Dog MVP about the Dick Allen White Sox of 1972 when he won the MVP in the American League. You have this book that just came out about the 1924 trial of Joe Jackson and the Chicago White Sox looking for back pay, you got the follow-up coming up in a couple months then you have another one about Comiskey Park in the summer of 2024 and you have your job as a doctor. Where do you find the time to do all this?
Dr. David Fletcher: I have a very good home life. My wife is very supportive of me. She allows me to have all our research laid out in our downstairs basement, which helps. When you have passion you love what you do. It’s time management. For me it’s the way of letting off stress. So it just really allows my creativity and its kind of a counter-balance with me being a full-time physician. I also have really good co-contributors and that’s what makes it fun, when you have other people who have the similar passion and it’s the story which is the most important thing. But John and I were very blessed, we won the runner up award for the best Chicago non-fiction book of the year in 2022. We’re very proud of that. We have high standards. You just want to put a quality product out there. You need sort of a legacy so that’s kind of my hobby.