Sunday, August 29, 2010

47. "Happy" Felsch: Life After The Black Sox

As a White Sox fan (and I mean a REAL ONE, not a politically-motivated one like the president who, when pressed, could not name a single friggin' player on the team he supposedly was a die-hard fan of), I don't glamorize the infamous 1919 team. They were what they were, damn good ballplayers who succumbed to temptation and betrayed the game they loved and violated the simple understood trust between players and fans that when they pay to see a game, each team tries their best to win. In my view, betraying this basic pillar of sportsmanship is a forfeiture of the right to continue playing that game. I don't care that Joe Jackson was underpaid. I don't give a damn Eddie Cicotte was cheated out of his 1919 bonus money. It is not an excuse that Chick Gandil felt he deserved more money from the White Sox. What those 7 men (I leave Weaver out of this as he was probably clean) did was wrong. Plain and simple. All that said, I was always fascinated by what happened to those players post-1920. Where did they go, what did they do? Did baseball still play a part in their lives? The answer as we have seen in my Eddie Cicotte post a few months ago is yes. Each player, in their own way kept baseball in their lives even though they had to do it secretly or in an un-organized way. This post is about the White Sox's centerfielder, "Happy" Felsch.

Oscar Felsh was born and raised in Milwaukee and he earned his nickname honestly, he really was a happy-go-lucky fella. "Hap" was the quintessential American success story. The son of German immigrants, he rose from his humble origins and with the support of his baseball-playing father, Charles, Oscar soon attracted the attention of scouts and after playing on a succession of semi-pro teams he was signed by the hometown Milwaukee Brewers. Quick with a smile and joke, popular with his teammates, Felsch was also blossoming into a superior outfielder. It was only a matter of time before he caught the attention of the majors and after a bidding war between Cincinnati, Washington, New York and both Chicago teams he was sold to the White Sox for the 1915 season. It is at this point in his career that sympathetic fans try to make a point for Felsch being just a victim of circumstances that eventually lead to the Black Sox scandal of 1919. Felsch had but a sixth grade education and as such it has been argued that he was at the mercy of smarter, more cunning team owners when it came to contract negotiations. That may be true but thousands of other players came from comparable or even more disadvantaged backgrounds and did not succumb to the temptation to throw a game for money.

After a pretty good rookie season marred by leg injuries, Felsch developed into a first-class centerfielder, recognized as among the best in the American League. In the White Sox's magnificent 1917 season Felsch really came into his own batting .308, being first among outfielders in put-outs, second in RBI's and fourth in home runs. The Sox went on to win the series that year and many rank that team among the best in history. It was also during this season that Happy came upon a hunch-back kid in New York hanging around the Polo Grounds and adopted him as the White Sox mascot that year. That hunch-back was Eddie Bennett who later went on to be batboy for Brooklyn in 1920 and then the Yankees from 1921-32.

The White Sox of this period was a club divided by class-consciousness. One part of the club was dominated by Eddie Collins, a college educated ballplayer who knew what he was worth and how to extract it from the crafty club owners. The other half of the team was run by Swede Risberg and Chick Gandil, uneducated, street-smart ballplayers who were close with the shady gamblers who were an all-too frequent part of the sporting scene back then. Felsch, with his limited education and zest for fun naturally found himself with the later group.

The full story Black Sox scandal is a tale that need no elaboration in this entry, but suffice it to say it was partly Felsch's uncharacteristically shoddy fielding that gave the first inclination that something was just not right with the series. The collaborators stories quickly fell apart and after the 1920 season Joe Jackson, Chick Gandil, Swede Risberg, Buck Weaver, Lefty Williams, Eddie Cicotte, Fred McMullin and Happy Felsch were banished from organised baseball. All the 8 players with the exception of Williams and Felsch were probably past their prime. Fesch was just reaching his peak as a ballplayer and with that, he was out of a livelihood.

Fortunately for the 8 men, baseball was the most popular sport in the land and every small town and decent sized company had a team of their own. It was a matter of pride to have a good team and some towns and companies stopped at nothing to field an unbeatable team. Former players who found themselves out of the big leagues but still a few more years of game left in them found employment with such teams looking for an edge over the competition. In addition to the town and company ballclubs, hundreds of travelling teams crossed the county playing against anyone who would take up the challenge and provide a decent day of ticket sales. It was in this atmosphere that the former White Sox players formed a team of their own called the "Ex-Major League Stars". The short, bitter history of this team was covered in my entry on Eddie Cicotte (

After the breakup of the team, the Sox went their separate ways. Felsch went back to Milwaukee where he remained a hometown favorite. He opened up a grocery store and engaged in numerous legal battles related to the fix of the world series and his attempts to get back pay from the Sox after being banned from baseball. Felsch was batted around mercilessly by smarter attorneys and he returned home to Milwaukee time after time defeated and humiliated. Now married with 2 children and realising his career as a major leaguer was over, Felsch migrated west and found a home with the Scobey, Montana baseball team. Swede Risberg was already a star player on the Scobey team and was the obvious reason Felsch found a home there. This was a low point of Felsch's life and in this rough and tumble world of outlaw baseball played out west, Felsch and Risberg made a reputation for themselves as two tough customers who should never be crossed when drinking, a tall compliment in the still wild west of 1925 Montana. The two banned players earned a nice $600 a month plus expenses and attracted huge crowds eager to see how real professional ballplayers played the game. Hap entertained the crowds by smacking tremendous homeruns all the while enduring taunts by opposing players and fans about being a crook. Arguments were often settled after the game with fists instead of words. He spent the following season in Montana and then turned north to Regina, Saskatchewan where he played on and managed the Balmorals. The following seasons were spent with a succession of lower quality semi-pro teams culminating in the 1930 season playing with the travelling American-Canadian Clown Team. The 39 year-old Felsch was at the end of his career as a ballplayer.

Returning home to Milwaukee as he always seemed to do, Felsch began a long career as a saloon keeper on the Northside where each bar he operated became a hangout for the local sandlot and semipro players who came to partake of Hap's jovial company. Not many brought themselves to ask the friendly barkeep of the famous scandal and he never brought it up. After his saloon owning days ended, Felsch became a crane operator and died at age 73, still an avid fan of the game he and his teammates betrayed.

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