Thursday, March 22, 2012

113. Swede Risberg: "Why work, when you can fool the public"

I hope you are enjoying the "After The Black Sox" series so far. When I was starting the Infinite Baseball Card site the very first drawings I attempted were of these 8 players. Besides the 1919 World Series fix being an interest of mine, drawing a set of 8 let me see how the style I was developing would look as a series. The originals were pretty basic and sparse compared to the ones you are looking at now, but the idea was there, the firm black line with bold blocks of color. I had wanted to re-draw these guys again but after getting to Happy Felsch and Eddie Cicotte, I got sidetracked by so many other great players who needed a card. Now, seeing them all together in all their post-1919 glory, I have to say it is a nice looking series. Anyway, here is the story of Swede Risberg's later years, leaving only one more, Shoeless Joe, who will make his appearance next week...

Swede Risberg has gone down in baseball lore as the muscle behind the 1919 fix. Besides having a nasty reputation that he cultivated long before he broke into the majors, his threat to murder Joe Jackson if he spilled his guts caused Shoeless Joe to make the infamous statement: "The Swede is a hard guy."

The Swede was born in San Francisco when it was still part of the "wild west" and grew up tough. His old man was a lumberjack from Sweden, and I don't think it would surprise anyone to know that that's where his nickname was derived from. Like many of the ballplayers he played with, Swede's education ebbed at an early age. His surly disposition and quickness to use his fists to settle a disagreement probably stems from insecurity derived from his embarrassment at his lack of schooling. Or maybe he was just a bad seed. Regardless of its root, when asked why he dropped out of school in the third grade, Swede quipped it was because he refused to shave...

During his minor league career on the west coast, the Swede forged his reputation as a tough customer through numerous spurts of violence. But he also became known as a very versatile player, filling in where ever he was needed, including on the mound. The White Sox snapped him up in 1917 and although he was terrible at bat, his defensive skill kept him in the game. His scrappiness was also noted, most memorably when he fought the ferocious Ty Cobb to a draw. By 1919 he was Chicago's starting shortstop and the press tabbed him as an up-and-comer.

Much like his pal Chick Gandil, Swede was a malcontent and must have been gasoline on the fire of the already inflamed White Sox locker room. With some of the team earning what they were worth and the rest playing for peanuts due to their inability to fight for good contracts, it was easy for the bitter Swede to make the choice to join in the fix. For his part he took home $15,000, one of the few conspirators who made anything for their troubles.

After the trial, acquittal and banishment from organized ball, the Swede played around Chicago under assumed names and then joined Gandil, Cicotte, Weaver and Felsch on the "Ex-Major League Stars" barnstorming team. What should have been a lucrative tour turned into a nightmare as the team was constantly heckled in what few games they were able to book. The whole organization collapsed when Cicotte's demand for his pay earned him a severe beating from the Swede. The former ace of the White Sox pitching staff left the team, leaving behind a few of his teeth.

With his 1919 pay-off cash, the Swede had bought he and his wife a dairy farm in Minnesota and he now embarked on an 11 year career as a ballplayer for-hire. Playing mostly for town teams throughout the northern part of the Midwest, the Swede changed teams frequently because the sheer cost of hiring him was too costly for most small towns to pay for more than one season. Many towns would hire a guy like the Swede to beef up their team in order to crush neighboring villages, giving its inhabitants bragging rights and make a little bit of money for the sporting men of the area.

From Alan Muchlinski's great book we now know where the Swede spent his post-1920 career. Muchlinski tracked down obscure local newspapers and mapped out his odyssey. After the disbandment of the Ex-Major League Stars, Risberg joined the Aces of Rochester, Minnesota in 1923 and 24, then joined Happy Felsch on the Scobey, Montana Giants. He went back to Rochester for a bit of 1926 and then over to Watertown, South Dakota through 1927 and then up to Manitoba, Canada to play for a team from the town of Virden.

Swede next turns up as a back-up pitcher on an integrated team in Jamestown, North Dakota. Among his opponents was old friend Happy Felsch who frequently worked the same circuit as Risberg. During the 1930 season the Swede threw a no-hitter against LaMoure. He went 2-for-4 that afternoon and fanned seven. Though it was merely semi-pro, it still wasn't bad seeing as the Swede was almost 36 at the time. His many seasons of rough ball playing also started to take its toll on him. A spike wound, courtesy of Ty Cobb, eventually caught up with the Swede and he developed osteomyelitis, the infection of the bone marrow and his playing days were numbered. Risberg played for Sioux Falls in '31 and '32 and then retired from the game.

According to his son, Risberg made more from barnstorming than he did as a major leaguer, but things didn't go too smoothly for the Swede - he lost his savings in the stock market crash of 1929. He appears to have stayed on his Minnesota farm until the early 1960's when he moved to California and opened up a bar. Like most of his Black Sox pals, the Swede never spoke openly about what really happened back in the fall of 1919 and I'm guessing that most men didn't have the stones to ask him, either. Swede's ex-wife did say that after he was accused of fixing the series he'd respond to inquires about his part with: "why work, when you can fool the public." When Eliot Asinof was writing his ground breaking "Eight Men Out" book in the early 1960's, Risberg told the author he couldn't remember anything about it - it was too long ago. About the only Eventually losing his leg to that old spike injury, the Swede proved his toughness by outliving all the other Black Sox, dying on his 81st birthday.

I just wanted to give credit again to a few sources that besides first-hand contemporary newspaper articles, were the best places to glean hard-to-find information regarding the post 1920 lives of the Black Sox:

After The Black Sox: The Swede Risberg Story by Alan Muchlinski. Simply excellent chunk of research that shines a light onto the later years of Swede and his former teammates who he played against.

Outlaw Baseball Players in the Copper League: 1925-1927 by Lynn Bevill. A M.A. thesis published online that is the best source I've found that really explains the role of the Black Sox in the Copper League but also does a great job at telling the story of the towns and how the league operated. No list of sources would be complete without a big thanks to this site dedicated to the Black Sox. The authors downloadable pdf of every existing outlaw and semi-pro game featuring a member of the Black Sox is just a monumental achievement and unbelievably helpful in tracking the movements of the eight men.


  1. You sir, are a machine. Greatly enjoying this series. Trying to decide at what point I purchase the set. Because the second I do, it'll be obsolete.

    Big, big fan.

  2. Thanks Doug! This Black Sox group has been fun to do and I'm sorry to be down to only one left, but I have a bunch of single players that need to be heard from...

  3. Keep it up. I love the stories and the cards.