By IAN WILSON
They went from big league ball players to big name barnstormers overnight, but not even a lifetime ban from Major League Baseball could keep them off the field.
The eight men ousted from the American League by the Black Sox Scandal were left unemployed by baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis when he issued the permanent MLB ban in early August of 1921, nearly two years after they were suspected of playing key roles in fixing the World Series.
No longer able to suit up for the Chicago White Sox, the disgraced players sought the refuge of whatever teams would take them.
Several Black Sox baseballers – including pitcher Eddie Cicote, shortstop Swede Risberg, third baseman Buck Weaver and outfielder Happy Felsch – suited up for an independent traveling squad called the Ex-Major League Stars in 1922. The team made headlines after wrapping up its trek through Wisconsin when Risberg and Cicote got in a fist fight that resulted in Cicote heading home prior to the Minnesota leg of the tour.
Shoeless Joe Jackson made his way to the semi-pro South Georgia League, where the star outfielder helped attract large crowds and won a championship for Americus in 1923 while earning $75 a week.
First baseman Chick Gandil – a ringleader of the 1919 fix who reportedly approached gambler Sport Sullivan to help broker the sale of the World Series – had $35,000 in bribes to bolster his financial security while he played in the Copper League in the mid-1920s. Gandil was joined in that league, which played out of Arizona, Texas and New Mexico, by fellow fixers Weaver, Hal Chase, and Lefty Williams.
Infielder Fred McMullin, meanwhile, worked as a carpenter and later as a bailiff in Los Angeles after he was deemed ineligible as a major leaguer.
Although there was money to be made at ballparks outside of the MLB, the infamous eight were unwelcome at certain diamonds and players were occasionally threatened with fines for playing with or against the outcasts. Some leagues also implemented their own bans on the tainted players.
FAR FROM HOME
That prompted some to travel even further away from home. Felsch and Risberg ended up in Scobey, Montana in the mid-1920s, where they dominated their competition and took home a monthly wage of $600, plus expenses.
When semi-pro baseball was ditched in Montana in favour of amateur teams made up of local talent, Felsch traveled even further north to Regina, Saskatchewan. The Milwaukee product accepted a job as the manager of the Regina Balmorals, a squad that made road trips through Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Alberta and North Dakota.
The Balmorals arrival in Alberta was highly anticipated.
“High class ball is the order for this evening’s sport programme,” proclaimed the June 21, 1927 edition of the Calgary Herald, which previewed the matchup between Regina and the Calgary Athletics at Mewata Stadium. The “baseball treat” included another game between the Balmorals and the local Hillhurst Hustlers, with a stop in High River also on the schedule that week.
“One of the features of the appearance of the Regina club will be the introduction of Happy Oscar Felsch, former big league ball star with the Chicago White Sox. He was regarded as one of the best only a few years ago, and fans here will welcome the chance to watch the big leaguer in action,” stated the Herald.
In addition, the newspaper described Felsch as a player who was capable of “crashing out home runs with relentless regularity, as well as fielding his position in a manner that makes difficult catches look like apple pie.”
Felsch wasted no time impressing Alberta baseball fans.
The 1917 World Series champion went three-for-four with a home run against the Athletics in a contest that was dubbed one of the best games of the season.
Eddie Kilen struck out 12 Balmoral batters, but Felsch “knocked the ball clean out of the ball park” in the fifth inning.
“For the past two years Calgary fans had not seen the ball given as long a ride as when Felsch registered his trot around the bases. The fielders just stood and watched the pill crash against the wall of the armories out of the park,” recounted the Herald.
“It was a wonderful hit and he was given a big hand by the crowd.”
The centre fielder also recorded two singles and was caught stealing during the 4-3 triumph for Regina, which was witnessed by a crowd of 4,000.
After making a relief pitching appearance against High River (during a 7-7 tie), Felsch brought more heroics to his game against the Hustlers, belting a game-tying, ninth-inning home run over the left field fence. The Balmorals won the game – “a thriller from start to finish” – in the 10th inning, delivering another final score of 4-3 against their Calgary foes at Mewata Stadium.
WEEKEND IN EDMONTON
Following an undefeated week of baseball in southern Alberta, the “Felschmen” went north to the provincial capital for a series against the Edmonton Selkirks.
Regina won the first game of a Saturday doubleheader at Diamond Park easily, pounding the Selkirks 11-1. Felsch hit a second-inning triple off of pitcher Joe Baldwin that cashed in a pair of runs and increased the lead to 7-0 for the Balmorals. The swat knocked Baldwin out of the game and Regina never looked back.
After scoring two runs and stealing a base in the first game, Felsch stole two more bags in the second contest. He also hit a “lucky homer” in the sixth inning that bounced off the top of the right field fence and out of play.
The veteran of 749 MLB games was noticed on the base paths again in the eighth inning when he appeared “guilty of palpable interference” with Edmonton’s shortstop, who was attempting to field a ball.
“Felsch intentionally got in his way and prevented him from making the play,” noted the Edmonton Journal in its June 27, 1927 edition. The controversial non-call on the play from the umpire allowed the tying run to score. Felsch was later picked off of third base for the final out of the inning. It was a play that “tickled the crowd and irritated the ex-big leaguer plenty,” according to the Journal.
The final tally was a 3-3 tie that left the home side feeling they deserved a better result, but fans were treated to another strong effort from the visiting star and his squad.
“Felsch, who played second, fielded faultlessly, and batted an even .500. He had eight official trips to the plate and connected four times, his hits including a homer and a three-cushion swat,” observed the Journal of Felsch’s two-game performance.
As good as the Regina player/manager was on that day, Felsch was overshadowed by a 20-year-old starter who “pitched elegantly” for the Selkirks in game two.
GOING FOR GOLDY
“Young Leroy Goldsworthy was the hero. Goldy chucked an impressive brand of ball, held the Balmorals to four very scattered hits, fanned no less than twenty of his opponents, and was distinctly unlucky not to tuck away a win,” read the Journal article.
“Felsch was the only one of the Balmorals who escaped the humiliation of whiffing.”
Goldsworthy’s prowess on the mound earned him a tryout with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1928, but the Minnesota-born, Edmonton-raised athlete possessed greater skill on the ice. The right winger played 336 games in the National Hockey League (NHL) for the Rangers, Red Wings, Blackhawks, Canadiens and Bruins. Goldsworthy won a Stanley Cup with Chicago in 1934, appearing in eight playoff games for the Blackhawks.
Felsch and his Balmorals, meanwhile, were happy to leave Goldsworthy’s pitching behind. They hit the road for Saskatoon, where an all-star team assembled by Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Famer Bill Dunbar was preparing for a pair of games at Elks Park. The club consisted of several Alberta recruits, including Provost catcher Vern Washburn; Chauvin third baseman Con Bissett; Edmonton first baseman Don Conklin; and Sedgewick shortstop Bill Murray.
Starting pitcher Archie Edwards struck out 11 batters to lead the All Stars to an 8-3 victory in front of 1,500 fans. It was the first loss the Balmorals suffered on their tour of the Prairies, but Regina bounced back with a 9-5 win the next day thanks in large part to Lefty Ryan’s 10 Ks.
The Balmorals spent the bulk of July playing in Saskatchewan. Felsch continued to swing a hot bat and Regina cashed in at money tournaments. By mid-August, Felsch’s team claimed Saskatchewan’s semi-pro baseball title and they traveled back to Alberta for another barnstorming tour of Wild Rose Country.
Regina split a doubleheader in Drumheller, losing the first contest 9-8 before Felsch “walloped out two home runs” in the second game.
“His first clout was the longest ever recorded on a Drumheller diamond,” said a game recap in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix on Aug. 15.
Games in Claresholm, Vermillion and Calgary followed, with Calgary assembling an all-star squad that exacted a measure of revenge for losses in June by producing a 5-2 win over Regina.
LISTEN: Ian and Joe chat about this story and more in Episode #59 of Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast.
When the 1927 summer season concluded, Felsch went back to the United States. He played in Montana in 1928 after the Wisconsin State Baseball League ruled Felsch would not be permitted to play in his home state.
His team from Plentywood, Montana – which incidentally was a rival of his old team in Scobey – traveled north of the border for a four-game series at Wesley Park in Winnipeg that summer. The competition there included a team from Melrose, Minnesota that featured legendary pitcher John Donaldson, a star in the Negro Leagues and a former Kansas City Monarch. In the game Donaldson started, he pitched three clean innings before the Plentywood batters got to him. They struck for five runs in the fourth inning and chased Donaldson from the mound. But the Missouri-born hurler stayed in the game, playing in the outfield and at first base while going one-for-four at the plate. Felsch turned in his customary production – the centre fielder went three-for-five with a run scored during the 9-7 Plentywood win.
MORE TIME IN CANADA
Having experienced baseball in Manitoba, Felsch signed on for a more permanent playing arrangement in the province. In 1929, he joined forces with Risberg in Virden, a town 80 kilometres west of Brandon. Felsch was once again cast in the role of player/manager, while Risberg patrolled the middle infield for Virden.
Felsch’s collection of all stars – which included Hall of Fame shortstop Honus Wagner – traveled across Saskatchewan and Manitoba and were capable of generating headlines and large crowds.
“Virden is a town situated on the main line of the C.P.R. (Canadian Pacific Railway), 180 miles west of Winnipeg, inhabited by approximately 1,500 enterprising citizens, and one hard hitting ball club,” read a July 20, 1929 story in the Winnipeg Free Press.
The article provided a detailed account of Virden’s 11-4 win over the Toronto Oslers in front of 2,000 on-lookers during exhibition play at Wesley Park.
“The fine fielding of both teams and the terrific hitting of the Virden aggregation stood out like a brewery on a desert. Scarcely an inning went by that didn’t provide some merited occasion for a burst of applause, and the fans were not slow to recognize Hap Felsch and his merry men are just about the smoothest all-round combination that has invaded Wesley diamond for a long, long time,” said the Free Press report.
A newspaper ad promoting the final two games of the series against Toronto proclaimed: “Here they are! The popular balltossers back again … This is a high class attraction. Don’t miss it.”
Admission to the Saturday doubleheader – which Virden swept with 10-4 and 2-0 victories – was just 50 cents.
After spending part of the summer of 1929 playing for Virden and achieving individual and team success with the club, Felsch decided to return for a second season in the town the following summer. The slugger continued to swing a heavy bat, collecting base hits and home runs with regularity, and he helped Virden win first place in five of the seven tournaments they entered in 1930. Felsch’s contributions to the club also helped make Virden a baseball hub in Western Canada and injected a dose of civic pride into the town.
Felsch returned home in the early 1930s and continued playing amateur and semi-pro baseball now and then. The end of Prohibition allowed Felsch to open and operate a tavern in Milwaukee and he later found work as a crane operator. Felsch died in 1964 from a coronary blood clot at the age of 73.
Risberg, meanwhile, continued to play baseball in the U.S. during the Great Depression. When he stopped playing, he moved to northern California and – like Felsch – opened a saloon, which he ran for several years. He passed away in 1975 at 81 years of age.
Like several of their Black Sox counterparts who remained in the U.S., Felsch and Risberg didn’t allow their banishment from MLB to prevent them from playing – and profiting from – baseball. The outcasts also continued to display the abilities that made them major leaguers long after their days at Comiskey Park had passed.
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