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White Sox Owner Charles Comiskey Was Not A Scrooge, Researcher Insists

By Justin Breen | March 20, 2017 5:28am | Updated on March 21, 2017 11:24am
 Mary O'Malley spent months on her master's thesis at Northwestern, hoping to reshape Charles Comiskey's legacy.
Mary O'Malley spent months on her master's thesis at Northwestern, hoping to reshape Charles Comiskey's legacy.
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Mary O'Malley

CHICAGO — Mary O'Malley wants to reshape Charles Comiskey's legacy.

For her master's thesis in the Northwestern School of Professional Studies, the Morgan Park native and South Loop resident spent nine months detailing the longtime White Sox owner's life — and how she believes he was unfairly portrayed by the 1919 Black Sox scandal.

In her thesis, the Latin School of Chicago graduate mined hundreds of documents and newspaper articles to reveal Comiskey's willingness to employ African-Americans, opening his baseball cathedral Comiskey Park to women, and his generosity to Catholic organizations and parishes throughout Chicago.

As the White Sox prepare to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the franchise's 1917 title — its second World Series win — O'Malley said it's time to give Comiskey his proper due.

"He deserves to be celebrated and honored, not vilified," O'Malley said. "When you dig deeper, you find out who he was and what he did for the city of Chicago. ... It took me a lot longer than I thought, but it was really fun."

Comiskey died in 1931 and O'Malley's thesis — titled "Charles Comiskey: South Side Scrooge or 'Epitome of a Self-Made Man?'" — details how crowds filled St. Thomas the Apostle, which had a capacity of 1,400, for his funeral. Nearly 600 more people waited outside. Hundreds served as honorary pallbearers while more than 200 cars followed Comiskey's casket from Hyde Park to Calvary Cemetery in Evanston.

"I started to question how someone so horrible would have such a following turn out for his funeral," O'Malley said.

Comiskey's image was tarnished after the book "Eight Men Out" came out 1963, followed by 1988 release of the Hollywood movie of the same name. Both painted Comiskey as a tightwad who led several 1919 White Sox players to fix the World Series, O'Malley said.

"He was heartbroken" after the 1919 World Series, O'Malley said. "The thought that people would betray him was heartbreaking."

And she disputes that his treatment of players led them to throw the series, noting that the Sox payroll in 1919 was $88,460, which was third highest in the league behind the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.

"The image that Charles 'alienated many players with his tightfisted, petty behavior' is absurd," O'Malley wrote.

Comiskey grew up on the Near West Side in a home on South Laflin Street and spent a lot of time at Holy Family Parish on 12th Street, where his dad was a founding member. He played professional baseball for several teams before he ended up buying the St. Paul club and moving it to Chicago. He named the team the White Sox, a variation of the White Stockings, the former name of the team that became the Cubs, O'Malley wrote.

After he built Comiskey Park (which O'Malley believes had similarities to Holy Family) in 1910, he opened it up to community groups. When a parade in support of Women's Suffrage that was to take place in Grant Park in 1914 was canceled, he sent a telegram to a group leader saying, "Pleased to allow you to use Comiskey Park in May," O'Malley wrote.

By 1931, the year he died, he employed 50 blacks at the park, the most of any team, according to the Chicago Herald and Examiner, O'Malley wrote.

O'Malley first wrote about Comiskey in Northwestern professor Bill Savage's Baseball as the American Narrative class in 2015. Savage also directed O'Malley's thesis, which was completed last year. He said master's students in Northwestern's school of professional studies can take on any topic that interests them.

"She very successfully argued that the depiction of Comiskey as a greedy villain — someone whose short-sighted [and] money-grubbing betrayed baseball in general and White Sox fans in particular — was not accurate," said Savage, of Rogers Park. "By focusing through the lenses of his Irish immigrant background, and the family, religious and economic dynamics that came over from the Old Sod to booming Chicago, Mary shows that Comiskey’s story is much more complex and interesting than the caricature."

O'Malley has shared her thesis with Comiskey's great great grandson William Rigney Kellens, who said the paper "opens a door to which most Chicagoans and baseball fans in general did not know about my great great grandfather."

"Mary O’Malley delivers one of the best, hard-hitting well-researched papers on Charles Comiskey," Kellens said. "Unlike other authors over the years who used hearsay and made up characters out of thin air, Mary dug into areas where other authors never went; deep into the coffers of Chicago history all the way down to local parish records.

"My great great grandfather was a very proud man. He stuck to the rules, worked hard and was a very successful business owner. He cared deeply about his family, the fans and his beloved Chicago White Sox."

O'Malley would like more of Comiskey's lineage to see the thesis and then hopes to have it presented in history or baseball museums.

O'Malley serves as a college counselor at Chicago Jesuit Academy, a school for third- through eighth-graders in Austin. Comiskey developed his love for baseball at Holy Family Parish — one of Chicago's oldest churches — and was part of the first class at St. Ignatius College (now Loyola University).

Of the Jesuit connection between her and Comiskey, O'Malley said: "I feel like there's a part of Charles Comiskey always following me."

Abstract of Thesis by DNAinfo Chicago on Scribd