The Comiskey Affair

The third-generation owners of the Chicago White Sox are fighting among themselves
February 24, 1958

Chuck Comiskey of the Chicago White Sox is quarreling with his sister Dorothy. On the grounds that a family fight is more fun than a free-for-all, here is a rundown on the situation.

First, the cast of characters: CHARLES A. COMISKEY. Called the Old Roman for some obscure reason. Ballplayer, manager and club owner. Founder of the White Sox and amasser of a fortune. Died in 1931.

J. LOUIS COMISKEY. Son of the Old Roman. A terribly fat man plagued by heart disease. Inherited the White Sox from his father and died just eight years later, in 1939.

GRACE COMISKEY. Widow of J. Louis. Fought the trustees of her husband's estate when they proposed to sell the White Sox. Regained for herself and her family complete control of the club. Only woman ever to be president of an American League team. Bossed the White Sox from 1941 until her death in 1956.

DOROTHY COMISKEY RIGNEY. Oldest child of Grace and J. Louis. An officer of the White Sox and a member of the board of directors since the time of her mother's ascendancy. Executrix of her mother's estate. When estate is settled, will be majority stockholder in the White Sox (53%, to 47% for brother Chuck).

JOHN DUNGAN RIGNEY. Husband of Dorothy. Star White Sox pitcher just before World War II. Married Dorothy in 1941. Became farm club director in 1947, vice-president in 1955.

GRACE LOU COMISKEY. Second child of Grace and J. Louis. A semi-invalid because of weight and weak heart. Died in 1952.

CHARLES A. COMISKEY II. Youngest child and only son of Grace and J. Louis. Known as Chuck. For years popularly assumed to be sole heir to White Sox. Actually, would have eventually owned only 22.2% of stock if his mother and sister Grace had survived. Now will come into last portion of his 47% on 35th birthday, in 1960. Has been vice-president and key member of Chicago front office since 1948, except for a five-month hiatus in 1952, when he quit the club in a huff.

The first thing to understand about the Comiskeys is the fact that they are by all odds the oldest family in baseball. Old Charlie Comiskey had managed a major league team to a pennant before Connie Mack played his first big league game. Clark Griffith broke into the majors as a rookie pitcher under Comiskey. The Old Roman had been a dominant figure in baseball for 37 years before Charles Stoneham became president of John McGraw's New York Giants.

The second thing to understand is that the first Charles Comiskey was more than just a very early inhabitant of the world of bats and balls and paychecks. He exerted a profound influence on the game. As a player, he was the first man to follow the now obvious but then startling practice of moving away from first base to field a ground ball. He was a leader in the formation of the American League. His later feud with his onetime friend, Byron Bancroft Johnson, was a major factor in destroying the effectiveness of the then-existing National Commission, baseball's board of final appeal, and in bringing about the appointment of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis. And news of the unsavory Black Sox Scandal (eight members of Comiskey's 1919 pennant winners had conspired to lose the World Series deliberately) gave Landis the opportunity to assume the near-absolute authority over baseball that he was to maintain for nearly a quarter of a century.

The Comiskeys obviously have a long and historic tradition. They also have great pride, great ambition, an independent and convivial attitude, a blunt, outspoken manner of speaking, and a tendency to resort to fighting back, loudly and strongly, when rights are—actually or supposedly-infringed upon.

This tradition of the Comiskeys is very real to them. After the Black Sox Scandal, the White Sox fell into the second division and remained there for the rest of the Old Roman's life. Lou Comiskey felt so keenly about this that he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in the depression-ridden 1930s to restore some measure of the old importance. And after he died, when the bank serving as trustee of his estate thought it would be prudent and desirable to sell the White Sox, Grace Comiskey felt so strongly about it that she fought a vigorous legal battle to recapture control of the club and keep it in the family.

It is possible that the tradition of the Comiskey name is at least partly responsible for the quarrel between Chuck and his sister Dorothy. After Lou Comiskey's death, young Chuck, who bore his grandfather's name but who was only one of four heirs to the club (his mother and sisters were the others), was described in the press as "the future owner-president of the White Sox" and the young man "who will inherit the White Sox on his 21st birthday."

This was grossly inaccurate, of course, but Chuck as a boy may well have assumed from all he heard and read that he would some day automatically take over control. On occasion he was quoted along these lines. ("I hope I'll be ready to take over after I've finished college. Being the president of a major league club is no job for a woman, even my mother.")

There is no evidence that his mother agreed with this, nor that his sister Dorothy, eight years his senior and an active member of the front office operation during Chuck's boyhood, was not slightly irritated by this demonstration of youthful presumption.

The popular picture of Chuck began to change after he left the College of St. Thomas and went to work in the White Sox organization in 1948. No longer was he the lucky boy who was going to inherit a ball club. Now he became in the public eye a rather fresh young rich kid, trying to act as though he knew all there was to know about baseball. This new view was as inaccurate as the old.

For instance, in 1948 he went to spring training with the White Sox and commented publicly that it was a terrible ball club. His mother phoned at once from Chicago to call him down for daring to say such a thing. (But he was right. The Sox started last, finished last and lost 101 games.)

He attended the club owners' meeting in Miami in 1950, when baseball decided not to renew Commissioner A. B. Chandler's contract. It was reported that Chuck had voted against Chandler. In Chicago his mother said angrily that Chandler should not have been fired and added that she'd "certainly have a nice talk with Chuck about this when he gets home." (But when Chuck explained his vote—which he said he had not previously revealed to anyone—to his mother, she expressed complete approval of his action.)

In January 1952 Chuck demanded a raise and a greater measure of executive authority. When it was refused he resigned and went off to join a Texas broadcasting company. The company went out of business, and in June Chuck returned to the club. A statement authorized by his mother said, rather pointedly, "Mr. Comiskey returns under the same circumstances and conditions as existed at the time of his resignation." (But in time he received both the increased income and the increased authority.)

In 1955 he and General Manager Frank Lane had a public dispute which ended in Lane's resignation. Critics sneered that Chuck had forced Lane out so that he could take over direction of the ball club. (But Frank had forced the issue when he berated American League President Will Harridge at a ball game. He was fined $500 by Commissioner Ford Frick and ordered to make a public apology. Chuck roused Lane's ire when he commented that Frick's action was justified. Comiskey, who hired Lane in the first place, back in the fall of 1948, claims that neither he nor anyone else on the White Sox wanted Lane to leave, but that Frank himself wanted to go in order to take another job. Lane, of course, shortly thereafter became general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals.)

Soon after Lane left, Comiskey made a major trade on his own hook. He was accused of trying blindly to imitate Lane's radical trading policies and charged with making a bad deal. (But the trade—Chico Carras-quel and Jim Busby for Larry Doby—turned out to be a very favorable one for the White Sox.)

In 1956 Comiskey was panned for firing Marty Marion and particularly for saying that Marion was wrong in describing the White Sox playing personnel as inferior. They are inferior, smiled Marion's supporters. (But Al Lopez, whom Comiskey hired in Marion's place, brought the White Sox home in second place in 1957, the highest they had finished in 37 years.)

This past winter Comiskey and Lopez and John Rigney engineered two more astonishing trades, sending away Minnie Minoso and Larry Doby, the two most powerful hitters on the club, in exchange for pitching and bench strength and Al Smith, once a good ballplayer but only a .247 hitter last year. Again Comiskey was accused of making trades merely for the sake of making trades, out of a lingering envy of Lane. But he insists that they are made only with an eye to improving the White Sox. This winter's trades were an out-and-out gamble. "This is the year we have to make it big," Comiskey says, "and we're gambling on pitching and fielding to do it."

It's a huge gamble, because if it fails he'll be right back in the fresh-young-kid category. He's certain it will pay off. Comiskey has a calm, unruffled confidence in his own judgment. At 32 he does not give the impression of being a brash, impetuous young man. Big, good-looking, very sure of himself, he is from all indications a very capable executive. Certainly there is no question that he is the No. 1 man on the White Sox, though he and John Rigney have equal rank. Rigney, genial and easygoing, acts as though he'd just as soon have Chuck make the decisions and issue the orders that fill an executive's everyday life. Rigney is a baseball man and, on matters relating directly to the game and the players, he and Comiskey appear to share equal authority. The brothers-in-law seem to see eye-to-eye on most things. They do not talk about Comiskey's differences with Dorothy.

Now, the question arises: If Chuck Comiskey is this sound an executive and if he and John Rigney work so smoothly together, what is the fight all about?

Principally this: there is no close relationship between Dorothy and Chuck. They don't really know each other, and they don't know how to handle each other. Dorothy, eight years older, does not want Chuck in a position where he can do what he wants with the club without her ultimate supervision. Chuck, mature, married, the father of two children, feels that he has both the traditional right and the native ability to run the club as he sees fit without being subject to what was maternal and is now sisterly discipline.

All of the court action thus far relates to control of the board of directors. Last fall the surviving members of the board (Dorothy, Chuck and Attorney Roy Egan) voted to reduce its permanent number from five to four. Under Illinois law and the 53%-to-47% stock distribution, Dorothy and Chuck could each elect two directors to a four-man board, though Dorothy could elect three to a five-man board. As executrix of her mother's estate, Dorothy controlled for the time being the voting privileges of about 85 % of the stock, which could give her absolute, though temporary, control of the entire board. Chuck's court actions were designed to prevent Dorothy from voting the 7% of stock due him at 35 under his father's will and the 25% of stock due him from his mother's estate.

In December Attorney Egan declared that the procedure by which the board had been reduced from five members to four had been a "nullity" and that the number would remain at five. Chuck filed suit against this and won when the court ruled the action to reduce the board to four had been entirely valid. Final decision on control of the undistributed stock was yet to be made.

From all these suits and counter-suits came considerable personal animosity and not a little pettiness. Comiskey, who has a strong antipathy for Egan, remarked on a television newscast that there was no personal feud between his sister and himself but that she had "been a victim of bad advice," an obvious thrust at Egan. Dorothy flared up. She issued a long, angry statement that vigorously defended Egan and just as vigorously attacked Chuck, declaring among other things that he had "rule or ruin" ambitions.

Despite all, the ball club continued to function. And unless one side or the other decided to make it a bloody fight to the finish, a compromise was certainly indicated. One neutral observer commented that eventually the board would most likely be comprised of Dorothy, Chuck, Dorothy's husband John Rigney, and Chuck's wife Donna Jo. Dorothy would become president and chairman of the board; Chuck, executive vice-president and general manager; John, vice-president; and Donna Jo, secretary-treasurer.

Whatever the compromise, the public washing of the Comiskey lace curtains, which has titillated Chicagoans for years, should end soon.

PHOTOOLDER SISTER Dorothy, the majority stockholder, consults Lawyer Roy Egan. PHOTOYOUNGER BROTHER Chuck, vice-president of White Sox since 1948 and de facto general manager since 1955, started court action against his sister in December. PHOTOOLD ROMAN Charles A. Comiskey founded the White Sox at the turn of the century. PHOTOAILING J. Louis Comiskey took over club in 1931, ran it until his death in 1939. PHOTOWIDOW Grace Comiskey won court case to control White Sox after her husband died.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)