SABR

Swede Risberg

This article was written by Kelly Boyer Sagert and Rod Nelson.


A light-hitting, rifle-armed shortstop who played a key role in baseball's biggest scandal, Swede Risberg was a rising young player in the American League when he was banned from the game at age 25. The youngest member of the Black Sox, he always found his home state of California and the Pacific Coast League preferable to the harsh spotlight of the majors. "He would gleefully toss up his chances for fame and lucre," a reporter wrote in 1917, "and take the first train back to the Pacific Coast, where he knows everybody and is known by everybody." The undereducated Risberg managed to survive in Chicago by adopting a tough veneer which led to frequent fisticuffs and a reputation for toughness, excitability, and standoffishness. That reputation was enhanced by the events of 1919, when he helped orchestrate the Series-fixing plot that resulted in his banishment from baseball and the wrecking of the White Sox franchise.

Charles August Risberg was born on October 13, 1894 in San Francisco, the youngest of three children of a Swedish-born lumberman and his Danish wife. Although little is known about his childhood, Risberg was raised in San Francisco, which then had a population of approximately 350,000. His formal education apparently ended in the third grade. When asked in later years why he had dropped out of school so soon, Risberg supposedly replied that he had refused to shave.

After winning wide acclaim as a semipro pitcher in the Bay Area, the 17-year-old Risberg got a tryout in spring training 1912 with the Vernon, California, Tigers of the Pacific Coast League. The Los Angeles Times reported that "the youngster looks like a fixture," but Risberg managed to pitch in only one game for the Tigers that year. In 1913 he spent the year in Class D leagues, pitching for Spokane, Washington, of the Northwestern League, before moving on to Ogden, Utah, of the Union Association, where he was converted to shortstop. Returning to Ogden in 1914, the 19-year-old shortstop batted .358, which earned him another chance with the PCL Tigers at season's end. He soon became a full-time utility man for the Tigers, playing 175 games in 1915 and 185 in 1916 despite indifferent hitting performances, and spending time at first base, second base, shortstop, the outfield, and occasionally the pitcher's mound. During one game, Risberg reportedly "left his place at second base, took the mound and not only staved off a rally, but pitched his team to a victory." Risberg's strong arm was both an asset and a liability; his throwing ability garnered praise, but once, in a fit of anger, Risberg punched an umpire who called a third strike on him. In another incident, he got into a fistfight with Salt Lake player Tommy Quinlan, who had flattened Risberg with a takeout slide at second base.

Risberg's manager at Vernon, former Chicago White Sox pitcher Doc White, gushed about his young star, calling him "the best utility man in these United States. The big leagues haven't his equal. ... I have never seen anything quite like him." White recommended Risberg to Charles Comiskey, who had right of first refusal on all Tiger players. In March 1915, Comiskey got a first-hand look at Risberg when the Sox faced the Tigers in four spring exhibition games; the Swede helped win one of the contests with a homer. The next year, during Risberg's fifth minor league season, Comiskey purchased his contract for $4,000. Risberg, who at six feet tall and 175 pounds became one of the largest shortstops in major league history, replaced 129-pound Zeb Terry on the 1917 Sox roster.

Risberg's transition to the major leagues wasn't smooth. A newspaper article written in June 1917 revealed that Risberg suffered from "the worst case of homesickness in the history of the Sox aggregation," adding that "he misses the soft blue skies of California. He wants to be back where the sun shines and his wife can cheer him on from the grand stand." Risberg--a right-handed "marvel at shortstop"--even asked that Comiskey send him home, but the request was denied.

Risberg's 1917 batting average of .203 was abominable but, because of his defensive skills, he played in 149 games that year for the Sox. Still, Risberg maddened Chicagoans with his inconsistency. "He is liable to be a sensation one minute and a crape hanger the next, for he can throw them away as far and as hard as anyone," Hugh Fullerton wrote. "The boy is high strung, nervous, and inclined to panic. ... His fault is that he seems striving constantly to conceal his nervousness under a veneer of pretended carelessness and coolness." Late in the season, Risberg went into a slump, and he therefore only pinch hit twice when the Sox beat the New York Giants in the 1917 World Series. Heading into the 1918 season, White Sox manager Pants Rowland told Risberg he would have to hit better if he wanted to keep his job.

The year 1918 was chaotic for professional baseball, as the "Work or Fight" order prevented players from being exempted from war duties. Though he batted an improved .256, Risberg found his playing time reduced, playing in 82 of Chicago's 102 games before leaving the team on August 8 and heading home to San Francisco. Risberg had told Comiskey and the press that he would enlist in the Army upon his arrival, but instead he found work in an Alameda, California, shipyard owned by Bethlehem Steel. Although Risberg's job was termed essential and enabled him to avoid the draft, it consisted largely of playing baseball, as he batted .308 for the shipyard ballclub. Risberg had made his contribution to the war effort in June, however, when he had to skip town to avoid arrest after punching a man at the Sox' team hotel for complaining about the Red Cross' persistent fundraising efforts.

Risberg returned to the Sox in time for the pennant-winning 1919 season and in September received good press in the Atlanta Constitution, which labeled him a "miracle man" who had "blossomed out as a wonder" after making four plays that were "phenomenal." His fielding was "brilliant" and more than one big leaguer, according to this article, claimed that Risberg possessed the "greatest throwing arm of any infielder in the big show," boasting "almost unbelievable speed." Manager Kid Gleason offered his own assessment in the New York Times that month, stating with as-yet-unknown irony that Risberg might end up being the "star of the show" in the upcoming World Series.

Darker undertones, however, stalked Risberg and the White Sox during the 1919 season. Risberg, along with many of his teammates, resented the comparatively low wages being paid by Comiskey. The team was also split into two factions--the more educated players, including second baseman Eddie Collins; and the rougher group, led by former boxer and current first baseman Arnold "Chick" Gandil--which added to the tension. Risberg, who hated Collins and sided with Gandil, agreed to throw the 1919 World Series in exchange for payoffs from gamblers. In addition, Risberg assisted Gandil in organizing the scheme, collecting money from the gamblers, delivering it to teammates, and helping to convince Joe Jackson to participate. Jackson later said in a deposition that when he didn't receive his promised money, he had threatened to expose the plot. Risberg threatened to kill Jackson if he blabbed, and was convincing. "Swede," Jackson said, "is a hard guy."

Risberg took home $15,000 for his role in the conspiracy. He also sent a telegram before the Series to his friend, Browns infielder Joe Gedeon, informing Gedeon that the Series was fixed and advising him to bet on Cincinnati. A year later Gedeon informed on Risberg to the White Sox, hoping to collect a $20,000 reward offered by Comiskey for information on the fix. Gedeon didn't get the reward, but was later banned from baseball for his prior knowledge.

Risberg, who batted .256 during the 1919 regular season, played horribly in the Series, hitting only .080 (2 for 25) and chalking up a Series-record eight errors. Perhaps to cover up for the reasons behind his poor performance, Risberg claimed to have a cold during the Series. In the 1921 trial, a team trainer testified that he had, indeed, given Risberg cold medicine before Game 1.

After his acquittal on conspiracy charges and subsequent banishment from organized baseball, Risberg enjoyed a lucrative 11-year-career playing "outlaw" ball in Minnesota, Wisconsin, the Dakotas, Montana and Manitoba, Canada. According to Risberg's wife, Agnes, he also played ball in Chicago in 1922 under the name of Jack Maples. Though he and Happy Felsch unsuccessfully sued Comiskey for back wages in 1923, Risberg reportedly did comparatively well playing outlaw ball; his son Robert later reported that his father earned more money playing in outlaw leagues than he ever had playing for Comiskey.

When not playing ball, Risberg ran a dairy farm in Blue Earth, Minnesota. In 1922 his wife filed for divorce, citing cruelty and neglect. In court Agnes stated that the couple had been happy when Risberg was playing in the Pacific Coast League, but not during his major league career. As for the game-fixing scandal, Agnes said that Risberg grew fond of saying, "Why work, when you can fool the public." The divorce was granted in December, 1922 and Agnes received custody of their two children. Her request for alimony was denied, however, because Swede had fled the jurisdiction of the court.

In 1926, Landis contacted Risberg, among other Black Sox players, to garner testimony about a gambling scandal involving Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker. Although he had nothing to add to that case, Risberg did testify that in September 1917 the Detroit Tigers deliberately lost four games against the White Sox, helping the Sox capture the pennant. Two weeks later, Risberg added, he and Gandil collected $45 each from Sox players, and forwarded the money to players in Detroit. Over thirty other men, though, contradicted the reason for the payment, saying that it was thanks for games played well against the Boston team. Will Rogers attended Risberg's hearing and, in his view, "It was just that bottled up hate against everything that made [Risberg] think he hadn't had a square deal in the game, and he exaggerated the incident."

In his later years, Risberg's health suffered as he developed osteomyelitis in his knee. The condition, which was supposedly caused by a spike wound, forced Risberg to walk with a pronounced limp. The leg eventually became infected and had to be amputated. In 1962, Risberg moved back to California, where he owned a tavern that he named after himself. According to Eliot Asinof, the tavern was located in Weed, a town near the Oregon border. Asinof described Risberg when he was nearly seventy as "balding and gray, his pale face relatively free of creases." When approached, Risberg "seemed pleasant enough, although uninterested, as if sensing there was nothing in it for him." Once the former ballplayer realized Asinof's intent to interview him, though, "His look was so cutting, so full of suspicion," and Risberg claimed not to remember anything about the events that had transpired so long ago.

Risberg died on his 81st birthday (October 13, 1975) in a convalescent home in Red Bluff, California; he was the last of the "Eight Men Out" to die. He is buried next to his second wife, Mary, in Mount Shasta, California.


Note

This biography originally appeared in David Jones, ed., Deadball Stars of the American League (Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, Inc., 2006).


Sources

Eliot Asinof. Bleeding Between the Lines. [1979 Holt, Rinehart, and Winston]

Robert C. Cottrell. Blackball, the Black Sox and the Babe: Baseball's Crucial 1920 Season.  McFarland, 2002.

Alan Muchlinski. After the Black Sox: The Swede Risberg Story.  Authorhouse, 2005.

Harold Seymour. Baseball: The Golden Age.  Oxford University Press, 2002.  

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