Swede Risberg

Swede Risberg played four seasons for the Chicago White Sox before being banned from organized baseball for his role in fixing the 1919 World Series.

BLUE EARTH — One hundred years ago the closest major league baseball teams to Faribault County were the Chicago White Sox and their North Side neighbors, the Cubs. (Or you could follow the Mississippi River slightly farther afield, to St. Louis, where in 1919 you would have also found two major league franchises to support: the National League’s Cardinals and the American League’s Browns.)

While two of the era’s best minor league teams, the Minneapolis Millers and the St. Paul Saints, were much closer, in the first quarter of the 20th century residents of southern Minnesota were more devoted to their hometown amateur teams than anything else.

First it must be said that most small-town baseball teams of a century ago typically were not, strictly speaking, “amateur.” The Blue Earth Post of Sept. 5, 1922, noted: “The all-home boys that years ago made up a town’s team and for whom its citizens would enthuse over and fight for if need be, is a thing of the past. Before any town can have a team these days … it is necessary to hire two pitchers, a catcher and a shortstop.”

Earlier that same summer this competitive imbalance was apparent: “Blue Earth’s farmer boys and mechanics played (an) all-professional, salaried team”; “our team lays no claims to professionals,” The Post (June 6, 1922) continued, “but they put up a battle that must have surprised the ‘pros.’”

At some point between this painful loss in June 1922 and the September lament that the purity of amateur baseball was “a thing of the past,” Blue Earth adjusted to the competition and paid someone to level the playing field — someone who had won a World Series for the White Sox in 1917, played every game in their 1919 World Series defeat, and was one of the so-called Black Sox to be banished from the game in August 1921: Charles “Swede” Risberg.

On Oct. 9, 1919, the Cincinnati Reds recorded the final out of the World Series to defeat the Chicago White Sox.

Rumors that gamblers had conspired with eight White Sox players to throw the World Series were hanging in the air before the series began and gained traction the following year.

With three games left in the 1920 season, and the White Sox again at the cusp of winning the American League pennant, one of the guilty players admitted his role in the scheme before a grand jury investigating the matter.

The others implicated in the scandal were immediately suspended and faced criminal trial the following spring; despite being acquitted by a jury on all counts, the day after the trial ended the newly created commissioner of baseball banned all eight men from professional baseball — for life.

Risberg spent the entirety of his brief major league career with the White Sox (1917-20). During the course of 476 games, he played every infield position but was primarily found at shortstop. He was, however, no Shoeless Joe Jackson (his White Sox teammate whose wounded ghost is the catalyst of “Field of Dreams”). Risberg’s lifetime batting average was .243 while Jackson’s was a robust .356 (third best in MLB history).

He continued to play baseball with some of his fellow Black Sox, who in 1921 formed a team called the Ex-Major League Stars. The team went on a short-lived barnstorming tour across northern Wisconsin and, renamed the Mesabi Range Black Sox, across Minnesota’s Arrowhead.

At the same time Risberg’s first wife had filed for divorce in California, which was granted in December 1922.

Soon thereafter Risberg married a woman from southern Minnesota and purchased a farm. Some sources say it was a chicken and vegetable farm near Rochester, his second wife’s hometown. Other sources have suggested it was a dairy farm outside of Blue Earth.

Whichever the case, by late July 1922, Risberg was the star pitcher for Blue Earth’s baseball team.

As a shortstop he would have had a strong throwing arm, but Risberg actually started his minor league career as a pitcher. The Sept. 14, 1919, Atlanta Constitution reported Risberg had a reputation among his peers as having “the greatest throwing arm of any infielder in the big show.”

It appears Risberg played only a few games for Blue Earth as the summer of 1922 dissolved into autumn.

None of the many books and articles that discuss Risberg’s life after banishment makes any reference to his appearances for Blue Earth, but he made quite an impression in the short time he was here.

In its account of a spirited game against Easton — in which “Blue Earth used its team of home boys with the addition of Risberg” — the Blue Earth Post noted that the “ease with which (Risberg) made 10 Easton players strike out would do your heart good,” and that he “had the Easton situation so well in hand that (his infielders) might just as well have been taking a nap, no balls coming out their way.” Four days later, the Post reported, Risberg made two Winnebago batters “look foolish” — “the perfect control and variety of shoots of Risberg was the marvel of the fans.”

To top it off, Risberg tripled in the bottom of the ninth, the game tied at 2-2, and scored the winning run later that inning before a crowd of 1,500.

Blue Earth’s gain became the envy of some neighboring communities. The Amboy Herald complained that “When Blue Earth hired Risberg, if our information is correct, they paid him more money than it cost the entire village of Amboy to put a winning team in the field for the entire season.”

But the opportunity to rely on a legitimate major leaguer was short-lived. Risberg apparently settled in Rochester, where he was employed to pitch for its team the next two years. He subsequently bounced around to play for teams in Montana, South Dakota, Manitoba and North Dakota. His last year in any sort of baseball was with the 1932 Sioux Falls Canaries.

As for Risberg’s role in the Black Sox scandal? Accounts of its hierarchy vary, but it appears he was underboss to the progenitor of the scheme, first baseman Chick Gandil. Of the $100,000 (nearly $1.5 million when adjusted for inflation) supposedly guaranteed to throw the World Series, Gandil’s share was to be as much as $35,000 and Risberg’s $15,000 with at least $5,000 going to each of the other six co-conspirators.

For comparison’s sake Risberg’s salary for the 1919 White Sox was $3,250; future Hall-of-Famer Eddie Collins was the team’s highest paid at $15,000, while Joe Jackson was paid $6,000.

The 1919 World Series winner’s share was $5,207 and the loser’s share $3,254.

It should come as no surprise that the gamblers ultimately short-changed the players — they may have actually received as little as $25,000 to divide eight ways.

Risberg was reportedly the scheme’s enforcer (in the minor leagues he punched an umpire for calling him out on strikes and later knocked teeth out of Black Sox pitcher Ed Cicotte).

When Jackson balked after he received only $5,000 of his promised $20,000 payoff, Risberg threatened to kill him.

Jackson told the grand jury he took the threat seriously: “Swede is a hard guy.”

When his baseball days finally ended, Risberg moved back to his home state of California, where he operated a roadhouse near the Oregon border. In his later years Risberg had a leg amputated due to an old baseball injury — he had been seriously spiked around the knee.

Risberg was the last survivor of the eight Black Sox. He died on his birthday in 1975, at the age of 81.