Death Before Dying

DEATH BEFORE DYING

By Sam Garfield

“A murderer even serves his sentence and is let out. I got life.”

–Buck Weaver

Feb 5, 1956

(Chicago) –I left the Southside funeral home with mixed emotions. Walking into the cold night the usual feelings that accompany death –melancholy, sadness– hung with me. But there was more here. I wish I had made an effort to get to know George Daniel Weaver. To enjoy his youthful, wide smile that his friends talked about; to understand how a man lived the majority of his life fighting to clear his good name. Fighting, it turned out, for the impossible.

Last week, during the noon hour, a slender, well-dressed man with thinning gray hair walked along west Seventy-First Street, the collar of his overcoat pulled up to shield the icy wind. Pedestrians hurried past him, rushing in and out of storefronts, and motorists drove by but paid no attention to the sixty-five year old man. Until he slumped over, grabbed a white picket fence and fell to the ground. Natural causes, hospital officials said. Those were the facts. But here’s the truth: Buck Weaver, you see, died long before his death.

Weaver’s life ended some three and a half decades earlier, when Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis banished Weaver and seven White Sox teammates from baseball for life in the aftermath of the infamous 1919 World Series. Although a jury acquitted the players, finding no proof they threw the Series and intentionally defrauded the public, Landis laid down his own law:

“Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player who throws a ballgame , no player who undertakes or promises to throw a ballgame, no player who sits in confidence with a bunch of crooked ballplayers and gamblers, where the ways and means of throwing a game are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.”

“…does not promptly tell his club about it.” That was the rub against Weaver. Weaver knew about the fix, said so, even admitted to being at meetings with gamblers and his teammates, but insisted he never took any money to throw games. Nobody, not the judge, the prosecution, the jury, his teammates, disputed this. And he played his best during the World Series. Weaver hit .324, collected 11 hits and played a flawless third base. But Landis, who banned the players the day after they were acquitted, would have none of it. “If you attended two such meetings, you knew everything that was going on; and if you did not so inform your club, I hold you as guilty as the actual plotters and the men who took money for throwing the Series,” he told Weaver.

But that was in 1921…when Buck Weaver was 31, when he was considered the best third baseman in baseball, when Comiskey Park fans worshiped the ground he walked on. When even the great Ty Cobb said: “Weaver was the greatest third baseman I ever saw.”  Six months after the acquittal, Weaver made a personal appeal to Landis to get back into baseball. He said Landis wanted him to call out his teammates and other ballplayers. Surely he must have heard of other fixed games before 1919, Landis said. But Weaver would not squeal. And Landis would not budge.

The decades soon ran together in a blur: Some semi-pro ball in Hammond, Indiana, a stint managing a girls’ softball team on Chicago’s South Side, pari-mutuel clerk at racetracks, and when the horses weren’t running, long afternoons at an old-timers baseball bar on Cottage Grove. Through it all, he fought to get back into baseball. Weaver formally appealed for reinstatement six times. Maybe do some coaching, helping young players. Six times he was denied. Less than two years before his final walk down Seventy-First Street, he talked with James T. Farrell. It was his last interview:

“Landis wanted me to tell him something I didn’t know. I can’t accuse you and it comes back on you and I am…a goof. I didn’t have any evidence. I was acquitted in court. The judge even wanted to throw my case out of court –the other attorneys feared it would hurt their case. The judge said: ‘I’ll let Weaver go into court, but if his case is convicted, I’ll throw his case out of court.’”

Weaver was considered a ballplayer’s ballplayer. Knew how to play the game the right way. That’s all he knew, baseball. A slicker, more sophisticated man of the Roaring Twenties –when everything was for sale– probably would not have gotten himself into such a jam. Probably would have known how to slide away from trouble. All Buck Weaver ever wanted out of life was to play ball, to be around the game.

The mark of a ballplayer, he used to say, was how he dug in –how he stood up there at the plate– when the pitcher fired one under his chin. The way Buck Weaver stood up there when baseball fired at him.

Copyright © 2011. John Theodore — All Rights Reserved. Text may not be reproduced without permission.

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