Monday, May 9, 2011

Morrie Rath and the Black Sox

It can be argued that the most famous scandal in all of American sports history is the “Black Sox” scandal. Eight players from the American League champion 1919 Chicago White Sox, after colluding to accept payoffs from gamblers, intentionally threw the World Series that year against the Cincinnati Reds, and found themselves permanently banned from Baseball after the scandal was revealed. Mountains of literature has been written since then about those players and the impact of the scandal, but little has been written about members of the team that had their championship forever tainted by it. One of those Reds players, Morris Charles “Morrie” Rath, was a Philadelphia native, and played an inadvertent key role in the whole affair.

  Born in Mobeetie, Texas, on Christmas Day 1886, Morrie Rath’s family moved to the Upper Darby section of Philadelphia when he was young. Growing to adulthood playing baseball in the neighborhood, he was a natural second baseman. He attended Swarthmore College outside of Philadelphia, but had to look outside of school for further development of his skills, as there was no baseball program when he attended. The path to the Major Leagues in those days was rarely a straight line from college, Minor Leagues, then the Big Show. Hundreds of men with varying skills played in independent semi-pro clubs that had popped across the country, hoping to be plucked from that relatively obscurity when a Major League team manager or owner got wind about their talents. Morrie Rath followed this path, playing in a number of Philadelphia-area teams, as well as teams in North Carolina and Virginia, honing his second baseman skills. In 1909, while playing for the Reading Pretzels of the semi-pro Tri-State League, he finally got his wish – a member of this hometown Philadelphia Athletics came to scout him. Apparently impressing them, he was signed to the team’s roster, and made his debut as the season was winding down on September 28, 1909. One can only image what a thrill it must have been for him to step up to the plate in the newly built Shibe Park in an A’s uniform under the watchful gaze of legendary manager Connie Mack. Unfortunately, his career with his hometown team would last a total of  twenty five games, as the A’s already has a stellar second baseman named Eddie Collins, a future Hall of Famer.

After riding the bench though the first half of the 1910 season, and getting a smattering of playing time, he was traded to the Cleveland Naps (as the Indians were called at the time) with a player to be named later for outfielder Bris Lord (seven days later the other player needed to complete the trade would turn out to be a young Joe Jackson, not yet known as “Shoeless Joe”). Despite being a superior infielder, his glaring flaw became apparent once he faced Major League pitching – he had great difficulty hitting it consistently. In twenty four games with Cleveland in 1910 he had a miserable .194 batting average. An old baseball axiom goes “glove men with strong arms are a dime a dozen”, and Morrie Rath was a glove man who couldn’t yet hit, but showed promise, so the Naps sent him to the minors, where he toiled through the 1911 season. Drafted out of the minors by the Chicago White Sox at season’s end, he was again given a chance to play in the Majors. He responded by having a vastly improved year at the plate for Chicago, hitting .272 in 157 games as their lead-off hitter, and led all American League second baseman in fielding percentage and assists. Significantly, although he had only 19 runs batted in, he scored 104 runs and had 30 stolen bases. The next year, though, he again stumbled, batting only .200 as his hitting problems returned. The White Sox then gave up on him, giving him his release. For the next five years Morrie Rath struggled to perfect his hitting on minor league teams. In 1917 he seemed to get it together again, leading the International League in hitting, but his return to the Bigs had to be delayed, as he spent all of 1918 in the United States Navy as the nation was at war. Receiving his discharge, and given an opportunity by the Cincinnati Reds to play for them, 1919 would be the nadir of Morrie Rath’s baseball career, and indeed,  possibly his whole life.

Winning the starting second baseman job in spring training, he was installed as the Reds leadoff hitter, and became a crucial part of the team’s strong run for the National League pennant by hitting .264 and, more significantly, drawing 64 walks. He found ways to get onto base so the team’s big hitters like Ed Roush and Heinie Groh could drive him in. The team slogged it out through the season, eventually capturing the League title nine games ahead of the New York Giants, and making the World Series for the first time in their history. In the AL that year, the White Sox held off their competition, capturing the Pennant by three games. However, internally there was missive discontent amongst the Sox players over the almost criminally cheap ways of White Sox owner Charlie Commisky, discontent that would be the undoing in various ways of all involved in the upcoming Series.

The Series itself was fraught with irony for Morrie Rath. Since his debut in 1909 he had spent more time in the minors than the majors, but now found himself the leadoff hitter for the National League Champs. The team he was facing was the one that gave him his first full time playing spot seven years before, and a number of present White Sox players were his teammates back then. Their starting second baseman was Eddie Collins, the same player who blocked Morrie’s way with the A’s in 1909. And, most ironically, the Sox’s biggest star player was Shoeless Joe Jackson, who had blossomed into one of Baseball’s most feared and dangerous hitters after being a throw-in player in the trade that sent Morrie Rath from the A’s to Cleveland. One suspects that a Reds championship might have proven to be that much sweeter to him given all of these circumstances. He could not have known that what was to come.

The sun was shining brightly at 3PM at Redland Field in Cincinnati on October 1, 1919. In the bottom of the first inning, Philadelphian Morrie Rath stepped up to the plate as the baseball world watched. On the mound was 29-game winner Eddie Cicotte, who had been a teammate of Morrie’s back in 1912. Cicotte stretched, threw, and his first pitch sailed straight into Morrie, plunking him. Rath dutifully tossed his bat without ever swinging it and trotted to first base, totally unaware that the ball that hit him was the signal from Cicotte and seven other Sox players to gamblers that they were going to intentionally lose the Series for payoffs. The Fix Was On, and Morrie Rath was the conduit to let them know.

Through the rest of the Series he led off for the Reds, batted .226, scored five runs, and got seven hits as the Reds captured their first Championship 5 games to 3 over the heavily favored White Sox (from 1919 to 1921 the World Series was a best of nine competition). The team and city celebrated, justly believing they slew a goliath. While he was playing the next year the scandal broke out about how the Sox players took bribes to lose the Championship, and the Reds title became forever tainted. Morrie Rath had a mediocre 1920, and he was shipped off – again – to the minor leagues. He spent the next few years playing on the West Coast, trying to get back to the Majors before hanging up his spikes for good. His one shining moment in Professional Baseball had tarnished by the greed of others.

He returned to his Upper Darby hometown, where he ran a sporting goods store for a number of years. Plagued with ill health, and with a sense that his accomplishments had their glory stolen from him, he committed suicide in his home at the age of 57. He was buried in Drexel Hill’s Arlington Cemetery, just south of Philadelphia, where they rest today in Lawnview Section, Lot 946, Grave 3.

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