Happy Felsch was one of the greatest ball players Milwaukee has ever produced. But in the span of three short years, he went from a baseball hero to one of the sport's great shames.
He was a local sandlot legend who made it big – a north-side kid who become a star on one of the mightiest Big League teams of his era. But his career would end in shame, undone by one of the biggest sporting scandals of all time.
Like most players in his era, Felsch got his start on the playgrounds. One of ten children in a working-class German family living on 26th Street, he quit school after sixth grade to go to work to help support the family. But his was also a sports-mad family, and Oscar – dubbed “Happy” by the family because of his easy-going demeanor – quickly proved himself a rare talent on the baseball field. In 1912, at age 20, Felsch had become an established semi-pro star and was offered a professional contract with a minor league club in Eau Claire. He was cut from the team after just three days and had to jump a ride home in a railroad boxcar.
But the lure of making a living playing ball was too strong for young Felsch to give up. The following season, he signed on with the Fond du Lac Molls of the Wisconsin-Illinois League and belted 18 homers in just 92 games. His powerful bat won him a job with his hometown Milwaukee Brewers, where he was the star of the 1914 team and led the American Association in home runs. That fall, he was sold to the Charles Comiskey’s Chicago White Sox.
By 1916, Felsch was a star on a White Sox team that missed the World Series by just two games. In 1917, when the Sox easily won the AL pennant, Felsch was the team’s leading hitter. When the Sox took on the New York Giants in the World Series, thousands of fans in Milwaukee followed the action on electronic scoreboards or by ticker-tape relays. When the Sox took the title, Felsch – who maintained his off-season home in Milwaukee – returned north to a hero’s welcome.
But it was the 1919 World Series, pairing the mighty White Sox team against the surprising Cincinnati Reds of the National League, that would forever taint the memory of Felsch and seven of his teammates. The White Sox top players were badly underpaid by the notoriously tight-fisted Comiskey and their discontent opened the door for gamblers to attempt a brazen game-fixing conspiracy. After gamblers made significant cash payments to top players, the Sox lost the series, with several stars – including Felsch – playing poorly.
The rumors of a fix were rampant before the series had even started and Felsch and his teammates opened the 1920 season under a cloud. Felsch was having the best season of his career, but in September, two of the so-called “Black Sox” confessed to the fix to a grand jury. The implicated players were suspended. Days later, Felsch confessed to taking $5,000 for the fix, but stopped short of admitting he had helped his team to lose. The eight players were acquitted at trial, but suspended for life from organized baseball.
Felsch returned home and eventually opened a grocery store on Center Street in Waukesha. He played ball sparingly through the 1920s, barnstorming or playing in local “outlaw” leagues that had no affiliation to Major League clubs.
Finally, in 1930, baseball commissioner Kenesaw M. Landis granted him permission to join a Milwaukee semi-pro league, judging that he was no longer a threat to corrupt younger players. Although past his physical prime, Felsch could still belt the longball. He played late into his 40s, drawing crowds with teams like the Cream City Hams, the Oconomowoc Brews, the Atlas Flours, and the Bucher Malts.
For years, he also ran a bar at West Center Street and 17th, where the talk was always about baseball – although Felsch never spoke of the 1919 scandal. Many old-timers liked to say that Felsch hit the longest home run in city history: a blast at the West Auer and 23rd Street playground that, legend had it, flew from the far end of the grounds all the way across the street and onto the porch of a house – a full city block.
By the time Felsch passed away in 1964, just days short of his 73rd birthday, it seemed that Milwaukee had long ago forgiven the “Pride of Teutonia Avenue.” The Milwaukee Journal eulogized him as “the man they called ‘Happy,’ but who spent most of his life paying for a serious mistake made as an immature and inexperienced young ballplayer.”