Opinion | Forget What You Know About the Black Sox Scandal

A century ago this week, eight players from the Chicago White Sox conspired with professional gamblers to rig the outcome of the World Series, enabling the underdog Cincinnati Reds — and bettors in the know — to win. The scandal, which was uncovered almost a year later, has come to be seen as baseball’s “loss of innocence,” the cause of fans’ diminished feelings for the game they once adored and a mortal blow to the nation’s confidence as it entered the 1920s, a decade of disrespect for elders, contempt for institutions and worship of the fast life and the fast buck.

After a puzzlingly inept performance by his White Sox in Game 1, the club’s founder and owner, Charles Comiskey, heard rumors that the “sporting set” had been looking for a big score and that maybe some of his players had agreed to throw the series. Some sportswriters and players, and many big-time gamblers, knew something was up, too, as the long odds that had favored the White Sox in late September dropped precipitously: Anyone wishing to place a bet on the Reds by opening of the series would have had to accept even money or slightly worse.

Comiskey considered blackballing the suspected wrongdoers, but he recognized that breaking up his team would be a financial disaster. He elected to fume silently through the 1920 season, even though some of his players continued to fix the occasional game. Finally, after the so-called Black Sox scandal of 1919 was revealed in late September 1920, he suspended seven of the players (the eighth, the first baseman and plot ringleader Chick Gandil, had already left the team). His decision arguably cost the team the 1920 pennant.

The “eight men out” included the stars Joe Jackson, whose lifetime batting average of .356 was second at that time only to that of Detroit’s legendary Ty Cobb, and pitcher Eddie Cicotte, who had won 29 games in 1919 and 28 two years before. Both men confessed their role in the plot to Comiskey, and then to grand jurors, who indicted them for conspiracy to defraud.

Cicotte acknowledged receipt of $10,000 in crisp bills under his hotel room pillow before he would pitch Game 1 (“I did it for the wife and kiddies” was his contribution to baseball’s sad lexicon); Jackson got only $5,000 of his agreed-upon $20,000. Center fielder Hap Felsch and pitcher Lefty Williams also admitted their involvement.

Four other Chicago players were indicted: Gandil, shortstop Swede Risberg, reserve infielder Fred McMullin and third baseman Buck Weaver, who claimed to his dying day that while he had sat in on the deliberations, he took no money and played to win. Baseball fans were stunned and heartsick, and scribes predicted a swift end to the nation’s long love affair with the game.

Unlike Weaver, Jackson never sought reinstatement, though he too felt wronged. Portrayed in the press as “Shoeless Joe,” an illiterate country bumpkin who was taken in by gamblers, he could count on fingers and toes well enough to create several profitable businesses in the years remaining to him. He claimed to the end that he had played the series on the up-and-up, collecting a record 12 hits and batting .375.

A reporter for The Chicago Herald and Examiner recounted a scene that supposedly occurred after Jackson appeared before the grand jurors:

As Jackson departed from the Grand Jury room, a small boy clutched at his sleeve and tagged along after him.
“Say it ain’t so, Joe,” he pleaded. “Say it ain’t so.”
“Yes kid, I’m afraid it is,” Jackson replied.
“Well, I never would’ve thought it,” the boy said.

Although that incident may not have occurred precisely in that way — accounts conflict, and Jackson denied it — the exchange immediately entered pop-culture lore. So have other facts about “the Fix,” especially when they have been bent by the best. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” at a luncheon Nick Carraway is informed that Meyer Wolfsheim — a menacing fellow who sports cuff links made from human molars — is not a dentist but instead the man who had fixed the World Series back in 1919:

The idea staggered me. I remembered, of course, that the World’s Series had been fixed in 1919, but if I had thought of it at all I would have thought of it as a thing that merely happened, the end of some inevitable chain. It never occurred to me that one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people — with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe.

Fitzgerald had it right the first time. No one man was responsible — not even Arnold Rothstein, the crime kingpin thinly disguised as Meyer Wolfsheim. The story is much more complicated — and compelling — than that.

Today’s fans understand the story of the Black Sox largely through the 1988 film “Eight Men Out” (based on a largely nonfiction work from 1963 by Eliot Asinof, who added fanciful embellishments that were echoed by the director, John Sayles) and “Field of Dreams,” which next year will have its 30th anniversary. The latter film’s ballpark in the Iowa cornfield is a symbol of paradise lost, when rural innocents played for the love of the game, when distant fathers could toss a ball with sons perplexed by real life, when exiled heroes could be forgiven if not exonerated and summoned back to play ball. But baseball’s idyllic past, like America’s and like our own, is not history; it is a pretty story agreed upon.

Baseball’s idyllic past, like America’s and like our own, is not history; it is a pretty story agreed upon.

Only in recent years, thanks largely to investigative efforts by members of the Society for American Baseball Research, has the truth about the Fix begun to come out. It is indeed a twisty tale, in some measure beyond perfect reconstruction, but neatly encapsulated by SABR’s Black Sox research group as “Eight Myths Out.” Among these are:

The Chicago White Sox were poorly paid by their skinflint owner Comiskey. In fact, the White Sox payroll was the American League’s highest. The players were not staging a labor action for higher wages; they merely saw an opportunity and took it. It was Asinof and other socially conscious writers — Nelson Algren and James T. Farrell, notably — who later made the Black Sox out to be class-warfare victims and rebels.

Gamblers initiated the Fix. In fact, the idea was born among the players, who commonly bet on games involving other clubs. Gandil and Cicotte approached gamblers in hope of arranging a low-risk, high-reward deal like the one rumored to have been struck by the crosstown Cubs the year before, when they lost the World Series to the Boston Red Sox.

The popular version of events right after the scandal was that, like Adam and Eve in the Garden, the innocent players were corrupted by a snake of foreign origin. In 1921, The Dearborn Independent, for example, ran an article headlined “Jewish Gamblers Corrupt American Baseball,” which claimed: “All along the line of investigation the names of Jews were plentifully sprinkled.”

America’s distrust of recent immigrants — whether Germans, Italians, Irish, Slavs or Jews — had been brought to a boil with the Great War. Nativism spilled over into a clash of urban versus rural values, most visibly in the rise of women’s suffrage simultaneous with the state-by-state spread of Prohibition. This was no golden age in America.

After undeniably tossing Games 1 and 2 of the World Series, the Black Sox, shorted on their promised payments, played to win, until a hit man known only as Harry F. threatened Lefty Williams before the deciding game. In fact, it is impossible to say, a century later, which games beyond the first two were fixed. Regarding Game 3, pitched by Dickey Kerr, Jackson said: “The eight of us did our best to kick it and little Dick Kerr won the game by his pitching. Because he won it, these gamblers double-crossed us for double-crossing them.”

Many believe that Kerr also won Game 6 despite his teammates’ determination to lose; undercutting this assertion is the fact that the winning run came when Gandil singled to drive in Weaver — two players in on the plot — in the 10th inning. Close examination of the newsreel footage of the 1919 World Series, improbably recovered from the permafrost of the Yukon, offers no help in determining which plays were on the level.

The Black Sox affair was populated by a dizzying array of gamblers. Some were big-time players, like Boston’s Joseph Sullivan, known as Sport, rumored to have fixed the 1914 World Series. Others were small-timers like Billy Maharg, the man who broke the gamblers’ code of silence in September 1920 by revealing the Fix. None of these men were regarded as mob enforcers who might have frightened the ballplayers; they were said to fear only shortstop Swede Risberg, who was known as “a hard guy.”

As to Harry F., who was said to have threatened Lefty Williams if he did not “blow up” in the first inning of Game 8 (the 1919 World Series was a best-of-nine affair, and the White Sox were on the brink of elimination): He did not exist. Asinof created Harry F., he later admitted, “to guard against copyright infringement.”

The Black Sox scandal was baseball’s “original sin” — its first instance of game fixing, which shocked the conscience of the nation. True, with a qualification: The scandal was a cataclysmic event in the game’s history not because it was the first time anyone had cheated, but because it was the first time the public knew about it.

Ordinary fans, who frequently bet on games themselves — a workingman’s pleasure like alcohol or tobacco, also under assault in 1919 — were unaware that the national pastime had not always been played on the level. Few recalled the great game-fixing episode of 1877, when four Louisville players tossed away a pennant in exchange for filthy lucre. Hardly a soul outside organized baseball knew of the purported attempts to fix the World Series in 1903, 1905, 1914, 1917 and 1918.

The scandal was a cataclysmic event in the game’s history not because it was the first time anyone had cheated, but because it was the first time the public knew about it.

During baseball’s boom decade of the 1910s, highbrow pundits and philosophers had marveled at the sport’s democratic blessings. It was “second only to death as a leveler,” wrote the essayist Allen Sangree in 1907. By mid-decade baseball had become the great repository of national ideals, the symbol of all that was good in American life. As America endured stock-market scandals, economic panics, race riots and ballot-box stuffing, as its boys were sent off to die on foreign fields, baseball came to be seen as the last bastion of fair play and decency.

So when, exactly, was baseball’s innocence lost in real life, not merely in the pages of novels? And what kept the sport from falling apart?

The thing that “saved” baseball had been put in place before the Black Sox story ever took hold: At the start of the 1920 season, the Red Sox sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees, a move that created such a storm that the baseball-loving public was permitted no time to grieve the game’s loss of innocence. Ruth hit 54 home runs in his first year in New York, 25 more than he had hit the previous year in Boston, which was a new record. A million fans poured in to see the Yankees at their home park, likewise a record.

Perhaps the single most important outcome of the Black Sox scandal was the way Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis went about cleaning house. Following the acquittal at trial of the eight Black Sox on Aug. 2, 1921, largely through jury nullification, Landis declared, to the enduring benefit of the game:

Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player that throws a ball game, no player that entertains proposals or promises to throw a game, no player that sits in a conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing games are discussed, and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever again play professional baseball.

This last description of unforgivable behavior was surely directed at Buck Weaver. Still, he applied six times for reinstatement to baseball, beginning in 1922. His final petition came in 1953, when he requested reinstatement from one of Landis’s successors as commissioner, Ford Frick.

“A murderer even serves his sentence and is let out,” Weaver observed at that time. “I got life.” This sentiment was repeated, in effect, by the Hall of Famers Bob Feller and Ted Williams on behalf of Joe Jackson in 1998, when a petition for Shoeless Joe’s reinstatement to the eligible list was presented to Commissioner Bud Selig. “He served his sentence,” Williams said. “He was cleared in a court of law.”

The petition for redress was rejected; because Major League Baseball removes players from the ineligible list when they die, and because the Baseball Hall of Fame aligns its balloting procedures with Major League policy, theoretically there is no barrier to Jackson’s induction, or Weaver’s.

Jackson died in 1951, Weaver in 1956, each offering a cautionary tale for the major leaguers who followed. A wager by a fan is one thing, maybe as mild as having a beer at the game; a gambling involvement by one who may affect the game’s outcome is another matter entirely. Fans of Weaver and Jackson continue to seek exoneration. It seems, now, beside the point; we forgave the Black Sox long ago.

Further Reading: William F. Lamb, “Black Sox in the Courtroom: The Grand Jury, Criminal Trial and Civil Litigation”; Jacob Pomrenke, ed., “Scandal on the South Side”; Gene Carney, “Burying the Black Sox: How Baseball’s Cover-Up of the 1919 World Series Fix Almost Succeeded”; Eliot Asinof, “Eight Men Out: The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series”; Victor Luhrs, “The Great Baseball Mystery: The 1919 World Series”; W.P. Kinsella, “Shoeless Joe”; Charles Fountain, “The Betrayal: The 1919 World Series and the Birth of Modern Baseball”; Daniel A. Nathan, “Saying It’s So: A Cultural History of the Black Sox Scandal”; David Pietrusza, “Rothstein: The Life, Times, and Murder of the Criminal Genius Who Fixed the 1919 World Series”; Arnold Gandil and Melvin Durslag, “This Is My Story of the Black Sox Series,” Sports Illustrated, Sept. 17, 1956; Joe Jackson as told to Furman Bisher, “This Is the Truth!” Sport, October 1949; Society for American Baseball Research, “Eight Myths Out: The Black Scandal”; Bill Lamb, “A Summary of the Black Sox Scandal — What We Know Now”; collected interviews with 1919 World Series participants.

John Thorn is the historian for Major League Baseball.

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