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Major League Baseball’s Worst Scandal Turns 100

The 1919 Chicago White Sox. Credit: Wikimedia

“America’s Game.” That is what baseball—known also as “the national pastime”—has traditionally been called. Its champions have proudly trumpeted those titles and touted the fact that it is an American rather than British or European invention.

Given the nine-figure multiyear contracts paid to average players, the open cynicism aboutstrikes and settlements, and the steroid scandals of recent decades, “America’s Game” may indeed represent a fitting phrase for baseball. And perhaps no event tore the cover off baseball’s shiny white image of itself more brutally than the scandal whose centennial anniversary occurs this week: the so-called Black Sox scandal of 1919, when eight players of the Chicago White Sox arranged to accept bribes to throw the World Series to the opposing National League champion, the weaker Cincinnati Reds (who nevertheless posted more wins during the regular season against lesser National League competition). 

Baseball owners and commissioners usually love to celebrate baseball’s most famous anniversaries. Yet there certainly won’t be an official celebration—or even one of baseball’s nostalgic commemorations—of the infamous Black Sox scandal. Just the reverse: the Black Sox scandal was the first—and is still arguably the most embarrassing—of a long series of scandals that have tarnished the heroic, noble image of baseball in particular and American athletic culture in general.

Sportsmanship, physical prowess, respect for rules, fair play—even heroic striving and nobility of soul: all these virtues were attributed to (or claimed by) baseball stars until at least the mid-20th century. Stars ranging from Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and Stan Musial to Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Willie Mays were virtually mythic figures to boys of our generations in the middle decades of the last century. Both of us collected and traded penny baseball cards—which came five to a pack with a bubble gum stick. And nothing made you prouder than to open a pack and get a star not yet part of your collection. For generations of boys like us, the Black Sox scandal was a stain on the sport, a shameful, hushed event never discussed and barely on the edge of our consciousness.

Although the Black Sox scandal was the first to traumatize the sport, professional baseball had already by that time undergone numerous threats to its existence, including rival leagues, rampant alcoholism and gambling among players, and a “war to end all wars” that threatened to end baseball’s professional future. By 1919, however, having survived World War I and introduced to America several new and exciting heroes—among them the Sultan of Swat, the superhuman George Herman “Babe” Ruth—the game seemed to be thriving. Attendance was double that of the shortened war season of 1918 and the highest in baseball since 1911. The 1919 season itself was a huge success, distinguished by the record-breaking 29 home run performance of Ruth. In 1920, when the “live ball” was introduced, Ruth would shatter that figure, hitting 54 homers, a figure exceeding that of every rival team that year (except the Phillies). His herculean feats (many of them in Yankee Stadium, “the House that Ruth Built”), along with those of other players, thrilled fans everywhere. “America’s Game” was the nation’s unrivaled spectator sport and young males’ Number One conversation topic.

The 1919 season was capped off by an impressive team performance by the Chicago White Sox, who captured their second pennant in three years against a strong challenge from the Cleveland Indians, who had been managed since mid-July by Hall of Famer Tris Speaker, one of the greatest hitters ever to swing a bat. Speaker steered the Indians to a remarkable 40-21 mark for the rest of the season (and a world championship in 1920). The White Sox team was the odds-on favorite to capture the World Series.

But there was a problem. The White Sox players hated their owner, Charles Comiskey. While the White Sox were among the better paid teams in the majors, Comiskey was a difficult negotiator who tried to keep players’ salaries low. Stories of his legendary cheapness included his refusal to pay for the laundering of the player’s uniforms. Some writers have claimed that the phrase “Black Sox” preceded the attempted fixing of the World Series and was used in reference to the White Sox because of their dirty uniforms.

The eight Sox players who conspired to throw the Series included two of the dominant pitchers in the American League, Eddie Cicotte and Lefty Williams, who between them had won 52 games. The conspirators also featured a hitter rivaling Tris Speaker in raw talent, Shoeless Joe Jackson, one of the few hitters (along with Speaker) ever to reach the .400 mark (.408 during his second season in 1911). Jackson’s batting average in 1919 was .351, the fourth highest among American League batters.

The architect of the plot was not a star. He was a journeyman first baseman, Chick Gandil, who reached out to gamblers and demanded $100,000 if his teammates would lose the World Series. The money was provided by a New York gambler, Arnold Rothstein, known as “Big Bankroll.” As a signal to the gamblers that the fix was in, Cicotte—the starting pitcher for the opening game of the Series—agreed to hit the leadoff Reds batter with his first pitch.

Between them, the White Sox pair of pitching stars—Cicotte and Williams—lost four of the first five games. Their losses raised suspicions. For instance, the usually steady Cicotte made two crucial errors in one game. In another, Williams, a careful pitcher with superb ball control, walked three batters in a single inning. By this time, rumors of fix were rampant. Sportswriters began keeping records of suspicious plays.

Since baseball in 1919 had a nine-game series—in which the first team to win five games was the champion—the White Sox still had a chance despite their sorry record up to Game Five. And so, as the Series progressed and the White Sox players involved in the fix didn’t receive all their money, they decided to double cross the gamblers and play to win. Both Game Six and Game Seven went to the Sox. In Game Eight, however, Williams gave up four runs in the first inning, which virtually assured a Reds victory from the start. Williams later claimed that the gamblers had threatened his and his family’s welfare if he didn’t throw the game.

The Series ended, but the rumors endured. Scuttlebutt about a World Series “fix” was a hot topic; the story finally broke toward the end of the 1920 baseball season when Cicotte and Jackson admitted taking money to fix the Series and implicated six of their teammates. A Cook County trial in Chicago, however, acquitted the eight White Sox players charged with conspiracy to fix the Series after the original confessions somehow disappeared.

Although the confessions vanished, suspicions did not. Such turns of fate were not so uncommon in big-city trials, especially in the city of Al Capone and the gangsters.

Still, the defendants on the Black Sox, as they were now commonly described, didn’t have long to celebrate. Newly appointed to oversee the sport, Commissioner of Baseball Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, remained skeptical. He was determined to break the hold of organized crime and the gambling syndicates on “America’s Game”—and he would use the occasion of the 1919 Series to set a firm example. He banned all eight Black Sox players permanently. During the next decade he cracked down hard on any signs of gambling or attempts to throw games.

The Black Sox scandal faded as the 1920s unfolded and the hitting feats of Babe Ruth and other sluggers in the live ball era—such as Hank Greenberg, Jimmy Foxx, and Lou Gehrig—transformed baseball into the exciting power game of “swinging for the fences” (i.e., home runs) that it has been ever since. In the 1920s, now playing for the New York Yankees (after his 1919 trade from the Boston Red Sox), Ruth stunned the baseball world by hitting 50 or more home runs on four occasions, including a phenomenal 60 homers in 1927, a record unbeaten for 34 years. (Since the 1961 season lasted 162 games, not 154 as heretofore, millions of fans denied that Ruth had been beaten—and the 61 homers by Roger Maris entered the record books with an asterisk.)

The combined efforts of the Babe and the Judge—the star with his Bunyanesque batting feats and the commissioner with his “ruthless” enforcement of the rules—refurbished baseball’s image and helped save the sport from collapse. Gambling disappeared from the baseball scene. Seven decades later, even though Pete Rose admitted that he gambled during his years as a player and manager, he denied vehemently that he ever bet against his own team or conspired to throw games. (Nonetheless, like the Black Sox, he was banned from the sport, including—as in their cases—from all consideration for election to the Baseball Hall of Fame. That decision has never been reversed.)

What of the Black Sox? Of the eight, third baseman Buck Weaver and Joe Jackson insisted that that they had never actually gone ahead and participated in the fix. Claiming that they had not taken part in the cheating, they repeatedly asked for reinstatement. Landis refused to budge. In time the story faded from the headlines.

Yet the scar was already lodged in the American psyche. As early as 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald alluded to the Black Sox story in The Great Gatsby. The protagonist Jay Gatsby gets rich from his gambling and bootlegged liquor with characters such as the underworld figure Meyer Wolfsheim—Fitzgerald’s analogue to “Big Bankroll” Arnold Rothstein, the man who toyed “with the faith of fifty million people.”

The story continued to resonate as the century progressed. Appearing in 1963, Eddie Asinof’s Eight Men Out renewed interest in the Black Sox story and aroused sympathy for the players as victims of owner Charles Comiskey’s cheapness as well as their own greed. It also immortalized the illiterate Jackson as a fallen hero of tragedy. The book was later made into a popular film.

Baseball has always been a sport that has invited treatment as a mythic contest on the field of battle, and this tendency has also fed the legend-building stories about Shoeless Joe and the Black Sox. Witness, for instance, Bernard Malamud’s The Natural (1952), in which a Ruthian hero, Roy Hobbs ends ignominiously by participating in a fix to win the league pennant, after which a young boy—shocked and distraught—bemoans to the fallen star: “Say it ain’t so, Joe.” That line is, of course, the (apparently apocryphal) remark of a small boy, tugging the sleeve of Shoeless Joe himself as he exits the grand jury room in September 1920. (“Yes kid, I’m afraid it is,” replied Shoeless Joe.)

The 1980s were a rich decade for Black Sox lore and baseball noir brought to the silver screen. Malamud’s novel reached the silver screen in 1984, just after the adaptation Shoeless Joe (1982), W.P. Kinsella’s novel featuring the illiterate yet charming Joe Jackson. In Field of Dreams (1989), Jackson stages a late-career comeback in his mid-30s, getting his first chance in the major leagues and a chance to fulfill the boyhood dream “to break every record that exists.” Unlike the book, the film is imbued with nostalgia for a glorious, mythic past and with an undisguised sentimentality toward childish longings. Of course, both nostalgia and sentimentality are integral parts of baseball and its history. The film’s indulgences—for example, its obvious sympathy toward feelings about a lost youth and for a romanticized past that never was—largely account for the runaway success of Field of Dreams.

When memory dies, myth remains. Field of Dreams has replaced history in the life story of Shoeless Joe. Attesting to the enduring appeal of the book and movie, the very phrase itself stands today as a grand metaphor for the fantastic possibilities involving a cowhide ball and a wooden bat on the diamond field of boyhood reverie. Moreover, plans are underway for the New York Yankees and Chicago White Sox to stage a game on the baseball diamond on which the events of the movie transpired.

So too are renewed efforts to “Save Shoeless Joe.” For more than a half-century, that is, since the mid-1960s and the publication of EightMen Out, sympathy for Jackson has grown; the popularity of Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe (and the film adaptation) and Field of Dreams has increased the perception of his victimhood and Landis’s injustice. Some ballplayers—most notably, Ted Williams—sought for years to persuade League officials to overturn the Landis ban and enshrine Jackson in the Hall of Fame. So too have nationally prominent lawyers, including F. Lee Bailey and Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz. No baseball commissioner, however, has taken up Jackson’s case and repudiated the decision of Landis. Refusing to revisit the Jackson case, Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti summed up the prevailing attitude of Landis’s successors: “I do not wish to play God with history.”

Yet as the lines between history and myth—between life and legend, reality and reverie—blur, it will be fascinating to see whether the 1919 Chicago team remains the Black Sox—and whether immortals such as Shoeless Joe finally immigrate from the scandalmongers’ Hall of Shame to the hagiographers’ Hall of Fame.

John Rodden has written in The Review of Politics, The Midwest Quarterly, and other publications. John Rossi is professor emeritus of history at La Salle University.

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