1919 Chicago White Sox
1919 Chicago White Sox
American baseball team
Often dubbed the greatest scandal in sports history, the "Black Sox" story is one of how greed and deception came to rule the diamonds during the 1919 World Series. The Chicago White Sox, a team consisting of some of the greatest players the game had ever known—men like Shoeless Joe Jackson and George "Buck" Weaver—seemed a lock to take home the trophy. When they lost, and when it was later revealed that eight men on the team had agreed to "fix" the series for gamblers, the series of events that followed would tarnish the nation's pastime in the public eye. It would also ruin the careers of the players involved, and the 1919 Chicago White Sox would become known to baseball fans everywhere, forever, as the Chicago "Black" Sox.
By the end of the regular season in 1919, the Chicago White Sox were playing better baseball than anyone had expected. With 88 wins and 52 losses on the year, they'd far surpassed their previous season, when they had finished sixth, near the bottom of the rankings. And yet, they were poised and playing wonderful ball and staring at a postseason that would send them back to the World Series for the second time in three years. The genesis for these triumphant seasons had been set in motion in 1915, when Charles Comiskey, owner of the team, put the pieces in place for what he'd hoped would be one of the greatest teams in baseball. In only two short seasons, he'd built a club that dominated the league and went on to easily win the 1917 World Series.
But then America entered World War I, shortening the 1918 season and sending many ballplayers overseas to fight and leaving many of those who remained to work in shipping yards or steel mills in order to avoid the draft. By the end of the war, in November of 1918, it was time once again for Comiskey to rebuild his team. Though he'd been willing to spend money on the acquisition of good players, he was also well-known for failing to pay his men what they were worth. Unlike in today's game, where teams have payrolls that stagger the mind, in the early 1900s, baseball players, even major stars, were poorly compensated for their talents, and Charles Comiskey was among those whose compensation was the poorest. In one instance, he had promised his team a bonus if they won the pennant in 1919, and after clinching, the White Sox entered the locker room and found only a case of stale champagne—Comiskey's "bonus."
Charles Comiskey often looked the other way when his players complained, in essence biting the hands that fed him—or filled his pockets—and soon he had salary disputes among his players. Robert Cottrell, in his book, Blackball, the Black Sox and the Babe, wrote how, "Team dissension and divisions were clearly present among the White Sox." Some of the stars on the team were making less than half that of other players, and Comiskey was only inviting trouble into the team dugout by allowing the money concerns of his players—namely, most of them didn't have any—to affect their attitude about the club. Comiskey chose instead to wine and dine the members of the press, whom he often invited to join him at expensive meals, the liquor flowing freely. All the while, in the White Sox locker room, the players were getting along on the bare minimum.
The 1919 World Series
Even so, Chicago's boys of summer headed into October with hot bats and blazing pitching. In spite of their dissatisfaction with management, the fans would have been hard-pressed to find anything wrong. They loved to play baseball, and the Sox had been playing stellar ball all season. They had a pitching staff that seemed unbeatable—Eddie Cicotte, a 29 game winner, and Lefty Williams, who had 23 victories, were the top two men, and they were followed by two other starters who each had over twenty wins. Add to the equation the talented fielding of third baseman Buck Weaver and a hitter like "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, and the best of nine series against the Cincinnati Reds appeared a mere formality. The Reds, coming off of a banner year, had won 96 games and lost only 44 on their way to their first National League pennant. Yet in spite of the Reds' better numbers, they were underdogs. Oddsmakers gave the White Sox a clear advantage; they couldn't see how Comiskey's boys could lose.
But lose they did. From the very first pitch of the series by the White Sox Eddie Cicotte, something seemed off. He hit Maury Rath of the Reds on the first toss of the game, which, it would later be learned, was a signal to the men who'd fixed the World Series that the eight players on the Sox agreed to throw the games. Cicotte allowed the Reds to whallop him in that first game, which Cincinnati won 9-1. William "Kid" Gleason, a first year manager for the Sox and a student of the game, knew his players too well and suspected something was wrong—the team that he'd coached all summer hadn't shown up. He took his concerns to Comiskey who, in turn, took the issue up with the American League president (who chose to ignore both men's concerns).
And so the games continued. The Cincinnati Reds went on to win the second game by a score of 4-2. The White Sox would win game three, but games four and five went to the Reds. In what reads like a description of a little league game, Eddie Cicotte's fielding was out of sorts—he badly played an infield grounder, then threw the ball over his target and into the outfield, allowing the runner to reach second. A few plays later, he bobbled a throw from the outfield, allowing a Red to score. Cincinnati took four of the first five games in a series that had been pushed from a best of seven series to a best of nine. Although the White Sox would win games six and seven, they would fold in game eight, and the series would be over.
How the Fix Happened
It is difficult to know exactly what happened in the weeks prior to the 1919 World Series. The scheme has been pieced together with details given by some of the conspirators, who said there was an agreement that players who participated in "fixing" the series so that Chicago lost would be paid a total of $100,000 in installments over the course of the games.
The eight men involved had been bought to lose the first three games, but after losing game one, some of the players went looking for their money and were told that it was out on bets. They didn't get paid. The men were disappointed, yet they were in over their heads and stuck to the plan, losing game two. Once again, following the loss, they sought their payment but received only a part of the money. This prompted several of the players to shy away from their agreed upon deal.
|1919||Five to one favorites to win the World Series, the Chicago White Sox lose in eight games (in a best of nine series) to the Cincinnati Reds. Rumors of a "fixed" series spread among diehard baseball fans, but are dismissed as unfounded.|
|1920||Judge Charles A. McDonald instructs a grand jury in Chicago to open investigation into charges of gambling in the major leagues. On September 28, eight Chicago White Sox players are indicted for conspiring to throw the 1919 World Series.|
|1921||Fifteen day trial takes place in July, and the grand jury brings back verdict of "not guilty." Ignoring the verdict, however, newly appointed Commissioner of Baseball Kenesaw Mountain Landis will soon ban all eight defendants from baseball for life.|
The White Sox eventually won games six and seven. The players involved in the fix were frustrated at not getting the money they'd agreed to. However, when a few members of the White Sox who had agreed to throw the series were threatened by those who'd engineered the fix, the team lost game eight, touching off the flood of events that followed.
A Calm Before the Maelstrom
Corruption in baseball is nothing new. Gambling and the fixing of games had afflicted organized ball since the end of the Civil War, and orchestraters of underhanded ball followed close on the heels of any new league or team that popped up. So when the National League formed in 1876, gambling was prohibited in the rules, but it was a law that never matched up with the practice on the field.
With America's entrance into World War I, wrote Eliot Asinof in his book Eight Men Out, gambling's stronghold on baseball became solidified. When the government shut down race tracks, the numbers men looked elsewhere for their fix, and since ballparks remained open during the war, it was the next logical place for gamblers to migrate.
As the 1919 World Series drew to a close, many baseball afficianados had doubts as to the validity of the games they'd witnessed. Those who kept a close eye on White Sox players felt that something was amiss—they just couldn't put their fingers on it.
Rumors soon began to circulate about the possibility of a fix and news reporters mentioned that certain key players on the White Sox made more than their fair share of mistakes. Hugh Fullerton, a reporter who loved baseball more than life itself, led the post-Series cries of "foul," continuing to raise questions after most other writers let the subject drop. Eventually, the New York World ran one of Fullerton's pieces in which he suggested that the 1919 World Series had been tampered with, kicking off speculation that wouldn't reach a fever pitch for almost a year. The 1920 baseball season would continue as scheduled, and Fullerton's articles kept the embers burning. In September of 1920, the story burst into flame.
In early September of 1920 a grand jury was summoned to investigate allegations into the rampant gambling in professional baseball. By the middle of the month, that investigation turned its focus to the 1919 World Series and the play of the Chicago White Sox. On September 28th, the grand jury indicted eight players on the team for "conspiring to defraud the public and injure the business of Charles Comiskey and the American League" (there was no statute on the Illinois books that specifically forbade "fixing" a baseball game). "Chick" Gandil, Eddie Cicotte, "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, George "Buck" Weaver, Charles "Swede" Risberg, Oscar "Happy" Felsch, Claude "Lefty" Williams and utility infielder Fred McMullin were the eight men named on the indictment.
Team Statistics (1919)
The American public was shocked. Most people were unaware of how deep gambling had sunk its claws into the national pastime, and even those who knew that games were often fixed were shocked that corruption had risen all the way to the ranks of the World Series. A New York Times editorial on September 24, 1920, declared that the men involved in fixing the 1919 Series would "undoubtedly be blacklisted…[For] it is a matter of self-preservation as well as of honor and of pride in the national game to stamp out every vestige of crookedness."
After the grand jury's investigation, Cottrell wrote, the story soon broke about Eddie Cicotte and "Shoeless" Joe Jackson "confessing to having received $10,000 and $5,000 respectively to help fix the 1919 World Series." Cicotte, it is said, broke down in front of the grand jury, claiming he'd never regretted anything so much in his life. He blamed Risberg, Gandil, and McMullin for pressuring him the entire week prior to the start of the Series. With a wife and kids and a $4,000 mortgage on a farm in Michigan, Cicotte had reluctantly agreed to the fix.
Sportswriters and many influential people in baseball demanded that another look be taken at baseball's National Commission. This outcry led to the appointment of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis as commissioner of major league baseball. When he took office on December 12, 1920, he wielded greater power over the game than the previous three-man commission held. "Landis proved to be a master at working the public relations angle," Cottrell wrote. "[He presented] himself as the repository of the time-honored values associated with the national game." Here was a man who some declared the "Moses of baseball." Stately and intimidating, Landis appeared on the scene when the public needed an arbiter in whom they could rest their faith.
The actual trial began on a hot day in June of 1921. The eight White Sox faced the possibility of a five-year prison sentence, as well as fines of up to $10,000 each. In a strange turn of events, all of the official documents relating to the scandal disappeared only days before the court convened. The transcripts of the grand jury testimony were gone, so now any White Sox who had previously confessed proceeded to change their stories. Those who didn't change their stories flat out refused to incriminate themselves on the stand. So when the verdict was read, the eight men indicted for fixing the 1919 World Series discovered they had been acquitted due to a lack of evidence.
That night, they celebrated with a huge dinner down the street from the courthouse. But the celebration would not last long. The very next morning, newspapers bore Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis' own verdict: he banned the eight men from baseball forever. In a statement issued to the press, Landis said: "Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player that throws a ballgame, no player that entertains proposals or promises to throw a game, no player that sits in 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 play professional baseball."
Eight Men Forever Out
Asinof has said that after the scandal and their banishment from professional baseball, "the eight Black Sox fanned out over the vast expanse of America, but their lives ran in similar patterns." Many would play ball anonymously in small leagues in various towns, and most of them would end up in quiet occupations, trying to forget what happened during those years when they lived their dreams.
Jury to Probe Charges
Jackson and Felsch and Cicotte and Weaver and the rest of them were heroes to the boys of America. They belonged to the goodly fellowship that includes pirates and Indian fighters, super-detectives and, more recently, aces of the air service. To hear that they sold a world's series is as bad[a] news to the boys of America as if one of our modern historians should discover that Daniel Boone had been bought by the Indians to lose his fights in Kentucky, or that Paul Jones had thrown the Serapis-Bonhomme Richard battle for British gold.
On city corner lots, in small towns and country villages, on diamonds improvised by farm lads in the stubblefield, millions of boys have spent the energy of their growing years in the wild hope that some day they, too, might take their places in the fellowship of the big-league elect. Most of them eventually outgrew the ambition, but it did them no harm. And now they find that some of their heroes were only crooks, and contemptible, whimpering crooks at that. They did it for their wives and children or to lift a mortgage from the old farm. They had scruples about going in, and their guilty knowledge was an awful load on the conscience, but they all kept quiet till they had been found out; then they did what they could to get off easily by betraying each other.
Perhaps the law has no punishment for them. Leave it to a vote of the fans, and they would be punished.
Source: The New York Times (September 8, 1920): p. 12.
Eight Men Out
The "Black Sox" scandal was retold in the 1988 film Eight Men Out. Starring John Cusack as Buck Weaver and D.B. Sweeney as "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, the movie is sympathetic to the White Sox players involved in the scandal but doesn't absolve them of their responsibilities. In fact, by the end of the movie, the viewer is forced to make the ultimate decision about whether or not these players were guilty or innocent (some players were, of course, more guilty than others). Written and directed by John Sayles, the film closely follows the book upon which it is based: Eliot Asinof's 1963 sweeping treatment of the scandal. Roger Ebert, in a mild criticism of the film, faulted it for being an "insider's movie." Nonetheless, the performances of Cusack as Buck Weaver and David Straithairn as Eddie Cicotte are impressive, showing what it must have been like to wrestle with ethical questions raised by the circumstances leading up to, during, and following the entire "Black Sox" scandal. Eight Men Out vividly portrays a pivotal event in our national pastime, and it's rendered with an exacting eye for baseball and the detail of the period.
In 1956, Chick Gandil finally told his story to Sports Illustrated, acknowledging that he was the "first player contacted by gamblers and [brought] together seven other
players who initially agreed to rig the series for $20,000 each." When asked if he was one of the ringleaders of the Black Sox Scandal, he said, "It's true, I was." He claimed, however, that the rumors of a "fix" that started soon after the 1919 World Series began scared many of the players who had initially agreed to throw the series. Therefore, Gandil said, the games were played legitimately. He maintained that the way the White Sox lost the series that year "was pure baseball fortune."
Buck Weaver would deny involvement in the scandal until his dying day. True, he was present and knew about the fix, but he never accepted any money and never gave anything but his all in each series game. Weaver batted.324 in the 1919 World Series and had no errors. The September 29, 1920, New York Tribune called Weaver "one of baseball's leading third basemen," asserting that his statistics in the series should be "a good enough alibi" to prove his innocence.
Indeed, as Cottrell wrote, Weaver's continued claims of innocence after the trial provoked W.A. Phelon, of Baseball Magazine, to examine the Series records. His conclusion: "I'll say close analysis fails to show a darned thing on Weaver." Yet for the next thirty-five years of his life, Weaver worked tirelessly to clear his tarnished name. He sought reinstatement with Landis, sending letters and pleading his case, but his requests were always turned down. Buck Weaver's association with the Black Sox scandal, and his mere presence during the discussions and subsequent failure to do anything about it on his own gave him, in Judge Landis's eyes, a "guilty knowledge."
In later years, Ty Cobb would stand up for Weaver, saying, "I can't speak for the others who were involved, but they'll never get me to believe that Buck Weaver was guilty of anything." Weaver died in 1956, never finding peace with the scandal that so dramatically changed his life and the world of baseball.
Ted Williams tried, before his death in 2002, to exonerate "Shoeless" Joe Jackson and get him into the Hall of Fame. Williams made it one of his final ambitions to get Cooperstown to acknowledge that Jackson was innocent, believing Jackson to be one of the best pure hitters the game has ever seen. Williams took up the cause in the late 1990s after conducting some research on the man who named his bat "Black Betsy," calling senators, baseball executives, and even presidents on Jackson's behalf.
Williams died before finding success, though many have taken up the cause and are still trying to vindicate Jackson. In fact, it has become such a mainstream fight that the United States Congress took up the debate in the late 1990s, bitterly divided on the issue. "Shoeless" Joe still waits for the Hall of Fame.
The magnifying lens held up in 1920 on eight men who played baseball—a few of whom were the greatest to ever play the game—only served to show the public what had been going on since the game began. Even today, baseball is far from "clean" in the way the fans thought it was before the Black Sox Scandal. In 1986 a drug scandal erupted in the major leagues, and Pete Rose was banished from baseball in 1989 when he was tried, and found guilty, of betting on his own team. Many baseball purists—indeed many of the people who want to see Joe Jackson in the Hall of Fame—point out that the eight men of the 1919 Chicago White Sox were acquitted of all charges.
In the end, the Chicago "Black" Sox showed America how greed and deception could rise all the way to the top in a game that seemed—to most fans—immune to corruption. When eight players agreed to "fix" the 1919 World Series for gamblers, it tarnished the national pastime in the public eye and ruined the careers of all players involved.
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Sketch by Eric Lagergren