This year marks the 100th anniversary of perhaps the greatest scandal in baseball, if not all of professional sports: the Black Sox Scandal. Eight players on the Chicago White Sox conspired with gamblers to “throw” the 1919 World Series with the Cincinnati Reds.
Much of what we know about the scandal was presented in Eliot Asinof’s 1963 book, “Eight Men Out.” This was made into a movie in 1988 directed by John Sayles. While these have become the accepted stories of the scandal, some are challenging these accounts.
Why did they do it? Greed, for sure. However, Asinof said there was another reason. The players wanted to get back at the team’s owner, Charles Comiskey.
This was in the days before the players’ union, free agency and players having agents. Working people in America generally had few protections or options. You took what your employer paid you and that was that. Ballplayers couldn’t sign with other teams because of the reserve clause that was written into every contract.
According to Asinof, Comiskey paid his players poorly, and he treated them like dirt. They were called the Black Sox not because of the scandal, but because Comiskey was so cheap he saved on laundry costs by having his players wear dirty uniforms.
Asinof also said Comiskey was a cheat. He allegedly promised pitcher Eddie Cicotte a $10,000 bonus if he won 30 games. Cicotte won 29 and seemed poised for No. 30 and that bonus. Comiskey had him benched for the remainder of the season.
Curiously, the Society of American Baseball Research is questioning the accuracy of Asniof’s account. They point to records in the Baseball Hall of Fame that show the White Sox were actually well-paid in 1919. They also note there is little evidence of the “30 wins” bonus being promised to Cicotte.
The fact is, gambling and “game fixing” were common in baseball at the time. Perhaps the problem was the White Sox players got caught.
What we know for sure is the ringleader was first baseman Chick Gandil. He proposed to a gambling acquaintance of his, Joseph J. Sullivan, that, for $100,000, he could get the White Sox to fix the World Series.
Eventually, the conspirators included Gandil, Cicotte, one of the greatest hitters of all time, Joe Jackson; pitcher Claude “Lefty” Williams, centerfielder Oscar “Happy” Felsch, shortstop Swede Risberg, and reserve infielder Fred McMullin. Third baseman Buck Weaver knew of the fix, but he wasn’t in on it and didn’t report it.
Two of the Sox’s starting pitchers were in on the fix, but that left two starters, Dickie Kerr and Red Faber, who were not involved. However, the Sox went with a three-man rotation during the Series because Faber was out with the flu. One of the Sox’s players, catcher Ray Schalk, said the fix would’ve fallen apart if Faber had been able to pitch because the gamblers wouldn’t have had enough pitching.
It’s not known who fronted the money, but his initials were “A.R.” This has led many to believe it was Arnold Rothstein, then New York’s most notorious gangster and gambler. He had a brilliant mathematical mind, and he was as ruthless as he was brilliant. It was said he’d bet on anything except the weather because he couldn’t “fix” that.
When the Series started, sportswriters were astonished to find gamblers were putting most of their money on the Reds. Rumors of a “fix” were everywhere.
The Reds would win the Series, 5 games to 3 (it was a best-of-nine games affair at this time). Kerr almost single-handedly dispelled rumors of a fix by winning both of his starts. Cicotte lost his first two starts, but then nearly redeemed himself by pitching brilliantly and winning Game 7. He brought the White Sox within one game of the Reds, 4 games to 3. Williams set a dubious World Series record by losing all three of his starts, including the eighth game that clinched the Series for the Reds.
We now know what happened in Games 7 and 8. The players were not getting their money from the gamblers, so Cicotte pitched Game 7 to win and he did. Seeing there could be a problem, an associate of Sullivan paid a visit to Williams.
Williams was made an offer he couldn’t refuse: lose Game 8 and his family would stay safe and he could keep his face the way it was. Williams lost Game 8.
The rumors of a fix persisted in the 1920 season. In August 1920, a Cook County Grand Jury was convened to look into the matter. It was during these proceedings that Jackson and Cicotte confessed their involvement and said the Series had been fixed.
Eight players and five gamblers were indicted on charges of conspiracy to defraud. The case went to trial June 27, 1921. However, a lot of evidence, including the Grand Jury minutes and the confessions of Jackson and Cicotte, had vanished (how do you suppose that happened?) and the players were all acquitted.
In the meantime, the baseball owners, fearing for their image, hired a grandstanding federal judge, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, to be baseball’s new “Commissioner” in November 1920. Prior to this, he was best known for presiding over the 1907 anti-trust trial of Standard Oil, and hitting them with $29 million in fines.
Landis suspended all eight players from baseball for life. He ruled they had broken the rules of baseball and the public trust. Curiously, he soon became known to taking the players’ sides in disputes with the owners. He treated the owners with disdain.
Landis would go on to rule baseball until his death in 1944. The owners were kicking themselves for not naming someone who was easier for them to manipulate.
There are those who claimed Landis delayed the breaking of baseball’s color barrier. When Bill Veeck made an offer to buy the Philadelphia Phillies in 1943, he made it clear he wanted to bring in some of the top players from the Negro Leagues. Landis nixed the deal. The Phillies’ owners had to settle for a much smaller amount than Veeck had offered to pay.
Landis seemed to make contradictory claims on whether he supported integrating baseball.
It wasn’t until after Landis was gone and a new Commissioner, Happy Chandler, had arrived that Branch Rickey decided to break the color line once and for all.
As for the banned White Sox players, most of them returned to their families and communities. Generally, they redeemed themselves in the minds of their families and friends.
Buck Weaver maintained his innocence, saying he knew of the fix but was not in on it. His play during the Series seemed to indicate he was playing to win. Landis was sympathetic, but he told Weaver that, if he knew about the fix and didn’t report it, he was as guilty as the others.
To this day, there are questions about how serious Joe Jackson was about losing the Series. He batted .375 and tied a Series record with 12 hits. He made no errors and hit the only home run. He told the grand jury he was playing to win.
Jackson continued to play baseball for a number of years under assumed names with semi-pro teams and teams in the low minors. However, his unique batting stance kept giving him away (I should mention Babe Ruth patterned his stance after Jackson’s).
Jackson eventually came to own a liquor store in Tennessee. There’s a story told that Ty Cobb was in the area one day and stopped in to buy a fifth of bourbon and see his old rival. He was miffed that Jackson didn’t seem to know who he was.
Finally, Cobb grabbed Jackson by the shoulders and called out, “Joe! Don’t you recognize me?!”
“Sure I recognize you, Ty,” Jackson replied with a smile, looking relieved. “It’s just a lot of guys who knew me back then don’t want to recognize me!”
From the looks of things, Comiskey didn’t learn anything from this and remained a tightwad. Kerr was a 20-game winner in 1920, and he understandably expected a pay hike. Instead, Comiskey offered him a dramatic pay cut for 1921, on the grounds that attendance would be down due to the scandal. Kerr was so insulted and incensed, he accepted an offer to play semi-pro ball for more money. For this, he was also suspended from “organized” baseball.
Kerr would later go on to be a college and minor league coach. He was with the St. Louis Cardinals’ organization when he suggested to a sore-armed pitcher that he move to the outfield. The pitcher, a kid named Stan Musial, took his advice.
As for the man who allegedly fronted the money and arranged the fix, Arnold Rothstein, he did not meet a happy end. By the mid-1920s, his brilliant mathematical mind was failing him. Sensing weakness, other gangsters began to move in. In 1928, he lost $300,000 to some card sharps from California, and he refused to pay on the grounds they had cheated.
It’s not known if the card game was a pretext for what happened next, or whether subsequent events were a response to the card game.
On Election Day, 1928, Rothstein stopped taking bets on the Presidential election in the early afternoon and left his office for his home. He never made it. He was found stabbed to death near the service entrance to the Plaza Hotel.
Rothstein may have been the only real “winner” in the Black Sox Scandal. In the end, however, he was a major loser.