Black Sox Scandal

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The Chicago White Sox, September 26, 1919.

The Black Sox Scandal was an event centered around the 1919 World Series between the Chicago White Sox of the American League and the Cincinnati Reds of the National League, in which eight baseball players of the Chicago team conspired with gamblers to intentionally "throw" (or lose) the Series. The fallout from the scandal caused the owners of individual teams to create a powerful commissioner of baseball in Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who's first step at reforming baseball was to ban the players involved in the fix for life.

Contents

Prelude

Charles Comiskey, owner of the White Sox.

Charles Comiskey was a former big league player for various teams in baseball until he became the owner of the White Sox in the American League from 1900 to 1931. As the owner, he led the White Sox to five A.L. championships, and the World Series of 1919 promised to be the best year in baseball, as he boasted about having the best team on any field.

But Comiskey was a miser, and notorious for it. His players were among the lowest-paid in the league, and being subject to the "reserve clause" they could do nothing about it. He even forced his players to do their own laundry, as he wouldn't hire extra help to deal with the player's uniforms. The players responded for several weeks in 1919 by wearing their filthy uniforms on the field; the eventual buildup of the dirt, sweat, and grime turned their once-white uniforms to a dark shade of gray in places, resulting in the nickname of "Black Sox" being bestowed on them before the scandal took place (Comiskey had the uniforms removed from the lockers and the players fined for the infraction [1]).

Interest in baseball was low as a result of American involvement in World War I, but climbed considerably at war's end, so much so that baseball owners decided upon a best-of-nine format instead of the traditional seven games for the 1919 World Series. Interest in the betting on baseball also climbed as well; gamblers had for years hung around the parks betting on individual games while the occasional rumor circulated that a player was supplementing his income by throwing games. Comiskey, aware of the rumors, posted signs at his park banning gambling, but had failed to see the other signs pointing to the resentment against him and the tempting offers of high rewards from gamblers. [2]

The Fix

The majority of accounts and sources indicate that the fix was started by first baseman Chick Gandil wanting to get even with Comiskey; he allegedly talked to pitcher Ed Cicotte about throwing the World Series. They in turn had approached former ball player William T. "Sleepy Bill" Burns, who had connections to gamblers, and Billy Maharg, who had connections to gamblers at the underground level. Eventually the cost to throw the game would be $100,000 split between the players, with Arnold Rothstein, a man who had connections to organized crime, to provide the funding. [3] According to author Eliot Asinof, Cicotte also had personal reasons for the fix: he was promised a $10,000 bonus in his contract for getting 30 regular season wins, but was benched by Comiskey soon after his 29th, allegedly to avoid paying it.

The eight players

Top row, left to right: Eddie Cicotte; Chick Gandil; Lefty Williams; Happy Felsch. Bottom row, left to right: Swede Risberg; Buck Weaver; Shoeless Joe Jackson; Fred McMullin.
  • Eddie Cicotte, pitcher.
  • Arnold "Chick" Gandil, first baseman.
  • Claude "Lefty" Williams, pitcher.
  • Oscar "Happy" Felsch, centerfielder.
  • Charles "Swede" Risberg, shortstop.
  • George "Buck" Weaver, third baseman.
  • Joseph Jefferson "Shoeless Joe" Jackson, leftfielder.
  • Fred McMullin, utilityman.

Of the players, McMillan overheard conversations regarding the fix and wanted in, making a threat to inform Comiskey if he wasn't. Weaver sat in on details of the fix but did not participate in it at all. Cicotte asked for, and received, $10,000 up front, finding it in his hotel room the night of Game 1.

Joseph Jefferson Jackson was considered by many to have been the greatest ball player of his time, with a third-highest batting average of .356; his .400 average in his first year of professional baseball was the highest for a rookie. His special bat was hand-made from a plank of hickory nearly four feet long, and stained black from various coatings of tobacco juice. Babe Ruth was said to have modeled his own power hitting on Jackson who, he said, "had a special crack to it." Shoeless Joe was discovered in the minor leagues playing one game in his socks because his new cleats were too tight; a fan shouting an offensive epithet would give him his nickname.

The World Series

The 1919 World Series began October 1, 1919, in Cincinanati's Redland Field, and the pre-arranged signal to the gamblers that the fix was on was when Cicotte hit Reds batter Morrie Rath in the back with a fast ball at the bottom of the first inning. From that point on, play was sporadic with the Chicago players, as the players involved would play well one moment, and play badly the next. This would frustrate the honest players not involved with the fix; during Game 9 a fly ball successfully fielded by Jackson was thrown to home, but Cicotte on the mound intercepted it, allowing it to deflect from his glove, resulting in a Reds score and an error for Cicotte. Rumors also were rampant regarding bets placed. Before the Series had opened, Chicago was heavily-favored, but by the end of September, large amounts of money were changing hands as bets were cast in Cincinnati's favor by five-to-one odds.

By the beginning of Game 2, only Cicotte had got his money. The other players began to grumble about not being paid, and more so by the end of Game 3. Gandil received a mere $1,000 and distributed it among the players; Jackson would eventually be given $5,000. Halfway through the Series, the players, having realized they were being hoodwinked by the gamblers, played like they were going to win, but the damage had been done. Cincinnati won the Series by October 9, 5 games to 3.

Trial

The players in court are all smiles after their acquittal on August 3, 1921. Seated starting second from left are: Joe Jackson, Buck Weaver, Eddie Cicotte, Swede Risberg, Lefty Williams, Chick Gandil.
Kenesaw Mountain Landis

In September 1920, as rumors piled up regarding the fixing of baseball games in general, and the 1919 World Series in particular, a grand jury was convened in Chicago to investigate. Both Jackson and Cicotte would confess, causing Comiskey to suspend the seven players of the fix still on his team (Gandil was already out of the majors). Their confessions, a key part of the trial, vanished from the Cook County Courthouse before the trial opened in June, 1921. Without the confessions, as well as a lack of evidence, all eight were acquitted on August 3.

Before the trial was even underway, baseball team owners got together to create a baseball commisioner, who would oversea baseball's integrity and restore public confidence in the sport. As a new commisioner they chose a retired judge, Kenesaw Mountain Landis [4], a no-nonsense jurist who once sent an old man to 16 years in prison for robbery. "Judge, I ain't got that much time left," the man protested. "Well, do the best you can," Landis replied.

On August 4, 1921, the day after the verdict in the Black Sox trial, and using the unlimited power granted to him by the owners, Landis set about correcting baseball's image, and the first act he did was public, decisive, and uncompromising:

Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player who throws a ball game, no player who undertakes or promises to throw a ball game, no player who sits in confidence with a bunch of crooked gamblers and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.

All eight players were banned for life. Subsequent letters protesting innocence and asking for reinstatement went unheeded, even Buck Weaver, whose guilt in the matter was very much in doubt, sent letters to the next six commissioners; each time he was turned down. "I had Weaver in my office," Landis said, "and I asked him if he sat in on the meetings." Weaver replied that he did, but that he never took part in the fix, stating that he played the best baseball he could. Analysis of baseball records indicate that he indeed did do just that. [5] But Landis would not compromise. "Son, you can't play ball with us anymore."

Seven of the eight players would find life in the minors, either in outlaw baseball or under assumed names, and taking ordinary, unassuming jobs after they were physically unable to play the game. Being banned from baseball meant that one of them, Jackson, whose guilt was also in doubt, would not be eligible for the Hall of Fame, as many of his records still stand. Like Weaver, baseball historians still dispute as to whether Jackson was or was not part of the actual fix. In the Series he was 12-for-32 with a .375 batting average, with 5 runs, 3 doubles, 1 home run and 6 RBI.

Charles Comiskey died in 1931. Four years after the trial was over, the missing confessions turned up in the office of Comiskey's lawyer; no one knows how they got there. Comiskey has had two baseball parks built for his team named after him, and he also has a plaque of honor in the Baseball Hall of Fame. [6]

References

  • Asinof, Eliot. Eight Men Out, Henry Holt, New York (1963).
  • Pietrusza, David Rothstein: The Life, Times and Murder of the Criminal Genius who Fixed the 1919 World Series, Carroll & Graf, New York (2004).

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