“Say it ain’t so”: The ‘Black Sox’ scandal that rocked American baseball

They were the biggest thing in baseball, a team of unrivalled skill and tenacity. So just why did the Chicago White Sox set out to lose the 1919 World Series? Richard Luck re-examines the greatest gambling scandal in the history of sport

US baseball legend, Joseph 'Shoeless Joe' Jackson, who was banned from the game along with seven other players after admitting that they had accepted money to lose the 1919 World Series.

‘The national pastime’ – that’s how Americans refer to baseball. As the US’s most beloved form of recreation, the sport is also seen to reflect the country’s character. In 1919, with the 20s yet to roar and prohibition yet to bite, the ‘boys of summer’ were the embodiment of a halcyon age. The war in Europe had been won, the stock market was starting to boom, and everything on the baseball diamond looked lovely.

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As Manchester City are to today’s Premiership football, the Chicago White Sox were to baseball in the 1910s. After the Sox had won the World Series– the annual championship series contested between the American League and National League winners – in 1917, club owner Charles Comiskey continued to assemble a team of stellar talent, capable of taking apart all-comers. When the Sox made it to the series again in 1919, people gave their opponents, the Cincinnati Reds, about as much chance as Custer had at Little Big Horn.

All of which made what happened next that much more extraordinary and despicable. Because when the Sox emphatically lost to the Reds over the eight-game series, it quickly became apparent that the greatest of sporting upsets was in fact the largest scandal in the history of American sport. But while the eight players who perpetrated the fraud received sanction and scorn, the men who financed it skulked back into the shadows. And one honest man had his career and reputation ruined for ever.

“Say it ain’t so,” a child allegedly begged White Sox legend ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson at the height of the affair. But it was. And yet it also wasn’t. Allow me to explain…

Group shot of the 1919 White Sox baseball team. (Image by Bettmann/Getty Images)
Group shot of the 1919 White Sox baseball team. (Image by Bettmann/Getty Images)

The roots of baseball’s biggest scandal

Under coach William ‘Kid’ Gleason, the Chicago White Sox had become all-conquering. Skippered by Eddie Collins, the team’s top talent included ace pitchers Eddie Cicotte and Claude ‘Lefty’ Williams, tenacious third baseman George ‘Buck’ Weaver, the hard-hitting Oscar ‘Happy’ Felsch, hard-nosed shortstop Charles ‘Swede’ Risberg and prize-fighter-turned-first baseman Arnold ‘Chick’ Gandil. All these and Joe Jackson, the illiterate mill worker who possessed the most beautiful swing of any baseball player before or since. After they had secured a fourth American League pennant in 1919, it was less a question of whether they could win the World Series than if they could beat Cincinnati 5–0.

Immediately in the wake of the pennant win, it became abundantly clear that all was not well with the White Sox. A player and coach before he became the club’s owner, Charles ‘Commy’ Comiskey was a man even Ebenezer Scrooge might have considered stingy. Having promised his players a bonus for winning the American League, one source records that Comiskey sent a case of flat champagne to the changing room. Another apocryphal tale claims that he short-changed Eddie Cicotte, who’d been promised $10,000 for winning 30 games, only to be left out of the side on the owner’s orders after victory number 29.

Pitchers 'Lefty' Williams and Eddie Cicotte of the Chicago White Sox baseball team at Comiskey Park in Chicago, 1919. (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images)
Pitchers ‘Lefty’ Williams and Eddie Cicotte of the Chicago White Sox baseball team at Comiskey Park in Chicago, 1919. (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images)

Add to this the fact that Comiskey refused to grant his players their full daily food allowance and insisted that they pay their own laundry bills (the Sox refused and took to the diamond in dirty uniforms, earning them their ‘Black Sox’ nickname) and it’s easy to see why his employees welcomed the chance to make some easy money. After all, it wasn’t as if they could go and play elsewhere – a controversial stipulation called the ‘reserve clause’ meant that teams retained the rights to players following the expiration of their contract. As such, the Sox players were unable to sign with another team. Only if Comiskey chose to trade or sell them were Gandil and company free to go elsewhere.

Chick Gandil it was, then, who sat down with Sox pitcher-turned-professional gambler ‘Sleepy’ Bill Burns with an eye to doing the unthinkable. After further conversations were held with Boston bookmaker Joseph ‘Sport’ Sullivan, the two messengers relayed the news to someone with enough money to ensure the Sox lost the series.

American professional gambler Arnold Rothstein. (Photo by Jack Benton/Getty Images)
American professional gambler Arnold Rothstein. (Photo by Jack Benton/Getty Images)

Arnold Rothstein was a very big deal in 1919. With his mob affiliations and vice-like grip on the American gambling scene, he’d acquired such wealth that he could easily stump up the estimated $70,000 (as you can understand, the figures vary wildly) needed to secure Chicago’s services.

On 21 September 1919, just two weeks before the series, Gandil arranged a meeting at New York’s Ansonia Hotel with the men he believed were most likely to agree to his egregious plan. Scorned pitchers Eddie Cicotte and Lefty Williams, Gandil’s good friend Swede Risberg, the happy-go-lucky Oscar Felsch, the too-dim-to-know better Joe Jackson – all five agreed terms with Chick, as did journeyman Fred McMullin, who’d overheard talk of the fix and threatened to squeal unless he received a cut. Also present was fellow player Buck Weaver, although he’s said to have stormed out the moment it was suggested that the White Sox, and by extension the World Series, were for sale.

The 1919 World Series

On Wednesday 1 October, it was apparent the fix was on the moment Eddie Cicotte’s pitch hit the Reds’ leadoff hitter Morrie Rath on the back, a signal he’d agreed upon ahead of the game. Cicotte – who’d received $10,000 before game one – proceeded to pitch like a dog, consigning the Sox to a 9–1 shellacking. Worse was to come in game two, when it was pitcher Lefty Williams who literally threw the game. That Chicago defeated the Reds in the third game was entirely down to rookie pitcher Dickey Kerr playing very well, having being considered too insignificant to bribe. Normal service quickly resumed, however, with Cicotte and Williams handing games four and five to Cincinnati, leaving the Reds needing one more win to secure the championship.

And then the situation changed – changed utterly. After Dickey Kerr repeated his game three heroics in game six, Eddie Cicotte – who along with the other Black Sox hadn’t received the full sum of money he’d been promised – pitched one of the games of his life in game seven to bring Chicago back to within a victory of tying up the series. Lefty Williams had also had enough of the gamblers’ empty promises and was dead set on winning game eight – at least until some toughs threatened him with violence if he didn’t go through with the original plan. Chastened, Williams gave up four runs in the game’s first inning. Shortly thereafter, the Cincinnati Reds wrapped up the first World Series title in the club’s history. Yet again, David had slain Goliath.

A banner celebrating the Cincinatti Reds' victory in the 1919 World Series. (Photo by FPG/Getty Images)
A banner celebrating the Cincinatti Reds’ victory in the 1919 World Series. (Photo by FPG/Getty Images)

The rumour that, in this instance, Goliath might have taken a dive had been going around the press box since the start of the series. Still, it wasn’t until the following September, when the Sox were again in the running for the pennant, that a grand jury was convened to investigate the issue of gambling in baseball. When called to the stand, both Eddie Cicotte and Joe Jackson confessed that they’d taken money to lose the 1919 World Series. At which point, all hell broke loose.

The fallout of a scandal

In June 1921, the eight men who had met at the Ansonia Hotel went on trial for conspiracy to defraud. That Gandil, Jackson and friends walked free wasn’t too surprising – the jurors were baseball fans and someone had ‘mislaid’ Cicotte, Jackson and Williams’s grand jury confessions, rendering them inadmissible. But any idea of the Sox having got off scot-free was quickly dismissed by the baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. A day after the players were acquitted, Landis issued the following proclamation:

“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 a conference with a bunch of crooked ballplayers and gamblers, where the ways and means of throwing a game are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.”

The front-page headline of the 'New York Times' describes the fallout from the 'Black Sox' scandal, September 1920. (Photo by New York Times Co./Getty Images)
The front-page headline of the ‘New York Times’ describes the fallout from the ‘Black Sox’ scandal, September 1920. (Photo by New York Times Co./Getty Images)

And they didn’t. Not one of the Black Sox returned to the majors. But what of the gamblers? Well, they most certainly did get away with it, either through giving false testimony or fleeing the country. Charles Comiskey, meanwhile, continued to treat his players like cattle, so much so that Dickey Kerr – the saving grace of Chicago’s 1919 series – quit both the club and Major League Baseball in 1925.

Was ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson innocent?

The legacy of the Chicago Black Sox affair includes the excellent John Sayles movie Eight Men Out, and Field of Dreams, the Phil Alden Robinson film adapted from a WP Kinsella novel in which Joe Jackson and his teammates are redeemed for the sins of 1919.

At the heart of both films is the notion that Joe Jackson was a blameless victim of the scandal. But without getting into deep statistical analysis of his World Series form, the figures simply don’t back up this notion. On the contrary, those times in the series where he most needed to deliver, Jackson rarely did. This isn’t to say ‘Shoeless Joe’ was a willing conspirator – it’s just hard to tell.

Baseball legend Joseph 'Shoeless Joe' Jackson, is still often seen a blameless victim of the scandal. But the figures simply don't back up this notion, says Richard Luck. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Baseball legend Joseph ‘Shoeless Joe’ Jackson, is often seen a blameless victim of the scandal. But the figures simply don’t back up this notion, says Richard Luck. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

No, if there was a wronged party, it was Buck Weaver – the man who wouldn’t have a part in the fix. Along with Kerr, Weaver was the Sox standout player of the series. He offered up his impressive batting average as proof he hadn’t taken a penny, and his refusal to turn in his fellow pros as evidence of loyalty rather than collusion. Yet he was banned from baseball, and his annual reinstatement requests went unheard. After he died in 1956, Weaver’s family took to petitioning Major League Baseball in the hope of clearing his name. As of this time, Weaver is still persona non grata as far as the baseball authorities are concerned; even the passage of time has been incapable of removing the dark stain of the Black Sox.

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Richard Luck is a feature writer, critic and author specialising in film, music and sport. A San Diego Padres fan, he is a regular contributor to The New European and has written for Esquire, Empire and Inside Sport.