The scandalous Black Sox, can it happen again?
As the country recovered from World War I, with labor strikes, race riots, anti-immigration sentiments, Prohibition and other forms of social upheaval, could there be anything else to knock the wind out of even the most determined optimist? There was, and it came in the fall of 1919 when a group of players on the Chicago White Sox conspired to lose the World Series to the underdog Cincinnati Reds.
That scandal — which forever changed the sport of baseball in many ways — is the subject of the next installment of the Scholarly Series, Sex, Scandal and Upheaval — 1919: What’s Changed?, Sunday, March 10, 4 to 5:30 p.m., at Wilton Historical Society, 224 Danbury Road. The series is presented by the historical society and Wilton Library. The Bulletin is the media sponsor. Registration is required to attend the talk. Visit wiltonlibrary.org or call 203-762-6334.
Veteran sports writer Steve Wulf, now a senior writer at ESPN, will discuss one of the blackest periods in sports history. Fascinated with the episode since his youth, as a teenager Wulf read the book Eight Men Out by Eliot Asinof, which chronicles the scandal, and as a college student replayed the Series over and over to see if the Reds could legitimately beat the White Sox. “They couldn’t,” he told The Bulletin.
It’s not hard to understand why. “Shoeless” Joe Jackson hit .375 in the Series and Buck Weaver batted .324, both conspirators to some degree.
Asked if he thought the social unrest and major labor strikes of 1919 contributed to the scandal, Wulf said yes.
“The White Sox had won the World Series in 1917,” just as the U.S. was getting into World War I. “The 1919 World Series was at the end of World War I. America was kind of wild and wooly again and the White Sox were part of that,” he said.
As it is with almost every form of corruption, money was at the root of the scandal. White Sox owner Charles Comiskey was widely known as a skinflint, to the point where he charged the players for cleaning their uniforms. (Many believe the name Black Sox is derived from the team’s dirty uniforms, since most players refused to pay Comiskey to clean them.)
Star pitcher Eddie Cicotte was promised a $5,000 bonus if he won 30 games. He won 29, after being benched for several games, and Comisky denied him his bonus. Cicotte was not making much more than $5,000 a year, Wulf said.
Cicotte was not alone in being underpaid and their meager salaries left some players open to the influence of gamblers. Added to that, a league rule was changed for the 1919 Series. Players on the winning team had previously shared in the gate receipts, but that year it was decided they would receive a set bonus, less than previous years.
According to baseball-reference.com, it is believed there was a two-pronged conspiracy. The first part involved Boston gambler Joseph “Sport” Sullivan, and the second, retired pitcher “Sleepy” Bill Burns and his partner Billy Maharg, a former professional boxer. They were approached by one or two White Sox players — first baseman Arnold “Chick” Gandil and/or Cicotte.
Both sets of gamblers approached infamous New York gambler Arnold Rothstein to provide money for the players.
Six other players were in on the fix, although to varying degrees: pitcher Claude “Lefty” Williams, outfielders Jackson and Oscar “Happy” Felsch, and infielders Swede Risberg, Weaver and Fred McMullin. They were promised $100,000, which they never received in total. The only player to gain to any great degree financially was Cicotte, who demanded $10,000 up front.
The plot to throw the Series was not a well-kept secret. Players, gamblers and sportswriters often frequented the same hotels, bars and other hangouts. Hugh Fullerton of the Chicago Herald and Examiner and ex-player and manager Christy Mathewson smelled a rat even before the first game. Fullerton later said he approached Comiskey with his suspicions, who dismissed them.
Baseball was a wildly popular sport in the early 20th century and so the Series was best of nine games, instead of the best of seven it is today. The Reds ultimately won five games to three.
Major league baseball, which was overseen by the two leagues — American and National — tried to squelch any rumors of a fix, but there was an eventual investigation with a grand jury convened in 1920. Cicotte, Jackson and Williams confessed to their roles and the eight players were tried. All were acquitted, but their careers were over.
Federal Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who oversaw the investigation, was named the first commissioner of baseball and he banned all eight players from the sport for life. Landis continued to take a very hard stand against gambling and established rules for baseball that are still in force.
The 1919 World Series was not the first time a ball game had been thrown, but it was the most high-profile.
“It made a huge impact, but everybody seemed to know what was going on,” Wulf said. “When you read the book, it becomes clear everyone knew it was happening.
“None of the players got the money they thought they were going to get,” Wulf said. “You can feel a certain sympathy for them because they were underpaid. It doesn’t take much to throw a game. If you come up just short on a fly ball, cut off a throw you shouldn’t, miss a throw … ”
The scandal, the court case and appointment of a commissioner resulted in a stop to gambling, for a time. “There have been rumors of players gambling on games throughout history, Pete Rose being the most prominent,” Wulf said.
Although players make far more money today than they did in 1919, Wulf sees a parallel with a century ago. The Supreme Court ruled last year that states beyond Nevada may offer legalized sports betting.
“It’s kind of a big link, if they’re allowing the game to be associated with sports betting,” he said of baseball. “You can bet on baseball but we don’t want our players to do it.”
Gambling today is very complicated, with many options to choose from besides the outcome of a game.
“Players see owners getting money in a different way. They are playing so Major League Baseball can get richer off legalized gambling. It’s an added income stream for baseball. Players are asking, ‘how do we get part of that?’” he said. “Corruption. That’s my concern.”