Myths and facts not commonly known about the Black Sox Scandal

Eight of the 1919 Chicago White Sox gained infamy for involvement in throwing the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds, who were the underdogs. Their names were “Chick” Gandil, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, Fred McMullin, “Buck” Weaver, “Happy” Felsch, “Lefty” Williams, Eddie Cicotte and “Swede” Risberg.

However, it didn’t go down the way many assume.

Facts:

There were only supposed to be seven players involved. Fred McMullin, a substitute infielder who fielded well and hit meh, overheard the talk and threatened to rat if he wasn’t cut in. He only got to bat twice, both times pinch hitting, with one base hit for a .500 average.

Most were stars. McMullin was the only scrub involved. Gandil was a fine-fielding, good-hitting first baseman. Jackson’s hitting is a thing of fable and fame, and he wasn’t bad with the leather either. Weaver could hit and field third base very well. Felsch was a great hitter, especially in the clutch, but as a center fielder he was lockdown with a rifle arm. Williams was one of the league’s best pitchers. At his best, Cicotte’s array of pitches could give the league’s best hitters fits. Risberg was a decent-hitting young shortstop with good range, a future star.

The overall effect of the ban seems to have been to allow the public to believe what it wanted: that the rot was all excised, that the grand old game (which, remember, wasn’t that old) was ‘clean.’ This might explain why, in the late 1920s, Commissioner Landis wasn’t eager to have another scandal involving Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker. Imagine the damage that would have done–including making Landis look less effective.

It’s unlikely there’d have been a fix if ‘Commy’ hadn’t been the worst cheapskate in baseball. Sox owner Charles Comiskey (yes, the ballpark’s namesake) had some of baseball’s best players and paid them very poorly, knowing that the reserve clause prevented them from becoming free agents. It may be a myth that Comiskey rigged matters to keep Cicotte from winning thirty games and getting a big bonus in 1918, but the problem here is that even if it’s not true, anyone who knows much about Comiskey would believe him capable of such.

The real injustice is not that “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and his .3558 lifetime batting average (behind only Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby) aren’t in the Hall of Fame. The real injustice is that Comiskey, who had good evidence the fix was in and covered it up, is in the Hall–and was never banned. Then as now, if you were rich enough, you could get away with anything. Puta la madre, puta la hija.

Comiskey would have preferred to win the Series, but he had greater concerns. A long series meant a bigger gate. An aggressive investigation from the start would have cost him a lot of money at the gate, wrecked much of the equity in his franchise, and done no favors for the value of other teams. It would have been the right thing to do, of course, but would you really expect a major businessman to do the right thing even when it would damage his financial interests? Here, I’ll hold the ball, and you run up and kick it.

Myths:

Landis’s draconian action largely ended gamblers’ involvement with ballplayers. It is safer to say that the bans made game-throwing far more circumspect. By the 1940s, even being seen with a gambler or organized crime figure could get a player in trouble (as Leo Durocher’s ghost would tell you).

The eight Sox were the only ones banned. Joe Gedeon, a Browns middle infielder with a very promising future, got a lifetime ban just for having known about the fix and not speaking up.

The eight Sox were convicted in court. In fact, they were acquitted. Then banned anyway, as Landis answered to no court.

Before Landis, there was no commissioner’s function. Oh, there was; it just wasn’t very effective. It was a triumvirate involving the AL and NL presidents, plus one other person. In practice, as its strongest personality, AL founder and president Ban Johnson ran the show. Johnson and Comiskey were bitter enemies, a backdrop that affected the entire investigation.

Rumors of a fix came as a surprise to anyone. By 1919, there were such rumors of some sort every fall, with scattered showers of gambling scuttlebutt all season. The difference in 1919 was that money poured into the betting in ways that professionals recognized as contradicting the usual pattern, and the odds favoring Chicago began to drop. And kept dropping, as you’d expect if a Sox star were injured and with an increasingly grim prognosis–which wasn’t the case.

Arnold Rothstein came up with a plan to fix it. Actually, Rothstein–a professional gambler and urbane but dangerous New York underworld figure–was skeptical at first when minions brought the plan to him. Not that Rothstein wasn’t capable of trying to fix it; he had no scruples of that kind. It wasn’t his idea at all. Many in baseball agreed with Rothstein that fixing a World Series was problematic.

Comiskey, his executives and manager Kid Gleason had no idea of a fix until late 1920. The Grabiner diaries show that Sox executives were seriously concerned as the Series unfolded. Gleason, a man as honest as Hal Chase was crooked, knew it in his gut. Catcher Ray Schalk, watching his best pitchers tank, knew it. Gleason was literally ready to kill over the matter.

The eight were banned immediately after the Series. No, actually, seven of the eight played nearly all of the 1920 season for the White Sox–most performing spectacularly. Only Gandil didn’t play again (for anyone in MLB) after the 1919 Series.

All the best players were in on it. Hall of Fame catcher Ray Schalk, Hall of Fame second baseman Eddie Collins, Hall of Fame pitcher “Red” Faber, and standout pitcher Dickie Kerr most certainly were not. Kerr managed to win two games with 3/4 of his infield and 2/3 of his outfield at least party to the fix. There was a social divide on the Sox, and those three were on one side, with most to all of the cheaters on the other. Other capable players on the square were right fielder “Nemo” Leibold, right fielder Eddie Murphy, first baseman “Shano” Collins and pitcher Roy Wilkinson. At one point, Cicotte (normally a reliable fielder; .9415 lifetime, #278 all time) seems to have made a couple of errors himself to help the fix along.

The fixers made bank. This’ll show you how dumb a lot of bumptious 1910s ballplayers were: some agreed to fix it for less than the winner’s share–and most never got enough to equal that. Want more evidence of their full-scale dumbness? When Comiskey and his pet lawyer Alfred Austrian confronted some of them, three signed away immunity, trusting ‘Commy’ and his attack dog to guard their interests. Ha. While I wouldn’t consider illiteracy (Jackson could barely, with effort, write his name, but someone had to read a contract to him, and he wouldn’t understand half the words) to equal dumbness, it sure looks like Weaver, Jackson and Felsch were of below average brainpower.

All eight actually threw the Series. There is good reason to believe that Buck Weaver was never in on the fix, and played to win. The hard part here is judging effort and timing without video evidence, and eyewitness accounts differ. However, it looks as if Jackson played to win. Gandil, by all accounts the ringleader and a cold-blooded customer, may not have. Williams’ and Cicotte’s pitching looks questionable, to go by their catcher’s opinion (and this old catcher naturally tends to trust a brother backstop). Risberg, who like Gandil evidently had a streak of thug in him, may have thrown it for real. Felsch is a question mark. McMullin hardly had the opportunity.

All the games were fixed. For one thing, the Sox won three games, so that’s doubtful. For another, most of the money never came through as promised game by game, so even players who had agreed to the sordid deal quickly became disgruntled. Some never got a dime.

In reality, we do not know and cannot know who played crooked, nor how often. We do know that Chicago was originally favored for reasons of superior talent backed by statistics, and lost to Cincinnati five games to three. And at least some of the Sox were, for some games, in the tank.

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2 thoughts on “Myths and facts not commonly known about the Black Sox Scandal”

  1. Thanks for clarifying one of the most interesting (yes, interesting!–even to those of us who don’t care a fig about baseball) episodes in professional sports history. I sat through a History channel program on this topic and learned almost nothing compared to this readable, info-packed write up.

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    1. Thank you kindly, Mike. It is one of those sports events with overall social implications, including the unions vs. bosses vibe of the era (Felsch’s dad was an ardent Socialist labor activist). It was a product of the climate of the day.

      Like

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