Category: Archive

The Black Sox scandal

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

On October 1, 1919, Major League Baseball commenced its sixteenth annual World Series. The match-up featured the National League champion Cincinnati Reds versus the American League’s best, the Chicago White Sox. The latter were prohibitive favorites. They’d won the World Series two years earlier and fielded a star-studded lineup. Pitchers Eddie Cicotte (29) and Lefty Williams (23) won a combined 52 games during the regular season. Twenty-nine year old “Shoeless” Joe Jackson hit .351 and was one of the most popular stars in the game.
The team’s owner, Charles Comiskey, was the son of an Irish immigrant politician in Chicago. A former player and manager, he bought a team in Sioux City, Iowa, moved it to Chicago, and renamed them the White Stockings. He later helped organize the American League. His White Sox won the third World Series in 1906 over cross-town rivals, the Cubs, and the 1917 Series over the New York Giants. They seemed poised to triumph again in 1919.
But the mood in the Chicago clubhouse was far from jubilant in the fall of 1919. Comiskey might have been a savvy franchise owner who helped build Major League Baseball into the National Pastime, but was regarded by his players as a ruthless and stingy boss. On average, the White Sox players earned less than most players in the league. Even more galling was Comiskey’s reputation for refusing to pay performance bonuses unless the terms were fulfilled to the letter. Cicotte’s contract, for example, called for him to be paid $10,000 if he won 30 games. He won 29 — an astonishing feat matched by only a handful of pitchers in the history of the game — and then was benched for the last week of the regular season, presumably on orders from Comiskey to prevent him from winning #30. Comiskey refused to pay him even a portion of the bonus.
It was in this climate of discontent that a cadre of players hatched a scheme to intentionally lose the 1919 World Series in exchange for thousands of dollars in payoffs. The team’s first baseman, Charles “Chick” Gandil, came up with the idea and contacted his friend, Joseph “Sport” Sullivan, a Boston bookie. Sullivan then joined forces with a fellow Irish American gambler named William “Sleepy Bill” Burns, a former professional pitcher. Lacking the necessary money to make a killing by betting on the underdog Reds, they approached the legendary organized crime figure, Arnold Rothstein. The extent of Rothstein’s involvement remains a mystery, but it was later reported that he made some $270,000 on the Series with a $60,000 bet on the Reds.
Now all Gandil had to do was line up the right players. Pitchers Cicotte and Williams, left fielder “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, center fielder Oscar “Happy” Felsch, third baseman George “Buck” Weaver, and shortstop Charles “Swede” Risberg, along with Gandil, formed the original conspiracy of seven. Fred McMullen, a backup second baseman, later overheard the men talking and was brought in on the scheme. Gandil was to receive $35,000, and the others $10,000 each. McMullen, along with Jackson, were Irish American — not surprising, given how prominent the Irish were in the early days of baseball. It should also be pointed out that five other Irish American members of the team — Eddie Collins, Shano Collins, Eddie Murphy, John Sullivan and Tom McGuire — played no role in the conspiracy.
Everything was in order on October 1, 1919 when the White Sox took the field in game one of the World Series, which this year was to feature an experimental best of 9-games format.
In game one Cicotte and the Sox got hammered 9 to 1. Williams lost game two 4-2, largely due to an uncharacteristic lack of control. The White Sox won game three 3-0 on the fine pitching of rookie Dickie Kerr who was not aware of the fix. Games four and five, however, went to the Reds 2-0 (Cicotte lost) and 5-0 (Williams lost).
At this point, most of the conspirators had only been paid a fraction of their promised take (Weaver and McMullin never received a nickel) and they were so furious, they decided to play to win. Games six and seven went to the Sox, narrowing the Reds’ advantage to 4 games to 3. The story goes that at this point Rothstein intervened, sending one of his hitmen to threaten Williams and his family with death if he failed to throw game eight. Williams got shelled in the first and the Reds won 10-5 to capture their first World Series title.
Months passed after the Reds victory before an official investigation was launched. Comiskey did his best to cover up the scandal, but a Cook County grand jury eventually convened and in 1920 handed down fraud indictments against the eight players. It was in the course of these hearings that Joe Jackson allegedly was confronted by a group of children outside the courthouse, one of whom asked, “It ain’t true, is it, Joe?” (a quote later altered in the retelling to become, “Say it ain’t so, Joe.”).
“I’m afraid it is,” Jackson is said to have replied.
By now, realizing the threat the scandal posed to the game and their profits, the owners of the other teams hired their first Commissioner. They hoped Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis would restore respectability and integrity to the game. These same owners also provided top legal help to the eight conspirators, now routinely referred to as the “Black Sox” in the press, during their trial in the summer of 1921.
When the players were acquitted on charges of conspiracy, they celebrated, believing the worst was behind them. But Commissioner Landis, hired to restore the tarnished image of the National Pastime, reneged on his initial promise to restore any player acquitted, and handed down the ultimate punishment: all eight were banned from baseball for life.
“Regardless of the verdict of juries,” said Landis in his decision, “no player that throws a ball game, no player that entertains proposals or promises to throw a game, no player that sits in a conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing games are discussed, and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.”
All the players soon faded from public memory, except for Joe Jackson. To this day, there are groups dedicated to clearing Jackson’s name and having the lifetime .356 hitter (the third highest of all time) admitted to the Baseball Hall of Fame. They argue that he was wrongly accused of participating in the scheme and point to the fact that he collected a record 12 hits in the Series and batted a whopping .375. Given the stance of Major League Baseball in the Pete Rose gambling controversy, it seems unlikely Jackson will ever be inducted into the Hall.
And the rest of the main characters? Sullivan and Burns were likewise acquitted in their trial and both returned to the anonymity of small-time gambling. Rothstein rose to even greater fame in the Roaring Twenties and served as the inspiration for the character Meyer Wolfsheim in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby (1925) and Nathan Detroit in the musical “Guys and Dolls” (1950). He was murdered in 1928 at New York’s Park Central Hotel. Comiskey remained at the helm of the White Sox until his death in 1931. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939. The White Sox made it to the World Series in 1959, but lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers. The team won division titles in 1983, 1993, and 2000, but lost each time.
Last year it was the Red Sox who broke an 86-year run of futility. White Sox fans are hoping for a similar change in fortune in 2005 — perhaps with a little residual luck of the Irish?

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