Baseball's Greatest Scandals, #3: The Chicago Black Sox

1919 Chicago White Sox team photo via upload.wikimedia.org

One of the positives about the flood of money into the pockets of major-league players since the advent of free-agency, is that it has all but removed the possibility of further betting scandals. With the average player last year earning over $3 million, the investment that would be necessary to bribe multiple team-mates to fix a series is simply too great when compared to the potential rewards, especially as the amount wagered on baseball is relatively small, compared to other sports. There are better way for criminals to invest - that's why hardly a season goes by without some college basketball team is under investigation for point shaving.

That wasn't always the case, as we've already seen in this countdown with the Louisville Greys. But the pinnacle of such scandals is undeniably the fixing of the 1919 World Series by members of the Chicago White Sox team.

The instigator of the sordid affair was likely Arnold "Chick" Gandil, who already had a bad reputation, both on and off the field. Earlier in the 1919 season he had to serve a suspension for punching a home-plate umpire, and was reportedly involved in a game-fixing scandal a couple of years previously, paying off members of the Detroit Tigers to lose four crucial games to the White Sox, who'd go on to win the World Series that season. He told his side of the story in a September 1956 edition of Sports Illustrated, having spent the previous 35 years working as a plumber in Napa Valley, California.

He had known bookmaker Joseph "Sport" Sullivan in 1912, and says he declined an offer from the gambler to feed him information about things like starting pitchers - in those days, these were not typically announced well in advance as they are now. But in September of 1919, Sullivan approached him and starting pitcher Eddie Cicotte with a proposition:

I was kind of surprised when Sullivan suggested that we get a "syndicate" together of seven or eight players to throw the Series to Cincinnati. As I say, I never figured the guy as a fixer but just one who played for the percentages. The idea of taking seven or eight people in on the plot scared me. I said to Sullivan it wouldn't work. He answered, "Don't be silly. It's been pulled before and it can be again." He had a persuasive manner which he backed up with a lot of cash. He said he was willing to pay $10,000 each to all the players we brought in on the deal. Considering our skimpy salaries, $10,000 was quite a chunk, and he knew it.

Indeed it was, as noted above. 'Shoeless' Joe Jackson and Cicotte earned $6,000 per year, and Gandil only $4,500. Part of the lore of the scandal, as depicted in the film Eight Men Out, is that Cicotte joined the fix after miserly Sox owner Charles Comiskey stiffed him out of a bonus for 30 wins, by benching him when he reached 29. However, that's not actually the case. Cicotte made two starts after winning #29 on September 19, but got a no-decision in both. It is true his final outing was only two innings, but that was likely done to rest him for Game One of the World Series, which took place three days later. It has also been said the White Sox payroll was the highest in the league.

The pair approached other team-mates, who agreed to the idea in principle, as long as they received their payment in advance. However, before Sullivan could put the cash together, another gambler, "Sleepy" Bill Burns, approached Cicotte with a better offer: $20,000 per man for Gandil and Cicotte, as well as starter Claude "Lefty" Williams, OF Happy Felsch ans SS Swede Risberg. Both groups went to the infamous gambler Arnold Rothstein for funding. His role in the fix remains uncertain: Eight Men Out states he was one of the backers. But even if not directly involved in the fix, he certainly knew about it, and it's estimated he made over $400,000 betting on the series.

Gandil states in his account that he met Rothstein, and the plan was agreed for the White Sox to try their hardest in the opener, so as to drive their odds higher, before tanking the next four games. However, rather than receiving all their payment in advance, the players received only $10,000. Worse yet, before the series even started, there were strong rumors now floating in regard to the games, with everyone from reporter to store clerks apparently aware of the fix. This caused the odds on the White Sox to win, to drop sharply.

The Sox dropped the first two games in dubious circumstances. In Game Two, for example, Williams walked three batters in an inning, all of whom scored, having averaged only 1.8 per nine innings during the season. His wildness caused catcher Ray Schalk, not involved in the scandal, to exclaim, "The son of a bitch Williams kept crossing me. In that lousy fourth inning, he crossed me three times! He wouldn't throw a curve." However, the White Sox players, reportedly feeling shorted on the promised rewards, refused to throw Game Three, and beat the Reds 3-0. Gandil drove in two of the runs, and is said to have demanded $20,000 from Sullivan, or else the fix would be off.

The gambler came through, and Game Four was largely decided when two fielding errors in one inning by Cicotte helped the Reds break a 0-0 tie. Game Five also went to Cincinnati, but in those days, the World Series was a best of nine affair. With subsequent installments of cash failing to materialize, the White Sox took the next pair of contests to make the series score 4-3 to the Reds, but Lefty Williams pitched so badly in Game Eight, he was pulled after recording only a single out, and the Reds were champions.

The question of exactly who knew what, and who was guilty of throwing which games, has never been definitely answered. Opposing manager Pat Moran stoically believed his team was the better side, saying "If they threw some of the games, then they must be consummate actors and their place is on the stage, for nothing in their playing gave us the impression they weren't doing their best." It's hard to reconcile that with stats like Risberg's, who went 2-for-25, with Felsch also hitting below .200. But as Gandil countered, "When the doubt is planted, it is easy to mistake plain and simple boners in a ball game for acts of crookedness."

Not everyone was as forgiving. Respected baseball writer Hugh Fullerton, though lacking definitive proof, came out with a damning indictment in his column, writing, "Yesterday's, in all probability, is the last game that will be played in any World Series. If the club owners, and those who have the interest of the game at heart, have listened during the Series, they will call off the the annual interleague contest." He also predicted, with regard to the Chicago White Sox roster, that "There are seven men on the team who will not be there when the gong sounds next Spring."

In December, Fullerton followed up with a series of articles with titles such as "Is Big League. Baseball Being Run for Gamblers, With Ballplayers in the Deal?" but it wasn't until late the following season that the owners were forced to take action. An investigation into another alleged fix led New York Giants pitcher Rube Benton to testify to a grand jury about a telegram he saw from Sullivan's associate Sleepy Burns, describing the fix. When Cicotte decide to spill the beans to the grand jury, the house of cards rapidly unraveled. It was at this point that the famous exchange - strenuously denied by Jackson - allegedly happened, as reported by the Chicago Herald and Examiner of Sep. 30th

As Jackson departed from the Grand Jury room, a small boy clutched at his sleeve and tagged along after him.
"Say it ain't so, Joe," he pleaded. "Say it ain't so."
"Yes kid, I'm afraid it is," Jackson replied.
"Well, I never would've thought it," the boy said.

The grand jury brought indictments against eight players later that year, with the case finally heard the following July. 12 jurors were selected from a pool of over 600 - it appears that being a Cubs fan was sufficient to get you excused from duty! However, the players' original confessions had mysteriously vanished, severely limiting the use to which the prosecution could put them. The players refused to testify and their defense attorney Ben Short said, "There may have been an agreement entered into by the defendants to take the gamblers' money, but it has not been shown that the players had any intention of defrauding the public or bringing the game into ill repute.:"

It took only a couple of hours for the jury to finish their deliberations and agree, finding the defendants not guilty on all charges. However, that wasn't enough for the first commissioner of baseball, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who didn't hang around. The following day, he extended the suspension of the players by their team, and barred all eight men from the game for life (along with Joe Gedeon, a player for the St. Louis Browns, who heard of the scheme from his friend Risberg, and bet on the series as a result). Explaining his decision to over-ride the courts' not guilty verdict, Landis stated:

Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player that throws a ball game; no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ball game; no player that sits in a conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing ball games are planned and discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball... Baseball is competent to protect itself against crooks, both inside and outside the game.

Jackson2_medium

The questions of whether Buck Weaver and Shoeless Joe Jackson (above) were involved in the scandal or not, remain one of the longest-running mysteries in baseball. Weaver appears to have known about it, but not taken an active part (he hit .324 in the Series) and his punishment was largely due to his not reporting it - pour encourager les autres, with Landis saying that, "Men associating with crooks and gamblers could expect no leniency." As for Jackson, his testimony to the original grand jury would initially seem to leave little room for doubt on the matter:

Q. Did anybody pay you money to help throw that series in favor of Cincinnati?
A. They did.
Q. How much did they pay?
A. They promised me $20,000, and paid me five.

However, at the trial, Jackson said he was, in effect, bribed into confessing with hints of immunity, and hadn't read the statement he signed, stating "They'd given me their promise. I'd have signed my death warrant if they asked me to." In October 1949, he told Sport magazine: "I went out and played my heart out against Cincinnati... I led both teams in hitting with .375. I hit the only home run of the Series... I came all the way home from first on a single and scored the winning run in that 5-4 game. I handled 30 balls in the outfield and never made an error or allowed a man to take an extra base. That's my record in the Series, and I was responsible only for Joe Jackson."

The lasting impact of the scandal on the game was immense. It was a major factor in the appointment of a baseball commissioner, with almost limitless power to act "in the best interests of the game." And Landis's "no tolerance" policy for gambling - he banned a total of 18 players, and the fate of Weaver helped expose a number of other attempted fixes - had an undeniable impact, helping clean up the game and restore its image. But I'll leave the last words to Gandil and Jackson, speaking three or more decades after the most notorious gambling scandal in baseball history:

Aside from embarrassment and personal qualms I have never suffered any hardship because of the Black Sox incident. The doors to jobs have never been closed to me. We have lived quietly away from the news, and I have attended only half a dozen ball games—all minor league—during the past 37 years. For a good many years, I held a deep resentment against Cicotte for his initial confession. I felt I would never forgive the guy, but I think I have by now. Still, I don't believe we would have ever been caught if he hadn't gabbed.

I thought when my trial was over that Judge Landis might have restored me to good standing. But he never did. And until he died I had never gone before him, sent a representative before him, or placed before him any written matter pleading my case. I gave baseball my best and if the game didn't care enough to see me get a square deal, then I wouldn't go out of my way to get back in it... It's all water over the dam as far as I am concerned. I can say that my conscience is clear and that I'll stand on my record in that World Series.

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