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Truth and the Black Sox Scandal

by Joe Serafin

In the fall of 1919, two teams met to determine who will reign supreme as the best baseball team in the world. The 1919 World Series paired the Cincinnati Red Legs (present day Reds) representing the National League, and the Chicago White Sox of the American League. That year, the White Sox were dubbed as one of the greatest teams ever assembled since the inception of the game in 1839. The Sox eventually went on to lose that Series 5 games to 3, but why? How could such a highly anticipated dynasty lose to a team in which their league was looked at as second rate compared to the juggernaut teams in the American League? Could the heavily favored Sox actually lose to an inferior National League team? Not only did they lose, they lost big. Nobody could have predicted the White Sox collapse in the postseason that year. That is, unless they had some inside information about how the Series would play out. After seeing the somewhat lethargic play of some of the White Sox players in that 1919 World Series, a few sportswriters of the country labeled it a possible fix, but was it?

Why would the 1919 White Sox stoop so low as to throw the World Series? Money seems to be the most reasonable answer, others may say revenge. Charles Comiskey, the long time owner of the Sox and one of the founders of the American League, was widely known as a “penny-pincher” and someone who underpaid his players. Shoeless Joe Jackson, one of the greatest players of all time, was only paid around $5,000 per year, the average player salary in baseball in the 1920’s. Also, alleged “fixer” and Sox starting pitcher, Eddie Cicotte, had a clause in his contract stating he would get additional benefits if he won 30 or more games in the regular season. After he recorded his 29th victory sometime around early September, he was benched for the final month of the season as instructed by Comiskey; effectively missing out on the $2,000 bonus was entitled to. In comparison, the White Sox owner was also not too pleased when he could not collect his large check for being World Series champions. Would he have even split that with his players like most owners did? Or would he have kept that money for himself in true Comiskey fashion? That is all but hindsight now, but knowing Comsikey and his business practices, one can make a reliable guess as to how that money would have been “distributed.” So was it revenge, or was it greed? The players had reasonable excuses for fixing the Series to the Reds, but the real question is, was there even a “fix?”

News of the conspiracy leaked during the last month of the baseball season in 1920. Upon hearing this news, the baseball owners of all American and National League teams congregated and decided it was time to clean up the game of baseball. Also, the owners found it was imperative to get to the bottom of the supposed 1919 fix. In order to preserve the integrity of the game, the owners sought out to employ who would become the first commissioner of baseball, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Eight players in all, including certain Hall-of-Famers Shoeless Joe Jackson, Eddie Cicotte and Buck Weaver were indicted in the 1920 “Black Sox” trial. One White Sox bench player, Fred McMullin, was eventually eradicated of all charges due to a lack of evidence. But what was to become of the remaining seven players, including Happy Felsch, Chick Gandil (the supposed ringleader), Swede Risberg and Lefty Williams, would be left in the hands of the 12 jurors in the trial.

The White Sox players were ultimately found not guilty on all counts, including conspiracy to commit a confidence game, dodging what would have been several years in prison and thousands in fines. Once again, in a court of law, the 1919 “Black Sox” were found not guilty. After hearing the verdict, Judge Hugo Friend, the presiding Judge in the case congratulated the jury, saying he thought it was a “just verdict.” If this is the case, then why are Shoeless Joe and the others not in the Hall of Fame today? Commissioner Landis issued this statement on August 3, 1921, one day after the trial had ended, “Regardless of the verdicts of juries, no player who entertains proposals to throw a game, no player who sits in conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing games are discussed and does not promptly tell the club about it, will ever play professional baseball again.” This announcement officially ended the playing careers of all eight Chicago White Sox players known as the “Black Sox.”

The question left to be answered is why? Why were these eight players banned for life even after Cook County courts found them not guilty? Did Landis have a vendetta against the accused? Was Landis trying to make an example out of these men? Upon completion of my research, I have found that Judge Landis was wrong in permanently ending the careers of none other than Shoeless Joe Jackson, and the rest of the alleged “Black Sox.”

Gambling in baseball was nothing new to the game during this time. Records show that throwing games and gambling dates all the way back to 1865 where “three members of the Brooklyn Dodgers were given $100 a piece to purposely lose a game.” These men, however, were never charged with any wrongdoing. So why was such a harsh punishment implemented on the eight players that hundreds of players had been doing for almost 60 years prior to the “Black Sox” scandal? As stated above, Judge Landis became the first commissioner of baseball on November 12, 1920 in order to restore integrity to the game. His first matter of business was the 1919 White Sox.

One of Landis’ first statements made in office was purposely directed towards the reigning American League Champions, “The only thing in anyone’s mind now is to make and keep baseball what the millions of fans throughout the United States want it to be. If I catch any crook in baseball, the rest of his life is going to be a hot one.” It seems like Landis had it out for the “Black Sox” from the get go. The truth behind this is in Landis’ statement regarding the banning of the eight players. He stated, “regardless of the verdicts of juries…” This sounds like, who cares what the law says, something has to be done to make baseball honorable again. Commissioner Landis purposely made an example out of the “Black Sox” to prove to all players, owners, coaches and umpires that he meant business, ultimately ending the professional careers of eight men.

Should the eight accused Sox players even have been on trial in the first place? An article in the July 19, 1921 edition of the Chicago Tribune proves this point. The article states that it would have been impossible for the players to break their contracts by fixing games, which their indictments were based upon. “…their contracts for the season had expired before the scandal games were played.” If the Sox players were not even under contract during the “fix”, then how could the players have been in violation of their agreements and stand trial for it? Even though the players were acquitted of all charges, including breach of contract, Landis chose to dismiss this key piece of evidence and banned them for life.

How could Commissioner Landis, a former Judge himself, rule against what took place in a court of law? Did he feel as if he was above the law? As if a trial to determine the “Black Sox” guilt was not enough? In an article written shortly after the trial ended, he claims that he felt it was his duty to rule as he pleased no matter what the outcome of the trial was. “…they will not be reinstated to good standing in organized baseball unless they can prove to me their innocence of complicity in or knowledge of the plot.” Both of these necessities for reinstatement will eventually be proved otherwise, however, the trial of the 1919 “Black Sox” should have been enough evidence to discover that the players did nothing wrong. Is this not enough evidence to determine one’s innocence, being acquitted in a court of law? So a heavily favored team lost, these things happen all the time. In fact, I am not even sure why the Sox were favorites; the Reds accumulated eight more wins in the regular season than the Sox. This proves once again that Landis had some type of predisposed thoughts about how he would handle the alleged “fix.”

Like Landis said, the White Sox players would have to prove their innocence of any knowledge of the fix. During the trial, the defense lawyers used several players on the 1919 squad (other than the accused) and the White Sox manager, Kid Gleason, to prove that none of the accused had any prior knowledge of the “fix.” During the defenses cross examination of Bill Burns, the gambler who allegedly set up the deal with the “Black Sox” and star witness of the prosecution, the lawyers discovered the supposed time that the discussion of the “fix” took place. The planning of the “fix” apparently took place in one of the player’s hotel room before practice between 10am and 12pm, according to Burns’ testimony. The question presented to Gleason was in regards to the time that the team held practice on the alleged morning that the “fix” was planned. Kid answered, “Well, these defendants could not have been in a room at the Sinton (the hotel the players were staying) between 10 and 12 o’clock that morning, not while we were practicing.”

The defense then called future Hall-of-Famer, Ray Schalk, the 1919 White Sox catcher, to the stand. The lawyers asked him essentially the same questions as they did Gleason. He admitted to practicing between 10 and 12 that morning, and when asked if all of the defendants were present during practice, he responded, “Yes, as far as I know.” So with the defense proving that all of the alleged “fixers” had attended practice during the time in which Burns stated that the “fix” discussions took place, which proves they had no “knowledge of the plot,” the only thing left to prove was that the players did not “throw” the Series by playing their best.

Who would know if the Sox players were playing at their best? The defense lawyers in the trial called several Reds players and league umpires to the stand to determine the facts of the Series and what happened on the field of play. “We expect to prove by the teammates of the accused that there was no crooked playing. We will ask the umpires if they detected anything off color, and the same will be asked of the Cincinnati players. They are the ones who know whether there was any crooked or indifferent playing and if any of the games were thrown.”

While practicing before Game 1 of the 1919 World Series, Cincinnati players did not notice anything weird being practiced or planned by White Sox players. To them, it seemed like any old team practice. “Dutch Rurther, John Collins, and Harry Leibold were called during the morning as witnesses to prove that the ball players did not notice anything suspicious about the plays in the World Series games.” Even these fellow ballplayers did not notice a “fix” was in place, the same men that played against the Sox in the Series. If the Cincinnati Red Leg players could not recognize a “fix,” could the umpires?

It is said that the most important aspects of a game are made at the plate. Also, most think what determines a game weighs greatly upon the pitcher who throws the game, the catcher who calls the game, and of course, the umpires who rule the game. So if anyone could detect a “fix,” it would be the umpires who see every pitch and every play all year long. One umpire of the Series, Billy Evans, is quoted as saying he did not notice that the Sox players were competing at half strength, if they were. Lefty Williams, alleged “fixer” had been given much criticism about the number of walks he allowed in Game 2 of the Series. “I was the umpire behind the plate in that game, and was in perfect position to pass criticism on the work of Williams. He is a pitcher who always had the reputation of working the corners of the plate, where it is most difficult for the batter to get a hold of.” Furthermore, Evans goes on record by saying that Williams’ efforts in Game 2 were like any other where a pitcher tried to hit the corners of the plate but barely missed. “I regarded the loss of that game at the time as one of the hardest bits of luck I ever saw a pitcher go up against.” An umpire, whose way of life depends on the quality of his vision, could not even spot a “fix.” So why would Landis disregard the testimony of an umpire, someone who had a first hand account of the game, and still ban the players for life?

Now knowing that the “Black Sox” had no “complicity in or knowledge of the plot,” how would Judge Landis handle player reinstatement requests? In 1927, about five years after his banning, Sox third basemen Buck Weaver applied for reinstatement into professional baseball and was immediately denied. The Commissioner’s reasoning behind the denial was almost as absurd as the original ban itself. “It is true that the jury verdict was ‘not guilty’ and that the idea apparently prevails to some extent that this exonerated you and the other defendants of the charge of game throwing. However, this same jury returned the same verdict as to the player who admitted accepting bribe money to throw the Series.” The player represented in this quote was Shoeless Joe Jackson.

The well known illiterate, Jackson, had allegedly signed a confession of throwing the World Series for money before the trial took place. This key piece of evidence for the prosecution could not even be admitted during the trial, because this supposed confession apparently had been stolen the night before it was to be submitted. This was the reason Landis gave to deny reinstatement to Buck Weaver, a non-existent confession made by a man who could neither read, write, nor sign his own name. The same man who was most publicly blamed for “throwing” the World Series was also Landis’ sole reason for not allowing any “Black Sox” player to be reinstated. Also, this is the man who batted .375 during the Series, committed no errors, and had a World Series record 12 hits, a record which still stands today, including the Series’ only home run.

Several years later in 1956, supposed ringleader of the “fix,” Chick Gandil, gave an interview for the Chicago Tribune explaining the “real story” of the 1919 World Series, essentially reiterating everything the prosecution said during the trial. The center fielder from the 1919 squad, Happy Felsch, quickly blasted Gandil for his editorial in the newspaper. “I don’t know anything about a Black Sox scandal. Everyone seems to know so much, then they come to us asking for the ‘true’ story. The true story is that I didn’t get a dime from the gamblers, never ‘threw’ a baseball game, and never intended to ‘throw’ a game.” He also goes on to say that the only reason Gandil did the interview was for the money. “Chick got a little money out of writing it. He’s about at the end of his rope nearing 70, and could probably use the money.”

Gandil’s response to Felsch’s denial makes it sound like everything Felsch said was true, that the jury of the trial was just in its’ verdict, and that Landis was ultimately wrong in his decision to permanently ban eight players of the 1919 White Sox. “Felsch is right when he says he never ‘threw’ a game. We tried to win them. I didn’t write the article for money. Yes, I received money for the article, but not a lot…I don’t want to answer any more questions about it.” So with the alleged ringleader of the “Black Sox” admitting that they “tried to win,” and that the only reason he told his “true story” in The Tribune was for money, what more proof does baseball need to allow these eight players back into the game?

Depending on whom one asks, the tale of the 1919 “Black Sox” could come across as tragic, or just. The story could also leave one feeling lost; asking questions like, why would Landis do that? Why hasn’t Major League Baseball reinstated these players? What will become of Shoeless Joe Jackson in regards to the Hall of Fame? These are questions that nobody has answers to. All of the players, mangers, umpires, reporters, jurors, prosecutors, gamblers and even the Commissioner himself are long gone, and as a society of sports fans, we are left with these questions, some of which will never be fully explained. Any way one looks at it, however, the story of the 1919 American League Champion Chicago White Sox is certainly a compelling one, “regardless of the verdict of juries.”

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