On September 28, 1920, Eddie Cicotte, Lefty Williams, Joe Jackson, and Happy Felsch admitted to a grand jury that they had thrown the 1919 series in return for a bribe. The grand jury would indict eight White Sox players on charges of fixing previous season’s World Series against the Reds. The eight members involved in the Black Sox Scandal would go on to be cleared of the charges, but they would be banned for life from baseball by Kenesaw Mountain Landis, baseball’s first commissioner.
“Shoeless” Joe Jackson. Eddie Cicotte. Buck Weaver. Claude “Lefty” Williams. Fred McMullin. Arnold “Chick” Gandil. Oscar “Happy” Felsch. Charles “Swede” Risberg.
These are the men known today as the “Black Sox.” Accused of deliberately throwing the 1919 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds, these men were tried and acquitted of criminal charges. Unfortunately for them, however, acquittal was not enough to save their careers. They were banned from baseball for life.
Having acquired outfielder Joe Jackson, second baseman Eddie Collins, and centerfielder Happy Felsch in 1915, the Chicago White Sox had put together one of the most successful teams in baseball. They won the 1917 World Series, and during the 1919 season had the best record in the American League. They won the AL pennant and were the favorite to win the nine-game World Series.
Surrounded by so much success and promise, what could possibly possess these players to even consider throwing away the championship series? It has been suggested that the reason lies with the White Sox founder and then-owner, Charles Comiskey. A lot of professional ballplayers during this period were underpaid (especially according to today’s standards), and this was particularly the case with the White Sox. In spite of his dedication to and success in building a strong baseball team, Comiskey was notoriously stingy.
During this period, players were bound to their teams by the “reserve clause,” which forbade them from switching teams without the owner’s permission. As a result, players had no leverage when it came to negotiating their salaries. Comiskey took full advantage of these circumstances, dishing out as little as possible as far as player salaries and team management. For example, on top of their low wages, Comiskey required players to pay for the laundering of their uniforms. When the team protested by refusing to wash their uniforms, allowing them to grow dirtier and dirtier for several weeks, Comiskey responded by removing the uniforms from their lockers and fining the players.
Then, on 18 September 1919, White Sox first baseman Arnold “Chick” Gandil met with gambler Joseph “Sport” Sullivan, who convinced him that the World Series could be “bought,” and that such a fix could prove to be immensely profitable. It wasn’t long before Gandil was joined in the plot by the other members of what would be known as the “Black Sox.” Those involved in the scandal had salaries of $6,000 or less, which was at the low end for a team that was already underpaid overall. It’s not hard to see how these players could be drawn into such a scheme, in spite of its illegality.
The gamblers are said to have bet nearly half-a-million dollars in favor of the Reds winning the Series while agreeing to pay the eight White Sox players $100,000 to split. Once divided, that meant that each player would take home two to three years’ worth of pay.
Naturally, the players hoped that the arrangement would remain a secret, but a large number of people were involved just to make the plan work, and as folks hinted to their friends about who to bet on, word quickly spread. When the World Series concluded, rumors and complaints ran rampant in protest against the “fixed” World Series. By the end of 1920, the “Black Sox” nickname had become well-known, and the players were indicted. The trial proved to be a bit of a circus, however, as evidence went missing and testimonies blurred the story more than they cleared things up. The players were cleared of criminal charges.
In spite of their acquittal, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who was charged with investigating the scandal and became the first Commissioner of Baseball, was not entirely convinced of the Black Sox’s innocence. In a statement, he declared,
“Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player who throws a ballgame, no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ballgame, no player that sits in conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing a game are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.”
The players were banned for life. Most of the Black Sox confessed to their involvement in the scandal (it is unclear as to how many actually did so), but on behalf of one who did not, controversy sprang up. Joe Jackson’s involvement in throwing the Series continues to be a topic of many debates among baseball fans. Jackson hit .375 during the Series, which certainly goes against the idea that he was intentionally playing below his ability. Some have argued that Jackson’s best games of the Series were the ones that the players were not intentionally trying to lose anyways. According to some reports, Jackson did make an effort to back out of the fix, but still collected $5,000 at some point during the Series.
Without a doubt, the Black Sox scandal had a negative impact on baseball’s image. Landis’s decision to ban the players, followed by a crusade he led against gambling of any kind in baseball, helped to regain the confidence of fans and restore baseball’s place in American culture. Nevertheless, it is an event that has and will continue to live on in the minds and hearts, not just of baseball fans, but of American history in general.
Everstine, Eric W. “1919 World Series: Black Sox Scandal.” Montgomery College. Gaithersburg, Maryland, 1998. Web. Accessed 19 July 2013. http://www.montgomerycollege.edu/Departments/hpolscrv/blacksox.htm
Fleitz, David. “Shoeless Joe Jackson.” SABR Biography Project. Society for American Baseball Research. 2013. Web. Accessed 20 July 2013. http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/7afaa6b2
Linder, Douglas. “Famous American Trials: The Black Sox Trial, 1921.” University of Missouri – Kansas City (UMKC) School of Law. 2010. Web. Accessed 18 July 2013. http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/blacksox/blacksox.html
“The Black Sox.” The Chicago Historical Society. 1999. Web. Accessed 18 July 2013. http://chicagohs.org/history/blacksox.html