TBT: “Say it ain’t so”

The 1919 Chicago White Sox team photo
Ninety-nine years ago Illinois sports fans watched what appeared to be an epic upset: the Chicago White Sox, heavily favored to win the World Series, had dropped the series to the Cincinnati Reds. How such an outstanding team could have fumbled away what looked like a sure-thing championship defied comprehension.

Except for one possible explanation which was too terrible to believe.

Rumors of a fix had been flying even before the World Series started. An extremely talented team, legend has it that Chicago’s American League club earned the nickname “Black Sox” because their stingy owner, Charles Comiskey, refused to pay to have their uniforms cleaned, causing them to get dirtier and darker as the season wore on. Players were frustrated with these petty slights, as well as being underpaid and deprived of bonuses to which they believed they were contractually entitled.

Gamblers, allegedly led by New York’s Arnold Rothstein, began betting heavily on the underdog Reds. Meanwhile the Sox stumbled out of the gate in the first game of the series. The red flags started going up: something wasn’t quite right.

But as suspicious as everything seemed, nobody could prove there was anything untoward happening. At least not right away.

In game one, Chicago pitcher Eddie Cicotte had a meltdown in the 4th inning, leading to five Cincinnati runs and a 9-1 victory. Another 4th inning stumble the next day by pitcher Claude “Lefty” Williams gave the Reds a 2-0 series lead.

Back in Chicago for Game 3, the Sox looked like their old selves and won 3-0. But the next day, a pair of uncharacteristic defensive miscues by Cicotte led to another Cincinnati win. In Game 5, poor defense from outfielder Oscar “Hap” Felsch helped Cincinnati to a 5-0 win and a 4-1 lead in the series (Unlike today, the 1919 World Series was a best five out of nine format).

Inexplicably, things turned around in Cincinnati. The Sox won an extra-inning thriller in Game 6, and then cruised to a win in Game 7. They were back in contention, heading back to Chicago for the conclusion of the series.

But things fell apart in the 8thgame. Williams gave up four runs in the first inning and Cincinnati never looked back: winning 10-5 and taking the series.

It was possible that the Reds had gotten hot at the right time, a feat certainly not unheard of in baseball. But a darker narrative had been lurking throughout the series, and it began to emerge with the cold winds of autumn. Was it possible that the Sox had lost the series on purpose?

The combination of the influx of gamblers’ money on the Reds and the sub-par performance of the Sox was hard to miss. By the second game of the series, sportswriter Hugh Fullerton was comparing notes and scorecards with fellow writers to scrutinize plays that seemed suspicious.

A cartoon ran by various newspapers in 1920 after
the breaking of the Black Sox Scandal
Months went by and the rumors grew, fanned in part by a series of columns throughout the winter by Fullerton calling attention to suspicious actions before and during the Series. Finally, in September 1920, as the Sox were in another pennant race with the Cleveland Indians, a grand jury was convened to investigate the allegations. Suspicion settled on eight players: Cicotte, Williams and Felsch, as well as “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, “Chick” Gandil (who was no longer with the team), “Buck” Weaver, Fred McMullin and “Swede” Risberg.

Despite the team being in a pennant race with just three games to go, Comiskey felt compelled to suspend the seven who remained on his roster. The remaining Sox fell two games short of the pennant. The Sox would not win another until 1959.

A month later, the grand jury came back with its findings. All eight players were indicted for conspiracy. Five gamblers were also charged. Rothstein was not among them.

High-rollers weren’t the only victims. Writer Eliot Asinof told of a surge of court cases on the south side of Chicago that winter concerning defaults on loans or failure to pay bills. Defendants often claimed they had lost all their money betting on the Sox.

The trial of the Black Sox began in July 1921. It immediately turned into a circus. Evidence disappeared, said to include signed confessions by two of the accused players. Deliberations were short before the jury came back with a not guilty verdict on all charges. The scandal was seemingly over, the players were cleared and expected to make their way back to the diamond in no time.

Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis surrounded by baseball owners as he agrees to be
Commissioner of Baseball, November 12, 1920
Not impressed, however, was a curmudgeonly former federal judge named Kennesaw Mountain Landis. Landis, who had been hired a few months earlier by the team owners as the first “Commissioner of Baseball” in the wake of the scandal, wasn’t buying it.

Landis had been brought in initially to head the existing three-member National Commission which governed the game. Instead he demanded virtually unlimited power and independence from the owners in order to make the reforms he felt were necessary. The owners agreed.

Landis struck like a sledgehammer. The morning after the acquittals, the commissioner called a press conference to issue his own ruling:

“Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player who throws a ball game, no player who undertakes or promises to throw a ball game, no player who sits in confidence with a bunch of crooked ballplayers 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.”

Landis reasoned that although the players may not have been found guilty of a criminal violation, they had broken the rules of professional baseball. He further determined that the league could never rebuild its lost credibility with any of the eight players on the field. All eight were placed on the “ineligible list” and banned from professional baseball for life. It was the largest mass suspension of Major League Baseball players until the revelations of the steroid era nearly a century later.

Many details of the plot emerged before and during the trial. Others took many years. The gamblers had promised the players $100,000 to throw the series, but only Cicotte had the foresight to demand his share in advance. When the gamblers were slow to produce the rest of the money, the players decided to abandon the plot and play to win, hence the mid-Series rally. The story goes that Williams’ collapse in the eighth and final game came about due to threats against his family from angry gamblers.

Gandil was implicated as the ringleader among the players and the go-between with the gamblers. Risberg served as his assistant in rounding up players to throw the series. Risberg had only two hits in 25 at bats and made four errors. McMullin saw very little action on the field and was only included because he overheard players discussing the fix and demanded a share to keep him from unmasking the scheme.

Buck Weaver in 1913
The most controversial of the suspensions were those of Weaver and Jackson. Weaver, the Sox third
baseman, knew about the scheme but did not report it. He is not known to have collected any money from the plot and turned in a star performance: smacking eleven hits and committing not a single error. Less than a year after he was suspended, Weaver applied for reinstatement, but Landis turned him down. For the rest of his life he attempted again and again to be removed from the ineligible list, but never succeeded.

Weaver died in 1956, still proclaiming his innocence. As recently as 2015, Weaver’s descendants continued arguing for his posthumous reinstatement, but to no avail.

“The great weight of scholarly research we have discovered confirms Mr. Weaver’s presence at these meetings and his awareness of the scheme to fix the 1919 World Series” wrote MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred. “I therefore decline to give additional consideration to this matter.”

Jackson’s ban is a still hotter topic, even after a century.

Not only was Jackson’s defensive performance in the series nearly flawless, he led all hitters with a .375 batting average and hit the series’ only home run. Jackson’s role was thrown into doubt by details which emerged in later years. Williams claimed that Jackson’s name was only included in the plot in order to impress the gamblers. There have been questions about how much Jackson, poorly educated and possibly illiterate, really understood about what was taking place. His performance on the field certainly did not conform with the others who were involved.

Shoeless Joe Jackson during his 1913 season
with the Cleveland Naps
Popular legend has it that a heartbreaking exchange occurred outside the courthouse when a young fan pleaded with Jackson to deny the allegations: “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” only to have Jackson either admit to the scheme or just silently turn his back and walk away. Jackson later denied the conversation ever took place and it appears the phrase came from a headline on a column in a Chicago newspaper that was later mis-attributed to the unnamed child.

Jackson has been portrayed in numerous books and movies over the century since, and efforts have been made not only for his reinstatement to the game but for his admission to the Hall of Fame. He batted .356 over his 12-year career, which is still the third-best average in history. At the end of the 20th century, The Sporting News ranked him at #35 among its 100 Greatest Baseball Players. Every player in the top 50 is a member of the Hall of Fame with the exception of Jackson, Pete Rose and Barry Bonds.

In 1999, Congress adopted a resolution calling on Major League Baseball to remove Jackson from the ineligible list and reinstate him posthumously. The U.S. Senate adopted another resolution praising Jackson in 2005. Manfred refused in 2015 to reinstate Jackson, following an appeal from the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum in Greenville, South Carolina. But Manfred’s reply was less definitive than his letter regarding Weaver: “The results of this work demonstrate to me that it is not possible now, over 95 years since those events took place and were considered by Commissioner Landis, to be certain enough of the truth to overrule Commissioner Landis’ determinations.”

His comments were similar to those made by then-Commissioner Bart Giamatti in 1989, who wrote that the matter is, “now best given to historical analysis and debate as opposed to a present-day review with an eye to reinstatement.”

The same year as Giamatti’s refusal, came another reminder of the long shadow of the Black Sox scandal. That year, all-time MLB hits leader Pete Rose was banned for life for gambling, a ban which Rose; who briefly served time at a federal prison here in Illinois for tax evasion distantly connected with the scandal; continues to challenge. The taint of gambling is so poisonous to professional baseball that legends like Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays were briefly banned from the game years after their retirement and enshrinement in the Hall of Fame when they took jobs as greeters in a casino.

The ineligible list has been expanded over the last century to include substance abuse violators, more gamblers, violators of rules governing signing international free agents, and even computer hacking to gain privileged scouting information from another team. But the most famous names on that list are the eight Chicago White Sox players who did the unthinkable and threw a World Series a century ago.