The Black Sox: Baseball's enduring enigma

Chicago History Museum symposium of baseball aficionados debunks some ‘myths,’ but a century later many unanswered questions remain

The 1919 Chicago White Sox: top row, left to right: manager Kid Gleason, John Sullivan, Roy Wilkinson, Grover Lowdermilk, Swede Risberg(X), Fred McMullin(X), Bill James, Eddie Murphy, Shoeless Joe Jackson(X); middle row: Ray Schalk, Shano Collins, Red Faber, Dickey Kerr, Happy Felsch(X), Chick Gandil(X), Buck Weaver(X); bottom row: Eddie Collins, Nemo Leibold, Eddie Cicotte(X), Erskine Mayer, Lefty Williams(X); cropped out at right: Joe Jenkins, Byrd Lynn. The “Eight Men Out” are marked with X’s.

The 1919 Chicago White Sox: top row, left to right: manager Kid Gleason, John Sullivan, Roy Wilkinson, Grover Lowdermilk, Swede Risberg(X), Fred McMullin(X), Bill James, Eddie Murphy, Shoeless Joe Jackson(X); middle row: Ray Schalk, Shano Collins, Red Faber, Dickey Kerr, Happy Felsch(X), Chick Gandil(X), Buck Weaver(X); bottom row: Eddie Collins, Nemo Leibold, Eddie Cicotte(X), Erskine Mayer, Lefty Williams(X); cropped out at right: Joe Jenkins, Byrd Lynn. The “Eight Men Out” are marked with X’s.

By Ted Cox

CHICAGO — Exactly 100 years ago Tuesday afternoon, Chicago White Sox pitcher Eddie Cicotte plunked the leadoff hitter for the Cincinnati Reds, Morrie Rath, to open the first game of the 1919 World Series.

That was the signal to gamblers: the fix was on.

It later turned out, of course, that seven members of the White Sox took money from gamblers and conspired to throw the World Series — a scandal so audacious that it continues to fascinate not only baseball fans but many Americans and sports fans around the world a full century later.

F. Scott Fitzgerald expressed the general disbelief just six years after the 1919 Series in “The Great Gatsby” with a fictional meeting between the title character, narrator Nick Carraway, and Meyer Wolfscheim, clearly based on Arnold Rothstein, the real-life gambler who was a key figure in the fix.

“The idea staggered me,” Carraway writes. “I remembered, of course, that the World’s Series had been fixed in 1919, but if I had thought of it at all I would have thought of it as a thing that merely happened, the end of some inevitable chain. It never occurred to me that one man could start to play with the faith of 50 million people — with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe.”

Yet a Black Sox Scandal Centennial Symposium held last Saturday at the Chicago History Museum and organized by the Society for American Baseball Research debunked that one-man conspiracy along with many other theories, while preserving the enduring mystery behind what author David Nathan called “the sports crime of the 20th century.”

Why’d they do it? Did they really think they would get away with it? Were they actually somewhat justified in undermining what many perceived as their miserly owner, Charles Comiskey? And was the punishment levied — a lifetime ban for all seven as well as third baseman Buck Weaver, who sat in on at least one meeting on the conspiracy and kept silent, but took no money and played on the square — justified?

“This story is not just a baseball story,” said Jacob Pomrenke, chairman of SABR’s Black Sox Scandal Research Committee and editor of the SABR publication “Scandal on the South Side.”

“It never is,” said Bill Savage, a Northwestern University professor and lifelong Cub fan residing in Chicago’s Rogers Park.

“We love our old myths,” Pomrenke later added, “and that’s true of all history, not just baseball history.”

This story is not just a baseball story.
— Jacob Pomrenke

Bruce Allardice, a history professor at South Suburban College in South Holland, described the scandal as “a modern fall from grace,” quickly adding, “Of course, we know from modern research, that state of grace never existed in the first place.”

It never is.
— Bill Savage

Nathan called the scandal a vast subject, inexhaustible, “an unsolved mystery” involving many threads of not only the American social fabric, but frayed human nature in general: crime and punishment, myth and memory, as well as relations between labor and management.

That last subject is the hot area for much of the current research, with the trend running against the idea that the poorly paid players were somewhat justified in sticking it to their owner, Comiskey, by throwing the Series.

Michael Haupert, an economics professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, delivered an entire presentation on whether the 1919 White Sox were underpaid.

“How cheap was Charles Comiskey?” Haupert said. “Very cheap. But no cheaper than anybody else at the time.” Drawing on salary cards preserved by the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., Haupert estimated that the Sox had the highest payroll in the American League, at $111,000, an average of about $3,700 a player. The league average was $3,200. The Sox also had five of the top 16 salaries in the game, led by Eddie Collins at $15,000, second only to Ty Cobb’s $20,000, and including conspirators Cicotte, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, and Weaver, as well as catcher Ray Schalk.

“The White Sox were not a poorly paid team,” Haupert added. He pointed out that the average annual salary for a factory worker at the time was $860. What’s more, ballplayers tended to work in the off-season in that era to augment their income and routinely did so through the 1960s, before the Major League Players Association first flexed its muscles.

“These guys made good money by 1919 standards,” Nathan said.

Yet those statistics ignore that players were earning a much smaller share of baseball’s overall income than they are today. Haupert allowed that film star Mary Pickford, the most popular actress in Hollywood and co-owner of United Artists studios with Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, and Douglas Fairbanks, was making $10,000 — a week. Baseball may not have been as specialized then as it is now, but it shouldn’t be overlooked that these were elite athletes who had worked their way up through a national network of so-called bush leagues to the majors. They were the best of the best, more worthy of comparison with a Hollywood star than with a readily replaced worker on an assembly line. What’s more, Comiskey already had a reputation as a skinflint going back at least to Ring Lardner’s “You Know Me Al,” a series of “busher’s letters home” compiled as a novel three years earlier in which fictional Sox pitcher Jack Keefe has a series of comical run-ins with the real-life owner over money.

“It’s certainly possible that they felt they were underpaid,” Pomrenke said. But he too quickly added, “The players on 15 other big-league teams might have also felt underpaid. But they didn’t throw the World Series, the White Sox did.”

A slide from Michael Haupert showing the White Sox salaries from 1919. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

A slide from Michael Haupert showing the White Sox salaries from 1919. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

How was that “myth” sustained? Almost all the symposium panelists pointed to Eliot Asinof’s “Eight Men Out,” the 1963 book on the scandal that was the lone record for years and that later influenced John Sayles’s 1988 film.

“Certainly, it was a very good book, but paragraph by paragraph it didn’t make sense,” said David Pietrusza, author of books on Rothstein and Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the no-nonsense (and highly racist) man brought in to clean up the game in the wake of the scandal as the first commissioner of baseball.

“It’s still a great read,” said Bill Lamb, author of “Black Sox in the Courtroom: The Grand Jury, Criminal Trial and Civil Litigation.” “But it’s not credible history. It’s what I’d call historical fiction.”

Allardice pointed out that Asinof just plain created a fictional hitman, Harry F., who was supposed to have extorted the players to follow through on the fix — a ruse intended to implicate anyone who tried to steal Asinof’s extensive research without crediting him (monetarily, of course), because only he knew it was phony.

Pomrenke added that Asinof interviewed Chicago writers Nelson Algren and James T. Farrell, both of whom had written about their traumatic childhood responses to the scandal, and both of whom were avowed leftists sympathetic to the plight of workers — even including ballplayers who betrayed the game (up to a point). Asinof “saw himself as an outsider, as a radical,” Nathan said, and he was blacklisted for a time during the ‘50s Red Scare.

Savage cited how Asinof drew on interviews with Algren and Farrell for “Eight Men Out,” then those writers drew on that book for their later polemical works on the Black Sox scandal. Savage called that “a DNA helix of B.S.” He added, however, that these writers were key to placing the scandal in Chicago, which has always had a love-hate relationship with romanticizing corruption. “It’s as much Al Capone as Rothstein,” he said.

Many explained that gambling was rampant in baseball at the time. Allardice mentioned how Chick Gandil, the Sox first baseman and a prime organizer of the fix, had been delivering inside information on injuries and the like to gamblers for years. The 1920 grand jury that eventually exposed the Black Sox scandal actually began by looking into charges that a 1920 game between the Cubs and the Philadelphia Phillies had been fixed.

While Lamb took issue with the notion that Comiskey knew the 1919 Series had been thrown and covered it up — a charge levied in Gene Carney’s 2006 book “Burying the Black Sox: How Baseball’s Cover-Up of the 1919 World Series Fix Almost Succeeded,” which many cited as the modern-day introduction to serious Black Sox research — he said, “I need evidence.” Even so, it’s hard to argue with how Comiskey kept that team together the following year — in spite of what at very least were rampant rumors — until the scandal broke at the end of the season.

Was the punishment Landis delivered in the form of lifetime bans for all eight justified? The Chicago Tribune ran a story Tuesday about how relations of Weaver and fans of Jackson — who batted .375 in the Series and hit the only homer — were still fighting to clear their names and have them reinstated to baseball’s good graces.

“He took the money,” Savage said of Jackson, although he also acknowledged, “He lost the most,” aborting a Hall of Fame career in which he still has the third-highest batting average of all time, .356.

Pietrusza looked dispassionately but keenly at Landis’s verdict, saying, “The most important decision he makes is to ban Weaver.” It was that harsh punishment for someone who only had knowledge of the fix and didn’t pass it on that made the edict against gambling or consorting with gamblers stick in baseball locker rooms ever since.

Many panelists made the point that today’s athletes are too well-compensated to be prone to a similar scandal. Jackson took $5,000 from gamblers — almost his annual salary of $6,000 — and was promised much more that was never delivered. Tempting an elite athlete with more than, say, a $10 million salary — much less the nine-figure deals they’re getting over multiple seasons — is unthinkable, because it would be all but impossible to spread that out over wagers without attracting attention. They said it was much more likely that umpires would be involved — as with the NBA referee scandal of a dozen years ago — which is one reason why all major sports have adopted instant-reply review systems.

“Could it happen again?” Savage said. “It did,” he added, pointing to Pete Rose, who has also paid a hefty price just for betting on baseball — the sport’s most sacred taboo, thanks to the Black Sox.

They continue to exert a hold over baseball fans and all those curious about human nature and the heights it can attain and the depths it’s prone to. Savage attributed much of that to the “poetry” of the scandal, such as the newsboy’s apocryphal “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” a line generally attributed to Chicago Daily News reporter Charley Owens.

Savage said he was first exposed to the Black Sox scandal as “alley talk” in his home Rogers Park neighborhood as a boy, well before the Cubs ended their 108-year championship drought in 2016. As a Cub fan, he said, one learned to chide White Sox fans by crowing, “We may not have won in a while, but at least we never threw a World Series.”

To which, he said, Sox fans would inevitably reply, “You were never good enough to throw the World Series.”