This off season, perhaps the biggest story in the baseball world has been the Houston Astros and their sign-stealing, trashcan-banging scheme. As such, and with 2019 quickly slipping away, it seems like as good a time as any—on this 100th anniversary—to remember the biggest scandal in the history of the sport: the Chicago “Black Sox”.
Imagine it’s 1919. Woodrow Wilson has his feet up on the desk in the Oval Office. You can’t get a legal drink (Prohibition), but if you are a woman you can now vote, so that’s something. The Treaty of Versailles has just been signed, ending World War I, and all participants absolutely swear that world conflict will never happen again.
In the sports world, Wisconsin athlete Curley Lambeau decides a start a professional football team and gets a meat-packing plant to sponsor the cost of the uniforms. Probably got special treatment from the refs even in those leather-helmet days. Oh yeah, and some promising young slugger named George Herman Ruth just got traded from Boston to New York. He might have some potential. Absolutely no way he’ll curse his former squad for 86 years or anything.
By far the biggest sports story of that year, however, revolved around the World Series. In what was then a best-of-nine affair, the Cincinnati Reds upset the heavily-favored Chicago White Sox. Though the Reds were an underrated squad for sure (winning 96 games and easily taking the National League pennant,) the Sox showed an uncharacteristic lack of baseball savvy in the Series. Whether throwing to the wrong base, a lack of hustle, or egregious errors, something just didn’t feel right about the whole ordeal.
Fast-forward a year later, and Chicago star pitcher Eddie Cicotte is testifying before a grand jury that he and other teammates conspired to lose the ‘19 series after promises of cash payouts from a gambling ring. When the knuckleballer plunked the first Cincy batter of the game, Morrie Rath, squarely between the shoulder blades in front of the 30,000 gathered at Redland Field, that was the sign that “the fix was in”. Though no player was ever convicted of a crime in a court of law (largely due to a lack of physical evidence), eight White Sox were given a lifetime ban from newly-minted MLB commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis, a position expressly created to manage this black-eye on the sport.
The “Eight Men Out”, as they would later become known, included: Cicotte, Arnold “Chick” Gandil, Oscar “Happy” Felsch, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, Fred McMullin, Charles “Swede” Risberg, George “Buck” Weaver, and Claude “Lefty” Williams.
Old-timey nickname hilarity aside, this was no laughing matter, particularly for Jackson, one of the true stars of that era. His connection to the gamblers was the most tenuous, and he likely only participated in the scheme because they threatened his family. As he exited a courthouse one day, his appearance prompted a line (hurled by an adoring child fan) that would come to define the entire mess: “Say it ain’t so, Joe!”. Despite a career batting average of .356 over 13 seasons, rivaling that of similar extraordinary batsmen Ty Cobb or Rogers Hornsby, Jackson would never be allowed a plaque in Cooperstown. Besides the rare appearance at the Kinsella farm, he was done with baseball and baseball was done with him.
The moral of the story? If you are a Twins fan, it might be “just another reason to never trust the White Sox” (as if more justification was needed for that). Overall, though, 100 years ago baseball had to endure what was maybe its largest growing pain. In perhaps the most ironic publication of all-time, the Philadelphia Bulletin posted the following poem after Game One of that now-infamous ‘19 Series:
“Still, it really doesn’t matter,
After all, who wins the flag.
Good clean sport is what we’re after,
And we aim to make our brag.
To each near or distant nation,
Whereon shines the sporting sun,
That of all our games gymnastic,
Base ball is the cleanest one!”
Say it ain’t so, Joe, indeed.
What has been baseball’s biggest scandal?
This poll is closed
1919 Black Sox
Pete Rose betting on the Reds
Other (please explain in the comments!)