Say It Isn’t So; Take a Look Back at the Black Sox Scandal

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By Glen Sparks

You may know that the most famous story connected with the Black Sox scandal never happened. The story goes that a kid, with tears in his eyes, afraid that his favorite team had thrown the World Series for money, races up the Chicago courthouse steps, tugs at the pants of the great—now sullied—“Shoeless” Joe Jackson and pleads to his fallen hero, “Say it isn’t so, Joe.”

Jackson, not a really articulate guy, solemnly says, “It is so, kid.” He then takes one more step toward the clicking cameras, the eager reporters and his doomed, and sealed, fate.

The story is a good one; it certainly captures the poignancy of the moment. Jackson, though, said that no one–not a crying kid, not a hotshot news man—spoke to him as the grand jury testimony concluded. Apparently, he left through a back entrance and hitched a ride home with a court deputy.

The eight Black Sox players were: Eddie Cicotte, Happy Felsch, Chick Gandil, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Fred McMullen, Swede Resberg, Buck Weaver and LEfty Williams.

The eight Black Sox players were: Eddie Cicotte, Happy Felsch, Chick Gandil, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Fred McMullen, Swede Resberg, Buck Weaver and LEfty Williams.

Actually, the jury found Jackson and seven other accused Chicago White Sox players not guilty of trying to throw the 1919 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. Only later, according to the final word of one Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, baseball’s commissioner, did the eight men learn that they would never play major league baseball again.

The Black Sox scandal remains one of baseball’s darkest chapters, and its greatest gambling scandal. (Fixing games did not begin with the 1919 World Series. Crooked play was rife in the early days of the game.) The mighty Chicago White Sox, a team with the great Jackson, the superstar Eddie Collins and the fabulous knuckleballer Eddie Cicotte, took the American League pennant with an 88-52 mark. They were a big favorite to beat the National League champion Cincinnati Reds. Even before Eddie Cicotte  threw the first pitch, though, rumors had begun circulating that the games might not be on the level.

Many of the details about the Series and scandal remain fuzzy. The games took place nearly a century ago. Confessions and grand jury testimony disappeared. Key figures never testified. The last Black Sox player died during the Ford administration.

Still, baseball people like to talk about the great Black Sox scandal of ’19. Some swear that George “Buck” Weaver did nothing wrong. They argue that “Shoeless Joe” Jackson deserves enshrinement in Baseball’s Hall of Fame, not in a Hall of Shame. Others insist that illegal gambling is the one unpardonable sin in sports. If the game is not on the level, then what’s the point? Critics contend that White Sox owner Charlie Comiskey’s miserly ways prompted Chick Gandil and others to fix the Series. Others say low pay is no excuse to play a dirty game.  And the average ballplayer made much more money than the average working stiff, isn’t that right? Any way you view it, the scandal is a fascinating tale of great ballplayers, greedy ballplayers, tight-fisted owners, a notorious mobster and a man of law whose power exceeded the decision of an appointed jury.

Today marks the 96th anniversary of Game 1 of the Series. What follows is a rundown of some of the key figures of the Black Sox scandal.

Charles Comiskey

Does Comiskey being a cheapskate offer pardon to his crooked ballplayers? That is a subject for debate, but it is fair to say this: Comiskey, the long-time White Sox owner, was indeed a cheapskate. Some say that the term “Black Sox” did not even originate as an insulting term for the gambling players. Supposedly, the team played in dirty uniforms because Comiskey liked to keep the laundry bill low. … Talk of a crooked series grew following Chicago’s loss to the Cincinnati Reds, but the grand jury did not convene until September 1920. Comiskey offered a $20,000 reward for information about the alleged plot. … The White Sox teams-post scandal struggled for decades. Following the 1919 season, the White Sox did not win another pennant until 1959. Comiskey, or “Commie,” died Oct. 26, 1931, age 72.

James “Sports” Sullivan

Sullivan, a Boston gambler, supposedly met with Gandil in September 1919 to discuss fixing the Series. It remains unclear as to who set up the meeting. Some reports say Sullivan convinced mobster Arnold Rothstein to bankroll the fix and that Rothstein paid Sullivan $40,000 to give to the crooked players. Sullivan, reportedly though, only gave $10,000 to Gandil and kept the other $30,000 for bets. Indicted on nine counts of conspiracy to defraud, Sullivan never testified in front of a Chicago grand jury and never appeared at trial. (Prosecutors named White Sox player John “Shano” Collins as the wronged party. Collins alleged that because of the fix, he was defrauded of a possible $1,784, the winning Series share.)

Arnold Rothstein

Rothstein, a mobster from New York, told the grand jury that “(Abe) Attell (a boxer and hood) and some other cheap gamblers” wanted to fix the Series and “I turned it down flat.” Other reports say that Rothstein put up the money and gave it to Sullivan. Either way, prosecutors never charged Rothstein, who built a criminal empire during Prohibition that included such infamous gangsters as Meyer Lansky, “Dutch” Schultz and “Lucky” Luciano. Rothstein died in 1928, age 48, after a gunman fatally shot him during a business meeting at a Manhattan hotel. Rothstein allegedly owed $320,000 in gambling debts.

Charles “Chick” Gandil

Known in his playing days for his defensive skills at first base, Charles “Chick” Gandil is famous today as the ringleader of the Black Sox scandal. He talked enough players, including some all-important pitchers, into participating. Gandil hit .290 in the regular season and .233 in the Series. He left baseball after the Series, supposedly taking $35,000 in instant retirement money with him (from making his own bets), $31,000 more than he made in 1919. He played some semi-pro ball and settled in as a plumber in northern California. Gandil always said he was innocent of playing a crooked Series. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1969, shortly before his death, Gandil said, “I’m going to my grave with a clear conscience.”

Charles “Swede” Risberg

Risberg liked to punch teammates, opponents and umpires. He once pummeled a minor league ump following a disputed third-strike call. Jackson, the greatest of the banished Black Sox, said, “The Swede is a hard guy.” The shortstop from San Francisco hit a miserable .080 in the Series (He hit .256 during the regular season.) and committed four errors. Like Gandil and others, he played semi-pro ball after being banished. Risberg died Oct. 13, 1975, the last of the Black Sox.

Eddie Collins

Collins, a Columbia University graduate, led the more gentile side of the White Sox clubhouse. That group included, among others, catcher Ray Schalk and pitcher Red Faber. Collins broke in with the Philadelphia A’s, who traded him to the White Sox before the 1915 campaign. He batted .319 during the 1919 season, but just .226 in the Series. Not involved in the scandal, Collins went on to play several more seasons with the Sox before returning to the A’s. He retired with a .333 batting average and 3,314 hits. The second baseman went into the Hall of Fame in 1939. Bill James rated Collins as the No. 2 second baseman of all-time in his Historical Abstract, behind Joe Morgan and ahead of Rogers Hornsby. Collins—no relation to teammate “Shano” Collins–died March 25, 1951, at age 63.

Claude “Lefty” Williams

The Reds beat the White Sox 5 games to 3 in the best-of-9 World Series. Lefty went 0-3 in his starts for Chicago with a 6.63 ERA. This after going 23-11 with a 2.64 ERA in the regular season. Supposedly, Gandil offered Williams $10,000 to throw the Series and gave him $5,000. That was still almost double what Williams made during the season. Late in life, Williams opened a garden nursery business in Laguna Beach, Calif.  He died in 1959 at the age of 66, going 82-48 as a big league pitcher.

Eddie Cicotte

Eddie Cicotte counted on his knuckleball (and a spitter) to win 208 games, including 29 in 1919. A clause in his contract offered a fat bonus for winning 30, but Comiskey ordered the pitcher benched for his last few starts. The benching angered Cicotte enough to join Gandil’s conspiracy. He went 1-2 in the Series but with a respectable 2.91 ERA. Cicotte left baseball to work as a game warden in Michigan and then for the Ford Motor Company. Eventually, he became a strawberry farmer. He died in 1969 at the age of 84.

George “Buck” Weaver

The Cincinnati Post, reporting about the hapless White Sox, found someone to cheer for in “Buck” Weaver, who hit .324, knocked four doubles and scored four runs. “Though they are hopeless and heartless, the White Sox have a hero,” the newspaper proclaimed. “He is George Weaver, who plays and fights at third base.” The praise didn’t matter. Weaver was banished, too. He requested a separate trial from his teammates. The judge said “no.” He went to a meeting of the conspirators, he said, but wanted no part in a fix. Commissioner Landis threw the infielder out of baseball for keeping quiet. Weaver, who enjoyed his best season in his last one (career highs in hits, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage in 1920) applied for reinstatement six times. Baseball turned him down every time. Weaver died in Chicago on Jan. 31, 1956, at the age of 66.

Joe “Shoeless Joe” Jackson

Jackson, one of the best players ever, hit the only home run of the 1919 Series and batted .375. He also threw out five runners from the outfield. Critics point out that Jackson batted just .286 in the team’s losses. Supporters say he was illiterate and did not understand the scope of the gamblers’ plot. He batted .356 over a 13-year career; only Cobb has a higher lifetime average (.366). Bill James ranks him as baseball’s six best left-fielder of all-time. Jackson died in Dec. 5, 1951, in South Carolina, at age 64, still proclaiming his innocence. He remains on baseball’s ineligible list.

William “Kid” Gleason

A solid pitcher in his playing days, Gleason managed the White Sox from 1919 to 1923. Suspicious, Gleason investigated his team’s baffling play and questioned Schalk about one of Cicotte’s bad games. Cicotte kept crossing me up, Schalk said. He kept throwing straight, slow-moving pitches rather than his knuckleball or curveball. How many times did Eddie cross you up this season, Gleason asked, according to an account from one sportswriter. “Not once during the year,” Schalk said. Gleason left Chicago to coach under Connie Mack with the Philadelphia A’s and won two Series. Gleason died in Philadelphia on Jan. 2, 1933, at age 66.

Ring Lardner

Ring Lardner covered the 1919 World Series for the Chicago Tribune. Knowing the Series might not be on the level, Lardner, along with fellow sportswriter Hugh Fullerton, kept a running tally of questionable plays. The resulting scandal embittered Lardner about the game. The author of “You Know Me Al” and “Alibi Ike” died at age 48 from tuberculosis, Sept. 25, 1933.

Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis

He ruled baseball with a thick mop of white hair and the air of authority. Kennesaw Mountain Landis, so-called because his father was wounded at that Civil War battle, accepted the job as baseball commissioner on Jan. 12, 1921. The former federal judge issued this famous statement not long after the jury’s not guilty verdict. “Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player that throws a ball game; no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ball game; no player that sits in a conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing ball games are planned and discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.” Landis served baseball until his death at age 78 on Nov. 25, 1944.

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One comment

  1. Pingback: Chicago Black Sox’ “Lefty” Williams Took a Wrong Turn « Dazzy Vance Chronicles

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