By Glen Sparks
Claude “Lefty” Williams had a heck of a time of it in the 1919 World Series. Of course, many critics say he wasn’t even trying. Lefty lost all three games he pitched.
Williams, born in Aurora, Mo., on this date in 1893, spent most of his brief big league career with the Chicago White Sox. He, along with seven teammates, allegedly took money to throw the ’19 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis, a crusty, white-haired picture of legal authority, kicked all the players out of baseball after a hometown jury declared them “not guilty” of conspiracy. Williams and the others would forever be known as the Black Sox.
The Sox (White or Black, take your pick) of Williams’ time featured some outstanding players. Williams wasn’t one of them. The 5-foot-9, 160-pound hurler threw a mediocre fastball and a decent curveball. Chicago outfielders ran down plenty of the fly balls that he gave up. The pitcher also could count on a solid hitting attack, led by “Shoeless Joe” Jackson, to light up the scoreboard.
Of Williams’ seven big-league seasons, 1919 was undoubtedly his best. He finished 23-11 with a 2.64 ERA (121 ERA+). Lefty completed 27 of 40 starts and threw five shutouts. Next to Eddie Cicotte (29-7, 1.82., ERA+ 176), he was definitely the best pitcher on the team.
Lefty broke in with the Detroit Tigers in 1913, going 1-3. The following season, he went 0-1 in Detroit, spending most of his time with the Sacramento Salons of the Pacific Coast League. It was in 1915 that Williams had his first big year, with the Salt Lake City Bees of the PCL. It’s a wonder his arm didn’t fall off. Lefty threw 418.2 innings and won 33 games to lead the league. He also finished first in strikeouts with 294. The White Sox, duly impressed, purchased Williams’ contract after the season ended.
Over the next three years, Williams compiled a 36-19 record with Chicago but with ERAs at or below the league average. Lefty’s 1918 season was cut short (105.2 innings) when he went to work in a Navy shipyard during World War I as a way to escape the draft. Jackson, Lefty’s roommate, did the same thing and only came to bat 65 times.
The Black Sox Series
Refreshed, Williams put together his big year in 1919. The White Sox won the American League pennant with an 88-52 record, 3.5 games ahead of the Cleveland Indians. The Reds, 96-44, won the National League pennant, nine games in front of the Giants.
Before the first pitch was thrown, there were already rumors about a fixed Series. Gambling was rife in sports, and the betting line on the Series was moving around rapidly. Something was fishy, and it had nothing to do with the trout in Lake Michigan.
Williams started Game 2 following a 9-1 Reds’ victory in the opener. (Cicotte started Game 1 and got hammered. He was another alleged conspirator.) Lefty actually pitched well, or at least he made it look good. Over eight innings, he gave up four runs on just four hits. Unfortunately, he walked six. Meanwhile, Reds starter “Slim” Sallee was on his game. He went nine innings and allowed two runs, both unearned.
Lefty went again in Game 5, his team down 3-1 in the Series. He pitched eight innings again, gave up four runs again and walked just two. Cincinnati’s “Hod” Eller was better, though. He threw a shutout.
The White Sox were down 4-3 in the Series going into Game 8. Chicago Manager “Kid” Gleason ordered Williams to the mound one more time, against Eller once more. This time, it wasn’t close. The Reds won 10-5. Lefty only lasted 1/3 of an inning. For the third time, he gave up four earned runs. Cincinnati, winners of the best-of-nine affair, could celebrate a championship.
The Post-Series Fallout
Details about the scandal get a big murky. The story goes that “Chick” Gandil, the ringleader of the conspiracy, offered Williams $10,000 to help throw the Series. But, Williams reportedly only received $5,000, still nearly double his 1919 salary.
Gandil’s entire plan nearly broke apart. As noted, the Series was close after seven games. Not all the players were in on the fix, and some of the conspirators, upset about not seeing any of the promised loot, began to play on the level. (Whenever I write about the 1919 Series, I like to point out that alleged cheater Jackson hit .375 during the Series, and his accused teammate “Buck” Weaver batted .324. Eddie Collins, who was not part of the plot, batted a meager .226.)
Arnold Rothstein, the real brains behind the fix, didn’t like that he was placing heavy bets on the Reds while the White Sox were keeping things close. In his book Eight Men Out: The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series, Eliot Asinof writes that Rothstein ordered one of his hoodlums, the mysterious Harry F., to put some pressure Williams. Throw the Series, Harry F. threatened. Or else. John Sayles, who directed the movie version of Asinof’s book, includes a scene just like this.
The problem is that it never happened. Asinof admitted later on that he made it all up. (Am I the only one upset about this? It brings into question the entire book’s credibility. Both the book and movie portray White Sox owner Charles Comiskey as a cheapskate who practically invited a World Series fix. The writer and director portray most of the players as victims of a penny-pinching owner. Did Asinof want readers to believe Williams was under life-or-death persuasion to pitch poorly? Maybe he wanted to give Williams an alibi.)
Williams finished the Series 0-3 with a 6.61 ERA in 16.1 innings. He gave up 12 hits and walked eight. (George Frazier of the New York Yankees would later tie Williams’ dubious record for losses in one World Series. The Los Angeles Dodgers beat him three times in relief in 1981.)
Lefty went 22-14 in 1920 with a 3.91 ERA (96 ERA+). The White Sox finished 96-58, a better record than in the previous season, but in second place, two games behind Cleveland. Williams and the others were indicted Oct. 22, 1920, and acquitted in the summer of 1921. On Aug. 3, 1921, Landis threw the players out of baseball, the jury decision notwithstanding.
Williams finished his career at the age of 27 with an 82-48 won-loss mark. He had an admirable .631 winning percentage. His 3.13 ERA (99 ERA+) was about league average. He threw 80 complete games and 10 shutouts.
In retirement, Lefty and his wife, Lyria, headed west. First, the pitcher played on some barnstorming teams in Arizona, in the so-called Copper League. Later, the couple opened a garden nursery in the seaside town of Laguna Beach, Calif. The controversial pitcher died Nov. 4, 1959. He took his thoughts about the 1919 Series and the Black Sox scandal to the grave.
(You can learn more about the Black Sox scandal by going to my Oct. 1 slideshow post on the Dazzy Vance Chronicles.)