The 1919 World Series is home to the most notorious scandal in baseball history. Eight players from the Chicago White Sox (who would later be nicknamed the Black Sox) were accused of throwing the series against the Cincinnati Reds.
Details of the scandal and the extent to which each man was involved have always been unclear. It was, however, front-page news across the country and, despite being acquitted of criminal charges, the players were banned from professional baseball for life.
If anything can be said in their favor (and not much can be) the players on Charles Comiskey’s 1919 Chicago White Sox team had plenty to complain about. Together they formed the best team in baseball (some say one of the best teams that ever played the game), yet they were paid a paltry sum compared to what many players on other teams received.
Comiskey’s contributions to baseball are unquestionable, but he was very frugal when it came to salaries and also liked to rule his team with an iron fist. The White Sox owner paid two of his greatest stars (outfielder “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and third baseman Buck Weaver) only $6000 a year, despite the fact that players on other teams with half their talent were getting $10,000 or more (can you imagine that happening these days??).
For Sox pitcher Eddie Cicotte, there was another source of irritation: in the fall of 1917, when Cicotte approached a 30-win season that would win him a promised $10,000 bonus, Comiskey benched the star pitcher rather than be forced to come up with the extra cash.
The players had few options in dealing with their owner. Because of baseball’s reserve clause, any player who refused to accept a contract was prohibited from playing baseball on any other professional team. Its no wonder ball players become bitter with owners.
To make matters worse, the White Sox players did not get along with each other. The team was divided into two factions; one led by second baseman Eddie Collins and the other by first baseman Chick Gandil. Collins’s faction was educated, sophisticated, and able to negotiate salaries as high as $15,000. Gandil’s less polished group, who only earned an average of $6,000, bitterly resented the difference.
In 1918, with the country disrupted by World War I, interest in baseball dropped to an all-time low. The 1919 World Series was the first national championship after the war, and baseball and the nation were eager to get back to “regular” life. Postwar enthusiasm for baseball soared. National interest in the Series was so high that baseball officials decided to make it a best of nine series, instead of the traditional best of seven.
Although gambling was intertwined with baseball long before the eight White Sox were accused of fixing the Series, the number of gamblers at ballparks had dramatically increased by 1919. Ironically, Comiskey posted signs throughout the park declaring, “No Betting Allowed In This Park.” Unfortunately for Comiskey, the signs were not enough. Player resentment was high and gamblers’ offers, which were sometimes several times a ballplayer’s salary, were too tempting to refuse.
The financial problems and general unhappiness of the White Sox players was persuasion enough to convince eight members of the team to enter into a conspiracy that would change the game of baseball forever and be remembered as the greatest scandal in the history of professional sports. They would agree to throw the World Series.
No one is sure (or at least they aren’t talking) of EXACTLY how the conspiracy started and progressed. It is generally agreed that the idea of fixing the Series apparently first sprang into the mind of Sox pitcher “Chick Gandil.” The “fix” probably began about three weeks before the end of the 1919 season. Gandil contacted an acquaintance (and professional gambler) named “Sport” Sullivan. He (Gandil) demanded $80,000 in cash for himself and whomever else he could convince to join his devious plan.
Gandil knew that the Chicago’s ace pitcher, Eddie Cicotte, had no love for Charles Comiskey. What’s more, Cicotte had money troubles. He was soon “in.”
With Cicotte on board, Gandil’s efforts to persuade other Sox players progressed quickly. After securing seven players (besides himself), Gandil met with Sport Sullivan to tell him the fix was on, provided that he (Sullivan) could come up with $80,000 for the players before the Series began. Sullivan told him that it might be difficult to get that much cash so quickly, but he promised to meet with Gandil again before the final games of the regular season.
Then things started getting complicated. Another gambler, “Sleepy” Bill Burns, had heard of a possible fix. He approached Cicotte and offered to top any offer Sullivan might make. Gandil met with Cicotte and Burns and announced that they would work a fix with Burns for an upfront $100,000. Burns and an associate, Billy Maharg, set off for New York to meet with the most prominent gambler/sportsman in America, Arnold “Big Bankroll” Rothstein. The fix would go to the highest bidder, if Rothstein would pony up that much money.
At first he didn’t. Sport Sullivan, meanwhile, continued independently to pursue his own fix plans. He ended up also going to New York and meeting with Rothstein. When Sullivan laid out his plans for the fix, Rothstein expressed an interest in the scheme that he had initially wanted no part of. Rothstein decided to send a partner of his (Nat Evans) back to Chicago with Sullivan to meet with the players.
On September 29, the day before the Sox were to leave for Cincinnati to begin the Series, Sullivan and Evans met with the players. Evans listened to the players’ demand for $80,000 in advance, then told them he would talk to his “associates” and get back to them. When Evans reported back, Rothstein agreed to give him $40,000 to pass on to Sullivan, who would presumably distribute the cash to the players. The other $40,000, Rothstein said, would be held in a safe in Chicago, to be paid to the players if the Series went as planned. Rothstein then got busy, laying at least $270,000 on the Reds to win the Series.
With forty $1,000 bills in his pocket, Sullivan decided to bet nearly $30,000 on the Reds instead of giving it to the players; he thought they could get the money later. Odds were dropping quickly on the once-heavy underdog Reds team, and the best Sullivan could do was get even money. After his heavy betting, Sullivan passed the remaining $10,000 to Gandil, who put the money under the pillow of the starting pitcher, Eddie Cicotte, for game one of the Series.
The players were not happy at receiving only $10,000 from Sullivan, and seven of them (only “Shoeless” Joe Jackson was absent) met on the day before the Series opener. The players decided to throw the first two games, but also demanded the money they’d originally bargained for.
Opening Day of the series was a sell-out. The game stood 1 to 1 with one out in the fourth, when the Red’s Pat Duncan lined a hanging curve to right for a single. Things went downhill from there for the Sox. The game ended with the Reds winning 9 to 1. Meeting later that night with Charles Comiskey, Sox manager Kid Gleason was asked whether he thought his team was throwing the Series. Gleason said (truthfully) that he thought something was wrong, but didn’t know for certain.
As in game one, the fourth inning turned out to be crucial in game two as well. Lefty Williams, renowned for his control, walked three Cincinnati batters, all of whom scored. Cincinnati won 4 – 2.
Before game three in Chicago, Burns asked Gandil what the players were planning. Gandil lied. He told Burns they were going to throw the game, when in fact they hadn’t yet decided what to do (remember, they hadn’t received the cash they’d originally been promised). Gandil and the rest of players in on the fix were angry at so far receiving only a fraction of their promised payoff. He saw no reason to do Burns any favors. Burns and Maharg, on Gandil’s word, bet a bundle on the Reds to win game three. The Sox won the game, 3 to 0, with Gandil driving in two of his team’s runs. His message was clear.
Gandil told Sullivan that he needed $20,000 before game four, or the fix was over. Sullivan made the deadline, but just barely. The Reds broke a scoreless tie in the fifth when pitcher Eddie Cicotte managed to make two fielding errors. After the 2-0 game, Gandil passed out $5000 each to Risberg, Felsch, Williams, and Jackson. He gave nothing to Weaver. It was clear by this time that the Sox third baseman was not participating in the conspiracy. Weaver had been playing well.
When gamblers failed to produce the promised additional $20,000 after the loss in game five, the Sox players decided they’d had enough. It would be the old Sox again, the Sox that had won the American League pennant. They took game six, then won again in game seven. With a win in game eight, the best-of-nine Series would be tied.
Rothstein told Sullivan, in no uncertain terms, that he did NOT want the Series to go to nine games. Sullivan in turn contacted a Chicago thug known as “Harry F.” Sullivan told “Harry” to pay a visit to the starting Sox pitcher in game eight, Lefty Williams, and make sure that the game was to be thrown, in the first inning. At 7:30 on the evening before the game, Williams was greeted by Harry F. when he and his wife were returning home from dinner. The man asked to have a word with Williams in private. He did.
Williams threw only fifteen pitches in the eighth and final game before being taken out, allowing four hits and three runs. Cincinnati went on to win the game 10 – 5. They’d won the Series.
Talk of a possible fix in the 1919 Series was everywhere, and continued through the fall and into the winter months of the 1920 season. In July, Sox manager Kid Gleason’s suspicions of a fix were confirmed by a friend “on the inside.” Gleason went to the press with the story, but was unable to convince anyone (because of fear of libel suits) to print it.
Exposure of the Series fix finally broke just as the Sox were in a close fight for the 1920 American League pennant. Reports of another fix (this one involving a Cubs-Phillies game on August 31) led to the convening of the Grand Jury of Cook County. Assistant State Attorney Hartley Replogle sent out dozens of subpoenas to baseball personalities. One of those called to testify was New York Giants pitcher Rube Benton. Benton told the grand jury that he saw a telegram sent in late September to a Giants teammate from Sleepy Burns, stating that the Sox would lose the 1919 Series (apparently the fix wasn’t much of a secret among ballplayers).
News of Benton’s revelations was leaked to Cicotte within hours of his testimony. A couple of days later, the Philadelphia North American ran an interview with gambler Billy Maharg, providing the public for the first time with many of the shocking details of the scandal. Cicotte quickly spilled the beans, saying that he regretted his participation.
Within hours, the other Sox players learned that Cicotte had talked. Who would be next? It was Joe Jackson that turned up, obviously after a bender, in the chambers of presiding judge Charles McDonald. Two hours after he began testifying, Jackson walked out of the jury room, telling two bailiffs, “I got a big load off my chest!”
When the grand jury finally concluded its investigation, indictments were handed down against the eight White Sox players, as well as Joe Sullivan and several of Arnold Rothstein’s henchmen. Rothstein, who allegedly made $270,000 on the 1919 Series, was not indicted by the grand jury (he moved on to bootlegging, drug dealing, and labor racketeering). Eventually he was murdered by a rival gambler. The indicted players, however, faced a trial.
The trial of the accused White Sox players (who had been suspended for the remainder of the 1920 season) began in June of 1921. The grand jury records, however, including the confessions of Jackson, Cicotte, and Williams, were reported missing (they turned up four years later in the hands of Comiskey’s lawyer, George Hudnall, who never explained their reappearance). After a month of hearing testimony, it took the jury just two hours and forty-seven minutes to acquit all defendants; lack of evidence and the missing confessions resulted in a not-guilty verdict. In the end, the trial did not answer many questions. The facts (never clear-cut to begin with) continued to be manipulated, distorted, and subject to outright lies.
After the 1920 season, not to mention the trial, there was a general fear among the owners that baseball might not bounce back from the gambling scandal. They decided to clean up their act. The three-man national baseball commission was replaced by a single, independent commissioner with dictatorial power over baseball. Federal Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis was appointed commissioner, and he acted quickly to restore the public’s faith in baseball. Immediately after they were acquitted of criminal charges, Landis banned all eight players from the game.
He stated, “regardless of the verdict of the 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 players and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.”
Landis was true to his word. Despite the best efforts of some of the players (especially Buck Weaver) to gain reinstatement, none of the eight players (now known as the Chicago “Black Sox”) would ever again play major league baseball. However, though they were banned from professional ball, several of the Black Sox were unwilling to entirely give up on the sport they loved. While some of the players distanced themselves from baseball, Joe Jackson, Eddie Cicotte, and Swede Risberg continued to play the game in outlaw leagues or semi-professional teams.
Thus is the story of the Chicago Black Sox, the most notorious scandal in the history of professional sports.