From the dead ball era of the early 1900s to whatever you want to call the era Dock Ellis threw his LSD no-hitter in to the steroid era that featured Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire, United States professional baseball has evolved unfathomably throughout history.
America’s Pastime has survived strikes. It’s survived wars. It’s survived any curveball or screwball Father Time has thrown at it. But one thing has always remained constant in baseball: Cheaters never prosper, at least not in Cooperstown.
Not only will some of baseball’s greatest players of all time not be enshrined in the Hall of Fame any time soon, the sport’s all-time hit king — Pete Rose — hasn’t received a golden plaque because of his infamous gambling scandal.
Seventy years before Rose bet on games, an even bigger baseball scandal — The Chicago Black Sox — rocked the entire sport and forever changed how Major League Baseball operated while setting the precedent for Rose and anyone else who broke the rules.
It also spawned one of the great baseball movies of all time, which you should totally see if you haven’t: Field of Dreams.
The year is 1919. Baseball’s dead ball era is on its way out thanks to the transcendent play of Babe Ruth, who clubbed an unheard of 29 homers that year. Jackie Robinson wouldn’t break baseball’s color barrier for another 28 years. Times were…different.
The Chicago White Sox were one of the best teams in baseball. They won the 1917 World Series and after a subpar 1918 season, replaced manager Pants Rowland with Kid Gleason. Under Gleason and stars like Shoeless Joe Jackson, the White Sox returned to dominance. By regular season’s end they were 88-52.
But on Sept. 21, a meeting took place that changed everything about their season, careers and lives.
A number of starting players gathered in first baseman Chick Gandil’s room at the Ansonia Hotel in New York. Gandil was mean, tough, strong and filled out every bit of of his 6-foot-2, 195-pound frame. Think of him as the operation’s ringleader.
The idea: To lose the 1919 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds on purpose, in exchange for as much as $100,000 (worth almost $1.5 million today) from gamblers. Rumored conspirators who orchestrated the fix included former ballplayers “Sleepy Bill” Burns and Bill Maharg, as well as New York mob leader Arnold Rothstein, Boston gambler Joseph “Sport” Sullivan and boxer Abe Attell.
Not every White Sox player was in on it. The “Clean Sox” like second baseman Eddie Collins, catcher Ray Schalk and pitchers Red Faber and Dickey Kerr didn’t associate with Gandil’s group even on the field and in the locker room.
The entire White Sox team may have been winning on the field, but it was in shambles off of it. Nearly everyone hated White Sox owner Charles Comiskey. Inducted into the Hall of Fame as an executive, Comiskey was known for underplaying players and being stingy. One time when star White Sox pitcher Eddie Cicotte was closing in on 30 wins in one season — a feat that would’ve triggered a $10,000 bonus — Comiskey told Gleason to bench Cicotte to “protect his arm.”
Cicotte also happened to start Game 1 of that memorable Winter Classic after Faber fell ill with the flu. After firing a called strike to Cincinnati leadoff hitter Morrie Rath, he beaned him in the back on pitch No. 2. That was the signal. The fix was on.
Prior to the game, press box members like sportswriter Hugh Fullerton of the Chicago Herald and Examiner and former player Christy Mathewson agreed to compare notes of any suspicious plays they found.
“I confided my information to Christy Mathewson, one of the most famous and most honest of players and managers … Neither of us believed the reports true. Yet we watched every game and every play, and in the eight games we marked as “suspicious” just seven plays. Any one of those plays could be explained on the theory that the mistakes were honestly made, as well as on the theory of dishonesty. Plainly the outsider cannot tell to a certainty.” — Hugh Fullerton in 1920.
In the fourth inning, Cicotte made a bad throw to Charles “Swede” Risberg that prevented an inning-ending double play. He went on to give up five runs that inning and finished allowing six runs over 3 2/3 innings in the 9-1 loss. Burns would later testify that Cicotte said he would’ve chucked the ball clear out of the stadium if needed to lose.
The Reds won Game 2 as well despite being outhit and making more errors than the White Sox. Chicago starting pitcher Lefty Williams lost that game and two more in the series, which set a World Series record.
After Game 5, the Reds led the series 4-1. The Black Sox hadn’t received some of their promised money from gamblers and attempted to double cross them by winning Game 6 and 7.
Before Game 8 at Comiskey Park in Chicago, Illinois, players were threatened. Williams, who was starting the pivotal game, was visited by an anonymous hitman, according to Eliot Asinof’s book Eight Men Out. He took the mound and was shelled for four runs in the first inning. Cincinnati won the ball game, 10-5, and the series.
The 1920 season played out normally until news broke in August that a game between the Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies was fixed. That led to the grand jury investigation of the 1919 World Series and a trial the following year.
Eight players were named — they became known as the “Eight Men Out” — though all were found not guilty by the jury.
Following the scandal, baseball was in trouble. The sport’s reputation was damaged and the future of the game in jeopardy. League owners decided to appoint one single commissioner of baseball — lifelong baseball fan and federal judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis — in charge of the league instead of a three-member national commission.
Landis brought the hammer down on the Black Sox. He banned the eight players from MLB and organized baseball for life despite their acquittals in court. Not only did this drastically change those players’ lives, it changed MLB by establishing the powers the commissioner has.
These were the eight members of the Chicago White Sox banned:
- Arnold “Chick” Gandil, first baseman
- Eddie Cicotte, pitcher
- Oscar “Happy” Felsch, center fielder
- “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, outfielder
- Fred McMullin, infielder
- Charles “Swede” Risberg, shortstop
- George “Buck” Weaver, third baseman
- Claude “Lefty” Williams, pitcher
Comsikey suspended his players while his team was fighting for the 1920 American League pennant, which they lost to the Indians. Gleason and each of the “Clean Sox” received $1,500 bonus checks for not conspiring.
Of course, part of Landis’ decision is controversial to this day. “Shoeless” Joe Jackson was one of the best hitters in the league and would have undoubtedly been a Hall-of-Famer. His involvement in the scandal is still widely disputed. The Eight Men Out said he was never at meetings and he claimed he was innocent until he died, though Jackson admitted to taking $5,000. He also never learned to read or write and may have been easily taken advantage of by his teammates.
Scandals are a part of every pro sport. This one just happened to be the biggest in baseball history. The Black Sox Scandal led to a single baseball commissioner, changing the World Series from a best-of-nine format to a best-of-seven, and set the precedent for cheaters and rule-breakers.
Alongside Jackson, Rose has been waiting outside the door of the Hall of Fame since he was banned for betting on games as the Reds manager. The two may never get in, but they’re just as much a part of baseball’s history as Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds.
One hundred years after the 1919 Black Sox fixed the World Series, let’s be thankful the biggest concerns in 2019 are bad umpiring and slow pace of play.