The Journal of Sports History
January 9, 2007

Eight Men Safe

How the 'Black Sox' fixed baseball

Bonds, BALCO, and steroids, those three words are the root of an unfolding scandal that is poised to shake the game of baseball. While nothing has yet been proven, three superstars, Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, and Garry Sheffield, have been linked to a criminal investigation into the BALCO drug company’s alleged distribution of steroids. Major League Baseball’s own anonymous testing recently suggested that between seven and ten percent of players tested positive for steroid use.  The issue has even reached into Washington and national politics. Commissioner Bud Selig and players’ union president Donald Fuhr have testified before the House Judiciary Committee on the subject of steroids in sports, specifically baseball. Even President Bush spoke on the issue in his 2004 State of the Union Address. The controversy is swirling the fiercest, however, around Bonds. Bonds’ links to the men who have been indicted in the case, specifically his personal trainer, have caused fans to question the validity of his records and achievements. His record breaking home runs and three straight “Most Valuable Player” awards have made him into the biggest name in baseball, and perhaps given him the farthest to fall. If proof of steroid use were to be connected to Bonds, it would cause an incredible media explosion and be one of the biggest stories to come out of sports in nearly a century. Records would be tainted or perhaps even thrown out. Bonds himself might even be banned from baseball and denied entry into the Hall of Fame. It would be bigger than the scandal surrounding Pete Rose, the record holder for the most hits in a career who was banned from baseball for allegedly betting on baseball while managing the Cincinnati Reds. It would be a bigger story than McGwire and Sosa’s race towards the home run record in 1998. It would not, however, be the first time the entire game of baseball was rocked by controversy and scandal.

In the early years of the twentieth century the game of baseball was experiencing its biggest growth in its history. America was embracing the game as its national pastime and the players were becoming celebrities. In 1910, President William Howard Taft began a new tradition by throwing out the first pitch of a baseball game. Taft later declared “The game of baseball is a clean, straight game.” The players had become idols for children across the country.  The attendance levels for all teams were continually climbing as more and more Americans latched onto the game. Industries of all types formed baseball leagues as the game’s popularity continued to skyrocket. Newspapers regularly ran articles, columns, photographs or even cartoons depicting ball players as heroes and champions of good.  The game itself came to represent morality, honesty, virtue, and even America itself. Nicknames such as “the national pastime” or the “Great American Game” illustrated this connection and even served to strengthen bond between America and baseball.  Even in 1920, despite rumors of rampant corruption in the game and even an attempt to “fix” the World Series, attendance figures nearly doubled and “money was made by every club in the major leagues.” So much money was being made in fact, that the owners agreed to extend the World Series to a best of nine format in hopes of creating more ticket sales. The business of baseball was booming. According to John Rupert, the owner of the New York Yankees, “Baseball has never had a brighter outlook that it does today.”  Indeed, the game of baseball had never enjoyed such popularity or had such a devoted following as it did at the start of the 1920 season. Even women were becoming baseball fans or even starting up their own leagues. The bright outlook would soon be overcome with storm clouds that no one had been able to forecast. All the success that baseball had recently achieved was about to come crashing down.

By the fall of 1920, eight baseball players had put not only the recent decade’s successes in jeopardy but also the very game of baseball itself. The scheme itself was simple: eight players on the heavily favored White Sox would intentionally lose the World Series to the underdog Cincinnati Reds. The gamblers who were paying for this fix would then wager large amounts of money on the Reds, thus making a large profit when the White Sox did indeed lose. Arnold “Chick” Gandil, the White Sox first baseman, had pitched the idea of a “fix” to some of his gambling contacts. Just before the series was to begin, Gandil was taken up on his plan. While rumors of the conspiracy were widespread, only four men, all gamblers, ever had direct contact with the players, Bill Burns, Abe Attell, a mysterious man named only Brown, and Sport Sullivan. Burns and Attell promised the players $100,000, while Sullivan had promised them $80,000. The payoff amount was staggering enough to impress the seven players Gandil had recruited to participate in the conspiracy.

Gandil, Edward Cicotte, Claude “Lefty” Williams, George “Buck” Weaver, Charles “Swede” Risberg, Fredrick McMullen, Joseph “Shoeless Joe” Jackson, and Oscar “Happy” Felsch agreed to throw the 1919 World Series. Everything was set and the only question left was whether the players would actually go through with it. As a signal to the gamblers who were paying for the fix, Eddie Cicotte pitched to the first batter of the series and struck Cincinnati’s Rath in the middle of his back. The fix would go ahead as planned.

Money became the determining factor of each series game. The “Black Sox”, as the recent White Sox teams had become to be known, lost the first two games as promised. When the players did not receive as much money as promised they began to play the games to win. After more money was delivered, the players involved in the “fix” began to play to lose once again. Eventually, in the eighth game of the series, the White Sox came through on their end of the deal and lost their fifth game of the series. The underdog Reds had felled the once might White Sox.

When all was said and done, Chick Gandil, who had come up with the idea and planned the whole fix, kept $35,000 for himself. The most any other player received was Risberg’s $15,000 ahead of Cicotte’s $10,000. Buck Williams was paid nothing as he had tried to distance himself from the conspiracy. Jackson, Williams, Felsch, and McMullin all settled for a mere $5,000, ironically the same amount that the players from the winning team ended up receiving from their share of the attendance records. Essentially, those four players threw the series merely for an extra $3,254, the amount the players on the losing team received from tickets sales.

After the disastrous series, the talk of a fix continued to run rampant. With so many different people involved in the plot it was hardly kept secret. The public had been so aware of the fix that the betting odds dropped to even money or even favored the Reds! Talk, however, is only talk and nothing ever came of it. Most people did not believe the rumors. Retired pitcher, turned sports writer, Christy Mathewson had written that the “punch of [the] Reds [had been the] deciding factor” and that the Reds “have earned this title.” Even the box score for the series, while exhibiting some peculiar numbers, showed that Chicago scored more runs off errors than the Reds. The fact that the Sox’s errors had resulted in fewer runs than Cincinnati’s errors had suggested there was little truth to the rumors of a “fix”. Many believed the rumors were merely sour grapes on the part of White Sox fans and held no truth whatsoever. But, not everyone was in the dark about the fix. The White Sox owner, Charles Comiskey, had become aware of the fix and knew that the talk was true. Fearing the results, however, Comiskey did nothing. In fact he went on a mission to dispel the ugly rumors of a fix. He offered a $20,000 reward to anyone who could prove that there had been any wrongdoing by his ball club. This offer of a reward provided Comiskey with even more evidence through the various stories he was told. He continued to cover up the conspiracy and certainly would never actually pay out the reward. Comiskey’s efforts appeared to have worked until several incidents involving thrown games or false news reports surfaced and drew the public’s ire. After the Chicago Tribune ran an article demanding that a grand jury be convened the floodgates finally opened. On 7 September 1920, the Cook County Grand Jury began its investigation into the allegations of crookedness in the game of baseball.

After starting off slowly, the Grand Jury proceedings became a media feeding frenzy when the 1919 World Series became the focus of inquiry. When Eddie Cicotte was cornered into testifying by American League President, Ban Johnson, the biggest story to ever come out of sports began to unfold. Cicotte told the Grand Jury everything he knew in regards to the fix. He gave them the names of all the players involved and as many names of the gamblers as he knew. Joe Jackson was also called in to testify. Jackson insisted that despite taking $5,000 he “played every game to win”. He did not deny, however, the existence of a conspiracy or his knowledge of it and gave further confirmation to the accuracy of Cicotte’s testimony. Jackson’s testimony was the final straw in the court of public opinion. If “Shoeless” Joe Jackson admitted to participating in the fix then how could anything in the game of baseball be trusted? This sentiment even led to the coining of a famous phrase “Say it ain’t so, Joe” to which Jackson reportedly answered “I’m afraid it is.” Jackson, however, continually asserting his innocence, insists the incident and phrase was made up and never actually happened. Newspapers all across the country headlined the story of the eight White Sox players who threw the World Series. The many articles, columns, pictures and cartoons that had once hailed ball players and praised their skill were now being replaced by press that damned, condemned, and lamented the underhanded actions of the once beloved players. Headlines no longer used words like “champions” or “heroes” to depict the players, rather words such as “crooked” became the norm.

All innocence and virtue that the game once stood for had been lost. The fans, sports writers, players and the game itself had all been stung by this controversy. The game of baseball was no longer the clean game that President Taft had spoken of. Children saw their indicted heroes in court smiling and were disgusted. In the eyes of many fans the game had been given a black eye by this gambling scandal. Countless cartoons and columns addressing the scandal appeared in papers across the country. A column printed in the New York Times stated that “The public no longer trusted the game’s fairness and ‘honesty of endeavor’.” A cartoon, published in an East Saint Louis paper, depicts the “crooked players” running side by side with the “baseball gamblers,” out of the “temple” that was baseball. Tellingly, this cartoon was not even placed in the Sports section of the paper! The scandal had become a national problem that affected the country’s general population. Entire pages in prominent newspapers were dedicated to commentary about the problems facing the national pastime. Writer William L. Chenery authored an article that outlined “Why Gambling and Baseball are Enemies.” The existence of these, and many other similar documents, as well as their placement within the newspapers, illustrate the outrage the scandal had created, not only in the sports world, but in the general public as well.

If the players had been scorned and lambasted, gamblers, specifically those who bet on baseball, had become despised. In the cartoon mentioned above, the gambler is shown clutching a large bag of money. Another cartoon depicts two separate scenes in order to comment on the scandal. The first scene shows people labeled “Fixed Players Banished from the Game Forever” walking out of the scene into darkness. Another player labeled “Stung Magnates and Square Players” points the previous players towards their exit while holding his head in his hand. A judge is holding a paper with “Indictment against Players Caught in Baseball Gambling Probe” written on it for all to see. “Stung Fans” and “Stung Newspapers and Sport Writers” dejectedly stand near the judge’s bench. The second scene shows three men sitting at a table enjoying wine with a bag labeled “the Dough” at their feet. This powerful imagery depicted the players almost sympathetically as “weak tools” while the gamblers are portrayed as villainous fat-cat, rich men who “pulled the dirty deal” and “got away with it.”

While many people viewed this scandal as dangerous the existence of the entire game, others had a more optimistic outlook. Columnist Will Chenery described the scandal almost as a cleansing by fire, as did Yankees owner John Ruppert, whom Chenery quotes extensively in his article. Both men believe the scandal will allow baseball to eliminate all elements of gambling from the game, thus leaving the game in a better position than before the scandal broke. A commentary which appeared in the New York Times states that “The game itself will suffer temporarily as a result of the public’s confidence being shaken, but the sport will thrive under cleaner conditions.” Many believed that the prominent status the game had gained would allow it to recover from the shocking scandal that currently gripped it. Even the negative or critical cartoons, while showing baseball getting a black eye, did not show the game dieing off completely. Baseball, supporters argued, would recover and heal from the wounds inflicted by the “Black” Sox and their 1919 World Series performance.

Any modern baseball fan when asked about the Chicago “Black” Sox would be able to tell you that they threw the World Series. Why is this single event so well remembered? What made this scandal so much worse than any other sports controversy? Why is this remembered better than any blown call or last minute shot or dramatic home run? The scandal surrounding the 1919 World Series was the most spectacular scandal ever to hit sports because it affected more than just baseball, more than just sports, it affected the nation. It had stripped the game of baseball of its innocence and betrayed the trust of countless number of fans. The game of baseball, the “kids’ game”, the “clean, straight game”, had been dealt what appeared to be a “murderous blow.” The proverbial “temple” of baseball, and everything the game stood for, had been defiled and “besmirched.” The players who had once been viewed as heroes, or even modern day gladiators, were now seen as traitorous “Benedict Arnolds.” The game America had come to adore had been dishonored and changed forever. The scandal called into question not only the game of baseball but all the virtues the game had once stood for. The public and media which had latched onto the game of baseball, embraced it, and called it the national pastime, had been wronged and lashed out. They turned all the passion they had once had for the game, towards the “dirty” players, the gamblers, and even the game itself. The game did indeed eventually rebound and reclaim its position as America’s sport and our national pastime. Millions of fans now attend games each year, but the public’s innocence and unquestioning confidence for the game had been destroyed forever in 1919 by something ironically called a “fix.”

© 2007 The Journal of Sports History