An Excerpt from 'The Betrayal'

This excerpt reprinted from "The Betrayal: The 1919 World Series and the Birth of Modern Baseball" by Charles Fountain with permission from Oxford University Press, Inc. Copyright © 2016 by Charles Fountain.

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1919 and Its Legacies

We will never know precisely how the fixing of the 1919 World Series began. White Sox first baseman Chick Gandil claimed that it was in Boston, with ten days left in the 1919 regular season. Gandil had a visit from old friend Sport Sullivan while the first-place White Sox were in town to play the Red Sox. The two men met in the Hotel Buckminster in Kenmore Square, just a few yards beyond the left-field fence—there was no Green Monster as yet—of Fenway Park. The two men talked of fixing the World Series; Gandil told the Boston gambler he could deliver the fixers; the gambler told the ballplayer he could get the money; and a dark piece of American history had its genesis. That’s what Gandil said in a Sports Illustrated article in 1956. And author Eliot Asinof put it into the popular legend in the opening of Eight Men Out, which remains the best known if also the least-reliable book on the subject. For years, before they remodeled the place in the early twenty-first century, the Buckminster displayed a brass plaque in the lobby, claiming it as the birthplace. And what bespeaks history more authoritatively than a brass plaque?

Or perhaps its first moment came on September 18, the week before that Gandil-Sullivan meeting in Boston, when the White Sox were in New York, and ex-big-league pitcher Sleepy Bill Burns met with Gandil and Eddie Cicotte in the lobby of the Hotel Ansonia on Broadway and 73rd Street and told them he thought he could get the flamboyant gangster Arnold Rothstein to finance a fix. That was what Burns testified to under oath in 1921.

It also could have started in the Ansonia the day before that, when Gandil and Fred McMullin asked Eddie Cicotte what it would take to get him on board in a plot to throw the Series, and the Sox star pitcher told them he wouldn’t do it for anything less than $10,000. That was what Cicotte told a Chicago grand jury when he confessed in September of 1920, on the day that eight White Sox became forever known as the “Black Sox.”

It could also have all begun a week and a half before that Ansonia meeting, on September 8, when the White Sox were on the train to Washington to begin their final eastern swing of the season, and a group of them got to talking about the rumors they had heard around Chicago that summer about the Cubs taking money to tank the 1918 World Series against the Red Sox. One player said he had heard some of the Cubs had gotten $10,000 each. Another one said: maybe we could get some of that money this year. That was how Cicotte, once again, remembered it all beginning when he came clean to his boss Charles Comiskey, before he went before the grand jury on that September day it all came undone.

Or maybe Eddie Cicotte was misremembering what really happened when he talked to Comiskey and the grand jury. Maybe he had not been a last-minute conspirator after all, but instead one of the instigators, and had been thinking fix as early as the beginning of August, two full months before the Series even began. That was third baseman Buck Weaver’s story; he told an investigator working for Comiskey that the first he had heard that anyone on the team was thinking of throwing the 1919 World Series was when Cicotte approached him during the team’s second trip to Boston in early August.

Maybe it didn’t all start with Cicotte or Gandil or Sullivan, but with Arnold Rothstein. According to one-time Cubs owner Charlie Weegham, testifying before that 1920 grand jury, Rothstein not only financed the fix; he conceived it, and controlled it from the very beginning, before it was certain the White Sox would even play in the Series. Weegham had heard that in Saratoga Springs, New York, where he spent the month of August, along with Rothstein—who ran a high-end gambling house called The Brook—and much of the rest of America’s gambling elite. Weegham had heard this from Mont Tennes, the doyen of Chicago gambling and believed to control the horseracing wire nationwide. Tennes told Weegham that it was all set—the Series was going to be fixed. Tennes, Weegham testified, had heard it from Rothstein himself.

Maybe it wasn’t Rothstein, but one of the other gamblers who started it all, like Carl Zork of St. Louis or David Zelcer of Des Moines. They were the gamblers indicted in the case, the ones who eventually stood trial with the White Sox players.

Another theory is that the notion to throw the Series got going in mid-July, when the White Sox nearly went on strike after their owner refused to consider their request to bump up their deflated 1919 salaries in light of the unexpectedly high attendance the Sox were enjoying that year.

Others argue that its seeds are somewhere in the 1918 season, when the government shut down horse racing for the duration of the war, and the gamblers—the big ones, the ones who ran the pools, marshaling up several hundred to several thousand dollars and then taking bets from all comers—shifted their base of operations from the race track to the ballpark. The baseball magnates— the team owners—happy to just be in business after having been declared a “non-essential industry” by the War Department, effectively ignored the gamblers, who became a little more brazen around the ballparks.

The whole thing could have had its roots in 1917, two years before the series, right after the White Sox had won the World Championship by beating the Giants four games to two, when the entire White Sox team, together with the entire Giants team, had to petition the National Commission, the organization running Major League Baseball, for the release of their full World Series’ shares. The commission had been withholding $1,000 of each winning and losing share, to ensure that the White Sox and Giants players did not violate a ban on post-season exhibitions by the World Series clubs, an edict that had been frustrating World Series participants for years and, not surprisingly, was quite regularly violated.

Maybe it was something or somebody else entirely that made it happen, persons or events that eluded the notice of ballplayers and investigators in 1919 and 1920, and have eluded the notice of historians ever since.

We really don’t know. The Black Sox story is like a puzzle with a thousand pieces. Any five hundred pieces come together nicely and make a clear picture. That leaves a lot of pieces left on the side. Fit some of the extra pieces in and those too make a clear picture, but now some of the pieces in the first picture have come out. Try to force them all in and you’re breaking off the edges, or layering the pictures on top of one another to the point where all sense of order and clarity is blurred.

We don’t even know whether the Series was even fixed—whether the White Sox lost because they were trying to lose or because the Reds simply beat ’em. The Black Sox scandal is baseball’s eternal mystery. It has villains and victims— some innocent and some not so innocent. It has betrayal, double-crosses, and a few—surprisingly few, really—people of principle and conscience who tried to do the right thing, despite the odds against them. It poses questions large and small, many of which remain unanswered nearly a century later and likely always will.

But just as there is much that remains unknown about the Black Sox story, there is much that is known and yet has been ignored or underappreciated. The story of the Black Sox scandal isn’t merely the story of a few players who tried to play crooked and got caught. It is also the story of vain and powerful men who refused to see beyond their own self-interest, even when it actually hurt their self-interest. Behind the Black Sox story stretches a long history of organizational dysfunction and incorporated hypocrisy. The scandal resulted in the hiring of a strong commissioner, though he was brought in less to clean up baseball than as a tool of revenge in a bitter personal rivalry.

And it is a story with many legacies. Governance of Major League Baseball today may be less dysfunctional than in the pre-Babe Ruth, dead-ball era, but vain and powerful men still rule it, disagreeing among themselves as to how to best divide the billions of dollars in revenue baseball generates. And modern players still fall prey to temptation. In the Black Sox’ day, the reserve clause and depressed salaries left players vulnerable to the temptation of gambling and game fixing. In the twenty-first century, free agency and hundred-million-dollar contracts leave players vulnerable to the temptation of performance-enhancing drugs. So we revisit the Black Sox story because settled history is never fully settled, and because it holds a mirror up to the game as it is played today.

Ultimately the Black Sox scandal is the story of the loss of a sport’s collective innocence, and the coming of a collective pain that has lingered for much of a century. Whether one comes to believe the accused players guilty or innocent, the perception remains that they betrayed baseball and the many millions who believed in the game’s sanctity, and the virtue and principle of the men who played it. But the Black Sox players were also among the betrayed—first by the gamblers, and later by their boss and his lawyers, and by others in a criminal justice system in which they had placed their trust.

And, as the decades have passed, there has been the growing sense that some of the players who were banished—mainly Buck Weaver and Joe Jackson, but to some degree Eddie Cicotte, Lefty Williams, Happy Felsch as well—have been betrayed by the judgment of history. Damning these men for what they did is much more convenient than understanding their reasons.

However it all began, and whatever it all means, here are the things we do know beyond a certain measure of doubt: eight members of the American League champion Chicago White Sox discussed throwing the 1919 World Series, and seven of them agreed to do it, in return for the promise of somewhere between $5,000 and $50,000 per man from gamblers or groups of different gamblers, who stood to reap many times that number by betting against the heavily favored White Sox in their series against the National League champion Cincinnati Reds. The players received only a fraction of the money they were promised. Some of the gamblers in the loop won big; others supposedly in the loop lost everything.

It has never been satisfactorily determined what any of the conspirator players may have done to lose any of the games. There are uncharacteristic plays and some suspicious moments, but over the course of nearly a century there has been no confirmation that any of the plays, however carefully dissected, were indeed deliberate errors. Most of the conspirator players—those who said anything at all—later claimed they played their best throughout. There were a few admissions about “laying down,” but these were general mea culpas; no specific, deliberate failures were ever cited.

Rumors of something crooked swirled about the Series in 1919 but were not given serious credence until nearly a full year later, when an unrelated allegation of game fixing by the Chicago Cubs and a newspaper story in Philadelphia prompted Eddie Cicotte, Joe Jackson, and Lefty Williams—victims of their own lack of guile and some ethically questionable legal advice—to confess their supposed sins to a Chicago grand jury. The confessions led to indictments, though not for throwing baseball games; there was nothing illegal about throwing a baseball game in 1919. The players were indicted on an array of arcane charges, the most comprehensible of which was conspiring to injure the business and reputation of the Chicago White Sox and the team’s owner, Charles A. Comiskey. The players stood trial in 1921 and were swiftly acquitted of all charges, to the joyous shouts of a courtroom crowded with baseball fans, and smiles from the jurors and the judge alike.

And we know as certainly as we know anything in baseball history that the day after their acquittal, the eight players, “regardless of the verdicts of juries,” were banned from the game for life by Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, baseball’s new commissioner, brought into the game precisely because of the intrigue and speculation surrounding the 1919 World Series.

While there will forever be much that is in doubt about the 1919 World Series, what is beyond any measure of uncertainty is that it changed baseball and American sport. However accidentally the scandal came to light, however clumsily the whole process unfolded, however callously the players involved may have been treated, however much it may have exposed the workings of organized baseball as inept and corrupt, the Black Sox scandal was a cleansing moment for baseball. The 1919 World Series is baseball’s tipping point, maybe its most significant pivotal moment.

Baseball and crooked baseball had grown up together, good twin and evil twin; gambling and throwing games were as much a part of early baseball as spitballs, bunts, and doubleheaders. The 1919 World Series is the moment that finally forced baseball to stop condoning the impropriety. The banished White Sox players paid not only for their own sins but for those of generations of crooked ballplayers and their enablers in the front ofice and the press box. Had the moment arrived less dramatically, it may not have arrived at all, and over time baseball might have devolved into little more than a vehicle for the betting men, a sort of American jai alai, the final score a far less important stat than the day’s handle.


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