Sunday, October 13, 2019

Flashback, October 1919: ‘Black Sox’ Scandal Marks Change in Baseball

When the Cincinnati Reds won their best-of-nine in the World Series against the Chicago White Sox, few fans could have imagined that the contest would still be remembered a century later. But then again, few would have thought that America’s Pastime could be tarnished by gamblers and players willing to “throw” the games.

The “Black Sox” scandal, for all intents and purposes, represents a dividing line between early baseball and how it would be played throughout the rest of the 20th century. Baseball had been touched by gambling before, but never had a substantial part of any team been so complicit nor the stakes so high.

A full narrative of this black mark on the game is beyond the scope of a limited blog post such as this one. Suffice it to say that it richly earned the description by Douglass Wallop, best known for the novel The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant (quickly adapted into the hit Broadway musical Damn Yankees): “a labyrinth, an incredible maze of double-crosses upon double-crosses, of broken promises, of guileless stupidity among the players, of artful, cruel deceit among those who manipulated them—gamblers, baseball executives, and public officials alike."

Not long after the end of the series, White Sox owner Charles Comisky got wind of the scheme. But rather than dismantle a potentially championship squad, he only chose to punish the plot’s ringleader on the team, Chick Gandil, by him a contract without a raise. The others in on the scheme were also offered raises, with three—including the team’s best hitter, “Shoeless Joe” Jackson—given large ones.

Long-festering suspicions, initially fanned by Chicago sportswriter Hugh Fullerton, were given renewed force late in the 1920 season, when another betting scandal on a meaningless August Chicago Cubs-Philadelphia Phillies game prompted an inquiry into events from the year before. After weeks of stories that violated the cardinal rule of grand-jury secrecy, indictments were handed down against the eight players that the press had taken to calling “the Black Sox.”

By that time, the scandal compelled team owners previously reluctant to act against gamblers on their teams lest it harm their squads to establish the office of commissioner, or “czar,” of baseball to reestablish trust in the game. For the next two decades, the job was filled by Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, a judge highly regarded for his integrity who also happened to be a Chicago Cubs fan.

The acquittal of the Chicago eight might have led other people to reinstate them, however reluctantly. But expulsions of players in the minor-league Pacific Coast League in another betting scandal—individuals who had also escaped conviction—gave Landis the precedent he needed to banish the Black Sox for life.

Landis’ stated religious and political views predisposed him against anyone involved with gambling, but ambiguous circumstances could allow him room to maneuver. After credible reports emerged that future Hall of Famers Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker had conspired to throw a game between their teams in 1919, Landis ruled that the pitcher making the accusation was driven by a personal grudge, and Cobb and Speaker were allowed to finish their careers. It is interesting to note, however, that neither player—each blessed with considerable knowledge of the game—ever served in their retirement as either a manager or front-office executive.

Owners might have sometimes chaffed against the complete autonomy they had been forced to give Landis when they hired him, but his integrity allowed the game to benefit from the explosion of interest in the game that followed the emergence of Babe Ruth as an everyday slugger. After his death, none of his successors would be allowed to operate so independently, and the commissioner’s office increasingly became a tool of the owners.

The fallout of the scandal was such that betting on baseball—and, by extension, association with gamblers—became, in effect, the specter haunting the sport. Just how damaging that could be was seen in 1989, when Pete Rose ended up banned from the sport for betting on the team he managed, the Cincinnati Reds.

Even before that, the baseball community shuddered when Commissioner Bowie Kuhn suspended the Detroit Tigers’ Denny McLain for half the season for participating in a bookmaking operation. 

Kuhn’s statement to the contrary, it also appeared that the outcome of the 1967 American League campaign—a pennant race in which the Tigers lost to the Boston Red Sox—may have been affected when a mobster broke the two-time Cy Young Award winner’s toes, sidelining him for the crucial last few weeks of the season.

The cultural impact of the “Black Sox” scandal was also considerable. Since the late 1980s, audiences have focused squarely on the tarnished World Series through two film adaptations: John Sayles’ Eight Men Out (from a nonfiction account by Eliot Asinof) and Kevin Costner’s Field of Dreams (from W. P. Kinsella's novel Shoeless Joe).

But two earlier novels used these controversial games as a symbol of the corruption of American innocence. Bernard Malamud’s first novel, The Natural (1952), ends with Roy Hobbs not only striking out with the pennant on the line, but also with slugger being greeted outside a courthouse by a street urchin with “Say it ain’t so, Roy”—an unmistakable echo of another real-life youngster who begged the White Sox’s Jackson, “Say it ain’t so, Joe.”

The name of Hobbs’ team, the New York Knights, hints at the mythological overtones of Malamud’s modern allegory. Hobbs is consumed by a quest, a dream, as is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

Not long after making the acquaintance of his new neighbor, narrator Nick Carraway is startled when this “elegant young roughneck” tells him privately that the eccentric figure to whom he has just been introduced is “the man who fixed the World Series back in 1919.”

Carraway’s mind boggles at the thought: “I remembered, of course, that the World’s Series had been fixed in 1919, but if I had thought of it at all I would have thought of it as a thing that merely happened, the end of some inevitable chain. It never occurred to me that one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people —with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe.”

Meyer Wolfsheim, the character who sparks these thoughts, was based on Arnold Rothstein, a New York underworld figure who denied any connection to the World Series fix. While Fitzgerald surely would have banked on the association that astute readers of the time would have made between the real and fictional characters, he was also after larger game.

After all, if a game created on a beautiful field could be tarnished, what chance for the “transitory vision” of the New World glimpsed by Dutch sailors in the novel’s elegiac conclusion?

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