The greatest shame of baseball—besides its refusal to offer full opportunity to African American players for more than 60 years—was the Chicago White Sox players’ fixing the 1919 World Series at the behest of gamblers.
These nefarious efforts shook the credibility of the nation's most popular sport and could have ruined the game. Some details of the plot to sell out the World Series, who actually tried to win, and who actually tried to lose, remain in dispute. But the broad overview is known, and the repercussions of the bold scheme were marked.
In 1919 the Chicago White Sox were the best team in the American League and won the pennant. They were heavily favored to win the World Series over the National League champion Cincinnati Reds. The Reds were a good club, but not viewed as having enough firepower and all-around talent to defeat the White Sox.
At that time gambling was commonplace in baseball, and it has long been suggested that Arnold Rothstein, a kingpin of the Chicago underworld, dreamed up the plan to throw the Series Cincinnati's way and clean up while betting on the underdogs. However, others in the gambling world were involved, and although the effort became more and more complicated, it did not unravel.
In the end the White Sox lost the best-of-nine Series to Cincinnati, 5–3. Rumors circulated during the games that they were not all on the up-and-up, and Hugh Fullerton, a prominent sportswriter of the era, kept track of plays he thought were suspicious. The World Series ended, there was considerable conjecture, but no proof came out, and time passed without any concrete action being taken. The Reds celebrated their championship. The White Sox slinked into the off-season.
Owner Charles Comiskey and manager Kid Gleason were among those who were uneasy about what they witnessed, but they made no declarations. The good of the game was at stake, so they swallowed any concerns they might have uttered. Months after the World Series ended, Fullerton wrote a provocative newspaper series telling the public that the results may have been fixed and that the White Sox may have lost on purpose.
The 1920 season began and was played, but eventually a grand jury was impaneled, and as pressure mounted, several White Sox regulars, including stars, were called to testify. At one point it was revealed that confessions had been signed by ace pitcher Ed Cicotte and exalted hitter “Shoeless” Joe Jackson. Eight players were indicted, and the case went to trial, whereupon it was learned that any confessions penned by Jackson and Cicotte had disappeared.
Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the World Series and while suspicions were being hurled around like snowballs, top baseball officials met and decided they needed to take a firmer grip on the game and run off the gambling element. They approached a federal judge named Kenesaw Mountain Landis to become the sport's first commissioner. Landis demanded many changes, but baseball was so anxious to hire a law enforcer that they acceded to every one. Landis ended up with a contract for life and the dictatorial authority to make unilateral decisions that he felt were in the best interests of the sport.
When the White Sox players went on trial in Chicago, they were treated more like celebrities than like accused lawbreakers. They were acquitted and celebrated in relief, ready to resume their careers in the 1921 season. The iron-fisted, white-maned Landis had another fate in store for them.
He had watched the proceedings closely, scrutinizing every word of testimony, and come to some conclusions. Although there was some doubt about whether all of the players charged received bribes of up to $10,000, and there was also some doubt about whether some of the players went along with the fix and did not try their best, he did not care. All of them were aware of the proposed scheme, had either witnessed or participated in discussions about throwing games, and had done nothing to prevent the fix from playing out.
Landis took the hanging-judge approach and banned all eight players from baseball for life. Nearly a century later, long after all of the White Sox players involved have died, their names are still tainted with ignominy and remain on baseball's banned list. The eight players are Cicotte, Jackson, Buck Weaver, Oscar “Happy” Felsch, Claude “Lefty” Williams, Fred McMullin, Charles “Swede” Risberg, and Arnold “Chick” Gandihl.
When the players exited the Chicago Criminal Court building, supposedly a little boy looked up at Shoeless Joe and said, “Say it ain't so, Joe,” to which Jackson supposedly replied, “Yes kid, I'm afraid it is.” While that encounter has taken root in lore, most doubt it really happened.1
As an immediate side effect, not specifically germane to the punishment, Landis's ruling gutted the White Sox's lineup and reduced the club from one of the best in the American League to one of the worst. The White Sox did not win another pennant for 40 years, long after the death of Comiskey, although other members of his family had remained involved with the team for most of that period.
Cicotte might have been a borderline Hall of Famer. He recorded one of the best career earned-run averages, won 29 games in a season, and is credited with being the inventor of the knuckleball. But Cicotte was the linchpin of the scheme. Pitching the first game of the Series, he purposely hit a batter as the signal that the fix was on, and he did collect $10,000. Risberg and Gandihl were regarded as the ringleaders.
Jackson, one of the sport's rare .400 hitters (.408 in 1911), said he never wanted to be part of any deal, tried to return money left in his hotel room, and tried to report the plot to Comiskey, but was rebuffed. He said he then tried his hardest in the games. In later years, some, notably slugger Ted Williams, took up the cause of getting Jackson, a lifetime .356 hitter, reinstated so he could be considered for the Hall of Fame, but the commissioner's office never took any action.
Likewise, Weaver, the third baseman, listened in on the plot in its planning stages, but said his only crime was not ratting out his teammates. He played his best, he said, and Weaver devoted far more effort over the following 35 years to clearing his name. His appeals to baseball went on long after Landis died while still in office in 1944, but were unsuccessful.
Other than the eight accused, the rest of the White Sox were known as the “Clean Sox.” One was Hall of Fame catcher Ray Schalk who years later said that if pitcher Red Faber had been able to participate, the White Sox would have “beaten the Reds despite the gamblers.”2 Faber, another Hall of Famer, missed the Series altogether because of injury.
The ramifications of the players’ sleazy decision to fix the outcome of the World Series damaged the game's image and might have had longer-lasting effects if not for the introduction of the lively ball in 1920, which enabled Babe Ruth to lift the game from the rubble. It literally was a whole new ballgame in the 1920s, when Ruth energized crowds with his awesome slugging.
Cicotte lived a quiet life out of the limelight after his disgrace, residing on a farm in northern Michigan. He once broke his silence in an interview with prominent Detroit sportswriter Joe Falls, saying he had lived a clean life ever since the scandal and that if taking the bribe was the worst thing he ever did, he could live with that.
Landis was baseball's first commissioner, and while the structure of the game's administration has changed in other ways, there has always been a commissioner's name at the top of the letterhead on the sport's stationery. Landis was given a mandate to clean up the sport, to do whatever it took to eradicate gambling elements from the game, and the ripple effects of his zero tolerance stand, forbidding players, coaches, managers, and other insiders from gambling on baseball, are still felt today. Inappropriate gambling remains one of baseball's cardinal sins.