The Black Sox Scandal: Did Eight Players on the Chicago White Sox Really Throw the 1919 World Series Against the Cincinnati Reds?

Oct 1-9, 1919 – The Black Sox Scandal resulted in the most famous scandal in baseball history after the 1919 World Series. Eight players from the Chicago White Sox (nicknamed the Black Sox) were accused of throwing the series against the Cincinnati Reds. Details of the scandal remain controversial, and the extent to which each player was involved varied. It was, however, front-page news across the country when the story was uncovered late in the 1920 season, and despite being acquitted of criminal charges, the eight players were banned from organized baseball (i.e. the leagues subject to the National Agreement) for life.

It was almost unthinkable: players throwing the World Series?  Yet, that’s what happened–or maybe didn’t happen–in the fall of 1919.

The players on the Charles Comiskey’s 1919 Chicago White Sox team were a fractious lot.  The club was divided into two “gangs” of players, each with practically nothing to say to the other. Together they formed the best team in baseball–perhaps one of the best teams that ever played the game, yet they–like all ball players of the time–were paid a fraction of what they were worth.  Because of baseball’s reserve clause, any player who refused to accept a contract was prohibited from playing baseball on any other professional team.  The White Sox owner paid two of his greatest stars, outfielder “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and third baseman Buck Weaver, only $6000 a year.  Comiskey’s decision to save expenses by reducing the number of times uniforms were laundered gave rise to the original meaning of “The Black Sox.”  Comiskey has been labeled the tyrant and tightwad whose penurious practices made his players especially willing to sell their baseball souls for money, but in fact he was probably no worse than most owners–in fact, Chicago had the highest team payroll in 1919.  In the era of the reserve clause, gamblers could find players on lots of teams looking for extra cash–and they did.

In 1963, Eliot Asinof published Eight Men Out, a book about the Black Sox scandal which later became a popular movie and has, more than any other work, shaped modern understanding of the most famous scandal in the history of sports.  In Asinof’s telling of history, the bitterness Sox players felt about their owner led members of the team to enter into a conspiracy that would forever change the game of baseball.  Asinof suggested that Comisky’s skinflint maneuvers made key players ready to jump at the chance to make some quick money.  For example, Asinof wrote that Sox pitcher Eddie Cicotte was intensely irritated when, in September of 1917, as Cicotte approached a 30-win season that would win him a promised $10,000 bonus, Comiskey had his star pitcher benched rather than be forced to come up with the extra cash.  Whether the story about the denied bonus or true is subject of dispute among baseball historians.

More recently, several writers have questioned Asinof’s explanation for the fix.  Gene Carney, for example, author of Burying the Black Sox, concluded that “the Sox who took the bribes were not getting even, they were just trying to get some easy money.”  Whatever the reason, a long and complicated story unfolded in the fall of 1919.  One of the key players in the scandal, gambler Abe Attell, later summarized the fix as “cheaters cheating cheaters.”

It’s a story that arises at a time when “the lines between gamblers and ballplayers had become blurred.”  Some players were big bettors and some gamblers were former big league players.  Most teams, many historians believe, had at least one player on the roster willing to help tip a game for a little money.  Baseball in 1919, according to Carney, “was in the stranglehold of gamblers, and had been for some time.”

The Fix

Arnold Rothstein

Asinof contends that the idea of fixing the Series sprang into the mind of a tough thirty-one-year-old Sox first baseman named Chick Gandil.  Whether or not the initial idea was his, or that of a gambler, it is clear no player is more closely connected to the fix than Gandil.  In a 1956 Sports Illustrated interview, Gandil frankly admitted, “I was a ringleader.”  Asinof placed the beginning of the fix in Boston, about three weeks before the end of the 1919 season.  Gandil asked an acquaintance and professional gambler named “Sport” Sullivan to stop by his hotel room.  After a few minutes of small talk, Gandil told Sullivan, “I think we can put it [the Series] in the bag.”  He demanded $80,000 in cash for himself and whatever other players he might recruit. (In 1956, Gandil offered his own–somewhat different–account, crediting Sullivan and not himself for the idea.  Gandil claims he initially told Sullivan a fix involving seven or eight players was impossible. Sullivan replied, “Don’t be silly.  It’s been pulled before and it can be again.”)

Talk of a possible fix began among a group that included outfielder Oscar “Happy” Felsch, third baseman Buck Weaver, and Eddie Cicotte.  Gandil knew that Cicotte, Chicago’s ace pitcher, Cicotte, had money troubles, having bought a farm in Michigan that came with high mortgage payments.  Cicotte at first resisted Gandil’s suggestion that he join in a fix of the Series, but eventually his scruples gave way.  Three days before the Series began, he told Gandil, “I’ll do it for $10,000–before the Series begins.”  In 1920, Cicotte explained his decision to join the fix to a grand jury:  “They wanted me to go crooked.  I needed the money.  I had the wife and kids.  I had bought the farm.”  According to Cicotte’s later confession, when he went back to his room later, “I found the money under my pillow; I had sold out ‘Commy’ and the other boys.”

With Cicotte and Felsch on board, Gandil’s efforts to recruit additional Sox players took off.  Shortstop “Swede” Risberg and utility infielder Fred McMullin said that they were in.  Starting pitchers would be critical in any successful fix, so when the team was in New York, Gandil went after–and soon convinced–Claude “Lefty” Williams to join.  To round out the fix, Gandil approached the teams best hitter, Joe Jackson.  (In his 1920 “confession,” Jackson would testify that he was promised $20,000 for his participation, but only got a quarter of that amount.)

A meeting of White Sox ballplayers–including those committed to going ahead and those just ready to listen–took place on September 21, at Gandil’s room at the Ansonia Hotel in New York.  It was a meeting that would eventually shatter the careers of eight ballplayers, although whether all eight were actually in attendance is a matter of dispute. (Joe Jackson claimed not to have made the meeting–and Jackson’s claim was repeatedly supported by Lefty Williams.)  In his 1956 article in Sports Illustrated, Gandil offers this account of the September 21 meeting:

They all were interested and thought we should reconnoiter to see if the dough would really be put on the line.  Weaver suggested we get paid in advance; then if things got too hot, we could double-cross the gambler, keep the cash and take the big end of the Series by beating the [Cincinnati] Reds.  We agreed this was a hell of a brainy plan.

Gandil met with Sport Sullivan the next morning to tell him the fix was on, provided that he could come up with $80,000 for the players before the Series began.  Sullivan indicated that he might be difficult to raise that much cash so quickly, but promised to meet with Gandil when the team got back to Chicago for the final games of the regular season.

Things started to get complicated.  According to Asinof, another gambler, “Sleepy” Bill Burns (working with an associate Billy Maharg), having heard talk of a possible fix, approached Cicotte and offered to top any offer Sullivan might make.  Gandil, meeting with Cicotte and Burns, announced that they would work a fix with Burns and Maharg for an upfront $100,000.  In a 1922 deposition, Maharg would confirm this story, testifying that in the original $100,000 deal, $20,000 each was to go to Gandil, Cicotte, Williams, Felsch, and Risberg–an original group of “five men out.”  Burns and Maharg set off for New York to meet with the most prominent gambler-sportsman in America, Arnold “Big Bankroll” Rothstein.

In Asinof’s account, Burns and Maharg approached Rothstein as he watched horses at Jamaica Race Track.  Rothstein told the two men that he was busy, and that they should wait in the track restaurant, where he might get to them later.  Instead, Rothstein dispatched his right-hand man, Abe Attell, to meet with Burns and Maharg and find out what they had in mind.  When Attell reported back that night about the plan to fix the Series, Rothstein was skeptical.  He didn’t think it could work.  Attell relayed the news to a disappointed Burns. Undeterred, Burns and Maharg cornered Rothstein later that night in the lobby of the Astor Hotel in Times Square and pressed their plan to fix the Series.  Rothstein told the two men, for “whatever my opinion is worth,”  to forget it, and Burns and Maharg did–for awhile.

Asinof’s very detailed story of the meeting with Rothstein is not confirmed by other sources and “A. R.’s” role in the fix remains something of a mystery.  Leo Katcher, author of The Big Bankroll, concluded that Rothstein declined the offer to participate in fixing the Series, deeming the enterprise too risky–too many players and too many people watching. Katcher’s conclusion seems to have been shared by American League President Ban Johnson who initially believed the fix’s trail led to Rothstein, but later–after Rothstein testified to a 1920 grand jury–deemed him innocent.  On the other hand, historian Harold Seymour contended that affidavits found in Rothstein’s files after his death showed “he paid out $80,000 for the World Series fix.”  Regardless of whether or not he funded the fix, many gamblers and players at the time believed that he was behind it.  A telegram, supposedly from Rothstein but actually fraudulently prepared by lower-level gamblers, seemed to show A. R. backed the fix.  With Rothstein’s influence and nearly unlimited financial resources, players more willingly jumped on board–the gambler’s lawyers and connections seemed to ensure no one would be punished.  Rothstein may or may not have been a backer of the fix, but he clearly knew about it and made a substantial amount of money (estimates range up to $400,000) betting on Series games.

In Asinof’s telling,  Abe Attell, or the “Little Champ” as ex-prize fighter was called, saw an opportunity to make some big bucks, and he decided to take it. Attell and former ballplayer Hal Chase contacted Burns and told him that Rothstein had reconsidered their proposition and had now agreed to put up the $100,000 to fund the fix.  Burns whirled into motion, calling Cicotte and wiring Maharg to tell them the fix was on. Sport Sullivan, meanwhile, continued independently to pursue his own fix plans.  He also contacted Rothstein.  Sullivan, unlike Burns and Maharg, was known and respected by Rothstein.  When Sullivan laid out his plans for the fix, according to Asinof, Rothstein expressed an interest in the scheme he had previously withheld.  Rothstein saw the widespread talk of a fix as a blessing, not a problem: “If nine guys go to bed with a girl, she’ll have a tough time proving the tenth is the father!”  He decided to sent a partner of his, Nat Evans, to Chicago with Sullivan to meet with the players.

In Asinof’s account, on September 29, the day before the Sox were to leave for Cincinnati to begin the Series, Sullivan and Evans (introduced as “Brown”) met with the players.  Evans listened to the players’ demand for $80,000 in advance, then told them he would talk to his “associates” and get back to them.  When Evans reported back, Rothstein agreed to give him $40,000 to pass on to Sullivan, who would presumably distribute the cash to the players.  The other $40,000, Rothstein said, would be held in a safe in Chicago, to be paid to the players if the Series went as planned.  Rothstein then got busy, quickly laying bets on the Reds to win the Series. With forty $1,000 bills in his pocket, Sullivan decided to bet nearly $30,000 on the Reds instead of giving it to the players as planned.  They could get the money later, he thought.

Odds were dropping quickly on the once heavy underdog Reds team–the best Sullivan could do was get even money.  Gandil, in his 1956 account of the story, said Sullivan passed the remaining $10,000 to him, and that he put the money under the pillow of the starting pitcher for game one of the Series, Eddie Cicotte.  (Other sources have the $10,000 being delivered after the Series started.) Cicotte reportedly later sewed the money into the lining of his jacket.Frustrated and angry at getting only $10,000 from Sullivan, seven of the players (only Joe Jackson was absent) met on the day before the Series opener at the Sinton Hotel in Cincinnati with Abe Attell.  Attell refused to pay the players any cash in advance, offering instead $20,000 for each loss in the best-of-nine Series.  The players complained, but told the gamblers that they would throw the first two games with Cicotte and Williams as the scheduled starting pitchers.

At least two syndicates and half a dozen gamblers have been linked to the fix, but both numbers are probably underestimates.  There may have been five or six syndicates and perhaps twenty or more gamblers involved.  Some sources have the players selling out in St. Louis, Detroit, Boston, and Kansas City, as well as Chicago.  Abe Attell told sports reporter Joe Williams of the Cleveland News, “They not only sold it, but they sold it wherever they could get a buck…They peddled it around like a sack of popcorn.”  The true extent of the 1919 Series fix will probably never be known.

The Series

October 1, 1919, Opening Day, was sunny and warm.  The game was a sell-out, with scalpers getting the unheard of price of $50 a ticket.  At the Ansonia Hotel in New York, Arnold Rothstein strode into the lobby just before the scheduled opening pitch.  For Rothstein and the several hundred other persons gathered in the lobby, a reporter would read telegraphed play-by-play accounts of the game as baseball figures would be moved around a large diamond-shaped chart on the wall.  The gamblers had sent word that Eddie Cicotte was to either walk or hit the first Reds batter, as a sign that the fix was on.  The first pitch to lead-off batter Maurice Rath was a called strike.  Cicotte’s wild second pitch hit Rath in the back.  Arnold Rothstein walked out of the Ansonia into a New York rain.

The game stood 1 to 1 with one out in the fourth when the Red’s Pat Duncan lined a hanging curve to right for a single.  The next batter, Larry Kopf, hit an easy double play ball to Cicotte, but the Sox pitcher hesitated, then threw high to second.  The runner at second was out, but no double play was possible.  Greasy Neale and Ivy Wingo followed with singles, scoring the Reds’ second run.  Then the Reds’ pitcher, Dutch Reuther, drove a triple to left, scoring two more.  The bottom of the Cincinnati order was teeing off on the Sox’s ace.  The game ended with the Reds winning 9 to 1 [game stats link].  Meeting later that night with Charles Comiskey, Sox manager Kid Gleason was asked whether he thought his team was throwing the Series.  Gleason hesitated, then said he thought something was wrong, but didn’t know for certain.

The fourth inning turned out to be determinative in Game Two as well.  Lefty Williams, renown for his control, walked three Cincinnati batters, all of whom scored.  Final: Cincinnati 4, Chicago 2.  Sox catcher Ray Schalk, furious, complained to Gleason after the came: “The sonofabitch! Williams kept crossing me.  In that lousy fourth inning, he crossed me three times!  He wouldn’t throw a curve.”  After the game, Sleepy Burns left $10,000 (of the $20,000 that they were promised) in Gandil’s room.

In Asinof’s account, before Game Three in Chicago, Burns asked Gandil what the players were planning.  Gandil lied.  He told Burns they were going to throw the game, when in fact they hadn’t yet decided what to do.  Gandil and the rest of players in on the fix were angry at so far receiving only a fraction of their promised money.  He saw no reason to do Burns any favors.  Burns and Maharg, on Gandil’s word, bet a bundle on the Reds to win Game Three.  The Sox won the game, 3 to 0, with Gandil driving in two of his team’s runs.

Gandil told Sullivan that he needed $20,000 before Game Four, or the fix was over.  Sullivan made the deadline–barely.  Jackson and Williams each received $5,000 pay-offs after the game, which was won by the Reds, who broke a scoreless tie in the fifth when pitcher Eddie Cicotte made two fielding errors.  According to Williams’s 1920 confession, after Game Four, the pitcher went to Gandil’s room:  “There were two packages, two envelopes lying there, and he says, ‘There is your dough.”  Williams testified, “Gandil told me, ‘There is five for yourself, and five for Jackson, and the rest has been called for.'”

In the sixth inning of Game Five, “Happy” Felsch misplayed a fly ball, then threw poorly to Risberg at second, who allowed the ball to get away from him.  Before the inning was over, Felsch would misplay a second ball hit by Edd Roush, allowing three runs to score.  Chicago sportswriter Hugh Fullerton, watching from the press box commented on the disaster: “When Felsch misses a fly ball like Roush’s–and the one before from Eller–then, well, what’s the use?”

When gamblers failed to produce the promised additional $20,000 after the loss in game five, the Sox players decided they’d had enough.  It would be the old Sox again–the Sox that won the American League pennant going away.  They took Game Six  5 to 4, then won again in Game Seven, 4 to 1.  With a win in game eight, the best-of-nine Series would be tied.

Asinof’s Eight Men Out includes a dramatic, but entirely fictional, report of what happened before the Game Eight.  Asinof admitted in 2003 that the story was made up–in part, he claimed, to identify when his account was being used without his permission.  In his book, Asinof claimed that Rothstein told Sullivan in no uncertain terms that he did not want the Series to go to nine games–and to make sure it doesn’t.  In the book’s account, Sullivan contacted a Chicago thug known as “Harry F” who then paid a visit to the starting Sox pitcher in game eight, Lefty Williams, and threatened harm to him or his family if the game were not thrown–in the first inning.  Asinof described Williams being greeted by a cigar-smoking man in a bowler hat when he and his wife were returning home from dinner.  The man asked to have a word with Williams in private.  He did–and Williams got the message.  There was no “Harry F.”  But it made for a good story and added drama to the 1988 movie version of Asinof’s book. Threats were, however, made.  Both Cicotte and Jackson later described threats and their own fear of being shot and, although Lefty Williams never told of any threats against him or Lyria, his wife, Lyria did.  In a 1920 interview, Maharg also hinted that a threat to kill Williams’s wife might indeed have been made before Game Eight.

Threat or no threat, Williams pitched poorly in Game Eight.  He threw only fifteen pitches, allowing four hits and three runs, before being taken out of the game with only one out.  Cincinnati went on to win the game and the Series, 10 to 5.  For the Williams (who was undoubtedly in on the fix), it was his third loss in three Series starts.  The pitcher with a reputation as a control artist had thrown an average of a walk every other inning he played.

How Many Men “Out”?

Buck Weaver

Of eight Series games, at least two were thrown, Games Two and Eight.  Notably, however, if the Sox had won Games Two and Eight, they–and not the Reds–would have been 1919 World Series champs. There is also evidence that Game Four was thrown and a failed attempt was made to throw Game Three.  In general, people who were looking for suspicious plays in the Series found them, while others saw nothing that looked out of line.  Reds manager Pat Moran thought the Series was on the up and up: “If they threw some of the games they must be consummate actors,…for nothing in their playing gave me the impression they weren’t doing their best.”  Umpire Billy Evans expressed surprise as well when news of the fix eventually broke; “We’ll, I guess I’m just a big dope, ” Evans said, “That Series looked all right to me.”  James Hamilton, official scorer for the Series, said he saw only one suspicious play, a deflection by Cicotte of a throw to home in Game Four.  On the other hand, writer Hugh Fullerton and former pitching star Christy Mathewson circled seven plays in their scorebook that they agreed looked suspicious, in addition to having questions about Sox pitching in a few of the games.  (Fullerton had heard buzz about a fix well before the first pitch of the Series was thrown, and informed Comiskey about a possible fix before Game One.)

Of the “Eight Men Out,” four players clearly played to lose in the thrown games, Gandil, Williams, Cicotte, and Risberg.  Risberg, by all accounts a tough guy, served as internal enforcer of the fix, threatening any player who might reveal the players’ agreement with the gamblers.  A few historians have suggested that Cicotte, at least after facing the first batter in Game One, gave 100%, but his own words seem to belie that conclusion: “I’ve played a crooked game.”  Cicotte pitched poorly in Game One and hit the first batter, apparently to signal the fix was on.  In his 1920 grand jury testimony, Cicotte admitted that he purposely put that first batter on base, but then had misgivings:  “After he passes, after he was on there, I don’t know, I guess I tried too hard.  I didn’t care, they could have taken my heart and soul; that’s the way I felt about it after I’d taken that money.  I guess everybody is not perfect.”  In Game Four, Cicotte made a couple of glaring errors on the field.  According to a September 28, 1920 account of his grand jury testimony, Cicotte said, “I deliberately intercepted a throw from the outfield to the plate which might have cut off a run.  I muffed the ball on purpose.”  He also admitted that on another play in Game Four, “I purposely made a wild throw.  All the runs scored against me were due to my own deliberate errors.”  Happy should probably also be added to the “players out” list, as he went just six for twenty-six during the Series and committed several uncharacteristic miscues in the centerfield.  (On the other hand, he hit the ball hard and made a couple of spectacular catches.  In an interview in the Chicago Evening American, Felsch admitted he was “in on the deal,” but claimed he “had nothing to do with the loss of the World Series.”)  Utility infielder Fred McMullin, Risberg’s drinking buddy, got one hit in just two Series at-bats, hardly the basis for a conclusion that he contributed to the Series defeat.  Jackson, however, testified that McMullin, along with Risberg, were the two principal “pay-off” men during the fix.

If–and it’s a big “if”–any two players have been unfairly included in the “Eight Men Out” they are Shoeless Joe Jackson and Buck Weaver.

For the Series, Jackson had batted .375 (nearly twenty points better than his career average of .356), scored five runs, got six RBI’s, the only homerun, and not committed a single error.  “If he really did try to lose games,” a 2009 article in the Chicago Lawyer Magazine observed, “he failed miserably.”  Nonetheless, questions have been raised about Jackson’s performance in the field.  (Jackson himself later admitted that he “could have tried harder.”  He also reportedly said that the players in on the fix “did our best to kick [Game Three], but little Dickie Kerr won the game by his pitching.”)  Not debatable is that Jackson clearly did accept the money of gamblers ($5000, after demanding $20,000, according to Cicotte) and having the batting star’s name mentioned in connection with the fix gave the scheme credibility.  Jackson admitted in his 1920 grand jury testimony to accepting the money.  Most likely, Jackson did not try to throw the Series.  He did, however, commit a serious error of judgment in accepting the money of gamblers and, perhaps, in not more aggressively trying to report the fix to Comiskey or Gleason.

Perhaps none of the infamous Eight have more defenders than Buck Weaver.  Weaver knew of the fix, attended at least three meetings in which the fix was discussed, watched Gandil count out pay-off money from gamblers, and yet failed to report the scheme to club officials.  For this “guilty knowledge,” Buck might have got nothing but trouble.  It’s not clear he ever received a dime from the fix.  (A report circulated, originating with his mother-in-law, that a package containing a large amount of currency was delivered to his house by McMullin during the Series.  The pay-off, it indeed that’s what the package was, may have been returned.) He arguably he played the best baseball he knew how, batting .324 during the Series.  A 1953 letter from Weaver to Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick is on display at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.  In the letter, Weaver claimed (implausibly) that he “knew nothing” about the fix and (more plausibly) “played a perfect Series.”

In addition to the fix, there was a second, arguably just as significant, scandal: the cover-up.  Asinof noted that “the cover-up was far better organized than the fix itself.”  It involved owners, managers, players, and (with just a couple of notable exceptions) the press.  A lot of people had an interest in preserving the public’s faith in America’s pasttime.

Continued on next page…

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