It was after the world war-I has ended America’s new favourite pastime was watching baseball. The Chicago White Sox baseball team was one of the best teams. It was going to play the world series of 1919 against the Cincinnati Red. Everyone was counting and betting on the White Sox to win, but the team lost the series. The baseball insiders sensed that there was something fishy in the games as the team even lost the matches that they could easily win. It was later found that the eight players from the Chicago White Sox were taking money from the gamblers and had rigged the entire series. That’s how the game-fixing came to be known as the “Black Sox Scandal”.
It’s been almost 101 years since the scandal took place, but it is considered as an important event. As it is said that it was after the Black Sox Scandal that “baseball lost its innocence”. It led to diminished confidence in the game among the fans while the nation was still building itself from the blow of war.
This kind of corruption has long been persistent in the games, but this was the first major public incident about baseball that came into the light. Let’s look at the Black box scandal in detail.
There are multiple versions of the same story. Firstly, let’s look at the popular version.
The eight accused players were Arnold Gandil (popularly known as “chickie”), Shortstop Charles (“Swedes”), Eddie Cicotte, Claude Williams (“lefty”), George Weaver (“Buck or Bucky”), Oscar Felsch (“Happy”), Joe Jackson (“Shoeless Jack”) and Fred McMullin. The rumours about the Black Sox Scandal started after the series in 1919, principally by Hugh Fullerton and other sports writers. It died towards the beginning of the new series of 1920. A jury was made to precede over the matter in September. Evidence was found that the players had taken $70,000 out if $100,000 for losing five games to three.
So, the question arises that what was the primary motive of the players to do so?
It was held that Charles Comiskey, the owner of the team was a very tight-fisted man. He paid low salaries of his players despite them being one of the best teams. The players could not leave the team and play for someone else due to the reserved clause in the contract. The chief architect of the gamble Arnold Gandil was already on a dispute with Comiskey regarding the salary and was suspended for a while. It is said that Eddie Cicotte, the star pitcher had a contract with the Comiskey that if he won 30 games, he would be given a bonus of $10,000. When Eddie won about 29 games (Comiskey didn’t allow him to play next few games, stating the reason that his arm needed rest) he asked for his bonus but Comiskey simply denied it to him.
Popularly it is held that the gambler named Billy Burns, a former pitcher turned gambler first approached Arnold Gandil about throwing the series to Cincinnati Reds. Gandil agreed to get about 7-8 players for the fix in exchange for $100,000 payoff. Billy Burns, however, could not raise that kind of fund, so he sought the help of Abe Attell, former boxing world champion and a close ally of Arnold Rothstein, an underworld financier known as the “Big Bankroll”.
Meanwhile, Gandil along with Swede, Cicotte, Claude, Buck Weaver, Joe Jackson, Fred, and Oscar Felsch met privately in the Warner Hotel of Chicago to discuss the plan of action. They decided to ask for $10,000 before the first game from the gamblers. But Buck Weaver was the only one among them who although was a part of the conspiracy, did not take any money and played aggressively in the series.
So, in the game one Eddie Cicotte, one of the finest pitchers tossed the game in the favor of Cincinnati Reds. The White Sox fulfilled their side of the fixed agreement as well in Game Two, in which Lefty Williams’s sudden bout of wildness in the fourth inning spelt the difference in a 4-2 Cincinnati victory. Now, the gamblers owed them $40,000. The players were growing restless that the money was not being paid in time. But, Gandil assured the gamblers that would lose game three as well. However, on the day of the third game, Dickey Kerr did fantastic pitching which led to the victory if White Sox by 3-0.
Game four considered to be the most controversial game. Eddie Cicotte played with real expertise in the game. In his testimony, he said that he tried his level best in the game, but the team lost because the offence did play their part well.
It was becoming evident to the players that the gamblers have double-crossed them. So, they played their level best and won game five and six. Now the series was on a tie. All the hopes were pinned to Claude (Lefty) Williams for the next game.
The night before the game William was approached by a hitman, threatening to kill his wife if he didn’t lose the game. The existence of such a hitman is debatable in different versions of the story. Lefty’s pitching left White Sox with a deficit of 4-0 and they lost the match.
Next day Hugh Fullerton released the front-page news stating, “The Black Sox Scandal”. The allegations created an uproar in the public. Comiskey however, did not deny any allegations it is believed that he had suspicions about the fix but decided to not break the team in the middle of the series. As it would be a financial disaster.
The scandal was put on a trial, but the jury acquitted them mainly on the lack of evidence. Though Joe Jackson and Eddie Cicotte had given confession about the fixing, they were apparently stolen from public record. Joe Jackson is seen as another controversial figure in the Black Sox Scandal, his batting average came to about 0.356 considered to be the second-best of that time. An excellent player. the series, he played decently many of his fans and sports enthusiasts were if the opinion that because he was illiterate, he was just wrapped up in the conspiracy. Some even say that Gandil only used his name in the conspiracy though Shoeless Joe Jackson never really helped in losing the matches.
After the scandal, an independent commission was formed and was given unlimited powers in terms of decision making. Kenesaw Mountain Landis was appointed as the first commissioner with lifetime term. Though being acquitted by the court Landis banned all the eight players from baseball for life. Buck Weaver was the only one who applied before the court for reinstatement six times, however, his appeals were dismissed.
This popular version of the Black Sox Scandal was mostly propagated by the classic books ‘Eight Men Out’ by Eliot Asinof in 1963 and ‘Field of dreams- shoeless Joe’ by W.P Kinsella. Later adopted as movies as well. But recent research by SABR (Society for American Baseball Research) suggests that like every story these versions were biased too and had some myths. The authors mainly tried to show the players as victims of a tight-fisted owner and gamblers who double-crossed them. The stories were successful in gaining sympathy for players.
Let’s briefly look at some myths about the Black Box Scandal:
- The White Sox were paid poorly by Comiskey: The research has suggested that White Sox had the second-highest payroll in the American League. The players were not staging a labour action but just saw an opportunity to get more money. The socially conscious writers wanted to present class-welfare victims
- The fix was initiated by the gamblers: As per the testimony of Cicotte, it was the idea of players like Gandil to get a deal with low risk and high rewards. Therefore, the gamblers were approached by Gandil than the other way around. Headlines of articles ran “Jewish Gamblers Corrupt American Baseball,” highlighting the uneasiness towards the growing Jewish immigrants after the world war.
- After being double-crossed by the gamblers, the entire team tried to win until a hitman threatened Lefty Williams: The gamblers involved in the Black Box Scandal- Sport Sullivan, Billy Maharg who appeared before the court to testify, breaking gambler’s code of silence. They were not known as a mob enforcer. Harry F. who had threatened to kill Lefty’s wife did not exist, as per a statement by Asinof (author of Field of Dreams).
- Black Sox is the first and the original sin of the baseball: True, this event came into limelight. However, this was not the first instance of match-fixing in baseball. It was the first one that became public. Hardly anyone outside baseball knew world series of1903, 1905, 1914, 1917, and 1918 also were attempted to be fixed.
So, this was the story of America’s greatest sports scandal. We have all heard of the term “sportsman spirit” or being a “good sport”. They reflect the importance of playing a fair game and keeping the integrity and morals of the sport with respect. There are various versions of it and you can choose what you want to believe in. Over the years we have come across so many news about the games being rigged or fixed. It not only taints the faith of viewers but also raises the question, that how can we protect our games and the values it represents, when it is so easy for it to get corrupted.