A century later, contemplating the Black Sox scandal with 200 other baseball nerds

No gum, though: Gummy Arts 1919 White Sox cards. (@gummyarts)

In 1919, heading into the World Series, the Chicago White Sox were a “popular and well-known team.” Let that quote sit with you for awhile.

A little more than year later, on Sept. 28 1920, Sox pitcher Eddie Cicotte confessed to his part in fixing the 1919 World Series.

Exactly 99 years after that, on Sept. 28, 2019, I spent four hours at the Chicago History Museum at the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) Black Sox Scandal Centennial Symposium.

(“You are such a nerd,” I’ve been told multiple times recently about this — always lovingly, of course. Also, site note: Of the roughly 200 attendees, I counted only 15 women and 10 people of color. Props to South Side Hit Pen for having the most inclusive bunch of writers in the Sox-fan-blog-sphere.)

You can listen to the entire symposium here (including a question by yours truly!), which I highly recommend for every Sox fan. If all you know of the scandal is Eight Men Out (book and/or movie) and Field of Dreams, you owe it to yourself to spend some time digging into the SABR website. Did you know that the Black Sox probably threw the 1920 pennant, too? There was a clear and bitter divide between the “Clean Sox” and the Black Sox on those 1919 and 1920 teams. (Did you also know that you can watch bits of Games 1 and 3 on YouTube?)

The day began with a panel discussion on the cultural legacy of the scandal: Why does it endure? It is a stubbornly unsolved mystery, with a vast cast of characters and multiple plot lines. With no trove of papers to find (gambler Arnold Rothstein destroyed all of his, for example), some facts will forever remain unknowable. Therefore, we can each paint our own story on the canvas: Labor vs. management, greed and innocence, do you rat on your friends or not?

The panelists gave both credit and blame for the myths that have arisen to Eight Men Out author Eliot Asinof: “it was a book flawed in its fact, but genius in its narrative.” Asinof was an underpaid minor league ball player and a writer who was blacklisted in the 1950s; these facts influenced the story he painted. But with documents from the time being released to the public in the early 2000s, the last 15 years have seen a revised interest in researching the facts of the story.

For example, Charles Comiskey was not a cheap bastard. Well, he kinda was, but not as cheap as all of the other owners. For real, the White Sox had the highest payroll in the American League in 1919. Players may have felt underpaid (and salaries weren’t public then, so they didn’t know what players on other teams were making), but we now know they weren’t. In 1919, teams allocated 1/3 of their revenue to payroll. Today, that amount is 2/3. This eventual shift of power, more than the permanent ban of the Black Sox, is what ensured that scandal this large would never happen again.

So, without the “cheap owner, disgruntled players” narrative, what was the motive? This is one of those facts we’ll likely never know. At the time, baseball and gambling were intertwined. The sport had far more dirty players than eight guys from Chicago. Hal Chase, for example, was known to be gambling on and throwing games as recently as 1918; baseball knew, and baseball did nothing. Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker fixed a Tigers-Indians game. There was some evidence that the Cubs and Red Sox conspired to lengthen the 1918 series. Eight players from the New York Giants were eventually banned for various crooked behavior. The list goes on and on. And the money was good: for Cicotte, the money he was promised for throwing the Series was equal to his salary. Therefore, it was a low-risk, high-reward proposition. The players simply had no reason to believe they would get caught, or punished.

The day concluded with another panel, “Eight Myths Out: Shedding New Light on Baseball’s Darkest Hour.” Again, I refer you back to SABR, whose Eight Myths Out project is enlightening. You can’t really be angry at Comiskey for the salaries, but you can be angry at him for knowing about the fix as early as Game 1 (possibly even earlier) and doing nothing, just hoping nobody would ever find out. You can be mad at Chick Gandil and Cicotte, who were the clear ringleaders and were plotting the fix for weeks before the season even ended.

During the Q&A, I was chosen to ask a question (here at the 1:03:40 mark). “(1) Did banning the Black Sox in fact, save baseball? (2) It’s been said that the White Sox had the talent to compete with the Yankees in the 1920s, and their banishment helped lead to the rise of the Yankee juggernaut we all love to hate. Is that valid, or another myth?”

To the first half of my question, panelist Bill Lamb (author, Black Sox in the Courtroom) noted that if the goal was deterrence, particularly with the Buck Weaver banishment, then “mission accomplished.” Bruce Allardice — professor of history at South Suburban College, White Sox fan, and author of numerous articles about the scandal — added, “The more I read about the dead ball era, the more amazed I am that any games got played. The gambling was so prevalent, and the money was so big, it’s amazing the players were as honest as they were.”

But it’s Jacob Pomrenke, chair of SABR’s Black Sox Scandal Research Committee, who jumps on the second half of my question first: “The 1921 hypothetical American League pennant race between the Yankees and the White Sox sure would have been a lot of fun, but we never did get to see that one. It is very interesting to think about what the White Sox would have done in the 1920s … It’s very likely that the White Sox would have continued to stay contenders.”

There may have been a funereal pall that fell over the room at that moment, or maybe it was just in my own heart as I imagined this alternate White Sox history. This is the canvas on which I paint my story. If the players just flat-out hadn’t done it. If it had only been Gandil and Cicotte, and they were then the only ones banned. If Jackson and Weaver had enjoyed long, prolific careers. If the “clean” pitcher Red Faber wasn’t sick, with his starts going instead to conspirators Cicotte and Lefty Williams. If the Sox had won multiple pennants, if not another World Series, in the ’20s. What if, what if, what if …

These are the questions that haunt a Sox fan’s soul. What would a history of being good, being relevant, actually feel like? Would we even be White Sox fans with such a history? So much of our Sox-fan identity — the dismissal, the national irrelevance, the chip on our collective shoulders — is rooted in this original sin.

I left the symposium buoyant to be surrounded by so many other baseball nerds, and to hear the facts of history, even if (and maybe especially because) they didn’t match up to the stories of my youth. I also left a bit sad, for generations of White Sox fans. There are missing pieces in the research, they told us — notes from the White Sox secretary, for example, interviews in old newspapers, court documents — stories still to be told. But the main story for me, and for a century of South Side fans, has already been written.


12 thoughts on “A century later, contemplating the Black Sox scandal with 200 other baseball nerds

  1. This is a really fabulous piece, Laura. Very, very well done. I’m sitting right there with you.

    I believe @mark-liptak has some of the background behind this, but there was some cache of Black Sox files that supposedly disappeared from Comiskey Park after Bill Veeck sold the team the first (or second?) time …


    1. It wasn’t specifically on the Black Sox but just White Sox history in general. However Mike Veeck did find Shoeless Joe Jackson’s original Sox contract at the bottom of an elevator shaft at Comiskey Park!


  2. Nice article, thank you. You muse about how would the Sox have been in the 1920s if the ban never occurred. Another consideration is that the Sox were a second division club from 1921 to 1935, and never finished higher than 3rd until 1957. So 36 straight years of a 3rd place or worse finish, thanks to the Black Sox and the aftermath they created.


    1. It’s heartbreaking to think about where the franchise would be today, if they weren’t irrelevant for 4 decades after that series.


  3. Thanks, Laura. I had hoped to be there myself, but some personal issues have derailed my past few weeks. I really appreciate you having taken the time to write this up for us and share both some of the content and your own perspective on it. Kudos, and much appreciated.


    1. There was lots of other good stuff, like Edd Rousch’s granddaughter talking about his perspective, and that of his Reds teammates, on the series. And one guy gave a very detailed accounting of the payroll. Some discussion of how legalized gambling may affect the game today. But the article was getting long as it was!


  4. Very nice job, Laura. Looking at B-R for the decade after 1919, It seems like Ciccotte and Williams were the most tragic loss for that team. Willie Kamm (1923) and Earl Sheely (1921) came along, and both played as well as, or better than Weaver and Gandil at 3B and 1B, respectively. Kamm might have moved Weaver back over to SS. Bibb Falk and Johnny Mostil were brought up immediately, and would have created a nice bottleneck in the OF.


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