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.


Today in White Sox History: September 29

Blood brothers: Ozzie Guillén and Ken Williams celebrate the division title.

Sept. 29, 1908 — White Sox starting pitcher Ed Walsh fired two complete games in a doubleheader against the Boston Red Sox. He won both by the scores of 5-1 and 2-0. In 1908, Walsh would have arguably the greatest pitching year in the history of the game, winning 40 times with an ERA of 1.42.

Sept. 29, 1917 — With a 3-1 win in the second game of a doubleheader in New York, the White Sox won their 100th game of the season. That remains the most wins in a single season in franchise history. Eddie Cicotte picked up the win.

Sept. 29, 1920 — With the White Sox leading the American League late in the season, pitcher Eddie Cicotte and outfielder Joe Jackson confessed (without an attorney present) that they helped throw the 1919 World Series. Charles Comiskey suspended eight players; the Sox collapsed down the stretch and blew the pennant, losing out to Cleveland by two games.

Sept. 29, 1921 — One of the “clean” White Sox, pitcher Dickie Kerr, was honored with a day at Comiskey Park. Kerr then went out and fired one of his best games, blanking Cleveland on six hits to win, 5-0.

Sept. 29, 1967 — The Sox still had a chance for the pennant, but lost 1-0 to the Senators. The only run was set up when first baseman Tommy McCraw wasn’t able to catch a pop up off the bat of Washington’s Fred Valentine in the first inning. NBC-TV had erected a barrier for their field level cameras in case the World Series came to Comiskey Park, and Valentine’s pop fell into that enclosed area near the visitor’s dugout. Valentine then singled to drive in the only run.

The 1967 season marked the 17th straight year that the Sox finished better than .500.

Sept. 29, 1990 — The last night game ever played at the original Comiskey Park was won by the White Sox, 4-2. Frank Thomas slapped a two-run single up the middle off Seattle Mariners starter Matt Young to drive in the go-ahead runs.

Sept. 29, 2005 — The White Sox beat the Tigers in Detroit, 4-2, clinching the Central Division title. The Sox won 99 regular season games and led the division every day of the season (and remain one of the few teams in baseball history to go wire-to-wire). The Sox then blitzed through the postseason, going 11-1 on their way to the world championship. They swept Houston in four games to get it.

Sept. 29, 2008 — White Sox shortstop Alexei Ramírez set a major league rookie record when he hit his fourth grand slam of the season in an 8-2 win over the Tigers. The home run would also tie the franchise record for most grand slams in a season. Albert Belle originally set that mark in 1997.