The 1919 World Series: A (Not So) Brief History

20 Mar

The World Series of 1919 was one that will never be forgotten. But not for the incredible plays and great hitting. Nor for the fantastic pitching. Sadly, all of this was overshadowed by one of, if not the most, infamous conspiracies in baseball history. Eight players from the Chicago White Sox were banned from organized baseball for life for participating in or having knowledge of a fix. But what was this fix? Before we can go into further detail of the fix itself, we must first look at all that led up to it. For this is just as important.

Finishing with a record of 88-52, 3.5 games ahead of the Cleveland Indians, the White Sox were easily the favorites to take the series over Cincinnati. However, their first baseman, Chick Gandil, was approached by professional gambler “Sport” Sullivan with a proposition just a few weeks before the series was to begin: throw the World Series. The White Sox owner, Charlie Comiskey, was a penny-pincher. Barely paying even his star players enough to get by. In one legend, he refused to have the team’s uniforms washed, and they became known derisively as the “Black Sox.” Fed up with his stingy ways, Gandil convinced six other players to throw the series in exchange for $10,000 each. And thus, the notorious Black Sox scandal began.

Arnold “Chick” Gandil was the ringleader of the eight man circus. Working with friend and teammate Charles “Swede” Risberg, they scheduled meetings before games to decide whether or not to throw the game, and if so, who would take the fall. But they couldn’t throw every game. In fact Gandil himself got a game-winning hit and batted .233 throughout the series, with 5 runs batted in. He batted even better than some players who didn’t participate in the fix. Nevertheless, with his 60 RBIs and .290 BA for the season, he was projected to do much better than he had. And with his sloppy defense and involvement with “Sport” Sullivan, there was no doubt that he went through with the fix.

Charles “Swede” Risberg was the youngest member of the Black Sox and arguably one of the most talented. Risberg had a .256 BA for the season with 38 RBIs, 19 SB, and 48 runs scored. Even the White Sox manager, Kid Gleason, thought he might be the, “star of the show.” However the budding shortstop had other ideas. Mr. Risberg assisted Chick Gandil in organizing the scheme. He collected money from gamblers and delivered it to his teammates. Charles took home $15,000 for his role in the fix. And it was well earned. The gifted young player hit only .080 (2 for 25) in the series and had an unprecedented 8 errors. The premature demise of Risberg’s  career was unfortunate. It leaves one to wonder what kind of a career he would have had, had he not gotten entangled in the great conspiracy.

Eddie Cicotte had the most influence in the games he started than any other players on the team. After celebrating his 30th birthday, and discovering the “shine ball,” he had a remarkable record of 29-7 and was second in ERA, behind only Walter Johnson. But once again, this talented player tarnished his career and reputation forever by including himself in the ill-famed Black Sox scandal. With starting pitcher Urban “Red” Faber pulled from the roster for having “the flu,” Gleason was left with only three starters for nine games. Little did Gleason know, that this would only help them throw the series. If Faber had been healthy there never would have been a fix. He almost certainly would have gotten starts that went to Williams or Cicotte. But you can’t change what happened, and what happened was not pretty. When Cicotte was approached by Williams, he asked for $10,000 before the series even started. In return, Cicotte would hit the very first batter of Game One to signal that the fix was on. And from there it was all downhill. Chicago lost the game to Cincinnati 9-1. He went on to lose the rest of his starts, except for one, where he threw a one run game to avoid elimination.

Many would say that Oscar “Happy” Felsch was the best all-around center fielder in baseball history. And ironically, his last year in the majors was his best. He finished the 1920 season with a .338 BA and a career-high 14 home runs. However, it’s not that season that he’s remembered for, it’s the one before it. It was his second and last fall classic, and boy was it one to be remembered. Happy, too, joined in on the scheme. For $10,000, although he only received $5,000, he agreed to help throw the World Series. The outfielder hit only .192 with only one extra base hit , a double. And after botched catches in both games five and six, he was demoted to right field. The ball player was undeniably caught up in the madness, and years later gave up all the information he had to Eliot Asinof for his book Eight Men Out.

Claude “Lefty” Williams finished the 1919 regular season with a 23-11 record and a 2.64 ERA. But he too, was approached by Chick Gandil in an effort to throw the World Series. Williams agreed and for $10,000, even though he too only received $5,000, he went 0-3 for the series with a disappointing 6.63 ERA. In game two, he gave up three runs in the fourth inning, and unsurprisingly, the Sox lost 4-2. And in game five, Williams had a 4-run sixth inning in which Cincinnati went on to win 4-0. Williams was undoubtedly a crucial part of the fix, and once again, a talented young player was lost to the greedy ways of his peers.

Although he was only a utility infielder, Fred McMullin still played a part in the fix. As an advance scout for the series, he received an equal amount of money for giving the “Clean Sox” a faulty report on the Reds. But why would Gandil ask McMullin to be involved in the fix? Certainly, he could have had someone else give a false report to the rest of the team. Well McMullin overheard talk of the fix and decided he wanted in. He threatened to tell Comiskey if he didn’t get the money. And although his role in the series was small (two plate appearances in eight games) he was still involved and knew of the fix. Earning himself a spot on the list of players banned from baseball.

“Shoeless” Joe Jackson was clearly the star of the team. He finished that season with a .351 BA, which was fourth in the American League, and top five in SLG, RBIs, total bases, and base hits. Jackson did not actually participate in the scheme, but he admitted that he did let up in key situations. And although he knew about it, he failed to report it. He even accepted $5,000, although he was promised $20,000. Jackson batted .375 in the series, but there was no fixing the defacing of his gemstone career. He continued to maintain his innocence until his death in 1951.

Buck Weaver never accepted any money for, nor participated in the arrangement. Unsurprisingly, he had knowledge of the fix and even attended meetings. He batted .324 in the series. Refusing to have anything to do with the fix, he played as best as he could, making some fantastic defensive plays. But as newly inaugurated Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis said, “Men associating with crooks and gamblers could expect no leniency.” Weaver, too, was banned and continued to try and appeal the banishment until his death in 1965.

The idea to fix the World Series was that of Joseph “Sport” Sullivan. He was a professional gambler and acquaintance of Chick Gandil. Sullivan and his two colleagues, “Sleepy” Bill Burns and Billy Maharg, a little out of their comfort zones, went to New York gangster, Arnold Rothstein. Rothstein supplied the connections, while former featherweight boxing champion, Abe Attel, supplied the money. Though he did not have all $80,000 promised. To this day, it is still unclear as to who crossed who, but it is known that there were two separate plans to throw the World Series. Many players, while promised $10,000, only received $5,000 and the money went to the gamblers. These men were just as much a part of the fix as the eight players.

Before the series even started, writer, Hugh Fullerton, was tipped off about the scheme. He even alerted White Sox owner, Charlie Comiskey. But Comiskey refused to believe it. Fullerton sent word of the rumors to all newspapers carrying his column and informed people to avoid betting on the series, “Advise All Not To Bet on This Series. Ugly Rumors Afloat.” Fullerton enlisted the help of player Christy Mathewson, and throughout the series, circled seven plays they agreed looked suspicious. They also questioned some of the pitching.

Even after word of the fix broke, and there was no doubt that it was true, many refused to believe such a monstrosity occurred in America’s beloved game. One writer, Francis C. Richter-editor for the Reach Baseball Guide- wrote the following in 1920, “any man who insinuates that the 1919 World Series was not honorably played by every participant, therein not only does not know what he is talking about, but is a menace to the game quite as much as the gamblers would be if they had the ghost of a chance to get in their nefarious work.”

News of the fix first broke in September of 1920. Leaving players and fans alike, stunned. On September 28th, even bigger news broke. Joe Jackson and Eddie Cicotte admitted their involvement. The eight White Sox implicated during the grand jury hearings were indicted for fraud. The trial began in July of 1921. Cicotte, Jackson, and Claude Williams’ confessions were admissible and related to the jury.

At the end of the trial, the state asked for $2,000 fines and five year jail sentences. The jury acquitted the men after only three hours deliberation. No state statute prohibited throwing games, and the Black Sox and jurors celebrated together afterwards.

Because of the scandal, baseball eradicated the three-man National Commission in favor of a single commissioner. Federal judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis was chosen for the position and soon said this, “Regardless of the verdict of the jury, no player that throws a ballgame, no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ballgame, no player that sits in a conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing games are planned and discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it will ever play professional baseball.” All eight men were banned from organized baseball for life.

The press portrayed the devastated Comiskey as a tragic victim and the Black Sox as aberrant, evil men who betrayed baseball’s purity. In reality, the fix was the culmination of many years of white-washed baseball corruption. It can be said that Comiskey self-inflicted his enormous losses with his tight fisted treatment of players. Because of this fraudulent scheme, many legendary players are not remembered for their hard work and talent on the field, but their shady means of getting by off the field. And that, is truly a shame.

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