100 Years Ago: Black Sox

As Major League Baseball takes a break for its annual All-Star game, let’s take our time machine back to 1919. A year after the end of the Great War, the U.S. was recovering from the Great Influenza Pandemic and beginning a decade of prosperity. Baseball was truly the national pastime. But a hundred years later, the 1919 World Series is still remembered in infamy for the “Black Sox” players who conspired with gamblers to lose the Series.

The White Sox were World Series champions in 1917. The following year several of their players, including star outfielder “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, went off to war and the Sox fell to sixth place. Back to full strength in 1919, they won the American League pennant and faced the Cincinnati Reds in the Series. Several Sox players followed the lead of ace pitcher Eddie Cicotte: In exchange for $10,000 each ($146,000 in 2019 dollars) they made a deal with gamblers to lose.

The Chicago White Sox were already jokingly referred to as the “Black Sox.” The team’s penurious owner, Charles Comiskey, did not provide laundry service; he expected the players to wash their own uniforms. In protest, the players wore dirty flannels, hence the derisive nickname.

Long before Curt Flood and free agency, the so-called reserve clause precluded a baseball player from signing with another team when his contract expired at the end of the season. (All contracts were one-year then.) A team owner “reserved” his players. Only if an owner traded him – which meant another team reserved him – or released him unconditionally from his contract could a player sign with another team.

Although he had assembled what was considered one of the greatest teams ever, the White Sox player salaries were below the Major-League average. On the road, White Sox players received $3 per diem meal money; $4 was the norm.

The White Sox lost the Series. Crooks being crooks, the gambling contingent reneged and the players received little of the agreed-upon cash. Joe Jackson got nothing. What eight players got a year later was a grand jury indictment for conspiracy to defraud. The subsequent trial generated headlines across the nation and what a youthful fan may or may not have famously said to Jackson as he left the courthouse: “Say it ain’t so, Joe.”

The jury found them not guilty.

Meanwhile Baseball had appointed its first commissioner, federal judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis. (The National and American Leagues each had its own commissioner.) Landis promptly announced that regardless of the jury’s verdict, the eight would never again play professional baseball. Landis then devoted the rest of his twenty-four year reign as commissioner to keeping non-white players out of the game.

“Shoeless” Joe Jackson, from rural South Carolina and illiterate, may not have actually agreed to be in on the fix. He was present at none of the meetings. A lifetime .356 hitter (.408 in 1911), he batted .375 in the series and threw out five baserunners from right field. (Jackson got his nickname early in his career. Complaining about blisters from ill-fitting spiked shoes, he took them off and promptly hit a triple in his stocking feet.) He confessed then recanted to receiving $5,000. He protested his innocence for the rest of his life.

George “Buck” Weaver knew of the conspiracy but refused to participate. Weaver, a career .272 hitter, batted .324 in the Series and played error-less third base. He officially appealed his banishment six times, all unsuccessful. Weaver died in 1956; family members and advocates still continue to campaign for his reinstatement.

Charles Comiskey is in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

John Sayles’s 1988 film Eight Men Out is one of the very few movies in which the actors appear to actually be able to play baseball. Like Field of Dreams a year later, Shoeless Joe Jackson plays a prominent role. Unlike Field of Dreams where Jackson bats right and throws left, he bats left and throws right in Eight Men Out – as he did in life.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.