By John Rodden
Rodden is the author of some twenty books on topics as different as the career of George Orwell and Communism in East Germany. He received his Ph.D. degree from the University of Virginia
Baseball never tires of seeing itself as “America’s Game” and loves to celebrate its most famous anniversaries. Yet there certainly won‘t be an official celebration — or even one of baseball‘s nostalgic commemorations — of the infamous Black Sox scandal.
The Black Sox scandal was arguably the most embarrassing — of a long series of scandals that have tarnished the noble image of baseball in particular and American athletic culture in general. Sportsmanship, physical prowess, respect for rules, fair play — all these virtues were attributed to (or claimed by) baseball stars until the mid-twentieth century. Stars ranging from Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and Stan Musial to Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Willie Mays were virtually mythic figures to boys of past generations. For boys like us, the Black Sox scandal was a stain on the sport, a shameful, hushed event rarely discussed.
The 1919 season was capped off by an impressive performance by the Chicago White Sox, who captured their second pennant in three years. Despite the team success, eight players agreed to throw the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds in which they were heavy favorites. The eight conspirators numbered two pitchers, Eddie Cicotte and Lefty Williams, who between them had won 52 games. They also included one of the greatest hitters of all time — Shoeless Joe Jackson, one of the few hitters ever to reach the .400 mark. Jackson hit .351 in 1919, the fourth highest among American League batters.
The architect of the plot was a journeyman first baseman, Chick Gandil, who reached out to gamblers and demanded a $100,000 payoff if his teammates played to lose. The money was provided by a New York gambler, Arnold Rothstein, known as ‘Big Bankroll.’ As a signal to the gamblers that the fix was in, Cicotte agreed to hit the lead-off Reds batter in Game One.
The star pitchers, Cicotte and Williams, proceeded to lose four of the first five games, which raised suspicions. The usually steady Cicotte made two crucial errors in one game. In another, Williams, a superb pitcher, walked three batters in one inning. Rumors of a fix were rampant.
Since the Series was a best-of-nine affair, the White Sox still had a chance. When the White Sox players involved in the fix didn’t receive all their money, they decided to double cross the gamblers and play to win. Both Game Six and Game Seven went to the Sox. In Game Eight, however, Williams gave up four runs in the first inning, which sealed a Reds victory. Williams later claimed that the gamblers had threatened his and his family‘s welfare if he didn’t throw the game.
The Series ended, but the rumors endured. The story finally broke toward the end of the 1920 baseball season. Cicotte and Jackson admitted taking money to fix the Series and implicated six of their teammates. A trial in Chicago acquitted the eight White Sox players, the original confessions somehow disappeared, a fate not so uncommon in the city of Al Capone.
The ‘‘Black‘‘ Sox, as they were now commonly described, didn’t have long to celebrate. Newly appointed Commissioner of Baseball Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis was determined to break the hold of gambling on “America‘s Game.” He banned all eight “Black Sox” players permanently.
In 1963, Eddie Asinof‘s “Eight Men Out” renewed interest in the Black Sox story. It immortalized the illiterate Jackson as a fallen hero of tragedy. The book was later made into a popular film.
Baseball has often been portrayed as a mythic contest on the field of battle, and this tendency has also fed the legend-building stories about “Shoeless Joe” and the Black Sox. Witness, for instance, Bernard Malamud’s The Natural (1952), in which a Ruthian hero, Roy Hobbs, participates in a fix to win the pennant, after which a young boy asks the fallen star: “Say it ain‘t so, Joe.” That line is, of course, apparently apocryphal remark of a small boy to Shoeless Joe himself. (“Yes kid, I’m afraid it is,” replied Shoeless Joe.)
The 1980s were a rich decade for Black Sox lore and baseball noir. Malamud‘s novel reached the silver screen in 1984. Five years later W.P. Kinsella’s novel, “Shoeless Joe” was made into the hugely-popular film as “Field of Dreams.”
When memory dies, myth remains. “Field of Dreams” has replaced history in the life story of Shoeless Joe. Plans are underway for the New York Yankees and Chicago White Sox to stage a game on the baseball diamond on which the events of the movie transpired.