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Baseball's Darkest Day.

The 1919 Chicago White Sox were good enough to make big money--by cheating to lose

When the rumors were confirmed, it broke America's heart. The best team in baseball, the Chicago White Sox, had thrown the World Series for money.

Cheating may be on the rise, but its most famous moment in professional sports came in 1919, when six White Sox players took money from gamblers to make sure they lost the championship to the Cincinnati Reds. The scandal threatened to destroy the national game. And it gave us a classic lament of the disillusioned, in the cry supposedly uttered by a boy to his tainted hero, left fielder Joe Jackson: "Say it ain't so, Joe!"

After an 88-52 season, the American League champion White Sox were favored to win the World Series by 5-1 odds. But on September 18, 13 days before the scheduled Series opener, Chicago first baseman Arnold "Chick" Gandil approached Joseph "Sport" Sullivan, a gambling crony, with a startling proposition: an offer to throw the Series for $100,000.

The Sox were a talented but troubled lot, full of dissension and resentful of their owner, Charles Comiskey, a notorious tightwad. The moniker "Black Sox," which would be applied to the scandal, had in fact been coined by the players the year before, after Comiskey had refused to launder their uniforms and they had worn the dirty ones in protest.

Gandil knew just whose participation was needed for the fix to work. Ace pitcher Eddie Cicotte had been promised a $10,000 bonus if he won 30 games that year. But as soon as he reached 29 wins, Comiskey had benched him. So Cicotte agreed to the scheme--for a $10,000 advance. Claude "Lefty" Williams, the team's other top pitcher, also signed on.

The money was reportedly put up by Arnold Rothstein, a New York gambler. The night before the first game in Cincinnati, Cicotte checked into his hotel room to find $10,000 in cash under his pillow. When he took the mound the next day, his second pitch landed squarely between the batter's shoulder blades. The Reds had a leadoff runner and the gamblers had a signal: The fix was on.

Losing the first game 9-1, Cicotte didn't even make it look good. The second game was closer, a 4-2 Chicago loss, but Williams gave up six walks. Wrote The New York Times:

He had everything but control, and his control was so hopelessly bad that every Cincinnati runner who scored got to first base on a pass. Williams established himself as the World Series Santa Claus of all times. His philanthropy was unbounded, and if he had money to distribute instead of bases on balls he would probably flood the country with public libraries.... It seemed cruel to the other White Sox players to stand idly by and watch their star southpaw hand the Reds the game on a silver salver [tray].

Of course, the conspirators couldn't control everything. Rookie Sox pitcher Dickie Kerr, who was not in on the scheme, shut out the Reds, 3-0, in the third game. Also, payments were not coming from the gamblers, as scheduled, after every loss. Gandil and company played to win in a couple of games when money was not forthcoming. The fix was on, then off, then back on again.

One player whose role can still start a good sports-bar argument is "Shoeless" Joe Jackson. He was one of the game's best hitters--and also an unsophisticated South Carolina farm boy. Gandil approached him repeatedly, and even passed him money at one point. But Jackson later said he had asked to be dropped from the Series, and had tried to see Comiskey to hand the cash over. "I played my heart out," he said--and he did hit .375 and the Series' only homer.

It all came down to the night before game eight in the best-of-nine Series. The Reds led, 4 games to 3. Williams, who was scheduled to pitch, had a nighttime visitor, sent by the gamblers, who told him that if he and his wife valued their health, the Sox would lose the Series the next day. The Sox lost.

Sportswriter Hugh Fullerton of The New York World smelled a rat:

An evil-minded person might believe the stories that have been circulated during the Series. The fact is, this Series was lost in the first game.

The controversy blew over until the next September, when a grand jury looking into an unrelated incident widened its scope to take in the 1919 World Series. Eddie Cicotte was the first to confess he had thrown games:

I did it by not putting a thing on the ball. You could have read the trademark on it, the way I lobbed it over the plate. A baby could have hit 'em.

Joe Jackson also told what he knew.

The story hit the nation hard. A Times editorial declared:

... if the prosecution really has evidence to support the accusations made by various sporting writers about the last World Series, it is the worst thing that has ever happened to professional baseball.

In all, eight White Sox players were tried for conspiracy to defraud the public. But they were acquitted for lack of evidence, thanks in part to the mysterious disappearance of the transcripts of players' confessions, which turned up four years later in the possession of Comiskey's lawyer.

Still, the scandal had so tainted baseball that team owners looked for a savior to rescue the sport. They found Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, a stern, respected figure. Appointed the first commissioner of baseball, Landis's first act was to ban all eight Black Sox players--those who had known about the scheme--from baseball for life. No matter that Jackson and one of the others denied guilt, and pointed to their fine play in the Series as evidence. Landis explained:

Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player who throws a ball game, no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ball game, no player that sits in conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing a game are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.

And so baseball was saved, and the villains were punished. Or were they? None of the gamblers involved suffered as a result of the scandal. Comiskey, whose stinginess had helped to inspire the whole mess, went on minting money in the ball park that bore his name. Major-league players would continue for decades to have no union and to be grossly underpaid by the team owners.

Meanwhile, Joe Jackson, who still holds the third-best lifetime batting average in baseball but has been kept out of the Hall of Fame, would go to his grave insisting he was innocent. In 1949, he referred to the court's verdict when he told a writer:

Baseball failed to keep faith with me. When I got notice of my suspension ... it read that if found innocent of any wrongdoing, I would be reinstated. If found guilty, I would be banned for life. I was found innocent, and I was still banned for life.

As for the story of "Say it ain't so, Joe"? Perhaps fittingly, it ain't so. The broken-hearted boy's plea was actually dreamed up by a Chicago Daily News sportswriter. Said Jackson, when asked about the imagined comment years later: "Oh, I would have said it ain't so, all right, just like I'm saying it now."

Baseball's Darkest Day

FOCUS: How and Why Chicago White Sox Players Threw the 1919 World Series


To help students understand one of the most bizarre episodes of cheating in American sports history--the 1919 baseball World Series, in which several members of the Chicago White Sox accepted gamblers' money to lose on purpose.

Discussion Questions:

* Explain why you believe Charles Comiskey did or did not contribute to the atmosphere that resulted in the throwing of the 1919 World Series. Did his stinginess justify cheating?

* Do you agree with Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis that players who did not participate in the conspiracy but knew about it and failed to report it deserved to be banned from baseball?


Guided Reading: Address two points in the article: (1) Charles Comiskey's penny-pinching, evidenced by the low salaries he paid and his refusal even to launder team uniforms; (2) the benching of Eddie Cicotte after his 29th win to avoid paying him a $10,000 bonus for winning 30 games.

Critical Thinking: Write these statements on the board: "I'm just fighting fire with fire." "I've got it coming." These are among the most common rationalizations offered for cheating (as identified by the Josephson Institute of Ethics--see page 10). The first suggests that if one's adversary engages in deceit, one has the right to respond in kind. The second suggests that because one is underpaid and unappreciated it is permissible to cheat. Students are not professional athletes, but have they ever found themselves in a similar situation? Have students discuss whether these rationalizations are equivalent to the argument that "everyone is doing it."

Next, note that the players were tried for conspiracy to defraud the public. Did they defraud Comiskey or the public--or both?

Debate: Should "Shoeless" Joe Jackson be admitted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame?

Web Watch: For background on "Shoeless" Joe Jackson and the scandal, and to cast a vote on allowing Jackson into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, log on to /shoeless/shoeless.html
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:six Chicago White Sox players accept bribes from a gambler to lose the 1919 World Series
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2001
Previous Article:Mission Possible?
Next Article:Should You Turn In a Cheater?

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