The Sunday Magazine

Revisiting the Black Sox Scandal of 1919

A hundred years ago this past week, the Chicago White Sox and Cincinnati Reds met in an infamous World Series. Eight White Sox players conspired with gamblers to fix the Series and were later banished from the game for life. Jacob Pomrenke of the Society for American Baseball Research’s Black Sox Committee details how the villains, victims and tragic heroes (think Shoeless Joe Jackson) may not be who we think.
Shoeless Joe Jackson and seven other members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox were banned from baseball after the league determined they conspired to throw the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. (Getty Images)

Baseball has had some dark times — institutionalized racism, steroids and season-ending labour disputes, to name a few. But the Black Sox Scandal has attained a mythic status of baseball's "darkest hour."

One hundred years ago this past week, eight Chicago White Sox, players took bribes from gamblers to fix the World Series. The heavily favoured White Sox lost the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds, the conspiracy was revealed, and the eight White Sox players — thereafter known as the Black Sox — were banished from baseball for life. 

Popular culture has been very forgiving of the Black Sox, however. 

The novel by W.P. Kinsella inspired the 1989 Kevin Costner film Field of Dreams. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

The John Sayles film, Eight Men Out, and the Eliot Asinof book of the same name, planted the narrative about the 1919 Black Sox that has become accepted as gospel: that White Sox owner Charles Comiskey was so stingy and so contemptuous toward his players that they threw the World Series — desperately in need of money and angry at being so disrespected.

Field of Dreams, based on W. P. Kinsella's novel, Shoeless Joe, further elevated White Sox left fielder Shoeless Joe Jackson into an American icon — a tragically wronged hero. 

To mark the hundredth anniversary of the 1919 World Series, the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) launched a Black Sox Committee led by Jacob Pomrenke, who has also edited a book on the subject called Scandal on the Southside.

Pomrenke joined The Sunday Edition's Michael Enright for a conversation about the 1919 World Series and how historical research has debunked a number of myths about the Black Sox scandal.

Michael Enright: Tell me about the eight players and how they conspired to fix the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds.

Jacob Pomrenke: The White Sox were just normal ballplayers. We've kind of held them up as this mythical team over the last hundred years because of the Black Sox scandal. But they were just an ordinary baseball team made up of ordinary baseball players and most of these guys came from the farms or the mills and they were just trying to get out of working for a living and trying to play baseball.

How much would they be making individually what would the salary be of a ballplayer that era?

The average salary for a major league baseball player was somewhere in the range of $3000 to $4000 a year, which was about seven times what the average American worker was making. And the White Sox actually made much higher salaries than most other baseball players. That kind of dispels one of the central myths of the Black Sox scandal — that the reason they did this is because they were so underpaid. Eliot Asinof wrote that the Black Sox were the lowest paid team in baseball, and that's not true at all.

Was there a lot of gambling going on in baseball and other sports at the time?

This is another one of the important factors that helps to understand what happened in 1919 because baseball and betting were so intertwined during this era. One hundred years ago you could go to the ballpark and place a bet on the next pitch — a strike or a ball — or whether a hitter made a hit or an out. And so this was an era when gambling was very commonplace and very casual. And this is one of the factors that led up to the Black Sox scandal — that the players associated with gamblers so casually that they didn't think twice about betting even on their own teams.

The real reason the Black Sox scandal happened is really its ease of opportunity. You know, there was so very little risk for what they were doing- Jacob Pomrenke

Let's talk about some of those players. Shoeless Joe Jackson, for example. 

You know, Shoeless Joe had a terrific series. He hit .375, he tied a World Series record with 12 hits, and he hit the only home run which was famously recounted in the movie Field of Dreams. Shoeless Joe was a terrific hitter, and even though we know that he took the money, you know, certainly played pretty well on the field and his statistics bear that out. And even though he was illiterate and he did not have much formal education, Shoeless Joe was actually a very shrewd businessman and he ran many successful businesses after his baseball career ended prematurely in the Black Sox scandal. So he was actually a pretty smart guy, even though his reputation was that he was kind of this country hick. He was he was a little sharper than people give him credit for.

Now, Chick Gandil was one of the ringleaders of the plot to throw the Series, wasn't he?

That's right. Chick Gandil was kind of this hard-nosed first baseman, and it was he and Eddie Cicotte, the ace pitcher, who actually instigated the fix. They were the two players who approached the gamblers, not the other way around. This is another one of the big misconceptions about the scandal, and Gandil and Cicotte were the two that approached the gamblers and then also recruited their own teammates to fix the World Series. So this was really a team effort on the part of the Black Sox. 

To mark the hundredth anniversary of the 1919 World Series, the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) launched a Black Sox Committee led by Jacob Pomrenke, who has also edited a book on the subject called Scandal on the Southside. (The Society for American Baseball Research)

Were they fed up with Charles Comiskey? What was the motivation of these guys? 

Well, you know, again the traditional story that many of us have grown up reading in Eight Men Out and watching in Hollywood films is that Charles Comiskey, the owner, the Scrooge character, is the reason why the Black Sox threw the World Series, and we know now that that was not really the case. You know players certainly were probably a little disgruntled at the boss just as many employees are. But Charles Comiskey really wasn't the super villain of this story. The real reason the Black Sox scandal happened is really its ease of opportunity. You know, there was so very little risk for what they were doing. Baseball had many opportunities to clean up the game from gambling, and they had always looked the other way. And so I think the Black Sox looked at this opportunity to make some extra money — probably as much as their entire annual salary in one week. And they saw very little risk and high reward. 

What about the story of Shoeless Joe coming into the courtroom where the kid comes up to him and says, "Say it ain't so, Joe." Did that really happen?

No, it did not happen. This was a story that was invented by a Chicago sportswriter. And you know, the "Say it ain't so, Joe" story is one that kind of lives on in our memories, in our imagination and in popular culture. This is a phrase that lives on and probably always will live on. But the story itself, like many of the details about the Black Sox scandal, was completely invented.

I don't have any sympathy at all for Joe Jackson, but my sympathies lie with Bucky Weaver because he didn't take the money, did he?

No, there's really no evidence that he ever took the money, and there's no evidence that he played less than his best on the field, but he did attend multiple meetings. He was an active participant in those meetings and there is some degree of guilt there, but certainly his degree of guilt is much less than Chick Gandil or Eddie Cicotte. You know, Buck Weaver had guilty knowledge, but then so did just about everyone else. I think that's something that gets lost sometimes in the telling of his story. Everyone in baseball had an inkling that something like this might happen. And so there were a lot of opportunities for people in baseball to clean up the game before 1919. And I think that's one of the reasons why the Black Sox threw the World Series is because there were many players that were involved in game-fixing scandals including two Hall of Famers — Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker — just one week before the World Series began. They threw a game between the Tigers and the Indians at the end of the 1919 regular season, but they're both in the Hall of Fame, as is Charles Comiskey. But it was the Black Sox who were caught, and it was the Black Sox who were held up for punishment and permanent banishment from baseball, unlike a lot of other people who had some guilt on their hands, as well.

Jacob Pomrenke's comments have been edited for length and clarity. Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.


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