The Black Sox scandal is one of the most prominent blemishes in baseball’s checkered past. The rigging of the 1919 World Series is also one of the biggest scandals in the history of sports betting.
Because the events took place over a century ago, you may not know as much about the scandal as you think.
Today, you’ll learn the truths behind the tale, as I separate the fiction from the facts about this historical gaffe.
Setting the Record Straight
You are likely most familiar with the Black Sox scandal because of the movie Eight Men Out. The baseball classic starring Charlie Sheen and John Cusack is a film adaptation of the book of the same name by Eliot Asinof.
While Asinof did a fantastic job painting a picture of the Black Sox scandal from before the 1919 World Series to the aftermath and fallout, there were some clear embellishments and glaring historical errors.
I want to shed light on some of the misconceptions about the MLB betting scandal and the men involved.
The Ball Players Were the Real Masterminds
Many people mistakenly believe it was the gamblers that had to sell the fix to the players.
The idea that savvy hustlers manipulated the naive athletes into following their diabolical scheme is flat-out wrong. It sounds much better to the baseball romantic that they were somehow duped.
But the facts point at the players approaching the gamblers to pitch the scheme.
Records of the events indicate that it was White Sox player Chuck Gandil that initiated the plan to fix the 1919 World Series. Gandil apparently also served as the go-between for players and gamblers.
Gandil’s role as facilitator also included being the money man. Gandil would get the money from the gamblers and then distribute the cash among the other players.
Unsurprisingly, Gandil pocketed the lion’s share for himself. While Gandil took home a smooth $35,000 for his efforts (or lack thereof), no other player got more than $10,000.
There’s no honor among thieves.
By the way, that measly $35k would be $500k in today’s dollars.
Now consider that there were only about 10,000 millionaires in the country in 1919. Not too shabby, but it was hardly worth the cost.
Lefty’s Life Wasn’t on the Line
Despite how many times you might have heard this and how intriguing it might sound, it’s not true. Hitmen were not intimidating White Sox pitcher Lefty Williams.
Asinof later admitted to this embellishment in an interview. Asinof noted that he sprinkled in some pure fiction to his book. He figured that way others would be clearly exposed if he wasn’t properly credited as a source.
However, this obscure interview wasn’t nearly as widely received as was the book itself. Hence, it’s mostly accepted as fact and not the simple bit of storytelling that it was.
You’ll notice that most of the misconceptions about the players aim to paint them in a better light. The hitman fallacy is no different.
You really couldn’t fault Lefty for intentionally losing games if well-heeled gangsters were lurking in the shadows.
But no evidence supports this claim at all.
By Asinof’s own account, it’s fiction
This Was Not a Silent Protest
The White Sox didn’t throw the World Series as some form of upheaval against an oppressive owner.
It’s a myth that’s been around since the scandal occurred, and it was first brought about by defense attorneys and later propagated by Asinof in his book.
Sure, the idea of a group of players banding together against the wealthy owner that refuses to pay a fair wage is romantic. Depending on which side of history you’re on, it certainly sounds a lot better than the truth.
You could probably make an argument that all players of the time were underpaid, but the White Sox were definitely better off than most.
Then there’s the notion that Comiskey had wronged pitcher Eddie Cicotte on a performance bonus. Cicotte was set to receive an additional $10k for a 30-win season. That’s a good chunk of money even for today — maybe not by MLB standards, but for the time, it was huge.
In fact, Cicotte had his opportunity to win his 30th game when the White Sox clinched the pennant. So, the notion that the 2nd highest-paid pitcher in baseball was somehow being snowed by the owner is implausible.
Of course, if you’re a defense attorney worth your salt, you spin a tale of the wealthy owner who is taking advantage of the player.
After all, what juror wouldn’t want to root for their baseball idol?
Even if they are clearly guilty as sin.
Much has been made of the missing or stolen confessions.
Actually, the missing confessions were a complete nonfactor at the trials.
Yet, missing transcripts were no more than an inconvenience for prosecutors. The courtroom stenographer simply referred back to their shorthand notes of the testimony and produced a fresh set of the transcripts. Those re-created transcripts were used for the trial.
Defense attorneys for the disgraced players were so familiar with the process of the time that they never questioned the accuracy of the transcripts.
The missing documents were absolutely no problem at all. Even the court stenographer wasn’t too inconvenienced. After all, they had the luxury of being paid to do the same work twice.
The Fix Didn’t Come Out of Left Field
The 1919 Black Sox Scandal was not the shock that those who ran baseball liked to make it seem. The evidence indeed suggests that White Sox owner Comiskey knew something, and those in control of baseball simply prayed that the fix would never be exposed.
Fixed games in baseball happened in the game for decades. Going back to the 1860s and through the early twentieth century, the fix was on in baseball. Shoeless Joe and his fellow conspirators were hardly outliers or trendsetters.
Any suggestion that the Black Sox scandal was an isolated occurrence is complete nonsense.
Cicotte has said that he and his teammates were jealous of the massive amount of money the crosstown Cubs players allegedly got as payment for throwing the 1918 World Series. That year the Red Sox anchored by the one, and only Babe Ruth took the title in 6 games.
The White Sox weren’t even the only team to be accused of fixing games in 1919. Future Hall of Famers Tris Speaker and Ty Cobb (one of the greatest players ever) caught heat for allegedly fixing a game days before the World Series began.
The grand jury that held the Black Sox proceedings was actively looking into a regular-season game involving the Cubs and Phillies when it dealt with the World Series scandal.
Here’s my point:
The Black Sox scandal wasn’t a rare occurrence spurred on by a handful of greedy players. Instead, it was the culmination of a legacy of corruption in professional baseball that spanned more than three decades.
After the Black Sox scandal was uncovered, it was in the best interest of the owners and baseball itself to treat it as blasphemy. Otherwise, they’d be forced to own up to the corruption and legacy of cheats that had tainted the game’s purity.
There was too much money on the line for everyone, and owners had to protect their precious cash cow — not unlike the troves of baseball fans that sought to demonize the owners or unsavory gamblers to preserve the image of their idols.
The fact of the matter is that baseball had become infected by this type of cheating. After the seedy facts surfaced, Shoeless Joe and his co-conspirators paid the price of being banned from the great game. This was a final effort by the commissioner to sweep the actual depth of depravity under the rug.
Baseball quickly recovered from one of the biggest sports betting scandals of all time and remained one of the most popular professional sports around.
Shoeless Joe Jackson is perhaps the most well-known of the Black Sox players, and despite there being no evidence that he took any actions to help throw games, he was permanently banned.
I hope this has cleared up any misconceptions you may have had about the events surrounding the 1919 World Series and how the White Sox became the Black Sox.
At the end of the day, it didn’t come down to boogeymen lurking in the shadows to harm players or big city gamblers tricking players into losing. It all came down to greed, and for that, I have no sympathy.
Like my dad used to tell me, “Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.”