As the author of Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball, I keep getting letters and e-mails from all over the world from people on both sides of a baseball story that will not go away. The book has gone through three editions with a fourth pending. With the dawning of the 2014 baseball season, it seems worthwhile to re-visit a long ago time.
The 1919 Chicago White Sox were one of the greatest teams of their era. They won the American League pennant and faced off against the Cincinnati Reds, favored 3-1, to win the World Series.
But as the series was about to get underway – the betting odds started to shift to even money. The word on the street was that New York gambler Arnold Rothstein was behind the swing and that the series was fixed.
Hearing the rumor, White Sox outfielder “Shoeless Joe” Jackson asked Chicago manager Kid Gleason and owner Charles Comiskey to bench him. But they insisted he play. They would have been crazy to put down their best player.
During the series Jackson hit the only home run, had the highest batting average, committed no errors and established a new World Series record with 12 hits. Nevertheless, the Reds won.
Edd Rousch, who played for the Reds, dismissed the charges that the series was fixed. “We were just the better team,” he said. And umpire Billy Evans who worked the series said: “Maybe I’m a dope but everything seemed okay to me.”
But the rumor of a fix persisted. The 1920 season got underway and the White Sox were driving hard to their second straight pennant when a petty gambler in Philadelphia broke the news that a Cubs-Phillies game had been fixed in 1919.
That led to a gambling investigation, with its focus being the 1919 World Series. With only a couple of days left in the 1920 season, a Grand Jury was called to determine whether eight White Sox players should stand trial for allegedly throwing the 1919 World Series. Jackson was one of them.
He was asked under oath: “Did you do anything to throw those games?”
“No sir,” was his response.
“Any game in the series?”
“Not a one,” Jackson answered. “I didn’t have an error or make no misplay.”
It took the jury a single ballot to acquit all eight accused players. But the very next day, baseball’s first commissioner – Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who came to power in the fall of 1920 with a lifetime contract and a mandate to clean up the game using whatever methods he saw fit – banned all eight players from baseball for life.
That was basically the end of the story of the greatest sports scandal of the century. But it is a story that will not go away.
Was there a plan to throw the World Series?
Was it carried out?
If so, which games were thrown?
What was the role of each banned player?
Why was there a blanket banning of the players? Buck Weaver was banned not for dumping but for allegedly having guilty knowledge that there was a plot. Fred McMullen was banned though he came to bat twice and got one hit. Jackson was banned although his performance exceeded his own records.
If the eight players were found not guilty in a court of law, how could they have been found guilty by a baseball commissioner?
Public pressure keeps increasing year-by-year to undo what many believe was a terrible wrong. But the ban still remains. Every baseball commissioner since Landis has refused to act on “Shoeless Joe’s behalf.”
Commissioner Faye Vincent said: “I can’t uncipher or decipher what took place back then. I have no intention of taking formal action.”
Commissioner Bart Giammatti said: “I do not wish to play God with history. The Jackson case is best left to historical debate and analysis. I am not for re-instatement.”
There have been other sports scandals in the 20th century – boxing matches that were fixed or allegedly fixed, the great college basketball scandal of the 1950s in New York City, rumors of other malfeasance in sports – but nothing holds a candle to the 1919 Black Sox scandal.
And it just will not go away.
With the banning from baseball of “Shoeless Joe” Jackson and the other seven Chicago White Sox players, it was as if the sport was saying: now we are clean and have purged ourselves of the dishonest ways of the past. And if Jackson in the prime of his baseball career and the others were sacrificed, that was the way it had to be.
One of the greatest stars of that time, Jackson continued to exert a strong public fascination even after his banning. All kinds of folklore attached to him. One story had a little boy greet the ballplayer on the courtyard steps with the tearful line: “Say it ain’t so, Joe.”
The true story, according to Jackson, was that a big guy came up to him and shouted: “I told you the son of a bitch wears shoes.”
For nearly 20 years, Jackson tried to continue to play with outlaw barnstormers, mill teams and in the semi-pros. He played under aliases and with disguises, but his unmistakable swing always gave him away. Judge Landis, the bigoted, anti-union, anti-black, vindictive and relentless first Commissioner of baseball, threatened team owners and league officials to keep Jackson from playing.
Even when Jackson in 1932 applied for permission to manage a minor league team in his home town of Greenville, South Carolina, Landis was intransigent. He denied the application.
In 1951, the man they called “Shoeless Joe” died of a massive heart attack just one week before he was scheduled to appear on the Ed Sullivan television show to receive a trophy in honor of his being inducted into the Cleveland Indians Baseball Hall of Fame.
That much was accomplished. But all attempts during and after Jackson’s lifetime to get him into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York have failed.
Prominent attorneys like Alan Dershowitz and F. Lee Bailey have argued that Jackson should go into the Hall. Baseball legends like like Ted Williams have taken up Jackson’s cause. There have been petitions, Congressional motions, letters sent to baseball Commissioners through the years – all to no avail.
This was a player who posted the third-highest lifetime batting average. This was a player who four times batted over .370. This was a player who was such a remarkable fielder that his glove was dubbed “the place where triples go to die.”
Babe Ruth copied Jackson’s swing and claimed “Shoeless Joe” was the greatest hitter he ever saw. Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Casey Stengel all placed him on their all-time, All-Star team.
Joe Jackson’s shoes are in the Hall of Fame. His life-size photograph is there. But he is not enshrined even though others with far less credentials and far more soiled reputations are.
So we are left with a baseball story that will not go away – the Greatest Sports Scandal of the 20th Century.
It is still with us because of the lingering sense that justice miscarried, that the ignorant were duped by the clever, that the powerless suffered and the strong prevailed, that Jackson and the others were scapegoats, victims who were caught at a crossroads time in baseball and American history.