Say It Ain’t So, Joe!

PrintPrintEmailEmailOn November 6, 1920, a grand jury in Cook County, Illinois, issued to an aroused public a statement of reassurance on a question that seemed to eclipse in significance even the landslide presidential victory of Warren Gamaliel Harding just four days earlier. In spite of the jury’s recent disclosures, the game of baseball was “clean.”

Only five weeks before, this same jury had disclosed that the 1919 World Series had been fixed; eight players of the Chicago White Sox team of the American League had been indicted for accepting bribes. The grand jury had exposed what soon came to be celebrated as the “Black Sox” scandal—in the public mind, the most bra/en conspiracy in the annals of American sports.

The outcry at this revelation was universal. Newspaper editorials thundered imprecations. In the Philadelphia Bulletin, for example, the disgraced players were compared with “the soldier or sailor who would sell out his country and its flag in time of war.” More poignant was the plea of one or more small boys to their idol, “Shoeless Joe” Jackson, as he left the building where the grand jury met. It has come down to us, one of the most pitiful fragments of the American idiom: “Say it ain’t so, Joe!”

The proprietors of baseball have watchfully guarded the integrity of the game ever since the Black Sox scandal; that a similar conspiracy could take place today seems quite improbable. It is unlikely that the public reaction would be so emotionally charged as in 1920. Though baseball is still our national pastime, it is regarded with a diminished sense of reverence. The notion that it is a big business, run for profit, is now widely embraced.

In contrast to the enormous publicity of the scandal, exact documentation of it is slight, and based almost entirely on circumstantial evidence. Those involved in the conspiracy were understandably reticent at the time, and have remained so ever since. After the case was closed, Shoeless Joe Jackson and his teammate, George “Buck” Weaver, spoke openly about their roles —to insist that they were innocent as the lilies of the field. In 1956, a third player, Chick Gandil, told his version of the inside story in a sports magazine, admitting a guilty part but only further confusing an already confused picture.

There is no doubt, however, that once a fix had been arranged between eight of the White Sox players and a group of gamblers, it was one of the worst-kept secrets of all time. The first game of the Series was played on October 1, 1919, at Redland Park, the home grounds of the Cincinnati Reds, winners of the National League pennant. Among the sports writers who covered it were Hugh Fullerton and the baseball great, Christy Mathewson, who had been commissioned by a syndicate to write interpretative articles on the fine points of the Series play. Before the first game, the two compared notes. What was this talk about the Series being in the bag? Both had heard rumors. Both agreed that the possibility was too monstrous to believe. But others in the reporting fraternity, as well as an indeterminate number of ordinary citizens, had heard the same rumors.

One significant fact did give credence to the reports: the betting odds. These had started out overwhelmingly in favor of the White Sox, but by October i they were virtually even. It was curious that a heavy influx of Cincinnati cash into betting channels had brought about the change, for almost everyone agreed that the Sox were vastly superior to the Reds.

 

The 1919 White Sox were one of the notable teams in the history of baseball. Owned by Charles A. Comiskey—nicknamed the Old Roman—the team had Eddie Collins at second base and Ray Schalk as catcher. It would be risky to say they were the greatest ever at their positions; but there have been none better.

No less outstanding was the left fielder, Shoeless Joe Jackson. This back-country boy from South Carolina who could neither read nor write was one of the most colorful and idolized players the game has ever known. Described by some as the “greatest natural batsman that ever played,” Jackson compiled a batting average of .356 during ten years in the majors.

There were other fine players on the team: “Shineball” Eddie Cicotte, an accomplished spitball pitcher; Claude “Lefty” Williams, a marvel of control on the mound; Oscar “Happy” Felsch in center field; and a great infield that, in addition to Collins, included Gandil at first, Charles “Swede” Risberg at shortstop, and Weaver at third. Under the management of William “Kid” Gleason, the Sox had romped through the American League that season; with the pennant clinched, the only question seemed to be how quickly they would win the required five-out-of-nine games of which the Series then consisted. By contrast the Reds, who had beaten seven listless, ineffectual teams to win their first National League pennant, were at best a competent outfit.