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Say It Ain’t So, Joe!
Foul was fair, and fair foul, when eight players of the championship White Sox conspired with gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series
June 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 4
At any rate, it was Maharg’s story that broke the Black Sox scandal. In Chicago, its publication set off a limited chain reaction. On the morning of September 28, 1920, the pressure became too much for Eddie Cicotte. Troubled by his conscience, he went to Comiskey’s house to say that he wished to get something off his chest. The Old Roman told him that the proper place for any confession was the grand jury room, and that morning Cicotte appeared there, to testify that Maharg’s story was substantially correct and that he was one of the ring. Later in the day, Shoeless Joe Jackson and Lefty Williams visited the grand jury chambers to add their mea culpas . Before the day was over, the grand jury had indicted the seven players still on the team, together with the now-retired Gandil, for “conspiracy to commit an illegal act.” The crime carried with it a penalty of from one to five years in jail and/or a maximum fine of $10,000.
Comiskey at once suspended the tainted players, and in so doing ruined any chance of wresting the pennant from the Indians, who at the moment were leading the league by only one game, with three left to play. Yet outwardly he maintained his composure. “Thank God it did happen,” he declared. “Forty-four years of baseball endeavor have convinced me more than ever that it is a wonderful game and a game worth keeping clean.”
The stories told by Cicotte, Jackson, and Williams to the grand jury, as reported in the press, were the first embellishments of Maharg’s account. Cicotte, for example, said: The eight of us got together in my room three or four days before the [first] game started. Gandil was the master of ceremonies. We talked about “throwing” the Series. Decided we could get away with it. We agreed to do it.
I was thinking of the wife and kids and how I needed the money. I told them I had to have the cash in advance. I didn’t want any checks. I didn’t want any promise, as I wanted the money in bills. I wanted it before I pitched a ball.
The day before I went to Cincinnati, I put it up to them squarely for the last time, that there would be nothing doing unless I had the money.
That night, I found the money under my pillow. There was ten thousand dollars. I counted it. I don’t know who put it there, but it was there. It was my price. I had sold out “Commy”; I had sold out the other boys; sold them for ten thousand dollars to pay off a mortgage on a farm. …
After receiving the money, according to a statement later made by Burns, Cicotte vowed to lose the first game if he had “to throw the baseball clean out of the Cincinnati park.”
Williams asserted that he and Jackson had been promised $20,000 each, but received only $5,000. According to Williams, Gandil had approached him at the Hotel Ansonia in New York with the fix proposition. Later, in Chicago, he met with Cicotte, Gandil, Weaver, Felsch, and two gamblers, Joseph Sullivan of Boston and Rachael Brown of New York. Williams said the group bargained over price. At the end of the fourth game , Gandil handed him $10,000 and said: “Five for you, five for Jackson. The rest has been called off.” After that, nothing further was said.
One other player made momentary public acknowledgment of complicity. This was Happy Felsch, who told reporters the day after the indictments were handed down that he had received $5,000 for his part in the plot.
On September 29, The New York Times reported that when Shoeless Joe Jackson left the grand jury room the previous day, “a crowd of small boys gathered round their idol and asked: ‘It isn’t true, is it, Joe?’ Shoeless Joe replied: ‘Yes, boys, I’m afraid it is.’ ” Other newspapers and two wire services reported the same basic story, and the only question that remains is one of grammar. The version that has passed into popular mythology cannot be documented, but perhaps it is reasonable to assume that small boys are not overly sensitive to niceties of phraseology; perhaps the words actually were: “Say it ain’t so, Joel”
At this point Arnold Rothstein was subpoenaed by the Chicago grand jury. Protesting that he had long ago renounced gambling for an honest career in the real-estate business, Rothstein nevertheless took the precaution of hiring one of the slickest trial lawyers of the day, William J. Fallon. Rothstein emerged “exonerated completely from complicity in the conspiracy.” In fact, the jury even acknowledged that his testimony had strengthened the case against some of those already indicted.
Although Rothstein was cleared, other gamblers were not. Before the case ultimately came to trial, in the summer of 1921, Attell, Burns, Sullivan, Brown, Hal Chase (a former Giant player who had been fired by John McGraw in 1918 for “shady playing”), and others had been indicted.