Say It Ain’t So, Joe!

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Meanwhile, organized baseball had taken a step that was greatly to affect the destinies of the indicted players. At the time the Black Sox scandal broke, baseball’s top authority was vested in a three-man committee; but the club owners felt that a single executive with wide powers would better serve the game. On November 12, 1920, they appointed Federal Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis as baseball’s first commissioner. His first important act occurred on March 12, 1921, when he banned the eight guilty players from organized baseball by placing them on the ineligible list.

On June 27, 1921, the long-delayed trial finally got under way, with seven of the eight Black Sox present. Fred McMullin, who was not there, was said to be hurrying to Chicago from the West. Other notable absentees were Abe Attell (whose lawyer had wangled his freedom on a habeas corpus writ), Hal Chase, Joseph Sullivan, and Rachael Brown.

The proceedings attracted feverish interest on the part of the public. The courtroom was jammed daily to its capacity of five hundred, including many small boys, and special guards were needed to hold back those who could not be accommodated. Most of the spectators sweltered in their shirtsleeves, and collars were conspicuously absent.

 

A hard fight was expected, since it was no secret that Jackson, Cicotte, and Williams had repudiated their confessions; the admissibility of these statements as evidence would be briskly debated. At the same time, there was an air of near-joviality. The “clean” White Sox players, who were called into court by the defense, talked easily and with humor to their former teammates. And Joe Jackson, much impressed by the zealous infighting of the battery of defense attorneys, brought a laugh when he remarked: “Those are certainly smart men, and that lawyer of mine is one lawyerin’ bird. They better not get him riled up.” But always, the vocabulary of baseball prevailed. One exchange, involving the confessions, went as follows:

Michael Ahern, a defense attorney: “You won’t get to first base with those confessions.”

George E. Gorman, assistant state’s attorney: “We’ll make a home run with them.”

Ahern: “You may make a long hit, but you’ll be thrown out at the plate.”

After the selection of a jury, which took over two weeks, the prosecution presented its case—which rested mainly on the testimony of Sleepy Bill Burns. The presence of Burns as a witness was due, it was said, to the persistence of Ban Johnson, who had tracked him to Mexico and persuaded him to testify. A representative of the state’s attorney had met Burns at the border town of Del Rio, Texas, and there, “in the middle of the night,” had discussed the implications of his giving evidence. One implication, of course, was that Burns would be spared prosecution.

His testimony was quite consistent with Maharg’s earlier story; he insisted that the only money the players received was the $10,000 which he had conveyed to them from Attell before the third game. And on one point Burns was emphatic: the players, and not the gamblers, had conceived the idea of throwing the Series.

A sensational loss was revealed on July 22, following Burns’s testimony, when it became known that the waivers of immunity signed by Cicotte, Jackson, and Williams, as well as the original transcripts of their statements, had disappeared. Ban Johnson immediately came forward to charge that Arnold Rothstein had paid $10,000 to have the confessions stolen soon after they had been obtained and, after satisfying himself that he was not implicated, had turned them over to a newspaperman. What ultimately happened to the confessions and the waivers remains one of the unsolved mysteries of the case.

The trial ended on August 2, after the prosecutor, asking for conviction, had asserted that “the crime strikes at the heart of every red-blooded citizen and every kid who plays on a sand lot.” The defense of course, called for acquittal.

The jury deliberated for two hours and forty-seven minutes, and then came in with a verdict of “Not Guilty.” The outcome was not surprising, in view of the judge’s charge that for conviction “the law required proof of intent of the players not merely to throw baseball games, but to defraud the public and others.”

The verdict was greeted in the courtroom with a wild demonstration of approval. The spectators cheered, and the judge congratulated the jury, whose members responded by carrying the vindicated players from the courtroom on their shoulders.

To Buck Weaver and Happy Felsch, the acquittal may have seemed unnecessary, for before the case went to the jury, the judge had announced that, on the basis of the evidence, he would not let a verdict against them stand. Chick Gandil seasoned his joy with a dash of gloating. He said: “I guess that will learn Ban Johnson that he can’t frame an honest bunch of players.”