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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
On 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.
The result of the first game amazed everyone—except, as it later developed, eight of the Sox and certain other shadowy figures. As The New York Times said in its page one story: “Never before in the history of America’s biggest baseball spectacle has a pennantwinning club received such a disastrous drubbing in an opening game as the farfamed AVhite Sox got this afternoon. … The heralded White Sox looked like bush leaguers.”
These were not irresponsible words. In the bottom of the first inning, Eddie Cicotte took the mound to pitch against the Reds. He hit the first batter, lobbed up an easy single to the second, and twice sent Heinic Groh, the third Cincinnati hitter, into the dirt with beanballs. Cicotte’s control seemed to have deserted him, and when the inning was over, the Reds were ahead, one to nothing.
In the bottom of the fourth, Cicotte blew up completely. The first batter flied out. The second singled, but then was thrown out on a fielder’s choice. There were two out and one on. Two singles followed, which brought in ;i run and put men on second and third. Up to the plate stepped Dutch Ructher, the Reds’ pitcher and one of the weakest hitters of a traditionally weak-hitting position. But Ruether leaned into a slow, easy pitch and whacked it for a triple. A double and a single followed, and when the third man was finally out, the Reds had enjoyed a five-run inning. The final score was nine to one.
As soon as the game was over, talk of a fix grew louder. Much of it was bruited about the lobby of the Hotel Simon, quarters for the visiting Sox and hence a natural gathering place for Series-minded sportsmen and gamblers. Presently, the gist of the rumor reached Kid Gleason; he in turn told Comiskcy what he had heard—namely, that gamblers had bribed some members of the team.
Gleason was of two minds about the truth of the rumor. On the one hand, he knew that it would take a large number ol players to throw a game, a possibility which seemed as unlikely as it was painful. On the other, Gleason was impressed by the peculiar gyrations of the betting odds, and he had heard that well-known gamblers had made a killing on the opening game. Then, Cicotte had pitched an extraordinarily bad game, and many of the Sox big bats had been remarkably inellectual.
Comiskey was not so vacillating. Having seen his players’ performance on the field, he felt there was something wrong.
Yet, what could he and Gleason do? The Series had to go on. They had no actual proof of wrongdoing, and without it, they could not very well suspend any of the players. Comiskey worried through the night, and the next morning approached an old friend, John A. Hcydler, president of the rival National League. The natural person for Comiskey to have consulted was Byron Bancroft “Ban” Johnson, the president of Comiskey’s own league; but the two were not on speaking terms.
In Heydler’s view, Comiskey’s concern was unwarranted. He believed that the White Sox had simply been taken “unawares” in the first game, and that they would quickly revert to form. Sometime during that day, however, Heydler sought out Ban Johnson and repeated what he had heard. Heydler later quoted Johnson as saying that the bribery explanation for the loss of the first game was like the “crying of a whipped cur.” There Heydler let the matter rest.
The course of the second game, played on October 2, did nothing to reassure Gleason and Gomiskey. Lefty Williams pitched for the Sox and performed well for three innings. But in the fourth, he walked three men and allowed two hits, for a total of three runs. The final score was four to two. Even the Sox’s two runs were tainted, for they had scored on a wild pitch.
The teams moved to Chicago for the third, fourth, and filth games at the home stadium of the Sox, Comiskey Park. For Gleason and Comiskey, it was a gloomy trip. By now, the manager was certain that some of his men were throwing the Series, but like Comiskey he realized there was no practical move he could make at the moment.
Then, on October 3, “Wee Dickie” Kerr shut out the Reds, three to nothing. Glcason and Comiskey felt better. Perhaps the bribery talk was so much nonsense, and the Sox were at last finding themselves. Yet, in Chicago hotel lobbies there was talk of a double cross between the gamblers and the players involved, of a double-double cross; and talk that all was well between the conspiring parties, that the third game had been won in order to bring the betting odds into a more reasonable alignment.
It was Cicotte’s turn to pitch the fourth game, and if Gleason hesitated to start him, the manager’s doubts were allayed when Shineball made an earnest appeal for the starting assignment. Perhaps this reflected a change of heart—if indeed there had been dirty work. Perhaps the men involved were now determined to play to win.
The Sox were shut out in that fourth game, two to nothing. The Cincinnati runs were largely made possible by two glaring fielding errors committed by Cicotte in the fifth inning. Regarded in the best light, these errors were singular examples of maladroitness by an experienced pitcher; at worst, they were highly suspicions. In any case, the Reds were now ahead in the Series, three games to one.
The fifth game, scheduled for Sunday, October 5, was postponed until the next day because of rain; when it was over the Reds had won again and the world championship seemed virtually clinched. The Sox had been shut out again, in a contest marked by the ragged fielding of Felsch and Risberg, and a disastrous four-run sixth inning. Lefty Williams, Chicago’s starting pitcher, had lost again.
Back in Cincinnati for the next two games, the White Sox electrified the sports world by taking both. In the first, Wee Dickie Kerr pitched skillfully for ten innings for a five to four victory; in the second, Cicotte was at his best, while Felsch and Joe Jackson led a batting attack which placed the Sox on the long end of a four to one score.
The Series now stood at four games to three, and the teams returned to Chicago for what the White Sox adherents hoped would be the final twu games. The American League team needed both to win the Series. But in the eighth game, played on October 9, the Reds jumped on Lefty Williams for four runs in the first inning, and went on to a ten to five victory —and the world championship.
Although Charles Comiskey was deeply suspicious of his team’s integrity, he could not make any invidious public admission without proof. Pressed for comment on the still-persisting fix rumors, lie was ([noted as being “sure of the fidelity of the players. 1 believe my boys fought the battle of the recent World Series on the level as they have always done, and I would be the first to want information to the contrary.” In the same breath, he offered $20,000 lor evidence of any thrown games, and soon after, he visited Maclay Hoyne, state’s attorney for Cook County. He told Hoyne he believed he had been “jobbed” in the Series, asked for help, and expressed willingness to foot the investigative bill.
Two months later, on December 10, Coniiskey admitted to reporters that an inquiry was in progress. No evidence had been found, but he vowed that “if we land the goods on any of my players, I will see that there is no place in organized baseball for them.”
By this time, Comiskey had heard a great deal more than he admitted publicly. Yet what lie knew was still based largely on tip and rumor. He believed the Series had been thrown, and thought he knew the players involved. There were eight suspects: Cicotte, Williams, Gandil, Risberg, Felsch, Jackson, Weaver, and Fred McMullin, a utility infielder. Detectives had reported to Comiskey a remark Cicotte allegedly had made to a relative who commiserated with him after the Series. “Don’t worry,” Cicotte had said, “I got mine.” And, too, there was the wire Gandil reportedly sent to his wife before the Series began. “I have bet my shoes,” it read. After the Series was over, Gandil seemed to be spending freely, and it was argued that if he had bet his shoes on his own team, he would have been in no position to throw his money around. Sketchy as this evidence appeared, Comiskey felt justified in holding up the World Series checks of the suspected players, each of whom had more than $3,000 coming to him. But on the advice of his lawyers, and after much pressure from the players, he finally released the payments.
The identity of the gamblers involved was even more uncertain; and in a sense it still is. No one able to speak with complete authority has ever publicly named all the persons, aside from the players, who manipulated the fix, or has explained the complexities of their interrelationships. Perhaps this authoritative voice does not exist, and never did, for there is reason to believe that some of the dozen or so gamblers whose names hover over the scandal were not even aware of the involvement of others. The higher echelons of the fraternity kept quiet; what we do know of the elaborate maneuvers and brisk footwork that went on (and the information, so far as it goes, is probably accurate enough) has come from the lesser ranks of those concerned.
In the early stages of Comiskey’s investigation, specific emphasis fell on certain personalities. The most notorious was Arnold Rothstein, the gambler and manipulator whose name is synonymous with the shady aspects of the twenties. Equally as suspect was Abe Attell, the onetime featherweight boxing champion of the world. Then there was a former big-league pitcher, William “Sleepy” Burns, who had played for the White Sox and the Cincinnati Reds before going on to more lucrative endeavors in the Texas oil fields. Allied with Burns was one William Maharg, a Philadelphian who, like Attell, was an ex-prizefighter. Supposedly, these were the principal gamblers in the World Series fix; but others—in Boston, Des Moines, St. Louis, and elsewhere—were mentioned as accomplices.
Early in the new year, 1920, Comiskey sent out season contracts to his players, including—in spite of his doubts—the eight suspects. In the bargaining that ensued, Gandil’s demands were too high for Comiskey, and the first baseman retired from big-league baseball; but after some maneuvering, the others signed.
The White Sox of 1920 were virtually the same team that had won the pennant the year before; and as the season drew to a close in September, they were in a hot race for the flag with the Cleveland Indians. Quite suddenly the scandal was exposed—in a curiously indirect manner.
All that summer, there had been disquieting speculation about the integrity of baseball; early in September, it centered on a game played on August 31 between the Chicago Cubs and the Philadelphia Phillies of the National League. Before the game there had been rumors that it would be thrown by the Cubs, and in a countermove, the Cub management decided not to start the pitcher previously announced. Instead, the great Grover Cleveland Alexander was named to pitch, and he was offered a bonus of $500 if he won. Nevertheless, the Cubs lost.
The fix rumors eventually came to the attention of Charles A. McDonald, Chief Justice of the Criminal Court of Cook County. McDonald wondered what action, if any, should be taken, and conferred with Ban Johnson. Johnson advised that a grand jury look into the matter, and McDonald followed his suggestion.
The jury opened its hearings on September 7; for two weeks a parade of witnesses marched through its chambers. These included ballplayers, owners, managers, officials of both leagues, and sports writers. Speculation about their testimony grew intense, especially when it became known that the 1919 Series had replaced the Cub-Phillies game as the focal point of the inquiry.
On September 22, Assistant State’s Attorney Hartley Replogle asserted bluntly that the 1919 World Series had been fixed and that the grand jury had heard the testimony implicating eight of the White Sox. The eight, whom he named, were those on Comiskey’s list.
Comiskey acknowledged that he had been suspicious of the Series, that he had spent $20,000 in investigating it, and had been unable to prove a thing. For that matter, he declared, he was still without proof. But if he received any, he swore to “ruin the evil-doers.”
Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, Billy Maharg, the friend of Sleepy Bill Burns, had decided to talk. He told his story to Jimmy Isaminger, a sports writer for the Philadelphia North American , and what Isaminger wrote became a national sensation.
Maharg declared that in September, 1919, he had received a wire from Burns, inviting him to go hunting at the latter’s New Mexico ranch. To make further arrangements, Maharg met Burns at the Hotel Ansonia in New York. There it developed that Burns had gambling, not hunting, on his mind. He introduced Maharg to Eddie Cicotte and Chick Gandil, who were in town with the White Sox to play the Yankees. The two players indicated that they could “deliver” the Series—for a price. The price was f 100,ooo, to be paid in installments of $20,000 before each game and split among the eight players involved.
After this meeting, Burns asked Maharg if he knew of any gamblers who would underwrite the proposition. Maharg said he would go to Philadelphia and try to interest some men he knew there. His Philadelphia contacts refused the proposal, but suggested that Rothstein was the man to see. Back in New York, Maharg and Burns met with Rothstein, who declined the deal. According to Maharg, “Rothstein said he did not think such a frame-up could be possible.”
Maharg returned to Philadelphia, just before the World Series was scheduled to start, and there he received a wire from Burns that “Arnold R. has gone through with everything. Got eight [players] in, leaving for Cinn.” The next day, Maharg went to Cincinnati, where he met Burns, who told him he had run into Abe Attell in New York and that Attell had persuaded Rothstein to finance the deal.
On the morning of the first Series game, Maharg and Burns visited Attell at the Hotel Sinton, and asked him for the $100,000 to parcel out among the eight players. Attell told them he needed all the cash he could muster for betting; he proposed instead that the players be given $20,000 after each losing game. Burns talked to the players, who agreed to it.
The following morning, Maharg and Burns again called on Attell in his room; they were impressed by the great stacks of currency in evidence. Once again Attell demurred at paying off the players. Maharg and Burns were now suspicious, and pointedly questioned Attell as to whether Rothstein was actually backing him. As proof, Attell flashed a telegram which read: “Abe Attell, Sinton Hotel, Cinn. Have wired you twenty grand and waived identification. A. R.” Later, said Maharg, he became convinced the wire was spurious, and that Rothstein had not been involved. At the moment, however, Burns was angry because there was no money for the players. He told Maharg that he would turn over to them $110,000 worth of oil leases. Maharg dissuaded Burns “and thereby saved him that money.”
After the second game—and the second Sox loss- Maharg and Burns saw Attell and demanded the players’ payoff. Attell stalled, but finally handed over $10,000. Burns gave this to one of the players (whom Maharg did not name), and afterward told Maharg that the eight White Sox were restless and might not go through with their agreement. On the other hand, Burns did not believe they would try to win for Dickie Kerr, the third-game pitcher, who was not in on the plot, and who had been referred to by those who were as a “busher.” Consequently, Maharg and Burns bet their roll, including their winnings from the first two games, on the third—and lost everything; when Kerr shut out the Reds.
For all its sensationalism and aura of authenticity, Maharg’s story must be regarded as the account of one who was only a peripheral participant in what The New York Times characterized as “one of the most amazing and tangled tales of graft and bribery and interlocking ‘double-crossing.’ ” Bill Burns and certain of the eight players were to affirm that Maharg’s story was, in general, accurate; but others in the plot offered emendations and additions which suggested that his knowledge was limited.
A somewhat different story, for instance, was told by Chick Gandil in the magazine Sports Illustrated almost forty years later. Although it conflicts with Maharg’s account, Gandil’s version is probably just as accurate—and just as limited in its perspective.
According to Gandil, the 1919 White Sox were ripe for trouble. The players quarreled among themselves, and the one common bond among them seemed to be their dislike for Comiskey, who paid his pennant-winning team the lowest salaries in the league. “I would like to blame the trouble we got into on Comiskey’s cheapness,” Gandil commented, “but my conscience won’t let me.”
Gandil claimed that the plot originated in Boston, in September, 1919, when he and Cicotte were approached by a gambler named “Sport” Sullivan, who suggested that they get together seven or eight players to throw the Series. The pair consulted with the others, and the group decided to accept the offer—cash in advance. Sullivan, however, explained that it was difficult to raise so much money quickly, and made arrangements to meet the players again in Chicago.
Not long after, Cicotte introduced Gandil to Sleepy Bill Burns. Burns had heard of Sullivan’s offer, and asked for a chance to interest a gambler in Montreal, who might make a better one. At a meeting, the players decided to consider Burns’s terms.
A few days later, Sullivan and a friend from New York joined the players at the Hotel Warner in Chicago. The friend was introduced as “Mr. Ryan,” but, said Gandil, “having met this man two years before in New York, I recognized him as Arnold Rothstein.”
Rothstein’s plan was to win the first game, in order to raise the odds on the White Sox; then the players could lose the Series as they wished. When it came to paying the players the promised $80,000, Rothstein demurred; he finally handed over ten fi.ooo bills, with a promise to pay the rest in installments. “When the gamblers left,” Gandil recalled, “we entrusted the money to Cicotte until it could be changed inconspicuously. He put the bills under his pillow.” Gandil claimed that he never received a cent of the money.
By the time of the first game, talk of a fix was so prevalent that the players were reluctant to go through with it. According to Gandil their intention was to double-cross Rothstein by keeping his money and playing to win; in effect, this is what they did. But it was a demoralized White Sox team which took the field against their National League opponents—and the Reds played much better than anyone expected.
After the third game, which the White Sox won, Gandil received a visit from Burns, who was panicky. “He and some other gamblers, going on the assumption that the Series was fixed, had bet heavily on the Reds. Now they had their doubts.” Burns offered Gandil $20,000 personally if he could guarantee that the Sox would lose the Series; but Gandil turned him down.
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.
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.”
The press and organized baseball were hardly as jubilant. The Associated Press reported that the news was received with “surprise, disappointment and chagrin” by sports editors and writers. The outcome of the trial was a “travesty” as “stunning and disturbing as the original disclosures.” The New York World asserted that “if the crooks who were acquitted try to show their faces in decent sporting circles, they should be boycotted and blackballed.”
As a matter of fact, Commissioner Landis had precisely that in mind. On the day after the verdict, the eight were suspended for life. Landis stated: Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ball game; no player that sits in a conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing games are planned and discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.
From that day on, organized baseball never retreated from this position.
It is no exaggeration to say that every one of the Black Sox bitterly regretted his role in the scandal. Although they had been held legally guiltless, they were nevertheless cut off from their livelihood—a livelihood that, at best, could offer relatively few working years. For a while, some of the Black Sox played exhibition baseball, but they found the public indifferent and their existence harassed by the hostility of the game’s rulers. Ball parks were closed to them, and other obstacles appeared in their path. Gradually, most of them turned to other fields.
In the years immediately following the scandal, several of them tried to obtain through the courts what they considered equitable redress. None succeeded. Perhaps the most persistent protester of his own innocence was Buck Weaver, who, while admitting that he knew of the plot, was adamant in asserting that he had had no part in it. From time to time he addressed appeals to Landis. They were never answered. From time to time, too, baseball fans signed petitions for the reinstatement of various of the players—particularly Jackson—but none was ever effective.
It is doubtful if the ultimate truth will ever be known. Some of those concerned—like Rothstein, Jackson, McMullin, Weaver, and Williams—are dead, and those who survive are at the mercy of their memories and their pride. Chick Gandil’s comment on his banishment may perhaps serve as a last word. “I felt it was unjust,” he said, “but I truthfully never resented it because, even though the series wasn’t thrown, we were guilty of a serious offense, and we knew it.”