Sunday, November 6, 2016

Who are the great clutch hitters of modern times?

Many of the finest baseball minds believe that clutch hitting doesn't really exist; that it is an illusion created by a confluence of chance and small sample sizes. Before I started to research the subject, I was completely in that camp, and was willing to go even a step further. I theorized that if clutch hitting did exist, I would be suspicious of it. If a player is capable of hitting better in clutch situations than he does at other times, why doesn't he just perform like that at those other times? Is he too lazy? Unmotivated? I was, however, willing to concede that clutch hitting might have an opposite - choking. If some ballplayers choke under pressure then, by definition, those who do not choke are better clutch hitters, in which case clutch hitting does exist, albeit as the absence of a negative, rather than the presence of a positive.

In order to evaluate all those hypotheses, it is necessary to have facts and a definition of clutch hitting. Perhaps someday a sabermetrician will dig into each player's career at-bat by at-bat, identifying every moment that represented a clutch situation, and assigning a weight to each of those moments by the degree of pressure, finally determining who the greatest clutch hitters are. For now, we have something tangible, simple and transparent that can stand as a surrogate for that missing information: performance in the late innings of close games. Not only are these moments reasonably identified as clutch situations, but all the data are readily available at baseball-reference.com, so any of you can easily verify any claims I make here.

The statistic does have some weaknesses:

1. Clutch data is not directly comparable to non-clutch data, because pitchers behave differently in the late innings of close games. Moreover, pitchers alter their behavior even more for great hitters like the ones studied here. If a pitcher is ahead or behind by ten runs, there is no special reason to pitch around the great Joe DiMaggio, but if the moundsman is protecting a one-run lead in the ninth inning, it's a whole 'nother kettle of crawdads. The most obvious result of this disparity is that great hitters draw a lot more semi-intentional walks in the late innings of close games. No professional hurler is going to allow DiMaggio to see one he can drive, if that can be avoided.

2. Adjustments are necessary in order to compare players from different eras. In the era before pitch counts, when starters were expected to finish the game, hitters in general performed better in the late innings than they did early in the game, probably because they were often facing a tiring starter. That has gradually but inexorably changed in the past fifty years, so that hitters in general now perform much worse in late/close situations than they do overall. Instead of facing a worn-down starter, they are usually facing a fresh, strong arm, occasionally one chosen specifically to face them because of the match-up history. While Ted Williams might have been facing a tired Bob Lemon, throwing his 150th pitch in the 9th inning and struggling to reach 85 MPH, Joey Votto in the same situation might be staring down the barrel of a fresh Aroldis Chapman bringing his first pitch of the day at 104, and typically striking out fifteen batters per nine innings.

Baseball is a tradition-bound game. Quite astoundingly, it took baseball's managers nearly a century before they even started to realize that it was not wise to let starting pitchers finish so many games. Even the very best and very toughest pitchers in history tended to flag as the game wore on. Let's take a couple of dramatic examples: no modern pitcher was better at completing a game than Warren Spahn (382 CG, tops by a mile among post-WW2 pitchers), and nobody was tougher than Bob Gibson (in his best years he completed 80% of his starts). Yet they both flagged in the late innings. Their strikeouts declined by about ten percent. Batters' OPS production increased by about five percent overall, slightly more in close games.

Opp. OPS
Innings
1-6
Innings
7-end
Innings
7-end (close)
Decline
in 7-end
Decline
in 7-end (close)
Bob Gibson
.613
.642
.654
4.7%
6.7%
Warren Spahn
.643
.676
.678
5.1%
5.4%






K/9
Innings
1-6
Innings
7-end

Decline
in 7-end

Bob Gibson
7.4
6.7

-9.4%

Warren Spahn
4.6
4.0

-15.0%



Pitchers work harder than batters, and thus tire sooner, but in the past they would often remain in the game, thus giving hitters an advantage as the game progressed. But those were the old days. Batters can no longer count on improving their performance in the late innings. As the game has evolved, starters get pulled earlier, and relievers become more specialized. Perhaps the only thing that pushes a starter to the end of the fifth inning today is the old-time tradition that the starter needs five innings of work to get the win, but even that could be challenged some day. As the analytical management style continues to dominate the game, baseball is loosening its grip on the traditions which are unsupported by empirical evidence. Sometime in the future, perhaps sooner than we expect, baseball franchises with nothing to lose will experiment with three-inning starters, or even with having nine men pitch an inning apiece. The first time such an experiment produces a dramatic improvement in the win column, old-time baseball's floodgates will open, and the modern world will come pouring through. For now, however, let's consider what has happened so far.

The drop-off in late inning performance has been quite dramatic over the years, and has not yet bottomed out, as shown in the following table. The table uses American League data only, and only since the inception of the DH, in order to remove pitchers from the equation. (They bat less frequently in the later innings, and thus pollute the data).

American League OPS, all players

Late and Close
Overall
Difference
1973-1978
.701
.706
-0.8%
1979-1987
.718
.731
-1.8%
1988-1997
.714
.743
-3.9%
1998-2014
.718
.755
-4.8%
2015-2016
.691
.737
-6.3%


The good news is that we know all of this, and can therefore establish a reasonable expectation of how any given hitter should perform in late/close situations, given his overall level of performance. The OPS of Ted Williams, for example, is expected to be about 1% better in late/close situations than his overall number, while Mike Trout's late/close OPS is expected to be about 6% worse than his overall career norm. These estimates vary based upon the actual years in which the player appeared, and while they are estimates, work very well in general. Making the appropriate adjustments, I estimated that my selected group of players would have a cumulative OPS of .901 in late/close situations, and they actually produced .899.

Why did I use OPS? It is the most easily and readily available surrogate for run production. As the pioneer sabermetrician Bill James has pointed out, OxS (on base times slugging) actually correlates more closely to runs than OPS, but OPS is available and transparent, so it's the best user-friendly metric. It's also much easier for all of us to use and manipulate. Most people who are at all interested in numbers can calculate that a .350 OBP plus a .550 SLG equals a .900 OPS, but not many people can multiply two three-digit numbers in their heads.

There is one remaining question, and it's an important one. Is clutch hitting properly defined by actual performance in late/close situations, or by the improvement (or lack of decline) in performance? That is more a matter of opinion than analysis, so I'm going to place both into a sortable table. You can decide which assumption suits you.

I think that's probably enough disclaimers and caveats. We should probably postpone any additional verbiage until you've had a first look at the results and a chance to tinker with them.



Here are a few notes necessary to read and interpret the data:

  1. The OPS+ in clutch situations is a crude estimate based on the OPS ratio. That is to say that if a player's OPS was 6% better than expected in clutch situations, I estimated that his clutch OPS+ was also 6% better than his overall OPS+. Why bother with this? It's necessary to convert OPS to OPS+ to make the data more meaningful, otherwise you would have no way of knowing that Dick Allen's clutch .925 is actually quite a bit better than Stan Musial's clutch .990!


  2. The far right column is the ratio of actual clutch performance to expected clutch performance, multiplied times 100. In other words, a score of 111 means the clutch performance is 11% better than expected.


  3. You will note that some of the items in the far right column are in red bold type. These are the only ones in which the difference between the distribution of hits in non-clutch and clutch situations is statistically significant at a 95% confidence level. In other words, if Mickey Mantle's non-clutch plate appearances were divided into random samples the size of his clutch appearances, his actual clutch performance would be above the 97.5th percentile of those samples, or would have less than a 5% chance of occurring in that population. Similarly, Ernie Banks' actual clutch performance would be below the 2.5th percentile. In other words, except for those six players with red ratios, you're just studying the table out of curiosity. It's nice to know that the player you love performed 4% better than expected, and the guy you hate fell 6% below, but none of those facts are statistically significant. That's like comparing a .305 hitter during a single season to a .295 hitter: one number is better cosmetically, but does not represent significant evidence of better hitting.


So what have we learned?



Well, first and most obviously, we have learned that it doesn't matter how you sort the data when it comes to the number one spot. It's Mickey Mantle. The Oklahoma Kid was the best hitter in clutch situations, and he was also the guy who improved the most from his normal performance. Here's how it breaks down:

Mickey Mantle per 550 at-bats

singles
2b+3b
HR
walks
avg
in clutch situations
98
33
46
140
.321
in non-clutch situations 99
28
35
114
.294


As you can see from the data, Mickey profited greatly from pitchers' fear. In non-clutch situations, the Commerce Comet walked a lot - 114 times for every 550 at-bats, but with the game on the line in the late innings, that number rose to a superhuman 140 because no pitcher in his right mind would intentionally give Mickey a pitch to hit. He also had the advantage of being a switch hitter, so opposing managers did not have many options when it came to relief pitchers. When he made contact, Mantle did not hit significantly more singles, doubles and triples, but his homer production increased more than 30%. Basically, he sat and waited, willing to take a walk if there was nothing in the zone, but swinging with all his considerable might if the pitcher released one he could take downtown. In those late inning pressure situations, The Mick transformed from a .294 hitter with a seasonal average of 35 homers and 114 walks into a .321 hitter with 46 homers and 140 walks!



The other three players who had significant increases in their performances with the game on the line are a more interesting group, in a way, because they may not be the players you expected. When I began this study I thought the great clutch hitters would be players like Reggie Jackson, Derek Jeter, and especially David Ortiz, who always seems to deliver in the big moments. It turns out that none of those players were especially good at stepping it up in the clutch. The other three great clutch hitters are Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente, and the Toy Cannon, Jimmy Wynn. Jackie Robinson was especially productive, actually tying Mantle for the highest percentage increase in critical situations. Two other players almost made the list: Tony Perez and Yogi Berra.

Note that these three men stand out based on their ability to improve in clutch situations, not their actual OPS+ in those instances. Ted Williams performed substantially worse with the game on the line than he did in other situations (it was almost a statistically significant difference, but not quite), while Jimmy Wynn performed substantially better, but a manager would still prefer to have Williams in the batters' box, because 94% of Ted Williams is still a lot better than 108% of Jimmy Wynn. In fact, 94% of Ted Williams is still better than anyone else in the clutch, except Mickey Mantle.

Clemente basically improved with singles. His power and walks improved a tiny bit, albeit on a small base, but his batting average improved from .313 in non-clutch situations to .341 in the clutch.

Jim Wynn, surprisingly, also improved with singles. His sum total of EBH plus walks actually declined a bit, but his batting average jumped from .244 in non-clutch situations to .279 in late/clutch appearances.

I am assuming that Clemente and Wynn were just smart, unflappable hitters who bore down and concentrated on meeting the ball in those late situations. Jackie Robinson, on the other hand, just plain got fierce:

Jackie Robinson per 550 at-bats

singles
2b+3b
HR
walks
avg
in clutch situations
128
36
24
97
.341
in non-clutch situations 117
37
14
81
.306


Like Mantle, his homers and walks improved in clutch appearances. Unlike Mantle, his singles production also increased. When the chips were down he turned from a .306 hitter with 14 homers and 81 walks into a .341 hitter with 24 homers and 97 walks. With the game on the line, he played like a man with something to prove.

Which he was.

I really don't want to dwell on the players at the bottom of the list, because I prefer to celebrate greatness, but I would be remiss in failing to see that Ernie Banks, whom I greatly admired as a player and a man, really fell apart in the clutch. On the surface, the smiling, affable, easy-going Banks seemed like the kind of man who would maintain his composure at all times and be unlikely to fold under pressure. Obviously, he had a more complicated psyche than fans realized, because he regressed into a very ordinary player in the late innings of close games. In the chart below you can see that he was roughly equivalent to Mickey Mantle in non-pressure situations (except for Mickey's walks, of course) but that there was a massive gulf between them with the game on the line in the late innings. Ernie's power production evaporated, while Mickey's exploded.

Per 550 non-clutch at-bats

1b
2b
3b
HR
BB
avg
Ernie Banks
92
25
6
31
42
.279
Mickey Mantle
99
23
5
35
114
.294







Per 550 clutch at-bats

1b
2b
3b
HR
BB
avg
Ernie Banks 93
20
2
22
60
.250
Mickey Mantle 98
26
7
46
140
.321


One more thing:

Amazingly enough, as I was studying this subject, I found that the greatest clutch hitter of modern times, at least in terms of improvement from non-clutch to clutch at bats, is somebody you may not remember at all. The reason he does not appear in the main table is that he had only about a thousand at-bats in his major league career, but he had an absolutely astounding improvement in late/close situations. The batter is Joe Lefebvre, who played for the Yankees, Padres and Phillies in the early 80s.



The table below says it all:

Joe Lefebvre per 550 at bats

1b
2b
3b
HR
BB
avg
in non-clutch situations
87
24
6
14
69
.238
in clutch situations 119
36
8
23
74
.338


Lefebvre once won a triple crown in the minors (Eastern League, 1979), and a lot of people must realize that he knows a thing or two about hitting, despite his mediocre major league stats, because he is still in the game to this day, at age 60, currently working on the staff of the major league Giants (image left), having spent some thirty years as a hitting instructor at various minor league levels, first with the Phillies' organization in the late 80s, then with the Yankees from 1990 to 1996. The years in those organizations are encapsulated in the images below. He finally landed in the Giants' camp in 1997, eventually becoming an assistant hitting coach for the big league club in 2013. As of 2016, he has left that position to perform various scouting duties for the Giants.



If Lefebvre had appeared in the main table, his ratio of actual clutch OPS to expected clutch OPS would have been 129 - although nobody actually on the table had a ratio higher than 111! That ratio was so high that the results were statistically significant despite a relatively small sample size. So hats off to Joe Lefebvre, the .238 hitter with moderate power who underwent a metamorphosis into a slugger with a .338 batting average and a .970 OPS when the game was on the line, making him arguably the greatest clutch hitter in modern baseball history.

Who knew?


Saturday, October 15, 2016

Who is the real strikeout king?


Yes, it is true that Randy Johnson once struck out 13.41 batters per nine innings during a single season, and 10.61 per nine innings over the course of his career. Both represent the all-time records.

Yes, it is true that Nolan Ryan struck out even more batters than Johnson, 5714 to 4875, and led his league more times, 11 versus 9.

Yet I am going to propose to you that neither of those great modern pitchers was the most dominant strikeout pitcher in baseball history. In order to find the identity of that underrated fireballer, we'll have to look farther back in the baseball archives.

Why search through the past?

It's necessary because raw strikeout numbers are entirely dependent on and reflective of the era in which the pitcher's career took place. The frequency of strikeouts has varied greatly over the years, and has accelerated dramatically in the past 35 years, making it almost impossible to compare eras. According to Baseball-Reference.com's Major League Baseball Batting Encyclopedia, the number of strikeouts per nine innings has gone from 4.75 to 8.01 in just the period from 1981 until now (I'm writing this after the 2016 season), and has now increased for eleven consecutive years. In the 20th century, the number had dropped as low as 2.70. When the National League played its very first season in 1876, the number was a meager 1.13.

When I followed baseball most avidly, from the late 50s until the early 80s, a pitcher who struck out eight batters per nine innings was a real flame thrower. Tom Seaver led the NL in that category (K/9) several times with averages below eight; Jim Bunning led the AL one year with 7.1; Len Barker led the AL one year by striking out only 6.8 batters per nine innings. If a pitcher could average eight strikeouts per game in 1980, it was a truly remarkable achievement. In 2016, however, eight strikeouts per game would be below the major league average!

How, then, do we measure strikeouts in such a way that we can compare different pitchers from different eras?

I propose two measures of true dominance:
  1. By how much did the MLB leader beat the MLB average?
  2. By how much did the MLB leader beat the second-highest pitcher?
The chart below summarizes the seventeen seasons in the history of major league baseball in which the strikeout champion doubled the major league average and struck out batters at least 20% more frequently than his nearest competitor.



That chart is sortable, but if you're looking for the very best season, it doesn't really matter which of the two criteria you choose, because both sorting methods produce the same result: the best season of all time was Dazzy Vance's 1924, when he came close to tripling the major league average and beat the nearest competitor by an incredible 49%. Moreover, Vance's 1925 season was nearly identical - just a hair lower in each metric. Making those accomplishments even more impressive is the fact that the man who finished a distant second in 1924 was a legendary hard-throwing ace, Walter Johnson, the only man to win at least 400 games in the 20th century. That's how good the right-handed Vance was at striking batters out: more than 40% better than The Big Train.

A third Vance season (1923) is on the list as well. While Vance's 1926 and 1927 seasons are not shown in the table because he failed to beat the nearest competitor by 20% (that darned Lefty Grove), he doubled the MLB average in each of those seasons as well.



Although he is a Hall of Famer, Vance won fewer than 200 games in his career, and had no big moments to speak of. He never pitched in the post-season until he was a 43-year-old codger in his only season in St Louis, making a single unimportant middle-relief appearance for the Gas House Gang in a 10-4 loss to the Tigers in the 1934 World Series. (The 1934 Cardinals could claim the presence of a Dizzy, a Dazzy, and a Daffy in the dugout!) The Dazzler did win the National League MVP award in 1924, despite the fact that Rogers Hornsby batted a gaudy .424 that year, so you know that Vance's contemporaries realized how good he was, but his name means nothing to most modern fans and probably creates only a blurry image even to serious students of the game's history. While most of you reading this article can immediately identify photographs of Vance's mound contemporaries Lefty Grove and Walter Johnson, only those who are truly immersed in the game can pick Vance out of a line-up. I confess that I am not among that elite group, although I spend a helluva lot of time reading and writing about baseball's past.

Perhaps the second most impressive appearance on the list is made by a storied eccentric lefty named Rube Waddell, a guy who occasionally made his way to the ballpark when he wasn't drinking, or chasing skirts, or leading a parade, or wrestling an alligator, or endorsing products, or acting in vaudeville, or playing with stray dogs, or chasing fire trucks. Of the seventeen seasons in baseball history which met my defined criteria, Waddell had five, yet he, like Vance, failed to reach the 200-victory level in his career. The Rube was dead at the tender age of 38, but "the candle that burns twice as bright, burns half as long." In his time he had more fun than most who live a century, and he also accomplished more than most ballplayers, if perhaps not as much as warranted by his immense talent.


Besides Vance and Waddell, only one other pitcher made the list at least three times, the great Bob Feller. I don't think I need to tell you who he was, since he led the AL in wins six times, strikeouts seven times. The right-hander finished with 266 wins, although WW2 cost him 150 starts, which would have added 80-100 wins to his total.



Nolan Ryan made only two appearances on the list, but what's astounding about his performances is that they occurred 13 years apart, yet appear almost identical by the ratios represented in the table. Over the course of a lengthy career, Ryan's appearance seemed to age normally, but his pitching remained remarkably consistent.



The Big Unit's 2001 season, when he set the record for the most strikeouts per nine innings, did appear in the table. The gigantic lefty is the most recent pitcher to make the list, and will probably be the last ever, assuming baseball's management group takes no action to curb the general rise of strikeouts, because the MLB average is now too high to double. In order to strike out twice the 2016 MLB average, a pitcher would have to amass more than sixteen Ks per nine innings.

Is sixteen possible? It does not seem so. Only one pitcher after Randy Johnson has even reached twelve in the k/9 charts, and that young man passed away less than a month ago at age 24, the victim of a tragic boating accident.

The other three men on the list, each making a single appearance, are a bit more obscure.

The memory of the Indians' Herb Score, the man picked by Ted Williams as the fastest lefty he ever faced, is bittersweet for most of us old-timers. He started his career very much like Dwight Gooden: already superlative in his rookie year (1955), absolutely dominant in year two. In Score's case there was no year three. On May 7, 1957, Score was hit in the eye by a line drive off the bat of Gil McDougald, and he never came back to glory. Surprisingly, it was not the line drive that ultimately ended his career, but elbow troubles. He started the 1958 season pitching as effectively as ever and the eye seemed to be fine, but he developed elbow problems that April and he never recovered. He struggled though a few more seasons, first with the Indians, then the White Sox, but his post-injury record in the majors was 17-26 with a 4.43 ERA. The saddest chapter of the story came in the minors. He spent his last season in pro ball with Indianapolis in AAA, where he was 0-6 with a 7.66 ERA, breaking the hearts of everyone who dreamt he would one day be the young Herb Score again.

Johnny Vander Meer finished his career with a losing record, and he made this list only because he met the criteria in a player-poor war year, but he is duly famous for another very impressive feat: in 1938, as a very young man (23), the lefty pitched two consecutive no-hitters, making him the first and still the only man in baseball history to do so. And he did that in his first full season in the bigs! Making the second game even more historic, it came in the first night game ever played in New York City. Many baseball savants thought back then that Vander Meer's potential was enormous but, like Herb Score, The Dutch Master peaked at 23 and fought his way through injuries in his remaining years. When I lived on the west coast of Florida back in the 70s and 80s, a good friend of mine was close to Vander Meer. Each of them, through independent concatenations of circumstances, had moved from Cincinnati and had eventually landed in Tampa. I never met Vander Meer, but my friend told me that the pitcher felt unjustly ignored by the Hall of Fame. If a man with a lifetime record of 119-121 felt slighted by the Hall, you can imagine how a great player like Edgar Martinez must feel.

Left-handed Cy Seymour is the last name on the list and in some ways the most interesting. Seymour was the strikeout king in 1897-1899, but went on to a great major league career as an outfielder!

In order to tell his story, I'm just going to quote from his SABR bio: "If a young, successful major league pitcher had decided to become an outfielder in 2001, it would have been news. And if he had hit above .300 for the next five straight years, culminating in 2005 by winning the league's batting crown with a .377 average, he would have graced magazine covers. Finally, if upon his retirement in 2010, he had accumulated 1700 hits and generated a lifetime batting average of .303 to go along with his sixty-plus pitching victories, writers would be salivating at the opportunity to elect him to the Hall of Fame. A century ago there was just a player who collected 1723 hits and became a lifetime .303 hitter after winning 61 games as a major league pitcher. His name was James Bentley 'Cy' Seymour, perhaps the greatest forgotten name of baseball."

Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Black Sox, Part VI: Tying Up The Loose Ends, Wrapping It Up

It's been a while since I finished Part V, so I guess we need a "previously on ..."

This series recalls the infamous Black Sox mainly through the stories of four main figures who have captured the public imagination over the years:



This is the finale, Part VI: Tying Up The Loose Ends, Wrapping It Up.



Other factual errors and misrepresentations about the scandal

Apart from those treated in earlier parts of this series, there are additional misconceptions you may have acquired from cultural mythology, urban legends, the defense arguments in the Black Sox criminal trial, Eliot Asinof's book "Eight Men Out," or the movie version of that book



Claim: They were called the "Black Sox" before the scandal.


It was not Eliot Asinof, but one of his muses, Nelson Algren, who fixed this belief in the public consciousness. He wrote the following in "Ballet for Opening Day," which was basically a faithfully condensed paraphrase of Asinof's 8MO narrative in Algren's own elegant style:
"Eastern fans began jeering Mr. Comiskey's players as "Black Sox" before that appellation signified anything more scandalous than neglecting to launder their uniforms. The old man was so begrudging about laundry bills that his players looked as if they put on their uniforms opening day in the coal yard behind Mr. Comiskey's park; and hadn't changed them since."



This is an urban myth based upon the presupposition that Charles Comiskey was a skinflint.

The team we know as the White Sox was not called the Black Sox until the scandal broke, and the only contemporaneous mention of their dirty uniforms referred specifically to Bucky Weaver, who could always be identified from the stands because his dirty uniform stood out from the crowd (which implies that the others were clean).

Other than the possibility that it is a pure fabrication necessary to sustain a shaky assumption, there are other possible explanations for the origin of this myth. Algren was a Chicagoan, and may have been influenced by the fact that there were two other contexts in which the term "Chicago Black Sox" was used before the scandal.


1. There was a contemporaneous team officially called the Chicago Black Sox. They were a team of African-American players. Such teams existed throughout the country because baseball was segregated until 1947. The ad above is from the Atlanta Constitution, July 21, 1920, just months after the tainted World Series, but before the players confessed to the grand jury.

2. Back in the early days of baseball, when real men wore handlebar mustaches, bicycles (called penny-farthings) had giant front wheels, and Cap Anson ran the only major league team in Chicago, team nicknames were fluid. The newspapers might refer to the Chicago National League team by a variety of nicknames: as the White Stockings, the Nationals, the Ansons - and even the Black Sox, as shown in the column to the right from the Chicago Tribune, October 12, 1888.

So there had been a major league team called the Chicago Black Sox before the scandal, albeit only in passing, but it was not Mr. Comiskey's White Sox. It was the National League franchise which still exists today and eventually settled on a single nickname - the Cubs.




Claim: the players' signed confessions mysteriously disappeared


It's another great scene in the film "Eight Men Out": during the trial the prosecution has to admit that their most important evidence has disappeared.

Of course, that ignores the fact that there never were any signed confessions in the first place. The missing items were (unsigned) transcripts of the grand jury proceedings in which three of the players had admitted their guilt, plus their (signed) waivers of immunity, indicating that they understood that their testimony could later be used against them, and that they were vulnerable to prosecution based on that testimony.

There were all sorts of rumors about where the documents had gone, and accusations flew wildly around New York and Chicago, but none of that really made any difference. The trial transcript was just a typed version of the court stenographer's notes, and those notes were not missing, so it was a simple matter to get a replacement copy. As for the waiver of immunity, the players had not signed those documents in a vacuum, so it was another simple matter to find the people who were in the room at the time, and to enter their statements into the record, thus attesting that the waivers had been signed. There was an evidentiary hearing to determine whether the substitutions were admissible. They were so ruled, and entered into evidence. The missing documents generated lots of legal rigamarole, but no genuine drama.

The only interesting thing about the entire process was that it was the only time that any of the accused players took the stand in the criminal trial. The three who had confessed to the grand jury (Jackson, Williams and Cicotte) took the stand in the criminal proceedings to testify that they had been promised immunity in return for their honesty before the grand jury, and had not realized that they contradicted that claim by signing a waiver document that they did not understand and, in Jackson's case, could not read.

Because their accounts were so consistent, I believe they were probably telling the truth, and that the judge could have disallowed the confessions on that basis, but that's not what happened, nor is it what was most interesting in that phase of the trial. The element that would really work well in a movie would be Shoeless Joe's colorful testimony at this time, which I'm just going to let you read about for yourself from a contemporary paper (NY Times, July 26, 1921):



There is one missing confession which remains a mystery to this day, although it was not related to the legal proceedings. Before he was transported to the grand jury, Eddie Cicotte testified in the office of the legal representation of the White Sox. Cicotte's admissions in that office were said to be far more expansive and detailed than his grand jury testimony, and the details would be of immense interest to Black Sox researchers. Sadly, all that survives is the front page, seen below.



Claim: "Say it ain't so, Joe."


This is a case where the movie version of "Eight Men Out" did better than the book.

The book repeats an anecdote from the Chicago Herald and Examiner (September 30, 1920):

"As Jackson departed from the Grand Jury room, a small boy clutched at his sleeve and tagged along after him.
'Say it ain't so, Joe,' he pleaded. 'Say it ain't so.'
'Yes, kid, I'm afraid it is,' Jackson replied."
Jackson denied that any such exchange existed. Of course, he denied a lot of things that really did happen, but this dialogue is uncorroborated.

The movie's version is far more credible. The youngster said the same words, but Jackson just cast his eyes downward, turned his back and walked away. It is not possible to prove that a boy actually made such a statement at that time, but it absolutely could have happened. As Jackson left the courthouse, accompanied by bailiffs, he paused to talk to the crowds, as seen in the newsreel footage below.



Many things must have been shouted at him by bystanders, and the thing that was in their hearts and on their lips was almost precisely "Say it ain't so, Joe." We know this because of an incident which took place between the first revelation of the scandal and the suspension of the players. Author James T. Farrell was 16 and living in Chicago at the time of the grand jury hearings. He reported in "My Baseball Diary" that many boys, and men as well, hearing of the accusations and attending the next day's game, cried from the stands, "It ain't true, Joe" when the players emerged from their locker room, but Joe and Happy Felsch just walked away silently to their cars. The poignant details follow:



Given reasonable narrative license, the screenplay got this one right.





Various items that don't fit elsewhere in the narrative.


When they were young and there were only White Sox in white baseball



Eddie Collins, team captain of the 1919 White Sox, was a straight shooter who never participated in the fix in any way. He is often considered the greatest second baseman in the history of the game, and is always ranked in the top four (with Morgan, Hornsby and Lajoie) in sabermetric measurements of full careers. A college graduate, he went on to become a baseball executive and eventually rose to the position of general manager of the Red Sox. He is pictured above in 1911, at age 24, when he was a key component of the famous "$100,000 infield" of the Philadelphia Athletics, world's champions in 1910, 1911 and 1913.




Born and raised in Milwaukee, Happy Felsch was a hometown hero in the minors when he played for the Fond du Lac Molls (C ball) and the Milwaukee Brewers (AA) in his first two years as a professional ballplayer. He is pictured above in his Fond du Lac uniform, when he was a 21-year-old wunderkind in C ball. Hap hit 18 homers in 92 games for the Molls (about one every five games), which represented immense power production during the deadball era. The major league White Sox hit only 24 homers in 153 games that year (about one every six games - for the whole team).




A young Chick Gandil (age 25) is pictured as a member of the 1913 Washington Senators.





Lefty Williams, age 23, pitching for the White Sox in 1916. Reflecting the confidence the team had in him despite his youth, Williams led the team in games started that year, although it was his first full year in the majors and two of his teammates were Eddie Cicotte and Hall of Famer Red Faber.



Images and videos from the 1919 World Series



The 1919 Chicago White Sox.


The "Black Sox" in the picture (click to enlarge) are as follows:

Back row: Counting from the left, #5 is Swede Risberg; #6 is Fred McMullin; #9 is Shoeless Joe Jackson.

Center row: Counting from the left, #5 is Happy Felsch; #6 is Chick Gandil; #7 is Bucky Weaver.

Front row: Counting from the left, #3 is Eddie Cicotte; #5 is Lefty Williams.




The 1919 Chicago White Sox starting outfielders (left) and infielders. Shano Collins and Nemo Liebold, both of whom were "Clean Sox," platooned in right field.




Their World Series opponents, the 1919 Cincinnati Reds.









The Reds bat against Eddie Cicotte in game one of the Series in Cincinnati. Ray Schalk is the catcher; Bucky Weaver is playing third; Joe Jackson is in left. It's impossible to identify the batter, since seven of the nine Reds batted lefty against Cicotte.




Game 1, Inning 2: Gandil is out at second on a throw from Larry Kopf to Morrie Rath.





Bucky Weaver slides into second with a double in the top of the sixth in game two at Cincinnati. You will note that the scoreboard lists the home team on the top, contrary to the current style. That does not mean they batted first, but they could have if they wanted to under the rules of the time. Home teams frequently exercised that prerogative in baseball's early days, although the practice was dying out by 1919. Back when the balls were poorly manufactured, the same one might be kept in play throughout the game and pitchers deliberately mutilated or lubricated the sphere, so the home team frequently took advantage of their right to bat first, because they liked having their best hitters connecting when the ball was completely fresh!

The at-bat following Weaver's double was quite suspicious. Weaver was on second with one out, the Sox were down 3-0, and the mighty Shoeless Joe Jackson was at the plate. He struck out. Looking. To understand that in context, you have to realize that those times were not like ours. There were few strikeouts in general, and Ks were particularly rare with Jackson at the plate. He had 599 plate appearances in 1919 and struck out only ten times all year. If you had been willing to bet he was going to fan, you probably could have gotten 60-1 odds. I'm not sure how often he went down looking, but I think you could have gotten 100-1 on that bet. Jackson struck out twice in his first 15 plate appearances in the Series, both in Sox losses. The likelihood that a man who struck out ten times in 599 chances will strike out twice or more in the next 15 opportunities is 2.5%. In other words, there is only one chance in 40 that this is a representative sample of his established level of performance.









The three videos above represent the available film footage of the 1919 Series. The first has been around for a long time. The second was discovered recently. The third tiny snippet is the only film footage (I know of) which shows Lefty Williams in action.



Following the trials in the newspapers. More details.


I didn't include the following articles in the main body of the essays for several reasons, varying by article. Some were sidebars of marginal interest; others duplicated information found elsewhere; still others were riddled with inaccuracies. It is my sad duty to report that a look back at the reporting of the day exposes many flaws in contemporaneous American journalism, particularly in terms of false and misleading accusations printed as if they were certainties. (Fair warning: very large files, therefore slow downloads. You must be patient.)

Date
Topic
Newspaper
9/25/20
"Inside story of plot to buy World's Series." This "inside story" is based on secret grand jury testimony, therefore filled with inaccuracies. It did report correctly, however, that eight of the White Sox had had their Series pay held up by the Sox, and it named the correct players. (Front Page, Continued). Chicago Tribune
9/26/20
More grand jury leaks. "First Evidence of Money Paid to Sox" (Front Page, Continued). More bad reporting: this includes the report of a mysterious package, which turned out to be a red herring, carried by Fred McMullin to Buck Weaver's house. The information was not proven false, but simply irrelevant, and therefore was sensationalized, to the long-term detriment of Weaver's public image. (Continuation of the story.)
Chicago Tribune
9/28/20
"Indict 8 White Sox" This story is basically correct. It reveals that Cicotte confessed after being outed by Billy Maharg's interview in the Philadelphia papers.
Pittsburgh Press
9/29/20
"Two Sox Confess" "Eight Indicted; Inquiry Goes On." There is one dangerously misleading claim in the story. Joe Jackson did not admit throwing the World Series, although he did admit accepting money to do so, and asking for that money several times.
Chicago Tribune
9/29/20
A summary of the case so far. If the Trib story was essentially correct, this Washington Times story was lurid and highly inaccurate. It quotes the grand jury testimony of Joe Jackson and Eddie Cicotte, although we now know that they never made the admissions contained herein. It also gives a putative $100,000 distribution which stretches all credulity, although some of the individual players' payouts may be correct. It also suggests that the 1920 World Series was going to be crooked. It does accurately report that Happy Felsch had confessed to a reporter. (Front Page, Additional Story)
Washington Times
9/29/20
This New York Herald story, from the sports section on the 29th, sticks to the facts, identifies and fleshes out the indicted players and discusses the impact of the indictments on the White Sox' chances for the 1920 pennant. (The season was still underway, and the Sox were a close second.) The sports reporters were doing better than the investigative journalists at this point.
New York Herald
9/30/20
An interesting sidebar. The grand jury probe was halted because of internecine warfare in the state's attorney's office between the outgoing and incoming administrations. This would prove somewhat important in the future, because the outgoing staff seems to have inappropriately commandeered some of the evidence on their way out the door. (Front Page, Continued). Chicago Tribune
10/1/20
One of the most egregious examples of misreporting. The story alleges that Happy Felsch won $15,000 by betting his $5,000 payoff against the Sox in game two of the Series. It was a ludicrous claim in two ways: (1) bookmakers do not offer odds like that on any baseball game, let alone on the stronger team, (2) Felsch didn't even get his $5,000 payoff until after game four or five.
El Paso Herald
12/19/20
Sidebar. One of the umpires in the Series says he never suspected a thing.
Chicago Tribune
3/13/21
Commissioner Landis rules the indicted players ineligible to play until they demonstrate to him that they are clean.
Chicago Tribune
3/27/21
Sidebar. The Trib hilariously declared in Spring Training that a "Tip Top Team Rises From Sox Ruins." The team had played .629 ball in 1919 with all eight of the banished players, and .623 ball in 1920 with seven of them (ex Gandil, but with his loss neutralized by the presence of Hall of Famer Red Faber back on the mound after bouts of illness), but they fell to 62-92 (.403) in 1921. That represented a drop of 34 games. Fred McMullin was strictly a replacement player, so the loss of the other six men seems to have cost the team almost six games apiece, which is quite consistent with their combined WAR (26.7 in 1920). Five of them were stars, and Risberg was a decent major leaguer,
Chicago Tribune
7/19/21
The trial has begun. The defense attacks Comiskey when he takes the stand.
Chicago Tribune
7/23/21
It is revealed that the immunity waivers have been lost. Sidebar: Abe Attell told one witness that he bet $2,000 on the series against the Reds, in order to establish an alibi. Great details about Attell and his bushel basket full of money.
Chicago Tribune
7/24/21
Billy Maharg tells the court how he tracked down Sleepy Bill Burns in Mexico.
Chicago Tribune
7/25/21
In an evidentiary phase of the trial, out of the jury's earshot, Eddie Cicotte says he was promised immunity in return for honest and full disclosure to the grand jury, then tricked into signing a  waiver of that immunity. A key detail is that he never denied any of his testimony, but simply said that he was misled. The other two confessions, from Williams and Jackson, seem to have followed the same path.
L.A. Herald
7/26/21
The trial judge rules that the players' grand jury testimony is admissible, but only the part where they admitted their own misdeeds, and not when they implicated any teammates.
Chicago Tribune
7/28/21
The defense presents evidence that the Series was played on the square.
Chicago Tribune
7/29/21
The defense claims that manager Kid Gleason's testimony refutes the allegations of the state's star witness, Sleepy Bill Burns, but the value of the contradiction seems to have been exaggerated.
Chicago Tribune
7/30/21
The prosecution says the Sox should be found guilty on the basis of their confessions alone.
Chicago Tribune
8/4/21
The story reports that baseball's moguls will support Landis' decision to ban the acquitted players.
Chicago Tribune
2/17-18/29
Many years later, Ban Johnson delivers a self-serving series of articles about how he cleaned up the game. Johnson, president of the AL during the scandal, was instrumental in forcing the case to proceed, especially in his efforts to find Sleepy Bill Burns. This kept the case from stalling out, but Johnson fails to explain why he took no action when Comiskey told him after the first game that some players were in the tank. (1, 2, 3)
St. Louis Post Dispatch




Some images from the days of the trials.



Sleepy Bill Burns Testifies



Swede Risberg in street clothes



Defendants Swede Risberg (R) and Buck Weaver assume a confident air for the photographer.



Risberg (L) and Felsch (R) discuss their legal options with Attorney Ray Cannon (C)



Happy Felsch (L) and Eddie Cicotte during a trial break.



Kid Gleason, the manager of the Sox, was a reluctant witness.



Three buoyant defendants (Weaver, Cicotte, Felsch) accept congratulations from the public, and even from the jurors, when the verdict is announced. The image is poignant because their joy would be short-lived. The baseball commissioner would almost immediately ban them from the game.



Looking back at it all.


A sad postscript to the banishment of the Black Sox is that the only place they could play the game they loved, at least at a professional level, was in a few obscure outlaw leagues outside of the purview of "organized baseball," a situation which often led them to dusty desert towns and small mining communities in the Southwest. The box score below is from the August 4, 1925 edition of the El Paso Herald, detailing a game between the Douglas Blues and the Fort Bayard Vets. Douglas, Arizona, on the Mexican border, is a tiny mountain town which was once threatened by an attack from Pancho Villa. Bayard, New Mexico is an even smaller town just across the border into New Mexico. Playing for the home team in Douglas that day was the august threesome of Bucky Weaver, Chick Gandil and Hal Chase. Chase, once a great major league star, was himself often implicated in gambling and fixing scandals, but was never convicted or formally banned. Chase was often considered the greatest defensive first baseman in history, but had to move over to second in this game to accommodate Chick Gandil at first. That move was especially tricky because Chase threw left-handed! Weaver, considered the AL's best defensive third baseman in his prime, was pressed into service as the team's shortstop. I assume this was based on the Little League theory that the best fielder always gets to play shortstop, and the mighty Douglas Blues were unlikely to come up with a better option than the great Buck Weaver.





If you still have not reached your quota of Black Sox discussions, I recommend this zipped folder of note by the late Gene Carney, who was once the head of SABR's Black Sox committee, as well as that group's most prolific researcher and author. His blog, Notes from the Shadows of Cooperstown, was about baseball in general, but especially about the Black Sox, and his efforts culminated in a book called Burying the Black Sox, which is mostly about baseball's efforts to sweep this scandal under the rug. Some of his work has been nullified or rendered nugatory by later discoveries, but his columns are informative. Reading them makes you feel as if you are chatting with him in his den, and they are just plain fun to read. Also included in the package are indexes which allow you to find certain subjects faster.



Wrapping it all up.


Given the massive body of work that has been done previously by various scholars at SABR and elsewhere, I don't have any desire to expand this series of articles any further unless something new turns up. There's only one more question that interests me, perhaps the most important one: "Why did they throw the 1919 World Series?"

In the first wave of analysis, one which dominated the public perception for many years, the players were simply faithless and disloyal men who betrayed their teammates and were ungrateful to the game which kept them from a short, miserable, impoverished life in the fields or a mill. As the decade of the 1960s rolled in, and with it a wave of anti-authoritarianism, coupled with a reappraisal of the employer/employee dynamic, the general public started to be influenced by a line of thinking which had germinated from the defense strategy in the criminal trial - that the whole scandal was Comiskey's fault. The Old Roman had been treating his employees unfairly and cavalierly while amassing great wealth in the process of underpaying his players. Two great Chicago writers, Nelson Algren and James Farrell, laid the groundwork for that approach, and Eliot Asinof built a sturdy fort called Eight Men Out from that foundation, motivated in no small part by his own experiences being treated as virtual chattel in the minor leagues.

I am convinced that neither extreme position is correct.

It was not so complicated, after all. Gambling had started to become a fully legal enterprise in America in 1908, when pari-mutuel betting was first allowed in the Kentucky Derby. Several other states followed suit, and by 1917 gambling was big business and its practitioners were legion at the tracks. When the government shut down the race tracks that year because of WW1, simultaneously allowing baseball to continue, that new army of gamblers moved from the ponies to the ballparks, looking to replace their lost action. Baseball was vulnerable. Ballplayers and gamblers socialized easily and frequently in those days, and the game already had a history of gambling scandals, real and alleged, including rumors of a fix in the 1918 World Series, where action took place in the very same city where the Black Sox would throw the following year's Series.

Meanwhile the Sox' first baseman, Chick Gandil, was near the end of the line as a major leaguer, and was looking to leave with a big payday. Gandil also knew that the team's star pitcher, Eddie Cicotte, who would undoubtedly get three starts in the World Series, was vulnerable to financial persuasion. Cicotte was in over his head with a heavily mortgaged farm and no working capital. Gandil was not a strictly ethical man to begin with, so his participation did not require much persuasion from his long-time buddy Sport Sullivan, a Boston gambler who was able to see the opportunity presented by the serendipitous coupling of Gandil's cupidity, Cicotte's desperation, and their presence in the World Series. All Gandil and Sullivan needed to pull off the fix was a big-time operator who could produce a tidy payday for Gandil plus the upfront cash demanded by Cicotte as a precondition for his commitment. The notorious gambler/tycoon/racketeer Arnold Rothstein soon saw the potential in the scheme and was willing to pony up the full amount needed to pull off a fixed Series.

From there it was easy.

Eddie Cicotte had some doubts and misgivings right up to the point where his share appeared in his room. After that he felt there could be no backing down, because guys like Rothstein were not the sorts one wanted to disappoint. They had unpleasant ways of dealing with welchers and double-crossers. Cicotte was hooked.

When he was, the others fell like dominos.

Why?

Eliot Asinof actually got very close to the truth in his other Black Sox-related book, an obscure and almost unfindable work called "Bleeding Between the Lines," which came out 16 years after "Eight Men Out." In it he recalled his encounter with an elderly, dying Happy Felsch, and their long conversation over a fifth of Chivas Regal. At this point, I'm just going to let "Hap" take over the narrative (p.114):

"It was a crazy time. I don't know how it happened, but it did all right. I've thought about it plenty over the years and I don't know. Maybe it was one of those God-awful things that just happen to you. You don't know what you're doing, then one day you wake up and it's there, real as life. I guess that comes from being dumb. God damn, I was dumb, all right. Old Gandil was smart and the rest of us was dumb. We started out gabbing about all the big money we would take, like a bunch of kids pretending to be big shots, you know. It just seemed like a bunch of talk. I never really believed it would happen. I don't think any of us even wanted it to happen, 'cept Gandil. But it happened, all right. Gandil gave Cicotte ten grand the night before the opener, and the next thing we knew, we were all tied up in it."

The conditions formed a perfect storm, one man "out" chose to exploit it, and the other seven were swept "out" to sea by its tidal surges.

It was one of those God-awful things that just happens. That's all there was to it.