Monday, April 25, 2016

The Black Sox, Part II: Shoeless Joe

The background on the legal issues behind the 1919 World Series scandal is covered in part one of this series, which focuses on third baseman Buck Weaver. The subject of this article is the team's left fielder and best hitter, Joseph Jefferson Jackson, possessor of one of baseball's most colorful nicknames, "Shoeless Joe." It was a Greenville, South Carolina sportswriter named Scoop Latimer who hung that tag on Joe, based on an incident in his first year of organized ball. Jackson hated the moniker, which made him seem like a barefoot yokel, but it endured and remains eminently recognizable even to people who know nothing of baseball.

The man

If you believe that Joe Jackson was a brilliant baseball talent, you are in good company. Such undeniable contemporary authorities as Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker claimed that Joe was the greatest natural hitter in the game. The peerless Babe Ruth said, "I copied (Shoeless Joe) Jackson's style because I thought he was the greatest hitter I had ever seen." The video to the right shows how Joe's lunging, all-out swing was incorporated into the Babe's own style. Shoeless Joe also had the most powerful throwing arm of his day. In one major league charity exhibition, he easily won the throwing contest with a heave of nearly 400 feet. (The trophy he won is shown below.)

On the other hand, if you believe that success came to him effortlessly, you are better off not knowing about his two partial seasons playing for the Philadelphia Athletics. The big club called Jackson up in 1908, when he punished American League pitching for a mighty .130 average, and then again in 1909 when he raised the bar to .176. For the two years combined, he batted .150 with no extra base hits and a single walk, for an OPS of .321. That translates to an OPS+ of only 1, on a scale in which 100 is an average player.

Joe had the talent even then, but he was full of self-doubt. A country boy from a rural mill town in South Carolina, he was totally intimidated by the size of Philadelphia and the rude treatment he received at the hands of his teammates, northerners who ridiculed him for his lack of education, his uncouth manners, his suspicious nature, and his offbeat superstitions. (He once had an astounding day after a young girl gave him a hairpin, so he would never again take the field without a woman's hairpin in his hip pocket.) A typical group of ballplayers around the turn of the 20th century would never be confused with the Algonquin Round Table to begin with, but even by their minimal standards of sophistication, Joe was a rube. According to most sources, he had started working in the local textile mill when he was six or seven and never went to school at all. SABR's Black Sox committee reported (December 2012 newsletter, page nine) that Joe claimed in the 1940 census to have a third grade education, but if he lasted that long, he wasn't destined to be valedictorian because the adult Joe could neither read nor write.

After the first game he played in Philly, he lasted only a few days in town before getting on a train back to South Carolina on the pretext of tending to a sick uncle. The team dragged him back soon enough, but he left again after a frustrating 0-for-9 double-header in September, this time without permission, and was then suspended from the team. Contrary to a newspaper headline which claimed he would never play organized ball again after that suspension, Joe was back with the club again in spring training, although he never did adjust to life in Philadelphia, and he never did fit in with his teammates. He did admire manager Connie Mack, but Mack liked intelligent ballplayers, so it was probably inevitable that a man called the Tall Tactician would eventually give up on a bumpkin called Shoeless Joe. In a rare strategic misstep, Mack lost one of the best three-season performances in the history of the game when he sold Joe to the Cleveland Naps. Joe assimilated more easily with his new peers, among whom were many other players from the South, and his improved comfort level allowed his brilliant baseball talent to shine through. In his first three full seasons in Cleveland, Shoeless Joe hit the baseball as well as anyone ever has. The great Ty Cobb was then at the peak of his abilities, and a comparison of their performances from 1911 to 1913 indicates that Joe was approximately as good as Cobb.

Jackson 656 128 62 17 190 102 88 .393 .462 .574 1.036
Cobb 641 95 63 19 145 195 104 .408 .463 .585 1.048

The only strong argument to prefer Cobb in that comparison is that he was a far better base stealer, and that was at least somewhat offset by the fact that Joe walked more, struck out less, and hit more doubles. That's how good Joe was then: about as good as Cobb at his best. Competing directly against his legendary teammate Nap Lajoie (who was so good the team was named after him) and other future Hall of Famers like Cobb, Tris Speaker, Eddie Collins and Home Run Baker, Joe led the American League in hits in two of those three years, and led at various times in doubles, triples, on-base percentage, slugging average, and OPS. He is probably the once and future possessor of the record for the best batting average by an official rookie, because his astonishing .408 mark is not likely to be matched. Among players with 500 or more plate appearances, no subsequent rookie has come within fifty points of that mark.

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend"

Because contemporary pop culture has apotheosized Shoeless Joe, it is not generally remarked that Joe was never really as good again as he was in that initial period, at least not until the introduction of the "lively ball era" in 1920. In those first three full seasons he was really as good as his legend, but in the subsequent five years, playing for Cleveland, then Chicago, he was plagued with problems. He injured his knee severely in an auto accident on July 7, 1915 and was out of the line-up for the next three weeks. He batted only .297 for Cleveland after the accident. Fearing a steep decline in his performance, and thus his monetary value, the club decided to sell him to Chicago that same summer, while his asset value was still high. He played the remainder of the 1915 season for the White Sox, but batted only .272 with his new club. His knee recovered in the off-season and his performance improved significantly the next year, but 1917 proved to be another disappointing season. The White Sox won the pennant that year, but Joe was hitting poorly because of an ankle injury sustained during spring training. His batting average dipped to .261 on August 11th. A late-season surge lifted him to .301, but he finished the season with only 13 stolen bases and 75 RBI. 1918 proved to be an even more miserable year, as he missed nearly the entire baseball season because of World War I. By the end of the five-year period from 1914 to 1918, Joe's lifetime average had dropped 40 points from its high water mark. He was still one of the game's strongest offensive forces, but he had dropped to a level achievable by mere mortals.

The man in deep left field

In the uniform muddied at the knees

With the shadows of a century now behind him

Isn't who you think it is.

For Shoeless Joe is gone, long gone

With a long yellow grassblade between his teeth

And a lucky hairpin in his hip pocket.

Nelson Algren ... Ballet for Opening Day (slightly paraphrased)

The scandal

The answers to three questions determine the relative guilt or innocence of each of the Black Sox.
  1. Did he conspire to commit a criminal act?
  2. Did he conspire to throw the World Series?
  3. Did he actually do anything to throw the Series?

The answer to the first question about criminal conspiracy is a resounding "no" for all of them, including Joe. Even if every accusation against them had been true, they were not guilty of a crime, based on the judge's instructions to the jury in the Black Sox criminal trial.

"The State must prove that it was the intent of the ballplayers and the gamblers charged with conspiracy to defraud the public and others, and not merely to throw games."

Throwing the World Series was not a crime in 1919, and neither therefore was conspiring to do so. Legally, the players were simply getting paid to lose baseball games, just as Comiskey had paid them to win. In agreeing to do so, they may have failed to honor their contracts with Comiskey, but contractual disputes are a matter for the civil, not criminal courts. The players were brought to trial on contrived charges which were virtually impossible to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. There was no convincing evidence that they intended to defraud bettors, their boss Charles Comiskey, or their guileless teammates. In fact, the prosecution made no mention of "conspiracy to defraud" at any time during their case, thus making the jury's decision a simple and obvious matter.

Writing in the February 1, 1988 edition of the American Bar Association Journal, James Kirby concluded (page 68):

"If the intent to throw games plus taking money plus agreeing to lose and actually losing were not enough, the prosecution never had a chance. The law was simply inadequate for the Black Sox' offenses, even if the worst about them is believed."

A somewhat more detailed overview of the legal niceties may be found in Part I of this series. A truly detailed and painstakingly assembled overview is presented in "Black Sox in the Courtroom" by William F. Lamb, a former prosecutor whose 2013 book is must reading for anyone interested in the legal aspects of the Black Sox scandal.

The answer to the question about whether Joe deliberately gave less than his best effort on the field is indeterminate. Modern pop culture mythology has exonerated Jackson, but the evidence is not that clear, especially when it involves his defensive play. Much of the modern perception of Joe's innocence is expressed in oft-repeated phrases based on his sympathetic portrayals in works of fiction, and the fact that Joe himself contributed as much as anyone to his own legend-building. In a 1949 interview, he said:

"I handled thirty balls in the outfield and never made an error or allowed a man to take an extra base. I threw out five men at home and could have had three others, if bad cutoffs hadn't been made."

Joe apparently had himself confused with Superman. He actually had sixteen put-outs, threw out one batter at home, allowed at least one runner to take an extra base on him (Morrie Rath in game one), and dropped a fly ball. He was not charged with an error in the World Series only because the official scorer was generous. When Jackson dropped a ball in game eight, the scorer gave Edd Roush a double on the hit off Joe's glove. Joe also made a suspicious play in game four. Baseball superstar Tris Speaker, generally considered the best defensive outfielder in history before Willie Mays come along, covered the 1919 World Series as a writer for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and questioned Jackson's shallow positioning that allowed Greasy Neale's fly ball in the fifth inning of that game to sail over his head for a double. Speaker's fellow Cleveland correspondent, sportswriter Harry Edwards, was not so gentle in his criticism. In the October 5th, 1919 edition of the Plain Dealer, he said that "Jackson played Neale’s fly to left like an old lady." (A summary of the Speaker and Edwards comments is in the SABR Black Sox Scandal Newsletter, June, 2015 edition, pages 3-6.)

Other analysts have found even more of Joe's plays suspicious. Dan Holmes of the Wahoo Sam baseball blog contends:

"In the fourth inning of Game One, Jackson fielded a ball hit to the base of the wall in left-center field. The ball was played into a triple, in part due to his casual fielding. Two runs scored. The next batter hit a ball to left field for a hit, which Jackson gathered and threw late to the infield, allowing the runner (Morrie Rath) to reach second. Eddie Collins later testified that he found the play puzzling because Jackson rarely made such mistakes. The following batter singled, scoring Rath."

One may not assume that there was any dishonesty involved in any of the plays cited above. Even the greatest players drop balls and make bad throws. They do so far less often than you or I would, but they do so, even in critical moments, because there is no such thing as baseball perfection. Willie Mays made more than a hundred errors in his career, as did Joe DiMaggio, Tris Speaker and Shoeless Joe Jackson himself. But if Joe Jackson's fielding in the 1919 World Series provides no definitive evidence of malfeasance, neither can it exonerate him, as Joe and many others have claimed.

Nor is it possible to assume that Joe's exaggerated description of his play, as recalled three decades after the fact, is evidence of a cover-up. As an illiterate man in an age before television, Joe could rely only on his memory to reconstruct the past. He may have repressed the memories he regretted, thus genuinely believing his preferred version of those events. Even those of us with access to written or recorded evidence sometimes do that.

As far as Joe's batting performance in the World Series goes, his apologists note that Joe batted .375 in the 1919 World Series. That fact alone provides no evidence that he did his best at the plate. To claim so is to ignore the oft-misleading impact of small sample sizes. In comparison to the eight games of the World Series, consider his first eight games of the regular season. He went 17-for-34. That means he could have intentionally struck out in four of those 17 at bats when he actually got hits, and the resulting 13-for-34 would still have left him with a .382 batting average, even at that high level of cheating! Or consider the first 14 games of July, when he went an unearthly 29-for-56. He could have tanked eight of the at bats when he actually got hits, and his batting average for that period would still have been .375. Because his great ability gave him the opportunity to hit .500 or better in a sample size of 8 or even 14 games, his .375 average in the Series does not prove that he was doing his best. Nor does it prove that he slacked off. Given the small sample size of eight games, that performance proves nothing.

One may argue quite fairly that Joe performed far below his abilities at the crucial moments in the Series. It's not clear whether the Sox were playing to win in the last three games, but they were almost certainly trying to lose the first five. They did lose the four started by conspirators Cicotte and Williams, and Jackson himself told the Chicago press that they tried to lose the other one, but failed because Dickey Kerr stubbornly refused to allow a run!

Joe came to bat six times with runners in scoring position in those five games.
  • Game one: Sixth inning. One out. Collins on second, Weaver on first. Joe grounded out to first base. Felsch closed out the inning with a weak fly ball.

  • Game two: Sixth inning. One out. Buck Weaver on second with a double. Joe struck out looking. Felsch then closed out the inning with a fly ball.

  • Game three: Third inning. None out. Collins on second, Weaver on first. Joe popped up a bunt. This could easily have been a double or even a triple play with the runners going, but they got back in time. Although Joe only delivered one out, Felsch proved up to the task of killing the rally by grounding into a double play. Also worthy of mention was the sixth inning in game three, when Jackson and Felsch again worked their magic. Jackson singled to lead off the inning, then was promptly caught stealing, whereupon Felsch walked and was also out stealing! On base percentage: 1.000. Base runners: none. Joe apparently wasn't kidding when he said they tried to throw this game!

  • Game four: Third inning. Two out. Collins on second. Joe hit what should have been the inning-ending grounder to second, but Morrie Rath inconveniently bobbled it, leaving runners on first and third, and putting pressure on Happy Felsch to deliver the third out, which he promptly did with a grounder of his own.

  • Game five: First inning. One out. Leibold on third, Weaver on first. With just a single out, it was difficult for Joe to avoid batting in a run this time. After Joe had struck out in games two and four, another K would have raised a lot of eyebrows, and putting wood on the ball was risky because Leibold might have scored on a grounder, a bunt, or a fly ball. Amazingly, Joe pulled off the one form of contact that couldn't possibly score a run: he hit an infield pop-up. That provided the second out, thus allowing Felsch many options to deliver the third out without causing a run to score.

  • Game five again: Ninth inning. Two out. Weaver on third with a triple. With two outs, Joe needed no help from Felsch this time. He grounded out to end the game.

Joe had six at bats with runners in scoring position, during which one of the best hitters in the history of the game hit no balls out of the infield. It's not possible to say conclusively that any of that was deliberate, because even the best hitters can fail when trying their hardest, but my best guess is that both Felsch and Jackson earned their pay-offs.

There was another suspicious oddity in Joe's performance during those five games. In the space of nine plate appearances from game two to game four, Joe struck out twice. That may not seem suspicious to you if you follow the world of 21st century baseball, but 1919 was part of a very different era, one in which strike outs were rare in general, and were especially rare when Joe was at the plate. He was the very best in the game at avoiding them. Of all the hitters in baseball who qualified for the 1919 leadership in rate stats, Joe struck out the fewest times, as well as the least frequently. During the regular season he struck out only ten times in 599 trips to the plate. That represents a probability per at bat of .0167. Given that probability of an event occurring, the likelihood that such an event will occur twice or more in nine occasions is less than 1%. The odds were about 100-1 against that being a sample of Joe's honest play. It is not possible to calculate the specific odds against Joe taking a called third strike with a runner in scoring position, as he did in game two, because the 1919 data are insufficient to create that calculation. At the current level of knowledge, it is not known how often he took a called third strike in any situation, but I'm guessing that a bookie not "in the know" about the fix would have given you close to 100-to-1 odds if you had wanted to bet on a called third strike before Joe stepped in, given that the odds established by the season were 59-1 against any strikeout at all!

The situational statistics cannot establish anything more than deep suspicion. Joe's own words, however, do serve to convict him of sub-par play. In chambers, before testifying to the grand jury, Jackson told Judge McDonald that "he had played hard, but that he could have played harder." That judge testified to this under oath at the subsequent criminal trial. (New York Times, July 26, 1921.) In elaborating on the same conversation during his testimony at Jackson's back-pay suit in 1924, Judge McDonald testified that Jackson said "he had made no misplays that could be noticed by the ordinary person, but that he did not play his best." On the day of his grand jury appearance, he had a few drinks, talked to the judge in chambers, gave his grand jury testimony, then had many more drinks with the court's bailiffs. By that evening, Joe's tongue was far too loose when he talked to the Chicago press, including the Chicago Tribune. He not only repeated many of the details he had told the grand jury, but he added:

"And I'm giving you a tip. A lot of these sporting writers that have been roasting me have been talking about the third game of the World's Series being square. Let me tell you something. The eight of us did our best to kick it and little Dick Kerr won the game by his pitching. Because he won it, these gamblers double crossed us for double crossing them." (Emphasis mine)

The remaining key question involves whether Joe was part of the conspiracy to throw the World Series. The answer is an unequivocal "yes." Whether or not he played his best, his part in the conspiracy is established by his own testimony to the grand jury. If throwing the World Series had been a crime at the time, he would most certainly have been guilty of conspiring to do so.

Here's what he admitted in his testimony:

  • His teammate Chick Gandil offered him ten thousand dollars to help throw the World Series, and he refused - until Gandil upped the offer to $20,000, at which point he agreed. The amount was to be paid in installments after each game.

  • After game one of the series, not having seen a penny of the promised money, he asked Gandil, "What is the trouble?"

  • Then, after "we went ahead and threw the second game, we went after him (Gandil) again."

  • After the third game, still having received no cash, he told Gandil “Somebody is getting a nice little jazz, everybody is crossed.” Gandil told him that the gamblers had double-crossed the players.

  • Finally, before the return trip to Cincinnati for game six, teammate/roommate Lefty Williams handed Joe an envelope containing five thousand dollars. Jackson had expected more by this time, so he asked Lefty "what the hell had come off here," and was again told they had been double crossed. Jackson could only speculate whether he had been cheated by the gamblers, by Chick Gandil, or even by his friend Lefty Williams. He suspected any or all of them.

Joe later changed his story, making himself seem innocent, thus hoping to bolster his claim for back pay in a subsequent civil suit which was tried in Milwaukee in 1924. Jackson delivered the second version of his participation when he had been deposed on April 9, 1923, as reported on April 23rd in a syndicated column by Frank Menke. In that version, he knew nothing at all of the fix until two or three days after the Series ended, when Lefty Williams threw $5,000 at his feet and told him that the player-conspirators had convinced the gamblers that they could pull off a fix by assuring them that Joe was in on it. Hearing this, an outraged and "dumbfounded" Jackson supposedly went to Comiskey's office the very next day to tell him what had happened - and was rebuffed by Comiskey's secretary. This story made no sense since Williams could not have seen Joe two or three days after the Series finished. Joe and his wife had left for Savannah on the evening after the final game. The story was not only logistically impossible, but it contradicted Jackson's previous account, the accounts of his teammates, and even the account of Jackson's own wife!

His story changed again during the civil court proceedings. It appears that somebody had informed him that the account in his deposition was logistically impossible, so he tightened the time line in the third version of the story. This time he asserted that Williams handed him the money after the final game of the series and he visited Comiskey the next day, thus allowing his story to reconcile with the timing of his train trip to Savannah.

Jackson testified to the new story under oath in his civil suit, which gave him a sticky perjury problem, since he had previously told two different, contradictory stories under oath in the grand jury proceedings and the deposition. The time-line problem could have been explained away by a memory lapse, but the grand jury testimony was another matter. Given the discrepancies between his testimony in the civil suit and his testimony before the grand jury, he logically had to have perjured himself one time or the other. Joe chose a bizarre strategy to work his way out of this dilemma. When he was cross-examined about the contents of his grand jury testimony in 1920, he did not attempt to blame coercion or a faulty memory. In fact, he made no attempt to reconcile the differences between his two versions of the narrative. He simply denied saying everything he had said to the grand jury, offering statements like, "I didn't make that answer." When confronted with the particulars of his testimony, he denied everything line-by-line, more than a hundred times under oath. He seemed to be unaware that the court record consisted of more than just some typed pages. The judge, the court stenographers and the grand jurors were all still alive and available to verify that the transcript was an accurate account of what Joe had actually said. Some of them were called to provide that testimony, thus leaving Joe with more that a hundred instances of perjury which could be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. In fact, beyond any doubt.

The excerpt below comes from "Black Sox in the Courtroom" by William F. Lamb:

The presiding judge became so frustrated with the entire proceeding that he sent the jury out of the room and had Joe thrown into a jail cell, arrested for perjury in his own back-pay suit!

There was one time when Joe called Commissioner Landis to ask for a chance to explain his position. Landis told sportswriter Frank O'Neill: "Jackson phoned and asked whether I would give him a fair hearing. I said I give every man a fair hearing. Jackson said, 'Thanks, Judge. Do you know that those gamblers never paid all they owed me?'" (Rothstein, David Petrusza, p. 366) The hearing ended there.

After the scandal:

Joe was banned from organized baseball after the criminal trial, but continued to play ball for many years in textile league, sandlot and semi-pro contests. He played for the Greenville Spinners in 1932, more than a decade after his banishment from the big show. There he still hit the ball hard and regaled the locals with stories of the old days, including the origin of his legendary dark bat. Although aging and gray, Joe still appeared to be in playing condition, and was still wielding Black Betsy, as pictured here.

When he wasn't playing ball or coaching the local kids, he and his wife ran a successful dry cleaning business in Savannah, then a liquor store in Greenville, South Carolina. By all accounts, he could still hit the ball authoritatively for the Woodside Mill team until he was fifty, even as his fielding declined under the weight of some seventy additional pounds. He told The Sporting News in 1942 (cover story, story continued) that his weight had climbed as high as 254 pounds, compared to 170 at the start of his career in the minors, and a major league playing weight of 186. The images below show him at the beginning and end of his adult playing days.

The extra weight contributed to health problems and Joe had several minor heart attacks over the years. The fatal one came on December 5, 1951 in Greenville, where his obituary mentioned that he was widely loved in the community.

My own take.

Shoeless Joe Jackson did not instigate or design the World Series fix with the gamblers. Two of his teammates, Cicotte and Gandil, did that. He did not attend the strategy meetings, meet with the gamblers, or join the inner circle like Gandil's henchmen, Risberg and McMullin. He didn't stumble his way through the World Series like Risberg, who batted .080 and made four errors, or Lefty Williams, who became (and remains) the only man to lose three starts in a single World Series by posting a 6.61 ERA, a preposterous figure in the deadball era.

Shoeless Joe was roped into the conspiracy by Gandil. Before his grand jury testimony, he was hoodwinked out of his right to a lawyer by Alfred Austrian (Comiskey's lawyer). He was almost certainly tricked into thinking he was testifying before the grand jury with immunity from prosecution. He was probably not smart enough to know that his lies under oath represented to society a very different level of deception from simply telling a few old war stories and fish tales. He became beloved in South Carolina, and was worshipped by the local kids, for whom Joe always found time.

Those are all mitigating circumstances, but make no mistake about it: he was corrupt. He agreed to take the money and then he kept asking where it was. He originally tried to make amends on grand jury day by telling the truth, but he changed his mind after that day and started lying about it. He lied under oath more than a hundred times at his civil trial, and then he continued to tell the same lies all of his life. In 1941, in reference to his grand jury testimony, he told Shirley Povich of the Washington Post, "There never was any confession by me. That was trumped up by the court lawyers." As time went on, the lies became bigger, until he was finally presenting himself as the man who gallantly threw out five runners at the plate while totally unaware of any skullduggery until after the World Series had ended, at which point he marched into Comiskey's lair and insisted on cleaning up the mess.

Should we forget what he did, and all the lies he told about it, because he was a great player who wasn't smart enough to know any better? I don't buy it. I don't buy it for Pete Rose, and I don't buy it for Joe Jackson.

Should he be in the Hall of Fame? I don't know. I can't answer that unless you tell me what the Hall of Fame is for. If it exists only to enshrine the game's greatest performances on the field, then Shoeless Joe absolutely belongs there. The adjusted OPS+ for his career is the seventh highest in history. From 1911 to 1913 he was as good as anyone ever was. The man hit .408 as a rookie, for heaven's sake.

On the other hand, if the Hall exists to enshrine those who played well and honorably, who graced America's ballfields and left the game better in their wake, then I would not vote to include a man who agreed to take money to throw a World Series. I know there are other scoundrels already in the Hall, but that is an unpersuasive argument to add one more. If I am asked to cast a vote for Fictional Shoeless Joe, that sympathetic, thoughtful, right-handed batter played by Ray Liotta in Field of Dreams, I'm all in, but the real man on the right leaves a sour taste in my mouth.

Next, in part III: Arnold Rothstein

Friday, April 22, 2016

The Black Sox, Part I: Bucky

Background: Nine Men Out

In 1921, eight of the Chicago White Sox and one player from the St. Louis Browns were permanently expelled from organized baseball for corrupt activities related to Chicago's defeat in the 1919 World Series. Two of the banned players, Buck Weaver of the Sox and Joe Gedeon of the Browns, had neither taken any bribes nor done anything directly to affect the results of any games, but were included in the baseball commissioner's housecleaning because they had found out what had been planned by various gamblers and the so-called Black Sox, but failed to come forward immediately to report what they knew.

At the time that Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis issued his decisions to ban the nine men, he was almost universally praised for taking bold and long-overdue action on baseball's gambling problem, which had been whitewashed for years, much to the dismay of many fans and baseball writers who were well aware of the cozy and inappropriate relationship which then existed between players and gamblers. As Chick Gandil, one of the accused players pointed out, decades after the scandal, "Where a baseball player would run a mile these days to avoid a gambler, we mixed freely. Players often bet. After the games, they would sit in lobbies and bars with gamblers, gabbing away." Landis ended that with strong, decisive action.

As time has passed, however, Landis's blanket ukase, which lumped all the Black Sox together in equal degrees of punishment, has been increasingly criticized because the players' behavior did not exhibit equal degrees of guilt. With some additional objectivity gained by a century of detachment from the outrage of the time, and having evolved a different sense of fairness, modern analysts are rankled by Landis's lack of subtlety in failing to distinguish between the corruptors and the corrupted, between those who wove the web of conspiracy and those merely trapped in it. Many modern fans also wonder how Landis could have banned the players at all, since they were found "not guilty" of all charges by a jury.

In particular, elements of modern pop culture have created a great deal of empathy for two of the Black Sox, third baseman Buck Weaver and the team's superstar, left fielder "Shoeless" Joe Jackson. Jackson was treated sympathetically in W.P. Kinsella's sentimental novel, "Shoeless Joe," and the movie made from it, "Field of Dreams," both of which forgave Joe his trespasses, such as they were. That story granted Jackson a second chance quite literally, and in so doing entreated its audience to grant one metaphorically. The most popular account of the Black Sox scandal, a putatively non-fictional book entitled "Eight Men Out," as well as its eponymous movie adaptation, made a strong case that Buck Weaver was unjustly punished, since his sentence was as harsh as the one imposed upon the players who organized the fix, took the bribes, and threw the games, although Weaver took no money and played firecely and unwaveringly to win. It is from the compelling narrative of that book and screenplay by Eliot Asinof (pronounced AY-zin-off) that most modern fans have formed their impression of the events and personalities that shaped the 1919 World Series fix.

But the established notions of popular culture are inevitably oversimplifications which lose the details and nuances of any situation, especially one as complex as this case, which is filled with unreliable narrators, contradictory accounts, widely accepted myths, evidence tampering, cover-ups, participants who changed their stories over time, and various mysteries which will probably remain unsolved because the keys to their solutions have been lost in a bubbling lather of passing time. Very little about the players' guilt can be established with certainty, but that does not free modern students from trying to come as close as possible to the objective truth.

In order to establish accurate gradations of culpability among the players, it's important to establish exactly what the Black Sox were accused of. There are three separate questions which should be evaluated for each individual player:

  1. Did he conspire to commit a criminal act?
  2. Did he conspire to throw the World Series?
  3. Did he actually do anything to throw the Series?

At a casual first glance, there seems to be no meaningful difference between #1 and #2, but separating them is no mere pettifoggery. It's an extremely critical distinction, because in 1919 there was no Illinois law specifically related to deliberate underperforming in a public sporting event. While the players who threw a game at that time might be in violation of tacit or explicit aspects of their contracts, that is not a matter for the criminal courts. The resolution of alleged contract violations belongs in civil litigation. In simplest terms, it was not a crime for them to throw the World Series. Since tanking the Series was not a criminal act, neither could it be a crime to conspire to do so, because conspiring to commit an act is only illegal if the act itself is illegal. It is illegal for your family to conspire to kill your rich Uncle Dwight, but it is certainly not illegal to conspire to throw him a surprise birthday party.

(Unless, I suppose, the surprise is designed to give him a fatal heart attack.)

We can begin with question #1, "Did he conspire to commit a criminal act?" because it is the easiest to answer in this case. The answer is a simple blanket assertion that applies to all nine men, based on the 1921 trial of the Black Sox: no. The prosecution's actual specific charges seem in retrospect to be (interpreted kindly) quixotic, or even (less kindly) desperate. Absent any spin, it's fair to say the charges have a contrived ring to them. The defendants were accused of conspiring to defraud some of the innocent White Sox of the difference between the winners' and losers' share of the World Series, for example, and they were originally accused of conspiring to defraud Charles K. Nims, an obscure gambler who had bet $250 on the Sox. The prosecutors wisely dropped the latter charge before the trial began. They did so for many reasons, not the least of which was that none of the Black Sox even had any idea who that man was, thus making it impossible for the prosecution to convince a jury that the players were conspiring to defraud him.

The defendants were found not guilty of all charges by the jury, based on the judge's explicit instructions, which were as follows:

"The State must prove that it was the intent of the ballplayers and the gamblers charged with conspiracy to defraud the public and others, and not merely to throw games."

When the jury took only three hours to determine that the State had not proven that charge beyond a reasonable doubt, if at all, Judge Friend was all smiles, as reported by the Chicago Tribune on August 3, 1921.

On the other hand, many journalists of the day were shocked by the verdict, because several of the players had confessed their participation in the fix. Sportswriter H.G. Salsinger summed up the prevailing attitude in the August 11, 1921 edition of The Sporting News:

"There has never been a jury verdict that has aroused such wide discussion and so much unfavorable comment."

Subsequent reviews by legal experts, however, have confirmed that the jury technically had delivered the correct verdict based upon their instructions. Writing in the February 1, 1988 edition of the American Bar Association Journal, James Kirby concluded (page 68):

"If the intent to throw games plus taking money plus agreeing to lose and actually losing were not enough, the prosecution never had a chance. The law was simply inadequate for the Black Sox' offenses, even if the worst about them is believed."

In fact, when the prosecution had rested its case, Judge Friend granted defense motions to dismiss charges against two of the defendants and informed the prosecutors that he would probably set aside any jury findings against three others, including two of the players, since virtually no case had been presented against them. The technical legal issues involved in the case enable us to understand why the baseball commissioner felt he could expel all the Black Sox from baseball despite the "not guilty" verdict. The commissioner and the jury were ruling on two completely separate matters. The jury had to determine whether the accused had committed crimes. The commissioner had to determine whether the Black Sox had either conspired to throw or had actually thrown any ball games, acts which were not illegal at the time, but were obviously contrary to the best interests of both the general public and the institution of organized professional baseball. Although Commissioner Landis and the jury seem upon first impression to have come to opposite conclusions, this is illusory. Both may have been correct. The Black Sox were apparently not guilty of a crime, but nonetheless seem to have engineered a World Series defeat.

This brings us back around to Buck Weaver and Joe Jackson. If the Black Sox in general had conspired to throw and then had actually thrown the World Series, were those two men exceptions? Were they, at least, less guilty than the other defendants?

Buck Weaver

The player

Buck Weaver was a perennial jug-eared kid, the goofy-lookin' boy who sat behind you in third grade, the one with an ubiquitous jack-o'-lantern grin.

Author Nelson Algren called him, "A joyous boy, all heart and hard-trying. A territorial animal who guarded the spiked sand around third like his life."

In many ways, Buck did what the rest of us dreamt of when we were boys on the sandlot, frustrated with our inability to master the game. He turned a base of uninspiring athletic skills into major league stardom.

When he first came up to the majors he was a below average right-handed hitter whose defense at shortstop was as raw as his batting. In his rookie season of 1912, he led the league in errors with 71, while batting only .224. About the only thing worse than his hitting and fielding was his base running, which resulted in only 13 successful steals in 33 attempts. But he was only 21, and the White Sox loved his attitude, so management was patient with him. Undiscouraged by his disappointing first term, he set about to make himself a ball player. The first step in his development was to learn to switch hit, which added nearly 50 points to his batting average in the following year. Then he practiced relentlessly to become a competent major league shortstop, and then a respected third baseman when afforded the opportunity to move over to the line. He eventually became a true star, considered one of the best third sackers in the game on both offense and defense. The progress he made was a testimony to his work ethic. He was in the major leagues for nine years. He batted just .247 over the first five, but .305 over the last four, and he seemed to be getting better every year. In his final year before the ban, when he was still in his twenties, he batted .331, just three points below Ty Cobb.

The scandal

Question #1, "Did he conspire to commit a criminal act?" can fairly be answered in the negative for all the accused, including Weaver. Question #3, "Did he actually do anything to throw the Series?" also requires a negative response in Bucky's case. He is almost universally believed to have done his best to win the 1919 Series. His manager, the team owner, the fans and the scribes all believed that he played to win and went all out on every play (possibly excepting his first at bat). If Commissioner Landis had allowed Buck to continue playing, the White Sox, or any of the other 15 teams in major league baseball, would have signed him in a heartbeat, without the slightest doubt about his unflinching will to win.

That leaves only Question 2, "Did he conspire to throw the World Series?"

The answer to that one is complicated. In his favor, Weaver never agreed to participate in the fix and he never accepted any money to do so. On the other hand, and this is a factor ignored by his apologists, he took several actions to further the conspiracy itself:

  • One of the Black Sox who confessed to the grand jury, Lefty Williams, made a confession prior to his grand jury appearance in which he placed Weaver at a pre-series discussion of the fix at the Warner Hotel in Chicago between five of the Black Sox (Chick Gandil, Eddie Cicotte, Happy Felsch, Weaver and Williams), and two gamblers, identified by Williams as "Sullivan and Brown." Sullivan was later identified as "Sport" Sullivan, the famous Boston bookmaker, and Brown turned out to be Nat Evans, a trusted associate of Arnold Rothstein, the criminal mastermind who was reputed to be the financial backer of the fix. This was the first time a wide group of the players had met with those particular high-rolling gamblers. Prior to that occasion, the only player who knew Sullivan was first baseman Chick Gandil, a long-time acquaintance of the dapper gambler, dating back to Gandil's stint with the Washington Senators in 1912.

  • Williams' actual grand jury testimony was even less favorable to Weaver. He revealed that immediately after the meeting described above, he, Buck Weaver and Happy Felsch had gone for a walk together, during which they discussed how to throw ball games without being detected.

  • Another would-be Series fixer, "Sleepy" Bill Burns, testified in the Black Sox criminal trial that Weaver was present at a meeting at the Sinton Hotel in Cincinnati just before the opening game of the World Series, during which Burns and his associate told the players that they had lined up $100,000 to reward the players for their co-operation.

  • Burns offered a more detailed account of the Sinton Hotel meeting when he was deposed for the Milwaukee civil trial in which the players sued for back wages. Burns revealed that Weaver was not only there, but was the lookout who got up once or twice to make sure there was no sign of the impeccably honest White Sox manager, Kid Gleason, in the hallway.

  • In the same pre-grand-jury confession cited earlier, Lefty Williams also placed Weaver at another meeting of the conspirators, this one for players only, in Chick Gandil's room at the Sinton just before the Series opener, between the same five players who had met with Sport Sullivan at the Warner Hotel in Chicago. Williams confessed, "We asked (Gandil) when he was going to get the hundred thousand that Burns and Attell was supposed to give us. He says, 'They are supposed to give me twenty or thirty thousand after each game.'"

  • Weaver freely admitted in 1922 that he had been part of a conspiracy to throw games in the 1917 season, although not as the bribed loser, but as the briber. Weaver claimed that he and many of his teammates had bought off the Detroit Tigers to throw two double headers on September 2nd and 3rd, 1917, thus assuring a pennant for the White Sox over the Red Sox. Weaver further alleged that the White Sox later reciprocated by throwing the last three games of the 1919 season to the Tigers. Those three games were meaningless to the Sox (they were up four and a half games with three to play), but were meaningful to the Tigers, who hoped to slip past the Yankees and collect the league's third place bonus money. At the time he made this admission, Weaver was attempting to demonstrate that justice was not applied equally because he had been banned for practices that were commonplace in baseball at the time, and which had been overlooked for many other players who were still in good standing.

  • When Sleepy Bill Burns was deposed for the Milwaukee trial, his highly detailed testimony placed Buck Weaver at a payoff. Burns, acting as a facilitator between the players and the gamblers, took $10,000 to the players in the Sinton Hotel after game two of the series, and handed the bills to Chick Gandil. Present in that room were all of the indicted players except Joe Jackson. Two corrupt infielders, Swede Risberg and Fred McMullin, counted the money, then Gandil re-counted it in front of everyone, including Weaver.

  • When baseball's most famous maverick owner, Bill Veeck, owned the White Sox many years after the scandal, he found some forgotten memorabilia deep in the bowels of Comiskey Park. Included in the treasure trove was the diary of Harry Grabiner, who had been the secretary to Charles Comiskey during the Black Sox scandal. After reviewing Grabiner's recap of an investigator's interview with Buck Weaver, Veeck wrote in "The Hustler's Handbook" (page 284): "There is very little doubt that Weaver did remain honest throughout the Series but he was hardly faced, as had been previously supposed, with a difficult last-minute decision about whether to squeal on his friends. He had months to think it over and if he had come to a calculated decision not to go along with the fix, he had also come to a calculated decision to keep his mouth shut."

  • Two of Weaver's honest teammates thought he was crooked, including team captain and superstar Eddie Collins. As reported in the October 30, 1920 edition of Collyer's Eye, Collins told reporter Frank Klein that Weaver made a suspicious play in his very first at bat of the World Series: "As to the actual playing there wasn't a single doubt in my mind after I went to bat for the first time in Cincinnati. The first man up for us was Leibold. Nemo singled and when I attempted to sacrifice him I forced the lad at second. The next man up was Weaver. In the second ball pitched, Weaver gave me the "hit and run" signal and I was caught off second by the proverbial mile. When I returned to the bench, I immediately accused Weaver of not even attempting to hit the ball. I told all this to Comiskey." Regarding suspicious plays in 1920, Collins declared, "If the gamblers didn't have Weaver and Cicotte in their pocket, then I don't know a thing about baseball." Pitcher Dickie Kerr also thought that Weaver was among the players throwing games in 1920. According to Collins, as reported in Baseball Digest, June, 1949: "Dickie Kerr was pitching for us and doing well. A Boston player hit a ball that fell between Jackson and Felsch. We thought it should have been caught. The next batter bunted and Kerr made a perfect throw to Weaver for a force out. The ball pops out of Weaver's glove. When the inning was over, Kerr scaled his glove across the diamond. He looks at Weaver and Risberg who are standing together and says, 'If you'd told me you wanted to lose this game, I could have done it a lot easier.' We lose three or four more games the same way."

  • The confessed ringleader of the fix, Chick Gandil, told a reporter for Sports Illustrated Magazine (September 17, 1956 issue) that Weaver had been part of a first meeting of all eight indicted White Sox the day after the Sullivan offer, and that Weaver had been an active participant. He said: "That night Cicotte and I called the other six together for a meeting and told them of Sullivan’s offer. They were all interested and thought we should reconnoiter to see if the dough would really be put on the line. Weaver suggested we get paid in advance; then if things got too hot, we could double-cross the gambler, keep the cash and also take the big end of the Series cut by beating the Reds. We agreed this was a hell of a brainy plan."

  • Gandil also claimed that Weaver was an active participant in a later meeting in which the players discussed the competing offer from Sleepy Bill Burns, "Cicotte and I called a meeting of the players that night and told them about Burns. Weaver piped up, 'We might as well take his money, too, and go to hell with all of them.'"

Any of Chick Gandil's claims probably ought to be taken with many grains of salt. He is generally considered to be a scoundrel, and cannot be considered a reliable witness. Gandil either lied or misreported at least one key fact in that Sports Illustrated interview. He claimed to have dealt with Arnold Rothstein personally, which never happened, and was about as likely as a stranger being a welcome guest at J.D. Salinger's house. But even if Gandil's words are completely ignored, there is still a persuasive case that Buck Weaver was never as innocent as he always claimed to be. Lefty Williams had no reason to lie either before or during his grand jury testimony because he was under the (mistaken) impression that his co-operation would grant him immunity from punishment. Bill Burns was grilled by numerous top lawyers who tried to break his stories and failed. Moreover, every part of Burns's story was fully corroborated by his sidekick, Billy Maharg.

It seems almost certain that Buck Weaver had heard the plans to fix the series, had witnessed a payoff, and had even taken actions to further the conspiracy (acting as the lookout for a meeting he knew was illicit, and discussing the ways and means of throwing ball games). It is absolutely certain that he knew exactly what was going on. He knew before the World Series that the fix was in, and took no action to prevent his teammates from pulling it off.

If there had been a law in Illinois in 1919 against deliberately losing a public sporting event, and if therefore conspiring to throw the 1919 World Series had broken a second law, Buck Weaver would not have been guilty of the former, but would debatably have been legally guilty of the latter. His actions might be interpreted by a jury as being part of the conspiracy, or they might not, because juries are unpredictable, and might unduly weigh in such factors as the fact that Weaver played the Series honestly, even though an illegal act and the conspiracy to commit such an act should be evaluated as two completely separate crimes.

My own take.

After having immersed myself in the period 1917-1924 for weeks now, having devoured every book and website I could find on the Black Sox, and having come to know them and their surrounding cast like family, I can't find it in my heart to dislike Buck Weaver or Eddie Cicotte (SEE-kott).

Of all the characters in the story, they come off as the two best human beings.

Cicotte made horrible mistakes, but had a conscience. Deep inside he was a good person who bared his soul and tried to make amends for his wrongs by living a righteous post-baseball life in virtual anonymity, with quiet dignity, working hard, keeping out of the limelight, loving his family, and sheltering his children as well as he could from the bitterness America felt toward him.

Similarly, Weaver became a quiet family man, a faithful employee to his post-Sox employers, and a great surrogate dad to his nieces when their own dad died. The movie version of "Eight Men Out" got a lot of things wrong, but it got one thing right about Bucky: he always remained a kid who loved to play baseball at the highest level. He had that taken away from him, along with his good name, but in the face of that he remained a gentle and considerate man with unending reserves of patience and optimism. Like all those who love baseball and its history, I wish that he had eventually come totally clean about his knowledge of the fix instead of making his disingenuous periodic protestations of innocence, if for no other reason than to give us a really good look behind the scenes, but I understand his loyalty, and he was loyal to a fault.

Bucky did try to take the stand in the Black Sox trial, so maybe he later offered complete co-operation and a full accounting to one or more commissioners. I don't know. But I do know this: he was beloved as a star, and remained so after his disgrace, despite remaining in the same city in which he had allowed his teammates to throw the World Series, and had thus stripped the city's team so bare of talent from the resulting expulsions that it was doomed to 40 years of mediocrity or worse. I feel that the arguments I made above may be the strongest case anyone has ever made against him - and maybe he should have blown the whistle on his teammates. Or maybe not. But I reckon if Chicago could love the guy and so completely forgive him, the rest of us can as well.

For what a patch of spiked sand around third looks like
50 years after
Only a turning wind may remember

... Nelson Algren, "Ballet for Opening Day"

Next, in Part II: Shoeless Joe