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 that 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 rigmarole, 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 that 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 that 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 Leibold, 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.

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) that 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.)

"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
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
"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
"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
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 that 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
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
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
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
Sidebar. One of the umpires in the Series says he never suspected a thing.
Chicago Tribune
Commissioner Landis rules the indicted players ineligible to play until they demonstrate to him that they are clean.
Chicago Tribune
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
The trial has begun. The defense attacks Comiskey when he takes the stand.
Chicago Tribune
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
Billy Maharg tells the court how he tracked down Sleepy Bill Burns in Mexico.
Chicago Tribune
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
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
The defense presents evidence that the Series was played on the square.
Chicago Tribune
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
The prosecution says the Sox should be found guilty on the basis of their confessions alone.
Chicago Tribune
The story reports that baseball's moguls will support Landis' decision to ban the acquitted players.
Chicago Tribune
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 that 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 that 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 notes 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 that 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 that 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 that 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 that 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. That new army of gamblers moved from the ponies to the ballparks, looking to augment their 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.


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.

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