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MLB History: The 1919 Chicago Black Sox

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MLB history is replete with stories of outstanding accomplishments, team, and individual alike. It is also a history with a rich tradition of colorful characters. Perhaps, though there is no story that quite compares to the story of the Chicago Black Sox.

MLB History: The Black Sox – The Legend

The White Sox won the American League pennant in 1919 and faced the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series. What is known to be factual is this: Several White Sox players conspired to “fix” or “throw” the series to the underdog Reds, in exchange for cash from gamblers. This would go down as the biggest scandal in MLB history, and still arouses curiosity 102 years later.

There are several stories spun about the Chicago Black Sox, and the legend seems to grow with each passing year. One version is that first baseman Chick Gandil hatched a plot with a gambler to convince teammates to throw the series. The alleged payout was around $100,000 or more, so the story goes.

Another story making the rounds is that Eddie Cicotte, the star pitcher for the Sox, had a clause in his contract that would pay him a $10,000 bonus if he won 30 games. After his 29th win, as legend has it, cheap-fisted owner Charles Comiskey ordered manager Kid Gleason not to pitch Cicotte again.

Still another version insists that Comiskey treated his players poorly and paid them below-average salaries. This had to be their motivation for throwing the Series. Even though this theory seems to have been debunked, legends can die hard. So, this legend persists to this day.

If you like visuals, Hollywood has even gotten in on the act. The movie “Eight Men Out” is Hollywood’s version of the Black Sox scandal. It is well worth watching, even if it may embellish a thing or two. In any event, it is another narrative of the biggest scandal in MLB history. Take your pick, each version likely contains at least a little truth.

MLB History: The Black Sox – The Players

There were eight players implicated in the Black Sox scandal. Their names were Eddie Cicotte, Happy Felsch, Chick Gandil, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, Fred McMullin, Swede Risberg, Buck Weaver, and Claude “Lefty” Williams. Each of them had varying roles with the team in 1919.

MLB History: The Black Sox – Individuals

Eddie Cicotte was the best pitcher on the 1919 White Sox. Cicotte recorded win totals of 28, 29, and 21 in 1917, 1919, and 1920 respectively. Without his participation, it is hard to imagine the fix being effective.

Happy Felsch was an outfielder, who compiled a career batting average of .293. He hit .275 in 1919, and a career-best of .338 in 1920.

Chick Gandil was the first baseman for the White Sox in 1919, who hit .277 over the course of his career. In 1919, he hit .290. He did not play after 1919.

“Shoeless” Joe Jackson, the most well-known of the Black Sox, was a career .356 hitter. He hit .351 in 1919 and hit .382 with a career-high 121 RBIs in 1920. Many still make the case that Shoeless Joe belongs in the Hall Of Fame.

Fred McMullin was a utility player who compiled a career batting average of .256, hitting a career-best .294 in 1919. Then, he hit a career-low .197 in 1920, his final season.

Swede Risberg was a young utility player who hit .238 in his short career. His involvement may have come from the desire of a mediocre player to earn a paycheck. Otherwise, his appearance on the list is a bit of a mystery.

Buck Weaver was a solid player, and the third-best player on the list, behind Jackson and Cicotte. He was a career .272 hitter and played all over the infield. In 1919, he hit .296 and finished his career in 1920 by hitting a career-high .331.

Lefty Williams, a left-handed pitcher was a solid second pitcher to Cicotte. He won 23 games in 1919 and went on to win 22 more in 1920. He had a career ERA of 3.13.

MLB History: The Black Sox – The Verdict

In the 1919 World Series, Williams walked eight batters while striking out only 4 in 16.1 innings. Eddie Cicotte pitched poorly in two games and pitched well in a third. He took two losses against a heavy underdog. Joe Jackson hit .375 in the 1919 World Series, while Buck Weaver hit .324.

These stats would suggest that Cicotte and Williams did their part in throwing the Series. while Jackson and Weaver did their best to help the White Sox overcome their ace pitchers. Alas, they failed, as the Sox lost to the Reds, five games to three. (In 1919, the World Series was a best of nine formats).

All eight players faced trial in 1921 and were acquitted. One might think that all was well and the Black Sox would be welcome back to MLB and that their 1919 World Series activities might just be a footnote in MLB History. The legal system, however, did not have the final say on their fate.

After the eight were acquitted, new Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis imposed a lifetime ban on all eight players. Even Jackson and Weaver, who played up to their capabilities were banned. Weaver applied for reinstatement while Jackson never did make the application. Perhaps the darkest chapter in MLB History came to a sad conclusion.

MLB History: The Black Sox – Epilogue

There are really no winners in the Black Sox scandal. Eight baseball players saw their careers ended abruptly, albeit deservedly in most, if not all cases). Baseball got cheated out of a true World Series. America’s national pastime suffered a permanent scar, as it is still fresh for many even after 102 years.

Yet, for two players, questions remain to this day. Shoeless Joe Jackson is still an icon to many South Side fans. They also still support his candidacy for the Hall of Fame. The facts on Shoeless Joe are these: He did receive $5,000 from the gamblers; that is not in dispute. He also played extremely well, with his .375 average. His performance suggests that he did not play to lose.

Buck Weaver, on the other hand, did not take any money from gamblers. He also played very well in the Series, hitting .324. A stronger argument can be made for Weaver than for Jackson. Weaver played no part in the biggest scandal in MLB history.

Many fans will insist that Jackson and Weaver played up to their capabilities in the 1919 World Series. Thus, they should be viewed differently than those who willingly played well below their capabilities. A reasonable person could suggest that these two should be at least considered for reinstatement.

At the end of the day, however, both players knew about the scheme, and in Jackson’s case, even received the money. Yes, they were put in a no-win situation: keep quiet and hope the Sox win anyway, or blow the whistle on their teammates, and blow up the whole World Series.

There were no good choices for Jackson and Weaver, only bad ones. However, history will record that they did, in fact, know about teammates conspiring to throw a World Series, and never said a word. For that, MLB history will say that they were complicit in the plan, and their silence was deafening. Fans can agree or disagree, but for their part in the biggest scandal in MLB history, there will be no exoneration for Jackson or Weaver.

MLB History: The Black Sox Scandal – Footnote

A story on the Black Sox scandal without at least one more reference to Shoeless Joe Jackson. First, he hit .356 in his career. Babe Ruth (a pretty good hitter in his own right) said of Jackson, “I copied (Shoeless Joe) Jackson’s style because I thought he was the greatest hitter I had ever seen, the greatest natural hitter I ever saw. He’s the guy who made me a hitter.” High praise to be sure.

Secondly, Shoeless Joe Jackson was introduced to new generations of fans in the classic movie “Field of Dreams.” He was the most well-known former star to appear at the little ball field in Iowa. This helped more and more fans fall in love with the legend of Shoeless Joe Jackson, which endures to this day.

Yes, Shoeless Joe took money from gamblers and will be forever banned from baseball. But not even the biggest scandal in MLB history can diminish the love his many fans have for him. In the hearts of many Sox fans, Shoeless Joe will live forever.

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Main image credit: Embed from Getty Images

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Mike Fisk is a lifelong baseball fan. For him, there is nothing like being at a baseball game, with the sights, the sounds, the smells. Writing about baseball is a bonus!