The Sporting Life: Say It Ain’t So, Joe.

By David Flin

The 1919 Baseball World Series between the Chicago White Sox and the Cincinnati Reds is probably the best-known of all of the World Series contests. Not for the quality of its play, but for the match-fixing scandal associated with it. The fallout from this scandal had long-standing ramifications, from the ending of eight careers, including that of Shoeless Joe Jackson, and the creation of the role of Commissioner of Baseball, with wide-ranging powers. The magnificently named Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis was appointed as the first Commissioner of Baseball, being granted extensive control over the sport in order to restore trust from the public over the integrity of the game.

What happened was that the owner of the Chicago White Sox, Charles Comiskey, was notoriously tight-fisted, with a reputation for under-paying his players, despite it being a successful team, having won the 1917 World Series. The name Black Sox seems to have arisen because Comiskey refused to have the players’ uniforms laundered, and insisted that the players pay. The players refused, and the white uniforms became dirtier. Comiskey finally had the uniforms washed, and deducted the bill from the players’ salaries.

In addition, because of baseball’s reserve clause, contracted players were prohibited from changing teams without permission from their current team.

Underpaid, resentful, and unable to change teams. It was no surprise that many of the players were vulnerable to offers from a gambling syndicate to throw the World Series. The team was not united, falling into two camps that barely spoke to each other. One group, the so-called Clean Sox, were not interested in any such activity. This group included the pitcher Red Faber.

The other group met, and discussed the possibility of throwing the World Series. In all probability, the matter would have gone no further, as Faber would almost certainly have been a starting pitcher in most of the games, and that would have made concealing the fix almost impossible.

Then Fate intervened, and Faber went down with a bout of flu, and was unable to play. The fix was on. Cincinnati duly won the 1919 World Series, and the odd events and errors were generally put down to bad luck and poor form. However, rumours circulated throughout the 1920 season, until in September 1920, a Grand Jury was convened to examine the evidence.

Two players confessed, and a third turned state’s evidence. The trial, however, was a fiasco. Evidence, including the signed confessions went missing, and these players recanted their confessions. Another player, Bill Burns, testified that there had been an intentional fix. Despite this apparently damning testimony, the jury returned verdicts of Not Guilty on all counts, clearing the White Sox conspirators of the charges.

However, the baseball owners decided that the game needed a firm hand to clean it up, and after some discussions, Judge Landis was appointed as the sole Baseball Commissioner, with very wide-ranging powers.

Landis was something of an autocratic ruler. His record on the race issue in baseball is much debated. No black players were involved in professional baseball from 1884 to 1947, and Landis several times used his powers to prevent black teams playing white teams, in case the black team won. Landis was blamed by many for delaying integration into the sport; on the other hand, the owners of the teams were against integration as well. What is clear is that if Landis had insisted, integration would have happened earlier.

The event ended the career of Shoeless Joe Jackson. His participation in the scheme is much debated, and the evidence of his involvement is mixed. However, Landis concluded that Jackson was involved, and banned him from playing, or from being eligible for the Hall of Fame. After the trial, the Chicago Daily News ran a headline reading: “Say it ain’t so, Joe.” The headline was attributed to a comment from a child outside the courtroom to Jackson, which made for a good story, but the reporter admitted that he made up the quote to add colour.

What If? Red Faber doesn’t catch flu, and plays, and the whole conspiracy to fix the World Series becomes one of those ideas that are never put into operation. What happens then?

Landis isn’t appointed as Commissioner of Baseball, which means that no immediate action is taken against match-fixing. However, bribery of players and match-fixing had been going on for some time. Players knew that it was going on. Owners knew that it was going on. Importantly, players knew that the owners knew, and they knew that the owners were doing nothing about it for fear of a scandal that would damage organised baseball.

Sooner or later, the scandal was inevitably going to come into the open, and the longer the scandal continued, the worse it was going to be when it finally broke. If it had come at another time, it would have been someone other than Landis at the helm. Whatever else he was, Landis was effective at dealing with the scandal, and someone else would likely have been less effective, and would likely be dealing with a greater scandal. That doesn’t bode well for the good name of the sport.

Landis blamed gamblers from horse racing as being the primary instigators, and he took steps to ensure that owners could not be involved in horse racing in any way, forcing owners with horse racing connections to choose between the two sports. For example, in 1921, New York Giants owner Charles Stoneham and manager John McGraw bought the Oriental Park Racetrack in Havana, Cuba. Landis forced them to choose, and they put the racetrack back on the market. No Landis, and they retain ownership of the racetrack, at just the time when the racetrack was also starting to host motor racing. The availability of New York Giants financing, combined with the Commission Sportive Internationale introducing regulations for Grand Prix events could easily have resulted in Oriental Park becoming one of the Grand Prix circuits.

As far as baseball is concerned, I’ve already mentioned Landis’ questionable role with regard to integration. He had become such a powerful figure that he could have ensured that there was no “understanding” to keep black players out of the leagues, and it seems likely that he delayed integration. In 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first black player to play in the majors, playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Landis had died in 1944, and Wesley Branch Rickey, General Manager of the Dodgers, active in civil rights, said that it was something he’d wanted to do for a long time.

Without Landis, it seems likely that integration may have come earlier, although most of the owners were dead set against integration.

Without the Black Sox scandal, W P Kinsella doesn’t write Shoeless Joe, and without this book, there is no 1989 film Field of Dreams. I leave it to the reader to decide whether this would be a good or a bad thing.

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