“Who is the bad guy?” is the first and last question we want answered in fictional and non-fiction stories. We love our bad guys almost as much, and sometimes more, than the good guys, but we don’t want them complicated or conflicted, with a multi-layered narrative that leaves some doubt. We don’t want to think. We want Scooby Doo bad guys who only lament getting caught. Eliot Asinof’s 1963 book Eight Men Out: The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series does not satisfy this need. There are no heavy breathing bad guys encased in black metal in the tale, no one who laughs maniacally at the end, and there is no one specific person to whom fans, historians, or any of the players involved can point to when a kid allegedly says, “Say it ain’t so” in the aftermath of some members of the most talented team in Major League Baseball in 1919, the Chicago White Sox, confessing to fixing World Series before a grand jury.
If we are living paycheck to paycheck while our employer gets rich as a result of our efforts, our bad guy, in this tale, is the penny-pinching Chicago White Sox owner Charles Comiskey. We learn that Comiskey’s players were underpaid relative to the rest of the league, and we paint-by-numbers after that. If we have preconceived notions about the various gambling institutions that prey on little guys, we believe notorious gambler Arnold Rothstein is the most evil man in the tale. If we love sports, and we want to believe that all sports are on the level, we direct our ire at the players, saying, “No matter what, you don’t sacrifice the integrity of the game.”
The most devastating details of the scandal involve the athletes. The details are devastating to us, because they’re our heroes, our good guys, and the face of the franchise. We get to know players through their play on the field, and we savor any details reporters unearth of their personal lives that let us believe we know them. We feel their successes and failures as if they were our own. We also identify with them as fellow victims in the worker v. owner dynamic. If they fall prey to some sort of scandal, we so want to believe them so much that we’ll repeat anything they say to defend themselves. There’s also little in it for management, and those in the media, to contradict them. We also know that most athletes have relatively short-term careers, and they spend so much time honing their craft that when their careers end they often have no other marketable skills. Most of us do not begrudge them getting as much money as they can when they can get it to prepare for their life after sports. We understand this from a distance, but to suggest that a professional athlete needs more money to pay the rent, the mortgage, or to feed their family often falls on deaf ears for most modern fans who hear modern athletes turn down multi-million dollar contracts, saying, “I need to feed my family” to garner public sympathy.
“Who is the bad guy?” Just about everyone who has heard about the 1919 Black Sox Scandal, or watched the movie Eight Men Out, knows this narrative: The players were underpaid by the Mr. Scrooge character of this tale, owner Charles Comiskey. When they sought more money from him, Comiskey turned them down, and there were various examples of how this man penny pinched, until the desperate players, led by Chick Gandil, approached some gamblers with an idea to purposely lose the World Series for money, once-in-a-lifetime money. This narrative depends heavily on that desperate characterization. They were depicted as desperate to feed their families, “as any good man would be.” If we approached the baseball enthusiast at the end of the bar, 99% of them would list, “They were starving, and their little kids were starving. We can’t blame them for wanting to secure enough money to feed their families,” as the primary, underlying cause of The Black Sox Scandal. It’s what we’ve all been led to believe.
Yet, The Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) provides a list of the top paid players on the 1919 Chicago White Sox. It concedes that as with every professional sports team, the individual salaries of the 1919 White Sox were top heavy, and they also cite Asinof’s listings of salaries as a primary source for this information. Asinof listed the salaries, but he didn’t compare them to the rest of the league at the time. SABR did. SABR found that when compared to the league, five of top White Sox salaries were in the top 20 individual salaries paid in Major League Baseball, in 1919, and that the White Sox, as a team, had the third highest payroll in baseball. So much for the “underpaid, perhaps criminally, underpaid White Sox players relative to the rest of the league” line. Eddie Collins (not one of the reported eight involved) and Eddie Cicotte (after bonuses) each made $15,000 a year compared to the most popular and highest paid player in the league Ty Cobb, who made 20,000 a year. The site suggests that while the average salaries of the White Sox athlete, in particular, and the rest of the Major League teams, in general, did not dwarf the average salary of the common citizen in the manner modern Major League salaries do today, with the top salaries of the top players being around $15,000.00 compared to average 1919 citizens salary of $8,973.00, the site suggests that Comiskey’s purported greed is not nearly as scandalous as the movie, and much of history, have alleged.
The counterpoint that Comiskey was not unusually greedy among Major League owners should also be countered with the idea that Major League owners collectively colluded to keep salaries low. In 1919, Baseball had a reserve clause which held players to any contract they signed. When they signed, they were basically the team’s property. The only power a baseball player had, in 1919, was to hold out, or refuse to play, until they received pay they considered worthy of their talent. The latter was often at the discretion, some say whims, of the owner. In short, the player had little-to-no power in contract negotiations. They were subject to the absolute power of the owners, and we can assume that the owners colluded to keep salaries low, so low that many players had to find jobs during the offseason. It was unquestionably an unfair worker v. owner dynamic that wouldn’t be tilted back in the baseball players favor until the reserve clause was abolished in 1975.
The system in place, in 1919, was undoubtedly unfair, but this idea that the White Sox players who signed up for the ploy to fix the World Series were all but destitute compared to the rest of the league, and that they felt it necessary to go to the gamblers to feed their families just doesn’t stack up for some of the players, like Cicotte, were earning almost double what the common man made in the era. Another future Hall of Famer, catcher Ray Schalk (not implicated in the Black Sox Scandal), was the 13th-highest-paid player in the league at $7,083. Chick Gandil, the primary organizer of the scandal, may have had a reason, with his $3,500 a year salary, and his eventual $35,000 pay out from the Rothstein-led gamblers (equivalent to $522,000 in 2020), but the rest of the scandal participants reportedly only received $5,000 each or more (equivalent to $75,000 in 2020).
The following is a list of the White Sox players involved in the scandal, and the reported amounts they received for fixing the 1919 World Series. Keep in mind that the average salary of the average citizen in the United States of America, in 1919, was $8,973. Unless otherwise listed, the players involved reportedly received $5,000 a piece for fixing the 1919 World Series when the gamblers promised them $20,000 a piece.
- “Shoeless” Joe Jackson ($6,000).
- Eddie Cicotte ($15,000 salary) (received $10,000 before game one).
- Chick Gandil ($3,500 salary) ($35,000 for organizing the fix).
- Swede Risberg ($3,250 salary) (received 15,000 for his role in the fix).
- Buck Weaver (7,250).
- Claude “Lefty” Williams ($3,500).
- “Happy” Felsch ($3,750).
- Fred McMullen ($3,600).
The other idea that sports’ fans want to believe, in reference to the Black Sox Scandal, the biggest scandal in sports in the early part of the 20th century, is that it was a one-off, an aberration in the rich tradition of baseball before and after the scandal-ridden World Series. We prefer our stories in neat, tight little packages that have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Before reading this book, I thought I knew everything there was to know about the scandal, because I watched what I considered the comprehensive story in the movie. The movie depicts the gamber’s influence on this World Series as a sort of whim by Chick Gandil, as if he just thought of it out of thin air, but the movie fails to discuss how institutional gambling and gamblers were in the game of baseball prior to the 1919 season. Time constraints don’t allow a movie maker enough time to display a full narrative, of course, but one would think they might include some discussions revolving around how institutional gambling was in the culture of baseball during that era. The unfortunate fact, as laid out by Eliot Asinof, is that there was evidence of gambling, gamblers, and throwing games before the 1919 season. Some suggest that the “history of fixed ballgames goes all the way back to 1865.” Author William F. Lamb wrote that Eddie Cicotte, the first of the Black Sox players to admit to the 1919 conspiracy, said he and his teammates were “envious of the $10,000 rumored to have been paid Cubs players to throw the 1918 Series” against Babe Ruth and the Red Sox. The idea that gamblers had any influence over the game was rarely talked about, but most members of the media, and baseball insiders, knew it was going on. The culture was so pervasive that certain players traded techniques of fudging a game in ways fans, managers, and even some of their peers couldn’t see.
Other than time constraints, we can guess that the movie makers also decided against bringing the whole house down by condemning an entire era in this manner, because most audiences don’t want to hear that. We don’t want to hear how players, on other teams, regularly threw regular season games, got caught, and were never punished. We don’t want to hear the fact that ballplayers accepting money from gamblers was so common that what the White Sox players did, didn’t necessarily stain the game at the time as much as it stained the World Series. The influence gamblers had on regular season games appears to have been so entrenched in baseball’s culture at the time that Chick Gandil may have considered throwing a World Series for money, once-in-a-lifetime money, as nothing more than the next logical step.
One of the primary antecedents of the scandal author Eliot Asinof suggests may have laid the groundwork for what would become “The Black Sox Scandal” was the federal government shutting down the race tracks in 1917. Asinof provides no reason why the federal government did this, but research dictates that it might have had something to do with the fact that the U.S. government needed more horses to use in combat in World War I. The gamblers who previously spent so much time at the race tracks that they purchased homes and apartments near the tracks, “converted their vast machinery of operation from horses to baseball” Asinof wrote in the aftermath of the racetrack shutdown. “By 1919, two years later, gamblers openly boasted that they could control ball games as readily as they [once] controlled horse races.” The idea that by 1919 gambling and gamblers was so pervasive in baseball that players, coaches, owners, and those in league offices knew about it, is also not discussed in the movie.
Fixing games was so commonplace by 1919 that players casually joked about techniques they would employ to fix games that weren’t apparent to fans, managers, owners, or even the media. Outfielders joked about getting “a bad jump” on the ball in the outfield, and infielders talked about making routine ground balls appear so difficult that a poorly timed throw to first appeared more reasonable. The idea that they joked about these techniques suggests that not only how easy it would be for a fielder to fudge a little, but that they developed these techniques over time. The rumors of players fixing games eventually reached members of the media. Eliot Asinof’s narrative suggests anytime representatives of the media tried to dig into these rumors, they were easily bought off, and instructed to stop digging. Buying their silence was done, according to Asinof, “for the good of baseball”. Whether their access to players was threatened or not, we can say that these members of the media played a role in this scandal in that if they weren’t so compliant they may have broken a story that prevented The Black Sox Scandal, but they didn’t put up much of a fight by some accounts.
The ultimate search for a bad guy leads us into a chicken and an egg scenario that asks which came first, the owner’s collusive efforts that kept players’ salaries low, or the influence of gamblers, and the enticement of their money. Evidence suggests that the owners underpaid the athlete first, and that drove them into the arms of the gamblers. At some point, the owners and all of their underlings caught wind of the players’ fixing games, and they did everything they could to sweep it under the rug? Did they do this to protect the integrity of the game, or did they see it as a way to continue to underpay the athletes? There’s a famous scene in this story that might have prevented the entire Black Sox Scandal. The best pitcher, and game one of the World Series pitcher, of the White Sox, Eddie Cicotte, allegedly approached owner Charles Comiskey, with hat in hand, asking for a bonus he thought he believed the owner and manager conspired to prevent him from attaining. We can only assume that the colluding owners faced constant pressure from all sides to keep players’ salaries low, and we can speculate that Comiskey may have turned Cicotte down by telling Cicotte that he, like other players in the game, should seek his money “elsewhere”, with an unspoken wink and a nod to gamblers. Comiskey wanted to keep more of his money, of course, and he most assuredly knew his ballplayers were making more money under the table, so if this speculative scenario holds any weight, both parties walk away happy, corrupted but happy.
We can presume that as long as their team won most of their games and stayed in contention to keep fan attendance high, the owners turned a blind eye to any hints of game fixing, and they benefitted by not having to pay their players top dollar. TV revenue was still 45 years in the future, so while the Major League teams received some money from some media, the overwhelming source of revenue for all Major League Baseball teams was attendance, so the owners probably didn’t sniff around the dugout when their teams remained in contention to keep attendance high.
The final tally on the 1919 Chicago White Sox, the best teams of their generation, won only 88 games that year, 3.5 games ahead of the Cleveland Indians. They won enough games to win the pennant, in other words, but if they were the best team in 1919, it invites some speculation that they only won 88 games. We should also note that the season was shortened by the war department, from 154 games to 140, after playing only 125 in 1918. So, the White Sox could’ve won 10-12 more games of the 14 they would’ve played in a 154-game season.
If you decided that the bad guys in this story is D, all of the above, the next logical question we should ask ourselves is who do care most about? Nobody cares about owners, and nobody cares about a bunch of smarmy gamblers? We might care that one of the owners so deprived his players of money they earned by putting on athletic shows for the audience, but we only care about it in lieu of it driving the players to throw the World Series. It might intrigue us to learn how much Charles Comiskey made that year in an historical perspective, but other than that we don’t care. It also might intrigue us to learn how much Arnold Rothstein and the other gamblers made by selling their souls to taint the game, because we might ask ourselves was it all worth it? Did they make once-in-a-lifetime money, or did they make just enough to put a big, huge smile on their face. They obviously didn’t care about the integrity of the game, and we shouldn’t expect anything more from them. They’re the smarmy gamblers sitting on the shoulder trying to convince you to sell your soul for a couple bucks. We all know those types. The only ones we truly care about in this story are those with whom we identify the most, our idols growing up, and those most capable of letting us down. Fair or not, we have greater expectations of players to live up to our expectations. We know they’re human and prone to temptation, but what some of the eight players confessed to was inexcusable in many respects.
The sad, tragic effect of the White Sox Black Sox scandal occurred after the commissioner banned the eight players involved in the scandal from Major League Baseball for life, thus effectively removing the greatest team of their generation from the list of contenders. Was it wrong for baseball’s commissioner to ban them for life? To answer that question, we ask another question: What if they hadn’t? To this day, sports fans question whether its athletes are on the take? These suspicions probably weren’t born the day this story hit the news, and they obviously didn’t die the day after the banning, but imagine how much fuel would’ve been added to the conspiracy theorist’s fire if these players received a slap on the wrist? The White Sox became a second-level team after some of their best players were banned for life and beyond, and the banning paved the way for Babe Ruth and the Yankees to begin their reign over baseball. The sad thing is that if these players were not involved in the scandal and thus banned from ever playing Major League baseball again, it’s possible that the White Sox might have been the team to rule baseball for the next thirty years, not the Yankees. That might be a bit of a stretch, as the Yankees made so many brilliant player personnel decisions that are too numerous to list here, over the next thirty years. The talent the Yankees “discovered” had nothing to do with the Black Sox scandal, so perhaps their dynasty was inevitable, but success often breeds success, and who knows where the White Sox could’ve gone. At the very least, the scandal deprived baseball history of some of the most talented individuals’ of their era, as their future careers were both lost and scarred beyond repair, and some incredible games and pennant races between the Yankees and the White Sox. History being what it was, the scandal and the ban ruined the franchise for the rest of their fans’ lives, as the White Sox wouldn’t win a pennant for forty years (1959), and they wouldn’t win another World Series for another eighty-five years (2005).