For the fifth chapter of our Illinois gambling history series, we revisit (perhaps) baseball’s biggest scandal: the Chicago Black Sox.
The 1919 World Series was the first national championship played after World War I, and the enthusiasm around baseball was electric. Interest was so high baseball officials stretched the series to a best of 9 rather than the usual 7-game effort.
Chicago’s White Sox were heavily favored over the Cincinnati Reds in the series. But nine games later, the Reds came out on top, and rumors of a fix started to swirl.
By the time the dust settled, eight players had lifetime bans, and the fallout would forever change America’s pastime.
PART 1: MICHAEL MCDONALD, CHICAGO’S FIRST CRIME LORD
Setting the stage
Low pay, a penny-pinching owner, and increasing interest in illegal sports betting set the scene for scandal
Before we begin, a little housekeeping:
It’s important to note that many scandal details remain in dispute to this day.
While a version of the Black Sox mythology has become accepted as (mostly) true, acceptance is not universal. There are many conflicting accounts of what went down — some even from the same people. This retelling borrows from a number of those tales but doesn’t stray too far from historical consensus.
With that said, let the saga begin.
Picture it: Chicago, 1919.
The war has ended, America is returning to “normal,” and Chicago has arguably the best ball team in the major leagues.
While the team played together well, many of the players didn’t get along. Divided factions split along two lines, one aligned with captain Eddie Collins and the other with first baseman Charles Arnold “Chick” Gandil.
Tensions were partially due to a pay imbalance. Like most players at the time, professional baseballers were paid a pittance relative to their worth.
Within the White Sox, low pay problems impacted the team divide.
Collins and his straight-laced crew were well-educated and better able to negotiate decent contracts. At the same time, Gandil and his working-class comrades found themselves at a disadvantage without a union. Some of Chicago’s best players, like Shoeless Joe Jackson and Buck Weaver, played for as little as $6,000 a year ($103,252 today).
No love lost
Unfortunately, the league’s reserve clause prevented players who turned down one team’s contract from playing on another. Plus, players could not switch teams without approval from their current one.
This regulation gave owners, like the White Sox’s Charles Comiskey, leverage when locking in players for cheap.
Comiskey, a former MLB player, was disliked by his players for being miserly. Reportedly the sole thing the team agreed upon was its Comiskey-scorn.
While it was unlikely he was that much worse than other team owners, Comiskey earned the contempt. He even refused to launder his team’s uniforms, instead making the players responsible for regular washing. However, the players refused and continued playing, getting progressively more filthy.
The pigpen mentality continued until Comiskey had the suits laundered and deducted the charges from the players’ pay.
Another tale tells of frustrated star pitcher Eddie Cicotte, upset after Comiskey benched him approaching a 30-win pitching season. While Cicotte’s sidelining saved Comiskey from paying out a $10,000 bonus, financial hardship left players at risk of corruption. (That $10k would be $172,078 in 2022.)
Another area of dispute is whether the ensuing scandal was due to resentment and hardship or just a desire for a quick buck.
Regardless, what was at stake would soon come to light.
PART 2: MONT TENNES, RACE WIRE CZAR
White Sox players and professional gamblers join forces to throw the series for big bucks
With the underpaid White Sox headed to the World Series and (illegal) sports betting on the rise, conditions set the scene for scandal.
Whether the idea for the fix originated with a gambler or Gandil himself is under dispute. While some argue Gandil had the idea first, others say Boston gambler Joesph “Sport” Sullivan propositioned Gandil instead.
Regardless, it’s widely agreed that Gandil was the Sox player closest to the corruption. Later, in a 1956 Sports Illustrated interview, Gandil admitted the quiet part out loud, “I was a ringleader.”
Early talk of a possible fix reportedly started with a small group of players, including Gandil, outfielder Oscar “Happy” Felsch, third baseman Buck Weaver, and Cicotte.
At first, Cicotte resisted Gandil’s recruitment efforts but eventually softened to the grift.
Just days before his first pitch, Cicotte reportedly capitulated, “I’ll do it for $10,000 — before the Series begins.” Later, in his 1920 grand jury testimony, Cicotte, who held a pricey mortgage, further explained:
“They wanted me to go crooked. I needed the money. I had the wife and kids. I had bought the farm.”
Once Gandil had Felsch and Cicotte on board, recruiting others got easier. Soon he’d added shortstop Charles August “Swede” Risberg and utility infielder Fred McMullin to the mix. Pitcher Claude “Lefty” Williams quickly followed. The team’s best hitter and Gandil’s last recruit was Jackson, who rounded out the eight-man squad.
All they needed now was a plan.
Show ‘em the money
Throwing a game is one thing, but players don’t do it for free.
On Sept. 21, the eight White Sox players met in Gandil’s room at New York’s Ansonia Hotel. However, Jackson claimed he missed the gathering —an assertion Lefty Williams repeatedly backed. Regardless, the professional careers of the eight players would cease as a result.
Gandil offered an account of the Sept. 21 meeting in the 1956 SI piece:
“They all were 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 take the big end of the Series by beating the (Cincinnati) Reds. We agreed this was a hell of a brainy plan.”
The following day Gandil reportedly met with Sullivan to relay the fix was on if he could provide $80,000 ($1,376,698) ahead of the series start. Sullivan, for his part, said an $80k advance might not be possible, but they’d discuss it in Chicago at the end of the regular season.
Here’s where things get a bit tricky. In a 1963 book about the scandal, Eliot Asinof wrote that another gambler approached Cicotte after hearing talk of a fix. The gambler, “Sleepy” Bill Burns, reportedly offered to top Sullivan’s offer. In a meeting with Burns and Cicotte, Gandil agreed the group would throw the series for a $100,000 ($1,720,872) advance.
In his 1922 deposition, Billy Maharg (an associate of Burns) would confirm the tale. He testified that, initially, they intended a $20,000 payout for each Gandil, Cicotte, Felsch, Williams and Risberg.
The only problem? He and Burns didn’t have cash on hand for the advance.
Securing the bankroll
Looking to fund the grift, Burns and Maharg headed to New York.
There, said Asinof, they approached Arnold “Big Bankroll” Rothstein, the country’s most prominent sports gambler.
According to the book, Rothstein was skeptical the fix would work and declined involvement. Another book by Leo Katcher claimed Rothstein refused due to risk — too many involved and even more watching.
In Asinof’s version of events, Abe Atell, Rothstein’s right-hand man, saw an opportunity and took it, telling Burns that Rothstein had reconsidered and would put up $100,000.
At the same time, Sullivan independently pursued his plans. And unlike Burns and Maharg, Rothstein knew and respected the veteran gambler. When contacted by Sullivan, Rothstein (according to Asinof) expressed more interest in the plan.
And, contrary to Katcher’s claim, reportedly Rothstein said of the rumors:
“If nine guys go to bed with a girl, she’ll have a tough time proving the tenth is the father!”
As Asinof wrote, Rothstein decided Nat Evans, a trusted associate, should travel to Chicago with Sullivan to meet the players.
Here, again, complications arise.
While there were rumors of various deals struck between gamblers and Black Sox players, there’s no real consensus of what agreements were in place, even today. And there is little certainty of the true amount earned by each player in the end. In at least one case (Weaver’s), it may have been nothing at all.
At best, it seems the players received no more than $10,000 before the series started. How much followed during and after could also be more concise.
Nonetheless, the day before the opener, seven of the compromised players agreed to throw games one and two on the promise of big payouts. Shoeless Joe was the only one not at the meeting to sign on.