Black Sox Down: The 1919 Chicago White Sox World Series Scandal (Part 2)

Written By Robyn McNeil on December 16, 2022
part 2 of the story of the chicago black sox world series scandal of 1919

In Part 1 of our retelling of the infamous Black Sox saga, we offered an introduction to the players and the conditions that would set into motion the scandal to come. In this chapter, we revisit the 1919 World Series games and the aftermath of the fix’s reveal.

So, without further ado, we give you Part 5.2 of our Illinois gambling history series revisiting the game-changing betrayal of the Chicago Black Sox.

Let the games begin

Favorites, the White Sox, start the series with a 9-1 loss. By the time they give up the series, rumors of a fix swirl

Game one of the 1919 World Series went down in Cincinnati on a sunny and warm first of October.

Game one at Redland Field was sold out, with last-minute tickets earning scalpers a budget-busting $50 ($860). Around the country, crowds gathered to tune into the event. In New York City, spectators gathered in Times Square to watch as results delivered by telegraph played out on a mechanical scoreboard.

As the story goes, Cicotte would either walk or hit the first Red at bat to single the fix was on. His first throw sailed smoothly across home plate, earning a strike and more than a few eyebrows. His second, however, smoked Reds batter, Maurice Rath, in the back.

The game, his pitch indicated, was afoot.


Play was tied 1-1 with one out in the fourth when Cicotte gave up five runs (including a triple). The game ended with Cincinnati taking it 9-1, shocking nearly everyone not in on the grift.

Game two went nearly as bad, with the Reds topping the Sox 4-2. In Asinof’s retelling, afterward, Burns left $10,000 in Gandil’s room (half the expected amount).

Going into game three, the players were upset over receiving only a fraction of their promised rake. In possible protest, the Sox took the game 3-0 over the Reds. Gandil then told Sullivan they needed $20,000 before game four’s or the fix was over.

The Reds took that contest 2-0, then 5-0 in game five. But when none of the gamblers produced the expected $20,000 after the game-five loss, the White Sox were over it. They took game six 5-4 and game seven 4-1. A win in their next showing would bring the series to a 4-4 tie.

While the account of intimidation appearing in Asinof’s tale was later revealed as a trick to identify plagiarizers, players (and their families) received credible threats during the series. Particularly ahead of game eight.

Whether those threats had anything to do with the Sox’ poor play, the Reds won that (and the series) 10-5.

But the controversy was just beginning to heat up as the series wrapped.


The jig is up

The Sox World Series treachery comes to light when another suspected fix heads to an Illinois Grand Jury

In the aftermath of Chicago’s surprising loss, rumors of the fix began to spread.

Comiskey, for his part, hired an investigator to dig into the finances of seven of the eight men. (Only Weaver escaped his suspicion).

Publically, however, he tried to discourage the chatter and issued a statement. But, even with that, he left himself an out.

“I believe my boys fought the battle of the recent World Series on the level, as they have always done. And I would be the first to want information to the contrary–if there be any. I would give $20,000 to anyone unearthing information to that effect.”

Rumors continued to swirl into the winter, and on December 15, Chicago sportswriter, Hugh Fullerton, published a jarring headline in New York World:


Fullerton called on the baseball body to tackle its growing gambling problem in the piece. He also suggested a special investigation headed by federal judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis dig into gambling’s reach into baseball.

Speculation of the fix continued into the 1920 season, but its confirmation came about unexpectedly.

Another rumored fix, this time in an August 1920 Cubs-Phillies game, culminated in the convening of Cook County’s Grand Jury. Hartley Replogle, the county’s assistant state attorney, issued dozens of subpoenas to the who’s who of baseball.

A domino effect

During his testimony, New York Giants pitcher Rube Benton reported knowledge of a telegram between Burns and a Giants teammate. The communication, allegedly witnessed just weeks before the 1919 World Series, said the Sox would lose the pennant.

Benton then said he later found out Gandil, Williams, Felsch, and Cicotte were in on the deception.

Days later, an interview with Billy Maharg printed in the Philadelphia North American offered Americans the first details of the scandal.

By this time, Cicotte had regrets. Whether due to Marharg’s interview or his implication by the manager of his rooming house, Cicotte decided to come clean.

“I don’t know why I did it,” Cicotte said to the grand jury.

“I must have been crazy. Risberg, Gandil, and McMullin were at me for a week before the Series began. They wanted me to go crooked. I don’t know. I needed the money. I had the wife and the kids. The wife and the kids don’t know about this. I don’t know what they’ll think.”

“I’ve lived a thousand years in the last twelve months. I would have not done that thing for a million dollars. Now I’ve lost everything, job, reputation, everything. My friends all bet on the Sox. I knew, but I couldn’t tell them.”

Soon after, Jackson turned up in the judge’s chambers to lighten his guilty load. The same day, Comiskey suspended the eight men indefinitely, and the hope for a 1920 Sox championship ended.

The team, minus the missing players, would play their final regular season games. However, they achieved the expected season-ending results.

The indictments

The Cook County Grand Jury handed down its indictments on the eight players and five gamblers on October 22, 1920. Charges included multiple counts of conspiracy to defraud a variety of individuals. Surprisingly, again the indictment failed to name Rothstein.

However, in a blow to the prosecution, shortly after the indictments, the confessions and waivers of immunity signed by Cicotte, Jackson, and Williams disappeared from the State’s Attorney’s office.

At this point, defense attorney William Fallon began amassing a team of the best defense lawyers in Illinois. While it was clear the economically challenged Sox players weren’t personally shelling out for their defense, who was footing the bill remained hush-hush.

While an acquittal would benefit Comiskey, who hoped for a reinstatement of his suspended players, there’s no evidence he financed the legal assistance.

To his credit, American League president Ban Johnson was eager to clean up the sport. And, publically, he was frustrated with Comiskey:

“We have been working on this case for three solid months and we have not had an iota of cooperation from the Chicago club.”

The arraignment of the thirteen defendants took place on Valentine’s Day, 1921,

A month later, on behalf of the State, George Gorman announced the theft of the players’ confessions and waivers.

Another Grand Jury investigating a new set of charges issued a superseding indictment and added five new gamblers on March 26. Rothstein, however, again remained unscathed.

Certainly, whether or not he was a backer of the fix, Rothstein was aware and made substantial money betting on the series (estimates run as high as $400,000/$6,883,491).


Trial by jury

After a long wait, the accused finally head to court

The State of Illinois vs. Eddie Cicotte (et al.) opened in the Chicago courtroom of Judge Hugo Friend on June 27, 1921.

Players each faced a swath of charges:

  • conspiring to defraud the public
  • conspiring to defraud Sox pitcher Ray Schalk
  • conspiring to commit a confidence game
  • conspiring to injure the business of the American League
  • conspiring to injure the business of Charles Comiskey.

However, with the confessions missing, Gorman faced a brutal fight. Fortunately, Johnson and Maharg found Burns fishing the Rio Grande in Texas, and Gorman had Sleepy as a witness. Promised immunity, Burns reluctantly agreed to testify to what he knew.

On July 18, Gorman delivered the trial’s opening statement, classifying the fix as “chaotic chess.”

“The gamblers and ball players started double-crossing each other until neither side knew what the other intended to do.”

But, when Gorman quoted from a copy of Cicotte’s confession, defense attorney Michael Ahearn objected, “You won’t get to first base with those confessions!” Gorman countered, “We’ll hit a home run!”

However, Ahearn proved the better fortune-teller. Friend deemed any reference to the confessions out of bounds.

Witnesses for the prosecution included Comiskey, John O. Seys, the secretary of the Chicago Cubs, and Burns (who testified for three days).

Burns takes the stand

During his exhaustive testimony, Burns recounted the ins and outs of the fix. Although he got some dates wrong, many in the press thought Burns turned in a superb account.

From a Kansas City Times story on July 21, 1921:

“At the end of his twelfth hour on the stand, the witness appeared exhausted. His body was limp in the witness chair, his eyes were half closed, but his head was held back and his answers still came clearly and defiantly despite a cataract of innuendoes, disparaging remarks about his mentality and character and other bitter verbal shots heaped on by his questioners.”

The biggest issue in the trial was how to handle the missing confessions. Judge Friend ruled the statements of use only if the prosecution could prove they were voluntary and without the promise of reward. After listening to related testimony, Friend ruled the State could use the confessions, but only against the players in question.

On July 27, lawyers read the confessions of Cicotte, Jackson and Williams in court. According to newspaper coverage, “The actual transcript of the confessions varied little from the frequently published reports.”

Defense lawyers employed a mix of alibis and character witnesses on the stand, including Sox teammates and officials.

The defense asked Sox players not involved in the scandal if their teammates played their best in the series. Despite the prosecution’s objections, Friend allowed witnesses to answer.

Of particular interest was the testimony of Comiskey’s chief financial officer, Harry Grabiner. Grabiner showed that the team earned substantially higher gate receipts in 1920 than in 1919. This data undermined the prosecution’s claim the player’s betrayal financially damaged the group.

The defense rests

The trial finally wrapped on July 29. Prosecutor Edward Prindeville was first up to summarize the State’s case.

“Joe Jackson, Eddie Cicotte, and Claude Williams sold out the American public for a paltry $20,000. This game, gentleman, has been the subject of a crime. The public, the club owners, even the small boys on the sandlots have been swindled.”

“They have taken our national sport, our national pleasure, and tried to turn it into a con game.”

The prosecution asked for a guilty verdict and “five years in the penitentiary and a fine of $2000.”

Gorman was up next:

“Thousands of men throughout the chilly hours of the night, crouched in line waiting for the opening of the first World Series game. All morning they waited, eating a sandwich perhaps, never daring to leave their places for a moment. There they waited to see the great Cicotte pitch a ballgame. Gentlemen, they went to see a ballgame. But all they saw was a con game!”

Ben Short, for the defense, countered:

“There may have been an agreement entered into by the defendants to take the gamblers’ money, but it has not been shown that the players had any intention of defrauding the public or bringing the game into ill repute.”

Another defense attorney, Morgan Frumberg, suggested the real guilty party, Arnold Rothstein, was not even present.

“Why was he not indicted?… Why were these underpaid ballplayers, these penny-ante gamblers who may have bet a few nickels on the World Series, brought here to be the goats?”

Free to go

Before Judge Friend sent the jury off to deliberate, he instructed that to return a guilty verdict; the players must have conspired “to defraud the public and others, and not merely throw ballgames.”

At the time, it seemed the jury was already leaning toward acquittal. However, Friend’s direction may have sealed the deal. (At the time, The New York Times editorialized that the instruction was akin to saying the “state must prove the defendant intended to murder his victim, not merely cut his head off.”)

In any case, the jury handed down its first not-guilty verdict to a celebratory courtroom crowd in less than three hours. Soon hats and confetti were flying as a string of acquittals followed. Several jurors even hoisted players to their shoulders in jubilation.

“The jury could not have returned a fairer verdict,” commented Jackson on his way out of court. “But I don’t want to go back to organized baseball–I’m through with it.”


Eight men out

Despite the acquittal, the eight Sox teammates are banned from MLB for life

Jackson was through with baseball, and the feeling was mutual.

Before the fix, a three-person National Commission governed the league:

  • Ban Johnson, American League president
  • John Heydler, National League president
  • Garry Herrmann, Cincinnati Reds owner

Then, in 1920 as rumors swirled, Herrmann stepped down at the request of other club owners, effectively leaving the commission in perpetual deadlock. League members tossed around the idea of installing a single commissioner or rebuilding the National Commission from outside the game.

After some back and forth, they landed on Landis (solo). They just had to convince him to take the job.

Initially reluctant, Landis soon agreed to take the job for seven years at a salary of $50,000 ($860,432) as long as he could remain on the judges’ bench. (Later, he agreed to a salary reduction of $7,500 for the years he served both offices.)

However, Landis also drafted the contract detailing his powers as commissioner. Still blindsided by the scandal, the owners agreed with little debate that they could not dismiss Landis or have his pay reduced. Nor could he be subject to public criticism by the league.

The agreement also gave Landis god-like authority over all MLB employees and the power to ban people for life. It wouldn’t be long before Landis proved he wasn’t afraid to use his new muscle.

The gavel drops

The day after the Black Sox  verdict came down, baseball’s first commissioner made his intentions known:

“Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player who throws a ballgame, no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ballgame, no player that sits in conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing a game are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.”

Over time, Landis would prove to be a man of his word. None of the eight ever played major league ball again.

The Black Sox scandal forever altered the future of the eight men and changed baseball forever. Since, however, many have questioned whether the lifetime ban is appropriate, especially in the case of Jackson and Weaver.

Shoeless Joe holds baseball’s fourth-highest lifetime batting average (behind Ty Cobb, Oscar Charleston and Rogers Hornsby) yet remains banned from the Hall of Fame. (Charleston played in the Negro Baseball League and is often absent from stats lists)

Fans and former players have argued Jackson should be honored at Cooperstown, including Ted Williams.

And he had a point:

“Joe shouldn’t have accepted the money…and he realized his error. He tried to give the money back. He tried to tell Comiskey…about the fix. But they wouldn’t listen. Comiskey covered it up as much as Jackson did–maybe more. And there’s Charles Albert Comiskey down the aisle from me at Cooperstown–and Shoeless Joe still waits outside.”


Check out this unique telling of the Chicago Black Sox scandal featuring Katie Nolan from Drunk History!
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Robyn McNeil

Robyn McNeil is a Nova Scotia-based writer and editor. She lives in Halifax in an empty nest with a mischievous cat and a penchant for good stories, strong tea, cheeseburgers, yoga, graveyards, hammocks, gardening, games, herb, and hoppy beer.

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