In the wonderful baseball movie “Eight Men Out” there’s a scene involving Eddie Cicotte (David Strathairn) and Ring Lardner (John Sayles). Cicotte swears the White Sox are clean and Lardner, desperate to believe him, accepts him at his word. Later, when it becomes evident the fix is in, Lardner comments to himself “You lied to me, Eddie.” In many ways Cicotte is the key figure in fixing the World Series. It’s a lot easier to throw a game if the pitcher is in on it. And in 1919, Cicotte was the team ace.
Born in 1884 in Michigan, Edward Cicotte left school before graduation to work as a box maker and support his widowed mother and his siblings. And before I go any further, there’s the little matter of how the family name was pronounced. I’ve heard it See-Cot, Suh-Coat-e, Suh-Cot, and even Sha-Coat-e. If anyone knows which he used would you please place it in the comments below and tell us how you know that’s correct? I’d love to know. Now back to the main point of all this.
By the early 1900s, Cicotte was pitching in the Minor Leagues in his home state. He was picked up by Detroit, spent a summer in Augusta, Georgia (Ty Cobb was a teammate), then went to Detroit in September 1905. He was 1-1 (the win coming ironically enough against the White Sox) with a 3.50 ERA. That cost him a trip back to the minors where he stayed until Boston picked him up for the 1908 season.
His Boston years were nothing spectacular. In five seasons he was 52-46 with a 2.69 ERA (not bad, but not great for the age). He did develop an array of pitches that insured he could stick in the big leagues. His major pitch was a knuckleball, and he is credited with being the first great knuckleballer. He also developed a “shine ball”. He would pour talcum powder on his pant leg, then rub the ball against his pant leg before throwing it. This made one side shinier and rougher than the other and was supposed to help the ball move (not to mention providing an occasional cloud of talc around the mound). No one’s quite sure how it really worked, but apparently it did.
He was traded in mid-1912 to Chicago, thus missing the Red Sox run to the World Series title (I couldn’t find a reference as to whether he got a partial Series winners share or not). He hit his stride with the White Sox, becoming, along with Red Faber, the team ace. He won 20 games three times (and lost 19 once) and threw a no-hitter in 1917. He picked up an ERA title in 1917 and had ERA+ numbers ranging from 99 to 186. In the 1917 World Series he went 1-1 with a 1.57 ERA, 13 strikeouts in 23 innings, gave up two walks and had a WHIP of 1.087 (remember those numbers when we get to 1919).
In 1919 Cicotte won 29 games, led the American League in winning percentage and innings pitched, then went on to post a 1-2 record in the World Series. In 21.2 innings he gave up five walks, struck out seven, surrendered seven earned runs (2.91 ERA), and posted a WHIP of 1.108. Those numbers aren’t significantly worse than the 1917 numbers, but the subtle difference makes a world of difference in winning and throwing a World Series.
Cicotte was having a decent year in 1920 when the Black Sox scandal broke. He was summoned before a grand jury in Chicago where he admitted to helping fix the 1919 World Series for $10,000 cash up front (he used much of it to pay off a mortgage on his farm). As with the rest of the Black Sox, he was acquitted by a jury but Judge Landis banned him from the Major Leagues for throwing ballgames. He played outlaw ball for a few years then became in turn a game warden, the owner of a service station, and an employee of Ford Motor Company. He retired to his farm in 1944 and raised strawberries. He died in Detroit in May 1969, not long after opening day fifty years after he threw the 1919 World Series.
A common thread among the Black Sox is how much they hated Charles Comiskey and how badly he treated them. In Cicotte’s case Comiskey is supposed to have ordered the manager to hold Cicotte out of games so he couldn’t obtain a bonus if he won 30 games in 1919 (he won 29). Maybe it’s true, but there’s a minor problem with it. In 1917 Cicotte started 23% of ChiSox games. In 1918, it’s 24% and in 1919 it’s 25%. That makes it sound unlikely that Comiskey was actually holding Cicotte out of games to save a bonus, especially as Chicago only won the pennant by 3.5 games (and it’s a short season, only 140 games played). I’m not sure what happened here, but I don’t find it a mitigating factor for Cicotte.