Posts Tagged ‘Black Sox Scandal’

1919: 100 Years On

January 4, 2019

Judge Landis’ plaque at Cooperstown

It’s now 2019. That makes it 100 years from the nadir of Major League Baseball. It’s not something to celebrate, but it is something to note.

In 1919, the Black Sox Scandal occurred. A number of gamblers bribed members of the American League champion Chicago White Sox to throw the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. The players were promised $10,000 each and most of them never got that much, but they did manage to lose the Series. In 1920 it came out into public view and the sport was rocked to its core.

As far as I know, MLB isn’t going to even acknowledge the event, let alone commemorate it. That’s a shame. They say we learn from our mistakes, and some of us do, at least occasionally. This is a time to look back at the event and let MLB talk about what it learned from the Black Sox.

It learned quite a lot, actually. It learned that there needed to be someone in charge who could make decisions without the consent of the owners (or the players either). That got MLB the Commissioner system and Kenesaw Mountain Landis. It’s difficult to like Landis, but he did move immediately to clean up the gambling aspects of the sport. Those measures still hold today, as Pete Rose finally discovered. Baseball learned that innovation wasn’t necessarily bad and allowed the explosion of home runs as epitomized by Babe Ruth to continue, changing the nature of how the game was played. Those are both valuable lessons.

But MLB didn’t learn to deal with one of the more significant issues that led to the Scandal, the pay of players. It would take into the 1970s, a union, and an arbitrator to begin addressing the problem. If you can double your salary by losing five games (the 1919 World Series was a best of nine), why wouldn’t you at least consider it? With million dollar salaries today, that’s virtually impossible.

In all this I make no comment on the guilt or innocence of any particular player. That’s not my point. I don’t want to see baseball take an inordinate amount of time detailing the guilt or innocence of Joe Jackson. Rather, I want it to look at the Scandal in an open manner and address it as an historical event that changed the game.

And by the way, I’m not holding my breath waiting for anything to happen. I’ve also commented on this recently, but I wanted to insure that it remained fresh in the new year.

The Champ

August 3, 2016
Abe Atell

Abe Atell

Baseball is full of people who made major impact on the game without ever playing at the big league level. Some were people who made positive impacts. Some of them made impact in quite the opposite direction. One of the latter was Abe Atell.

Abraham Washington Atell was born in 1883 (his grave says 1884, his passport 1883) in San Francisco. Although Jewish, he grew up in a primarily Irish neighborhood. He was small, from the wrong ethnic group for his neighborhood, and bullied. He retaliated by becoming a fighter. He was good enough that he got a chance to learn the ropes of professional boxing. Being small, he became a featherweight. By 1900 he was good enough to have his first professional fight. He won by a knockout.

He spent much of his early career boxing on or near the West Coast, establishing himself as an excellent tactical fighter, especially on defense. He seldom took a solid punch and was famous for waiting on the other fighter to make a mistake that could be exploited for effect. At the beginning of his career he scored at least 11 consecutive knockouts (the exact total is in some dispute).

He was 18 when he became the Featherweight Champion of the World. He held the crown for a year before losing to Tom Sullivan in a decision. Atell regained his title in 1906 with a decision over Jimmy Walsh. He would hold the title through 18 defenses (a record that stood until 1985) before losing the championship to John Kilbane. Between 1909 and 1910 his brother Monte was Bantamweight champion, marking the first time two brothers held world boxing titles at the same time.

As with many former athletes, he was restless in retirement. He opened a shoe store that was generally successful, but he wanted back in the ring. He did a little vaudeville, but he seemed to need to continue his boxing career. He fought a handful of times (generally successfully) before facing his final bout in November 1917 (he won by decision).

Atell now turned to managing fighters. He managed one to 33 wins against 11 losses, but gave up the fight business to go back to the shoe store. Along the way he’d met Arnold Rothstein. It is here that Atell begins to intersect with baseball.

Hollywood's version of Atell (Michael Mantell)

Hollywood’s version of Atell (Michael Mantell)

Throughout his career Atell was famous for his betting, as was his entire family (including his mom who made a lot of money betting on her sons to win). There is no evidence he ever bet on himself to lose, although there is ample evidence he bet on himself to win. There is some question as to how often he extended a fight in order to make money on bets concerning how long the fight would go. He also made a lot of money for other gamblers, including Rothstein.

After retirement he went to work for Rothstein doing various jobs including placing bets and collecting Rothstein’s winnings. In that role he became involved in the 1919 Black Sox Scandal. He served as a go-between who worked with Rothstein and funneled money to the eight players involved in fixing the 1919 World Series. He evidently skimmed some undetermined amount off the top to place his own bets on the Series. When things blew up in 1920, Atell headed for Canada where he remained for a year before returning to the US to stand trial. As with the other gamblers, he was acquitted.

After the acquittal, he moved through both the underside of sports and the “good” side of American life. He was arrested in 1929 for scalping tickets (he was again acquitted), then in 1931 was involved in a bootlegging ring. By the late 1930s he settled down to own and run a restaurant, “Abe Atell’s Steak and Chop House.”  Apparently nobody asked him how he got the money.

He retired, was interviewed for Eliot Asinof’s Eight Men Out, and died in February 1970. For his boxing career he had 125 wins, 18 losses, 21 draws, and eight no decisions. In a number of “Greatest Featherweights Ever” lists he still makes the top five after 100 years. He has been elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990. He is buried in Rockland, New York.

Atell's grave from Find a Grave

Atell’s grave from Find a Grave

The Betrayal: A Review

May 17, 2016
The Betrayal cover

The Betrayal cover

There are a multitude of books concerning various aspects of the 1919 Chicago Black Sox Scandal. Asinof’s Eight Men Out is probably the most famous. By now it’s dated, new information is available, and frankly some of the stuff is made up. One of the better attempts at understanding the scandal is The Betrayal by Charles Fountain.

Fountain is a professor of journalism at Northeastern and has written other baseball books, notably a work on Grantland Rice. He turns his attention in his new work (published in 2016) to 1919 and the World Series. He begins by reminding us that much of what actually happened is unknowable and thus much of what we accept as received wisdom and truth is actually mere speculation. Because that’s true, Fountain does not worry about the exactitude of detail in explaining the scandal.

He looks, rather, at the way the era unfolded in baseball. He sees it as an era of rampant corruption within the sport with gamblers having an inordinate amount of influence on the game. There’s an entire chapter on Hal Chase using him as an example of how easy and commonplace throwing a ball game had become. Fountain points out that owners, writers, and even many fans knew about Chase and that none of them did anything to stop either him or the other players involved in gambling.

There’s another chapter on Judge Landis explaining why he was chosen as Commissioner as well as how the entire idea of a Commissioner came into being. The Charles Comiskey-Ban Johnson feud takes center stage for much of the book, as does the inability of the National Commission to stop the corruption. As an aside, I’m generally a fan of August Herrmann, President of the Reds and head of the Commission, but he comes off terribly in the book. And Fountain’s arguments are persuasive enough to make me reconsider my view of Herrmann. Fountain also dwells in some detail on how much influence Ban Johnson had on baseball and how much the owners, particularly the National League owners and a minority of the American League owners (led by Comiskey) wanted to curtail his role.

Fountain does not spare the baseball writers of the era either. He finds them complicit in the corruption. Most knew what was happening but for a variety of reasons (fear of firing, fear of losing access to the players and parks, etc.) failed to write about it. The few that did, found their stories suppressed by editors who didn’t want to anger the owners. Because it is the owners, along with the gamblers, who come off worst in the book. The author does not single out Comiskey in particular, but indicts the group as venal, uncaring, and concerned with image so much that they are unwilling utterly to rock the baseball boat. But Fountain doesn’t let the players off entirely. They knew what they were doing and willingly went along with the fix.

All in all this is an excellent study of the Black Sox Scandal. The book is worth the read by students of the sport, the scandal, and even the era in America. It’s available a number of places. I got my copy at Barnes and Noble for $27.95.


The Judge

January 3, 2014
Judge Landis

Judge Landis

It’s been four years that I’ve been writing this blog. In that time I’ve written about a lot of the saints and the sinners that made baseball such a great game. But I’ve failed to do more than just briefly mention one of the half-dozen or so most important people (as opposed to best players) to ever work in Major League Baseball. It’s time to change that. It’s time to write about Judge Landis.

Kennesaw Mountain Landis (the first and middle names are from a battle in the Civil War where the Judge’s father fought) was a baseball fan, but not affiliated with the game prior to 1920. He was a federal judge with quite a mixed bag of decisions. He was noted to be anti-trust, but he’d rendered the decision that declared baseball a legal trust. He was progressive in the 1910s sense of the word (not necessarily the same as the modern political definition of the word) but did not favor integration of the races. He was, in short, a pretty complex man.

You have seen pictures of him (like the one just above). He was tall, thin, had that craggy face and the big head of white hair. He looked like a judge. Heck, he looked like a thin version of Zeus. He was dictatorial, petty, generous, bigoted, a champion of the weaker teams. Like I said above, a complex man.

He came to power in 1921 in the wake of the Black Sox Scandal. His first move was to bar all eight of the “Black Sox” from professional baseball. He also moved to ban an entire set of players (about 23 that I can find) from the game for gambling. It worked. The combination of banning players who bet on the game, took money to throw games, and to also ban those who knew of such plots began to seriously clean up the game. Baseball hasn’t had a major gambling scandal since (Pete Rose excepted) and I think most everyone believes the games are on the up and up. Some people tell us that Babe Ruth “saved baseball” in the 1920s. No, Judge Landis did. Ruth made it popular, but Landis made the critical decisions that restored integrity and didn’t change rules in such a way that would have stopped the offensive explosion brought on by Ruth and the new ball.

He did it because he had both a lifetime contract and absolute power over the game. Those were unprecedented. But the owners were scared in 1921 and Landis, for all his problems, was seen as a rock of integrity and the owners desperately wanted him to oversee the game. He drove a bargain that made sense to him. “Put me in charge, don’t mess with me, and don’t make me worry about job security, and I’ll clean up the game,” was his mantra (not in those exact words). He got what he wanted and that was both good and bad. It did mean that the game would be cleaned up. It meant that players would have to toe a particular line in their baseball activities (like forbidding barnstorming), it meant that Branch Rickey’s attempt to corner the market with his “Farm System” would be accepted as a good idea, but the cornering of the market part would be forbidden (I’ve got to do something about Rickey’s clash with Landis over the farm system at some point). It also meant that there would be no Jackie Robinson while Landis was in charge because the Judge accepted “separate but equal.”

So Landis is a very mixed bag for baseball. It’s tough to like him, even tougher to respect his views on race. On the other hand he did clean up the sport, did open up the minors, did lend Major League Baseball a veneer of respectability. He’s in the Hall of Fame where he should be. We’ll never see a Commissioner like him again. That both a good and a bad thing.

“You Lied To Me, Eddie”

January 20, 2012

Eddie Cicotte with some guy named Ruth

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.