Of all the crimes that can land you a lifetime ban from baseball, throwing games is probably the most heinous. Nobody likes a cheater, but generally people cheat in order to win more games. Intentionally throwing a game is like taking a huge steaming dump on the heads of your opponents, all the fans watching, and anybody who likes and respects actual athletic competition.
In 1919, eight members of the Chicago White Sox took a giant shit on everybody’s collective heads when they conspired to throw the World Series. Worst of all, they were so obvious about it, rumors were circulating about the fix being in after the very first game. Furthermore, they were such inept cheaters, most of them failed to even get paid what they were promised for doing the job.
It all starts with notorious skinflint Charles Comiskey, owner of the White Sox. In an era where star players were earning handsome salaries upwards of $20,000 a year, the stars of Comiskey’s White Sox, who won 100 games and the World Series in 1917, earned more like $6,000. And because of the reserve clause, none of the players could do anything about it except ask for a raise. Comiskey denied them raises, and by 1919, they were ready to revolt.
The 1919 White Sox won 88 games and the AL pennant, and were heavily favored to beat the NL champion Cincinnati Reds in the World Series. That was when first baseman Arnold “Chick” Gandil got together with some shady friends of his and hatched a plan. Joseph “Sport” Sullivan, a local gambler and one of Gandil’s friends, put together a consortium of underworld thugs to bankroll their plan. They would pay $100,000, to be split amongst the participating players, if the White Sox would agree to lose the World Series. The gamblers would bet heavily on the Reds to win, and with the long odds against them, would stand to make a tidy profit.
Gandil approached pitcher Eddie Cicotte first. Cicotte had a special grudge against Comiskey. Cicotte had a clause in his contract promising him a $10,000 bonus if he won 30 games in 1917. He had won 28 by the middle of September, then was promptly benched for the final two weeks of the season. A similar thing happened again in 1919, and Cicotte was convinced Comiskey himself had ordered his benching in order to avoid paying him his bonus. Feeling cheated and hating Comiskey more than hate itself, Cicotte readily agreed to the fix.
Between the two of them, Gandil and Cicotte rounded up five more guys, all with handy colorful nicknames: Oscar “Happy” Felsch, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, Charles “Swede” Risberg, Claude “Lefty” Williams, and George “Buck” Weaver. Weaver was approached about the fix, and attended the initial meetings about it, but decided not to be a part of it. Another player who was not initially asked to be in on the fix (probably because he lacked a fancy nickname) named Fred McMullin overheard the conspirators talking about the fix and demanded to be cut in on the deal.
In all, eight members of the team, including two starting pitchers, either agreed to or knew about the fix. Between them they would split the $100,000 promised by Sport Sullivan, which would amount to a hefty raise for everybody involved. The World Series that year was a best-of-9 format, so the Sox would have to conspire to lose five games in order to make good on the fix.
When the time came to get their payoffs before the first game, only $10,000 showed up. All of it went to Cicotte, as he had demanded $10,000 up front before joining the plot, or he wouldn’t throw the games he started. Cicotte dutifully beaned the first batter he faced, signaling to the gamblers that the fix was in, and comically lost all semblance of control and was out of the game by the fourth inning.
Before game 2, the players again tried to collect their money, and were flatly told they wouldn’t get paid just yet. Some of the gamblers were pissed about the obviousness of Cicotte’s performance, and wanted Lefty Williams to do a better job of it. He did just that, allowing only four hits, but oddly becoming wild in the fourth inning and walking three batters to set up three Cincinnati runs, and the Reds went on to win the game 4-2.
The players received another $10,000 before game 3, and were told to win the game to “play with the odds”, which had been falling rapidly because of all the heavy bets on Cincinnati from the gamblers and their pals, and the fact that the Sox had lost the opening two games. It’s unclear whether all the members of the plot knew they were supposed to win or not, but win they did, behind the masterful pitching performance of non-fixer Dickie Kerr.
The fix was back on for game 4, but again the money was not forthcoming. The players demanded an additional $20,000 to go ahead with the fix, and despite claiming all the money was tied up with bookies, Sport Sullivan managed to come up with the goods. Cicotte pitched well this time, but made two horrible errors in the field, and the Sox lost again, falling to a 3-1 series deficit.
Lefty went back out to the mound for game 5, without any additional money from the gamblers. He once again pulled his “pitch well except for one comically bad inning” trick, and the Sox fell to a 4-1 deficit.
Non-cheater Dickie Kerr was up for game 6, and since they still had not received any more money, the conspirators apparently decided to play this one straight up, and Chicago won.
Cicotte also decided to get a win in game 7, and shut down the Reds, holding them to just one run. The Sox pulled to within one game of evening the series, as it now stood 4 games to 3 in favor of Cincinnati.
The gamblers suddenly got nervous. Oddly, they had seemed to be under the impression that the players would go through with the fix despite not being paid. Now that the Sox were within one game of tying up the Series and forcing a 9th and deciding game (which would likely be pitched by non-cheater Kerr), they started to think otherwise. Rather than pay the players any more money, however, they fell back on that old thug trick of threatening people.
Before game 8, Lefty was told in no uncertain terms that he was going to lose the game. He was to go in the tank right away and let the Reds blow it open in the first inning, or else he and his wife would be “in trouble.” Lefty got the message, and grooved a whole bunch of nothing fastballs to open the game. The Reds jumped to a 4-0 lead and cruised to a 10-5 victory. The gamblers coughed up an additional $40,000 for the players troubles, but that was all they would get. Of the $100,000 promised, they got about $80,000, with several of the guys getting stiffed on their cuts–Jackson and McMullin only received about $5,000 each. The really stupid thing is that all of them would have made as much or more in bonuses and the winner’s share of the World Series purse if they’d just played straight up and won.
Rumors of a fix had been flying since Cicotte’s outing in game 1. But it wasn’t until the end of 1920 that a grand jury looked into the matter. They subpoenaed several members of the team, and Cicotte and Jackson immediately spilled the beans. All eight were hauled up on charges of conspiracy to commit fraud and injuring the businesses of Comiskey and the American League. Before the trial, Cicotte’s and Jackson’s confessions mysteriously disappeared, and despite heavy evidence against them, all eight were eventually acquitted of the charges.
However, new Commissioner of Baseball Kenesaw Mountain Landis lowered the boom on them the day after the trial ended, and decided that even though the court had found them not guilty, he was banning them from the game for life. Even though George Weaver did not participate in the fix and did not take payment from the gamblers, he was included in the ban with the other seven on account of he clearly knew about what was going on and didn’t tell anybody.
In later years, Joe Jackson would profess his innocence. Today, you can still find plenty of people who think Joe Jackson didn’t do a thing wrong, despite the fact that he confessed to the whole thing, took at least $5,000 from the gamblers, and even if he didn’t play any less than his best, clearly knew that others were in the tank. They paint him as some illiterate hayseed baseball savant, too stupid to know what was going on but somehow smart enough to take $5,000 and not ask any questions. After the Series, Jackson did try to talk to Comiskey about the fix, but Comiskey ignored him. And anyhow, that’s kind of a case of too little, too late in my book. The deed was done by then.
“Lifetime” bans from baseball are often nothing of the sort, but the bans for the eight members of the 1919 White Sox have stuck. None of them are likely to ever be lifted, despite all the whining from Joe Jackson supporters. And the boneheaded idiots deserve no better.