by Steven Dugan
Last year marked the centennial of one of baseball’s most infamous incidents: the Black Sox Scandal of 1919. As if the nation readjusting to life after World War I and recovering from the flu pandemic of 1918-19 wasn’t enough, baseball found itself embroiled in a gambling scandal that fixed the outcome of the World Series. This wasn’t the first gambling scandal in Major League Baseball, but it’s definitely the most well-known, with long-lasting effects. It might have ruined baseball if not for newly hired Commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis and a kid from a reformatory school in Baltimore named Babe Ruth.
Gambling on baseball games had been around since at least the 1870s. There were several incidents between 1877 and 1919 that resulted in 12 people being banned, five of whom were eventually reinstated. They mostly dealt with suspicions of fixing games and bribery to alter the course of baseball games. When suspicions began to surface about the 1919 World Series fix, it was not surprising and there was no fast action taken to investigate. Evan Andrews, writing for History.com, explains “in spite of persistent rumors about the fix, baseball’s leading figures appeared content to let the 1919 World Series go unexamined.”
For those unfamiliar with the story, eight players from the Chicago White Sox conspired with gamblers to throw baseball games and lose the sport’s penultimate event: the World Series. Despite playing for a team with one of the highest payrolls, and considered one of, if not the best team in baseball, White Sox players, led by pitcher Eddie Cicotte and first baseman Chick Gandil, met with gamblers with ties to New York mobster Arnold Rothstein to fund the fix. At first Rothstein refused to participate, but was eventually convinced, offering $40,000 to start. The plan began to unravel when only a few players got paid, receiving far less than expected. By that time the hole that Chicago had dug was too deep to crawl out of, and the Reds won the championship (the best five out of nine games) five games to three. But what happened after the 1919 World Series?
Believe it or not, the White Sox played most of the 1920 season with the entire team from 1919 intact, except for Gandil, who retired over a salary dispute with club owner Charles Comiskey. While there were articles all over the country about the alleged fix, it wasn’t until evidence surfaced that gamblers had rigged a game in an August 1920 contest between the Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies that gambling in baseball was back in the spotlight. A grand jury was convened and began to investigate the Cubs and Phillies game. They finally turned their focus to the 1919 World Series when one of the gamblers involved with Gandil began to talk. Cicotte was also subpoenaed and admitted to his involvement in the fix. As a result, eight White Sox players were indicted in late September 1920. Comiskey had no choice but to suspend the seven remaining players accused in the World Series scandal, ending the possibility of Chicago returning to the World Series (they were tied with Cleveland in first place at the time).
The trial against the White Sox players began July 18, 1921, and the jury began deliberating on August 2. It took less than three hours for the jury to come back with a not guilty verdict, sending the south side of Chicago into a frenzy of celebration and relief. The next day, newly hired Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis permanently banned the eight White Sox players despite their acquittal. Landis issued the following statement:
“Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player that throws a ballgame; no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ballgame; no player that sits in a conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing games are planned and discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.”
Permanently banned were: Eddie Cicotte (P), Chick Gandil (1B), Oscar “Happy” Felsch (CF), “Shoeless” Joe Jackson (LF), Fred McMullin (INF), Charles “Swede” Risberg (SS), George “Buck” Weaver (3B), and Claude “Lefty” Williams (P). None were reinstated.
Baseball historians give Commissioner Landis credit for restoring the integrity of baseball off the field. Landis’ views against gambling were tough, almost obsessive. His biographer, David Pietrusza, wrote: “Before 1920 if one player approached another player to throw a contest, there was a very good chance he would not be informed upon. Now, there was an excellent chance he would be turned in.” Players now knew what the consequences were if they were involved with gamblers: no exceptions. This prohibition of gambling in baseball remains in effect today and was the reason behind the 1989 banning of Pete Rose for gambling on baseball games during his tenure as player-manager for the Cincinnati Reds in the late 1980s.
Landis supported baseball’s farm system, where young ball players worked their way to the Majors. What he didn’t like was the way it was run. Young players were signed and sent to Minor League teams controlled or owned by Major League clubs. Players could be drafted by any Major League team after playing for two years on the same Minor League team. Teams like the Yankees protected their top prospects by moving them to other teams before the two years was up, so they were always ineligible for the draft. Landis realized the unfairness of this, but could do very little. The modern system focuses more on player development, where Major League clubs have development contracts with various Minor League teams, allowing players to advance as they become better ballplayers.
Landis’ position on integrating the Majors was less clear. He was a staunch segregationist, but he was hands-off when it came to clubs signing, or not signing, Negro League players. Despite his claim that “There is no rule in organized baseball prohibiting their [Negro players] participation and never has been to my knowledge,” Landis never encouraged the idea to owners.
Shortly after Landis died in 1944, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame by a special committee in recognition of the significant influence he had on the sport. Three years later, the color barrier in baseball was broken.
If Landis saved baseball off the field, then George Herman “Babe” Ruth saved it on the field. Ruth played with the Boston Red Sox from 1914-1919, helping them to World Series victories in 1915, 1916, and 1918. Ruth started out as a pitcher, and a decent one, too. His 1.75 ERA led the league in 1916, and his career 2.28 ERA is ranked 15th of all time; his 65 wins from 1915-17 also led the league, in addition to his league-leading 23 complete games in 1916. His winning percentage of .671 (94 wins and 46 losses) still ranks 12th of all time.
Ruth played outfield for the Red Sox in between starts. In 1919, he hit 29 home runs, nine more than he hit the previous five years combined. He was the young player that an owner or coach would give their right arm for. But Ruth’s off-the-field antics and salary demands pushed Red Sox owner Harry Frazee to his limit. In a stunning deal, Frazee sold Ruth to the New York Yankees for $125,000 and received a loan of $300,000 from the Yankees toward the mortgage on Fenway Park (Frazee was overextended on money owed to buy the team and stadium). Frazee was similarly in debt over his financial interests in Broadway musicals. He sold several more players to the Yankees, totaling $305,000, with most of that money going toward the musical My Lady Friends. Boston had won the World Series in 1918 and didn’t win it again until 2004. This World Series drought was blamed on the sale of Ruth to the Yankees and called “The Curse of the Bambino.” Every heartbreaking playoff loss was attributed to “The Curse,” as the Red Sox were denied baseball glory for 86 years. It prompted many Boston fans to rewrite a line from George Washington’s eulogy: “The Red Sox, first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.”
To say that Ruth diverted attention from the Black Sox Scandal would be an understatement. In 1920, his first year as a Yankee, Ruth almost doubled his home run output from the year before by hitting 54 home runs. In 1921, he hit 59 round-trippers, breaking his own record from the year before. During the same time the Black Sox were being acquitted, Ruth was hitting home runs every eight-and-a-half times at bat. This was during the latter part of the “dead ball” era, characterized by low scoring games and a small number of home runs. In 1927, Ruth hit an astonishing 60 home runs, a record not broken until 1961. By that time, Ruth had accumulated numerous nicknames due to his prowess at the plate. Among them were the Babe, the Sultan of Swat, the Colossus of Clout, the King of Swing, and the Great Bambino. He brought unprecedented excitement to the game.
Ruth cemented his legendary status in 1926 when 11-year-old Yankee fan Johnny Sylvester was seriously injured in a horse riding accident. Requests for get-well wishes got back to Ruth (in St. Louis to play the Cardinals in the World Series) who sent him two baseballs signed by the Yankees and Cardinals and a written promise to hit a home run for him in game four of the Series. He hit that home run—in fact he hit three that day. Soon after, it was reported that Johnny made a miraculous recovery, all because of the Babe.
There is a great line spoken by the Babe Ruth character in the 1993 movie, The Sandlot. He says, “Remember kid, there’s heroes and there’s legends: Heroes get remembered, but legends never die.” Babe Ruth died in 1948, but for saving baseball in the 1920s, his legend lives on forever.