1919 has gone down in baseball infamy as the year that the World Series was fixed. Gamblers, led by New York’s celebrated crook Arnold Rothstein, allegedly paid eight White Sox players to throw a couple of the games. All eight players, including the legendary Shoeless Joe Jackson, were banned for life from baseball. Nevertheless, a criminal court jury found all eight not guilty. One player sued for back pay. After the civil court jury found for the player, the judge reversed the verdict, claiming that perjury had occurred.
In The Betrayal: How the 1919 Black Sox Scandal Changed Baseball, (Oxford University Press), baseball historian Charles Fountain has made a masterful effort to separate the folklore from the facts. This task is not easy, since court documents suspiciously disappeared, sportswriting of the era was long on entertainment and short on fact checking, and everybody involved in the scandal is dead.
Fountain does an excellent job in setting the scene. He writes about the traditional mix of gambling and professional baseball dating back to the earliest days of the game. He recounts the founding of the Major Leagues, and the rivalries between team owners and League officials. He adds local color about gamblers, ball parks, hotels, saloons and the players. Given the low salaries of those days, it is easy to understand why players would sell out their teams. It is amazing that more scandals were not revealed.
Shoeless Joe Jackson
Most interesting is the coverup. For one year after the 1919 World Series, White Sox owner Charles Comiskey suppressed the scandal while conducting his own investigation. Finally, the Philadelphia North American broke the story. Comiskey got ahead of the scandal by announcing the firing of the eight players, just hours before the players were indicted.
Had Richard Nixon followed Comiskey’s play book, Watergate might have been nipped in the bud.
The Betrayal goes on sale on October 2, just in time for the World Series.