SABR Century: 1921 Black Sox Trial

Shoeless Joe Jackson (BLACKBETSY.COM)

The Black Sox trial — baseball’s Trial of the Century — took place 100 years ago in 1921. Eight members of the Chicago White Sox, along with some of the gamblers who bribed them, were charged with conspiracy to fix the 1919 World Series, which the heavily favored Sox lost to the Cincinnati Reds.

For six weeks during the summer of 1921, baseball’s fallen stars — including Shoeless Joe Jackson, one of the greatest pure hitters the game has ever seen — gathered in a Chicago courtroom to await their fate. Their criminal trial made front-page headlines across the nation. Today, it’s unusual to see any transgression by an athlete, on or off the field, play out fully in the legal system. Baseball’s first commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, preferred that the game take care of its business outside the courtroom. After the Black Sox players and gamblers were acquitted by the jury on August 2, 1921, in a verdict that surprised many observers, Landis showed he would rule the game with an iron fist by immediately banning the players from ever appearing in the major leagues again.

Gambling in baseball was a hot-button issue in the early 20th century, just as it is now in the 21st century. Landis was hired by major-league owners with a mandate to clean up a corrupt game. Before the 1919 World Series scandal erupted, players and front-office executives were known to openly bet on their own teams (both for and against) and bettors were allowed to operate freely in major-league ballparks. Fans could attend a game at Wrigley Field in Chicago or Fenway Park in Boston and place a bet on the next pitch from their seat — a scenario that would not look out of place at a ballpark in 2021, given the growing world of legalized sports gambling.

The Black Sox trial has been portrayed in popular culture as a chaotic affair, plagued by the same forces of corruption and underworld shenanigans that would turn Prohibition-era Chicago into a caricature of itself for decades to come. Eliot Asinof’s best-selling book Eight Men Out, and John Sayles’s film by the same name, cast the prosecuting attorneys as bumbling fools and hinted at backroom deals between gamblers and baseball officials. Little of that has proven to be true.

In 2007, researchers gained access to thousands of pages of legal documents from the Black Sox grand jury, criminal trial, and civil lawsuits, which were acquired at auction by the Chicago History Museum and then made available to the public. These files and other primary sources, such as player salary contract cards, that have come to light in recent years have given us a better understanding of what happened 100 years ago.

— Jacob Pomrenke

SABR's Eight Myths Out project

Eight Myths Out

In 2019, SABR’s Black Sox Scandal Committee shed light on the biggest myths about the fixing of the 1919 World Series, from Charles Comiskey’s reputation as a cheapskate owner who paid his players poorly to the fictitious hired hitman known as “Harry F.” to the “solid wall of silence” that participants allegedly engaged in afterward.

A Gallery of Rogues

The Players

Eddie Cicotte: Ace of the 1919 White Sox pitching staff and primary instigator of the fix with Gandil; at age 35, the oldest of the World Series conspirators.

Happy Felsch: Young, powerful center fielder set to become a star in the slugging 1920s if not for the scandal; he made several key errors on defense in World Series.

Chick Gandil: Veteran first baseman and fix ringleader who initially approached gamblers; he did not return to White Sox in 1920 after a salary dispute with owner Charles Comiskey.

Joe Jackson: One of baseball’s top stars in 1910s, finishing with .356 lifetime batting average; he did not attend pre-Series meetings, but did accept $5,000 in bribe money from gamblers.

Fred McMullin: Quiet utility infielder for White Sox who only briefly played in World Series; he reportedly took over for Gandil as gamblers’ contact in 1920 as White Sox threw more fixed games.

Swede Risberg: Fiery shortstop and close friend of Gandil who served as the fix enforcer while hitting an abysmal .080 in the Series; he was the most defiant among the players about his involvement afterward.

Buck Weaver: Popular third baseman and former team captain who denied any involvement in the fix for the rest of his life; while he reportedly never accepted bribe money, other players place him at multiple meetings with gamblers, both before and during the World Series.

Lefty Williams: Emerging pitcher who won 23 games in the regular season but went 0-3 in the World Series; he was the third player (after Cicotte and Jackson) to testify to the grand jury in September 1920.

The Gamblers

Arnold Rothstein: Kingpin in New York gambling circles and reputed financier of the World Series fix. In his 1920 grand jury testimony, he strongly denied any involvement and Chicago prosecutors publicly exonerated him. He was later accused by Ban Johnson of arranging theft of the grand jury transcripts.

Abe Attell: Former boxing champion and occasional Rothstein bodyguard; he and David Zelcer were the backers of Bill Burns’s scheme to fix the World Series. Indicted by grand jury, but resisted extradition to Chicago and never stood trial.

Sport Sullivan: Experienced sports fixer from Boston who initially met with Chick Gandil and Eddie Cicotte to discuss their plot two weeks before the 1919 World Series. Indicted by grand jury, but resisted extradition to Chicago and never stood trial.

Nat Evans: Russian-born gambler and Rothstein’s trusted business partner; he used the alias “Rachael Brown” while meeting with White Sox players and other gamblers during the World Series. “Brown” was indicted by the grand jury, but never stood trial. Evans’s name was not connected to the scandal in his lifetime.

David Zelcer: Iowa-based gambler who partnered with Abe Attell, using the alias “Bennett,” to fix the 1919 World Series. He and the four other Midwesterners below were the only gamblers who stood trial for their roles in the Black Sox Scandal. Testified in his own defense and was acquitted by the jury.

Carl Zork: St. Louis gambler and longtime friend of Abe Attell and other sports underworld figures. He helped revive the fix after the White Sox surprisingly won Game Three and raised more money to pay off the players. Indicted by grand jury but acquitted at trial.

Ben Franklin: St. Louis gambler and friend of Carl Zork who asked for and was granted a separate trial from the Black Sox due to a lingering illness. After the jury acquitted the other defendants, charges against Franklin were dropped.

Benjamin and Lou Levi: Iowa-based gambling brothers who were acquaintances of Abe Attell and reportedly won big betting on the Reds in the 1919 World Series. Their charges were dismissed mid-trial for insufficient evidence.

Say It Ain’t So, Joe

When it came to his involvement in the corruption of the 1919 World Series, Shoeless Joe Jackson rarely told the same story twice. When the fix first came to light in late September 1920, Jackson testified to a grand jury that he had agreed to join the conspiracy to throw the World Series in return for a gamblers’ payoff — and that he had accepted $5,000 of a promised $20,000 bribe before the start of Game Five. But once in the hands of experienced legal counsel, Jackson’s story changed. From then on, Jackson was the injured innocent, unaware that teammates had tried to rig the Series outcome until after the fact, and entirely blameless in the affair.

Jackson’s account of the mythical “Say It Ain’t So” story, however, never changed. He denied it ever happened, in multiple interviews given throughout the rest of his life. As legend has it, a young boy supposedly approached Jackson as he left the Cook County Courthouse on September 28, 1920, following his grand jury testimony. “It ain’t true, is it, Joe?” the boy asked. “I’m afraid it is, kid,” Jackson is said to have replied. Newsreel footage of Jackson walking away from the courthouse that day (see right) show a large, boisterous crowd with few young children.

When Jackson did stop for an interview with reporters on the sidewalk, he added one more damning statement to his earlier testimony, claiming “the eight of us did our best to kick [Game Three] and little Dick Kerr won the game by his pitching. Because he won it, those gamblers doubled crossed us because we double crossed them.”

Video: Shoeless Joe Jackson exits the Cook County Courthouse after testifying to the grand jury on September 28, 1920.

A copy of Eddie Cicotte's grand jury testimony from September 1920 is now held at the Chicago History Museum (COURTESY OF JACOB POMRENKE)

A summary of Eddie Cicotte’s grand jury testimony on September 28, 1920, is now held at the Chicago History Museum, along with hundreds of other files related to the Black Sox legal proceedings. 

The “Stolen” Testimony

The Black Sox criminal trial is often depicted as an example of Chicago-style corruption and shady courtroom shenanigans. The theft of key files, including the players’ grand jury testimony transcripts, from the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office was dramatized in the film Eight Men Out, leading to baseless speculation on whether the White Sox lawyers had joined forces with gambler Arnold Rothstein to help out the players or if the trial’s outcome had been “prearranged.”

But the theft was a minor incident that played no significant role in the jury’s decision, according to author Bill Lamb. In 2013, an auction house offered a $1 million reward for anyone who could produce the stolen — and possibly autographed — confessions. But as Lamb points out, grand jury witnesses do not normally sign their testimony transcripts. In fact, the Black Sox defendants probably never even saw a copy, because the transcript would have been created by a court stenographer after the fact.

Thousands of pages of Black Sox-related legal files, including mostly complete transcripts of Cicotte, Jackson, and Williams’s grand jury testimony and the trial proceedings, were acquired by the Chicago History Museum in 2007. These files, which author Eliot Asinof and many other Black Sox historians never saw in their lifetimes, are now available for anyone to view by appointment.

The Fix Insiders

Sleepy Bill Burns, a former major-league pitcher turned oil salesman, and Billy Maharg, a Philadelphia boxer and auto factory worker, helped launch the 1919 World Series fix and delivered payoffs to the Black Sox players. But they lost all of their own bets after the White Sox won Game Three.

At the urging of American League president Ban Johnson — who spent thousands of dollars from the league treasury investigating leads and personally embarking on a wild, weeks-long chase down to the US-Mexico border to find the two underworld figures — Burns and Maharg agreed to turn State’s Evidence and gave strong testimony implicating their co-conspirators at the trial.

Sleepy Bill Burns testifies during the Black Sox trial in July 1920. (CHICAGO TRIBUNE)

Sleepy Bill Burns testifies as the prosecution’s star witness during the Black Sox criminal trial in July 1921. He claimed that Eddie Cicotte had approached him with the idea to fix the 1919 World Series. (NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY)

Minutes after the Black Sox were acquitted on August 2, 1921, the players, their attorneys, and members of the jury (in shirt sleeves) celebrated the verdict by posing for a photo on the courthouse steps. (Chicago Tribune)

Minutes after the Black Sox were acquitted on August 2, 1921, the players, their attorneys, and members of the jury (in shirt sleeves) celebrated the verdict by posing for a photo on the courthouse steps. (CHICAGO TRIBUNE)

The Verdict

Jury nullification is an unpredictable but mercifully rare courthouse phenomenon. It involves the jurors’ knowing and deliberate rejection of evidence and/or their refusal to apply the law against a criminal defendant, in violation of the oath taken by all jury members at the outset of trial. But it might also explain why a Chicago jury decided to acquit the Black Sox players of conspiracy to fix the 1919 World Series — despite pre-trial confessions of guilt made by Eddie Cicotte, Joe Jackson, Lefty Williams, and Happy Felsch.

After the surprising verdict was announced on August 2, 1921, many White Sox fans — including young journalist and aspiring author Ernest Hemingway — felt a sense of betrayal that the players were not punished by the legal system. But the jurors themselves did not seem too conflicted: hours after the trial concluded, they were found celebrating the verdict in the same mob-connected Italian restaurant as the players they had just acquitted.

The Banishment

“Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player that throws a ball game, no player that entertains proposals or promises to throw a game, no player that sits in a conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing games are discussed, and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever again play professional baseball.”

Baseball’s first commissioner, federal judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, was hired by the owners in November 1920 with a mandate to clean up the game from rampant corruption that had plagued the national pastime for the first two decades of the 20th century. Landis’s first major decision came down just hours after the Black Sox acquittal verdict was announced on August 2, 1921. The following day, he issued a statement banning all eight players for life from Organized Baseball.

His punishment of popular White Sox third baseman Buck Weaver, who was widely acknowledged to have not accepted any bribe money — but who did actively participate in multiple meetings with gamblers before and during the World Series — signaled a profound shift in baseball’s gambling-friendly culture.

Buck Weaver and Joe Jackson’s fans have tried to clear their names for the past 100 years, and historians continue to debate the harshness of Landis’s unilateral penalty on the Black Sox despite varying degrees of guilt, but there is no question of its effectiveness: Baseball’s problems with game-fixing largely disappeared after 1921.

Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, circa 1915 (LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)

Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis was hired as baseball’s first commissioner in November 1920 and immediately began cleaning up the game following two decades of game-fixing and corruption. (LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)

Eddie Collins, left, and manager Kid Gleason were left to pick up the pieces after the Chicago White Sox lost most of their championship core following the Black Sox Scandal (LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)

Eddie Collins, left, and manager Kid Gleason were left to pick up the pieces after the Chicago White Sox lost most of their championship core following the Black Sox Scandal. (LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)

The Aftermath

On the baseball field, the “clean” White Sox floundered with the loss of their championship core. Charles Comiskey’s prized players who had led his franchise to two AL pennants, a World Series championship, and two other near-misses between 1916 and 1920 were gone, leaving manager Kid Gleason and future Hall of Famers Eddie Collins, Ray Schalk, and Red Faber to rebuild on their own. In 1921, a dark cloud hung over the team as the White Sox returned to Comiskey Park for the first time after the Black Sox Scandal was exposed. The White Sox finished in seventh place and they would languish in the wilderness for the next forty years, not reaching the World Series again until 1959.

Meanwhile, the banished Black Sox found themselves without a way to earn a livelihood. So the “Eight Men Out” did the only thing they knew how: they went looking for a game. Over the next decade and into the mid-1930s, they traveled throughout the country and even into Canada and Mexico to play baseball anywhere they could. Their road trips were not to Detroit, Boston and Washington, but to dots on the map such as Douglas, Arizona; Bastrop, Louisiana; and Waycross, Georgia. They played together and apart, for one “outlaw” game at a time and for whole seasons in organized semipro leagues. They were celebrated and cheered by some fans, jeered and ridiculed by others. They stirred up controversy everywhere they played. But barred from professional baseball, it was all they had left.

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