This article was written by Adam Berenbak
“Major leaguers were our gods. We weren’t worshipful. We knew they were merely men like our brothers and fathers. Yet with a difference. When a father or brother died, he left no record of himself for remembrance. But a major leaguer, even though up for only a season and most of that spent on the bench, yet left a batting, fielding, or pitching record for All-American time. Major leaguers possessed immortality.” — Nelson Algren, So Long, Swede Risberg1
“No rumors of the fix had yet reached us by midsummer of 1920. The White Sox were still white.” — Nelson Algren, So Long, Swede Risberg2
Comiskey Park was bursting for the last Chicago White Sox home game of the season.3 Later in the day, the 27th of September, 1920, news would spread of the fix – by game time the following day Eddie Cicotte and Shoeless Joe Jackson had both talked about their roles in throwing the 1919 World Series, and eight White Sox were suspended from the team.4
Only a few weeks before, Ray Chapman had died after being struck in the head by a Carl Mays high one, an event that would forever change how baseballs were used and the dynamics of the game.5 Rube Foster’s new Negro National League had closed out its first season in Chicago the week before with a win over the Indianapolis ABC’s, ushering in three decades of professional baseball that would lead to baseball integration.6 Babe Ruth had just hit his 52nd and 53rd home runs of the season (on September 27), nearly doubling his previous year’s record and, in the process, reinventing the rules of mythmaking in baseball.7
Seemingly overnight, the long ball would rule the game, pitching would evolve, and a reordering of the whole baseball universe was nearly complete. As the “War to End All Wars” had reconfigured the world stage just as the flu pandemic had, the baseball landscape would soon alter as a new major-league agreement was reached, employing a commissioner who would reshape the game. It seemed that everything was on the verge of change.
Yet, at game time on Monday, September 27, 1920, the White Sox were still in a heated pennant race with Cleveland and New York, while at the same time the Brooklyn Robins were claiming the NL pennant. Chicago had played 150 games so far and won 94 of them, still a team divided against itself but succeeding nonetheless.
Eddie Cicotte had pitched well the day before, picking up his 21st victory in an 8-1 win before a near-sellout crowd, and Dickey Kerr, hero of 1919, was looking to put the finishing touches on a remarkable 1920 season in search of win number 20.8 With the exception of Chick Gandil, who had opted to leave baseball at the end of 1919 for somewhat suspicious reasons, every member of the White Sox, including most of the Black Sox, was having a career year, though Happy Felsch was benched with a busted toe.9
The fix rumors had yet to permeate the summer air sufficiently enough to squelch pennant fever, and only a handful of sportswriters and fans recognized that the White Sox’ slide in the standings resembled many of the missed chances that led rumors of a thrown Series.10 The last two months of the season had seen them beating out the Yankees in front of record crowds only to go on a losing streak in August amid National League and Pacific Coast League game-throwing scandals. This generated more talk about the White Sox throwing the pennant in order to reap the rewards of a City Series versus the Cubs.11 The game lasted just over an hour, short even then in an era of fast-paced games, and after that the Black Sox, as well as dreams of a pennant, were no more.12
Just a week before, there had been a fire in Comiskey Park that nearly shuttered the season in Chicago.13 The White Sox would survive just a little longer. Later in the afternoon of the 27th, a story in the Philadelphia North American by James Isaminger detailing Billy Maharg’s accusations that the 1919 World Series had been fixed would go national. A grand jury, already convened to investigate game-fixing in the National League, was now poised to provide a venue to investigate these charges against the White Sox.14 Suspicions abounded.
The Tigers had arrived in Chicago eliminated from the pennant race, with only a chance to play spoiler. Hooks Dauss was primed to take the mound. This final series was one postponed from a series in April, and, after a wild win for Chicago played Sunday under a faint rainbow, Monday’s affair seemed to be a must-win for the White Sox, who had won 9 of their last 10.15 The future still seemed bright.
Umpires Ollie Chill and Brick Owens policed the game just as they had on Sunday, with no major incidents.16 Dickey Kerr opened up the game against Ralph Young. Thinking he had Young on a strike-three call, Kerr watched as the ball escaped Ray Schalk’s grasp. However, the future Hall of Fame catcher was able to collect himself, snatch the ball, and throw Young out at first. Kerr then made short work of Donie Bush before getting Ty Cobb to fly out for a one-two-three first.
The White Sox went down in order in the bottom of the first, and in the second Kerr got Bobby Veach to hit a sharp grounder to Eddie Collins for out number one before Harry Heilmannn got the first hit of the game, a single fielded cleanly by center fielder Nemo Leibold. However, though he got to second on Ira Flagstead’s single, neither he nor any other Detroit runner would make it to third. Eddie Collins, the infield’s lone innocent from 1919, and the best pivot man in the game, completed a double play to Shano Collins, entrenched on first base after Gandil quit.
Shoeless Joe led off the bottom of the second with a hard-hit groundout to first, before the side was retired. For the next few innings, with the exception of Cobb’s single in the fourth, the game was a fierce pitchers’ duel. On that lone play, Swede Risberg, in the middle of another late-season surge, caught a toss from Collins to force Cobb at second on the next play. Dickey Kerr, in addition to his mastery on the mound, was the only Chicago batter to have any luck against Dauss. In the third he smacked a single to left before being stranded on first by Leibold’s fly out to right.
It wasn’t until Buck Weaver was drilled in the back by Dauss in the sixth that the scoreboard operators were put into action. With Buck on first, Collins singled to right, leaving runners at first and second for Jackson. Jackson’s final hit in the majors, number 1,772, was a scorching line drive to left-center field. Ty Cobb asserted his privilege as the director of the outfield and, maybe sore that Jackson for the first time was ahead of him in the batting race, charged the ball, then rushed a throw toward third in an attempt to catch Collins.17 Donie Bush misjudged the ball on a short hop and as it skirted away from him, Collins eased around the bag and scored.18 It may be fitting in hindsight that Shoeless Joe’s final professional hit resulted in an unearned run.
After that, the seventh and eighth were highlighted only by a pitching change orchestrated to get rookie Sammy Hale into the lineup to lead off the eighth against the nearly unhittable Kerr. However, he struck out to continue the ineffectual offense of the Detroit squad, who went down one-two-three.
Doc Ayers took over the pitching duties for the Tigers in the bottom of the eighth and shut down the White Sox with the exception of Buck Weaver, who himself got one last chance in the sun. Buck’s final professional hit was a screaming line drive to center field, making him the sixth and last Chicago baserunner. The score still only 2-0 in favor of Chicago, Weaver danced off first as Ayers pitched in to Collins. When Weaver took off for second, right-handed Tigers catcher Eddie Ainsmith had to throw around the left-handed-batting Collins in an attempt to catch Weaver and give Detroit one more chance to win. The ball sailed wide and Weaver raced around to third.19 All was for naught, though, as Collins struck out.
The ninth inning got underway with Kerr still in control, getting Veach to smack a soft grounder to Collins for out number one. Shoeless Joe’s last appearance in a major-league record book occurred when he caught a “soft boiled” fly ball hit by Heilmann for the second out in the ninth.20 Only a day later his legacy would be resigned to “Say it ain’t so, Joe.”
The game ended with Ira Flagstead’s popout to Ray Schalk, who, at this stage as well as any other, had no reason to drop it. As they walked off the field, did any of the Black Sox know it was for the final time at Comiskey Park?
The last of the Black Sox, Swede Risberg, died during the 1975 World Series on his 81st birthday. Nearly 70 years after the scandal, Pete Rose would be banned from baseball for gambling. And exactly 100 years after the Black Sox scandal, the Astros scandal overwhelmed the game nearly as extremely.
The 1920 World Series would be best remembered for the unassisted triple play pulled off by Cleveland’s Bill Wambsganss as well as the team dedicating its win to Ray Chapman. It would also be the final World Series of the pre-Yankee era – the franchise had yet to win a pennant, yet the addition of Ruth to the team had set in motion the building of a dynasty that would send the team to the World Series in 1921 and 39 more in the coming decades. Ruth was for many years seen as the salve on the open wound of the Black Sox Scandal, having “saved the game,” though we see history as a bit more complex. As the sun rose on that September 27, Ruth was already outsized, if not yet immortal, while the White Sox were still pennant-chasing heroes, and, in Chicago at least, all seemed right with the world.
The author accessed Baseball-Reference and Retrosheet for play-by-play data:
The headline is a reference to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous passage about the Black Sox Scandal in The Great Gatsby: “I remembered, of course, that the World’s Series had been fixed in 1919, but if I had thought of it at all I would have thought of it as a thing that merely happened, the end of some inevitable chain. It never occurred to me that one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people — with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe.”
1 Nelson Algren, “So Long, Swede Risberg.” Chicago, July 1981: 138.
3 I.E. Sanborn, “Snappy Windup of Season Here, Sox Winning, 2-0,” Chicago Tribune, September 28, 1920: 17.
4 William F. Lamb, Black Sox in the Courtroom: The Grand Jury, Criminal Trial, and Civil Litigation (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2013), 50-58.
5 Chapman was beaned on August 16 and died the next day.
6 “Semi-Pro Baseball: Fosters, 8, A.B.C. 2,” Chicago Tribune, September 20, 1920: 20.
7 “Babe Knocks 2 Over Fence and Licks Macks 3-0,” Chicago Tribune, September 28, 1920: 17.
8 I.E. Sanborn, “Sox Lick Tigers 8-1; Still 2d in Pennant Race” Chicago Tribune, September 27, 1920: 15.
9 Sanborn, “Snappy Windup of Season Here.”
10 David L. Fleitz, Shoeless: The Life and Times of Joe Jackson (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2001), 213-214.
11 Fleitz, 214.
12 “White Sox Blank Tigers,” New York Times, September 28, 1920: 20.
13 “Fire Perils Sox Ballpark Third Time in Two Days,” Chicago Tribune, September 20, 1920: 1.
14 Charles Fountain, The Betrayal: The 1919 World Series and the Birth of Modern Baseball (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 150-155.
15 “Sox Notes,” Chicago Tribune, September 27, 1920: 15.
16 “White Sox Blank Tigers,” New York Times.
17 David Fleitz, Shoeless, 211.
18 Sanborn, “Snappy Windup of Season Here.”
19 “White Sox Blank Tigers,” New York Times.
20 Sanborn, “Snappy Windup of Season Here.”