Thorn: Forget everything you know about the Black Sox Scandal

From SABR member John Thorn at the New York Times on October 9, 2019:

A century ago this week, eight players from the Chicago White Sox conspired with professional gamblers to rig the outcome of the World Series, enabling the underdog Cincinnati Reds — and bettors in the know — to win. The scandal, which was uncovered almost a year later, has come to be seen as baseball’s “loss of innocence,” the cause of fans’ diminished feelings for the game they once adored and a mortal blow to the nation’s confidence as it entered the 1920s, a decade of disrespect for elders, contempt for institutions and worship of the fast life and the fast buck.

After a puzzlingly inept performance by his White Sox in Game 1, the club’s founder and owner, Charles Comiskey, heard rumors that the “sporting set” had been looking for a big score and that maybe some of his players had agreed to throw the series. Some sportswriters and players, and many big-time gamblers, knew something was up, too, as the long odds that had favored the White Sox in late September dropped precipitously: Anyone wishing to place a bet on the Reds by opening of the series would have had to accept even money or slightly worse.

Comiskey considered blackballing the suspected wrongdoers, but he recognized that breaking up his team would be a financial disaster. He elected to fume silently through the 1920 season, even though some of his players continued to fix the occasional game. Finally, after the so-called Black Sox scandal of 1919 was revealed in late September 1920, he suspended seven of the players (the eighth, the first baseman and plot ringleader Chick Gandil, had already left the team). His decision arguably cost the team the 1920 pennant.


Today’s fans understand the story of the Black Sox largely through the 1988 film “Eight Men Out” (based on a largely nonfiction work from 1963 by Eliot Asinof, who added fanciful embellishments that were echoed by the director, John Sayles) and “Field of Dreams,” which next year will have its 30th anniversary. The latter film’s ballpark in the Iowa cornfield is a symbol of paradise lost, when rural innocents played for the love of the game, when distant fathers could toss a ball with sons perplexed by real life, when exiled heroes could be forgiven if not exonerated and summoned back to play ball. But baseball’s idyllic past, like America’s and like our own, is not history; it is a pretty story agreed upon.

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Originally published: October 9, 2019. Last Updated: October 9, 2019.