It was almost unthinkable: players throwing the World Series? Yet, that’s what happened–or maybe didn’t happen–in the fall of 1919.
The players on the Charles Comiskey’s 1919 Chicago White Sox team were a fractious lot. The club was divided into two “gangs” of players, each with practically nothing to say to the other. Together they formed the best team in baseball–perhaps one of the best teams that ever played the game, yet they–like all ball players of the time–were paid a fraction of what they were worth. Because of baseball’s reserve clause, any player who refused to accept a contract was prohibited from playing baseball on any other professional team. The White Sox owner paid two of his greatest stars, outfielder “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and third baseman Buck Weaver, only $6000 a year. Comiskey’s decision to save expenses by reducing the number of times uniforms were laundered gave rise to the original meaning of “The Black Sox.” Comiskey has been labeled the tyrant and tightwad whose penurious practices made his players especially willing to sell their baseball souls for money, but in fact he was probably no worse than most owners–in fact, Chicago had the highest team payroll in 1919. In the era of the reserve clause, gamblers could find players on lots of teams looking for extra cash–and they did.
In 1963, Eliot Asinof published Eight Men Out, a book about the Black Sox scandal which later became a popular movie and has, more than any other work, shaped modern understanding of the most famous scandal in the history of sports. In Asinof’s telling of history, the bitterness Sox players felt about their owner led members of the team to enter into a conspiracy that would forever change the game of baseball. Asinof suggested that Comisky’s skinflint maneuvers made key players ready to jump at the chance to make some quick money. For example, Asinof wrote that Sox pitcher Eddie Cicotte was intensely irritated when, in September of 1917, as Cicotte approached a 30-win season that would win him a promised $10,000 bonus, Comiskey had his star pitcher benched rather than be forced to come up with the extra cash. Whether the story about the denied bonus or true is subject of dispute among baseball historians.
More recently, several writers have questioned Asinof’s explanation for the fix. Gene Carney, for example, author of Burying the Black Sox, concluded that “the Sox who took the bribes were not getting even, they were just trying to get some easy money.” Whatever the reason, a long and complicated story unfolded in the fall of 1919. One of the key players in the scandal, gambler Abe Attell, later summarized the fix as “cheaters cheating cheaters.”
It’s a story that arises at a time when “the lines between gamblers and ballplayers had become blurred.” Some players were big bettors and some gamblers were former big league players. Most teams, many historians believe, had at least one player on the roster willing to help tip a game for a little money. Baseball in 1919, according to Carney, “was in the stranglehold of gamblers, and had been for some time.”
Asinof contends that the idea of fixing the Series sprang into the mind of a tough thirty-one-year-old Sox first baseman named Chick Gandil. Whether or not the initial idea was his, or that of a gambler, it is clear no player is more closely connected to the fix than Gandil. In a 1956 Sports Illustrated interview, Gandil frankly admitted, “I was a ringleader.” Asinof placed the beginning of the fix in Boston, about three weeks before the end of the 1919 season. Gandil asked an acquaintance and professional gambler named “Sport” Sullivan to stop by his hotel room. After a few minutes of small talk, Gandil told Sullivan, “I think we can put it [the Series] in the bag.” He demanded $80,000 in cash for himself and whatever other players he might recruit. (In 1956, Gandil offered his own–somewhat different–account, crediting Sullivan and not himself for the idea. Gandil claims he initially told Sullivan a fix involving seven or eight players was impossible. Sullivan replied, “Don’t be silly. It’s been pulled before and it can be again.”)
Talk of a possible fix began among a group that included outfielder Oscar “Happy” Felsch, third baseman Buck Weaver, and Eddie Cicotte. Gandil knew that Cicotte, Chicago’s ace pitcher, Cicotte, had money troubles, having bought a farm in Michigan that came with high mortgage payments. Cicotte at first resisted Gandil’s suggestion that he join in a fix of the Series, but eventually his scruples gave way. Three days before the Series began, he told Gandil, “I’ll do it for $10,000–before the Series begins.” In 1920, Cicotte explained his decision to join the fix to a grand jury: “They wanted me to go crooked. I needed the money. I had the wife and kids. I had bought the farm.” According to Cicotte’s later confession, when he went back to his room later, “I found the money under my pillow; I had sold out ‘Commy’ and the other boys.”
With Cicotte and Felsch on board, Gandil’s efforts to recruit additional Sox players took off. Shortstop “Swede” Risberg and utility infielder Fred McMullin said that they were in. Starting pitchers would be critical in any successful fix, so when the team was in New York, Gandil went after–and soon convinced–Claude “Lefty” Williams to join. To round out the fix, Gandil approached the teams best hitter, Joe Jackson. (In his 1920 “confession,” Jackson would testify that he was promised $20,000 for his participation, but only got a quarter of that amount.)
A meeting of White Sox ballplayers–including those committed to going ahead and those just ready to listen–took place on September 21, at Gandil’s room at the Ansonia Hotel in New York. It was a meeting that would eventually shatter the careers of eight ballplayers, although whether all eight were actually in attendance is a matter of dispute. (Joe Jackson claimed not to have made the meeting–and Jackson’s claim was repeatedly supported by Lefty Williams.) In his 1956 article in Sports Illustrated, Gandil offers this account of the September 21 meeting:
They all were interested and thought we should reconnoiter to see if the dough would really be put on the line. Weaver suggested we get paid in advance; then if things got too hot, we could double-cross the gambler, keep the cash and take the big end of the Series by beating the [Cincinnati] Reds. We agreed this was a hell of a brainy plan.
Things started to get complicated. According to Asinof, another gambler, “Sleepy” Bill Burns (working with an associate Billy Maharg), having heard talk of a possible fix, approached Cicotte and offered to top any offer Sullivan might make. Gandil, meeting with Cicotte and Burns, announced that they would work a fix with Burns and Maharg for an upfront $100,000. In a 1922 deposition, Maharg would confirm this story, testifying that in the original $100,000 deal, $20,000 each was to go to Gandil, Cicotte, Williams, Felsch, and Risberg–an original group of “five men out.” Burns and Maharg set off for New York to meet with the most prominent gambler-sportsman in America, Arnold “Big Bankroll” Rothstein.
In Asinof’s account, Burns and Maharg approached Rothstein as he watched horses at Jamaica Race Track. Rothstein told the two men that he was busy, and that they should wait in the track restaurant, where he might get to them later. Instead, Rothstein dispatched his right-hand man, Abe Attell, to meet with Burns and Maharg and find out what they had in mind. When Attell reported back that night about the plan to fix the Series, Rothstein was skeptical. He didn’t think it could work. Attell relayed the news to a disappointed Burns. Undeterred, Burns and Maharg cornered Rothstein later that night in the lobby of the Astor Hotel in Times Square and pressed their plan to fix the Series. Rothstein told the two men, for “whatever my opinion is worth,” to forget it, and Burns and Maharg did–for awhile.
Asinof’s very detailed story of the meeting with Rothstein is not confirmed by other sources and “A. R.’s” role in the fix remains something of a mystery. Leo Katcher, author of The Big Bankroll, concluded that Rothstein declined the offer to participate in fixing the Series, deeming the enterprise too risky–too many players and too many people watching. Katcher’s conclusion seems to have been shared by American League President Ban Johnson who initially believed the fix’s trail led to Rothstein, but later–after Rothstein testified to a 1920 grand jury–deemed him innocent. On the other hand, historian Harold Seymour contended that affidavits found in Rothstein’s files after his death showed “he paid out $80,000 for the World Series fix.” Regardless of whether or not he funded the fix, many gamblers and players at the time believed that he was behind it. A telegram, supposedly from Rothstein but actually fraudulently prepared by lower-level gamblers, seemed to show A. R. backed the fix. With Rothstein’s influence and nearly unlimited financial resources, players more willingly jumped on board–the gambler’s lawyers and connections seemed to ensure no one would be punished. Rothstein may or may not have been a backer of the fix, but he clearly knew about it and made a substantial amount of money (estimates range up to $400,000) betting on Series games.
In Asinof’s telling, Abe Attell, or the “Little Champ” as ex-prize fighter was called, saw an opportunity to make some big bucks, and he decided to take it. Attell and former ballplayer Hal Chase contacted Burns and told him that Rothstein had reconsidered their proposition and had now agreed to put up the $100,000 to fund the fix. Burns whirled into motion, calling Cicotte and wiring Maharg to tell them the fix was on. Sport Sullivan, meanwhile, continued independently to pursue his own fix plans. He also contacted Rothstein. Sullivan, unlike Burns and Maharg, was known and respected by Rothstein. When Sullivan laid out his plans for the fix, according to Asinof, Rothstein expressed an interest in the scheme he had previously withheld. Rothstein saw the widespread talk of a fix as a blessing, not a problem: “If nine guys go to bed with a girl, she’ll have a tough time proving the tenth is the father!” He decided to sent a partner of his, Nat Evans, to Chicago with Sullivan to meet with the players.
In Asinof’s account, on September 29, the day before the Sox were to leave for Cincinnati to begin the Series, Sullivan and Evans (introduced as “Brown”) met with the players. Evans listened to the players’ demand for $80,000 in advance, then told them he would talk to his “associates” and get back to them. When Evans reported back, Rothstein agreed to give him $40,000 to pass on to Sullivan, who would presumably distribute the cash to the players. The other $40,000, Rothstein said, would be held in a safe in Chicago, to be paid to the players if the Series went as planned. Rothstein then got busy, quickly laying bets on the Reds to win the Series. With forty $1,000 bills in his pocket, Sullivan decided to bet nearly $30,000 on the Reds instead of giving it to the players as planned. They could get the money later, he thought.
Odds were dropping quickly on the once heavy underdog Reds team–the best Sullivan could do was get even money. Gandil, in his 1956 account of the story, said Sullivan passed the remaining $10,000 to him, and that he put the money under the pillow of the starting pitcher for game one of the Series, Eddie Cicotte. (Other sources have the $10,000 being delivered after the Series started.) Cicotte reportedly later sewed the money into the lining of his jacket.
Frustrated and angry at getting only $10,000 from Sullivan, seven of the players (only Joe Jackson was absent) met on the day before the Series opener at the Sinton Hotel in Cincinnati with Abe Attell. Attell refused to pay the players any cash in advance, offering instead $20,000 for each loss in the best-of-nine Series. The players complained, but told the gamblers that they would throw the first two games with Cicotte and Williams as the scheduled starting pitchers.
At least two syndicates and half a dozen gamblers have been linked to the fix, but both numbers are probably underestimates. There may have been five or six syndicates and perhaps twenty or more gamblers involved. Some sources have the players selling out in St. Louis, Detroit, Boston, and Kansas City, as well as Chicago. Abe Attell told sports reporter Joe Williams of the Cleveland News, “They not only sold it, but they sold it wherever they could get a buck…They peddled it around like a sack of popcorn.” The true extent of the 1919 Series fix will probably never be known.
Photo from Game Two of the 1919 Series
October 1, 1919, Opening Day, was sunny and warm. The game was a sell-out, with scalpers getting the unheard of price of $50 a ticket. At the Ansonia Hotel in New York, Arnold Rothstein strode into the lobby just before the scheduled opening pitch. For Rothstein and the several hundred other persons gathered in the lobby, a reporter would read telegraphed play-by-play accounts of the game as baseball figures would be moved around a large diamond-shaped chart on the wall. The gamblers had sent word that Eddie Cicotte was to either walk or hit the first Reds batter, as a sign that the fix was on. The first pitch to lead-off batter Maurice Rath was a called strike. Cicotte’s wild second pitch hit Rath in the back. Arnold Rothstein walked out of the Ansonia into a New York rain.
The game stood 1 to 1 with one out in the fourth when the Red’s Pat Duncan lined a hanging curve to right for a single. The next batter, Larry Kopf, hit an easy double play ball to Cicotte, but the Sox pitcher hesitated, then threw high to second. The runner at second was out, but no double play was possible. Greasy Neale and Ivy Wingo followed with singles, scoring the Reds’ second run. Then the Reds’ pitcher, Dutch Reuther, drove a triple to left, scoring two more. The bottom of the Cincinnati order was teeing off on the Sox’s ace. The game ended with the Reds winning 9 to 1 [game stats link]. Meeting later that night with Charles Comiskey, Sox manager Kid Gleason was asked whether he thought his team was throwing the Series. Gleason hesitated, then said he thought something was wrong, but didn’t know for certain.
The fourth inning turned out to be determinative in Game Two as well. Lefty Williams, renown for his control, walked three Cincinnati batters, all of whom scored. Final: Cincinnati 4, Chicago 2. Sox catcher Ray Schalk, furious, complained to Gleason after the came: “The sonofabitch! Williams kept crossing me. In that lousy fourth inning, he crossed me three times! He wouldn’t throw a curve.” After the game, Sleepy Burns left $10,000 (of the $20,000 that they were promised) in Gandil’s room.
In Asinof’s account, before Game Three in Chicago, Burns asked Gandil what the players were planning. Gandil lied. He told Burns they were going to throw the game, when in fact they hadn’t yet decided what to do. Gandil and the rest of players in on the fix were angry at so far receiving only a fraction of their promised money. He saw no reason to do Burns any favors. Burns and Maharg, on Gandil’s word, bet a bundle on the Reds to win Game Three. The Sox won the game, 3 to 0, with Gandil driving in two of his team’s runs.
Gandil told Sullivan that he needed $20,000 before Game Four, or the fix was over. Sullivan made the deadline–barely. Jackson and Williams each received $5,000 pay-offs after the game, which was won by the Reds, who broke a scoreless tie in the fifth when pitcher Eddie Cicotte made two fielding errors. According to Williams’s 1920 confession, after Game Four, the pitcher went to Gandil’s room: “There were two packages, two envelopes lying there, and he says, ‘There is your dough.” Williams testified, “Gandil told me, ‘There is five for yourself, and five for Jackson, and the rest has been called for.'”
In the sixth inning of Game Five, “Happy” Felsch misplayed a fly ball, then threw poorly to Risberg at second, who allowed the ball to get away from him. Before the inning was over, Felsch would misplay a second ball hit by Edd Roush, allowing three runs to score. Chicago sportswriter Hugh Fullerton, watching from the press box commented on the disaster: “When Felsch misses a fly ball like Roush’s–and the one before from Eller–then, well, what’s the use?”
When gamblers failed to produce the promised additional $20,000 after the loss in game five, the Sox players decided they’d had enough. It would be the old Sox again–the Sox that won the American League pennant going away. They took Game Six 5 to 4, then won again in Game Seven, 4 to 1. With a win in game eight, the best-of-nine Series would be tied.
Asinof’s Eight Men Out includes a dramatic, but entirely fictional, report of what happened before the Game Eight. Asinof admitted in 2003 that the story was made up–in part, he claimed, to identify when his account was being used without his permission. In his book, Asinof claimed that Rothstein told Sullivan in no uncertain terms that he did not want the Series to go to nine games–and to make sure it doesn’t. In the book’s account, Sullivan contacted a Chicago thug known as “Harry F” who then paid a visit to the starting Sox pitcher in game eight, Lefty Williams, and threatened harm to him or his family if the game were not thrown–in the first inning. Asinof described Williams being greeted by a cigar-smoking man in a bowler hat when he and his wife were returning home from dinner. The man asked to have a word with Williams in private. He did–and Williams got the message. There was no “Harry F.” But it made for a good story and added drama to the 1988 movie version of Asinof’s book. Threats were, however, made. Both Cicotte and Jackson later described threats and their own fear of being shot and, although Lefty Williams never told of any threats against him or Lyria, his wife, Lyria did. In a 1920 interview, Maharg also hinted that a threat to kill Williams’s wife might indeed have been made before Game Eight.
Threat or no threat, Williams pitched poorly in Game Eight. He threw only fifteen pitches, allowing four hits and three runs, before being taken out of the game with only one out. Cincinnati went on to win the game and the Series, 10 to 5. For the Williams (who was undoubtedly in on the fix), it was his third loss in three Series starts. The pitcher with a reputation as a control artist had thrown an average of a walk every other inning he played.
How Many Men “Out”?
Of eight Series games, at least two were thrown, Games Two and Eight. Notably, however, if the Sox had won Games Two and Eight, they–and not the Reds–would have been 1919 World Series champs. There is also evidence that Game Four was thrown and a failed attempt was made to throw Game Three. In general, people who were looking for suspicious plays in the Series found them, while others saw nothing that looked out of line. Reds manager Pat Moran thought the Series was on the up and up: “If they threw some of the games they must be consummate actors,…for nothing in their playing gave me the impression they weren’t doing their best.” Umpire Billy Evans expressed surprise as well when news of the fix eventually broke; “We’ll, I guess I’m just a big dope, ” Evans said, “That Series looked all right to me.” James Hamilton, official scorer for the Series, said he saw only one suspicious play, a deflection by Cicotte of a throw to home in Game Four. On the other hand, writer Hugh Fullerton and former pitching star Christy Mathewson circled seven plays in their scorebook that they agreed looked suspicious, in addition to having questions about Sox pitching in a few of the games. (Fullerton had heard buzz about a fix well before the first pitch of the Series was thrown, and informed Comiskey about a possible fix before Game One.)
Of the “Eight Men Out,” four players clearly played to lose in the thrown games, Gandil, Williams, Cicotte, and Risberg. Risberg, by all accounts a tough guy, served as internal enforcer of the fix, threatening any player who might reveal the players’ agreement with the gamblers. A few historians have suggested that Cicotte, at least after facing the first batter in Game One, gave 100%, but his own words seem to belie that conclusion: “I’ve played a crooked game.” Cicotte pitched poorly in Game One and hit the first batter, apparently to signal the fix was on. In his 1920 grand jury testimony, Cicotte admitted that he purposely put that first batter on base, but then had misgivings: “After he passes, after he was on there, I don’t know, I guess I tried too hard. I didn’t care, they could have taken my heart and soul; that’s the way I felt about it after I’d taken that money. I guess everybody is not perfect.” In Game Four, Cicotte made a couple of glaring errors on the field. According to a September 28, 1920 account of his grand jury testimony, Cicotte said, “I deliberately intercepted a throw from the outfield to the plate which might have cut off a run. I muffed the ball on purpose.” He also admitted that on another play in Game Four, “I purposely made a wild throw. All the runs scored against me were due to my own deliberate errors.” Happy should probably also be added to the “players out” list, as he went just six for twenty-six during the Series and committed several uncharacteristic miscues in the centerfield. (On the other hand, he hit the ball hard and made a couple of spectacular catches. In an interview in the Chicago Evening American, Felsch admitted he was “in on the deal,” but claimed he “had nothing to do with the loss of the World Series.”) Utility infielder Fred McMullin, Risberg’s drinking buddy, got one hit in just two Series at-bats, hardly the basis for a conclusion that he contributed to the Series defeat. Jackson, however, testified that McMullin, along with Risberg, were the two principal “pay-off” men during the fix.
If–and it’s a big “if”–any two players have been unfairly included in the “Eight Men Out” they are Shoeless Joe Jackson and Buck Weaver.
For the Series, Jackson had batted .375 (nearly twenty points better than his career average of .356), scored five runs, got six RBI’s, the only homerun, and not committed a single error. “If he really did try to lose games,” a 2009 article in the Chicago Lawyer Magazine observed, “he failed miserably.” Nonetheless, questions have been raised about Jackson’s performance in the field. (Jackson himself later admitted that he “could have tried harder.” He also reportedly said that the players in on the fix “did our best to kick [Game Three], but little Dickie Kerr won the game by his pitching.”) Not debatable is that Jackson clearly did accept the money of gamblers ($5000, after demanding $20,000, according to Cicotte) and having the batting star’s name mentioned in connection with the fix gave the scheme credibility. Jackson admitted in his 1920 grand jury testimony to accepting the money. Most likely, Jackson did not try to throw the Series. He did, however, commit a serious error of judgment in accepting the money of gamblers and, perhaps, in not more aggressively trying to report the fix to Comiskey or Gleason.
Perhaps none of the infamous Eight have more defenders than Buck Weaver. Weaver knew of the fix, attended at least three meetings in which the fix was discussed, watched Gandil count out pay-off money from gamblers, and yet failed to report the scheme to club officials. For this “guilty knowledge,” Buck might have got nothing but trouble. It’s not clear he ever received a dime from the fix. (A report circulated, originating with his mother-in-law, that a package containing a large amount of currency was delivered to his house by McMullin during the Series. The pay-off, it indeed that’s what the package was, may have been returned.) He arguably he played the best baseball he knew how, batting .324 during the Series. A 1953 letter from Weaver to Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick is on display at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. In the letter, Weaver claimed (implausibly) that he “knew nothing” about the fix and (more plausibly) “played a perfect Series.”
In addition to the fix, there was a second, arguably just as significant, scandal: the cover-up. Asinof noted that “the cover-up was far better organized than the fix itself.” It involved owners, managers, players, and (with just a couple of notable exceptions) the press. A lot of people had an interest in preserving the public’s faith in America’s pasttime.
The Fix is Revealed
Assistant State’s Attorney Hartley Replogle with Joe Jackson
Charles Comiskey tried to discourage talk of a fix, brought on by his team’s dismal performance in the Series, by issuing a statement to the press. Comiskey told reporters,
“I believe my boys fought the battle of the recent World Series on the level, as they have always done. And I would be the first to want information to the contrary–if there be any. I would give $20,000 to anyone unearthing information to that effect.” Meanwhile, Comiskey hired a private detective to investigate the finances of seven of the eight men who were part of the original conspiracy. (Weaver was the player not under suspicion.)
A bombshell was thrown into the winter baseball meetings on December 15, 1919, when Hugh Fullerton, a Chicago sportswriter, published in New York World a story headlined IS BIG LEAGUE BASEBALL BEING RUN FOR GAMBLERS, WITH BALLPLAYERS IN THE DEAL? Fullerton angrily demanded that baseball confront its gambling problem. He suggested that Kenesaw Mountain Landis, a federal judge, be appointed to head a special investigation into gambling’s influence on the national pastime.
Talk of a possible fix in the 1919 Series continued through the winter months into the 1920 season. In July, Sox manager Kid Gleason ran into Abe Attell at a New York bar. The Little Champ confirmed Gleason’s suspicions about the fix. “You know, Kid, I hated to do that to you,” Attell told Gleason, “but I thought I was going to make a bundle, and I needed it.” Attell revealed that Arnold Rothstein was the big money man behind the fix. Gleason went to the press with the story, but was unable to convince anyone–because of fear of libel suits–to print it.
Exposure of the Series fix finally came from an unexpected source–just as the Sox were in a close fight for the 1920 American League pennant. Reports on another fix, this one involving a Cubs-Phillies game on August 31, led to the convening of the Grand Jury of Cook County. Assistant State Attorney Hartley Replogle sent out dozens of subpoenas to baseball personalities. One of those called to testify was New York Giants pitcher Rube Benton. Benton told the grand jury that he saw a telegram sent in late September to a Giants teammate from Sleepy Burns, stating that the Sox would lose the 1919 Series. He also revealed that he later learned that Gandil, Felsch, Williams, and Cicotte were among those in on the fix.
A couple of days later, the Philadelphia North American ran an interview with gambler Billy Maharg, providing the public for the first time with many of the shocking details of the scandal. Cicotte regretted his participation in the fix. He seemed to Gleason and others to have been stewing over something all summer. Perhaps because of the Maharg interview or perhaps because he knew that he had already been implicated in the fix by Henrietta Kelly (manager of the rooming house where he and other players stayed), Cicotte decided to talk.
“I don’t know why I did it,” Cicotte told the grand jury. “I must have been crazy. Risberg, Gandil, and McMullin were at me for a week before the Series began. They wanted me to go crooked. I don’t know. I needed the money. I had the wife and the kids. The wife and the kids don’t know about this. I don’t know what they’ll think.” Tears came to Cicotte’s eyes as he continued talking. “I’ve lived a thousand years in the last twelve months. I would have not done that thing for a million dollars. Now I’ve lost everything, job, reputation, everything. My friends all bet on the Sox. I knew, but I couldn’t tell them.”
Within hours, the other Sox players learned that Cicotte had talked. Who would be next? It was Joe Jackson that turned up in the chambers of presiding judge, Charles McDonald. Two hours after he began testifying, Jackson walked out of the jury room, telling two bailiffs, “I got a big load off my chest!” [link to Jackson confession] On the way out of the courthouse, according to a story that ran in the Chicago Herald & Examiner, a youngster said to Jackson, “It ain’t so, Joe, is it?”–to which Jackson replied, “Yes, kid, I’m afraid it is.” (Jackson later denied that such an exchange ever occurred: “The only one who spoke was a guy who yelled at his friend, ‘I told you he wore shoes.'”) Gandil, Risberg, and McMullin were not happy with developments, and let Jackson know that. According to Jackson, the other players told him before his testimony, “You poor simp, go ahead and squawk. We’ll all say you’re a liar.” Jackson said he asked for protection from the bailiffs when he left the jury room because “now Risberg threatens to bump me off…I’m not going to get far from my protectors until this blows over.”
That same day, in his office at Comiskey park, Charles Comiskey dictated a telegram that would be sent to eight of his players and then made public: YOU AND EACH OF YOU ARE HEREBY NOTIFIED OF YOUR INDEFINITE SUSPENSION AS A MEMBER OF THE CHICAGO AMERICAN LEAGUE BASEBALL CLUB. With those words, the hopes of Sox fans for the 1920 championship came to an end. The final games in St. Louis would still be played–Harry Grabner, White Sox secretary, told the press, “We’ll play out the schedule if we have to get Chinamen to replace the suspended players”–but the results were predictable.
Defense attorney William Fallon knew that to protect his clients, which included Abe Attell and other gamblers, he would have to keep Attell and Sport Sullivan away from the Chicago Grand Jury. The two gamblers were called to Rothstein’s apartment, where Fallon announced that Sullivan would go to Mexico and Attell to Canada. Vacation with pay, Fallon said, as Rothstein pulled out his wallet.
Meanwhile, in Chicago, more details about the fix were coming out. Lefty Williams became the third White Sox player to tell his story to the Grand Jury, testifying for more than three hours. Then Oscar Felsch told his version of events in an interview that ran in the Chicago American. “Well, the beans are spilled and I think I’m through with baseball,” Felsch said. “I got $5000. I could have got just about that much by being on the level if the Sox had won the Series. And now I’m out of baseball–the only profession I know anything about, and a lot of gamblers have gotten rich. The joke seems to be on us.”
Fallon decided to adopt a bold strategy for his client. With Sullivan and Attell out of the country, he would bring Arnold Rothstein to Chicago to testify before the Grand Jury. (Fallon had a second reason for heading west: he understood that Comiskey hated the investigation, and believed that a meeting with the Sox owner might be mutually beneficial.) Rothstein told the jury that he came to Chicago because he was “sick and tired” of all of the talk about his involvement in the fix. “I’ve come here to vindicate myself….The whole thing started when Attell and some other cheap gamblers decided to frame the Series and make a killing. The world knows I was asked in on the deal and my friends know how I turned it down flat. I don’t doubt that Attell used my name to put it over.” Fallon’s strategy worked. After his testimony, Cook County Attorney Maclay Hoyne declared, “I don’t think Rothstein was involved in it.”
On October 22, 1920, the Grand Jury handed down its indictments, naming the eight Chicago players and five gamblers, including Bill Burns, Sport Sullivan, and Abe Attell. Rothstein was not indicted. The indictments included nine counts of conspiracy to defraud various individuals and institutions.
Shortly after the indictments came down, as the old staff of the Office of State’s Attorney was ready to be replaced by the newly elected Robert Crowe (the same man who prosecuted the Leopold and Loeb case), some important papers walked out of the office. George Kenney, State Attorney Hoyne’s personal secretary, probably for money offered by Attell’s local counsel, had lifted the confessions and waivers of immunity of Cicotte, Jackson, and Williams.
Fallon begin to gather, for the players, some of the best and most expensive defense attorneys in Illinois. Clearly, the impoverished Sox players weren’t going to be footing the legal bills–so who was paying for them? Comiskey? Rothstein? No one who knew talked. An acquittal would benefit Comiskey, who held out hope that his suspended players could be reinstated–possibly after serving brief suspensions.
Pushing most strongly for convictions was American League President Ban Johnson, who–to his credit–was determined to clean up the sport. Johnson became frustrated with the lack of support his investigation received from Comiskey: “We have been working on this case for three solid months and we have not had an iota of cooperation from the Chicago club,” Johnson complained.
The defendants were arraigned on February 14, 1921. All the ballplayers were present, but none of the gamblers. Defense lawyers presented Judge William Dever with a petition for a bill of particulars, a statement that would specify the charges against their clients with more specificity than the indictments contained.
A month later, George Gorman, for the State, then announced the shocking news that the players’ confessions had been stolen. A new set of charges was presented to a Grand Jury, who issued a superceding indictment, adding five new gamblers, on March 26.
Gambler “Sleepy Bill” Burns testifies at the 1921 trial
On June 27, 1921, the case of State of Illinois vs Eddie Cicotte et al opened in the Chicago courtroom of Judge Hugo Friend. The players faced charges of (1) conspiring to defraud the public, (2) conspiring to defraud Sox pitcher Ray Schalk, (3) conspiring to commit a confidence game, (4) conspiring to injure the business of the American League, and (5) conspiring to injure the business of Charles Comiskey. With the confessions still missing, George Gorman knew he faced a difficult fight. He did, however, have one key witness who could tie the players to the fix: Sleepy Burns. American League President Ban Johnson, with the help of Billy Maharg, had found Burns fishing in the Rio Grande in the small Texas border town of Del Rio. Promised immunity from prosecution, Burns reluctantly agreed to testify.
By July 5, with the defense’s motion to quash the indictments having been rejected, jury selection began. Before a final jury of twelve was seated, over 600 prospective jurors were questioned about their support of the White Sox, their betting habits, and their views of baseball. On potential juror, William Kiefer, was excused because he was a Cubs fan, and presumbably bore ill will against the team’s cross-town rival.
On July 18, George Gorman delivered the prosecution’s opening statement. Gorman described the 1919 Series fix as a chaotic chess game between gamblers and players: “The gamblers and ball players started double-crossing each other untile neither side knew what the other intended to do.” When he began to quote from a copy of Cicotte’s confession, defense attorney Michael Ahearn (later called “Al Capone’s favorite lawyer”) objected, saying “You won’t get to first base with those confessions!” Gorman countered, “We’ll hit a home run with them!” “You may get a long hit,” Ahearn acknowledged, “but you’ll be thrown out at the plate.” Ahearn proved to be the better predictor. Judge Friend did indeed call any mention of the confessions out of bounds.
The first witness for the prosecution was Charles Comiskey, who provided a history of his career in baseball, from his days as a player beginning in Milwaukee in 1876, to his current position as president of the White Sox organization. On cross-examination, defense attorneys tried to show that Comiskey had made more money in 1920 than any previous year, thus undercutting the State’s theory that Comiskey had been financially injured by the alleged conspiracy. Judge Friend cut off this line of questioning, causing Ben Short to complain, “This man is getting richer all the time and my clients are charged with conspiracy to injure his business.”
The following day saw Sleepy Burns, dressed in a green checkered suit with a lavender shirt and bow tie, take the stand. He spoke, as described in a newspaper account of the day, “in a low, even tone, which scarcely carried past the jury and repeatedly wiped his forehead with his handkerchief.” Under questioning from prosecutor Gorman, Burns (who had been promised immunity in return for his testimony for the prosecution) identified Eddie Cicotte as the instigator of the fix and the man with whom he had met at the Hotel Ansonia in September of 1919. When Gorman asked about his conversation with Cicotte on September 16 or 17, however, the defense objected and their objection was sustained by Judge Friendly. Burns described meetings in New York with Cicotte, Gandil and Maharg during which a possible fix was discussed. He testified that he and Maharg “went to see Arnold Rothstein at a race track” to discuss possible financing. Later, Burns told jurors, he and other gamblers held a meeting, two days before the start of the Series, with seven of the Sox players during which the promise to pay the players $20,000 for each thrown game was made:
Q. [What players were there at the meeting at the Hotel Sinton]?
A. There was Gandil, McMullin, Williams, Felsch, Cicotte, and Buck Weaver.
Q. What about Jackson?
A. I didn’t see him there.
Q. Did you have any conversation with them?
A. I told them I had a $100,000 to handle the throwing of the World Series. I also told them that I had the names of the men who were going to finance it.
Q. Who were the financiers?
A. They were Arnold Rothstein, Attell, and Bennett.
Q. Did the players make any statements concerning the order of the games to be thrown?
A. Gandil and Cicotte said the first two games should be thrown. They said,however, that it didn’t matter to them. They would throw them in any order desired, it was a made-to-order Series.
Q. What else was said?
A. Gandil and Cicotte said they’d throw the first and second games. Cicotte said he’d throw the first game if had to throw the ball over the fence [at Cincinnati’s park…]
Q. Who left the room first?
A. Attell and Bennett [alias of gambler David Zelcer of Des Moines, a defendant in the case]. I asked the players what I was to get. Gandil said that I would get a player’s part….After the first game, I met Attell…and then we met Maharg. Attell said he bet all the money and couldn’t pay the players until the bets were collected. I told the ballplayers and told Williams that Attell wanted to see them. Williams, Gandil, and I went to see Attell at a place on Walnut Street about a block and a half from the Sinton Hotel. That was about 8:30 p.m. Attell asked Williams if he would throw the game the next day and Williams said he would. I met Attell the next day and he showed me a telegram from New York [signed “A.R.” and suggesting that Rothstein would back the fix]….I went to the ball players then–all except Jackson were present–and told them a telegram had been received and that twenty grand–$20,000–had been sent. I told them before the game [Game Two]. Gandil said they were being double-crossed. Gandil said the telegram was a fake. I said if it was, I wasn’t in on it….
For three days, Burns remained on the stand, recounting the many trials and tribulations of the fix. On cross-examination, defense attorneys tried unsuccessfully to shake Burns’ assertion that it was the players, and not him, that came up with the idea of throwing the Series. Although he was forced to admit that some of his dates of meetings were wrong, many in the press thought that the prosecution’s star witness turned in a superb performance. (Members of the jury might have been less impressed, based on the comments of a juror in a post-trial interview with an AP reporter.) A Kansas City Times story from July 21, 1921 reported, “At the end of his twelfth hour on the stand, the witness appeared exhausted. His body was limp in the witness chair, his eyes were half closed, but his head was held back and his answers still came clearly and defiantly despite a cataract of innuendoes, disparaging remarks about his mentality and character and other bitter verbal shots heaped on by his questioners.” “If that man’s story is not proven false, we may as well consider our case lost,” said one of the defense attorneys to a reporter.
The next witness for the prosecution was John O. Seys, secretary of the Chicago Cubs. Seys testified that he met Attell at the Sinton Hotel the day before the Series opener and that Attell said he was betting on Cincinnati. “Attell was taking all the White Sox money he could get,” Seys told jurors. Meeting with Attell again before Game Three, Seys testified that the gambler told him “he wasn’t going to bet on Cincinnati that day because it looked like Dick Kerr, the Sox pitcher, would win.”
The big battle of the trial was over the issue of how to handle the missing confessions and immunity waivers. Judge Friend ruled that no evidence of the confessions could be introduced unless the State could prove that they were made voluntarily and without duress. Former State’s Attorney Hartley Replogle testified that the statements were made voluntarily and without any offer of reward. Cicotte testified that Replogle had promised him that in return for his statement “I would be taken care of,” which he assumed meant not prosecuted. Asked whether he was told that the statement he was about to make could be used against him, Cicotte said, “I don’t remember.” Prosecutor Gorman offered a different story, arguing Cicotte “was panic stricken and ran to the grand jury to confess.” In his cross-examination of the pitcher, Gorman asked, “didn’t you read about the ball scandal in the paper and tell everything of your own free will?” Cicotte replied, “No, they promised me freedom.” “Didn’t you cry bitterly?”, Gorman asked. “I may have had tears in my eyes,” Cicotte answered. Joe Jackson took the stand to offer a similar story. Jackson said that he was told that “after confessing I could go anywhere–all the way to the Portuguese Islands.” Asked whether he read the document he signed before offering his statement, Jackson replied: “No. They’d given me their promise. I’d’ve signed my death warrant if they asked me to.” After listening to this testimony, Judge Friend ruled that the confessions could be part of the State’s case–but only to prove the guilt of the players giving the statements.
Judge Charles A. MacDonald testified as to meetings he had with Cicotte and Jackson before their grand jury testimony. Cicotte told him, he said, that after hitting the first batter in Game One “he played on the square.” Cicotte told the judge he used his $10,000 pay-off to take care of a mortgage on a Michigan farm and buy stock. Jackson told the judge he was first approached in New York about participating in the fix, and made clear that it would take at least $20,000 for him to join. The initial offer, Jackson said to the judge, was so low “a common laborer wouldn’t do a job like that for that price.” MacDonald said that Jackson was concerned that his grand jury testimony be kept secret because he “was afraid Swede Risberg was going to bump him off, to use Jackson’s words.” On July 27, the confessions of Cicotte, Williams, and Jackson were read in court. According to a newspaper report of the trial, “The actual transcript of the confessions varied little from the frequently published reports of them.” In Cicotte’s confession, he expressed misgivings about his participation: “I would gladly have given back the $10,000 they paid me with interest.” Jackson denied making any intentional fielding errors, but told the judge that he “might have tried harder.”
Billy Maharg was the state’s final witness. The gambler confirmed Burns’s story about an intial meeting in New York involving Cicotte and Gandil. Maharg testified that Attell told him that Rothstein had agreed to finance the fix in return for his having once saved Rothstein’s life. He also said that the first payment of $10,000 to Burns came when Attell pulled the money “from a great pile of bills under his mattress,” money that Rothstein had apparently sent by wire.
The defense presented a variety of alibi, character, and White Sox players and team officials as witnesses. Sox manager Kid Gleason testified that the indicted Sox players were practicing at the Cincinnati ballpark at the time Burns alleged he was meeting with them in a hotel room. A series of Sox players not involved in the fix were called and asked whether they thought the indicted players played the Series to the best of their ability. The prosecution shouted its objections to each of these questions. The judge sustained the objections, as calling for opinions. Comiskey’s chief financial officer, Harry Grabiner, was called to show that the Sox gate receipts in 1920 were well above those in 1919, when the players allegedly defrauded Comiskey of his property. The jury seemed intensely interested in the financial testimony, which undermined the prosecution’s contention that the White Sox was damaged by the players’ actions.
On July 29, Edward Prindeville summed up the case first for the prosecution. He told the jury that “Joe Jackson, Eddie Cicotte, and Claude Williams sold out the American public for a paltry $20,000. This game, gentleman, has been the subject of a crime. The public, the club owners, even the small boys on the sandlots have been swindled.” Prindeville said, “They have taken our national sport, our national pleasure, and tried to turn it into a con game.” The prosecutor was particularly scathing in his attack on Cicotte: “Cicotte, the American League’s greatest pitcher, hurling with a heavy heart–by his own confession–and a pocket made heavy by $10,000 in graft, was beaten 9 to 1. No wonder he lost. The pocket loaded with filth for which he sold his soul and his friends was too much. It overbalanced him and he lost.” Prindeville asked the jury to return a “verdict of guilty with five years in the penitentiary and a fine of $2000 for each defendant.” Gorman followed Prindeville. He asked the jury to remember the fans:
Thousands of men throughout the chilly hours of the night, crouched in line waiting for the opening of the first World Series game. All morning they waited, eating a sandwich perhaps, never daring to leave their places for a moment. There they waited to see the great Cicotte pitch a ballgame. Gentleman, they went to see a ballgame. But all they saw was a con game!”
Although evidence suggests that the jury was already leaning toward acquittal, the outcome of the trial may have been sealed when Judge Friend charged the jury. He told them that to return a guilty verdict they must find the players conspired “to defraud the public and others, and not merely throw ballgames.” (The New York Times editorialized that the judge’s instruction was like saying the “state must prove the defendant intended to murder his victim, not merely cut his head off.”)
The jury deliberated less than three hours. When the Chief Clerk read the jury’s first verdict, finding Claude Williams not guilty, a huge roar went up in the courtroom. As the string of not guilty verdicts continued, the cheers increased. Soon hats and confetti were flying in the air and players and spectators pounding the backs of jurors in approval. Several jurors lifted players to their shoulders and paraded them around the courtroom.
Joe Jackson told reporters, “The jury could not have returned a fairer verdict, but I don’t want to go back to organized baseball–I’m through with it.” Buck Weaver said, “I had nothing to do with this so-called conspiracy; I believe that I should get my old position back. I cannot express my contempt for Bill Burns.” Claude Williams asked, “How could the verdict have been anything else?” Gandil also claimed “never have any doubt about the verdict” and blamed the whole trial ordeal on “those two liars, Bill Burns and Billy Maharg.” Eddie Cicotte, while shaking hands with jurors, had little to say about the trial outcome: “Talk, you say? I talked once in this building, never again.”
Defendants and lawyers with jury after the trial acquittal
The players joy was short-lived. The day after the jury’s verdict, the new Commissioner of Baseball, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, released a statement to the press:
“Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player who throws a ballgame, no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ballgame, no player that sits in conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing a game are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.”
What happened in 1919 still has relevance to a debate today: Should Shoeless Joe Jackson, the man with the third highest lifetime batting average in baseball (behind only Cobb and Hornsby) be admitted to the Hall of Fame? His actions in 1919 dishonored the game, but he wasn’t a ringleader in the fix and came to regret his role. Over the years, many fans and former players, including the great Ted Williams, have argued for Jackson’s enshrinement at Cooperstown. Williams said: