Reese Kaplan -- 100 Years Later: Baseball's Darkest Chapter


Over this weekend I had the great pleasure of attending “Diamonds in the Rough”, a baseball symposium focusing on many aspects of baseball history with a local flavor for El Paso and Southern New Mexico.  None was more astounding than the presentation given by Jacob Pomrenke from the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) based in Phoenix, the preeminent organization cataloging and preserving the history the game we love.  

Pomrenke serves on the Black Sox Scandal Committee, a group of 200 individuals tasked with examining the truth behind baseball’s biggest scandal that took place 100 years ago when the Chicago White Sox threw the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds in the attempt to cash in on some illegal betting on themselves to lose.  On this centennial of the event Pomrenke presented a cumulative compilation of evidence that has evolved since the issue was first chronicled extensively in 1963 in the Eliot Asinof book, Eight Men Out: The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series.  

Most of us are more familiar with John Sayle’s movie adaptation released in 1988 starring John Cusack, Charlie Sheen and others which took a Hollywood’s typical liberty with the truth in order to embellish the story to make the characters more relatable.  With the World Series about to begin tomorrow night, we should take a look back at this chapter which hopefully never repeats itself (though that meatball Aroldis Chapman served up to Jose Altuve certainly could have some folks raising questions given Chapman's smile afterwards 😁).

Myth Number One – Charles Comiskey As Scrooge

One of the prevailing beliefs about the whole situation is it was precipitated by the poor salaries and working conditions suffered by the White Sox players.  However, in 2007 the Chicago History Museum got some previously unavailable documents from the trial, including the payroll records of the White Sox as well as the other ballclubs of the time.  The White Sox began the year as the number three payroll in baseball, trailing just the Yankees and White Sox.  However, by year end the White Sox had actually ascended to the number one position in Major League Baseball payrolls.

Myth Number Two – Eddie Cicotte’s Bonus

In the movie version of the Asinof’s book, star pitcher Eddie Cicotte was benched with 29 wins by Comiskey to avoid him reaching the 30-win plateau and thus not having to pay him a $10,000 bonus.  The fact is that Cicotte had gone into a late season pitching slump and had been benched on merit.  Furthermore, he earned an annual salary of $5000, so there never was a $10,000 bonus agreed upon nor offered to him for reaching any performance levels.

Myth Number Three – The Gamblers Approached the Players

In this World War I era baseball, betting was quite common and often even took place in the stands on individual pitches, pitcher-vs.-batter outcomes as well as the victors of the game.  The owners and the league turned a blind eye to these activities because the fans enjoyed it and it helped bring them to the ballpark.  Subsequent interviews with the players involved confirmed it was the White Sox first baseman Chick Gandil and third baseman Buck Weaver who concocted the scheme and approached the gamblers to get their buy-in, then they went and promoted the scheme to their teammates. 

Myth Number Four – Hitman Harry F.

In the book, Asinof recorded the well-known mobster Arnold Rothstein and his role in orchestrating how much and when the ballplayers would be paid.  At the behest of his publisher, Asinof inserted a fictitious anecdote about how a hitman named Harry F. was hired by Rothstein to threaten pitcher Lefty Williams and his wife in order to get them to comply with the fix.  The problem is Harry F. did not exist.  The rationale was that it was a device used to track future plagiarism since any future mention of Harry F. would confirm it came from Asinof’s book.  Sayles included this character in his movie version as well. 

Myth Number Five – The Scandal Was Just These 8 Men

When Kenesaw Mountain Landis was named baseball commissioner, he insisted he have the final say on all matters related to the game.  The Black Sox scandal wasn’t even investigated until nearly a year later, and at that time Landis banned a huge number of players for actual gambling, associating with known criminal types or doing other things he simply deemed a persona non grata.  Star first baseman Hal Chase was someone caught up in this heavy-handed attempt to bring morality back to the game.  In fact, Hall of Famers Tris Speaker and Ty Cobb fixed a Tiger’s game at the end of the 1919 season to secure a position in the standings.  They spoke unabashedly about it. 

Myth Number Six – It Came as a Huge Surprise

Subsequent research and interviews revealed the Comiskey and the manager were both well aware of the scheme before the first pitch of the World Series was even thrown.

Myth Number Seven – The Stolen Confessions

When a Cubs/Phillies game was being investigated, the law firm charged with storing the records had a break-in and the confessions of the Black Sox players were stolen.  It was a key moment in Sayles’ film, but the truth is that while the confessions were stolen, the content of them was well known and read into the record by the court stenographer during the trial.  The ballplayers were acquitted, but Kenesaw Mountain Landis decided to impose his own sanctions against them as part of his campaign to clean up baseball.

Myth Number Eight – Shamed Into Silence

It’s been said that the players involved were so overwrought by what they had done that they vowed never to talk about it again.  Again, it’s simply not true.  There have been more than 100 documented interviews with the players that took place after the trial ended.

Jacob Pomrenke autographed my copy of his book “To Reese, Welcome to the dark side of baseball history.”  Now you have a small taste of it as well.


Tom Brennan said...

Interesting article, informative, not scandalous. Nice.

Mack Ade said...

I interviewed Jackson when the scandal hit and he would not discuss whether he bet on or fixed games.

Hobie was with me as my witness.

Mike Freire said...

Can you imagine if that happened today, with the crushing coverage of the media and the social media?

It does make you wonder if that was the last time something like that occurred. Maybe not
to that scale, but you never know.

Mack Ade said...

Never would have happened today.

The whistle blowers would strike at the betting window

Tom Brennan said...

The Yankees did have Oscar Gamble at one time - Felix turned him in.

Reese Kaplan said...

Nah, Oscar was a Mets fan

Hobie said...

Glad you let me tag along, Mac. I was just a kid.

("Say it ain't so, Joe.")

Mack's Mets © 2012