Events in the year 1919 challenged Americans to ponder the nation's role in the world and how they viewed their own personal freedoms. World War I had just ended. The women's suffrage movement blossomed. Prohibition took effect.
And, in that year almost exactly a century ago, a scandal broke that changed the way Americans look at sports, celebrity and culture.
That was when a handful of disgruntled members of the Chicago White Sox baseball team -- among them some of the most famous men in the country -- conspired with gamblers to throw the World Series.
Though the details emerged gradually over the next 18 months, each new revelation struck a blow against cherished assumptions about fair play and the character of our cultural heroes.
News of the scandal shattered the perception of baseball as a game heralding the American values of persistence, hard work and integrity. The fix represented a betrayal of those values and called into question the honesty of widely admired men.
After all, if the best baseball players in the world can be corrupted, who might be next?
For the schemers, it must have seemed so simple: The Black Sox -- as they would come to be known -- would collect bribes in advance of the games and then intentionally lose to the Cincinnati Reds. The gamblers would clean up with winning bets on a prearranged outcome. No one would be the wiser.
It didn't quite work out that way.
Oh, the heavily favored White Sox lost the best-of-9 Series all right. But thanks to a combination of broken promises and betting blunders, few of the conspirators -- and none of the players -- got rich.
Also, no one involved -- players or gamblers -- could keep a secret. Rumors ran rampant before the first game that the White Sox were "in the bag." The betting odds swung to the Reds almost overnight. Alarmed, sportswriters agreed to compare notes after each game to identify suspicious plays and players.
When it was all over and the Reds had won, the participants kept talking and reporters kept digging. Investigations began. A grand jury was impaneled. Baseball's establishment paid lip service to getting the bottom of it all, but really wished it would just go away.
The stories and investigations persisted through the winter and into the next baseball season. The White Sox, who returned seven of the eight players implicated in the plot, remained in the American League pennant race until the final week of the season. Then, star pitcher Eddie Cicotte, broken by the mounting pressure, confessed.
He was quickly followed by outfielder "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, one of the greatest players of the age. Lefty Williams, another standout pitcher, also came clean. The Sox players were suspended and the team tumbled out of contention.
The fix was finally out in the open. But there was another to come.
The eight players were indicted and tried, along with a couple of gamblers on the fringe of the scheme. Two of their partners turned state's evidence. But the three principal outside plotters were not charged.
Finally, when original copies of the players' written confessions turned up "missing" and couldn't be produced at trial, they were all acquitted.
Jackson later claimed -- and his on-field performance seemed to prove -- he tried his best, despite accepting a payoff. Third-baseman Buck Weaver claimed he never took a dime while giving his best effort. He fought unsuccessfully the rest of his life to clear his name. Others, like first baseman Chick Gandil, eventually admitted to the fix, while painting themselves in the best light possible.
Meanwhile, baseball's leadership tried to convince the public the fixed Series was an anomaly perpetrated by gullible players tempted by shady outsiders. But that was fiction, too.
Organized baseball was born as a vehicle for gambling. In the mid-1800s, gentlemen's baseball clubs challenged each other to matches, more often than not pooling money to bet on the outcomes. Spectators joined in, wagering on everything from the final score to whether a batter would strike out. Even baseball's original rules are filled with gambling terms: Runs were called "aces." Innings were "hands."
As the game's popularity spread, professional players -- many of whom could not be described as gentlemen -- were hired and clubs organized into leagues. All the while, gambling remained part of the baseball milieu.
In 1919, bettors fraternized freely with the players in hotels, taverns and trains. Information about player injuries or personal troubles was relayed back and forth to give each other an edge. Fixed regular season games, though not common, did occur. Team owners either ignored it or swept it under the rug until the Black Sox scandal made that impossible.
Suddenly, like Casablanca's Capt. Renault, baseball owners were shocked, shocked to find out about the game's close ties to gambling. A powerful commissioner was hired. Rules were put in place. Stiff penalties were enacted. The eight "Black Sox" players were banned from organized baseball for life.
The barn door was firmly shut, but the cows were long gone.
Did the public buy it? Not really.
How many times have you heard disgruntled fans accuse referees, sports administrators or even media executives of tailoring circumstances or outcomes to enrich themselves, if not through gambling, then through ratings, merchandising and brand-building?
To some degree, that distrust flows from the moment back in the fall of 1919 when ballplayers and gamblers plotted to make some quick, easy cash. It was a losing bet, for them and for everyone else.
Commentary on 10/14/2019
Print Headline: A long-lingering scandal