Last month brought the 100th anniversary of the end of baseball’s darkest trial and a lasting US sports betting event.
On August 2, 1921, after deliberating for less than three hours, a jury returned not guilty verdicts, acquitting eight members of the Chicago White Sox of conspiracy charges associated with fixing the 1919 World Series.
The verdict, however, was not the opportunity for the players to return to normal. Following the verdict, newly installed commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis banned the players for life:
Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player that throws a ball game, no player that entertains proposals or promises to throw a game, no player that sits in a conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing games are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever again play professional baseball.
Landis’s first act as commissioner was to ban the eight players.
The World Series fix
About two years ago, John Thorn, historian for Major League Baseball, wrote an excellent article in the New York Times looking at baseball’s biggest scandal and some of the misconceptions about it.
While rumors swirled during the World Series that some of the games had been fixed, it was not substantiated until a year later.
As Thorn’s piece notes, by the time the World Series rolled around, markets did not think the White Sox were quite the favorites that history remembers them as. In fact, the Cincinnati Reds may have even been slightly favored going into the World Series. The White Sox were coming into the Fall Classic following a miserable September.
Harm of corruption vs. harm of knowledge of corruption
Thorn notes that the 1919 World Series was not a significant event because the games were fixed. Indeed, it is probable other games had been fixed prior to this; there were even efforts to fix the World Series in the years preceding the 1919 Series.
But the White Sox fix was different because it was public.
Black Sox indictments
Following the convening of a grand jury in Cook County, eight White Sox players, along with a number of gamblers, were indicted on various conspiracy charges related to the fix.
Bill Lamb, in another excellent article, details that in February 1921, the original charges were dropped by the state’s attorney after a judge ordered the trial to proceed on a short time frame. The state’s attorney, however, would present new charges to a grand jury including substantive fraud charges along with the conspiracy counts.
The grand jury returned indictments against the original player defendants, as well as an expanded list of gamblers.
The case began on June 21, 1921, captioned State of Illinois v. Eddie Cicotte et al., with the public release of the charges against the players. According to professor Douglas Linder, the players faced six charges:
- conspiring to defraud the public,
- conspiring to defraud Sox pitcher Ray Schalk,
- conspiring to commit a confidence game,
- conspiring to injure the business of the American League, and
- conspiring to injure the business of Charles Comiskey.
Following failed efforts to get the charges dismissed, the trial opened on July 18, 2021, with a jury allegedly composed of 12 purported non-baseball fans. The prosecution closed their case on July 29, arguing that the players should be sentenced to five years in prison each and subject to a $2,000 fine each.
The defense opened not by denying the allegations, according to Linder, but instead by arguing there was no intent to defraud anyone or to damage baseball’s reputation, believing the deal would remain secret.
Indeed, the defense was right: the players were not on trial for merely throwing games. They were charged with fraud. After the defense closed, the jury returned acquittals for all the players in under three hours.
Aftermath of the verdict
In the wake of the jury verdict, some reports indicate that the purported non-baseball fan jurors carried the players around the courtroom on their shoulders.
Other stories say that the jurors and players ventured down the street and spent the evening together at a bar celebrating.
The verdict was criticized at the time and continues by some to be criticized to this day.
Just 100 years later …
After last month’s Field of Dreams game, celebrating a film at its core about the Black Sox, it is incredible how baseball has changed its view of gambling.
Under Commissioner Rob Manfred, baseball is at a fork in the road. The game is searching for new fans and new streams of revenue; gone are any apprehensions of baseball’s image being damaged by changes to the game or through associations with betting.
It was just about 40 years ago that baseball banned Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays for greeting patrons and signing autographs at Atlantic City casinos in retirement.
The anniversary of the acquittal of the Black Sox players serves as a reminder of the damage that match-fixing can do to sports. As Major League Baseball continues to search for revenues, the 1919 World Series fix still casts a shadow over organized sports in the United States.