The conspiracy was hatched as a result of resentment toward White Sox owner Charles Comiskey. Comiskey was perceived as a tightwad, having developed a reputation for underpaying his players.
Back in the day, under the MLB reserve clause, players either had to take the salary they were offered or they couldn’t play Major League Baseball. As property of the “owning” team, no other team was allowed to sign them.
Sox starting pitchers Eddie Cicotte and Claude “Lefty” Williams, outfielder Oscar “Happy” Felsch and shortstop Charles “Swede” Risberg were all principally involved, with first baseman Arnold “Chick” Gandil the ringleader. Gandil had ties to underworld figures.
Third baseman Buck Weaver was also asked to participate, but refused. Weaver was later banned with the others for knowing of the fix but not reporting it. Although he played little in the series, utility infielder Fred McMullin got word of the fix and threatened to report the others unless he was in on the payoff.
The following year the White Sox battled the Cleveland Indians for the American League pennant, while rumors of the fix persisted. Finally, in September of 1920, a grand jury convened to investigate the allegations.
Cicotte and Jackson confessed their participation in the scheme to the Chicago grand jury. On the eve of their final season series, the White Sox were in a virtual tie for first place with the Indians. The Sox would need to win all three of their remaining games and hope for Cleveland to falter in order to win the gonfalon.
Despite the season being on the line, Comiskey suspended the seven White Sox still in the majors; Gandil had already left the team to play semi-pro ball. Without those key players in the lineup, the White Sox failed to catch Cleveland.
Prior to the trial, key evidence went missing, including the signed confessions of Cicotte and Jackson, who subsequently recanted their confessions. Each was acquitted.
Major League Baseball was not so forgiving.
The damage to the sport’s reputation led the owners to appoint federal judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis as the first Commissioner of Baseball. On August 3, 1921, the day after the players were acquitted, Landis issued his own verdict:
“Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player who throws a ball game, no player who undertakes or promises to throw a ball game, no player who sits in confidence with a bunch of crooked ballplayers 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.”
With this statement, all eight implicated White Sox were banned from Major League Baseball for life.
To this day, Jackson’s involvement in the fix is dubious. He had a series-leading .375 batting average, including the series’ only home run. He threw out five baserunners and handled 30 chances in the outfield with no errors. Statistics also show that in the games that the White Sox lost, five of Jackson’s at-bats came with a man in scoring position, and he advanced the runners twice.
The damage to the game was deep; fans were outraged and rightfully so. Fines were in order and suspensions too, but a lifetime ban?
Baseball wanted to send a message to ensure against a similar event in the future.
But consider what ballplayers endured before they unionized. They were unpaid for games that finished in a tie. For the World Series, they were paid half of the gate for the first four games and played the remaining games gratis.
Before the Baseball Players Fraternity was incorporated—which was opposed by nearly every team owner and stockholder—players were considered the property of the team for which they played and couldn’t sign with another team.
Legend has it that Comiskey wouldn’t pay to have the players’ uniforms laundered. When the players refused to launder them and showed up for games in filthy uniforms, Comiskey paid the cleaning bill but deducted the expense from the players’ salaries.
The fix was hatched in large part out of frustration and foolishness; but the young are prone to act foolishly.
Major League Baseball likes to hold itself to the highest ideals, but its reputation is hardly untarnished. Consider that the league segregated itself by color for decades.
After Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s single season record for home runs, there was talk of placing an asterisk after Maris’ number indicating that it had been achieved during the course of a longer season.
Baseball is a business. The fans understand that.
However, the fans also understand something that perhaps MLB doesn’t: Baseball is, first and foremost, a game. Today’s big-salary players would do well to understand that in Jackson’s era, baseball was indeed a “livelihood.” Ty Cobb never got rich playing baseball. He made his fortune investing in General Motors and Coca Cola.
Was punishment required? Most assuredly.
In today’s game, a player found with a banned substance in his body is given several suspensions before he is given a lifetime ban.
That a player found not guilty of any wrongdoing was given a lifetime suspension is unconscionable. A fine and a suspension, with the threat of a future ban, could have very easily sent the proper message.
The Hall of Fame is all about a player’s accomplishments on the field. If it wasn’t, Ty Cobb, who was a racist, a wife-beater and a killer, would be on the outside looking in. How many other players in the Hall, given a closer look at their personal lives, should not have been enshrined?
Joe Jackson has numbers worthy of baseball immortality. He never sat in on any of the World Series fixing meetings; Lefty Williams, Jackson’s roommate, said that Jackson’s name came up in hopes of giving them more credibility with the gamblers.
Allowing Jackson into the Hall of Fame does not mean Major League Baseball need reconsider Pete Rose’s case, although in time it might wish to. Rose’s numbers certainly are Hall of Fame worthy. Perhaps a ban during his lifetime is warranted, but after his death?
Finally, consider that at some future date a player inducted into the Hall is bound to be found guilty of having used a banned substance. What will Major League Baseball do then?
Joe Jackson died in 1951 at the age of 64, but he was arguably one of the best hitters in the game, as Ty Cobb attested. And Cobb knew a thing or two about hitting.
Granted, a place in the Hall of Fame today means nothing to Shoeless Joe.
But it might let him rest a little easier.