Tuesday is the 100th anniversary of the Chicago White Sox’ winning the seventh game of the 1919 World Series.
Ordinarily, winning the seventh game of the Series is the epic triumph, but for a couple of reasons that victory is not being celebrated, anywhere.
1 – In 1919, baseball saw fit to demand five victories rather than the standard four to win the Series, so the owners could make more money out of the underpaid players. In fact, the Sox were trailing, 4 games to 3 at that point.
2 -- Some of the White Sox were doing their level best to lose the Series, for paltry bribes from gamblers. They promptly lost the eighth and final game.
When uncovered, this became the great scandal of baseball – at least until players began using body-building drugs a generation ago, and top officials studiously overlooked the bulging biceps and massive necks of many players.
The 1919 White Sox were soon known as the Black Sox, after eight of them, with varying degrees of guilt, were banned for life by a hangin’ judge named Kenesaw Mountain Landis.
The Black Sox mostly vanished, only to be studied in 1963 in a fine book by Eliot Asinof called “Eight Men Out.” The book was the source for one of my favorite sports movies, also “Eight Men Out,” written and produced by John Sayles in 1988.
Every spring, just before opening day, I watch the movie – not so much for the venality of most participants but also for the humanity of a few players in the scandal. John Sayles knows how to make the spectator feel.
He depicts Buck Weaver, the third baseman, as knowing about the scandal but refusing to take money or limit his efforts. Weaver’s silence would be punished as much as if he were fumbling grounders and striking out on purpose.
(If a director wants to create a sympathetic character, there is no better way than to cast John Cusack, which Sayles did. Weaver/Cusack is kind to a newsboy in his neighborhood who worships him, and then has to confront his idol’s banishment. Tears all around.)
Another sympathetic figure is Ed Cicotte, the aging right-hander who has been promised a bonus if he wins 30 – get this, 30 – games by the penurious owner, Charles Comiskey. When Cicotte, with a sore arm, wins only 29, the owner welshes on the promises.
(Again, Sayles stacks the emotional deck by casting his college pal, David Strathairn, whose aching arm is rubbed by his loving wife. Tears for everyone.)
The movie – more than the book – is an age-old treatment of the callous rich cheating the workers, gamblers exploiting the proletariat.
It’s hard to think along class lines these days, when players make millions of dollars per season, and instead of overlooking the alteration of the body by drugs, the leaders of baseball juice up the ball itself.
My favorite part of the movie comes when the eight players realize the gamblers are cheating them, and even the hard-core dumpers decide to take a little October frolic by…why, yes….playing baseball.
The sunlight brightens and the Dixieland band accelerates and the players pitch and hit and field like the great team Charles Comiskey assembled.
I love watching this cinematic tribute to the game itself – players making the double play, smacking home runs, striking out the opposing Reds, like little kids, not plotters.
Perhaps the most innocent of all is the pitcher, Dickey Kerr, 26 and unapproachable, who won the third and sixth game. In later years, this very same Dickey Kerr would manage the Cardinals’ farm team in Florida, and would convert a sore-armed left-hander named Stan Musial into an outfielder because the lad could hit a bit.
(The movie doesn’t say so, but the Kerrs would be godparents to the Musials’ first child, who would be named Richard, and the Musials would help the Kerrs buy a house in their old age.)
One hundred years ago Tuesday, Ed Cicotte, sore arm and all, pitched a complete game and won.
The gamblers apparently reminded lefty Claude Williams to make nice, and he obediently lost the eighth and final game. A year or so later, all eight were out of baseball.
In the centennial season, the scandal seems to have received minimal attention – a SABR research conference in Chicago in late September, some articles in Chicago, often about whether justice was done for the great Shoeless Joe Jackson, who played quite well in the series but was banished anyway.
Baseball soon had a tighter-wound ball and Babe Ruth “saved” the game with his home runs well into the 30’s.
The moral to the story: when in trouble, tighten up the ball.
* * *
2019; symposium from that great asset, SABR:
has filed an interview with, of all people, me.
It's on his blog. (Just past photo of rat!) My thanks for his interest. GV
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see: