When a Win Is Anything But

When a Win Is Anything But

The 1919 Chicago White Sox fielded one of the greatest teams ever in the history of baseball.  The lineup included one of the best hitters in Shoeless Joe Jackson and two pitchers who routinely won almost 30 games each season in Eddie Cicotte and Lefty Williams.  By all accounts, the team was dysfunctional with factions or groups who had nothing in common except the ability to play splendidly as a team (anyone remember the overly dramatic and extremely dysfunctional New York Yankees from the 1970s?).

The 1919 Chicago White Sox will never be remembered for dazzling pitching performances, home runs, or stellar defensive plays on the diamond.  Of course, we all know the team as the Chicago Black Sox – The team that threw the World Series – The team of cheaters – The team that almost took down baseball itself.

With the reputation of the Black Sox so entrenched in our psyche and the undeniable association of the Black Sox with cheating, we may have forgotten that the co-conspirators almost got away with it.  In fact, the players and those involved became entangled in an investigation wholly unrelated to fixing the 1919 World Series.  Then everything fell apart.

September 28, 1920 is viewed as the date of everything unraveling for the Black Sox players, eventually leading to the lifetime ban of eight players from baseball.  This 101st anniversary of the demise of the careers of these players provides an opportunity for the story of the discovery of the misdeeds, the eventual acquittal of the players in the legal system, and the immediately following lifetime ban from baseball, together with some sketchy involvement by mob figures.  The Black Sox deservedly should be known for their cheating ways.  However, the downfall of the Black Sox provides lessons for us all on how quickly fortunes can change and how victories may prove elusive.

The story of the origins of the plot to fix the World Series needs to be explored in other articles.  Just note that baseball owners ruthlessly took advantage of players during this period.  Players’ wages were quite low.  Professional gamblers remained way too chummy with the grossly underpaid players.  The perfect storm scenario to entice players to fix games had been brewing for years.

This story, however, begins with the first pitch of the 1919 World Series.  White Sox star pitcher, Eddie Cicotte, hit the first batter with the first pitch.  That play was the signal that the “fix was on”.  In embarrassing fashion, the heavily favored White Sox lost the first two games of the Series.  After failing to receive payoffs after those games, the White Sox players decided among themselves to call off the fix.  Don’t double cross the double crossers!  The Series became competitive.

While historic accounts differ at this point, something clearly happened before Game 8 of the World Series.  At that time, the World Series was a best of 9 game affair.  The Reds lead the Series 4 games to 3.  Mob Boss Arnold Rothstein, the person most generally credited with providing the cash for the bribes of White Sox players, happened to be in Chicago and famously told associates that there was no possibility of the Series reaching a deciding Game 9.  White Sox pitcher Lefty Williams, known for his tremendous control of pitches, took the mound for the White Sox.  Lefty walked the first three batters he faced without throwing one strike.  Lefty gave up three runs on his way to becoming the pitcher who lost three games in the Series.  The White Sox outfielders dropped fly balls and infielders threw balls five feet over the heads of teammates covering a base.  Game 8 remains the boldest example of a thrown professional sports game to this day.

The poor performance of the White Sox players in the 1919 World Series remained a hot topic of discussion and debate in the sports world into 1920.  Amazingly, no consequences followed.  The 1920 season opened without incident or much  further discussion of the World Series.  The White Sox remained in a close pennant race with the Cleveland Indians as the season headed toward conclusion.

On August 31, 1920, evidence came to light that a baseball game between the Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies may have been fixed.  A grand jury was convened in Chicago to investigate.  A player who testified about fixing the Cubs game noted that fixing goes on all over baseball.  He had seen a telegram from 1919 suggesting that the White Sox were going to throw the World Series that year.  

The sitting grand jury “invited” White Sox pitcher Eddie Cicotte to appear on September 28, 1920 to answer questions about the 1919 World Series.  Cicotte immediately broke down in tears saying that he had to take care of his wife and kids.  He testified about the scheme to fix the series, identified those involved, and detailed the payments to each player.  Oops.  Word immediately spread that Cicotte spilled the beans.  Shoeless Joe Jackson testified before the grand jury later that same day and admitted that he accepted $5,000 from his teammates although they promised him $20,000.  Other involved players then lined up admitting their involvement before the grand jury.

That evening, White Sox owner, Charles Comiskey, made public a telegram he sent to the eight implicated White Sox players: YOU AND EACH OF YOU ARE HEREBY NOTIFIED OF YOUR INDEFINITE SUSPENSION AS A MEMBER OF THE CHICAGO AMERICAN LEAGUE BASEBALL TEAM.  Notably, Comiskey made no mention that he was tipped off of the alleged fix both before and during the 1919 World Series.  Comiskey took no action in order to protect his own financial interests and value of the White Sox as a team.

The grand jury indicted all eight White Sox players.  The players faced charges of conspiring to defraud the public; conspiring to commit a confidence game; conspiring to injure the business of the American League, and conspiring to injure the business of Charles Comiskey.

With confessions in hand, focus turned to those who financed the fix.  All roads lead to mobster Arnold Rothstein.  As with all well trained mob bosses, Rothstein had no direct involvement, but instead worked through two professional gamblers, Abe Attell and Sport Sullivan.  When news of the White Sox players singing to the grand jury broke, Rothstein summoned Attell and Sullivan.  Rothstein told the two that each would be taking a fully paid vacation.  Attell disappeared to somewhere in Canada.  Sullivan disappeared to somewhere in Mexico.  Witnesses gone.

With Attell and Sullivan now unavailable, Rothstein and his legal team adopted a bold strategy to have Rothstein voluntarily appear before the grand jury to answer questions.  Rothstein testified that he heard about the fix; that Attell and other cheap gamblers approached Rothstein to be in on the fix; and that Rothstein turned them down flat.  Rothstein declared that his own reputation had been compromised by Attell, Sullivan and others who tried to implicate Rothstein just to take the pressure off their own circumstances.  Attell and Sullivan were indicted in abstentia.  No action was ever taken against Rothstein.

In addition, something funny happened on the way to trial.  Signed confessions from the players and other critical documents walked out of the State Attorney’s Office.  Speculation focused on the close association between Attell’s lawyer and an assistant in the prosecutor’s office, but no investigation followed and no charges were ever brought on the matter.

Thereafter, the best and most expensive defense lawyers appeared in the case to represent the eight supposedly impoverished players.  Attorneys who regularly represented Arnold Rothstein now appeared as part of the defense team.  On the first day of trial, these defense lawyers objected to introduction of evidence of the supposed confessions exclaiming: “You won’t get to first base with those confessions!”  The judge granted the objection noting that any mention of the confessions would be out of bounds.

Despite the absence of critical evidence, the prosecution presented a compelling case that detailed the conspiracies and the payoffs.  The prosecution presented meeting after meeting among the co-conspirators both before and during the World Series, meetings of players with gamblers during the World Series, and stories of money being left under pillows and sewn into jacket linings.

The White Sox players presented themselves as simple ball players who did not know what other games were being played.  If given documents, the players professed not to understand what they meant.  If anything shady was going on, the players were but simple pawns.

The trial judge delivered a pinch hit home run for the defense in instructing the jury.  The judge charged the jury that it was not enough for the prosecution to prove that the ballplayers merely threw baseball games.  The jury must find that the defendants conspired to defraud the public and others.  With this instruction of a need to find intent to defraud the public at large, it took less than three hours for the jury to return not guilty verdicts for each defendant.

It was not lost on the public or media that the prosecution convincingly proved that the Black Sox threw the World Series.  It was also not lost on the first baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis.  The very next day after the not guilty verdicts came down, Commissioner Landis banned the eight Black Sox players from baseball for life.  So much for the players celebration.

“Not guilty” may not translate to “innocent” in the public’s eye.  OJ Simpson was found Not Guilty.  Bill Cosby’s convictions were recently thrown out on appeal and he is deemed Not Guilty.  Reputation and image have been dealt a fatal blow not by a ruling in a court of law, but by the facts and undeniable actions which came to light in those courts.  The Chicago Black Sox fixed the World Series and those facts came through loud and clear in their trial.  Rightly or wrongly, these parties will be identified as a murderer, a rapist, and a group of cheaters.

In mediations, at times, I must candidly and forthrightly explain to a party that even if they win at trial, they may still come out as the loser.  Take for example the company defending itself on sexual harassment claims.  Perhaps the offending employee has been dismissed.  Perhaps the company engaged in retraining of its workforce after the underlying actions were discovered.  Perhaps the company sought to provide counseling to the impacted employee and took steps to ensure that no retaliation would be taken against the injured employee.  The company took every step it could think of to address the wrong and implement preventative measures to guard against future transgressions.  Nice talking points, but the fact remains that the company allowed the conduct to take place and now they appear to be defending or hiding behind the actions of the former bad employee.  A victory at trial might straddle the company with an image that improper conduct will be tolerated and the company will defend the bad actors.  That company needs to seriously consider what will be plainly on display in a public trial.  The rulings may have little to do with the image ultimately projected.

Debate will continue as to whether Shoeless Joe Jackson was genuinely involved in fixing the 1919 World Series (he made no errors, batted almost .400 and held the record for most hits in a World Series which stood for 40 years).  Debate will also continue on Charles Comiskey’s knowledge or involvement.  Regardless of the outcome of those debates, the Black Sox are confirmed cheaters 101 years later not through rumor and innuendo, but by facts presented in a court of law.  The victory in the court of law must ring fairly hollow for the Black Sox players.  At least in civil litigation, the option of resolution through mediation can avoid becoming the loser after winning at trial.

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