How the Black Sox World Series-fixing scandal unfolded 100 years ago

Steven Marcus

“Say it ain’t so, Joe” was probably never said, but for nearly 100 years that line has been synonymous with Shoeless Joe Jackson and the most notorious event in MLB history: The 1919 Black Sox Scandal.

Joe Jackson

Jackson and seven teammates on the Chicago White Sox were charged (but not convicted) of conspiring with gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. But In a stunning display of his authority, Kennesaw Mountain Landis, baseball’s first commissioner, ignored the jury’s verdict and banned the players for life.

“His goal was that he would have the authority to act in the game’s best interests,” said Lincoln Landis, the 96-year-old nephew of the commissioner, who held the position for 24 years until his death in 1944. “He stated that that was his goal,” Landis said from Locust Grove, Va. “He was determined to make sure that the game was straightforward, that it would not cause fans to lose their trust in the game.”

A century removed from the Landis decision, some family members and supporters remained determined to clear the names of players – Jackson and Buck Weaver in particular – but no commissioner since Landis has come close to reversing that landmark ruling.

State of the game

Gambling was a staple in baseball well before the scandal, though usually to a much lesser extent than the organized effort by the White Sox, according to historians. The Boston Braves’ four-game sweep of the favored Philadelphia Athletics in 1914 and the Red Sox's win over the Cubs in 1918 came under suspicion, according to research by former New Jersey prosecutor William F. Lamb, who wrote “Black Sox in the Courtroom” and “Scandal on the South Side.”

Lamb’s research determined that the Black Sox fix was discussed, at first between players and then gamblers, in meetings before the Series, the last on the evening before Game 1 in Cincinnati. The amount to be shared among the players was reported at $100,000, paid in installments during the Series.

Buck Weaver

One motive theorized for the Sox players’ action was their belief they were underpaid by team owner Charles Comiskey, but that was debunked years later when Chicago’s salaries were shown to be among the highest in the sport.

First baseman Chick Grandil and pitcher Eddie Cicotte, whose great-nephew, Al, pitched in 20 games for the Yankees in 1957, were alleged to have joined with pitcher Lefty Williams, shortstop Swede Risberg and center fielder Happy Felsch at the start. Utility infielder Fred McMullin was brought in after learning of the conspiracy. Third baseman Weaver attended meetings where the fix was discussed and, though there is no evidence he received any money, was implicated in the fix by his teammates, Lamb’s research revealed.

Jackson, while denying he attended meetings or agreed to fix games, admitted in grand jury testimony that he accepted a payment of $5,000. He hit .375 in the Series with a then-record 12 hits.

As for that “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” line, which purportedly placed a young fan on the courthouse steps expressing sorrow at Jackson’s admission, Jackson said in a 1949 interview that it never occurred. “There was a big crowd hanging around the front of the building, but nobody else said anything to me. It just didn’t happen, that’s all,” Jackson was quoted.

The newly formulated best-of-nine Series began amid rumors of a fix. In Game 1, Cicotte, who won 29 games in the regular season, hit Reds leadoff hitter Morrie Rath. Cicotte later muffed the beginning of what appeared to be a double play and Risberg tripped near second base.

The Reds won the first game, 9-1. Williams, the Game 2 starter, walked three straight batters in a 4-2 loss. By Oct. 6, the Reds led the Series four games to one, but the White Sox players had not received any of the promised money from the gamblers. That angered the players, who then supposedly agreed among themselves to cancel the fix. They won the next two games but the Reds won Game 8 for the title. It was reported that the fix went back on in the final game as the White Sox players claimed to have received threats to their families.

'Weak' case

An examination of the fix did not come to light until late August 1920, when a grand jury, initially charged with examining irregularities in a regular-season game not involving the White Sox, scrutinized the 1919 Series after a witness testified of his role in the scheme. The bombshell occurred when Cicotte admitted under oath that he was in on the fix. Williams and Jackson also testified to their knowledge. The three players already had made similar admissions to the White Sox legal counsel. Neither White Sox owner Charles Comiskey nor field manager Kid Gleason were implicated.

In October 1920, eight players were indicted on five counts of conspiracy to obtain money by false pretenses. Jurors heard the grand jury statements of accused players, but none of the charged players testified during the trial. On the evening of Aug. 2, 1921, the jury took only two hours, 47 minutes to acquit seven defendants. McMullin, who was not part of the trial, later had charges against him dismissed. Lamb wrote that judge Hugo Friend called the verdict a just one. Afterward, the jurors and acquitted players encountered each other at a local restaurant, where one juror reportedly said the state’s case was “weak.” Historians also have suggested the tenor of the times did not universally condemn gambling.

Quick decision

Landis, who took office in November 1920 with the edict to cleanse the game, immediately issued the lifetime ban. He wrote, “Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player who throws a ballgame, no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ballgame, no player that sits in conference with a bunch of crooked players 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.”

Kennesaw Mountain Landis

Landis’ nephew said it was uncharacteristic for his uncle, who had been a federal judge, to override a jury’s verdict, but “knowing the judge as I did, I believe it was totally in his confidence that he believed he was correct. … There was no question in his mind that with the taint of dishonesty, he would have no decision possible other then the one he made.”

The scandal has spawned books and movies mostly in support of the Chicago Eight and the posthumous reinstatement of Jackson, a lifetime .356 hitter who certainly would have made the Hall of Fame.

In 2015, Commissioner Rob Manfred said he agreed with the records of past commissioners and said it would not be “appropriate” for him to reopen the matter. He ruled the same on Weaver.

“He (Jackson) accepted the money, he used the cash to pay off his wife’s sister’s cancer treatment,” said David Fletcher of the Chicago Baseball Museum.

Jacob Pomrenke, the director of editorial content for the Society of American Baseball Research, has been involved in a years-long study of the scandal.

“There’s some pieces of correspondence between Jackson and some White Sox officials, including Charles Comiskey,” Pomrenke said, “Jackson met with them after the World Series, trying to talk to them about the money and possibly trying to give it back. So there definitely is some evidence. How to interpret that is the million-dollar question. Or maybe the $5,000 question. Certainly, there are many degrees of guilt in this entire story. I think Joe Jackson and Buck Weaver are definitely at the lower end of the scale. But (Jackson) did take the money. … There were instances of him complaining about not getting more money as part of his grand jury testimony. In terms of his overall guilt, he certainly has less than a lot of other people involved in the scandal. but he did take the money and there’s no getting around that fact. He did accept a bribe from gamblers to throw the World Series.”

Swede Risberg

'Ultimate punishment'

Kristi Berg, a great-niece of Weaver, said from Deerfield, Wis., “He kept fighting until the day he died for his innocence. On our end we believe that he deserves to be reinstated. … Yes, maybe he knew what was going on and didn’t say anything. … What’s the conversation in those meetings? Nobody knows. We looked at it as if we were put in that situation what would we do? He got punished for it in a way that was like the ultimate punishment. If he never gets reinstated, if we still have people who want to continue to talk about the story and understand and believe in his innocence. There’s something to be said about that.”

Gerald Risberg, son of the banned player, lived for many years on Long Island. He died in 2015 at 81. “He was sure his father was innocent,” said ex-wife Susan Risberg, who lives in Baldwin. “And his father certainly never got any money from that.”

But Edward Collins III, grandson of the Hall of Fame second baseman who played on the 1919 team, said of the accused players: “They cheated, so what are you going to do?” he said from Kennett Square, Pa. “Put an asterisk by their name but don’t put them in the Hall of Fame? My (grandfather) thought Joe Jackson was the best player he ever saw. But he didn’t play by the rules and doesn’t deserve to be in.”