Living in Infamy: The Black Sox Scandal

by Bernard Frei on April 17, 2019

Perhaps one of the most defining features of American culture since the 19th century is its beloved pastime, the game of baseball. Generation after generation have enjoyed the countless memories and experiences the sport brings each year, and it has undoubtedly remained a symbol of American pride. The game and its following took a turn down a dark trail, however, during the early 20th century. The ‘Black Sox Scandal’ lives in infamy as the product of greed and contempt in the sport, and stands today as an example of what can go wrong if competition and professional sport is not consistently living up to a higher moral standard.

An Enabling Culture For the Black Sox

Gambling ran rampant in the United States during the time of the scandal. Baseball in particular provided the grounds necessary for constant money changing and betting to occur. The game simultaneously was marked by an era of difficult labor regulations and no representation by a player’s union. These factors together provided the exact climate for a scandal of this magnitude to occur, and in the World Series of 1919, that is exactly what happened.

The Chicago White Sox were on an absolute tear of a season. Led by star player and all time great, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, the team had all the necessary components of a world series champion. Despite consistent play throughout the 1919 season, the White Sox locker room became torn and extremely polarized as the year progressed. While all players on the team were disgruntled by their meiserly owner, Charles Comiskey, two sects came to define the team. Known today as the clean sox and the black sox, rifts between the two groups formed long before the actual Black Sox scandal would rock the integrity of professional sports.

Planning and Involvement

The underpinnings of the scandal began to form before the series against the Cincinnati Reds would start. Chick Gandlil (pictured below), first baseman of the team, was approached by gambling syndicate leader, Arnold Rothstein with a lucrative offer; fix the world series in exchange for large sums of money. Gandlil, an outspoken critic of player treatment and compensation, was immediately attracted to the idea, and at this point in the season, his camp inside the locker room was already formed. Approaching his close teammates, Claude “Lefty Williams, Eddie Cicotte, Oscar “Happy” Felsch, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, Fred McMullin, Charles “Swede” Risberg, and George “Buck” Weaver, Gandlil presented Rothstein’s proposal. Though it is still highly debated today who actually took part in the debacle, all players indicated were offered a part in the lucrative scandal, cementing their legacy in the Black Sox scandal.

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The series began in traumatic fashion. With pitcher Eddie Cicotte taking to the mound in game 1, the signal to Rothstein occured in the first inning when Cicotte hit the first opposing batter with a pitch. What occurred following that fateful pitch would be the most tumultuous collapse in postseason history in the Major Leagues. Over the next 8 games, the White Sox would lose games 1,2,4,5,8. Had it not been for a pitching staff that was largely outside of the gamble, they might have never won a game, as key players consistently hit below standards and committed riddles of unlikely errors throughout the series. By the time the series was complete, many baseball experts and fans around the team were in duress, calling for investigation. The White Sox had played that poorly, and the rumors swirling around the series were that serious. By September of 1920, nearly a year after the scandal had occurred, a grand jury was finally called upon to investigate. 

Investigation and Fallout

In June of the following year, the jury was finally convened in Chicago, and rows of interested citizens, schoolboys, and the like filed into the sweltering courthouse to watch some of the most famous athletes in the country testify. Teammate Shano Collins was named the wronged party in the indictment, claiming he lost well over $1,000 due to his teammates’ fix. The hearings would proceed for over a month, with intense questioning and testifying by both sides. The scandal would come to a climax when player “Sleepy Bill” Burns outright admitted before the jury the players’ guilt. Finally, on July 28th, the jury would convene with one another for over three hours before coming out with their final verdict for the eight players. Not guilty was the decision, and the courthouse erupted. The players and their defense celebrated in awe at their fortune, as even players who admitted guilt were acquitted from all charges. Many speculated jury nullification, and rumors of corruption amongst the jurors ran rampantly throughout the papers and community. Regardless, the court had decided, and the eight Black Sox would not be punished by the law for their actions. However, the baseball community was not so ready to declare these men innocent.

In the aftermath of the scandal and subsequent fallout that occured because of the jury’s decision, owners in the MLB knew an internal change was necessary to protect the integrity of the game. In a desperate move, the owners appointed Kenesaw Mountain Landis as the new commissioner of baseball, and surrendered full, unimpeded power to him regarding the league. Landis effectively became a dictator for the Majors, and his word would be final. In a decisive step, the new commissioner banned all eight players involved in the scandal for life, and made clear his verdict in a national statement, “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 again.”

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Repercussions of the Black Sox Today

The effects the Black Sox had on the game are unquestionable. Today, all eight players remain in permanent exile from the game and hall of fame honors. Though there have been numerous attempts to restore the status of some of the players, especially in the case of Shoeless Joe Jackson, no act has been taken to do so. This October will mark the 100th anniversary of this catastrophe. Though the act did bring light to the harshness and stinginess of owners eventually, the Black Sox scandal was a serious attack on the integrity of sports. We look back today on the scandal and the lessons it brought us, hoping baseball and sports around the world remain true to the principles they should reinforce. Hard work and integrity have no replacements, and are the backbone to any game that hopes to bring joy to its players and fans.


Sam Katulich is a content writer and research intern for Vintage Sports. Originally from Leonardtown, MD, he is currently a student at Samford University in Birmingham, AL and is majoring in Economics/Finance.

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