What makes a World Series historic? It’s a given that fans of any particular team are going to remember the ones where their team triumphs. In San Francisco, the early 2010s will always be the time of the Giants and Madison Bumgarner. The mid-1970s are never going to be long ago in Cincinnati, where the boys of the Big Red Machine remain forever young.
There are certain years where the World Series transcends geography, though, and finds its way into the national psyche. This century’s long-awaited feel-good wins for the Cubs and Red Sox certainly were of national interest. The Yankees long string of wins in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s may run together for much of the world, but the sheer volume makes them singular and unique. The 1960 Pirates scoring an unlikely win over the Yankees in on Bill Mazeroski’s bottom-of-the-ninth homer in game seven is eternal in Pittsburgh and beyond. In 1905 Christy Mathewson pitched three complete-game shutouts in a span of six days, a feat unlikely to be either eclipsed or forgotten.
But when it comes to historical World Series, 1919 will forever stand alone. This is the crooked World Series, the Black Sox World Series. The White Sox loss to the Reds after seven players on the team agreed to throw the series—in return for the promise of each getting somewhere between $5000 and $20,000 from gamblers who stood to make many times that number betting on the heavily favored White Sox to lose—stands as a timeless American morality play It continues to play on not just our emotions, but our fundamental attachment to the game itself, our sense that baseball stands apart from all other sports, embodying a kind of pastoral purity. We remain bewildered as to why a genuine American icon like Shoeless Joe Jackson would undermine it—“it ain’t true, is it Joe?” How could the White Sox betray “the faith of fifty million people?” as Nick Carraway put it in The Great Gatsby.
We search for answers: What really happened? Who double-crossed whom? Did gamblers double-cross the players by stiffing them on the promised payments? Did the players try to double-cross the gamblers by playing their best? And if they did—as those who would later speak to either the grand jury or reporters insisted they did—then did the White Sox just get themselves honestly beaten by a Reds team that pitched brilliantly and bunched all their hits into timely rallies?
We are overwhelmed by the criminal enormity of the scheme and the incompetent human scale of its execution. And where are the good guys? We search for someone to root for here. Players complicit in the fix may be the most sympathetic figures in the whole story. Their temptation is understandable, the bribes offered were two to four times their annual salaries, and the culture of the game had long tolerated exactly the sort of thing they were doing. Baseball owners had always been reluctant to discipline their miscreants. Rumors of game fixing abounded in early baseball, and while rumors were not good for business, rooting about and proving them to be true would have been decidedly worse.
And what of the reporters, who had all heard the rumors, and had sources enough in the game to pursue them? Journalism too, wore a mantle of shame in this episode. The few reporters who dared whisper of impropriety were shouted down by their brethren in the pressbox. Anyone who knows anything about the game knows that a baseball game can’t be fixed went the cry in the editorials in The Sporting News and Baseball Magazine. Had they been inclined to coin a phrase, the critics would have decried the game-fixing stories as fake news.
The players were indicted on an array of arcane charges—there was no law against fixing baseball games—and quickly acquitted at trial, whereupon new baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis quickly banned them for life, “regardless of the verdicts of juries.”
The baseball press wrote that story; with Landis’s steady on the tiller the game had again regained its purity and innocence. Future rumors were brushed aside easily. Keep moving along, nothing to see here.
But there has been plenty to see, the modern game came out of the sordidness of 1919. The fact that the picture has been fuzzy and difficult to bring into focus has had us looking all the harder, for the whole of a hundred years now.