By Evan Brunell
The Black Sox scandal of 1919 continues to reverberate throughout baseball, as there is zero acceptance of gambling in the game, and for good reason as no sport wants its championship game, the premier accomplishment in the game, to be sullied by players who accepted money to purposely lose.
Now, there are rumblings that the previous year's World Series of 1918 was fixed. The Red Sox famously won that Series, the last until 2004, while the Cubs' World Series drought extends all the way back to 1908.
“It seems more likely that there would have been a fix than there would not have been,” the author John Thorn, the official historian for Major League Baseball, told the New York Times. “It would be surprising if it didn’t come up. At that time, the connection between baseball players and gamblers was that strong.”
There is no proof that such a fix was in place, but comments by disgraced White Sox pitcher Eddie Cicotte and the confounding play of Cubs' right fielder Max Flack. Cicotte said in his deposition about the Black Sox scandal that his teammates had discussed how one or more Cubs were offered $10,000 to fix the Series, which is a shade under $150,000 in 2011 dollars. (That's still relatively peanuts to baseball players these days, who clear the $1 million barrier fairly easily as big-league players, but keep in mind, back then, baseball players got paid little, not well over what regular jobs pay.)
“From the beginning of Game 4, things started to look funny, or wrong, on the field,” author Sean Deveney, who authored a book titled The Original Curse about the possibility of a 1918 World Series fix said. “The first three games had been tight and well-played. The next three games had all these strange blunders.”
In addition, the play of Flack seems to indicate he either had a very bad series or was one of (if not the only) these players offered money to take it. Flack is the only big-leaguer to be picked off a base twice in the same World Series game, doing so in Game 4. He would then play Babe Ruth shallow in right field despite being waved back repeatedly by his pitcher. Ruth would bang a two-run triple that the Cubs would tie in the eighth. But then Cubs pitcher Phil Douglas fielded a sacrifice bunt and threw wildly into right, allowing the eventual winning run to score. (Can't consider Douglas part of the conspiracy, although it's possible, but throwing wildly happens. It's called an error.) Douglas later was barred from baseball for life in 1922 by writing a St. Louis Cardinals player while starring with the New York Giants and suggesting he would retire and leave the team if paid to do so. Both teams at the time were in a tight playoff race.
As deplorable as it may sound to throw a game these days, back then, baseball players may not have had much choice. World War I ruined America's economy, slicing baseball players' pay in half from already low levels and the 1919 season was already unofficially canceled, leaving many out of a job for what at the time was thought to be years; the Brooklyn Dodgers had already agreed to rent out Ebbets Field to the government in 1919 for use as a storage facility. In addition, when the Series ended, players expected to put their life on the line by being drafted into the war effort which was only avoided by the war's end in November. But back then, halved pay, lack of a job for the next year and the prospect of heading for France's shores all combined to create a tough environment that gamblers tried to take advantage of when racetracks were shuttered.
"If you look at the various factors, not the least being that the likely next stop for the players was the front lines of France’s Western Front, you can see how even honest men might have been driven to cheat," Deveney added.
Gate receipts from the 1918 World Series game were extremely poor as many top players had already been drafted, so attendance was poor. This development caused the Red Sox and Cubs to consider refusing to play Game 5 without meeting the owners to try to extract more pay. The game was played after owners promised to meet, with the Cubs winning. In Game 6, Flack dropped a fly ball in the fourth with two out, allowing two Red Sox players to score in the Series-clinching 2-1 victory.
All sounds damning, right?
Except again, there's no proof.
“There isn’t anything inherently suspicious to me,” Bill Lamb, a member of the Society for American Baseball Research who is on the Black Sox scandal research committee, said. “You’re telling me the right fielder threw the Series? Seems to me you would want the pitcher or the catcher instead.”
The former 33-year veteran prosecutor added: "I am aware people do bad things, but just because something is conceivable doesn’t make it so. Where’s the proof?"The Cubs return to Fenway Park for the first time since the 1918 World Series on Friday night.
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Photo thanks to the New York Times.