The Unforgivable Sin
Commissioner Manfred did not deliver Pete Rose the holiday gift he had hoped for. Rose is still officially banned from having any role in major league baseball, other than appearing at certain events. Although Manfred made clear there was a distinction between Major League Baseball and the Hall of Fame, for all intents and purposes Rose’s continued banishment from the game means he will continue to be banished from consideration of being honored with a plaque in Cooperstown. Notwithstanding his great career, the sin of having bet on games—including betting on his team when he was manager—is too great to overcome. It is worth being reminded of why.
Baseball, then indisputably America’s national pastime, was dealt a devastating body blow in the closing days of the 1920 pennant races when the news broke that Chicago White Sox players had conspired with high-stakes professional gamblers to fix games in the 1919 World Series. They included three of Chicago’s four starting infielders, two of the three starting outfielders—including the great Shoeless Joe Jackson—two of the team’s top three starting pitchers (and the third, Red Faber, was ailing and so unable to pitch in the Series), and a marginal bench player who, having heard about it, wanted in on the action.
Gambling, including wagering on the outcome of any kind of contest, was also an American pastime—one that was longstanding, although of course no one would say such a thing since gambling was decidedly less wholesome than baseball. Baseball as an institution was not at the time blind to at least the potential of players conspiring with gamblers to fix games, and probably should not be accused of having turned a blind eye to the problem. But baseball as an institution did not effectively grapple with players’ willful association with gamblers and allegations, often by teammates, of players being involved in not always playing “honest ball.”
The most notorious of the “dishonest” players—indeed, the player who defined corruption in the game—was Hal Chase, said to be a superb defensive first baseman and a charmer when it came to dealing with people, although one would have been advised to check one’s wallet and count one’s fingers after being in his presence. When he starred for the Highlanders (before they adopted “Yankees” as a nickname) from 1905 to 1912, Chase was said to “lay down” on his teammates and tried to entice a few to play along. Nothing could be proven, however, and American League President Ban Johnson took no action against him.
When he played for the Cincinnati Reds—with whom he won a batting title in 1916—allegations of his playing to lose some games caused his manager, the esteemed paragon of morality Christy Mathewson, to suspend him in 1918 and National League President John Heydler to convene a hearing. With Matty off to serve his country in World War I and so unable to present his case, there was only hearsay testimony about his corruption, a few glowing testimonials on what a great fellow he was, and Chase got off scot free. But not for long. Heydler banned Chase from ever again playing in the National League in 1919 based on evidence he was able to obtain of Prince Hal’s perfidy from a Boston gambler.
The Black Sox scandal forced major league baseball to do something about the betrayal of the public’s trust in the national pastime. Fans trust that the games are not fixed. Betting on baseball by its participants—whether players or managers—compromises the integrity of the game precisely because they can effect the outcome of games.
Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who was named Commissioner in the midst of the scandal playing out in a court of law and who demanded absolute authority in overseeing the integrity of the game, made it his mission to restore the public’s trust in professional baseball; as a federal judge, he had once called the game a “national institution.” He acted quickly and decisively in permanently banning the eight Chicago players for their role in conspiring to throw World Series games on behalf of big-time gambling interests. It did not matter to him that all eight were acquitted at their trial:
- Even if the trial jury chose to ignore or dismiss the grand jury confessions of Shoeless Joe and pitching aces Eddie Cicotte and Lefty Williams and the evidence against the others—which was particularly weak in the case of third baseman Buck Weaver, who like Jackson played well in the Series—the new Commissioner did not.
- It mattered little to Landis whether or not they really played to lose, which they all denied doing. In fact, that issue was irrelevant as far as the former federal judge was concerned.
- The grand jury confessions and evidence spoke to their agreeing to conspire with high-rolling gamblers to lose World Series games, or knowing about the plot, and that was all that mattered to Landis.
- Even had they not affected the outcome of any game by their play on the field, their agreement to compromise the integrity of games for a payout, whether or not they received any money, was to defraud major league baseball’s interests—and fan expectations—that games are played honestly and championships honestly earned. And that was unacceptable.
Ever since, organized baseball’s edict against betting on baseball has been fiercely uncompromising. It has to be, because the integrity of the game depends on it. The sin of betting on baseball is irredeemable for anyone involved in baseball.
That said, baseball is a game that honors its past. The sinner may be forever banished from further participation in the great game of baseball, but his name is not erased from the record books, nor his achievements airbrushed out of the game’s history.
Pete Rose, with his record ten 200-hit seasons and record 4,256 hits, and Shoeless Joe Jackson, with his .356 lifetime average (third highest in history), are indisputably two of the greatest players to take the field and will always be remembered as such despite their fall from grace. And while neither is likely to ever be enshrined in the Hall of Fame, in that great museum in Cooperstown, NY, can nonetheless be learned what they did on the diamond when they were among the best of their time.