October 17, 2017

Notes From the Shadows of Cooperstown: Puzzle Pieces Galore

June 12, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

NOTE: This is the third in a series of reports on my research at the Chicago History Museum, May 27-29. The first appeared in NOTES #489, and contained a kind of overview of my findings in the CHM “Black Sox Scandal Records.”  In #490, I reported on what I found in the CHM’s newspaper microfilm archive. This issue is a kind of “around the horn,” covering, well, everything except what I’ll cover later, in the form of long articles, which are ideal for chapters in a future book. I’ll explain up top. 

Going to Chicago, I had a pretty good idea of what I’d find there. Not from the 30-some pages that were advanced to me, before the 2007 auction of what I now refer here in Notes as the CHMD — Chicago History Museum documents. No, those pages were tantalizing, but scattered. However, after the auction, I kept in touch with the CHM curator, Peter Alter, mostly via e-mail. So I was able to follow, from a distance, the CHM’s process of preservation, identification  (the first inventory listed 531 items), and cataloguing. 

A seven-page finding aid was prepared (and is available on line, at http://chsmedia.org/media/fa/fa/M-B/blacksox-inv.htm — the guidelines for using the Research Center are at http://www.chicagohistory.org/research/visit/hours#hours ). It included descriptions of the contents of the collection. The items were sorted into two boxes: Box 1 holds eleven folders full of photocopies of “Black Sox scandal items, 1919-20, 1924.”  Box 2 has eleven folders of photocopies labeled “Comiskey, Frazee, and Ruppert vs. Johnson legal filings and board reports, 1917-1920.” 

Now that I’ve been there and checked out both boxes, I have an appreciation for how difficult a job the sorting and cataloguing must have been. The B-Sox scandal is an event that defines neat time-lines, or neat anything, and the war — that just seems like the right word — raging among AL owners and Ban Johnson, starting well before the 1919 Series, is not unrelated. The struggle for power that culminated with the demotion of Johnson and the ascent of Judge Landis not only prevented a prompt, coordinated and thorough response to the Fix, it is woven all through the B-Sox story. 

Ban Johnson’s central role in undoing the cover-up not only determined the timing of that process; had Johnson been on good terms with Comiskey, the Fix might have been kept quiet forever. I’m fond of citing the first law of ecology, “everything is connected to everything else” — with the CHM documents, that seems to be the case. 

What has emerged from everything I’ve seen and digested so far from the CHMD, are three articles — which (for you publishers reading) would also be three solid chapters in a future B-Sox book. One would be on “Commy’s Detectives” — or rather, the reports they filed as they went hunting and fishing (sometimes literally) for hard evidence of the Fix, in the months after the 1919 WS. I believe this article (about twelve pages) will appear in the next SABR Baseball Research Journal, which will prevent it from appearing here before then, but trust me, it will be worth the wait. OK, one tiny snippet, which will not give away anything: 

At the [St Louis] pool hall on November 12 [1919], EM makes friends with some of the regulars, Herman, Al and Bill. They introduce him to [gambler Joe] Pesch, who in turn introduces EM to a car dealer named Jones; the next day, EM is dancing with Jones and Jones’ daughter. And EM overhears what may have been the first documented use of the phrase “Black Sox”: “Some man” remarks to Pesch, “I want to bet on the Black Sox, as they can’t call themselves ‘White Sox’ any longer. They do not play white baseball. With them a man does not get a good chance for his money.”  EM picks up on the remark but is unable to learn the man’s name. 

The other two articles will focus on Eddie Cicotte and Joe Jackson. What Eddie said to Austrian — but not to the grand jury — will strike some as more stunning than what he did tell the grand jury: that he pitched to win. That’s not a surprise at all to readers of Notes, or of Burying the Black Sox, and even though it was some newspapers, it never quite got circulated. For Cicotte and Jackson (and Lefty Williams, too) we now have their own detailed (and well-coached, no doubt) accounts of their trips to the grand jury in September 1920. For Jackson, we also now have unprecedented access to the strategy employed against him in the 1924 Milwaukee trial. Will it change anybody’s mind?  Well, here’s how I see it: once you have gone down in history as one of the Black Sox, a worse traitor than Benedict Arnold, and worthy of a banishment that will continue after your death — there is really no way to go but up. 

I found no new evidence against Jackson, but did find a couple of things that will make him a more sympathetic person, if not more innocent-seeming. My working title for the Jackson piece is “Why Shoeless Joe Must Have Hated Lawyers,” and that will give you a hint of its drift. 

Anyway, in this issue I want to share some of the other puzzle pieces I found, in no special order, and I’m sure that I will not cover them all here, and maybe not in the next issue, either. I chose the “puzzle pieces” image because it really does fit. But so would “a brand new B-Sox trailhead” (an Adirondack term) — the CHMD gives us new paths to explore, mountains (of info) to climb, geography to chart. Let’s get started.

WERE THE B-SOX PILED ON? 

Writing for the Chicago Times October 16, 1912, and right after Boston won a World Series from the New York Giants, [Hugh] Fullerton wrote: “There is a bitter taste remaining in the greatest series of games ever played, for today Boston boycotted its ball club [attendance for the final game dropped to 17,000, after averaging over 30,000] and the rumor that the series was fixed and all prearranged ran through the town. Half the people believed it.” 

History has not been kind at all to the “eight men out” — a phrase that seems more and more unfair to me, as well as inaccurate. The “B-Sox” were not really scapegoated, do not get me wrong, there was a Fix, Virginia, and those eight players were somehow involved. But let us be honest, they have shouldered the greatest burden of the guilt, for going on 90 years, while other players (as well as managers, team owners and MLB officials) have basically dodged the bullet. Research and fact-finding may someday overturn Comiskey’s image as a super-Scrooge, but it seems unlikely that he will ever be known as one of the villains who engineered the cover-up of the Fix. (OK, that could happen, if my research is ever converted into a film that supersedes Eight Men Out; readers, pass that along to Kevin Costner.) 

Eddie Cicotte’s vague mention of a fix in the 1918 World Series has already spawned an article in The Sporting News by Sean Deveney, and his book on The Original Curse is due for an October 2009 release (last time I checked Amazon.com). I’m not sure what Eddie said is really evidence. But it’s something. 

But speaking of evidence of 1918 fixes — someone did claim to have some evidence, convincing evidence, of hanky-panky in 1918 — during the National League regular season. And we know this because amongst the CHM documents (in Box 2, folder 3) is a letter dated June 24, 1919, written and sent by AL President Ban Johnson to Col. Jacob Ruppert, “Pres. Base Ball Club, New York City, N.Y.” — with a copy to the Yankees’ co-owner, Col. T.L. Huston. The NY owners were tight with Comiskey (and Boston AL owner Harry Frazee) in those days, so they likely shared their letter with Commy.

Johnson writes to the colonels to complain that “there has been no attempt on the part of the Boston officials to stamp out this evil” — gambling. He asks the colonels for their view. Ban is determined to “crush out gambling at Boston” with “drastic measures,” hoping to “thoroughly eliminate the evil.” 

From evidence in my possession I am convinced that there were many crooked games in the National League last year. Recently I severely arraigned Mr. [Garry] Herrmann [owner of the Cincinnati team as well as chair of the National Commission] for permitting the extensive gambling at the Cincinnati ball park, and sent a copy to the President of the National League [John Heydler]. 

The emphasis above is mine, but somebody who read this letter underlined that paragraph in dark pencil. Ban closed his letter with a pretty fair prediction, if you fast forward to what happened just a bit over three months after he wrote it: 

If the American League does not buckle into this issue professional baseball will be besmirched and damaged beyond recovery. Major league club owners are the real custodians of the sport, and it is my judgment they are lacking in their duty if they do not at once grapple with this growing evil. 

So let us stop piling on the eight guys who were caught with their hands in the October 1919 cookie jar. They were not the first, and not the last, to get greedy. And read that last excerpt again: in Ban Johnson’s view, it is the owners who are baseball’s custodians, not the players, who come and go like a charley horse. To be accurate, the owners and league officials did take some heat, when the B-Sox scandal broke, but only ballplayers were punished. Only a few editorials called for the removal of baseball, a national treasure, from the hands of the club owners, whose incompetence in keeping the game clean was on display — thanks to a grand jury, no less. Some felt baseball should be taken over by the government, which seemed like a good idea at the time, but Teapot Dome was kneeling on deck.

THE BAMBINO FACTOR   

Above I mentioned Babe Ruth, and I want to close with this. The magnates of 1919-1920 may have been less than candid about gambling’s strangling influence on baseball, but they were not blind. Babe Ruth, swatting long home runs with unprecedented regularity, had captured America’s imagination. His 29 HRs in 1919 was amazing, but in 1920, he hit 54, a dizzying, dazzling number, and as you read about the Cook County grand jury, you notice that they had stiff competition from the Babe on the sports pages. Some time ago, I concluded that the Bambino did not distract America from the B-Sox scandal, or induce B-Sox amnesia, he hooked America on the long ball before the scandal broke. 

And he filled up ballparks, not just in the American League, but wherever he played exhibitions, all over the country. Fans were addicted to his clout, and if he failed to connect for a long ball during the game, he’d hang around and keep swinging until he satisfied the crowds. Or he might put on a show before the game, it didn’t matter. Babe Ruth was a huge hit, and the magnates noticed, and soon baseball changed forever. 

Give ‘em what they want. The magnates would never admit to juicing the ball. And decades later, when players started juicing themselves, the owners again closed their eyes. If Ruth played a part in distracting fans from the “Black Sox” mess, so did Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa do much to bring fans back after the strike, presided over by Bud Selig in 1994-1995. Sluggers Fill Ballparks — SFB — the slogan must be part of Magnate 101 training. Comparing gambling to steroids is not easy, yet the link between the B-Sox and today is not that much of a stretch. Close your eyes, and if a scandal breaks, blame the usual suspects, the players. Never mind the trainers, coaches and managers, and yes, the “magnates” who knew what was going on. They, after all, control the spin, and history is kind to those who are tight with the media.

The above is an excerpt from Issue #491 of Gene’s Notes From the Shadows of Cooperstown. To read the rest of the issue (or past issues), click here.

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