February 24, 2020

Gambling on the 1917 White Sox-Giants World Series

May 19, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

The recent New York Times article about speculation that the Cubs threw the 1918 World Series to the Red Sox brings up the broader issue of how deeply major league baseball was corrupted by gambling and a money culture in the 1910s. A while ago I looked up how the Chicago Tribune covered the end of the 1917 World Series, the one the White Sox (not yet the Black Sox) won over the New York Giants, and came by an awful lot of talk about gambling and money.

The Tribune’s material on the Chicago title includes a cover picture of the results of a private bet between two backers of the Sox and Giants, extensive talk about gambling on the Series, and, above the game story, a table listing the financial stakes of the matchup between the two teams. Here are two examples: “The wagering probably was the heaviest of any day of the series, with practically every Sox fan in the city attempting to get down a large or small wager. . . . George Cohan is credited with winning over $20,000 on the result. He put up $2,600 Saturday and had $2,500 on the Sox for yesterday’s game, when he went east Saturday night. The rest hung on the result of the series.”

And:
“Newsboy Cleans Up $2,000”:
“Willie Pope, the newsboy who handles Tribunes at the corner of Clark and La Salle streets, nicked a visiting New Yorker for $2,000, getting the wager last week when, to the visitor’s great surprise at such affluence, he dug up the roll in defiance of remarks disparaging to the Sox.”

In light of what would happen two years later, the coverage is stunning. I bring this up not to suggest that the Giants (or more accurately, some of their players) threw the 1917 Series to the Sox, but to highlight how great was the potential for a fix of any of the World Series of the late ‘10s. (Of course, the U.S. was in the First World War by the time the 1917 Series was played, so several of the possible inducements for a fix of the 1918 Series mentioned in the Times’ article were present in 1917 as well.)

In his Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James summarizes the 1910s as “a decade wrapped in greed,” and says “the players started selling ball games” after attendance collapsed in 1914, when World War One started, and the level of revenue made available to pay players plummeted as well. James concludes of the players and owners alike: “They all wanted the money, and they all wanted it all.” A few pages later, he calls the Black Sox scandal “merely the largest and ugliest wart of a disease that had infested baseball at least a dozen years earlier.”

The Chicago Tribune’s coverage of the 1917 World Series only provides more evidence to suggest that in the atmosphere of professional baseball in the 1910s, a fixed Series was probably inevitable, and only awaited the emergence of a set of players sufficiently tempted by the offer of cash windfalls to take the risk of punishment.

Arne Christensen runs Misc. Baseball, a baseball history blog, and 1995 Mariners.

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