It’s October, and the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson once again haunts the autumn breezes. In Chicago, two attorneys with ties to the Chicago Baseball Museum organization are claiming that Eliot Asinof, author of the best seller about the 1919 “Black Sox” scandal, Eight Men Out, was wrong about Jackson’s involvement in the fix. A few weeks ago groups across the country advocating Jackson’s admission to the Baseball Hall of Fame announced yet another campaign to persuade Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig to remove Jackson’s name from the permanently ineligible list.
Jackson may or may not have actually participated in the only known World Series fix, ninety years ago this month when the White Sox met the Cincinnati Reds. He hit .375 in the eight-game series and made no errors, and there is no reason to believe that he was an active part of the conspiracy. But it appears that he did take the money, and he knew some of his fellow White Sox were in on the fix yet did or said nothing to stop it.
Though the kid who, according to legend, pleaded “Say it ain’t so, Joe” was probably apocryphal, he spoke for a nation. There is no reason, though, to believe that it wasn’t so, and so far it doesn’t look as if there’s any new evidence that would merit another trial.
So until someone uncovers some hard facts to prove it wasn’t so, I’ll look elsewhere for worthy objects of my sympathy.
I’ll start with White Sox third baseman Buck Weaver, who was also banned from baseball by Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis even though he didn’t conspire to fix the Series and was not known to have taken any money. And I can find an even more worthy victim — or victims: the winners of the 1919 World Series, the entire Cincinnati Reds team.
In modern times there has been much discussion of placing an asterisk in the record book next to the names of Roger Maris and Barry Bonds to qualify their achievements. That has never actually happened, but it may as well have for all the people who think the asterisk was there. But the 1919 Cincinnati Reds have had an imaginary asterisk placed next to their name that is more unfair than any qualifier given to a player. Because the White Sox were the favorites to win the World Series that year and because several members of the team took money from gamblers to lose it doesn’t mean that the Reds weren’t the best team and wouldn’t have won the Series anyway.
Consider the following, which all too few historians haven’t: the 1919 Reds won eight more games than the White Sox, 96 wins to 88. In fact, they had a won-lost percentage of .686, the highest of any National League team in that decade and just five points lower than the American League’s best team in that ten-year span, the 1912 Boston Red Sox.
The White Sox outscored the Reds by 90 runs, a difference of 0.6 runs per game, but every baseball fan knows that in a short series (even a best of eight as they played back then) it’s pitching that rules, and Cincinnati had the best pitching in baseball, much better than the Sox. The Reds led the NL with an ERA of 2.24, best in the majors. The White Sox team ERA was 3.04, fourth best in their own league.
The real question should be why were the White Sox the betting favorites? In truth, that question has never really been answered. I think there were three plausible reasons. First, Chicago was a far bigger media center with nationally known sportswriters like Ring Lardner covering its baseball teams. Second, Chicago had the better known players: Eddie Collins, a future Hall of Fame second baseman; Eddie Cicotte, a 29-game winner that season (who would have won more if tightwad owner Charles Comiskey hadn’t sat him out so he wouldn’t have to pay a bonus); and, of course, Shoeless Joe himself, whose .351 batting average topped all Reds and White Sox batters that year. The third and probably most likely reason is that the American League had dominated World Series play that decade: from 1911-1918 they won seven out of eight World Series against the National League and 28 of 44 Series games.
But does an advantage of 12 wins in eight World Series indicate a definite superiority? And in any event, that wouldn’t necessarily make the White Sox better than the Reds. In truth, in the absence of interleague play no one really knows how good one league was compared to the other.
From top to bottom, the 1919 Cincinnati Reds were a better team than the Black Sox, and they didn’t need any help from Arnold Rothstein or any other gamblers to win the World Series. Forget Shoeless Joe, it’s time to exonerate the 1919 Reds and wipe out their collective asterisk.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 27, 2009