Just how the “Big Fix” of 1919 played out remains a subject of considerable debate among baseball historians. Accounts differ, but the scheme may have first materialized a few weeks before the World Series, when White Sox first baseman C. Arnold “Chick” Gandil and a gambler named Joseph “Sport” Sullivan met to discuss the possibility of Sox players throwing the championship. Gamblers had long been greasing the palms of disgruntled ballplayers in exchange for inside tips, but attempting to rig an entire World Series was a rare and perhaps even unprecedented proposition. Gandil later claimed he was initially skeptical that it could work, but he eventually agreed that he and a few co-conspirators would throw the series in exchange for a hefty payout of around $100,000. He soon enlisted White Sox pitchers Eddie Cicotte and Claude “Lefty” Williams, shortstop Charles “Swede” Risberg and outfielder Oscar “Happy” Felsch into the scheme. Third baseman Buck Weaver was in on the early stages of the plot before pulling out, and utility infielder Fred McMullin was cut in after he overheard the players talking about the deal. Power hitter “Shoeless” Joe Jackson was also approached.
As Gandil recruited his conspirators, Sullivan and a tangled web of crooks that may have included “Sleepy” Bill Burns, Bill Maharg and Abe Attell began raising the bribe money. New York mob leader Arnold Rothstein may have been a major player, but his involvement has never been proven, and evidence suggests that Gandil and his co-conspirators may have hatched multiple deals with different syndicates. “They not only sold [the series]” Abe Attell later claimed, “but they sold it wherever they could get a buck.” Bookies had previously had the Sox winning the World Series over the underdog Cincinnati Reds by as much as three-to-one, but the odds shifted after those in the know began betting heaps of cash on the Reds. As the championship drew near, the streets buzzed with rumors that several White Sox players were in the pocket of high stakes gamblers.
Suspicions that the championship was “in the bag” only increased after the White Sox and the Reds met on October 1 for the first game of what was then a best-of-nine World Series. After hitting a batter with one of his first pitches—supposedly a signal that the fix was on—Eddie Cicotte went on to make a series of uncharacteristic blunders from the mound. Chicago lost the game 9-1, leading the New York Times to marvel, “Never before in the history of America’s biggest baseball spectacle has a pennant-winning club received such a disastrous drubbing in an opening game…” The faulty play continued in game two, when Sox pitcher Lefty Williams gifted the Reds a 4-2 win after walking three batters in a row.
The White Sox continued losing over the next few games, and by October 6, the series stood at 4-1 in favor the Reds. Everything was proceeding as planned, yet according to later accounts, many of the crooked Sox players had begun to grow restless. They had purportedly arranged to receive their bribes in five $20,000 installments—one after each loss—but the gamblers had failed to deliver the full amount. After game five, the furious ballplayers supposedly called off the fix once and for all and resolved to play to win for the rest of the series. Over the next two games, the Sox sprang to life, winning 5-4 and 4-1 and putting themselves back in the race for the championship. Backing out of a deal with gangsters proved difficult, however, and several of the players later hinted at having received threats against their families. Whether because of intimidation or merely an unexpectedly strong opposition, the Sox went on to lose game eight to the Reds 10-5, giving Cincinnati their first ever World Series win.
Rumors of a fix continued to persist in the months after the championship defeat. Leading the charge was sportswriter Hugh Fullerton, who investigated the 1919 series and later wrote a famous article for the New York Evening World titled “Is Big League Baseball Being Run for Gamblers, With Players in the Deal?” Chicago White Sox owner Charles Comiskey was quick to shrug off any reports of impropriety, saying, “I believe my boys fought the battles of the recent World Series on the level.” Despite his claims to the contrary, evidence would later show that Comiskey had been tipped off about a possible fix early in the series and may have attempted to bury the story to protect his business interests.
Baseball’s leading figures appeared content to let the 1919 World Series go unexamined, and it largely did until August 31, 1920, when evidence surfaced that gamblers had rigged a regular season game between the Cubs and the Phillies. A grand jury convened to investigate, and speculation soon turned to the previous year’s World Series. Around that same time, gambler Bill Maharg went public with an account of his own involvement in the fix. As the accusations mounted, Eddie Cicotte decided to testify before the grand jury. During a tearful mea culpa, the pitcher admitted involvement in the scandal, saying, “I don’t know why I did it…I needed the money. I had the wife and kids.” Shortly afterwards, star hitter “Shoeless” Joe Jackson testified and admitted to having accepted $5,000 from his teammates. Over the next few days, Lefty Williams and Oscar Felsch also confessed their involvement.
In October 1920, Gandil, Cicotte, Williams, Risberg, Felsch, McMullin, Weaver and Jackson—now dubbed the “Black Sox”—were indicted on nine counts of conspiracy. While they were lambasted in the media for “selling out baseball,” the players coasted through their June 1921 trial after all the paper records relating to their grand jury confessions vanished under mysterious circumstances. Many now believe that Comiskey and gambling kingpin Arnold Rothstein arranged for the papers to be stolen as part of a cover up. Whatever the cause, the prosecution’s case disappeared along with the confessions. On August 2, 1921, the Black Sox were found not guilty on all counts.
The ballplayers’ vindication would not last long. Only a day after the acquittal, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, recently appointed as baseball’s first commissioner, decreed that all eight players were permanently banned from organized baseball. “Regardless of the verdict of juries,” Landis wrote, “no player who throws a ballgame, no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ballgame, no player that sits in conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing a game are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.”
The edict effectively destroyed the careers of the eight Black Sox. Some of them later tried to win reinstatement to the league, but Commissioner Landis ensured that none of the disgraced ballplayers ever set foot in a big league diamond again. The decision was especially harsh toward Buck Weaver, who was banned even though he supposedly dropped out of the plot before it started. Joe Jackson, meanwhile, had admitted to accepting money from the Black Sox, but later claimed that he was an unwilling participant and had tried to tip Comiskey to the scheme. “Shoeless Joe’s” true level of involvement remains unclear, but his series best batting average of .375 suggests he took no active role in throwing the 1919 championship.
If Landis’ blanket ban helped cleanse baseball’s damaged image, it also served to sweep the Black Sox scandal under the rug. Chick Gandil and others would later produce contradictory accounts of what happened, leading to still unanswered questions about who was really involved in the 1919 World Series fix and to what degree the games were thrown. Arnold Rothstein, one of the most likely suspects for organizing or financing the fix, was never even charged with a crime. He would maintain his innocence for the rest of his life, despite widespread rumors that he made a fortune betting on the series.