“Double Plays and Double Crosses:
The Black Sox and Baseball in 1920”
The publishing info:
Rowman & Littlefield
Released March 10, 2021
The review in 90 feet or less
The 20 things we learned, never considered possible, might have forgot and are now reminded, or we were just duped into thinking otherwise as they related to the 1919 Black Sox Scandal and its proceeding consequences, thanks to Don Zminda’s quest to clarify and rectify how things went south for the southside of Chicago’s American League after it gave away a World Series to the Red Legs:
Of the eight Chicago White Sox under investigation for game fixing and eventually banned from the big leagues – outfielders “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and Oscar “Happy” Felsch, pitchers Eddie Cicotte and Claude “Lefty” Williams, third baseman/infielder George “Buck” Weaver, shortstop Charles “Swede” Risberg, utility infielder Fred McMullin and first baseman Arnold “Chick” Gandil – three of them had Southern California ties. When the initial investigation into what happened was independently launched by team owner Charles Comiskey, agent went to L.A. to interview Weaver, McMullin and Gandil.
Gandil turned out to be the MVP — Most Vulnerable Patsy.
Weaver’s connection was just his desire to hang out in Venice and play some golf in L.A. in the off season. McMullin lived on Elmyra Street in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood near downtown L.A. and went to Los Angeles High School. Gandil moved to L.A. from Seattle and played baseball in the area on amateur teams when he was 16, including one sponsored by the Los Angeles Herald Newspaper. He came back and lived with his wife and her parents in an area called Los Angeles Massa. The home at 5314 Chesley Avenue was a two bed, one-bath place worth about $8,500 in 1915. It still stands. As Zminda notes, it’s valued at close to $800,000, in an area now called Park Mesa Heights — just northeast of the Inglewood Park Cemetery running between Florence and Slauson, not far from Crenshaw High and the current Nipsey Hussle Square.
J.R. Hunter of Hunter’s Secret Service reported to Comiskey in May, 1920 that his team, led by agent known as “E.W.M.,” had “located three different players in and around Los Angeles … However, nothing developed from this angle to throw any additional light on the matter under investigation … there were no additional points developed that would lend credit to the rumors referred to.”
Harry A. Williams of the Los Angeles Times was “one of the few mainstream reporters who took the fix rumors seriously” and quoted Gandil in a Nov. 18, ’19 story as saying team owner Charles Comiskey was “influenced by the talk of bettors who lost on the White Sox. I have given the Chicago club my best at all times,” and attributed his poor performance in the 1919 World Series to an injured hand. He wanted his release so he could play in the Pacific Coast League.
The Pacific Coast League had its own 1919 game-fixing scandal, and on Aug. 4, 1920, the league commissioner William McCarthy indefinitely suspended first baseman Baker “Babe” Borton of the Vernon Tigers, who played their games not far from downtown L.A. in the city today known as a meat-packing area). Borton played for the White Sox in 1912 and ’13.
Perhaps it was no coincidence that several players on the Black Sox (Gandil, McMullin, Weaver, Risberg and Williams) had played in the West Coast’s PCL for several years prior to going to Chicago.
The PCL scandal was of keen interest to an outraged William Wrigley, owner of the Chicago Cubs as well as his PCL team, the Los Angeles Angels (playing at L.A.’s Wrigley Field), and which lost the league title that previous year to the Vernon Tigers.
“When the Cubs heard a report of game-fixing involving members of their own team (including one on Aug. 4 when the Cubs played the Phillies) they took swift – and public – action. The result was the formation of the grand jury that finally broke open the Black Sox scandal,” Zminda writes.
The Cubs were sued by player Lee Magee for breach of contract for the 1920 season, and his trial to recover $9,500 in damages came up on June 7 of that year. The Cubs’ lawyers contended Magee and Hal Chase conspired to commit an act of treason against the Reds and the game. Chase was accused of going to a betting commissioner and learning that players could put up any amount of money against their own team. A jury ruled in favor of the Cubs. But that lawsuit involving a Chicago jury set the stages for the Black Sox investigation.
(FWIW: Magee, born Leopold Hoernschemeyer, was a teammate of Chase with the 1918 Reds, and was sold to the Brooklyn Robins/pre-Dodgers prior to 1919.)
Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, a U.S. federal judge from 1905 to 1922, may have carved out a plague in the Baseball Hall of Fame because he was the first Commissioner of Baseball in late 1920, serving until his death in 1944 at age 78. He was responsible for banning the eight players from the White Sox, as well as Joe Gedeon from the St. Louis Browns, who placed bets based on knowledge from his friend, Risberg.
But earlier that year, on Feb. 14, 1920, Landis removed his name from consideration to be the head of what was called the National Commission (not wanting to be part of it as long as Yankees owner Colonel Ruppert was involved). The three-person committee oversaw the comings and goings of organized baseball from 1903 to 1920 and was empowered to enact and enforce fines and suspensions.
It is fascinating to speculate how the investigation of the Black Sox scandal would have changed had Landis assumed a major role in baseball – most likely as the head of the National Commission – at the start of 1920, rather than at the end of the year, when he agreed to become baseball’s first commissioner … with dictatorial powers. The truth might have been uncovered far earlier, and many reputations might have been saved major damage. That includes Charles A. Comiskey, assuming that Comiskey had been willing to share the results of his investigation with Landis (something he was decidedly unwilling to do with Ban Johnson).”
That Chicago jury found the eight White Sox players brought up on charges not guilty, but that “had little relevance as to whether they should have been allowed to play Major League Baseball,” Zminda writes on page 272. “Merely throwing games was not a crime in Illinois.”
As David Fleitz wrote in Joe Jackson’s biography: “Judge Landis suspended the eight players, despite the fact they had been acquitted in court, because he held the reasonable position that team sports must be held to a higher standard of conduct than the law allows.”
It is “pretty certain that the White Sox were fixing games in 1920,” Zminda writes on page 270. “Three of the Black Sox – Cicotte, Weaver and Felsch – admitted it at one point or another. .. so did players on opposing teams. (Why?) It’s more likely they were being blackmailed: Go along with this or harm will come your way (including possibly leaking the story of the 1919 World Series) … I agree … it was likely a fairly small and concentration of fixed games in 1920 toward the end of the season when gamblers wanted to keep the White Sox out of the World Series … No one will ever know for sure, but without much question, fixed games cost the White Sox the 1920 American League pennant.”
On Friday, Oct. 1, the White Sox took the field against St. Louis minus seven indicted players for their final series of the season. Yes, as the season is happening, and the White Sox (95-56) are trailing the first-place Indians (96-54) by just a game and a half. A few days earlier, Cicotte won his 21st game of the season.
The White Sox then lost two of three to the Browns, and that 96-58 finish computed to a .623 winning percentage. As Zminda notes: Through 2019, only the 1917 (.649) and 1919 (.629) American League champions had a better winning percentage in Sox franchise history.
“One could only imagine how much better that win percentage might have been had the 1920 White Sox played it straight all season,” Zminda adds.
The Indians (98-56) won the AL by two games with Ruth’s Yankees in third at 95-59 — as the 25-year-old smashed a league-record 54 homers and drove in 135 runs, hitting .376.
Going back to 1919: The National League acquitted Cincinnati Reds first baseman “Prince” Hal Chase of fixing games. Chase was another former PCL player, with the Vernon Tigers. The White Sox employed him in 1913, before he jumped to the rival Federal League. He came back in 1916 and won a batting title with the Reds (a .339 mark and a league-best 184 hits) “before lapsing into familiarity suspicious behavior,” as Zminda notes. The Reds and manager Christie Mathewson suspected him of game fixing in 1918 but NL President John Heydler exonerated Chase.
“While his handling of the 1918 Chase case deserves some sympathy, Heydler would be more culpable for his – and the National Committee’s – failure to vigorously investigate the 1919 World Series,” writes Zminda.
(Chase was not on the 1919 Reds team that defeated the White Sox five games to three in the eight-game World Series, instead finishing his career with the New York Giants as a 36-year-old first-sacker.)
The Collyer’s Eye, a gambling magazine, was the first to report inklings of a 1919 fix and reported the names of all eight being investigated, in its Dec. 13, 1919 issue.
Since 2009, the Society for American Baseball Research has had a Black Sox Scandal Committee, launched by the late Gene Carney and including members Jacob Pomrenke, Bruce Allardice, Bill Felber and Bill Lamb. If there’s anything that has needed proof of verification over the last few decades, you can bet it has gone through here. At the SABR website, it has a link to review the most common errors and misconceptions about the Black Sox Scandal.
What are we to make of poor White Sox owner Comiskey in all this (who actually has his own Hall of Fame plaque based on his playing career)?
Zminda writes on page 271: “The notion of Comiskey as a skinflint who invited the scandal by abusing and underpaying his players had been seriously in error … I began this project as a Comiskey sympathizer, thinking that he sincerely felt that he did not have enough evidence to banish the eight players. I have changed my opinion in good part through the work of, and my own personal interactions with, historian and former prosecutor Bill Lamb .. I feel great sympathy for for Charles Comiskey as I do for most of the banished players (well, not so much for Gandil, Risberg and McMullin). But I am compelled to say that bringing those seven players back in 1920 was a great failing on Comiskey’s part … a great moral failing.”
While Eliott Asinof’s 1963 classic “Eight Men Out” may be considered the literary template for covering this scandal – and, of course, the subsequent 1988 movie with the same title based on it starring John Cusack (as Weaver), Charlie Sheen (as Hap Felsch) and D.B. Sweeney (Jackson). Even his assertion that the White Sox players were so poorly paid that it led them to see better financial success with gamblers. But there are likely far better books to use as reference points, which pointed Zminka to Mike Lynch’s “It Ain’t So: A Might-Have-Been History of the White Sox in 1919 and Beyond” in 2009, and Bill Ferber’s “Under Pallor, Under Shadow: The 1920 American League Pennant Race That Rattled and Rebuilt Baseball” from 2011.
There is also the 2015 SABR collection, “Scandal on the South Side; The 1919 Chicago White Sox,” edited by Pomrenke with contributions by 32 SABR members. The blurb explaining its content starts: The Black Sox Scandal is a cold case, not a closed case.”
And SABR man Lamb, a former New Jersey prosecutor, wrote in 2013: “Black Sox in the Courtroom: The Grand Jury, Criminal Trial and Civil Litigation.”
There was other news in 1920 that shook the game to its core: Babe Ruth was sold by the Red Sox to the Yankees, a deal finalized while he was in L.A. trying to make a movie and golfing at Griffith Park with Weaver. Ruth played in a few games against the suspicious White Sox in that ’20 season – but he missed a few games because of an insect bite that occurred in New Jersey when the team let him shoot a movie during the day as long as he’d be back in time to play that night. Ruth almost nearly killed himself in an auto accident in July ’20 – drinking and driving, with his wife in the car as well as two teammates and a team coach, Ruth went into a ditch, overturned and was pinned under the car. Somehow, no one was hurt seriously, although there were already a New York newspaper headline screaming: “RUTH REPORTED KILLED IN CAR CRASH.” He played the next day and hit a triple.
Also in 1920: In the World Series that the White Sox may have fortunately figured out how not to be part of, Cleveland’s Indians won it all despite still reeling from the death of shortstop Ray Chapman after he was hit in the head with a pitch by the Yankees’ Carl Mays in August. On the losing end: The Wilbert Robinson-managed Brooklyn Robins (pre-Dodgers). Who were not free of controversy. Robins pitcher Rube Marquard was arrested for trying to sell eight box tickets with a face value of $52.80 to an under cover detective for $400. Marquard, who lost Game 1, was fined $1. The Indians, led by Tris Speaker and Stan Coveleski, beat Zach Wheat’s Robins, winning five of the seven games.
Oh, right. Also in 1920: Prohibition started.
But after all this, we could use a strong sip of something.
Our author Q&A
Zminda, 72, who retired from STATS Inc. in 2016, said it took him 35 years to finally getting around to this subject matter, and that’s after he cranked out a biography of Harry Caray in 2019 that we reviewed as part of that year’s 30-for-30 package.
He says he benefited from delays in this project because more information was easier to obtain with current technology, and he’s become a better writer over that period as well.
For this one, we tracked Zminda down again, still based in L.A., to see how this latest project unfolded:
Q: What’s been some of the noteworthy response to your book over the last couple of months since its release?
A: I’ve been most pleased that the book has been well-received by baseball historians and researchers who are knowledgeable about the Black Sox and that turbulent period of baseball history: people like Jacob Pomrenke (editor’s note: enjoy reading his blog), Bill Faber, Rick Huhn, Steve Steinberg, Mike Sowell, Mike Lynch, and Craig Wright. It is always gratifying to have the respect of your peers.
Q: If someone would decide to tackle a book today about something that happened 100-or-so years ago, no matter what the subject, what mechanisms are in place to help facilitate that kind of project that you discovered to be most helpful? What is not so helpful?
A: The fact that so many newspapers, magazines, and documents are available digitally makes it a lot easier to write about the events of 100+ years ago than was possible even a few years ago. There are also organizations like the Society of Baseball Research that allow people who have done research in a particular period to share their knowledge and interact with one another. At the same time, there is an enormous amount of material that is still not available digitally, such as many of the newspapers of the period. Telling the full story often necessitates traveling to where the materials like newspapers on microfilm can be accessed. That is not always easy or cheap to do. It would be fantastic if there could be some sort of funding to help digitize big-city newspapers currently available only on microfilm (with the source material often in fragile shape).
Q: The process of finding a publisher for such a work as this: Did you get turned down by anyone who didn’t find value in resurrecting this story?
A: I was fortunate that I had written a previous book — The Legendary Harry Caray — for Rowman & Littlefield that book was well-received. R&L was happy to work with me again on DPs & DCs. One of the good things about sports books these days is that publishers like Rowman, McFarland, and University of Nebraska Press seem to have found a market for books centering on sports history and research, even though most of them are not going to sell thousands of copies. It’s much more of a challenge if you want to get published by a big-name, high-print-run publisher.
Q: Was the goal to have this out by 2020, when the 100th anniversary of that 1920 season was upon us?
A: Ideally, yes, but it was always going to be a long shot. A lot of my time during the first half of 2019 was spent trying to promote and market The Legendary Harry Caray; I didn’t really get going on Double Plays and Double Crosses until the second half of the year. When the pandemic hit, it pretty much eliminated any chance that the book could be published during the 2020 calendar year, as Rowman was one of many publishers that had to scale back their operations for a period of time. On top of that, I fractured my wrist in March of 2020 and had to type one-handed for about six weeks. That delayed the completion of my work.
Q: After all those years working in research, has it been nice to flex and extend your college journalism muscles and become known as more of a writer/author?
A: It’s very satisfying. I was lucky enough to work full-time in sports research (for STATS LLC) for over two decades, but as enjoyable as that work was, it wasn’t writing. Now that I’m retired, I can work on what I love best.
Q: How do you view now the movie “Eight Men Out,” as opposed to when you first may have seen it years ago? Should it be rebranded as something not “based on a true story” but, as you note, a nonfiction novel?
A: Funny you should ask. “Eight Men Out” was broadcast on one of our local PBS channels a couple of weeks ago, and I watched it with my wife, who had never seen it; I hadn’t watched it myself in over a decade. It’s a very entertaining movie from a quality director, John Sayles, but it’s based on the book of the same name that frankly got a lot of the story wrong. I find it hard to be too critical of either Sayles or Eliot Asinof, the author of the book, because much of the truth about the scandal did not start to come out until early in this century. For example, both Asinof and Sayles truly believed that Charles Comiskey was a skinflint owner who greatly underpaid his players, and that made some of the players susceptible to the lure of easy money from selling out the Series. We now know that this scenario was completely wrong. Even “based on a true story” doesn’t quite capture it, because the story as told by Asinof and Sayles is far from true. But I’m sure they meant well, and the story as told by them makes for a good movie.
Q: There’s a key point you make about how the Black Sox scandal could have been far less messy if Judge Landis took the position of National Committee president and headed an investigation, rather than turn that down and eventually become the first commissioner of the game later in 1920. Any more thoughts on what could have happened in subsequent years with big league baseball if that first scenario occurred? Would the commissioner’s office perhaps be different now?
A: By the time that Landis became commissioner in November of 1920, the scandal had broken open and baseball’s ineptitude in dealing with it had come to light for all to see. The magnates needed a respected authority figure like Landis to clean up the game, and if he wanted basically unlimited power, they really couldn’t push back. But I think Landis would have insisted on unlimited power at any point that he was offered the job, even in, say, February of 1920. So I don’t think his commissionership would have played out much differently. But I do think that the revelation of the scandal would have come out much earlier, and I think we might have been spared things like the Black Sox continuing to play during the 1920 season —and dump games along the way, as the evidence seems to indicate.
Q: Obviously, you couldn’t interview actual subjects of this book. If there were a couple you would have wanted to go back in time and probe more deeply, who would it have been? Who fascinated you the most about connecting all these dots?
A: I don’t think it would do much good to talk to the eight banished players. They spent most of the rest of their lives trying to minimize their involvement in the scandal. That includes Joe Jackson and Buck Weaver, the most sympathetic members of the group. Both of them spent their post-scandal lives improving their stories to make them seem more innocent. However, I would definitely want to talk to Charles Comiskey and his attorney, Alfred Austrian, on their decision to bring the suspected players back in 1920 — they didn’t bring back Chick Gandil, but that wasn’t for lack of trying. Even if they didn’t have airtight, court-of-law evidence against these guys, didn’t they know enough at the very least not to want to have guys like Gandil, Risberg and McMullin on their team? I would also to like to talk to the team leaders among the “Clean Sox” — Eddie Collins, John (Shano) Collins, Ray Schalk, Red Faber — about why they didn’t speak up until the very end. Schalk apparently did, but then denied his comments. I suspect that this was likely due to their loyalty to Comiskey, but I would still like to know.
Q: As for the three players who had a connection to Los Angeles – Weaver, McMullin and Gandil – as well as their history of playing in the Pacific Coast League, also involved in a game-fixing scandal about that time … was there any other interesting tidbits you found out about them in relevance to Southern California?
A: They all had pretty interesting SoCal connections. Gandil lived in L.A. and bought a house with the money the gamblers paid him. I believe the house is still standing and have been meaning to drive out and get a look at it. Weaver spent the winter of 1919-20 in L.A. and was a pal and golf partner of Babe Ruth, who was in town making movie shorts. Both of them had two years left on their three-year contracts, and spent that offseason trying to renegotiate — Ruth succeeded, Weaver did not. There’s also a story in the book that Ruth hit a 340-yard drive at the Griffith Park Golf Course in L.A., but that Weaver had topped that with a 370-yarder (must have been a downhill hole)! Fred McMullin, the most little-known among the banished players, lived in L.A. for most of his life, worked at the Universal film studios for awhile, and wound up working as a deputy marshal!
Q: Where about do you live in L.A. now and what is it about this area that appeals to you versus your past residences?
A: I lived in the Chicago area until 2000, when my wife and I moved to L.A. when STATS was acquired by a division of the Fox Network’s parent company. We live on the west side of town, right on the edge of Santa Monica. Both Chicago and L.A. are great, but while most of my relatives and lifelong friends are in the Chicago area, I would not move back. The Southern California weather is a big reason, of course, but there’s more than it; it’s just a fun place to live in and do things.
Q: Do you think game fixing could be pulled off in 2020 – perhaps incentivized with all the new gambling apps and legalized betting that takes place these days all in the name of good, clean fun?
A: I don’t think 1919-style game-fixing would be possible in baseball today because the players make too much money. Think about the 1919 World Series fix: the players were vulnerable because they were being offered more than their entire baseball salaries to lose the Series. There’s no way that could happen in baseball today. It would take way too much money to tempt players with millions of dollars in guaranteed contracts. I suppose gamblers could try to pay off a player to pretend he’s hurt so that he’d miss a series and thus affect the betting odds, but even that seems far-fetched. Even paying off the umpires wouldn’t work because of replay and video surveillance.
How it goes in the scorebook
It’s all on the up and up.
And maybe more truth will set us free to refer to this one as the complete, unbiased researched account on what went down.
As author (and West Coast League commissioner) Rob Neyer says in the forward, the Black Sox story has been “almost uniformly (at best) glossed over or (at worst) ignored.” Maybe even more worse, falsely passed down through the years as facts to hang your derby on.
Neyer, who in this 2001 piece for ESPN.com wrote about how it would be a sad day for the game if Shoeless Joe Jackson was allowed into the Baseball Hall of Fame, adds: “Even after devouring ‘Double Plays and Double Crosses,’ I’m not going to promise you I’ll never read another book about the Black Sox. It’s a pretty safe bet, though.”
If not, someone will surely fix that.
More to cover
- Zminda also talked to the Pandemic Baseball Book Club with these highlights:
- Zminda, who joined SABR in 1979, wrote one of our favorite pieces for the organization when he documented the history of the old TV show, “Home Run Derby”
- The SABR bios on Jackson, Felsch, Cicotte, Risberg, McMullin, Gandil, and Weaver, plus Charles Comiskey
- FYI: From the Washington Post’s 2008 obituary of author Eliot Asinof: “Mr. Asinof’s book grew out of an abortive screenplay for live television about the Black Sox scandal, commissioned by producer David Suskind in 1960. When then-Commissioner of Baseball Ford C. Frick got wind of the project, he persuaded the program’s sponsor, the DuPont Company, to kill it, arguing that it would besmirch baseball’s image. “ ‘Suskind didn’t want to pay Eliot for his time,’ his son (Martin Asinof) recalled, ‘but he had a friend in publishing who asked him if he could turn the screenplay into a book.’ After three years of research, which involved traveling thousands of miles to interview members of the forever-tarnished team, he published what some reviewers have called one of the best baseball books ever written.”
- John Thorn’s life in review of Charles Comiskey from the OurGame.com MLB blogs
- There are a couple websites here and here dedicated to Shoeless Joe Jackson, and one for his official Hall of Fame.
- Also, a website dedicated to clearing Buck Weaver of all charges. Weaver’s best major-league season was as a 29-year-old in 1920: A career-best .331 average, 208 hits, 34 doubles and 102 runs.
- Was the 2020 season a lot like the 1920 season? Maybe … as this World Series program suggests.
- Are we seeing double: Just FYI — There is a 2019 fiction book written by Croix Ben Lazzara also called “Double Plays and Double Crosses.” The synopses: “When Casey Cassidy, the hard-drinking manager of the Tampa Smokers baseball team, goes missing days before the final game of the championship series with the Havana Cubans, his girlfriend, Veronica Baird, is frantic. … The police think Casey is just out on a binge, so she hires Ybor City private eye, Benjamin Blanc, and his sidekick Chino, to find her sweetheart. Blanc has his doubts about her story too, but he takes the case anyway.”