NINE: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture 13.2 (2005)
Exonerated but Probably Guilty
In 2002-2003 David Nathan's Say It Is So: A Cultural History of the Black Sox Scandal appeared. It illustrates anew how much and for how long the 1919 "fixed" World Series scandal has dogged baseball. In the same vein Pete Rose's disbarment from the Hall of Fame continues to be a topic of major interest to fans. Another scandal—the 1926-27 Ty Cobb-Tris Speaker one—warrants examining in relation to the Black Sox and Rose cases. However, the denouement in the Cobb-Speaker instance differed quite markedly from the other two. In the latter, full exposure of the scandal's circumstances led to the principals' full exclusion from baseball. In the former, the key figures emerged unpunished.
Cobb's and Speaker's alleged misdeed consisted of being leading participants in the fixing of the Cleveland-Detroit game played on September 25, 1919. Regrettably, the circumstantial evidence indicates that the encounter—a 9-5 Detroit victory—was, as their accuser Dutch Leonard insisted, most likely a prearranged Motor City triumph.
The Cobb-Speaker affair had several important facets. One is the particular playing environment of September 25, 1919. By this date the American League had long since established itself as a second major circuit, and so-called "modern" baseball, with its two-leagues format, had evolved its rules and customs. Within this framework one headache that beset the game's owners was that there were occasional signs or hints that games of questionable integrity were played and that players of doubtful loyalty were tolerated.
The owners were reluctant to turn to the law to punish suspects. The Major Leagues were effectively a cartel or monopoly. The players had no opportunity to negotiate salaries outside the confines of the two leagues. This, along with the Reserve Clause, gave the magnates the advantage in salary negotiations with the players. However, fearful that both the cartel and the player contracts might be challenged if they went to court on the issue of corrupt performance, the owners shied away from this potential avenue for solving the problem.
Equally, the law itself made it difficult to prosecute game fixers. Errors and misjudgments are commonplace in games. How can anyone say for certain that either is the result of nefarious intentions rather than inferior performance or impetuous play? When the Black Sox scandal was finally exposed, the White Sox' opponents—the Cincinnati Reds players—were astounded to learn that the series had been thrown.
With this peculiarity of baseball as an occupation, it was to the advantage of a culprit to lie his way through the charge that he had helped his team lose. Brazen deceit usually was sufficient to ensure that the matter would be dropped or that, at worst, the player would be traded. If, however, his superiors hailed him before some sort of baseball tribunal, his appearance with his lawyer threatening suit made his reinstatement a virtual certainty. Hal Chase, baseball's most corrupt player ever, is a striking case in point. Despite the long series of scrapes in which he became involved, the most he ever conceded was betting on his own team, the Cincinnati Reds, but only to win. Otherwise his standard practice was to admit to nothing. Instances of player banishment occurred only in the comparatively rare cases in which accused parties confessed or left telltale tracks too obvious to be denied.
The Black Sox scandal illustrates these tendencies especially well. When suspicion directed at several of the players became very strong, owner Charles Comiskey's lawyer advised him against prosecution. In his semiclassic Eight Men Out, Eliot Asinof describes the type of advice Alfred Austrian offered: "Without firsthand confessions, how could they amass evidence at all? Hearsay, of course was inadmissible.... For who was about to talk? Certainly not the gamblers with their closed mouth traditions. Why would anyone want to incriminate himself?"
Whatever brought the players to confess? It was not ill conscience. Only when the semioutsider Billy Maharg, a disgruntled betting loser, revealed the story did three or four of the players then—...