Thursday, October 27, 2005

Black is White: Sox toss pox

It's been 88 years since the Chicago White Sox last won a World Series, and now they've finally done it again, sweeping the Houston Astros in four games. 88 years. Every story you see today will remind you that it was 1917 when the Sox last won the Series, which is 88 years ago. Sportswriters will compare the Sox drought to the Boston Red Sox "Curse of the Bambino" or the Chicago Cubs' billy goat, as if metaphysics have somehow become part of baseball's statistical abstract.

But when the Chicago White Sox had their chance to win the World Series 86 years ago -- and the likelihood of their winning was a safe bet -- eight players purposely blew it, scandalizing their team and the game of baseball (which worked hard to cover it up, incidentally. The Wall Street Journal's story today is a potent examination of that lesser-known element.) Worse, the Black Sox shattered the public's confidence in its institutions in a way we didn't see again until Watergate, 55 years later.

Because the "Black Sox" fixers included Shoeless Joe Jackson, probably the greatest hitter in the game at the time, they remain the stuff of intense debate. Jackson played a nearly flawless Series, with no evidence of chicanery, but he admitted taking money in the fix. He and his seven sullied teammates -- including ace pitcher Eddie Cicotte and ace provocateur Chick Gandil -- were acquitted in a criminal trial because in 1919 it wasn't illegal to take bribes from gamblers or to fix World Series games in Illinois. But they were later banned from baseball for life by Commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

Money was at the heart of the scandal, of course. The White Sox were owned by the notoriously cheap Charlie Comiskey and his underpaid players were easy marks for gamblers who'd pay handsomely for a chance to influence the outcome of the biggest sporting event on the American scene. Imagine the money you could make today if you knew secretly how the Super Bowl would end. That's the idea.

Gandil was the pipeline between professional gamblers and the players. More than anyone, he was midwife to the Black Sox scandal, and in many ways, as damaging to American trust as anyone until Richard Nixon ... who never hit a big-league fastball in his life. If they could fix a World Series, why not the ownership of my farm or shop ... or an election?

And after trust, Shoeless Joe Jackson was Gandil's next big victim. He was the only likely Hall of Famer among the Black Sox and to this day, he remains un-honored.

Gandil changed his name and played backwater, bush-league baseball for a while. Then he left the game and became a plumber, preferring to be known as a fixer of faucets instead of a fixer of games. He settled down in quiet Calistoga, Calif., where he died at age 83 in 1971. There was no service, no obituary, no newspaper story for two months. Why? Gandil had watched six Black Sox die before him and every time, the whole scandal was replayed in the press. He didn't want that.

The 2005 White Sox won the World Series by being baseball's most intensely consistent team this year. They churned forward relentlessly through 162 regular season games, the League Series and the World Series. The wonder of that is not that the Sox last won 88 years ago, but that they have been one of baseball's most remarkably mediocre teams for 88 years.

As tragic as I find the story of Shoeless Joe Jackson and the Black Sox, and as marvelous as I find the the 2005 White Sox, the fact remains: It might be 88 years since they last won a World Series, but they purposely blew a chance 86 years ago that changed everything. Not just baseball, but also our chance to believe in one good thing.


Pictured above: The author's pre-1919 tobacco card for Arnold "Chick" Gandil, and "Shoeless" Joe Jackson

1 comment:

Nicholas Castagnola said...

I CONTEMN the White Sox!