Major League Baseball almost died one year. I’m not talking about 1994, either, though for many people baseball was finally put out of their misery that year. Baseball has been on life support ever since for me, though some people like to point to the Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa slugfest as the year it was finally taken out of critical care. Amazing how quickly those ridiculously inflated home run figures dovetailed after it was agreed that baseball was back, baby! Probably just a coincidence, though; probably shouldn’t be taken as evidence of juiced balls.
But enough about the 1990s. Let’s travel in the wayback machine to 1919 and the World Series between the Chicago White Sox and Cincinatti Reds. Interestingly enough, it wasn’t those commie Reds that were accused of cheating and throwing the World Series, but the All-American good guy White Sox. That baseball survived through the 1920 season is almost a miracle. The events surrounding what became known as the Black Sox scandal has been the subject of countless books and at least one bona fide movie masterpiece, John Sayles’ Eight Men Out. Most people who know anything about the Black Sox scandal know that eight members of the Chicago White Sox were banned from baseball for life, and most people know the probably apocryphal story of the little kid running up to Shoeless Joe Jackson outside the courtroom and plaintively begging, “Say it ain’t so, Joe.” Perhaps it was Shoeless Joe’s .375 World Series batting average that prompted that little kid and everyone else to wonder how Jackson could be accused of throwing games. (So let’s just agree right here and now that Shoeless Joe Jackson makes it into the Hall of Fame loooooooooooooooong before Pete “Charley Hustler” Rose does.)
What even most people who know this much about the Black Sox scandal probably don’t know, however, is that beyond the famous eight men out, the first Commissioner of Baseball, Judge Kennesaw Landis, would actually ban at least 20 players for having ties to gambling or consorting with known gangsters. The explosion of big time gambling’s ties to the national pastime following the breakdown of omerta among the Black Sox hit America even bigger than did the quiz show scandals of the 1950s. Today, if it was discovered that major leaguers in any sport had thrown games, the would possibly be banned, almost certainly be refused entry into the Hall of Fame and possibly face criminal charges, but the faith of the American people in the game itself would remain relatively untouched. Let’s face it, in American sports today an athlete is more likely to b be the object of abuse if he’s caught giving up than if he’s caught cheating. (Remember Roberto Duran’s “No mas”?) Maybe it has to do with the abundance of steroids; I don’t know, but I do know that in 1920 America was truly shocked and outraged by the very concept that cheating was taking place in major league baseball.
The integrity of the game was at stake. Could the real difference be that we know better now? We all know there is no integrity in major league sports; players have no loyalty, going from one big paycheck to another. Drugs are responsible for most of the records being broken. Athletes get away with rape, robbery and, yes, even murder. Was it different back then? Probably not. If there had been free agency back then, it’s likely Babe Ruth would have bolted the Yankees for a bigger paycheck in Cleveland or St. Louis. We know that that just like Presidents, baseball players were given a free ride by the press back then for any acts of moral turpitude. But the idea of integrity was still there.
It reached the point where any and every box score being pored over the next day was suspect. If the World Series was up for grabs, then how could anyone actually believe that a cellar-dweller wasn’t blowing games on purpose for a little extra cash. Especially if the team they were losing to was the second place team in a tight pennant race at the end of the season. Things had gotten so out of hand that by the end of the 1920 season there was actually serious talk going on about not only canceling the World Series, but even the entire 1921 season! Just to give Major League Baseball time to investigate and clean up its act. It’s not hard to imagine that had such a thing actually occurred, baseball might have lost its title of national pastime to football several decades earlier.
Instead, however, the lords of rawhide convened to set up the position of Commissioner. The plucked a hardnosed Georgia judge nicknamed after the hill north of Atlanta that receives of benefit of being called a mountain for really no good reason at all. Kennesaw Mountain Landis set about to cleaning up the game by running the rats out and ruling with an iron fist. Unfortunately, that iron first was also put to use to block black players from playing Major League Baseball for another two and a half decades. And so, the possibility also exists that if Major League Baseball as we know it had imploded as a result of the greed of owners and the willful oversight of the fact that Major League Baseball was operating in completely illegal opposition to every antitrust and monopoly law on the books, what might have resulted would have been an integration of another sort: white players running to find jobs in the negro leagues.