Read as part of CBR14Bingo: Scandal. The 1919 World Series was scandalized by eight members of the Chicago White Sox agreeing to throw it as part of a gambling conspiracy.
Bill James is a legend among baseball fans. His greatest rep is as the Analytics Guy but my first taste of his work was his text on the Hall of Fame, in which he critiques the process by which people enter. James devoted a chapter to baseball’s most famous banned people: Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson. I was excited for this. Jackson was a main character in the beautiful film Field of Dreams, where the moviemakers centered the story around his supposed innocence.
James devoted about six or seven pages to Rose’s hall of fame case. I skimmed over them because I never cared for Pete Rose and I was excited to see what he was going to say about Joe Jackson. Finally, at the very end, he had one sentence and I still remember it: My feeling on people who Jackson’s hall of fame campaign is that they’re similar to people who show up to trials wanting to marry the cute murderer.
The air was let out of my balloon and it took me years to understand why Jackson was so scandalized. Yeah, there were people more complicit in the White Sox throwing the 1919 World Series, particularly Chick Gandil, Eddie Cicotte and Lefty Williams. But Jackson didn’t seem so bad. Was he?
Jackson’s case is less at the center of Asinof’s seminal work than the story writ large: how did this happen and why? To that end, Asinof tries as hard as possible to hew closely to the facts. He doesn’t have a narrative of who is good and bad here. However, that doesn’t prevent him from editorializing from the narrative.
What took me years to appreciate about this “scandal” was that the center of it is not gambling or sports but labor. What we do with our labor, how we are compensated for it, and how we are treated as employees. To that end, there is some sympathy to be had for the players. Charles Commiskey was a penurious owner. He could–and did–cut players with no financial recourse to them. He skimped on things they desperately needed as athletes to compete. These players needed the money. The temptation is understandable.
The scandal itself was also complex. There’s no easy narrative about how these guys threw games or when. Some straight up said no (Buck Weaver), others waffled to the point where it was impossible to tell (Jackson, Felsch), others were all in.
I don’t know what the easy answer is except that the game should’ve been reformed to give players more control. The reserve clause which bound players to their teams wouldn’t be eliminated for almost sixty years after the World Series. It’s tough to look at these players as heroes; after all, they got in bed with gangsters to the detriment of their personhood and under threat to their families. But it’s important to see them as more than what Bill James would dismiss as “cute murderers.” It’s a complex story, a sad story and Asinof should be credited for playing it straight.