If I could have been at any sporting event, ever, I would have
been there when Robin Hood split the arrow in the bull's-eye,
still the most glorious athletic moment of the millennium. But
in this little century, what I would most like to have witnessed
was the 1919 World Series, the inglorious one the Black Sox fixed.
Sorry, but no other sporting event has ever had such a lasting
impact. Say it ain't so, Joe! Say it ain't so! To this day the
Black Sox remain a melancholy part of American cultural history,
and the whole conflicted saga continues to fascinate us--and
affect us, too. Never mind Shoeless Joe Jackson. Pete Rose yet
suffers as much from the dark shadows cast by 1919 as from his
own modern sins.
You bet I want to be back there. Was there ever a more thrilling
year, ever a time when the horizon appeared so golden? In a very
real way 1919 was the year the American Century began. Why, in
only a few spectacular months, we had won the war to end all
wars, then chosen the noble path of outlawing intoxicants and
enfranchising women. We were busting our buttons and raising our
skirts. A Pretty Girl Is like a Melody. I'm Forever Blowing
Bubbles. You Cannot Make Your Shimmy Shake on Tea. If the
Roaring '20s lay just around the corner, already no place roared
quite like Chicago, "the town that Billy Sunday could not shut
down." The White Sox were the premier team in the only team
sport that mattered, sure to make quick work of the underdog
Then on Oct. 1 in Cincy, opening game at Redland Field, bottom
of the first, little Eddie Cicotte, 29-7 on the year, 1.82 ERA
with pinpoint control, plunks the Reds' leadoff hitter, Morrie
Rath, square in the back. It's the signal to Arnold Rothstein,
the big-shot gambler, that everything's jake, the fix is on.
I like to think that if I'd been there, I would've been wise to
what was up. Certainly, all the sharpies were. Never was a fix
more public--and never was one more screwed up, more rife with
double cross. Maybe I'd have been a sportswriter, a chum of Ring
Lardner, the Chicago Tribune columnist, and maybe I'd have been
swilling whiskey with Lardner the next night, after the Sox lost
their second straight, riding on the sleeper with the team,
going back to the Windy City for Game 3. Maybe Lardner would've
needed my shoulder to steady himself when he stumbled down to
the players' car and started serenading Chicago's heroes: "I'm
forever blowing ball games/Pretty ball games in the air./I come
from Chi/I hardly try.... /And the gamblers treat us fair."
Maybe, too, the day after the Reds wrapped up the Series five
games to three, I would've gone over to Charles Comiskey's
office, to get his drift. Comiskey was the Sox owner--the Old
Roman, they called him--a rotten miser of a man. Comiskey, even
more than Rothstein, was responsible for the fix. It wasn't the
gambler's money the Sox got, so much as it was the Comiskey
dough they didn't get, that enticed them to betray the national
pastime and defraud the American faithful.
Comiskey would've invited me in. He always sucked up to the
newspaper boys. "Have a little nip, Frankie!" But then, when I
came out of his office, I'd have seen Shoeless Joe sitting
there. Sad and tormented, he'd gone over to tell Comiskey what
had happened, to ask him what he should do with the $5,000 he'd
finally been paid by the gamblers. But Comiskey high-hatted him.
So for hours on end, Shoeless Joe sat alone outside his owner's
office. He'd hit .375 in the Series, and even if I'd seen every
game, I don't know if I could've been sure whether he was in the
bag. Joe took the truth to his grave. If only I could've seen
him there that day outside the Old Roman's office and said, "Say
it, Joe, say it all!"
Fixing games had been part and parcel of baseball for decades,
but this was different. The sheer scope and bravado of the
thing: to fix a World Series! After that, we understood better
that in this grand new American world of 1919, where anything is
possible, so is everything for sale. In fact, just a few weeks
later, Babe Ruth would be sold to the Yankees. But that's
another moment and another place to wish to be, and, indeed,
Babe and the Yanks would be the reason that the Black Sox lost
only a Series and not an institution.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY JOSH GOSFIELD The shameful Sox betrayed the national pastime, but they weren't the only villains in a bigger game of greed.