Review written by R. Zachary Sanzone
A few days before Christmas, Charles Fountain was gracious enough to sit down with me and discuss his latest book The Betrayal, a thorough and lively book about the famed 1919 Black Sox scandal involving eight members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox baseball team who took money to deliberately lose the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. Anyone who has read W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe, or has seen Field of Dreams, the film based on the novel, knows the story of the Black Sox scandal, especially about Shoeless Joe Jackson, the most famous of the eight players permanently banned from baseball by newly-appointed baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis in 1920. Jackson has emerged as a folk hero in the last thirty years thanks to Kinsella’s novel and subsequent film, encouraging hundreds of loyal fans to lobby for his ban to be lifted so he can take his rightful place the Baseball Hall of Fame. A stellar World Series performance included a .375 batting average, twelve runs batted in, and the only home run in the world series, strongly implying that Jackson, while having confessed to taking money from the gamblers, decided the disregard his promise to deliberately play poorly.
The story of Shoeless Joe Jackson and how the 1919 Chicago White Sox threw the World Series is similar to the moon landing in 1969. Most fans know the basic story and why it was significant, but beyond that most people are hard pressed to recall the factors that led up to its climax and how the event itself influenced the way a new era of American history was shaped. Fountain not only succeeds in crafting a riveting and well-written story that fills in the gaps of the story that most fans don’t know about, but he educates his readers by including necessary and lively details that serve as the mortar on which a foundation of important features can stand. Readers who know little beyond what they learned from Ray Liotta’s dramatic performance as Shoeless Joe in Field of Dreams can draw from these details a clear and concise picture of what factors orchestrated the fix, and how it affected Major League Baseball as the national pastime abandoned the art of the hit and run in exchange for powering home runs hit by Babe Ruth.
I was surprised but not disappointed to discover that Fountain does not begin to discuss the scandal in detail until Chapter Six. The previous five chapters marvelously detail the fix that began with a few dozen key players, only to grow into an open secret at best, by giving readers a brief but necessary overview of gambling in baseball in the early twentieth century. Not yet had the nostalgia and heritage that makes baseball so memorable been established yet; clamors for used jerseys, autographed baseballs, and even the trademark ballpark hotdog had yet to be recognized as staples of the game. Instead of the baseball we know today, “Major League Baseball in 1918 was little more than a bunch of guys of varying degrees of wealth trying to sell enough tickets to make payroll” Fountain said. The low salaries players were paid at the time made baseball attractive to gamblers; players would be hard pressed not to take bribes, especially if they had a family to support.
In the early days of baseball it wasn’t uncommon for gamblers to approach players with promises of monetary gain if they agreed to do what they could to make sure their team lost, giving a strong financial advantage to any gambler in on the fix. Since baseball players weren’t paid the extravagant sums of money that we see professional athletes receiving today, some players took bribes as a way of having a little extra pocket money, while others took them to supplement their meager incomes. It is here that we meet Hal Chase, perhaps the best-known professional game fixer among baseball historians. The first basemen didn’t just take money from gamblers to throw games; he made it into a profession all in its own. It is Hal Chase that Fountain uses to model how professional gambling threatened the very existence of the game’s integrity. Chase’s rampant gambling eventually led to his banishment from the game, and while difficult to prove, some suggest he had a hand in the Black Sox scandal. Players like Chase served as the steps which gamblers took towards financial gain, only to reach a plateau in the aftermath of the 1919 World Series.
It was here that I asked why players like Chase weren’t banished from the game sooner, and how it took the fixing of a World Series for owners to finally realize they could no longer ignore such a rampant problem. Owners like White Sox’s Charles Comiskey and American League President Ban Johnson were all too well aware that gambling was having a detrimental affect on baseball, but not unlike Alex Rodriguez and his connection to steroids, it wasn’t so easy to just ban a player, especially one so well loved and played so well. To ban players like Chase would mean lost ticket revenue, and when rumors of the fix began to surface, it was the way Comiskey reacted to the fix that surprised Fountain as he dug through the archives at the Chicago History Museum.
Before he started his research, Fountain had assumed that Comiskey was reacted to news of the fix as best he could, but in reality he was doing everything in his power to ensure that word of the fix never became public knowledge, which would ensure that none of the eight players who were in on the fix would be disciplined, ensuring that no revenue would be jeopardized. In other words, instead of reacting to news of the fix with anger over the betrayal, he did his best to control the way news of the fix surfaced so that he wouldn’t have to do anything that might endanger his profits, which were certainly tied into the fan base that came out to see Shoeless Joe Jackson and Eddie Cicotte play. Without giving too many more details away, Fountain weaves a complex but understandable web showing deceit, hostility, competition, and regret deriving from executives in baseball who were forced to not only recognize how severe gambling had become, but also had to relinquish power they had to a newly appointed commissioner who would have the final say over the punishments handed down upon those in on the fix. Named for the Civil War battle at which his father lost a leg as a Union surgeon, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, a Federal Judge in Chicago known for presiding over a court that was nothing short of dramatic and intense, was approached by baseball team owners and asked to serve as commissioner. Upon his appointment, Landis moved quickly to ban all eight players who were in on the fix by stating
Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player that throws a ball game; no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ball game; no player that sits in a conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing ball games are planned and discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.
The implementation of a commissioner was essential to the integrity of baseball’s future, and with one man now in control of setting rules and reprimands owners could no longer look the other way when their players gave anything less than their best.
Another quality about Fountain’s book is in how he addresses the many legends surrounding the reasons why eight players like Jackson, Cicotte, Lefty Williams and Happy Felsh decided to take the gambler’s money. Eliot Asinof’s Eight Men Out is known as the quintessential reading about the scandal, a timeless classic that unfortunately created myths about the scandal similar to the way Albert Goodwill Spalding played a role in fabricating the story about how Abner Doubleday was the founder of baseball. While Asinof’s classic sets the stage for anyone seeking to expand on the scholarship on the scandal, it contains many factual errors that have since been unfortunately taken for gospel. Take Eddie Cicotte’s motivation to partake in the fix for instance. For decades many have believed that Cicotte was angry at Comiskey, who promised his star pitcher a $10,000 bonus if he won thirty games during the 1919 season. When Cicotte won his twenty-eighth game of the season, Comiskey ordered Cicotte benched for the rest of the seasons so he wouldn’t have to pay the bonus. The problem with this story is that it isn’t true. Records shows that not only did Cicotte pitch throughout the rest of the season, but there is no evidence in his contract showing that he was going to receive a bonus of any kind. Asinof also claimed that Lefty Williams, another one of the eight players in on the fix was threatening to back out of the fix because he hadn’t been paid for his part. When word reached the gamblers, a hired man was dispatched to approach Williams on a sidewalk in Chicago and threaten him to ensure he would lose the next game on purpose. The problem with this story is that Williams wasn’t in Chicago at the time that this threat allegedly took place. Finally, it’s alleged that the plan to fix the World Series was hatched at the Buckminster Hotel in Boston, a grand hotel that sits within a stone’s throw of Fenway Park. Whether the fix was planned out at the hotel or not remains a mystery, but a preponderance of evidence elegantly presented by Fountain suggests this story is not true. “Asimov was such a beautiful writer,” Fountain said about the famed author, “but was not concerned with fact but instead with story.”
Debate over whether Shoeless Joe Jackson’s ban should be lifted and be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame reminds me of a story a lawyer friend recently told me. She was trying to contact a client to give him a check from a recent lawsuit settlement. The client often called my friend several times a week to see when he would receive his check, followed by a recounting of his side of the story and why he was entitled to the money. Now that the money was available, the client was oddly nowhere to be found. My friend and her colleagues could only speculate that since the settlement was coming to an end, it meant that the client would no longer get the attention people gave him during the legal proceedings; he wouldn’t have any lawyer to call and talk to anymore now that the case was closed. While there is no question about Jackson’s eligibility for the Baseball Hall of Fame, Fountain suggests that if Jackson were to be inducted, his loyal fans who have devoted decades to proving his innocence would face the same finality that my lawyer friend’s client faced at his settlement: no one would pay any attention anymore. “He continues to be Shoeless Joe, sort of wrong victim, the guy in the cornstalks,” Fountain said over a cup of coffee at Panera Bread on the Northeastern University campus where he teaches Journalism, “and if you take that away you end the story, while it’s a happy resolution for the Jackson people, we then stop talking about it.”
Fountain’s opinion about whether Jackson and the other seven players will ever be enshrined in Cooperstown is a complex one that mirrors the pros and cons of most arguments about this topic. With this year’s Hall of Fame ballot results yet to be revealed, the question of whether players like accused drug user Tim Raines, or Barry Bonds, baseball’s tainted home run, will be inducted or not is on everyone’s mind. Like Jackson, there are strong and weak arguments over whether they should be inducted, but there is one thing Fountain does believe, which is that Jackson will eventually be inducted, though perhaps not in his lifetime.
“I’m glad I’m not on the Hall of Fame Veterans committee,” Fountain stated with a smirk. “I think one day he’s going to get in, not while I’m alive, but when the steroids dust settles. If Piazza and Ortiz get in, then how long will they keep Bonds out? If Bonds gets in, then why not Rose and Jackson? Or Cicotte?”
It is difficult enough to debate whether these players deserve induction. But this controversial issue is further exacerbated by another question Fountain asks, “If you exclude the scoundrels from the Hall of Fame, then do you throw out the scoundrels?”
There’s no shortage of contentious inductees in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Tris Speaker, who played for the Red Sox during Shoeless Joe Jackson’s era, was a member of the Klu Klux Klan. Ty Cobb’s racist tendencies towards blacks during his playing days are known all too well, and that’s not to mention Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey, who allegedly screamed “Get that nigger off the field” when Jackie Robinson came to Fenway Park to try out for the team in 1945 before he was later signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Branch Rickey. Even Kennesaw Mountain Landis, the judge, jury, and executioner who banned Shoeless Joe and his teammates is not without scorn. Baseball had to wait for his death to integrate, as Landis has indirectly block multiple efforts by progressive owners like Bill Veeck to sign black players. What makes Shoeless Joe Jackson and his shamed colleagues different? They were officially banned from the game for doing something they all but admitted to doing, while the other scoundrels in the Baseball Hall of Fame escaped the same level of scrutiny. This inconsistency in impartiality is one that will continue for as long as the Baseball Hall of Fame continues to induct players.
The final question I asked Fountain before our interview came to a close perfectly fits the book’s closing chapters, and gave me more than enough to think about. I had e-mailed Fountain the question ahead of time so he would have enough time to think about an answer. What was the question? “What's a question about the 1919 Black Sox that no one has asked yet? Why would it be an important question to ask?” Fountain’s answer? “Did the White Sox really throw the series or was Cincinnati just a better team?” Authors like Asinof, and films like Field of Dreams have all but instilled in us the idea that the 1919 World Series was Chicago’s to lose. But the way Fountain brings his readers to the conclusion of the story makes any fan of the game reconsider this idea by citing the strength of Cincinnati’s pitching staff, and the weak performances of White Sox players who weren’t in on the fix. As our interview came to a close, Fountain left me with a small tidbit about a talk he gave about his book during this year’s World Series in New York. “Was the Mets’ Yoendis Cespedes’ poor performance evidence that he was in on a fix? Was Bill Buckner’s blooper in Game Six of the 1986 World Series evidence that he was in on a fix?” It’s more likely than not that Cespedes and Buckner were playing to the best of their ability, but Fountain’s point echoes the part of his book in which he discusses how the problem of gambling at the time exacerbated suspicions that the World Series was fixed. It’s clear that there was a plan to fix the game, and it’s clear that the players were given money in exchange for a promise to not play to the best of their ability; no World Series has come anywhere close to receiving the same level of scrutiny or suspicion that the 1919 World Series faced (most likely because no one has seriously attempted to fix another World Series that we know of). While this difference is evident, Fountain provokes his readers to carefully consider whether the White Sox really threw the series, or if the Cincinnati Reds were just the better team.
As I finished the book, I got lost in the emotions that surrounded the efforts of the eight banned players to exonerate themselves, making it all too easy to either sympathize with them, or take the side of Commissioner Landis and his decision to prohibit them from playing ever again. Fortunately, it is in Fountain’s book that readers have a chance to weigh that dichotomy with a level of scholarship that is all but impossible to second guess. Readers who finish Fountain’s The Betrayal will most likely take one side or the other on whether the eight players actually threw the series or not, or whether they deserve entry to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Anyone who reads Fountain’s book closely enough will have their stance well-tested by a solid foundation of truth and integrity that only the finest journalists are capable of writing about.