Sean Wilentz Writes Article on History of Cheating in Baseball for NYR DailyHistorians in the News
tags: baseball, Sean Wilentz
Sean Wilentz is the George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History at Princeton. His most recent book, No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding, has just been published in paperback. (October 2019)
When federal judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis was appointed the first commissioner of baseball in 1920 to clean up the “Black Sox” World Series scandal from the year before, he knew that the future of the sport he loved was on the line. Not only had several members of the Chicago White Sox plainly thrown the series against the Cincinnati Reds on behalf of Arnold Rothstein, kingpin of the New York mob, but a number of other players for other teams were also widely known to be in league with gamblers. A Chicago jury had cleared eight of the Sox of conspiracy, but Judge Landis knew that baseball would never recover its integrity if he, too, flinched on any of the wrongdoing. In his final report, Landis declared:
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 a game are planned and discussed, and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.
He summarily banished eight Chicago players, including at least one who was only minimally involved in the plot, if at all, the all-time great “Shoeless” Joe Jackson. Not only had Jackson declined to play poorly during the series; he hit a sterling .375 while setting a record for most base hits that would stand until 1964; and he played flawlessly in the outfield. But he knew about what was going on when one of the complicit players threw $5,000 on his bed, so he was done.
Because of Landis’s ban, Jackson has remained ineligible for induction into baseball’s Hall of Fame, an honor that, strictly on the merits of his playing, he utterly deserves. And because of Landis’s broader determination to rescue baseball’s good name, the judge banished thirteen more players during his tenure as commissioner, for infractions ranging from bribery, gambling, and fixing games to an accusation of selling a stolen automobile (even though the alleged player-thief had been acquitted of the charge). Landis’s critics claimed that he was unduly severe, not least with his condemnation of the hapless Joe Jackson. Yet from the time he took over until his death in 1944, baseball never again suffered a disabling disgrace on the order of the Black Sox scandal. Landis may have been draconian, but he kept the game above suspicion of being rigged.
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