Friday, June 28, 2013

Three Schools of Thought on the 1919 Black Sox

My previous post on the 1916 New York Giants concluded by noting that their loss the following year to the Chicago White Sox in the 1917 World Series set the stage for one of baseball history's most compelling dramas--the 1919 Black Sox scandal.  Much has been made of how good--or even great--that disgraced Chicago team was.  This Baseball Historical Insight addresses the question:  just how good were the White Sox-turned-Black Sox in the greater sweep of the best teams in history.

Three Schools of Thought on the 1919 Black Sox

The outlines of the Black Sox scandal are well known, so no need to replay that here.  As if the damage to the integrity of the game was not enough, requiring the establishment of an all-powerful Commissioner and--enter from stage right field--the transformational presence of the homerific Babe to repair, the cautionary tale this story tells is dramatically bolstered by the idea that the White Sox were a great team that squandered their historical legacy by the avarice of their "eight men out."  Thus the mythology that the 1919 and 1920 Chicago White Sox were one of baseball's best teams ever, done in by greed.  This assessment was based on their 1917 championship, when the White Sox won the pennant in convincing fashion with 100 wins and a nine-game margin of victory over Boston before taking out the Giants in six games in the World Series; their  cruising to the AL pennant in 1919--(after a disastrous sixth-place finish the previous year mostly because many of the team's best players were lost to war industries during World War I)--with 88 victories in an abbreviated 140-game schedule that would have translated to 97 over a full 154-game season, only to fall prey in the World Series to gamblers (and the Reds, Cincinnati fans have every right to insist); their winning 96 games in 1920, battling the Indians and Yankees in a tight race all through September until their season came undone when news of the scandal broke at the end of the month; and, finally, a player roster starring Shoeless Joe Jackson, Eddie Collins (possibly the greatest second baseman in history), Ray Schalk (a Hall of Fame catcher), Eddie Cicotte (one of the best pitchers of his era), and Red Faber (a Hall of Fame pitcher for whom 1919 was a lost season because of illness and injury).

Playing into this great team mythology, various accounts of the time from players and the press box suggest that the White Sox were only as good as they wanted to be, able to ramp up their level of effort when it counted but often merely just going through the motions to stay in a competitive holding pattern.  (The irony of this assessment, of course, is that underachievement is not typically thought to be a such good thing.)  When they had to win, they won.  In 1916, for example, they set the stage for their 1917 pennant by ending the season with 24 wins in their last 33 games to move from also-ran fourth-place status to finishing second, only two games behind the Red Sox.  The White Sox blew the 1917 pennant race open with an 18-1 surge that straddled the end of August and the first half of September.  The 1919 race was never as competitive as Chicago's final 3-1/2 game margin would suggest; the White Sox were in command after mid-July, but it was 12 wins in their first 16 games in September that secured their second American League title in three years (after which they closed the season by losing six of their last seven games--when nothing was anymore at stake).  And in 1920, the White Sox did not challenge for first place until August, getting down to business with the league's best record after trailing by five games in third place on August 7.  The 1920 White Sox went on a September surge, winning 18 of 26 games to stay in the middle of a hot three-team race before being derailed, only half-a-game out of first place at the time, by the scandalous revelations about the previous World Series.

There followed, however, the revisionist sentiment whose story line went:  while conspiring with gamblers was indisputably wrong, 'twas tightwad owner Charles Comiskey's miserliness made them do it, and Shoeless Joe was a naive pawn who got caught up in the fix, but did not personally participate in the fix.  Payroll ledgers recovered many years later by Bill Veeck when he owned the club suggested that, however tightfisted Comiskey may have been and however true it was that some of his players--most notably Jackson and Cicotte--were underpaid for their actual worth as ball players, the White Sox in general were paid fair market value for their talent and services.  And defenders of Shoeless Joe make much of how well he and fellow Black Sox third baseman Buck Weaver played in the World Series, particularly offensively; Jackson had 12 hits to tie the World Series record, batted .375, and had 6 RBI, while Weaver had 11 hits and hit .324.  Many subtle things, however, could have been done, and apparently were by both men, to affect the outcome of games--missing hit-and-run signs, for example, or overthrowing the cutoff man, or failing to take an extra base, or stupidly trying for an extra base and being thrown out--precisely the sort of things that would drive the baseball-savvy Eddie Collins to conniptions.  Such things were observed at the time, though not understood in context, by scribes in the press box and "clean" players in both dugouts.

And finally there is the revisionist history, currently in vogue and largely based on statistical analysis: that whoever played whatever part in the conspiracy, the 1917, 1919, and 1920 White Sox were a good team, but hardly a great team and certainly not one of the best teams in baseball history.  They had two of the greatest players in history still at the peak of their careers in Joe Jackson and Eddie Collins, and Eddie Cicotte--who was 28-12 in 1917, 29-7 in 1919, and 21-10 in 1920--was one of the best pitchers in the game at the time.  Center fielder Happy Felsch, third baseman Buck Weaver, and catcher Ray Schalk were three of the better players in the league, but were not the best at their positions; there were any number of better outfielders than Felsch, Larry Gardner was the league's best third baseman, and Wally Schang the best catcher.  The 1917-20 White Sox were not strong at every position.  First base (Chick Gandil), shortstop (Swede Risberg), and right field (a platoon involving the left-handed Nemo Liebold and the right-handed Shano Collins) were positions of weakness, not just on the team but relative to the league.  While pitching was a strength of the team, Lefty Williams, despite back-to-back 20-win seasons, was not one of the best at his craft in the league and was likely overrated, and Red Faber, who was 23-13 in 1920, was just coming into his own as one of the league's best pitchers.

On balance, I'm with the revisionist history school.  The 1917-20 Chicago White Sox were a very good team, but not a dominant team, and certainly not a great team.  That said, were it not for the contemptible machinations of their gang of eight, the White Sox might well have won the 1920 pennant; they were half-a-game behind and about to play the fair-to-middling St. Louis Browns for their final three games of the season when the scandal hit the news and the implicated players were banished by owner Comiskey.  And, had this team continued on with its best players and bolstered positions of weakness by integrating some of the players who joined the White Sox in the early 1920s--in particular first baseman Earl Sheely, outfielders Bibb Falk and Johnny Mostil, and third baseman Willie Kamm--they would have remained a competitive team and might have delayed the emergence of the Yankee dynasty.  That "what if" argument is made in a chapter on the 1916-20 White Sox and 1920-24 Yankees in my online manuscript,, from which this article is adapted. The following is a link to the chapter:

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