Professional baseball suffered during the two years the United States was involved in World War I. Many Americans who were preoccupied with the seriousness of the war raging overseas had little concern for the trivialities of a baseball game. After the war ended in 1919, many Americans wanted to put those dark years behind them and get back to the normal activities of a peaceful life. One of those activities was watching baseball. In the summer of 1919, ballparks that just one year earlier had been practically empty were now filled daily with the sights and sounds of America’s favorite pastime. That year, both the Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees were two of the strongest teams in baseball’s American League, but one team stood head and shoulders above the rest: The Chicago White Sox.
The Chicago White Sox, called The White Stockings until 1902, were owned by an ex-ballplayer named Charles Comiskey. Between the years of 1900 and 1915 the White Sox had won the World Series only once, and Comiskey was determined to change that. In 1915, he purchased the contracts of three of the most promising stars in the league:
outfielders “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and “Happy” Oscar Felsch, and second baseman Eddie Collins. Comiskey had only to wait two years for his plan to come to fruition; the 1917 White Sox, playing in a park named for their owner, won the World Series. Two years later they had the best record in all of baseball and were again on their way to the Series. Baseball players’ salaries in that era were much different than the exorbitant paychecks of today’s professional athletes. Often, ballplayers would have second careers in the off-season because of the mediocrity of their pay. To make matters worse, war-torn 1918 was such a horrible year for baseball attendance that many owners cut player salaries for the following season. However, it is said in all of baseball there was no owner as parsimonious as Charles Comiskey. In 1917 he reportedly promised every player on the White Sox a bonus if they won the American League Championship. After winning the championship, they returned to the clubhouse to receive their bonus—a bottle of inexpensive champagne. Unlike other owners, Comiskey also required the players to pay for the cleaning of their uniforms. The Sox had the best record in baseball, but they were the least paid, were the most discontented, and wore the dirtiest uniforms.
Comiskey’s frugality did not sit well with the players. They were most upset with the fact that he did not raise salaries back to their 1918 levels, even though the ballpark attendance figures for 1919 were higher than any previous year. One player, Eddie Ciccotte, felt especially ill-treated by Comiskey. The owner promised the pitcher a bonus of $10,000 if he won thirty games, but after Ciccotte won his twenty-ninth game he was benched by Comiskey for the rest of the season.
Gamblers were such a common sight around the Chicago ballpark that Charles Comiskey had signs proclaiming “No Betting Allowed In This Park” posted conspicuously in the stands. The money with which these gamblers tempted the players was hard to refuse, and it was rumored that to supplement their income some of the lower-paid athletes would offer inside tips to the bettors. But gamblers’ mingling with ballplayers wasn’t solely confined to the White Sox. In 1920, allegations involving gambling among Chicago Cubs players brought to light a scandal that would shock Chicago and the rest of America: Eight members of the White Sox had thrown the 1919 World Series. The exact facts regarding the scandal will never be known, but the most accepted theory is that just prior to the World Series, White Sox player Chick Gandil had approached a gambler by the name of Joseph Sullivan with a proposal that for $100,000 Gandil would make sure the Sox lost the Series. Gandil needed to recruit other players for the plan to work. It was not hard for him to do—there were many underpaid players on the White Sox who were dissatisfied with the way Comiskey operated the team. Ultimately, the seven other players that were allegedly involved in the scheme were Eddie Cicotte, Happy Felsch, Joe Jackson, Fred McMullin, Charles “Swede” Risberg, Buck Weaver, and Claude Williams.
They were successful. The Chicago White Sox, heavily favored to beat an inferior Cincinnati Reds team, lost the nine-game World Series in eight games, due in most part to the inferior play of the eight conspiring players. When the scandal made headlines the following year the press began to refer to them as the Black Sox, and the ignominious label would be used to describe them forever. When the eight players stood before an Illinois grand jury, it was determined that that there was not enough substantial evidence for any convictions, and the players were all eventually acquitted of any criminal wrongdoing. Interestingly enough, Charles Comiskey paid for the players’ high-priced defense lawyers. Unfortunately for Comiskey, there was to be no similar reprieve from major league baseball: Every single one of the accused players was banned from the game for life. Comiskey’s once mighty team was decimated by the loss of its most talented players, and the 1921 White Sox finished the season in seventh place.