White Sox: The 1919 Black Sox and why we should care
The Black Sox scandal lies almost 100 years in the White Sox past – yet there is relevance in the events of the past as we look with hope to the rebuild and this current collection of talent.
The team on the north side isn’t the only one with a storied history. The White Sox have one, too.
Ringgold William Lardner (aka “Ring”) was an American Sports Columnist and satirical writer. In arts context, he was part of the Jazz Age and a contemporary of F. Scott Fitzgerald, George M. Cohan and George S. Kaufman. He was immortalized by no less than the famed author J.D. Salinger in his classic books The Catcher In The Rye and Franny and Zooey.
One series baseball fan
He was also a baseball fan. Lardner was a columnist for the Chicago Examiner as early as 1908, and later for the Chicago Tribune in 1913. The Sox were big news then, one of the most talented teams in all of Major League Baseball, having won the 1906 World Series against the Chicago Cubs, and winning it again in 1917.
Lardner began writing sports columns as early as 1909 for Pullman Pastimes and The Sporting News, which became the foundation for his first commercially successful book, You Know Me, Al, published in 1916. The book represented a collection of letters from fictional Jack Keefe, a minor league baseball player
A few good books
He was also a White Sox fan and friends with many of the players on the team at the time. When the Black Sox Scandal emerged and rumors consumed the press during the 1919 World Series and afterward, Lardner was heartbroken with his trust in the team and professional sports in general broken. His 1933 book Lose With A Smile largely expresses his disappointment in the same colloquial vernacular as the You Know Me Al writings.
Did they do it?
In 1917, the White Sox won 100 games to finish first in the American League, beating John McGraw’s New York Giants in the six-game series 4 games to 2 for the franchise’s second World Series (1906 being the first).
Read about this and you may conclude it was possible – possible – the fix may have been in during this series as well. Just read about the final game, who beat whom to the plate for the final winning run and how it was scored, and which of those two was banned from the game for accusations of corruption.
The War gets in the way
The next year in 1918, impacted by a shortened season due to World War I, the Sox underperformed to a 57-67 record. In 1917, however, they rebounded to an 88-52 record and again finished first in the American League.
Lardner like other journalists covering the World Series had heard openly of rumors about the fix. A number of correspondents including Hugh Fullerton of the Chicago Herald and Examiner and former player and manager Christie Mathewson sought to share observations on what they felt were questionable plays.
This is how aware the press was of the fix. Fans, however, we not yet exposed to the rumors.
So long ago, but still relevant
1919 is a long time ago, near 100 years. Young readers and Sox fans, you may wonder how this is relevant to today. Let’s put in a context that you may find relevant.
Eliot Asinof wrote a wonderful book Eight Men Out, later made into a film by John Sayles featuring John Cusack, D.B. Sweeney, Charlie Sheen and others, that detailed the specific events of the episode, trial and acquittal to follow, and subsequent banning of the eight players in question.
Read with The Pitch That Killed about the death of Ray Chapman, the pair present a wonder-period view of baseball in that 1919-1920 period. In Asinof’s book and Sayle’s film adaptation, Lardner is portrayed strolling through the Sox team train and singing the song “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” with the words changed to “I’m Forever Throwing Ballgames.”
What does the future hold?
Why is this important and how is it relevant to each of us and the franchise today? Well, let’s put it this way. Think for a moment about how hopeful you for the team’s future. Think about how excited about the potential career futures for the players themselves. How good can or will Lucas Giolito, Michael Kopech, Reynaldo Lopez or Dylan Cease turn out to be? What about Yoan Moncada, Luis Robert, Eloy Jimenez or Micker Adolfo? And that level of team achievement will this assembly of talent produce? A World Series? Several?
Now imagine for a moment a breaking story that shocks the sports world: that those eight players – Giolito, Kopech, Lopez, Cease, Moncada, Robert, Jimenez and Adolfo – throw a series and end up facing a criminal investigation and being banned from the game for life.
Imagine the fallout
Imagine the heartbreak. The embarrassment. The shame. This is what Lardner experienced. And he knew these guys. Imagine his disappointment in them personally. It would be enough to break his (or for that matter anyone’s) spirit. And it did.
Similar events have happened
I know a little something about this type of heartbreak. As a 1984 graduate of Southern Methodist University, I was a student during the Pony Express Days of Eric Dickerson and Craig James. I had classes with each of them. As a football program, SMU ranked #18 or higher in my four years as an undergrad. We were consistently a Top 10 team and finished the 1982 season 11-0-1 with a #2 ranking, which is still hotly debated in Dallas since Georgia won the National Championship with a defeat.
The cheating scandal became public and the school hit with the Death Penalty in 1987-88. And, it was humiliating, embarrassing and disappointing. After that, I didn’t set foot on the campus for 20 years. It wasn’t until seeing ESPN’s 30 For 30 documentary “Pony Exce$” that I realized how wounded I felt from the experience. That viewing represented the catharsis I needed to revisit my college experience and eventually return to the campus many years later with my wife and daughter.
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As we celebrate the youthful exuberance of the rebuild, we can prepare ourselves as fans for the 2019 “Window of Contention.” And, let’s pause for a minute and reflect on what happened almost 100 years ago. A similar powerhouse poised for years of contentious got cut short. Cut itself short, actually, and broke the hearts of fans, friends, players, journalists and ultimately the owner of the team.
I have one wish through the writing of this post. It is that humorist and Sox fan Jean Shepherd would be alive to read it. He would empathize. Maybe owner Jerry Reinsdorf will see it. And as the shepherd of the franchise will share a kind thought to Shepherd and the generations of fans who, like Ring Lardner, were injured by the poor judgment of a small select number of essentially poor, simple ballplayers.
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Winning isn’t guaranteed. Rewards are never a certainty. True reverence requires us to honor but learn from the past to prepare for the challenge and opportunity that lies in the future. How ironic if the team of this franchise’s future strikes a chord of contention 100 years. There is something therapeutic about the opportunity to wipe the slate of history clean with a fresh start. The fresh faces of today are a great place to start.