The Chicago Black Sox (eight Chicago White Sox players who were banned from baseball for throwing the 1919 World Series for gamblers) has been one of the most popular topics of the sport’s literature for years. However, with so many unknowns, allegations and passed time, it remains a fruitful ground for new work. An excellent example of this is Charles Fountain’s recent entry, The Betrayal: The 1919 World Series and the Birth of Modern Baseball (Oxford University Press).
Many books on the Black Sox scandal cover similar territory. After all, there are only so many angles one can take on the subject. What sets The Betrayal apart from its predecessors is that it has a little bit of everything. Fountain rarely dallies too long on any one aspect of the whole mess, and as a result is able to cover an amazing amount of ground in 290 pages. In some capacity, the players, gamblers, journalists, executives and authors/historians who have previously worked with the subject are all examined. He does so while introducing some new sources but never delving too deep; giving just enough information to weave a tight informative narrative.
While it’s not necessary that someone reading The Betrayal has a prior knowledge of baseball or the Black Sox, it definitely helps. The many nuggets within the book don’t always have a lot of depth (length) but really enhance one of baseball’s greatest and most tragic stories. These include:
-The feud between American League executive Ban Johnson and White Sox owner Charles Comiskey, which resulted in Johnson practically financing the investigation to prosecute the eight players in an effort to take down his nemesis.
-The successful machinations of mobster Arnold Rothstein, believed to have orchestrated the plot, to steer clear of any legal ramifications.
-The debunking of various myths of the Black Sox, including the infamous “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” utterance by a child as disgraced outfielder Joe Jackson left the courthouse.
-The 1924 law suit where Jackson attempted to extract back pay from Comiskey after being released following his banishment from baseball. Although the jury found in his favor, the judge overturned the verdict and briefly jailed him and fellow Black Sox Happy Felsch on charges of perjury.
Fountain does a good job of pointing out newer information and that which is simply not true but has become part of the accepted story over time. He not only suggests that the “Clean Sox” may not have always been as pristine as their legacy suggests but also pulls the curtain back a bit on shadier characters in the story such as gamblers Abe Attell and Bill Maharg, and Swede Risberg’s mistress.
Some points of view that would have been a welcome addition to this work are those of the key figure’s families and of fans. While I can’t attest to the availability of such sources, knowing a bit more from those perspectives would round this story out all the more.
Fountain has an easy writing style that lends to good narrative. While there is an occasional instance of verbosity, it’s certainly not something that diminishes the quality of the book.
The 1919 World Series and the Black Sox will forever be one of baseball’s great stories. Although it has been retold numerous times from many different angles, there are still plenty of ways to keep the topic fresh and engaging. A great example of this is The Betrayal, which is something readers will enjoy, regardless if they are new to the topic or are long-time students of the plot that nearly took down baseball.
Disclaimer: I was provided with a free advanced copy of this book, but received no payment or other consideration for this review.
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