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Friday, March 23, 2012

Chick Gandil's Side of the Story

The story of the 1919 Black Sox scandal has been frequently rehashed over the years but even so, there is still great interest in reviewing new information or angles. Every now and then I come across something about the group that I haven’t seen before and try to restore it to general knowledge. Last year I dusted off an interview that Shoeless Joe Jackson did shortly before his death. Now, I have found that Chick Gandil, the first baseman of the doomed group, did his own narrative, and it deserves a similarly modern audience.

“This Is My Story of the Black Sox Series!” appeared in the September 17, 1956 issue of Sports Illustrated. Gandil told his side of things to Melvin Dursag, a young writer who went on to have well over 50 years in sports journalism. Dursag made Gandil’s words the emphasis of the piece and he offered little in the way of analysis. Not surprisingly, Gandil’s recollections differ quite a bit from what is accepted as the “official version” of the story and what has appeared in popular culture. Regardless, it is an intriguing counterpoint and an interesting comparison to Jackson’s interview.

The entire Gandil narrative is available online. He also briefly described the other 7 players who were banished with him. While Gandil’s version of events differed in some key ways from Jackson’s interview, he made no bones about confirming that he was involved with gamblers in conspiring to throw the 1919 World Series. For the sake of closer inspection, I am pulling out what I believe to be the most interesting portions of Gandil’s statements, and including my own thoughts in italics.

Gandil admitted what the Black Sox did was wrong, but felt the group was unfairly demonized: “To this day I feel that we got what we had coming. But there are certain things about the Series that have never been told and which I would like to clear up right now… I have often been described as one of the ringleaders of the Black Sox scandal. There's no doubt about it. I was.”

Gandil immediately gets the issue of guilt or innocence out of the way. He believed what the group of players did was wrong, but didn’t match what the public believed took place. This contrasts Jackson’s interview, where the outfielder unequivocally insisted his innocence in the matter.

There was no love lost for White Sox owner Charles Comiskey: “There was Charles Comiskey, the White Sox owner. He was a sarcastic, belittling man who was the tightest owner in baseball. If a player objected to his miserly terms, Comiskey told him: ‘You can take it or leave it.’ Under baseball's slave laws, what could a fellow do but take it? I recall only one act of generosity on Comiskey's part. After we won the World Series in 1917, he splurged with a case of champagne.”

This is not a surprising revelation. The Hall of Famer is best remembered not for his playing/managerial days, but for the lengths he went to in order to save a dime as an owner. His miserly ways combined with a rampant gambling culture in baseball created a perfect storm for something like the Black Sox scandal to take place.

Gamblers were as much a part of baseball as the players: “Where a baseball player would run a mile these days to avoid a gambler, we mixed freely. Players often bet. After the games, they would sit in lobbies and bars with gamblers, gabbing away. Most of the gamblers we knew were honorable Joes who would never think of fixing a game. They were happy just to be booking and betting.”

The Black Sox seem much more shocking today because of how far baseball distanced itself from gambling in subsequent years. In 1919 betting on baseball was rampant and many of the spectators were either professional gamblers or those who had placed a wager on the game. Betting on baseball was the norm, not the exception, but what happened with Chicago changed that culture forever.

Gandil knew gambler Sport Sullivan, one of the primary figures in the fix, for years prior to the 1919 World Series: “I had always considered "Sport" Sullivan as one of those gamblers until he approached me in Boston in 1919, about a week before the World Series. Sullivan was a tall, strapping Irishman who looked like a cop more than he did a bookmaker. We had first met while I was playing with Washington in 1912. Our team had a couple of top pitchers, Walter Johnson and Bob Groom. Managers didn't publicly announce their starting pitchers in advance then as they do today. Sullivan, who was betting the games, had a hot idea. He wanted me to tip him off by wire when we were on the road, informing him when Johnson and Groom would start. He suggested a code—‘No. 1 goes tomorrow,’ when Johnson was to pitch; and ‘No. 2 goes tomorrow,’ when it was Groom.

It was a tempting proposition, but I was going pretty good at that time and I was afraid to get into a jam. Besides, there had been an incident the year before which made me gun shy. While I was playing for Montreal, some gambler had offered two other players and me $25 apiece to throw a game to Rochester. We reported the bribe to our club owner who, in turn, reported it to the league president. It created a big commotion.”

This sounds a little suspicious. Gandil didn’t describe Sullivan as a friend, therefore one has to wonder why they continued to have a relationship for at least 8 years. The type of tips Sullivan asked for were not uncommon at the time and it is reasonable to believe that Gandil was his regular source, pocketing some extra cash to supplement his playing salary.

Gandil implicated Eddie Cicotte as his ground level co-conspirator: “Cicotte and I told Sullivan we would think it over. The money looked awfully good. I was 31 then and couldn't last much longer in baseball. Cicotte and I tried to figure out first which players might be interested. And of those who might be, which ones would we care to cut in on this gravy. We finally decided on Jackson, Weaver, Risberg, Felsch, McMullin and Williams—not that we loved them, because there never was much love among the White Sox. Let's just say that we disliked them the least.”

What was left unsaid here is that the players chosen to be part of the group probably made the cut because it was believed they would be game for such a venture. With so much at stake if anything went wrong, it is unlikely that partners would be decided without knowing in advance what their probable response would be. If true, this puts some tarnish on the legacies of these players, who are so often portrayed as the victims of circumstance.

The players thought about double crossing the gamblers from the beginning… and Buck Weaver may not have been as innocent as is often portrayed in popular culture: We played our game that afternoon and won. That night Cicotte and I called the other six together for a meeting and told them of Sullivan's offer. They were all interested and thought we should reconnoiter to see if the dough would really be put on the line. Weaver suggested we get paid in advance; then if things got too hot, we could double-cross the gambler, keep the cash and also take the big end of the Series cut by beating the Reds. We agreed this was a hell of a brainy plan…

Cicotte and I called a meeting of the players that night and told them about Burns. Weaver piped up, ‘We might as well take his money, too, and go to hell with all of them.’”

Movies like Eight Men Out depict the Black Sox as trying to double cross the gamblers because they were not being paid, but then remorsefully throwing the Series because of threats from the gamblers. Gandil contradicted that by claiming the players discussed that as an option before any game were even played. Weaver, perhaps the second most sympathetically remembered player from the group after Jackson, is credited with suggesting the double cross.

Gandil claimed that the players had a face-to-face meeting with gangster Arnold Rothstein, the supposed facilitator of the scheme: “Later in Chicago I got word from Sullivan that he was bringing a friend from New York to sew up the deal. A meeting was arranged at the old Warner Hotel on the South Side, where many of the players lived. Sullivan introduced his friend as "Mr. Ryan," but, having met this man two years before in New York, I recognized him as Arnold Rothstein, the big shot gambler.”

In 1919 Rothstein was the most well-known gambler in the United States. Although he was never proven in a court of law to have been part of the fix, there is little doubt that he was the driving force behind it. He did whatever he could in the aftermath to distance himself from the situation, and many feel he was the one who arranged for the players’ confessions to “disappear.” It seems unlikely that somebody so cautious would have risked having an in-person meeting with such a public figure, but it’s not out of the question.

Gandil claimed that the players were so scared their plot would be found out that they actually decided to play to win: “I was called to a meeting of the eight players. Everyone was upset and there was a lot of disagreement. But it was finally decided that there was too much suspicion now to throw the games without getting caught. We weighed the risk of public disgrace and going to jail against taking our chances with the gamblers by crossing them up and keeping the $10,000. We were never remorseful enough to want to return the ten grand to Rothstein. We gambled that he wouldn't dare do anything to us since he was in no position himself to make a fuss over the cash. Our only course was to try to win, and we were certain that we could.”

The fear of being caught by the authorities would have been just as strong as that from not knowing what angry gamblers were capable of. There were a number of White Sox plays deemed as suspicious or downright disgraceful. Could the White Sox have been trying to win? Were they trying to win to double cross and take the gambler’s money and claim World Series winners’ shares at the same time? Could their miscues have been caused by excessive nerves instead of purposefully playing beneath their capabilities?

Gandil offered evidence that Chicago did not throw the Series: “If there is any doubt about our trying to win the Series, let's look at the record. Jackson was the leading hitter with .375. He didn't commit an error. Weaver was our second man with .324. He didn't boot any, either. Total hits favored Cincy only 64 to 59, and each side committed 12 errors. Though I hit only .233, it was still seven points better than our star Eddie Collins, and two of my hits knocked in winning runs.

Our losing to Cincinnati was an upset all right, but no more than Cleveland's losing to the New York Giants by four straight in 1954. Mind you, I offer no defense for the thing we conspired to do. It was inexcusable. But I maintain that our actual losing of the Series was pure baseball fortune.”

Gandil makes compelling points. The errors were excessive and the batting averages low, but the Series took place in a much different era. On the flip side, the great thing about statistics is that they can often be used to simultaneously strengthen or discredit either side of an argument, depending upon how they are used.

Gandil held a grudge against Cicotte: “For a good many years, I held a deep resentment against Cicotte for his initial confession. I felt I would never forgive the guy, but I think I have by now. Still, I don't believe we would have ever been caught if he hadn't gabbed.”

It seems obvious that when the players hatched the World Series plot- whichever version that might have been- that there was a feeling that they all trusted each other to follow through and have each other’s backs. As the oldest player of the eight, Cicotte was nearing retirement and had a family, all reasons that likely caused him to confess when pressured. His statement may have started the proceedings against the group, but there were so many people involved on the periphery that if he had said nothing, it would have been only a matter of time before something came out.

No matter what you believe, Gandil gave another fascinating perspective on the Black Sox scandal. There are so many versions of what happened that it’s difficult to keep track of the details. Like most stories with differing views, the truth probably lies somewhere in between. With so many lies, legends, and half-truths cluttering the story, it’s refreshing to get the perspective of a participant like Gandil. 


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