The 1919 Chicago White Sox are the most infamous team in baseball history. Eight members of their squad knew about and/or participated in a plot with gamblers to throw that year’s World Series to the underdog Cincinnati Reds. Known as the Black Sox, those eight players were ultimately banned from baseball for life by Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis. Although that team is now notorious for the actions of some, they had teammates who gave it their all, yet aren’t remembered nearly as much. One of those was pitcher Dickie Kerr, who once went on the record about his experience.
Kerr became a hero after winning two games in the 1919 series despite the best attempts of some of his teammates. Ironically, he was later banished from baseball himself after it was discovered that he played in exhibition games with some the Black Sox. Unlike the others, he was eventually reinstated and won a total of 53 major league games before going on to a career in coaching. He became best known for befriending a young Stan Musial in the minors and helping covert him from a sore-armed pitcher to one of the greatest hitters of all time—a role which so indebted the future Hall-of-Famer that he bought his mentor a house in later years.
There are rare examples of members of the 1919 White Sox going on record in an extended manner, regarding the ill-fated team. One such instance occurred in 1937, when Kerr spoke with Dave Bloom, the sports editor of the Scripps-Howard Commercial Appeal of Memphis. The interview was later reproduced in a column by Chester Smith of The Pittsburgh Press. Below are excerpts of that interview (in italics) with my thoughts beneath each section.
“We knew it (the plot) all the time. Manager Kid Gleason. Ray Schalk, Eddie Collins and I. A newspaper man tipped me off. But what could we do? We had no proof and they tried to make it look good, and succeeded, as far as everybody except those who knew the inside of baseball were concerned. We wanted to do something but we couldn’t.”
This is an interesting statement for two reasons. First, if they really knew of a plot but did nothing, that would make them as guilty as their banished teammates—at least according to the justice of Landis, who banned third baseman Buck Weaver for simply knowing about the shenanigans. Secondly, it’s unlikely that anyone, especially Gleason, knew the extent of what was going on. If they were aware of the particulars, it wouldn’t make sense that he kept trotting out the same players game after game, knowing they weren’t giving their best.
“The newspaperman told me after the first game, which (Eddie) Cicotte lost, 9 to 1. Before the second game, Gleason came running to me in the outfield. He was red in the face.
“’Dickie, you know what’s going on?’”
“Yes,” Kerr said, “but I’m not telling you who told me.”
‘”Well,’ said Gleason, ‘you work tomorrow. You and Cicotte are going to warm up but you’re going to pitch. An listen. When we get into the clubhouse and go over the hitters, whatever Cicotte says he’s going to throw ‘em, you take a note and throw ‘em just the opposite.’”
It’s surprising that pulling Cicotte in favor of Kerr for Game 3 didn’t make more waves than it did. Cicotte was probably the best pitcher in baseball, having won 29 games with a 1.82 ERA in 1919. Meanwhile, Kerr was a rookie who had shuttled back and forth between starting and relieving during the season (though he had pitched well with 13 wins of his own and a 2.89 ERA). In today’s game that would be the equivalent of a David Price being a healthy scratch for Steven Wright. In other words, there would be some major explaining to do.
“Before the game, Cicotte got up a good steam and I did a little light tossing with one of the infielders. When the batteries were announced, you should have seen Cicotte’s face.”
Even though Gleason and some of his teammates clearly suspected Cicotte of misdeeds, it didn’t prevent him from taking the mound in Game 4 (a loss) and the pivotal Game 7 (a win).
“The thing is, those birds didn’t make it look bad. They pitched to the hitters’ strength all right and we knew about that. We also knew when the infielders were just a shade late starting for the ball and when the outfielders loafed just long enough to let players take an extra base. But what could we do about it?”
This is the second time Kerr demurs on the responsibility of the Clean Sox to stand up to their teammates. Although it may not be preferable, threatening to expose their throwing of the Series—even if they didn’t know the extent of the plot—may have thrown a sufficient enough of a wrench into the works to change the trajectory. We will likely never know the extent to which players participated in throwing games, or easing up on certain plays. While intentionally playing to lose an entire World Series was unprecedented (as far as we know), players dealing with teammates not bearing down was hardly new. There were always things that could be done. Some of them, such as informing, may just not have been seen as desirable.
“I still can’t understand it. They were a swell bunch of fellows. The next year, nobody held any resentment against them, although I heard that they were betting against the White Sox in every game. I never could tell whether they were bearing down when I was pitching or not.”
This statement seems blatantly disingenuous. Playing in the World Series meant receiving a share of postseason money, with the winners getting significantly more than the losers. The Black Sox ending up taking home about $2,000 less than the Reds’ players. Adjusting for inflation, that’s roughly the equivalent of $29,000 in 2016 money, and almost double what the average worker made ($1,125) that year. It’s hard to believe that there would have been no resentment once the players knew for certain that they had lost money because some teammates intentionally gave a poor effort in order to line their own pockets.
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