100 years since ‘Black Sox’ World Series, new details challenge long-held story

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tonight marks the 100th anniversary
of a notorious moment in baseball’s history, the White Sox losing to the Cincinnati Reds
in the 1919 World Series. The scandal that followed stained the sport’s
reputation and is still talked about to this day. As our correspondent Stephanie Sy discovered,
new research has called into question much of what baseball fans long thought they knew
to be the scandal’s underlying narrative. STEPHANIE SY: It was 1919. World War I wasn’t far in the rear-view mirror. Race riots were engulfing the nation. And on the South Side of Chicago, the White
Sox were batting 1000, favored to win the World Series. So when they lost to the Cincinnati Reds that
year, even with Shoeless Joe Jackson slugging it out with 12 hits, baseball fans were shocked. It was this play that first alerted baseball
insiders that something funny might be going on. The three-second clip shows the White Sox
botching a chance to turn a double play against the Reds. Eight White Sox players were later accused
of conspiring with gamblers to throw the World Series, including Shoeless Joe, whose exact
role is still disputed. He and the others were banned for life from
professional baseball. For decades, Eliot Asinof’s book “Eight Men
Out” was viewed as the definitive account of what happened. ACTOR: I will put my Joe Jackson up against
any player in the circuit. STEPHANIE SY: As was the movie adaptation,
which told the story of a miserly team owner, Charles Comiskey, known for spending on everything
but his own talented players. The resentful players, the story went, were
led by ruthless gamblers to throw the game. ACTOR: Eddie is the key. We don’t get Eddie, we forget about it. STEPHANIE SY: But 100 years since the 1919
World Series, a very different story is coming out. JACOB POMRENKE, Society for American Baseball
Research: The 1919 White Sox were one of the highest paid teams in baseball. STEPHANIE SY: Jacob Pomrenke chairs a committee
whose sole purpose is researching the Black Sox scandal. Its findings have been compiled in an online
article titled “Eight Myths Out” and examined in a new podcast, “Infamous America.” JACOB POMRENKE: This idea that the Black Sox
players conspired to fix the World Series because they were underpaid, because they
felt resentful toward their salaries or their poor treatment by their owner doesn’t really
hold up to scrutiny. All baseball players in the early 20th century
were paid better than typical American workers. STEPHANIE SY: Was it ultimately greed that
drove those players? JACOB POMRENKE: I think — yes, greed is,
I think, the primary motivation for how the Black Sox scandal happened. I think the Black Sox players saw a high reward
for what they were doing. They could make as much as their yearly salary
in one week for fixing the World Series. And I think they saw very little risk of getting
caught or getting punished. ACTOR: I have to keep the best interests of
the club in mind, Eddie. STEPHANIE SY: The scene in “Eight Men Out”
when pitcher Eddie Cicotte is denied a bonus by the team owner? ACTOR: Twenty-nine is not 30, Eddie. STEPHANIE SY: Completely made up, says Pomrenke. And that’s not all. It was originally believed that it was the
gamblers that approached the players about the fix. You say that’s not true. JACOB POMRENKE: No, this is another one of
the myths about the Black Sox scandal, is that the players were kind of conned into
throwing the World Series. But it was actually their idea. STEPHANIE SY: How do you know that? Was that through testimony that was later
revealed? JACOB POMRENKE: Yes, that is through the grand
jury testimony of Eddie Cicotte and Shoeless Joe Jackson and some of the other players. STEPHANIE SY: Jeff Kisseloff, Eliot Asinof’s
literary executor and friend, maintains that Asinof’s conclusions about the players’ motivations
for cheating still hold up. He shared Asinof’s research notes and letters
from players from the 1960s, which back up his thesis about poor pay. In an e-mail, Kisseloff said: “It should be
pointed out the bulk of what Eliot wrote more than 50 years ago holds up to a remarkable
degree. He should be paid respect for his enduring
and pioneering work.” For his part, Pomrenke doesn’t cast aspersions
on Asinof, who died in 2008. JACOB POMRENKE: I had no idea when I started
researching this story that there would be so much new evidence that has come to light. A lot of the new sources of information, such
as the contract cards at the Baseball Hall of Fame, the legal documents at the Chicago
History Museum, and even the film footage that you can now watch on YouTube of the 1919
World Series, all of that stuff is new in the 21st century. STEPHANIE SY: Another common refrain when
people describe this scandal is that it was a singular event. JACOB POMRENKE: No, this is — one of the
most important aspects about understanding the Black Sox scandal is to know just how
rampant gambling was in the baseball culture at this time. We don’t actually know if any other World
Series were fixed, but it’s possible that some other World Series were fixed before
1919. STEPHANIE SY: The lasting impact of the Black
Sox scandal was that the players’ harsh punishment served its purpose. Not since 1919 has there been a major fixing
scandal in baseball. But the sport has had other scandals. And Jacob Pomrenke wonders if the times aren’t
becoming ripe for a repeat of history. Sports gambling has again become big business,
with a Supreme Court ruling last year allowing states to legalize it, opening the door to
a multibillion-dollar industry. JACOB POMRENKE: I think baseball has to take
great precautions to protect the integrity of the game, because, as we saw in the Black
Sox scandal, it’s very easy for people to get caught up in the gambling and possibly
altering the outcome. STEPHANIE SY: Do you think America wants to
hear this version of events? (LAUGHTER) JACOB POMRENKE: It’s certainly a more complex
story, but most history is, right? Most history is a lot less simple than kind
of the myths that we all want to believe. STEPHANIE SY: The filmmaker of “Eight Men
Out,” John Sayles, wrote in an e-mail that he was aware at the time, as was Eliot Asinof,
that most of his information came from participants and observers who had their own agendas. But he pointed that the new revelations are
only somebody’s else’s version, and you have to decide what to believe. For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Stephanie Sy.

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