Never in 100 years would Buck Weaver have imagined Major League Baseball going into business with a “sports gaming” outfit.
A century removed from the start of the 1919 season that gave us the Black Sox scandal that made Weaver, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and others outcasts, however, baseball no longer is the national pastime.
If everything turned out the way it should, there would be nothing on which to bet.
So here’s rooting for a major upset – a show of fairness and compassion by the lords of the sport although they’re unlikely to benefit financially from it.
Here’s hoping MLB commutes its eternal banishment of Weaver, who was present when White Sox teammates conspired to fix the 1919 World Series against the Reds but wasn’t one of them.
If MGM Resorts International can be welcomed into baseball as “Official Gaming Partner of MLB,” why must Buck remain on the outs?
Shoeless Joe, too, may be due a formal review Commissioner Rob Manfred has thus far denied him.
Long dead, they surely deserve the same consideration enjoyed by, say, Alex Rodriguez, formerly a pariah and now tacitly endorsed as an analyst on two networks despite making a mockery of prohibitions on performance-enhancing drugs and efforts to crack down on same.
Then, and only then, can Manfred and the rest of the game’s leadership look upon their gambling deal with a clear conscience.
“We are pleased to partner with MGM Resorts International, a clear industry leader in the sports gaming area, to work together on bringing innovative experiences to baseball fans and MGM customers,” Manfred announced in November, as if fans and casino customers were two wholly distinct entities.
“Our partnership with MGM will help us navigate this evolving space responsibly, and we look forward to the fan-engagement opportunities ahead.”
What is “evolving” is less this country’s gaming industry, liberated from constrictions by the U.S. Supreme Court and state legislatures, than mainstream American sports institutions’ eagerness to publicly embrace it.
Wagering, legal or not, has been a driving force behind the popularity of major sports in this country from the beginning.
Baseball was no exception.
The 1919 World Series was not the first incident of gamblers exerting influence on the game. It may not have been the last. But when a Cook County grand jury returned indictments against eight members of the ’19 Sox in September 1920, team owners and league presidents were pushed to act to restore the sport’s integrity.
Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis was appointed the pro game’s first commissioner, given free rein and total power.
Before the 1921 season, Landis suspended eight players from the ’19 Sox – Weaver, Jackson, Eddie Cicotte, Chick Gandil, Swede Risberg, Lefty Williams, Happy Felsch and Fred McMullin – in response to a report their court case would be delayed.
The acquittal of seven of the players in August 1921 (McMullin wasn’t tried with the others) left Landis unmoved, and he kept the bans in place.
These were not the only people in and around baseball suspected of or punished for gambling-connected acts, but their case is easily the best-known, throwing the World Series being one of the greatest deceptions ever perpetrated on the American public.
The scandal has been memorialized in the films “Eight Men Out” and “Field of Dreams.” There’s even a reference in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” But as a shadowy story took on a legendary quality, myths took root.
“The groundwork for the crooked 1919 World Series, like most striking events in history, was long prepared,” historians Harold and Dorothy Seymour wrote according to a new bit of mythbusting from the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). “The scandal was not an aberration brought about solely by a handful of villainous players. It was a culmination of corruption and attempts at corruption that reached back nearly 20 years.”
There are conflicting reports about Shoeless Joe’s involvement in the fix, or even whether he was literate enough to know what he was implicated in. He swore under oath before the grand jury he accepted a $5,000 payment from gamblers, but he later recanted and maintained his innocence the rest of his life.
If the proof is in performance, well, Jackson led all hitters against the Reds with a .375 average, hit the only home run and committed no errors. He did hit worse in games the Sox lost and at times wasn’t quite himself in the field.
Sox pitcher Williams, who went 0-3 against the Reds, said that while Jackson’s name was dropped to impress gamblers, he wasn’t at any of the meetings with gamblers.
All-time greats such as Ted Williams and Bob Feller have been among the people to lobby on Jackson’s behalf, to no avail. Jackson, who died more than 67 years ago at age 64, remains an outcast.
Weaver died in 1956 at age 65, still maintaining his innocence too.
Buck attended early meetings about the fix but opted not to participate. He hit .324 in the Series, committed no errors and is believed to have the strongest case among the banned players, yet his appeals were rejected.
Most scholars believe the worst that can be said of him is he was aware of the plot and did not bring it to the authorities.
That was enough in Landis’ view. That was plenty.
Funny thing, though: According to SABR’s Eight Myths Out web page, Sox owner Charles Comiskey and others “learned about the fix as early as Game 1 – maybe even before – but sat on their knowledge hoping the game’s dirty laundry would never air.”
Landis left “The Old Roman” alone.
Comiskey has a statue at Guaranteed Rate Field, the current home of the Sox. There’s no commemoration of his 1919 pennant winners scheduled there this season, although it’s one of only six American League championship teams the Sox have fielded.
One would think all these years later that whatever message was supposedly sent in exiling Weaver and Jackson has been received many times over. The example has been made, even if the case for conviction never quite was.
All of baseball today is associated with the gambling business, thanks to the MGM Resorts International deal, making the sport’s steadfast refusal to reconsider at least Weaver – and perhaps Jackson too – seem a wee bit hypocritical.
The sacrifice has long been part of baseball, and these men were called out.
One hundred years later, it’s high time for a review.
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