By 1927, Kenesaw Landis, the first baseball commissioner, was scandal-weary, and for good reason. The former judge had been brought in seven years earlier to clean up the sport. One month prior to his first day of work, in November 1920, both baseball and much of America had been rocked by allegations that the Chicago White Sox had fixed the 1919 World Series. Landis' subsequent ruling would become perhaps the most famous disciplinary decision in professional sports history. Eight White Sox players, including would-be hall-of-famer Joe Jackson, were banned for life.
Often referred to as the moment baseball lost its "innocence," the Black Sox scandal remains both a pop culture touchstone and a favorite subject of baseball historians, rife with funky details and unanswered questions. Hollywood made a movie. And yet: a lesser-known 1927 case, involving many of the same players, had a bigger impact on baseball's code of conduct—and arguably, the game's history.
The hearings in that case, also presided over by Landis, began on January 5th, 1927, 90 years ago today.
Everything began with a strange interview, which appeared in the Chicago Tribune on December 30th, 1926, and included two inflammatory accusations attributed to Charles "Swede" Risberg, a disgraced ringleader of the Black Sox. First, Risberg took aim at a number of former players: "I can give baseball's bosses information that will implicate twenty big leaguers who never before have been mentioned in connection with crookedness." He continued with a challenge to the commissioner himself, "Landis will never ask me to tell him what I know. The facts are there, but they don't want to know them."
The first allegation was perhaps not so surprising. Despite the Black Sox ruling, or perhaps because of it, rumors of fixes and impropriety had continued to simmer in professional baseball. And while Landis continued to rule against other players in other incidents following his momentous 1920 decision, nothing of the same scope had come the public's attention.
"I think it would be fair to say the Black Sox scandal was not a unique event," says Steve Steinberg, a baseball historian who has published widely on the period. "[It's hard to say] how widespread it was, but there really isn't proof, and I don't know if there ever is really going to be proof."
An enormous baseball fan before becoming commissioner, Landis saw it as his role to protect sport—which meant ridding it of scandal, or at least the appearance of scandal. His reputation as a federal judge was one of inconsistency. "He tended to rule by his heart instead of his logic," says Richard Lindberg, a Chicago historian who has written extensively on the White Sox. "So he wasn't going to damage baseball by suspending [star player Ty] Cobb ... but he also picked on a lot of smaller, inconsequential players."
In the Tribune interview, Risberg seemed to be calling Landis out. Risberg later told Landis the second statement was fabricated, but by then, he had the commissioner's ear. Whether Landis really wanted to hear what Risberg had to say is another question. In a 2001 biography of Landis, author David Pietrusza writes Landis had known for some time about the rumors Risberg was now making public. "Won't these Goddamn things that happened before I came into baseball ever stop coming up?" Landis asked a confidant in early 1927.
Risberg appeared at the commissioner's Chicago office on New Year's Day, 1927. He alleged that four games played on September 2 and 3, 1917, between the White Sox and Detroit, were thrown by Detroit in exchange for money, and that Chicago had thrown three games in 1919 as a kind of belated thank you.
Landis called a hearing four days later, at which Chick Gandil, another disgraced Black Sox player, corroborated Risberg's account. Thirty-three other players, including Cobb, gave testimony disputing the accusation.
But what looked like a case of he-said, he-said was more complicated. Some of the accused players agreed that money had changed hands, but not for throwing games. Instead, they said, the money was a reward for Detroit beating Boston over three games on September 20th and 21st, 1917. Boston and the White Sox were locked in a race for the pennant at that time.
Landus looked for evidence of a fix, but had a difficult time finding it. "Chicago led the American League in 1917 in stolen bases," explained the New York Times, but "no record has been found as to the number of Chicago players put out on attempted steals ... " in two of the three games in the series. The game that did keep stats on thrown out players didn't offer anything suspicious, and people in attendance at the games didn't remember anything fishy.
Landis heard further evidence that cast doubt on the fix. The dates didn't quite make sense. The Times story states that the Chicago players were paid their salaries on August 31st and again on September 12. The teams met for the last time on the 14th, but there was apparently no discussion between the two about when Detroit players might get their money for the alleged fix. Furthermore, Risberg himself testified the White Sox hadn't discussed raising money until the 28th, nearly a month after a supposed fix.
Then there was the question of exactly how much the fix cost. Key testimony from the accused came from Detroit pitcher Bill James, who played for Chicago during 1919 but wasn't implicated in the Black Sox scandal. James testified that he'd never been approached about a fix but had spoken to both Risberg and Gandil about a bonus. The terms were $200 for him and "any other pitcher who beat Boston"—about $3,770 each in today's money. The White Sox players later apparently agreed they would each give $45 to a fund for Detroit's pitchers, which came to about $855—James testified he'd received $850—over three games. James gave the remaining $250 to his team's catcher and the relief pitchers.
Landis ruled on January 12. He cast aside the idea that a fix had taken place, but nevertheless was not impressed by the money changing hands. "It was an act of impropriety, reprehensible and censurable, but not an act of criminality," he said.
It wasn't a good look for Risberg and Gandil, and even today, it's interesting to consider their motives. Was this a move to rehabilitate their image? "Maybe [they were] providing the context that, what they did [in 1919] was not that awful or rare," says Steinberg. Or maybe, he adds, "they were just trying to take some people down with them?"
Lindberg agrees. "They were bitter, they were angry," he says. "They're out of baseball. They're done."
Landis, however, was not done. He recommended the following changes to baseball's rulebook:
1) One year of ineligibility for "offering or giving any gift or reward" from one club to another.
2) One year of ineligibility for "betting any sum whatsoever" on a baseball game a player is not involved in.
3) Lifetime ineligibility for "betting any sum whatsoever upon any ball game in connection with which the bettor has any duty to perform.
4) "A statute of limitations with respect to alleged baseball offenses ... "
These new rules went a long way toward cleaning up the sport, or at least providing the appearance of propriety that Landis desired. The betting rules would famously come into play decades later, when Pete Rose, who gambled on dozens of his own games during his career in the 1980s, was banned for life.
It didn't take as long for the statute of limitations to be invoked. In late January, 1927, Landis exonerated Ty Cobb and Tristram Speaker from still another case of alleged match-fixing during the 1919 season.
With that, Landis got his wish. Gambling, and the exchange of money, was officially outlawed, and he didn't have to deal with any more of the "Goddamn things" that happened in the past.
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