The Mitchell Report on steroid use in baseball will be released tomorrow and is expected to name at least 50 major league players, and perhaps as many as 80. But this morning, I’ve been thinking about a different scandal.
As part of Hall of Fame week on UmpBump, we posted a poll asking you to vote for players who ought to be in the Hall, but aren’t. The results surprised me. As of this writing, Shoeless Joe Jackson in the lead with 57% of the vote. I, like most baseball fans, know the outline of the story of the Chicago Black Sox and the 1919 World Series, but not the details. The one bit I remember most clearly is the story of the little boy who looked up at Shoeless Joe and pleaded, “Say it ain’t so.” Joe, as you might remember, is supposed to have replied, “It’s so, kid.”
So I started reading up on the scandal this morning, trying to string together half-remembered scraps of gossip from nearly 100 years ago. I came across an excellent repository at the the website of the Chicago Historical Society. The following paragraph especially caught my eye:
Throughout the Series, Hugh Fullerton, a sports writer for the Chicago Herald and Examiner, had been paying close attention to the rumors of a fix. He hinted about the selling of the Series in his newspaper columns and urged club owners to do something about gamblers’ involvement in baseball. Most people didn’t believe fixing the World Series was possible. Club owners, who knew better, were afraid the public would turn their backs on baseball if they admitted any wrongdoing, and refused to acknowledge a problem. (Emphasis added.)
Switch the dates and a couple of names, and the above paragraph could be about our own Steroid Era. And the similarities don’t end with club owners turning a blind eye out of fear.
1. Gambling was a problem in baseball for years and yet no one did anything. Rumors of thrown games went back to the 1800s and the earliest days of the game. Similarly, abuse of steroids, amphetamines, and HGH were a problem for years before any action was taken.
2. Fans of the game were initially skeptical about gambling’s impact on baseball. Even today some still maintain that you cannot really put in a fix on a baseball game because it’s such a game of inches and averages. How can one player—or even one manager, in the case of Pete Rose—really guarantee a loss? Likewise, even now, there are some fans who insist that steroids do not have much of an impact on baseball because, after all, you still have to hit the ball.
3. It took a major crisis for baseball to expunge gambling from the game. Interest in the 1919 World Series—the first after World War I—ran so high, the league made it a best-of-nine series instead of a best-of-seven. When it became clear that the Series had been fixed—and when next season, thrown games continued to be an issue—baseball finally took action, putting several players from the 1919 White Sox on trial. That’s strikingly like the Steroids Era. Executives at every level knew there was a problem, but it took a major crisis—a threat to one of baseball’s most storied records, the career home-run record—for real action to be taken. And again, the issue is being sorted out in court with the indictment of Barry Bonds.
4. Shoeless Joe and his fellow “Black Sox” were scapegoats for a problem that was bigger than themselves. Joe Jackson was born dirt poor and went to work in a textile mill at the age of 13. At a time when most players made between $6,000 and $15,000 a year, he was offered $20,000 just to throw a few games. And the Black Sox were far from the only players to give in to temptation. Yet Joe and his compatriots were caught and banned from baseball (even though they were never convicted by a judge). Today, players like Bonds, Jose Canseco, Rafael Palmeiro, Jason Giambi, and Mark McGwire have become lightning rods for their steroid use, even when we know that players at all levels used steroids and even though neither Bonds nor McGwire ever failed a drug test. And while players these days are highly paid, thanks to the strongest workers’ union in America, many star baseball players are still born into poverty, have huge extended families to take care of, and have an almost overwhelming financial incentive to cheat.
5. Even now, fans are ambivalent about the presence of gambling in the game. Many are content with Hall of Fame bans for gamblers and juicers alike. But as is clear from our poll, many feel that admitted gamblers like Shoeless Joe and Pete Rose should be eligible for the Hall, despite their lifetime bans from baseball. Many feel that these players should be forgiven—Shoeless Joe was, without a doubt, the best hitter of his era and set a record for rookie batting average when he hit .408 in his first full season in the majors. Pete Rose is one of the best hitters of any era, maintaining a .304 average over 24 seasons and amassing a record 4,256 career hits. Similarly, many fans want Barry Bonds and his 756 career home runs in the Hall of Fame. And many want Mark McGwire and his then-single-season record 70 home runs in Cooperstown.
What do I think? I think Chicago White Sox owner Charles Comiskey was a jerk—a jerk and a tightwad who promised his players bonuses and then reneged on his end of the bargain. According to the Chicago Historical Society:
Comiskey frequently made promises to his players that he had no intention of keeping. He once promised his team a big bonus if they won the pennant. When they did win, the bonus turned out to be a case of cheap champagne. Comiskey even charged his players for laundering their uniforms. In protest, for several weeks the players wore the same increasingly dirty uniforms. Comiskey removed the uniforms from their lockers and fined the players.
Comiskey had once promised [Sox pitcher Eddie] Cicotte that if he won thirty games, he would receive a $10,000 bonus. When Cicotte won twenty-nine games, Comiskey benched him with the excuse that Cicotte should rest up for the pennant games…Cicotte’s personal request, regarding the fix, was $10,000 up front.
I think it’s a travesty that Comiskey is in the Hall of Fame and Shoeless Joe isn’t. But two wrongs don’t make a right. Apologists can portray Shoeless Joe as an underpaid, naive, reluctant conspirator, who was acquitted a judge and hit .385 in the Series. However, Joe admitted to taking money to fix World Series games and admitted to throwing those games. And for that, he is and always should be banned from Cooperstown.
UmpBumpers, what do you think about the lifetime bans of Jackson and Rose? And should those named in the Mitchell Report suffer a similar fate?