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Michael Kaplan

Michael Kaplan

Posted: October 12, 2009 01:30 PM

"A Hell of a Brainy Plan": Remembering the Black Sox

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October 9, 1919: Friday afternoon, bottom of the ninth, ninety years ago. One out, two on, Shoeless Joe Jackson comes to the plate. The Reds lead the White Sox 10-5, but there's still hope: the real damage was only done by the first five Cincinnati batters, all those innings ago. Hod Eller rears back, wings one in and ... aw, horsefeathers! Jackson feebly grounds to second for the double play; the Reds take the game and with it the World Series. Hell of a note.

Around places where smart guys gathered there was already a funny feeling about this series. It wasn't anything obvious, just occasional bush-league plays -- wild pitches, missed cut-offs, overthrows -- that you wouldn't expect from the dominating White Sox team put together by Mr. Comiskey. Comiskey insisted on perfect execution -- the same way he insisted on not paying players high wages. Joe Jackson was a leading hitter in the league and he was still only making $6,000. This situation grated with the unschooled farm-boys on the team. Chick Gandil, a hard, sour ex-boilermaker from the Western copper mines who played first base, talked to some of them -- Swede Risberg, Eddie Cicotte, Happy Felsch, Lefty Williams -- saying he knew of a way to make that little extra they all deserved. Soon, they were in negotiations to throw the series with a trio of Runyonesque small-time gamblers: "Sport" Sullivan, "Sleepy" Burns, and Abe "the Little Champ" Attell. The players figured that if they didn't get the deal they wanted, they could always double-cross the gamblers, win the series, and keep the money. "We agreed that this was a hell of a brainy plan."

Jackson later complained that sportswriters described him as "an ignorant cotton-mill boy with nothing but lint where my brains ought to be" -- on the evidence of this scheme, they were right. The conspirators didn't even get paid up front; they were selling out the National Pastime for an I.O.U. Soon they were to discover how real brains operate -- because the gambler's intelligence service brought news of the fix to "The Brain" himself: Arnold Rothstein, a man who combined the data-crunching power of a computer with the daring of a bullfighter. He swept up the lesser players but kept them in the game as cover, because "when nine guys go to bed with a girl, she's going have a hard time proving the tenth is the father." He set his plans in motion and offered $40,000 as a down-payment for the players. They all claim never to have gotten it -- or at least not much.

In the first game, Lefty Williams hit the first batter as a signal that the deal was on -- Rothstein, watching the telegraph board at the Ansonia Hotel, walked out: that was all he needed to know. The conspirators duly lost the first two games, but the money wasn't forthcoming; Gandil complained they'd "been given the jazzing." In revenge, they won Game 3, then lost Games 4 and 5 after the gamblers came through with a sweetener. Un-sweetened further, they won Games 6 and 7 - but by now they were thoroughly confused, angry, ashamed and divided. Rothstein, sensing this, didn't even bother bribing them to lose Game 8: he simply had a threat delivered to the opening pitcher before the game -- hence that flurry of Cincinnati runs in the first inning.

As the post-Series rumors hardened into genuine evidence, several contrite players came forward to confess -- Jackson at the urging of his wife, who felt he'd done "an awful thing." It seems they thought that confession would absolve them; and to a degree it did, for at the criminal trial that followed (featuring the green checked suit and lavender shirt of Sleepy Burns) they were acquitted of causing Comiskey financial loss. But if they thought they could pretend it never happened, they were wrong. Baseball's new commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, banned the eight men for life.

The story soon gained the qualities of myth -- particularly the role of Rothstein, who appears in heavy Semitic make-up as Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby. The truth, though, is not mythic but small-time -- played out in lobbies at long-stay hotels, at lunch counters, in pool rooms and railroad cars, in an atmosphere of sweat, liquor, stale smoke, and sawdust. It shows that athletes are lousy at money (they still are: 60-70% of NFL and NBA players are bankrupt within five years of retirement). And it has an equally small-time moral, best expressed by Shoeless Joe himself: "Dealing with crooks, you know, you get crooked every way."

If you enjoy such tales of human fallibility, you will find a new one every day on my sister site, Bozo Sapiens. See you there.