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"Must Read" for All Baseball History Buffs!
on April 21, 2006
It is hard to put into words the service that author Gene Carney - with the publication of his wonderful new book: BURYING THE BLACK SOX - has performed for all of us baseball history enthusiasts who are eternally intrigued by the 1919 Black Sox scandal. Mr. Carney's great achievement is that he steps into the sordid world of lies, conspiracies, gamblers, and cover-ups that pervade this sad but fascinating chapter in baseball history, and attempts to make sense of it all. He successfully emerges with a book that is both a joy to read and incredibly informative. The wealth of new information that the author uncovers and explores is simply breathtaking. It's a book that is extremely well written and edited, with just the right blend of stylistic flair and humor. It is never boring and, quite frankly, I couldn't put it down. It's also one of the few books I've ever read that I was disappointed when it ended: I just wished that it could go on for about another 200 pages.
It also succeeds in capturing both the essential elements of the 1919 World Series scandal and the cultural flavor of post World War I America. We see remarkable, uncanny similarities to our present time. Like steroids in today's game, we sense that gambling had a "death grip" on the National Pastime by 1919, a problem that had been festering for at least a decade. And, like today's baseball hierarchy trying to deal with the problem of steroids, many of baseball's ruling elite buried their collective heads in the sand, hoped it would just go away, and orchestrated a cover-up. It took a Grand Jury to get their attention. The thought of dealing with the problem in an open and forthright manner never seemed to occur to them. Like Watergate, the cover-up didn't hold, and in many ways, was worse than the crime. But with a help of a cooperative media, ever in defensive of the baseball establishment, the cover-up in some senses lives on even today.
Most of us are familiar with the overall picture of the Black Sox scandal, but we get lost in the morass of details. Here's where BURYING THE BLACK SOX is a real help. How many of us confuse and conflate the 1920 Grand Jury "confessions" with the 1921 trial with the 1924 civil suit? The cast of characters includes a highly jumbled mix of crooked and clean ball players, their families, baseball "magnates," Fixers, reporters, commissioners, lawyers and judges.
And what about all the gamblers? Who could possibly keep them all straight? Arnold Rothstein, Abe Attell, Sleepy Bill Burns, Sport Sullivan, Billy Maharg, David Zelcer, Mont Tennes, the St. Louis group, the Chicago group, the New York group, the Des Moines group, the Montreal group. Mr. Carney has earned a permanent and everlasting niche in Baseball history just for sorting out this mess! He details the incredibly tangled web of gamblers and Fixers in a spoof of the old Abbott and Costello "Who's on First?" routine. It's worth the price of the book itself.
And then there are the eternal questions: Who initiated the Fix? Why did the ballplayers do it? Was it Comiskey's fault because he was "cheap"? Which games were fixed? How do we know for sure they were fixed? Was it called off before the first game, as some contend? Who got money? Where did the money come from? Did the players "earn" it? What about Weaver and Shoeless Joe? Were they innocent victims?
With his characteristic and pervasive attention to detail, these are all questions that Mr. Carney addresses and, though he doesn't quite answer them definitively (that's not his stated goal), he at least makes an extremely credible effort to "sort everything out." You are left with a far-better understanding of the issues, personalities, and motives than ever before.
To Mr. Carney's credit, he enters into the fray with no biases. He states in the Preface that his goal is to simply present the facts of the case as clearly and accurately as possible and then let his readers make up their own minds. He succeeds in this goal. Even with a topic as emotionally charged as Shoeless Joe Jackson's guilt or innocence, he dispassionately presents all the evidence pro and con. One gets the feeling that this is the way history books should treat Shoeless Joe, but, unfortunately, very rarely do.
A highlight of the book is the prominence Mr. Carney gives to the often overlooked 1924 civil trial brought by Joe Jackson against Charles Comiskey for breach of his 1920 contract. Characterized by Mr. Carney as "The Trial Nobody Watched," it's hard to believe that an event so pivotal to the drama of the 1919 Black Sox scandal has gone largely unexamined. At this trial, Mr. Carney states, "For the first time, there would be new light shed on what Cominskey knew and when he knew it and on exactly what he did or did not do about it. Here for the first time, Jackson's play in the World Series would be scrutinized and whether or not he had willingly lent his name to the conspiracy."
In many ways, this trial pitted Jackson's word versus Cominskey's, with a verdict to be rendered by a jury who had access to all available evidence. They could look into the eyes of the defendants and plaintiff, listen to cross-examination, observe body language and intonation, and decide for themselves whose version was closest to the truth. Mr. Carney believes it's highly significant that - where ten votes were needed for Jackson to win his case - he got eleven. "Eleven of twelve jurors believed Jackson had played every game to win. And that he had not received the $5000 from Williams until the Series was over. And that he had not been in on the conspiracy. And that he deserved his back pay."
We also learn from reporter Frank G. Menke of some of the incredible admissions made by Comisky at this trial: "His $10,000 reward for information was a bluff, as it was made after he knew the Series was crooked, who was in on the Fix, and `practically all of the details.' He admitted at the trial that he knew the identity of the crooked players two days after the Series but made no attempt to get signed statements, and permitted them to play in 1920. He admitted that Jackson played all games to win." Menke's conclusion was that Cominsky had engineered a cover-up of the Fix, and that it nearly succeeded.
So Shoeless Joe was innocent, right? Unfortunately for Jackson, the jury verdict was overturned by Judge Gregory, who could not overlook the contradictions with his 1920 statement to the Cook County Grand Jury (a statement wrongly characterized in the media at the time as a "confession"). It's obvious that Mr. Carney finds this jury verdict highly significant, but he stops well short of exonerating Joe Jackson.
Another interesting chapter is devoted to the bizarre sequence of events that led to the unraveling of the Fix through the Grand Jury process. We learn who helped the investigation along and who hindered it. Many will be surprised to learn that one of the pivotal events in this chain was a completely meaningless game played in August, 1920 between the Phillies and, of all teams, the Cubs. In addition, we learn that the origin of gambling in baseball certainly did not start with the 1919 Black Sox, as many would have us believe.
Along the way we are treated to many of the often overlooked but juicy details of the case. A small sampling would include:
A description of the origin and the interesting details of the life-and-death power struggle between Comiskey and Ban Johnson and how it led directly to the formation of the Grand Jury, and the possible real motives behind Johnson's desire to convene it.
The courageous role played by whistleblower Hugh Fullerton, who, in amazing parallels to the Watergate scandal, assumes the role of Woodward and Bernstein. We learn how his diligence almost single-handedly broke through the cover-up, how his efforts were nearly thwarted, and the steep price he paid to career and person, including attempted murder, for challenging baseball's ruling authorities.
The previously unheralded role played by the gambling publication, "Collyer's Eye," its reporter Frank O. Klein, and how they tried to blow the whistle on the fix and the cover-up in the months immediately after the Series.
A detailed discussion of Judge Landis and his famous ruling that resulted in "eight men out," and succeeded in cleaning up baseball's tarnished image. But in the words of Mr. Carney: "By failing to give consideration to the different degrees of participation in the fix, and by pretending that banning eight players solved the whole problem, [did] baseball officialdom perpetuate a cover-up?"
An interesting section on the "Woodland Bards": a select group of Comiskey cronies that consisted of friends, fellow owners, former ballplayers, reporters, politicians, entertainers, gamblers, and drinking buddies and the role they played in the drama.
How the media distorted Jackson's original Grand Jury statement, characterizing it as a "confession" instead of a "contradictory account of a confused witness," neglecting to reveal that he repeatedly stated that he played all games to win.
After years of reading about the 1919 World Series, all the events in this sordid affair are finally starting to fall into place and to make sense, thanks largely to Mr. Carney and BURYING THE BLACK SOX. It would be hard to call this book the "definitive" version of the Black Sox scandal, only because, as Mr. Carney states, it raises as many new questions as it answers. But I think we can safely assume that Gene Carney is today's foremost authority on the 1919 World Series; and he is to be commended for the diligence and thoroughness that he devotes to this highly emotional, highly controversial subject. It's also safe to say that BURYING THE BLACK SOX is a "must-read" for anyone interested in discussing intelligently this sad chapter in baseball's long and storied history.