This year marks the 90th anniversary of the infamous “Black Sox” scandal. The scandal was that 8 players on the Chicago White Sox conspired (or at least had knowledge of the conspiracy) to throw the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. Chicago was heavily favored over Cincinnati going into the series, which tempted bookies and players a little too much. The lure of money would be the downfall of the White Sox team. In 1920, the 8 players involved were all banned from baseball for life.
I was thinking about the circumstances surrounding this issue. We could not imagine professional players intentionally losing a game or a series today for a potential payout and lifetime ban from their sport. The main reason is that players are paid extremely well in all 4 professional sports in America. In addition, each league has numerous advantages over the athletes who played in the early 1900s. What are these advantages, and what conditions caused the White Sox to throw a World Series?
Let’s start with Free Agency. Major League Baseball Players were not recognized as free agents until 1975. For the previous 96 years, baseball worked under the “reserve clause.” This was an agreement among the owners that even after a contract on a player expired, the rights to that player still belonged to the team he was playing for. In other words, when a player completed his contract, no other owner would sign him. This made sure salaries were controlled by the owners, because they collectively agreed that if one owner broke this agreement, salaries would rapidly get unmanageable. The goal was to protect the investment and profits of the owners, and it worked.
What would happen if a player claimed his free agency anyway? The owners came up with a “blacklist,” which basically was a list compiled by individual owners each year to pass around. Once you were on the list, you didn’t get signed by other teams, and you weren’t allowed to make your living at baseball anymore. The only ways to legitimately change teams would be to get released from your team, or traded to another team. Every option was dictated by the owners.
Why not create a new major league? This was attempted several times as well. The American League began in 1901 with the idea that the players would receive better treatment by owners, and more pay. They soon adopted the reserve clause, and made nice with the National League. The last, best attempt for another major league came in 1914 with the Federal League. The timing could not have been worse, because after 2 seasons funds dried up and the nation was soon off to war. Because so many players jumped to this league, the owners did waive the “blacklist” for a short time to allow players to return to the American or National Leagues and resume playing under the reserve clause.
Why not do what modern Americans would do – sue the owners? The players did, and in 1922 (3 years after the 1919 World Series) the case went to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the reserve clause was not interstate commerce, so it was exempt from anti-trust laws. In other words, even the U.S. Justice Department wasn’t going to mess with this one. Curt Flood also took his case for free agency to the Supreme Court in 1969. He lost 5-3.
What about the Players Union? There were several attempts in the 1800s and early 1900s for players to organize themselves under a union. All of them failed, mainly for lack of consistent funding or ability to agree as a group. The Players Association was formed in 1953, and became the de facto union. Though it wasn’t called a union for decades, it did serve the functions of a union. This was the first organized union that lasted more than 1 year in the history of professional baseball.
Before unionization, player representatives were invited to owners meetings, in 1946. Again, this was far too late to have an impact on early professional ballplayers. Still, at the first owners meeting with players in 1946, the reserve clause was brought up. The owners were able to keep the clause by giving the players the pension fund they had been requesting for decades.
The only leverage ballplayers had themselves was their own ability to play. Players could, and did strike. The problem was without a union to back them, all strikes were small, involving individual players, or maybe a team, but never an entire league. The first organized strike in baseball occurred in 1972. In the 1918 World Series, between the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs, both teams did threaten to strike before game 5. The reason was that neither team felt they were getting proper bonuses for leading their teams to the Fall Classic. This shows that player conditions had reached a boiling point in professional baseball, and things needed to change. How did the owners keep the teams from striking? They reminded the players that the country was at war, and a strike would only look greedy to the public. After the series, neither owner did anything to alleviate the conditions, which led into 1919.
Now, let’s imagine you are a player for the 1919 Chicago White Sox. You are on the best team in baseball. You play in a league that is run, ruled, and dictated by owners. You have seen all attempts to unionize fail, and every alternative major league fold. You don’t want to claim your free agency, for fear you will be blacklisted. You have seen how even strikes don’t really work. Yet, you love your job, and you love playing. What would you do?
I see the Black Sox scandal as 2 things: 1) This was an attempt by players to earn the pay they deserved, and 2) this was a desperate attempt by players to shake up the rules all professional ballplayers had to play by. The owners held all of the cards, and players operated under conditions that would not be acceptable in any other work place in America at the time.
I would like to see the current commissioner of baseball take a hard look at the conditions that made the 1919 World Series occur. I do not condone intentionally throwing a contest, especially for gambling purposes. I also don’t condone the reserve clause and the blacklist that made it possible for players to consider taking gambling money to replace money they weren’t getting from their clubs. This isn’t just about 8 players who tarnished the game of baseball. This is also about greedy owners who manipulated and milked a system for their own profit and gain.
In a world where Alex Rodriguez can keep playing after being caught cheating, and where Michael Vick can get reinstated after his deplorable acts, I ask that we give the 1919 Chicago White Sox the dignity of at least being reinstated in baseball. Their acts were no better or no worse than current athletes, but if they would have been treated fairly all along, they would never have even considered committing them. Let’s judge their acts properly, in light of what we know today.