17 May 2006

Burying the Black Sox, by Gene Carney

Burying the Black Sox: How Baseball's Cover-Up of the 1919 World Series Fix Almost Succeeded
by Gene Carney
c. 2006 Potomac Books Inc. $26.95 (Hardcover)

"Was [reporter and scandal-investigator Hugh] Fullerton a Don Quixote? He took a huge risk, and lost. He underestimated baseball's ability to keep the lid screwed tightly on the scandal. Fullerton had a blind spot when it came to the Sox's owner...and this ultimately cost him. He imagined that the baseball owners and [American League President] Ban Johnson had consciences to which he could appeal with passion and logic. he may have hoped that his voice would be joined by writers in every major city, and his articles would be the snowball that started an avalanche. But instead, by iself, his case had more like a snowball's chance in hell."

I usually like to include a short but meaningful quote from the books I review, some pithy comment by the author, to give you an idea what his or her book is about, but Gene Carney presented me with a unique problem. There is very little about his book that could be accurately described as "pithy". Not to be misunderstood, it's not as though he goes off on weird, irrelevant tangents all the time like, for example, I do. It's just that his subject requires fairly dense prose to give it the proper attention, which he does. The quote above does the best job of summarizing the meaning of and reason for the book he wrote. It just isn't short. Sorry about that.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me back up.

I first found out about this book in March, when I wrote a column for All-Baseball.com about the 1919 Chicago White Sox, ostensibly because last year's White Sox team wasn't ineresting enough to justify a column, but really just because the Black Sox were what I wanted to write about anyway. Mr. Carney's publisher commented on the post and contacted me to see if I'd be interested in reading and reviewing this book, which of course, I was, and I did. You see, I spent perhaps the better part of a week doing research for my article, while Carney spent years researchiing his book. It turns out that I had a lot to learn.

Carney's book does not merely dispel some of the myths surrounding the 1919 World Series. It practically starts the whole investigation from scratch. The White Sox never really called their 88-year championship drought a "curse" as Red Sox fans did, but the fact that they hadn't won one since before the team was accused of throwing the World Series sure didn't escape anyone's attention either. Carney was researching and writing his book long before the 2005 team ended that drought, and the meticulous care with which he approached his subject is immediately apparent.

Before you even get into the chapters of the book, Carney lists an entire "roster" of not just the players on the Sox and the Cincinnati Reds, but the front office personnel, league administrators, reporters and gamblers who played some role in the scandal itself and/or its attempted cover-up. He also has a brief chronology so the reader will know the basic flow of the events, which is mostly intended for those of us whose only background on the subject comes from watching John Sayles' movie "Eight Men Out", during which you may or may not have realized that an entire year transpired between the end of the World Series and the grand jury testimonies about the Fix.

In truth, many of the facts of the fixed Series did not come out until much later, at an otherwise unrelated trial, in 1924. At that time, the now-banned Shoeless Joe Jackson was suing the White Sox for back-pay, which raised the issue of why he was released in the first place. Burying the Black Sox really starts here, at this 1924 trial, looking at things much more closely than anyone did at the time, to see what could be learned about Joe Jackson and his involvement (if any) in the fixing of the 1919 World Series. That trial, as you'll read, brought to light a myriad of interesting facts, facts which forced Baseball to divulge some of its secrets and to admit, in some ways, how thin a case it had against the "eight men out". Oh, yeah...but they're banned anyway.

From there, the book goes back to the 1919 Series itself, outlining the events of each game, from the standpoints of baseball and of betting. He then details the attempted cover-up, initiated mostly by White Sox owner Charles Comiskey and other powerful men trying to save baseball's sterling image and of course, trying to save themselves a little Sterling, too. As the biggest-name player involved in the fix of the Series, Carney spends a whole chapter detailing the ways that Shoeless Joe Jackson may or may not have been involved with the fix of the series. He does a remarkably good job of providing lots of facts and at least attempting to allow the reader to draw his own conclusions about Jackson's guilt or innocence, though it seemed fairly apparent to me that Carney thinks he's innocent.

The next chapter essentially explains why it took an entire year for the facts of the Fix to come to light, and why no official investigation had been initiated sooner. The results of that investigation, the subsequent trial of the accused players and the aftermath of their odd verdict ("Acquitted...but banned anyway") are the subject of the next chapter.

He spends most of the rest of the book profiling people, especially the banned players on the White Sox. Particular attention is paid to Joe Jackson and starting pitchers Eddie Cicotte and Lefty Williams, the latter two having started and lost four of the five World Series contests in 1919. But he also discusses the remaining five banned players, Happy Felsch, Swede Risberg, Fred McMullin, Chick Gandil and Buck Weaver, who was banned for being in the wrong place an the wrong time, and for not "tattling" on his teammates.

There is a laundry list of gamblers, gangsters and their associates who may have played some role in this messy history, and so the Fixers get a chapter all their own, and Carney even spends a chapter commenting on how others have written on or spoken of the subject throughout history. He spends a little time on old-time baseball writer Ring Lardner, poet Nelson Algren, and about a half dozen others who've written somehting prominent about the 1919 Chicago White Sox and/or the fixed Series. Because of his prominence, Carney spends quite a lot of effort reviewing and critiquing novelist Eliot Asinof, who wrote the book Eight Men Out, on which the movie was based.

One of Carney's biggest criticisms, of Asinof and others, is their lack of footnotes and references, so he makes darn sure that no one will be able to accuse him of the same kind of lazy reporting. The book totals 363 pages, but the last 60 pages or so (~ 20%) consist of endnotes (hundreds of them), references, sources and an index. Carney has done his detective work, and he's very particular about making that clear.

Unlike today, the details of a baseball game are not recorded by huge companies with huge budgets and huge computers, and so many of the details that might have helped us to decipher these events have either been lost to history or just haven't been found yet. Nevertheless, Carney does a remarkable job with the meager tools he was given, newspaper clippings and interviews with fuzzy-minded, nostalgic old ballplayers and the like, to piece together an interesting and insightful work. This naturally makes for very dense reading. Lots of names, dates, places, events, often reflected upon from more than one individual's perspective or recollection. It's a lot to soak up, but stick with it and you won't regret it. The book does not read like a "fast-paced novel", which is an overused phrase, anyway. More like a history textbook, except, not as dry, and in this case it's about a subject you actually want to learn about, as opposed to, say, the Teapot Dome Scandal.

Like any good investigator, especially one who's examining a series of events so entrenched in the American psyche, Carney seeks mainly to dispel myths and show the truth. For the Black Sox Scandal, its myth as much a part of our collective history as George Washington's cherry tree, people know the story so well that they often don't want to hear the truth. We've read the book or watched the movie, so we know about the "eight men out"...but we don't know how much more extensive the gambling problem was in baseball at the time. We know about the farcical trial in 1920...but almost nobody knows about Jackson's case against the Sox in 1924. We know that White Sox owner Charlie Comiskey was a greedy old so-and-so...but we don't know that the players were still paid relatively well, and that they actually initiated the Fix, not the gamblers.

And of course we know about the pathetic but adorable little street urchin who uttered the immortal plea to his hero as he exited the courtroom in 1920, "Say it ain't so, Joe!" Well, it turns out that this is probably also misleading at best. Carney puts it this way:

"It really doesn't matter, it's a handy red herring-it was in 1920 and it still is today. It keeps our attention focused on the ballplayers and on October 1919, missing the bigger picture of gambling in baseball and baseball's determination to insist that the game was clean and honest. People who have never heard of the Black Sox know 'Say it ain't so, Joe.' It's stuck in America's consciousness like a commercial jingle."

My recommendation is to try and get that jingle out of your head. Pick yourself up a copy of Burying the Black Sox, and try not to let your head spin too much as you read.