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The Chicago Black Sox and baseball’s rule of law

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Sports have already been an Acton topic in the past week, so another sports story can’t hurt: 100 years ago this month was the 1919 World Series between the Chicago White Sox and Cincinnati Reds, infamous ever since for the “Black Sox” scandal, in which eight members of the heavily favored Chicago team accepted money from gamblers to throw the series to Cincinnati. The series ended on October 9, 1919, though the reckoning for players involved in the scheme was not to come until late 1920. On September 28 of that year, the eight accused players were indicted and immediately suspended by White Sox owner Charles Comiskey.

The scandal didn’t have the political fallout that last week’s NBA kerfuffle had, but it was a big deal at the time, of course, and the changes it ushered in are still with us today. More to an Acton point, it’s a parable of sorts on the rule of law and its implementation.

John Thorn, Major League Baseball’s official historian, points out in this article that “the scandal was a cataclysmic event in the game’s history not because it was the first time anyone had cheated, but because it was the first time the public knew about it.” According to Thorn, attempts to fix the Series had already been made in 1903, 1905, 1914, 1917 and 1918 – fully a third of all the World Series played before the Black Sox debacle – in addition to countless such efforts in less important games. Gambling and baseball were anything but strangers to one another. The Chicago fix, though, brought the sport’s darker side out into the open and convinced team owners that they needed to do something to restore their credibility with the public. Ultimately their solution was a new office of Commissioner of Baseball, someone who had no financial interest in the game and would provide real enforcement of the rules. In the words of National League president John Heydler, “We want a man as chairman who will rule with an iron hand….Baseball has lacked a hand like that for years. It needs it now worse than ever.” The “iron hand” they found was that of an Illinois federal judge named Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

Kenesaw Mountain Landis had been named a US district court judge by Teddy Roosevelt in 1905 and quickly gained a reputation for zealous enforcement, and for his theatrical sense. His courtroom in Chicago was adorned with two murals – one of King John agreeing to the Magna Carta and one of Moses about to smash the tablets of the Law. He was a longtime baseball fan too, patronizing both Chicago teams, and had even been offered a contract to play professionally before deciding to pursue law instead. Upon his appointment as commissioner in November 1920, he wasted no time in rigorously combating infractions that had long been winked at – during his tenure Landis would issue lifetime bans on 18 players. In 1921 he also locked horns with Babe Ruth, whose popularity had until then largely allowed him to do what he wanted. Ruth went ahead with an off-season barnstorming tour despite Landis’s refusal to approve it; Landis succeeded in asserting his authority and the tour fell flat. The commissioner suspended Ruth for over a month and even gave him an in-person two-hour lecture on respect for authority. “He sure can talk,” the Babe said afterwards.

Landis’s first concern on taking office, though, and what he remains most known for, was his response to the Black Sox scandal. The eight suspended White Sox players’ trial began in July of 1921 in the Cook County Circuit Court in Chicago. On August 2, jurors acquitted all eight. But that wasn’t good enough for Landis: “Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player who throws a ball game, no player who undertakes or promises to throw a ball game, no player who sits in confidence with a bunch of crooked ballplayers and gamblers, where the ways and means of throwing a game are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball again.” He placed all eight on the lifetime ineligible list, a ban that – to the dismay of Shoeless Joe Jackson fans – remains in force today.

Some of the actions Landis took may seem a bit harsh in hindsight. He argued – correctly, I would say – that they needed to be to bring some order into the Wild West of Major League norms. It’s also undeniable that baseball owners who were looking for a rule of law (and a burnishing of their tainted credibility) got what they wanted. Landis restored baseball’s integrity in the public eye, and it wasn’t just a façade – players got the message that schemes and shenanigans, or even passive knowledge of them, would no longer be tolerated. The integrity of the rule of law is a quality that goes beyond just a game.

(Homepage photo: 1919 Chicago White Sox. Public domain.)

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Joshua Gregor Joshua Gregor is International Relations Assistant at the Acton Institute. Before coming to Acton he received a BA in philosophy from the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Rome and an MA in linguistics from Indiana University.

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