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The Black Sox Scandal
"I may be a pitcher, but first off I'm a hitter. I copied my swing after Joe Jackson. His is the most perfectest...."
— Babe Ruth to Grantland Rice, 1919
In 1921, the newly appointed commissioner of baseball, federal judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, imposed a lifetime ban on all eight players of the Chicago White Sox baseball team who had been accused of conspiring with gamblers to intentionally lose the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds in what is the biggest scandal in major league history. Landis, who had been appointed to investigate the fix, banned the players despite their acquittal of wrongdoing by a Chicago jury. "Regardless of the verdict of juries," Landis declared, "no player that throws a ballgame; no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ballgame; no player that sits in a conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing games are planned and discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball."
The most high-profile player accused of throwing the World Series was star outfielder "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, who in his 13-year career compiled the third-highest lifetime batting average in major league history. More than a century after his rookie season, Jackson's .408 season average remains the sixth highest since 1901, widely regarded as the beginning of the modern era for the sport. His average that year also established the record for batting average in a single season by a rookie. However, the Black Sox Scandal, as it came to be known, destroyed his reputation. After the heavily favored White Sox lost the 1919 World Series to Cincinnati, Jackson and seven other White Sox players were accused of accepting $5,000 each to throw the Series. It didn't seem to matter to authorities that Shoeless Joe had played a nearly impeccable World Series. He led both teams with a .375 batting average, including a dozen base hits that set a Series record that was not broken until 1964. He committed no errors, and threw out a runner at the plate. Allegations that Cincinnati batters hit an unusually high number of triples to Jackson's position in left field are not supported by newspaper accounts, which recorded no Reds triples at all to left field.
In September 1920, however, a grand jury was convened to investigate the allegations. On September 28, Shoeless Joe appeared before the grand jury and in sworn testimony confessed to his role. His testimony:
Q. Did anybody pay you any money to help throw that series in favor of Cincinnati?
A. They did.
Q. How much did they pay?
A. They promised me $20,000 and paid me five.
Q. Who promised you $20,000?
A. Chick Gandil.
Q. Who is Chick Gandil?
A. He was their first baseman on the White Sox club.
Q. Who paid you the $5,000?
A. Lefty Williams brought it in my room and threw it down.
Q. Who is Lefty Williams?
A. The pitcher on the White Sox club ...
Q. Does she [Mrs. Jackson] know that you got $5,000 for helping throw these games?
A. She did that night, yes.
Q. You say you told Mrs. Jackson that night?
A. Did. Yes.
Q. What did she say about it?
A. She said she thought it was an awful thing to do. ... She felt awful bad about it, she cried about it a while.
Jackson testified that he tried to back out. "I did tell them once, 'I am not going to be into it. I will just get out of it altogether.'" According to the 1921 trial testimonies of two of the men who organized throwing the World Series, Jackson did not attend any of the pre-Series meetings when the fix was discussed. But it was too late. Sensing a serious threat to the game as America's national pastime, baseball officials took sweeping steps whose impact is still felt. The position of baseball commissioner was created with the extraordinary power of permanently banning players from the era of Shoeless Joe Jackson to Pete Rose three-quarters of a century later. To this day, every major league clubhouse prominently displays a large sign reminding players of the strict rules prohibiting gambling.
Shoeless Joe's fall from grace was complete, the jury acquittal notwithstanding. Jackson later sued the White Sox for lost wages, and a jury found in his favor. The presiding judge, however, set aside the verdict ruling that Shoeless Joe's grand jury testimony in 1920 contradicted what he had sworn to in trial and constituted a prima facie case of perjury. That judge had found Jackson to be a liar and perjurer on top of someone who had accepted a bribe to throw the World Series.
"Jackson's fall from grace is one of the real tragedies of baseball," said a disheartened Philadelphia Athletics owner and manager Connie Mack when he looked back at Shoeless Joe's ban from the game. "I always thought he was more sinned against than sinning."
Shoeless Joe, though, would have an inordinate impact on baseball. Nostalgic sentimentalists years later erected remembrances to the player — from statues and museums to a Congressional resolution lauding his career and induction into the Southern California–based Baseball Reliquary's Shrine of the Eternals, a fans' alternative to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, from which Jackson is also banned. But it is perhaps the biggest irony known to baseball that Shoeless Joe Jackson's biggest legacy may have been his influence on the one individual credited for saving the game after the tarnish of the Black Sox Scandal — the baseball player who would become the game's greatest star.
George Herman "Babe" Ruth loved Shoeless Joe. As his granddaughter Linda Ruth Tosetti said in a 2013 interview: "Babe Ruth's idol was Shoeless Joe Jackson. He kind of fashioned his swing at the beginning like Jackson's. In his earlier days he had his bats whittled by the same man who whittled Joe's."
In 1911, when Jackson captured fans' imagination with his sensational rookie season, Ruth was 16 and living at St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys, a reformatory in Baltimore where he was honing his own baseball skills and still not yet the player who would become the immortal Babe. It would be another three years before Ruth was signed to play minor-league baseball for the Baltimore Orioles, then of the International League, and subsequently sold to the Boston Red Sox of the American League in midseason. Over the next two seasons, Ruth built a reputation as an outstanding left-handed pitcher who sometimes hit long home runs, which was unusual in the pre-1920 dead-ball era.
All the while, Ruth wanted simply to be the next Shoeless Joe Jackson. As a kid, young Babe had seen Shoeless Joe at his best — slugging baseballs as no other player ever had before, using a swing that was just as unique. Ruth was only one of many aspiring ballplayers who admired Shoeless Joe's swing, which was so unusual for that time that no one seriously tried to copy it. No one, that is, except young Babe. "I decided to pick out the greatest hitter to watch and study," he later said, "and Joe Jackson was good enough for me."
Babe, did more than just imitate Shoeless Joe's swing. Each day, while taking batting practice with the Red Sox, Ruth worked on the swing as best as he could remember it. Then, on one of the White Sox's trips to Boston, young Ruth decided to get a lesson on how to swing like Shoeless Joe from Shoeless Joe Jackson himself. "What'd I have to lose except Joe laughing at me?" Ruth would ask Johnny Grant decades later. "'Joe, show me, how you hit, step by step,' I said. I don't think he quite believed I could hit swinging the way he did 'cause nobody else ever had. But he saw that I'd already gotten a hang of it."
Jackson personally showed Ruth how to stand properly at the plate to hit the way he did, according to an interview Shoeless Joe gave in 1932 to the Greenville News-Piedmont in Georgia. Jackson even went so far as to loan Babe on several occasions his prized personal bat, nicknamed Black Betsy, while borrowing Ruth's own bats in return. Fortunately for Babe, Mother Nature had given him a head start. Like Shoeless Joe, Babe was pigeon toed, and they were both distinctive pigeon-toed batters. "In the history of the game, they would be the only two great hitters who hit identically alike," Jimmie Reese, who played in that era and roomed with Ruth one season, recalled in an interview years later. "They stood close to the plate with their left toes facing in and their right toes turned in and pointing to the far right hand corner. Their hands were down on the end of the bat. They gave it all they had in the only way they knew."
And did the Babe ever. In 1920, the year after the Black Sox scandal, Babe Ruth, in his first season with the New York Yankees, slugged 54 home runs, breaking the record of 29 that he had set himself the previous year. Two years earlier, when he was still a part-time outfielder with the Red Sox, his league-leading mark had been a modest 11 home runs. Suddenly, though, Ruth's power hitting had made a quantum leap, taking baseball with him to an unimagined new level of excitement. This was how baseball survived the Black Sox scandal, as gambling's influence declined but, more importantly, as Babe Ruth transformed the game.
"Every big leaguer and his wife should teach their children to pray, 'God bless Mommy, God bless Daddy, and God bless Babe Ruth," his Yankee teammate Waite Hoyt later said about Ruth's importance to the game. "I've seen them: kids, men, women, worshippers all, hoping to get his name on a torn, dirty piece of paper, or hoping for a grunt of recognition when they said, 'Hi-ya, Babe.' He never let them down. Not once. He was the greatest crowd pleaser of them all."
The unique relationship between America and baseball must be understood to fully appreciate Babe Ruth's place in the equation. This was the age when baseball players were the princes of American sports, along with heavyweight boxers and race horses and the odd galloping ghost of a running back from the Midwest or the occasional lanky basketball player in short-shorts. Baseball players were the souls of their cities.
By the turn of the 20 century, every major American city had a major league baseball team — New York, St. Louis, Chicago, and Boston each fielded two — and towns throughout the country were studded with minor league franchises. Baseball had undergone a transformation from its origins in the 19 century as an aristocratic club sport to the game of all Americans. As historian Steven A. Riess observed, although the game had become an urban experience, fans nevertheless "saw baseball as an extension of rural America into the cities," where ballparks were "green oases in a largely concrete world ... where spectators could readily slip back into an idyllic, rural past." Never having had a national pastime before in its history, America suddenly had one.
Long before Babe Ruth, his hero Shoeless Joe Jackson, and Lou Gehrig, long before baseball became an industry of multinational owners and millionaire players, Walt Whitman wrote, "Well, it's our game. That's the chief fact in connection with it: America's game. It has the snap, go, fling of the American atmosphere. It belongs as much to our institutions, fits into them as significantly as our Constitution's laws, is just as important in the sum total of our historic life." Baseball is, to be sure, an American cultural declaration of independence. It has come to express the nation's character — perhaps never more so than during the years immediately after a scandal threatened to ruin the integrity of the game. That time ushered in a preoccupation with defining the national conscience, and particularly defining the national identity, which Babe Ruth came to symbolize.
"Sometimes I still can't believe what I saw," Ruth's teammate Harry Hooper recalled. "This 19-year-old kid, crude, poorly educated, only lightly brushed by the social veneer we call civilization, gradually transformed into the idol of American youth and the symbol of baseball the world over — a man loved by more people and with an intensity of feeling that perhaps has never been equaled before or since."
It was the Jazz Age, the decade of the flapper and Prohibition. It was the age of Babe Ruth, the most photographed man of the time. Newspapers had become the media giants of America, and New York City at the time had 11 dailies for which Ruth's melodramatic life on and off the field was the ideal subject for their increasing emphasis on pop cultural sensationalism. The Babe's exploits on the diamond and his garrulous charisma off of it helped revolutionize baseball from a game to a major force in the modern entertainment industry. Radio broadcast baseball games throughout the season, and fans flocked to see Yankees games in record numbers.
"When he came over to the Yankees from the Red Sox in 1920, the Yankees were sharing the Polo Grounds with the Giants," Eric Jentsch, a curator of culture and the arts at New York's American History Museum said in appraising Ruth's legacy. "After Ruth came and made such a dramatic change in the game with all his home runs, Yankees attendance doubled and totally surpassed the Giants', so the Giants kicked them out. The Yankees built this beautiful, huge stadium because they got so popular from Ruth, and then were able to create this dynasty that they've had. The Yankees ended up running both the Giants and Dodgers out of town because they were so popular."
The rise of the New York Yankees, of course, only mirrored Babe Ruth's own remarkable ascendance. He went from being one of the best pitchers at the end of the dead-ball era over the last half of the 1910s to ushering in the live ball era in the 1920s by becoming baseball's greatest player.
In March 1921, Babe was in Shreveport, Louisiana, for a month of spring training, and as biographer Robert W. Creamer wrote, having "roared into that Louisiana city like cowboys coming to town on Saturday night." Shreveport citizens treated baseball's home run king like royalty, showering him with gifts, and jam-packing games and even practices by the thousands. A local Essex automobile dealer gave him a car to use during that month with a license plate read simply BabeRuth's Essex. Unsurprisingly, the car was found one morning abandoned in the middle of the street where Babe had apparently left it and rode off with someone else during a night of carousing.
On March 12, Ruth went hitless in five at-bats in the team's exhibition game, though the Yankees still beat the local Gassers 7–3. Preparing himself for a big year, the Babe boldly began predicting he would hit 60 home runs in the coming season. Meanwhile, at baseball's headquarters in New York, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, just two months on the job as commissioner, suspended Shoeless Joe Jackson and seven of his teammates following a report that their conspiracy bribery trial in Chicago would be delayed. "I deeply regret the postponement of these cases," Landis said in his announcement. "However, baseball is not powerless to protect itself. All of the indicted players have today been placed on the ineligible list."
Almost five months later, a Chicago jury acquitted Jackson, seven other White Sox players, and two gamblers on charges that they conspired to defraud the public by throwing the 1919 World Series. Several hundred spectators in a Chicago courtroom celebrated and cheered "Hooray for the clean Sox!" But the celebration wouldn't last 24 hours. The following day, the baseball commissioner banned the eight Black Sox players for life. The Yankees were well on their way to capturing their first American League pennant in franchise history by winning a team-record 98 games and the White Sox fell to seventh place by the end of the season, 361/2 games behind the new champions.
Babe Ruth and the New York Yankees would never look back. They, like baseball, owed a king's ransom in gratitude to Shoeless Joe Jackson and the Black Sox Scandal.
"God knows I gave my best in baseball at all times," Shoeless Joe would say near the end of his life, "and no man on earth can truthfully judge me otherwise."
"I've never heard a crowd boo a homer, but I've heard plenty of boos after a strikeout."
— Babe Ruth
"Are you going to keep letting down those dirty-faced little kids?" New York state senator James J. Walker, an up-and-coming politico — and no saint himself — admonished Babe Ruth for his cavorting, late-night escapades and behemoth appetite that kept him constantly out of shape. It was Babe's ways, he claimed, that led to an embarrassing 1922 World Series loss to the Giants. Ruth, once one of those dirty-faced little kids himself, broke down in tears at a dinner in the New York Elks Club, and Walker continued unloading on him in the men's room: "You're a dead man, Babe. Hell, even Jesus Christ couldn't get resurrected in this town."
That's how low Babe Ruth's image had sunk after his third season with the New York Yankees. He had been sold by the Boston Red Sox to the Yankees before the 1920 season and had arrived amid great expectations, having been part of two World Series–winning teams. He had then raised New Yorkers' hopes by slugging a record number of home runs in his first two seasons, only to disappoint with a second straight World Series loss in 1922. So one could see how his scandalous personal life could be used by a politician to paint him as a failure — a dead man without a second chance in New York, even as the Yankees were opening their new stadium. Possibly not, but New York in the 1920s, while not Sodom nor Gomorrah, was hardly first-century Jerusalem either.
Excerpted from "Gehrig & the Babe"
Copyright © 2018 Tony Castro.
Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books LLC.
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Table of Contents
1 The Black Sox Scandal 1
2 Babe's Resurrection 11
3 Beginnings 31
4 The Tale of the Most Costly Headache 51
5 Claire Ruth 63
6 Elegnor Gehrig 79
7 "Baseball's Gift to Women" 93
8 The Yankees' Team Mom 107
9 Pre-Yankees Babe 115
10 The Eastern Babe 129
11 The Making of Gehrig and Ruth 141
12 The Gehrigs and Ruth 155
13 The Bottom Falls Out 165
14 The Early 1930s 175
15 Called Shots 189
16 The Feud 199
17 Post-Ruth 211
18 The Streak Ends 221
19 "The Luckiest Man" 231
Appendix 1 Babe Ruth's Farewell Speech 255
Appendix 2 Lou Gehrig's Farewell Speech 257
Appendix 3 Letters of Note 259
Appendix 4 Career Statistics 261
About the Author 273