Baseball’s Sacrificial Lamb Deserves Resurrection

“Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player who throws a ballgame, no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ballgame, no player that sits in conference with a bunch of crooked players 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.”

Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, first Commissioner of Baseball, 1921

So goes the decree that banned eight ballplayers from the Chicago White Sox for their involvement in conspiring with gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. But upon close examination of the statement, the last line draws special attention, as it was written for, and directed toward, one player: George “Buck” Weaver.

Much has been written about and endlessly speculated over the Black Sox, as they (perhaps erroneously, since they were called this before 1919 as a joke about their always dirty uniforms) are forever known, but therein lies the problem: Nobody really knew what was happening. Not then, and certainly not nearly a century later. It was for this uncertainty that players like Weaver kept their mouth shut during the Series. It was clear that there was some sort of problem on the field, but nobody was certain who was participating and who was playing honest. To make matters worse, virtually everyone within the White Sox organization had knowledge of it, but one man was crucified to take the fall. Let’s examine why.

During the 1921 criminal trial of the eight players, sparked after sportswriter Hugh Fullerton and others exposed the scandal, testimony from some of the gamblers as well as scorecards of the games generated enough evidence of foul play to indicate that something wasn’t right. Questionable plays in each game showed the Series was not on the level, and this was backed up by the aforementioned testimonies. However, the trial itself quickly became a bigger scandal than the Series. Signed confessions to the Grand Jury by three of the accused players mysteriously disappeared. (The accepted theory is that Charles Comiskey, along with perhaps some gambling bigwigs, paid to have them stolen in order to make the trial a wash and thus protect the business of baseball.) This lack of official admission led to the eventual aquittal of the players in court. However, behind the scenes, American League President Ban Johnson, and National League President John Heydler along with several owners, appointed Kenesaw Mountain Landis, a former federal judge, as baseball’s first Commissioner. The very first ruling he made in this role was to ban the eight players forever, a decision he was within his right to make, as he was given absolute ruling power over the game of baseball.

Individually, there was little question about the involvement of six of the eight players. The other two, the gritty and ever-smiling Weaver and the legendary “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, have generated decades of sympathy and pleas for reinstatement, largely due to the sparking performance each turned in during the ’19 Series. Jackson hit .375 and the Series’ only home run, while Weaver hit .324 and played flawless defense. Jackson however, despite having Hall of Fame-worthy career statistics, has one red thumb: He accepted money for his participation in the fix. Even though he did nothing on the field to indicate he was not playing on the level, he was illegally paid. That, sadly, is enough to keep him out. Weaver on the other hand, did not take a dime, and had no participation other than simply being aware that the nefarious plan was hatched. But by Game 3 of the Series, it was completely unclear who was trying and who wasn’t. Buck tried to tell manager Kid Gleason and others, but it fell on deaf ears. Moreover, he didn’t know who to rat out or what to say! Had he made what was considered a false accusation, he could’ve implicated himself in a serious matter, so he was literally unable to resolve the situation! Landis’ statement had a special section at the end for Weaver. Why? He needed to set a precedent.

There simply was no rule in place at the time about punishing those with guilty knowledge of something, so he made one. The problem was, Weaver was by far not the only one who knew of the fix. The rest of the team, manager Kid Gleason, even owner Charles Comiskey himself had caught wind of the fix before the Series even began. But knowing Weaver was part of the “in” crowd on the clique-ridden Sox, the likes of which had orchestrated the fix to begin with, he declared Weaver guilty by association and banned him with the others. Precedent set. ‘Ol Buck was the fall guy.

Weaver’s sacrifice has not been in vain however, as through the years many gambling incidents were avoided or saved by Buck’s banishment. It became a well-known and understood fact that you could indeed face banishment for knowledge of throwing games, and thus, in an indirect and perhaps ironic way, Weaver has helped preserve the game’s integrity. All things considered, that could and should weigh heavily in his favor and be more than a bullet point in his case for reinstatement.

What happens now? For nearly a century, there has been an outpouring of support for both Jackson and Weaver’s reinstatement. This will likely never happen for Jackson, as although he had a stellar career, he did accept money for the ’19 Series. Intangibly speaking, to reinstate Shoeless Joe would be the equivalent of removing a huge chunk of baseball folklore from the world and giving a new identity to one of the games most tragic heroes. Baseball likely will not do this. Weaver by comparison, was nothing more than a bystander who was made an example of. He was ripped away from the game he adored during the prime of his career. The only third baseman that Ty Cobb would never bunt against, was cast out unjustly for the sake of establishing a rule. Now that that precedent has been set, I’d say his punishment is long, long over. It’s now up to Commissioner Rob Manfred, or any future commissioners to soften their hearts a bit, and right a wrong.

Let the Ginger Kid smile again.

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A Wrong That Needs Righting (preview)

“Though they are hopeless and heartless, the White Sox have a hero. He is George Weaver, who plays and fights at third base. Day after day Weaver has done his work and smiled. In spite of the certain fate that closed about the hopes of the Sox, Weaver smiled and scrapped. One by one his mates gave up. Weaver continued to grin and fought harder….Weaver’s smile never faded. His spirit never waned….The Reds have beaten the spirit out of the Sox all but Weaver. Buck’s spirit is untouched. He was ready to die fighting. Buck is Chicago’s one big hero; long may he fight and smile.

Ross Tenney, Cincinnati Post, October 10, 1919

For nearly 100 years, the story of the infamous Black Sox has been an integral, and extremely sad element of baseball lore. Among the eight banned players, much hype and endless support has been proclaimed for the legendary Shoeless Joe Jackson, a Hall of Fame-worthy player who was banned as part of the fix. But one other accused player really took it on the teeth, forever removed from the game for no other reason than to serve as a scapegoat for a precedent which theretofore did not exist.

If anyone among the eight has served his time and deserves reinstatement, it’s not Joe Jackson. It’s Buck Weaver.

To be continued…

No Right For This Wrong

Last week, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred denied Pete Rose’s application for reinstatement into baseball. Naturally, the decision launched much debate, with strong arguments on both sides. I for one, agree with Manfred’s call, wholeheartedly. Here’s why:

  1. The rule was not just broken, it was shattered. Rule 21 is pretty clear. Rose bet on the game both as a player and manager. Repeatedly. He then lied about it and tried to cover it up. Repatedly. He continued for many years to deny it. Repeatedly. He only officially came clean when there was a chance for money to be made (book deal, appearances, et. al.) Repeatedly.
  2. He hasn’t followed the path that now three different commissioners have laid out for him to likely earn reinstatement. He has failed, for nearly three decades, to “reconfigure his life” in a manner that shows honest remorse, or an attempt to convey honesty. He still in fact, gambles on baseball. For better or worse, he has not changed.
  3. “What about all the PED users?” you’ll hear people ask. Comparing gambling to PED users is apples to oranges. Both are evil acts, yes. But whereas a PED user, although cheating, is simply trying to improve himself to the point of winning games or breaking records, those who bet on the game have too much control over the game itself – and therein lies the danger. They can manipulate, in very subtle ways, how the game is played and thus directly affect the outcome. A PED user still must play with all the inherent natural randomization of the game itself, despite the physical enhancements the drug may provide. A gambler can de-randomize everything and change any aspect from a single pitch to an entire game. Integrity, honesty and chance are all sacrificed in the world of betting, and this is why baseball does not trust Pete Rose. He hasn’t earned it.
  4. Baseball has a richer, more ghostly history than any other sport. To go back on a ruling(s) that has sparked so much debate, would take away some of that deep folklore. Though this is purely intangibile and speculatory on my part, it’s something to consider. It’s for reasons like this that players like Shoeless Joe Jackson and Buck Weaver (of 1919 White Sox infamy, a topic for a later post) will likely never be reinstated. To do so would remove the tragic hero and replace him with just another great ballplayer. This may be just, but it would essentially bring the baseball ghost back to life, and lessen the forlorn tale.
  5. Rose is not the victim here. His wounds were and are, purely self-inflicted. While he was one of the all-time greats, and has Hall of Fame worthy statistics, he is not a tragic hero. His case is not an injustice. He destroyed the integrity of the game, and for 26 years since his banishment has not even attempted to redeem himself, despite clear instructions on how to do so from the baseball powers-that-be.