How the Chicago ‘Black Sox’ Scandal Ruined a Bright Pitching Career

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Team photograph courtesy of Richard Bak

In the summer of 1923, a baseball team from Bastrop, La., was tearing up sandlots and cow pastures in every direction. The semipro nine featured a round little pitcher named Moore, who dazzled batters with a virtually untouchable assortment of junk pitches, and an outfielder named Johnson, whose slugging and fielding prowess never failed to astonish. “The team has been cleaning up in Morehouse Parish,” a local newspaper marveled, “and has walloped almost every club it has met in north Louisiana and south Arkansas.”

Before too long, the identities of the team’s stars were revealed. “Johnson” actually was “Shoeless Joe” Jackson, an illiterate country boy generally considered the greatest natural hitter the game has ever seen. “Moore” was Eddie Cicotte, a lifelong Detroiter widely admired as one of the “brainiest” pitchers around. A few years earlier, they had been members of one of the greatest major-league teams ever assembled, enjoying careers that would have put both in the Hall of Fame. Now both were pariahs, banished from organized baseball after confessing to their roles in throwing the 1919 World Series.

 

The sad, sordid tale of the Chicago “Black Sox” scandal is embedded in American culture, its cast of characters — soulless, double-crossing gamblers; scheming, gullible ballplayers; and penurious, vindictive owners — represented in such films as Eight Men Out, Field of Dreams, and The Godfather, and novels like The Natural (also made into a movie) and The Great Gatsby.

“Say it ain’t so, Joe,” a boy reportedly pleaded to Jackson when news of the players’ betrayal shook the country. While there has always been some room for doubt about the complicity of Shoeless Joe in the fix that “play[ed] with the faith of 50 million people,” as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, there has never been any question of Cicotte’s role as a ringleader. In fact, Cicotte was the first of the eight Black Sox players eventually tossed out of baseball to admit his wrongdoing. Without the guilt-racked pitcher’s confession, it’s very possible the scandal would have remained a noisy but unconfirmed rumor instead of becoming the blackest episode in the long history of the national pastime.

Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress

Cicotte paid for his latent honesty for the rest of his days. “I don’t know anyone who ever went through life without making a mistake,” he said in a rare interview a few years before his death. “Everybody who has ever lived has committed sins of their own. I’ve tried to make up for it by living as clean a life as I could. I’m proud of the way I’ve lived and I think my family is, too.”

Family was important to Cicotte, so important that on a train ride in the summer of 1919 it caused the 35-year-old pitching ace to seriously consider for the first time selling out his employer, his teammates, and the public. As the Chicago White Sox headed to New York on a road trip, “Somebody made a crack about getting money, if we got into the Series, to throw the Series … and said they would go ahead and go through with it if they got this money,” Cicotte later explained. In New York, he got in touch with gamblers Billy Maharg and Bill Burns, telling them “something good was coming up.”

First baseman Chick Gandil, an ex-boxer with established underworld ties, brought Joseph “Sport” Sullivan, a Boston bookmaker banned in Detroit’s ballpark and elsewhere, into the conspiracy. Ultimately, Shoeless Joe Jackson, pitcher Claude “Lefty” Williams, shortstop Charles “Swede” Risberg, outfielder Oscar “Happy” Felsch, and infielder Fred McMullin were swept up in the scheme. Third baseman Buck Weaver knew of their plans but said nothing, a decision that caused him to be later lumped in with the guilty.

 

The White Sox won the American League pennant, which put them in a best-of-nine-games series against Cincinnati in the World Series. The Reds were big underdogs, but Cicotte and Gandil said their cabal would roll over for $100,000. New York gangster Arnold Rothstein was to funnel the money through his lieutenant, ex-prizefighter Abe Attell.

Cicotte pitched the opener in Cincinnati. He hit the first batters he faced, a sign that the fix was in. Chicago lost, 9-1. They dropped two of the next three contests, with Cicotte committing two key errors in a 2-0 loss in Game 4.

However, gamblers stalled when the players demanded their payouts. Exactly who got paid and how much they received is open to debate, but it appears that as little as $25,000 of the bribe money was actually distributed. Down four games to two and facing elimination, the double-crossed conspirators decided to play to win. Cicotte pitched masterfully to win Game 7, 4-1, but the Reds won the next day to take the Series. Gangsters supposedly had gotten to Lefty Williams, threatening to kill him and his wife if he didn’t lose his third start of the Series.

Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress

Cicotte, who once claimed, “There is no good substitute for brains in our profession,” was the only conspirator to demand his share up front. The day before the Series began, he found the money under his pillow. “There was $10,000,” he said. “I counted it. It was my price.”

Edgar Victor Cicotte (pronounced SEE-kot) was born June 19, 1884, in Springwells Township, the youngest of seven children. His father, who descended from one of the city’s old-line French families, was a laborer and died when his youngest was 10. Looking to help his mother make ends meet, Eddie dropped out of school to work in a box factory. In his free time, he played sandlot ball and went to Bennett Park whenever he could to watch the Tigers play.

Above left: Boston Red Sox baseball card printed between 1909-11 by Piedmont Cigarettes, as part of the “150 Subjects Baseball Series. Above right: A baseball card created in 1911 by Sweet Caporal Cigarettes called Cicotte, “one of the most dependable pitchers on the staff of the Boston Americans. Photographs courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The stocky right-handed pitcher broke into organized ball with teams in the Upper Peninsula. The Tigers invited him to a tryout in 1905, then optioned him to Augusta, Ga. While with Augusta, Cicotte married Rose Freer, a French-Canadian girl from Detroit. The Augusta lineup included a native Georgian, Ty Cobb. One day, Cicotte traded blows with Cobb after the skinny 18-year-old, nonchalantly eating a box of popcorn in the outfield, had ruined his bid for a shutout by muffing a fly ball.

Cicotte and Cobb came up to Detroit in the last weeks of the 1905 season. On Sept. 5, Cicotte notched the first of his 209 careers wins, beating the White Sox in front of friends and family at Bennett Park. While Cobb would spend 22 summers with the Tigers, Cicotte bounced around the minors for the next three years, experimenting with his knuckleball. He re-emerged in 1908 with the Boston Red Sox. During his five years in Boston, Cicotte was an underachieving pitcher who frequently clashed with management. “He was suspended without pay so much of the time that it was like having no job,” one sportswriter observed.

 

In July 1912, Cicotte was sold to the White Sox. Thanks to a superior supporting cast and his growing mastery of an arsenal of trick pitches, most of which were perfectly legal at the time, “Knuckles” Cicotte hit his stride in Chicago. In 1917, he developed the “shine ball,” which helped him to a breakout season. “He’d have some transparent paraffin on his trousers or somewhere, or some talcum powder, and every chance he’d get, he’d rub the ball there,” catcher Bob O’Farrell recalled. “That would make the ball slide off his fingers and put a real break on it when it came up to the plate.” Cicotte won a league-high 28 games, including a no-hitter, and posted a 1.53 earned-run average, best in the majors. In the 1917 World Series against the New York Giants, Cicotte’s flutterballs accounted for a 2-1 victory in the opener. The Sox went on to win the Series in six games. Cicotte returned to Detroit a world champion — an underpaid world champion, he complained.

Following a sub-par 1918 season, Cicotte signed a $5,000 contract for 1919. Baseball lore has it that Chicago owner Charles Comiskey agreed to give the pitcher a $10,000 bonus if he won 30 games, then ordered him benched in the season’s final weeks so he wouldn’t have to pay it. This supposedly was Cicotte’s impetus for agreeing to rig that year’s World Series.

The facts don’t bear this out. The contract Cicotte signed makes no mention of a bonus. Furthermore, it was Cicotte who asked to go home to Detroit after his 29th win. For the second time in three years, he would top all American League hurlers in wins and innings pitched. He wanted to rest his arm for post-season play. Instead, he wound up starting two more games in late September, including the pennant-clincher, though he didn’t receive credit for the victory. If Cicotte really did narrowly miss out on the alleged $10,000 bonus, it didn’t matter, for he would soon find that exact amount under his pillow.

Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress

What impelled Cicotte and others to throw the World Series? In a word, greed, though in their minds it must have seemed an acceptable kind of greed. Cicotte, like many players, felt chronically underpaid. For many years, he lived on Central Avenue near Vernor in Detroit. In 1919, the large brick house, which still stands, was bursting with family members. In addition to being the sole support of his pregnant wife and two young daughters, Cicotte had taken in his wife’s parents, his brother and wife and their young daughter, and his wife’s sister and her husband. He owned a garage, co-managed by his brother, and had taken out a $4,000 mortgage on a farm in Livonia Township, near present-day Seven Mile and Merriman roads. As Cicotte later related, he used the tainted money to pay off the mortgage and install new floors in the house and barn.

In the aftermath of the 1919 World Series, there was widespread talk that gamblers had gotten to the Sox, but no proof. Meanwhile, Comiskey doubled Cicotte’s salary to $10,000, making him one of the game’s highest-paid pitchers. Cicotte responded with another fine season. On Sunday, Sept. 26, 1920, he beat the Tigers at Comiskey Park for his 21st win. It was the last major-league game he would ever play. The following day, a Philadelphia paper published an interview with Billy Maharg, who verified the rumors of a fix. He named Cicotte as the man who had cooked up the plot.

Cicotte went to Comiskey’s office and confessed. “Yeah, we were crooked,” he sobbed.

 

Cicotte, Shoeless Joe Jackson, and Lefty Williams quickly signed confessions, all without consulting a lawyer. They described the plot and named the co-conspirators. Cicotte said he had pangs of guilt during the opening game of the Series and afterward played to win. “I wanted to win,” he told the grand jury. “I could have given [the money] back with interest, if they only let me win the game that day.”

The late Gene Carney, considered by many to be the greatest authority on the scandal and its participants, once gave his take on what motivated Cicotte to come clean. “He had the keenest conscience. This really bothered him. He was a Catholic and he talked to his priest and other friends about it. If he doesn’t go to the grand jury, this really could have been slipped under the rug. There was no real evidence that anything had happened. But when a player confesses he took money, that ended the cover-up.”

Photograph courtesy of Richard Bak

None of the gamblers implicated in the fix was ever found guilty of a crime. Neither, for that matter, were the Black Sox, who stood trial in the summer of 1921 on charges of defrauding the public. During the trial, the confessions of Cicotte and others mysteriously disappeared. The jury deliberated just a short while before declaring all of the defendants not guilty. Cicotte was so happy he jumped up and grabbed the jury foremen.

The acquitted players assumed they would be able to resume their careers. But they hadn’t reckoned on Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the theatrically thunderous federal jurist hired by owners in late 1920 to clean up the game. Baseball’s first commissioner declared the players banished for life. Anyone in organized ball who had anything to do with them also would be tossed out of the game.

Over the next few years, members of the Black Sox played “outlaw” ball around the country, typically for semipro and town teams and often under assumed names. Cicotte found the experience less than satisfying. On one occasion, he was signed to pitch the deciding game in a championship series between the Illinois towns of Colchester and Macomb. Cicotte easily blanked Macomb, leading a disgruntled fan to point to Cicotte’s red, white, and blue socks and say, “You’ve got a lot of guts to wear those colors.” On another occasion, Swede Risberg assembled a barnstorming squad called The Ex-Major League Stars. Just before the tour started, Risberg refused Cicotte’s demand for full pay up front. Cicotte lost two teeth in the fistfight that followed.

In 1927, Cicotte’s name popped up again in connection with a wide-ranging investigation of gambling and game-fixing. According to credible testimony from former players, in 1917, Cicotte contributed to a cash pool given the Detroit ball club for laying down in a crucial series with Chicago. Cicotte refused to testify. In a statement released by his attorney, the pitcher said he “doesn’t even remember” the games in question.

 

Cicotte’s selective memory extended to conversations with his son, born shortly after the 1919 World Series. They talked a lot of baseball, recalled Eddie Jr., who played briefly in the minor leagues, but never about the scandal. “He was a wonderful man,” Eddie Jr., once reminisced. “He was a family man. When I was a little kid, he’d say, ‘C’mon Eddie, we’re going fishing today.’ We hunted together and fished together all the time.”

Cicotte worked briefly as a Michigan game warden before landing a job as a mechanic at the Rouge plant. He retired from Ford in 1944. He kept a low profile, though his children had to contend with rude remarks throughout their lives. He followed baseball on radio and TV but never attended a game. Billy Rogell, a Tigers shortstop in the 1930s and a longtime city councilman, was a friend. “One of the nicest guys God put on this earth,” was his recollection of Cicotte. Over the years he repeatedly tried to take Cicotte to the ballpark. “I’d invite him, but he’d never go. I guess he wasn’t allowed to.” The subject of the 1919 World Series never came up, Rogell said. “Was he sorry about what he did? Well, what the hell, I never asked him. Listen, he was my friend. I didn’t look at him as an old Black Sock.”

“I admit I did wrong,” he said, “but I’ve paid for it for the past 45 years.”

In 1957, Cicotte’s grandnephew broke in with the Yankees. Al Cicotte’s undistinguished career included a brief stint with the Tigers. There were stories, vigorously denied by family members, that the journeyman pitcher deliberately mispronounced his surname in order to distance himself from his great-uncle.

Rose died in 1958, leaving Cicotte a widower after 53 years of marriage. He kept busy by raising strawberries on his little farm and selling them from a roadside stand. He still drove a tractor and helped clear his neighbors’ driveways. In 1965, now a mellow octogenarian, he told a visitor he’d become calloused to being called a crooked ballplayer. “I admit I did wrong,” he said, “but I’ve paid for it for the past 45 years.”

Cicotte was treated for cancer and a heart ailment. He died at Henry Ford Hospital on May 5, 1969, at age 84. Few were on hand for the burial at Parkview Cemetery in Livonia. The flat bronze marker over his grave — not unlike a pitcher’s slab — gives no indication of his major-league career or a hint of the turmoil or shame he caused. Simply listed are his name and the dates of his birth and death. Above it all is a single word: Father.

Bak is a Dearborn-based freelancer. Send letters to Editorial@hourdetroit.com.

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