Say It Ain't True, Joe

"Men do not confide themselves to boys, or coxcombs, or pendants, but to their peers . . ."


jackson/williamsEddie Collins, the classy second baseman of the Chicago White Sox, was simply awash with confidence before the 1919 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds.

"There never was a better ball club," Collins told the baseball journalists. "We've got everything . . . Cicotte and Williams are two of the greatest pitchers that ever planted a foot on the slab, and our gang can field and hit. We ought to win."

weaver/cicotteBut the lowly National League entry, 4-1 underdogs, upset the White Sox.

It was no fault of Eddie Collins'; he played his heart out. But Eddie Cicotte and Claude Williams pitched as if they had lost their stuff and some of the other Sox played like sandlot kids.

The truth didn't come out until the 1920 season.

charles comiskeyOnly one game behind first-place Cleveland, with three left to play, Charles A. Comiskey, the "Old Roman" who owned Chicago, suddenly suspended Cicotte, Williams, leftfielder Shoeless Joe Jackson, centerfielder Oscar (Happy) Felsch, shortstop Charles (Swede) Risberg, pinch hitter Fred McMullin and third baseman George (Buck) Weaver. Comiskey had no alternative. Cicotte, Jackson, Williams and Felsch, under relentless investigation, had just admitted to a Chicago Grand Jury that the 1919 World Series had been dumped to Cincinnati in a betting coup. The jury indicted the seven stars and first baseman Arnold (Chick) Gandil, who had left the team during the winter in a salary row. The true bill stunned the nation. Baseball, then as now the great American game and also a multimillion-dollar business, tottered on the brink.

wiseberg/mcmullenOne of the classics in the annals of American sport came out of the scandal. The day the ball players emerged from the Grand Jury room a crowd of small boys awaited them. One of them went up to Shoeless Joe.

"It ain't true, is it, Joe?"

"Yes, boys," the stylish outfielder replied, "I'm afraid it is."

felsch/gandilFour baseball writers testified to the exchange, but down through the years the men who fix up our folklore, whoever they are, touched up the small boy's plaintive sentence until it came out, "Say it ain't true, Joe," or, at other times, "Say it ain't so, Joe." You never see it written any more the way the boy said it.

The eight tarnished athletes stood trial in the summer of 1921. The jurors not only acquitted Cicotte & Co., but carried some of the defendants out of the courtroom on their shoulders. The baseball magnates did not share the jurors' high glee, however. The man they made the $50,000-a-year czar of the game, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, never let Comiskey's wayward stars don uniforms again.

The Sellout

"Don't you know that wheel is crooked?"
"Sure, but it's the only wheel in town . . ."


arnold rothsteinEddie Cicotte and Chick Gandil suffered a touch of the Get-Rich-Quick virus and came to New York after the White Sox won the 1919 American League Pennant. In the wicked city they talked to Sleepy Bill Burns, a former pitcher for the Sox and the Reds, and Billy Maharg, an ex-fighter, about blowing the World Series for a bundle of money. The next day Burns approached Arnold Rothstein at Jamaica Racetrack and let it be known that the fine American institution known as the October Classic could be fixed for a mere $100,000. Some say the famous gambler, moneylender to the underworld, put up the necessary currency to nail down the fix. Others say the shrewd Rothstein saw no need to contribute to the delinquency of the Chicago stars and simply elected to bet on Cincinnati and pocket some sure winnings without running into high overhead costs in the ugly form of bribe money.

abe attellRothstein, in any case, never had to stand trial in the scandal. The man accused of masterminding it was Abe Attell. The ex-featherweight champion&#151Damon Runyon called him one of the five great fighters of all time&#151happened to be a betting man. And he also happened to be in the Hotel Sinton in Cincinnati when the big money on the Reds was floating around.

William J. Fallon, the celebrated criminal lawyer (and one of Rothstein's favorites when he wasn't drinking), helped Attell beat the case. Gene Fowler's biography of Fallon, The Great Mouthpiece, furnished a vivid account of the behind-the-scenes betting operations as the White Sox&#151thereafter the Black Sox&#151floundered through the series.

william fallonAttell & Co. wagered heavily on Cincinnati the first day. They won. A representative of the corrupt players called to collect the promised moneys&#151$20,000 being the fee stipulated for each losing game.

The caller saw stacks of bills on every horizontal plane of the suite, excepting the ceiling. Dresser tops, tables, and chair seats held yellowbacks. Mr. Attell, buried in currency, was perspiring with prosperity and behaving like a farm hand making love in a haystack.

"Don't bother me now," Mr. Attell said. "I need all the dough I can lay my hands on. We got to make a cleanup tomorrow. It takes capital, partner. It takes capital."
The collector teetered on his heels. "The players are gettin' worried."
"What they got to worry about?"
"They was promised twenty grand at the end of each game."
"You go back," said the former champion, "and tell them not to burn.
"But when does the ghost walk?"

judge landisCicotte lost that first game. His invincible "shine ball" failed him so bady that the Reds knocked him out in the fourth with a five-run outburst which even included a triple by the opposing pitcher, Dutch Reuther. But Cicotte didn't lose for nothing: he admitted that he found $10,000 in small bills under his pillow that night. If Attell didn't put it there, the windfall may have been dealt off by another set of the errant Sox's gambling partners to keep them in the proper frame of mind for missing easy grounders and fouling off fat pitches.

shoeless joeFowler said Attell shelled out $10,000 after Chicago dropped the second game. But, if he did, the little fellow's $10,000 contribution went for naught. Chicago won the third game, presumably to teach the gamblers a lesson for being so penurious. Attell told the New York World the athletes got from $60,000 to $70,000 in the process of losing the series, 5 games to 3 (best 5 out of 9 won in those days). He would never holler cop on the workings of the fix but he did say that Rothstein made $60,000 betting with the smart money on the Reds. Rothstein insisted that he never made a dime on it, presumably because he was too suspicious to risk his money on dishonest baseball players. The scandal could have killed baseball except for the iron hand and incorruptible mien of Judge Landis and the great brawn of George Herman Ruth. The Babe started breaking down ballyard fences in earnest just when the fish-eyed paying customers needed that kind of distraction.

As for sports in general at the time, never mind the dastardly Black Sox. The Golden Age was at hand. The giant Ruth was not alone. There were others in the wings: Red Grange, Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, Walter Hagen, Gertrude Ederle, The Four Horsemen, Big Bill Tilden, Helen Wills, Bobby Jones . . . There would be no lack of headlines to divert the attention of the growing boy who asked Shoeless Joe Jackson that tear-stained question outside the halls of justice in Chicago.

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