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Where Did You Go, Shoeless Joe?

The eight banned 1919 Chicago White Sox
The eight banned 1919 Chicago White Sox (US Public Domain)

One hundred years ago--in 1920--the biggest scandal in sports history hit the Front Page newspapers. Eight players from the heavily favored 1919 American League championship Chicago White Sox had conspired to throw the World Series the previous October to the Cincinnati Reds, who subsequently had won five games to three. White Sox owner Charles Comiskey--with a three-game set on the road in St. Louis remaining in the 1920 season and his team in the midst of a second-straight pennant run--quickly suspended all eight men. Without these players (most of them stars), the White Sox lost two of the games, and finished second to the Cleveland Indians, 98 wins to 96.

The players were Shoeless Joe Jackson, Fred McMullen, Buck Weaver, Lefty Williams, Happy Felsch, Eddie Cicotte, Chick Gandil and Swede Risberg, and they had all been promised $10,000 each to throw the series.

Although they were later acquitted in court on August 2, 1921, they failed to escape the iron fist of major league baseball’s first commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, chosen by team owners to clean up the game and restore public confidence in the great American Pastime. Landis moved quickly the very next day by banning all eight from organized baseball for life. The Sox wouldn’t win another pennant for 40 years.

So, what did the banned major leaguers--forever tagged the “Black Sox”--do for the rest of their lives?

The best player in the lot was the uneducated, left-hand-hitting Joe Jackson, nicknamed “Shoeless Joe.” Up to his banishment, he was one of the best hitters in the game with a better-than-average arm. Sporting a .356 lifetime batting average, he’s third on the list today, behind Ty Cobb’s .366 and Rogers Hornsby’s .359. In 1920, his .382 average was third-best in the American League, so were his 121 runs batted in. He’d be in the Hall of Fame today, if not for his involvement in the fix by allegedly accepting $5,000.

Joe Jackson
Joe Jackson with the Cleveland Naps, 1913. One of the best hitters of all time (US Public Domain)

On many occasions, Jackson had tried to be reinstated, but to no avail. At first, he continued playing in a Southern outlaw league under a bogus name. After, he played using his own name in semi-pro leagues, keeping it up till almost 50. He eventually owned a liquor store in his hometown Greenville, South Carolina, where he died in 1951 at age 64, the first Black Sox player to pass on.

Fred McMullen was the minor figure in the Black Sox conspiracy, a utility infielder who wanted in on the con to make some extra bucks as a result of overhearing a discussion between two teammates. A White Sox member for five years, McMullen never played in any more than 70 games each season. And he knew he wouldn’t see much action in the World Series. As a result, he had only two at bats, with one single. Nevertheless, he received $5,000 from the gamblers, twice his 1919 yearly salary.

Following his banishment from organized baseball, McMullen stayed and lived in California, where he had been raised since his family had moved there from Kansas when he was five. He never proclaimed his innocence in the fix. He never wanted to be reinstated, either. He worked as a carpenter for a time, then as a Los Angeles lawman for the last 10 years of life, up to his dying in 1952 at 61.

Switch-hitting third baseman/shortstop GeorgeBuck” Weaver did not accept any money or go along with the plot, but supposedly knew about it totally by mistake, making him an unfortunate accomplice. At 29, he had his best season in 1920, including a .331 batting average. Beginning in 1922, he continued to play in various leagues with White Sox teammates in the mid-west. Along the way, he worked as a house painter and in a drugstore, while remaining in Chicago with his wife.

Like Jackson, he also applied for reinstatement that subsequently went nowhere. To this day, family members are still trying to clear his name. He lived until 1956, dying at 65.

Claude “Lefty” Williams was one of two pitchers involved. He had it all, and was only getting better at 27. His two best years were 1919 and 1920, winning 23 and 22 games. His three losses in the 1919 World Series were a prime factor in the fix working in Cincinnati’s favor. Although promised more, he received $5,000 for his troubles.

After the fix, he ran a pool hall in Chicago, then worked as a house painter and a plant foreman, in between touring the mid-west with three of his Sox teammates. In 1937, he and his wife moved to California, north of Los Angeles. He worked as a carpenter, truck driver, and gardener, before moving a bit more south to Laguna Beach where he ran a nursery that overlooked the ocean. He died there in 1959, at 66 years of age.

Oscar “Happy” Felsch came from the Milwaukee sandlots, dropping out of school in the sixth grade to concentrate on baseball full-time. He was a power hitter with a howitzer arm from center field. A six-year White Sox veteran, he hit .338 in 1920 and drove home 115 runners. Collecting $5,000 from gamblers, he hit .192 and played his position badly in the 1919 World Series.

In the early 1920s, Felsch owned a grocery store, then hit the road barnstorming throughout the mid-west with his Black Sox cronies, where he made decent money playing before good-sized crowds. Until the mid-thirties, he also played in semi-pro leagues in Wisconsin, the northern states, and Canada, places like Scobey and Plentywood, Montana; Virden, Manitoba; and Regina, Saskatchewan, where he player-managed the Regina Balmorals. Back home in Milwaukee, he ran a few legal bars once Prohibition was lifted nation-wide in 1932.

Later on, Felsch worked as an assembler, watchman, and crane operator. To his dying day in Milwaukee in 1964, a week short of his 73rd birthday, he admitted to being just plain stupid for agreeing to the fix.

Knuckleball righthander Eddie Cicotte was one of the best pitchers of his era, a 21-game winner in 1920, along with 29 in 1919 and 28 in 1917. He was the first player who confessed to the fix before exposing the seven others. Up to that point, he had won 208 games and recorded a 2.37 ERA in a 14-year workhorse of a career, and would have been a sure Hall of Famer. But…

Eddie Cicotte
Eddie Cicotte, 1919. The best pitcher of his era (US Public Domain)

Like the others, he played alongside a few of his Black Sox “alumni” through the 1920s. Born and raised in lower Michigan, he stayed there, working as a game warden, service station manager, and for Ford before retiring to a farm where he grew strawberries. He died in 1969, regretting that he ever took his $10,000 blood money.

First baseman Charles “Chick” Gandil was the ring leader of the banned eight. Actually, he was not playing in the majors when the news broke of the fix in 1920. He was back home in California, playing semi-pro ball as result of a contract dispute with White Sox management, in which he asked for $6,500, $2,500 more than his 1919 salary. A slick fielder with a steady bat, he reportedly made $35,000 for his participation in tanking the 1919 World Series.

The dastardly plan all got started when he and Eddie Cicotte were approached by bookie/gambler Joe “Sport” Sullivan with the idea. Gandil, at first, thought the scheme was crazy, but later gave in when Sullivan informed him that he and his associates had fixed many other games successfully in the same manner.

Following the commissioner’s 1921 decision, Gandil remained in California, playing semi-pro through the southwest. He worked as a plumber for a few years, before retiring to beautiful Napa Valley, California. He died at 82 years of age in 1970. To the end, he denied any involvement in the fixing, insisting that the players, instead, turned against the gamblers and tried to win.

Charles “Swede” Risberg was the youngest player at the time of the banishment. Twenty-six, he was also Gandil’s right-hand man in securing the others to join in the scam.

Brought up in San Francisco, his education only went as far as the 8th grade. Starting out as a pitcher, he converted to shortstop. And he became a very good one, although his hitting was so-so. By 1920, he had only been in the majors four years, all with the White Sox. He received about $15,000 from the gamblers, and repaid them by hitting 2-for-25 and making four crucial errors in the 1919 World Series.

Risberg converted back to his pitching roots, where the real money was, and did quite well financially throughout the Twenties, playing semi-pro and outlaw ball in the mid-west and Canadian prairies, often coming face-to-face with co-conspirators like Lefty Williams and Happy Felsch as teammates and the opposition.

Risberg lived in Minnesota for a time, where he owned a farm. He moved back to California and ran a successful bar along the Oregon border for 20 years before his death in 1975 at age 81. He was the last of the living Chicago White Sox who had thrown the 1919 World Series.


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