Recent scrutiny leads some historians to suspect that the 1918 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs was fixed a year before baseball's famous Black Sox scandal.
More than any other American sport, baseball has an established historical footprint, and among its significant early events is the fixing of the 1919 World Series by gamblers and the Chicago White Sox, a team forever labeled the Black Sox. It is the only recognized gambling scandal to tarnish a World Series.
In recent weeks, however, there has been new scrutiny of the previous year’s championship and questions about the legitimacy of the outcome: the Boston Red Sox defeated the Chicago Cubs. And on Friday, the Cubs visit Fenway Park in Boston for the first time since the final game of the 1918 World Series.
Are the Cubs returning to the scene of a hidden baseball crime?
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No documented proof exists, but there are suspicions, largely because the conditions were ripe for a bribe, as they were in 1919.
“It seems more likely that there would have been a fix than there would not have been,” the author John Thorn, the official historian for Major League Baseball, said of the 1918 Series. “It would be surprising if it didn’t come up. At that time, the connection between baseball players and gamblers was that strong.”
If this were a mystery novel, the smoking gun would be a court deposition displayed in April at the Chicago History Museum from Eddie Cicotte, the first of the Black Sox to confess. In the 1920 deposition, Cicotte said matter-of-factly that his 1919 teammates talked about how one or several Cubs were offered $10,000 to fix the 1918 Series.
Aware of the deposition months before the exhibit, Sean Deveney began examining the 1918 Cubs and last year, his book, “The Original Curse,” suggested that several misplays and mental lapses during the World Series pointed to a fix. The book also highlighted the sequence of events that could have induced players to want to make a different kind of score. World War I’s ruinous effect on baseball’s economy had cut the players’ pay in half, the 1919 season had been unofficially canceled, and most players expected to be drafted when the Series ended.
Why not take a last chance at a big payday?
It does not add up to evidence of a fix, but it has opened wounds and stirred ghosts, especially because being a Cubs fan means knowing your team last won a World Series in 1908. The 1918 World Series is also a source of pride to Red Sox fans; that Babe Ruth-led team was the franchise’s last championship until 2004.
In the deposition, Cicotte said the conversation about the Cubs occurred while the White Sox were riding a train east. He concluded his remarks by saying, “Somebody made a crack about getting money if we got into the Series.”
Cicotte said little more, and investigators, intent on keeping the focus on 1919, never pursued the lead. But gamblers and players mingled freely throughout baseball’s early years, staying in the same hotels and frequenting the same bars, restaurants and pool halls. Bookies wandered baseball’s grandstands before and during games.
Thorn wrote in his recent book, “Baseball in the Garden of Eden,” that the sport’s first gambling scandal occurred in 1865. A player in the first World Series in 1903 was offered a $10,000 bribe. (He refused.) There was also talk that the 1914 and 1917 World Series had been fixed.
“With racetracks closed because of wartime restrictions, gambling in baseball spiked because the dollars had to go somewhere,” Thorn said.
The shaky monetary underpinnings of baseball in 1918 created a climate of uncertainty about the game’s future. The war and a staggering world economy devastated a business like baseball that relied on fans’ spending their disposable income at the ballpark. Attendance was down because so many top players had been drafted. The 1918 regular season ended early, Sept. 1, and many thought professional baseball would disappear for several seasons once the Series concluded.
The first three games of the 1918 Series were played at the White Sox home, Comiskey Park, because it had more seats than the Cubs’ home field. The extra seats were not needed; the first three games, of which Boston won two, averaged about 22,000 fans.
On the train to Boston for the final games — the teams rode together — the players added the gate receipts and calculated their shares, which figured to be about $1,100 for the winners and about $600 for the losers. That was roughly half the money they expected.
“From the beginning of Game 4, things started to look funny, or wrong, on the field,” Deveney said. “The first three games had been tight and well-played. The next three games had all these strange blunders.”
The outcome of the Series hinged in some ways on the play of two opposing players, one famous (Ruth) and one not (Max Flack).
Ruth won two games as a pitcher and drove in two pivotal runs. Flack, the Cubs’ leadoff hitter, made his presence known in the first at-bat of Game 4 when he lined a single off Ruth. But with one out, Flack wandered off first base and was picked off by the Red Sox catcher
Flack was picked off again in the third by Ruth, becoming the only player in World Series history to be picked off twice in one game.
In the fourth inning with two Red Sox on base, Cubs pitcher Lefty Tyler had a 3-2 count on Ruth, who had emerged as a dominant hitter. Tyler noticed that Flack was playing shallow in right field.
“Tyler waved him back,” The Chicago Herald-American wrote of the sequence. “Flack did not pay attention to the command. Once again, Tyler motioned him, but Max was obstinate.”
Ruth smacked a triple over Flack’s head, and both runners scored.
The Cubs tied the score in the top of the eighth. But in the bottom of the inning, Cubs reliever Phil Douglas fielded a sacrifice bunt and threw wildly into right field allowing a runner to score the eventual winning run from second base. In 1922, as a star pitcher for the New York Giants, Douglas was barred from baseball for life after he wrote a letter suggesting he would retire and leave the team if paid to do so. Before 1918’s Game 5, the players refused to leave their Fenway Park locker rooms in a protest over their diminished World Series pay. Players took the field after a one-hour delay. The Cubs won, 3-0, behind pitcher Hippo Vaughn.
Only 15,238 fans showed up for the final game. Charlie Pick got the first Cubs hit off Boston starter Carl Mays with two outs in the second, and was picked off first base. Flack dropped a routine two-out drive to right field in the fourth; allowing both Boston runs to score in the clinching 2-1 victory.
No celebration took place on the field.
Unexpectedly, the war ended Nov. 11, and baseball returned the next April.
Deveney said, “If you look at the various factors, not the least being that the likely next stop for the players was the front lines of France’s Western Front, you can see how even honest men might have been driven to cheat.”
Other baseball historians are hardly convinced.
“There isn’t anything inherently suspicious to me … ” said Bill Lamb, an 18-year member of the Society for American Baseball Research, who is on the Black Sox scandal research committee. Where’s the proof?” In Boston, Red Sox historian Bill Nowlin said fans would be chagrined to hear that the team’s last 20th-century championship was tainted.
“But as a lifelong Red Sox fan, I’m not feeling too defensive about it,” Nowlin said. “Besides, most Red Sox fans are closet Cubs fans because of the identification with their long drought without a title.
“This would only add a little twist to it.”