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‘Double Plays and Double Crosses’ goes long on the Black Sox scandal

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Of all American professional sports, baseball is the one that is most enamored of its own history. Celebrating the past is a big part of the game, looking back at the legends and comparing the players of today with those from previous generations.

The thing with history, however, is that it isn’t always good. And baseball isn’t immune from that reality; there are plenty of unfortunate truths scattered throughout the misty fictions of the game’s rose-colored retrospect.

Among the most scandalous of the pastime’s past times is the throwing of the 1919 World Series by the Chicago White Sox. Dubbed the Black Sox scandal, this was the story of eight players from the White Sox conspiring with gamblers to fix the Series in favor of the Cincinnati Reds. But despite rumors and whispers about the fix that began before that Series even reached a conclusion, it wasn’t until the fall of 1920 that the wheels of justice truly began to turn.

Eight players – first baseman Chick Gandil, third baseman Buck Weaver, shortstop Swede Risberg, utility infielder Fred McMullin, pitchers Eddie Cicotte and Lefty Williams and outfielders Happy Felsch and Joe Jackson – would ultimately be banned from the game for life for their actions, though they took varying degrees of responsibility; some confessed, some recanted and some professed their innocence until their dying day.

Baseball historian Don Zminda’s “Double Plays and Double Crosses: The Black Sox and Baseball in 1920” (Rowman & Littlefield, $36) offers an in-depth look at the White Sox during that 1920 season, digging into the details in an effort to illustrate how the looming shadow of the scandal may have impacted the team – both on the field and off – all while also addressing the other historic happenings of that season, from the cultural explosion of Babe Ruth’s record-breaking bat to the tragic death of Ray Chapman, the last MLB player to die from being struck by a pitched ball.

It’s also a look into the convoluted path that justice took, with backbiting and infighting among the game’s supposed guardians leading to sham investigations and other CYA behaviors that would ultimately result in the powers that be deciding that baseball needed an arbiter, thus leading to the creation of the office of the Commissioner, first occupied by Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, whose lengthy tenure would create ripple effects of its own.

What would the aftermath of a fixed World Series look like? How would the people involved hold up under the increasingly intense glare of the spotlight? Secrets are difficult to keep and become exponentially more difficult to keep with every new possessor of that secret – and there were a LOT of people in on this one. It was only a matter of time before it would all come crashing down; the only question was who would be left holding the bag.

Now, the issue of gambling and game-fixing wasn’t unique to the 1919 World Series. Baseball had been battling both the perception and the reality of gambling in the game since its beginnings. But while token efforts had been made to clean up the game, there was little appetite to push beyond the surface because no one was quite sure how deep it all went and few wanted to risk discovering that their own squad was dirty.

But it would ultimately be the 1919 World Series that would eventually force baseball’s collective hand (although it almost didn’t, and likely wouldn’t have had it not been for a few seemingly unrelated incidents over the course of the 1920 season).

“Double Plays and Double Crosses” tells the story of that 1920 season. There’s an impressive thoroughness here, with Zminda walking the reader through the entire season almost blow by blow, utilizing the extant archives of newspaper reporters and columnists to craft a vivid picture of the games as they were played. We get to read these contests described in the cadences and vernacular of the day, capturing the energy that surrounded the sport in general and the White Sox in particular. Admittedly, the book occasionally gets a bit bogged down with the descriptors, but that’s to be expected when dealing with a 154-game season – for the most part, the pacing is crisp.

Among the highlights are Zminda’s editorial observations in which he follows though on the widely-held suspicion that the White Sox continued along the game-fixing path during the 1920 season; having scoured the box scores and contemporaneous accounts of the games, he plucks some likely candidates for fixes, including the players who were likely participants in a given game. It is incredibly thorough, a granular examination of potential cheating that many fans will likely find engrossing.

Along the way, we’re introduced to some lesser-known gambling issues with other players and other leagues, including the notoriously crooked Hal Chase and a multi-team scandal involving squads in the Pacific Coast League, then a top-tier minor league considered to be just a half-step shy of the majors.

In addition, we also get a wonderful look at the game writ large, a sense of the state of the sport in the cultural consciousness in 1920. There’s plenty of Babe Ruth stuff, of course – he spent 1920 annihilating his own single-season home record of 29 (itself an annihilation of the previous record) by hitting 54 dingers. Unsurprisingly, he was a phenomenon.

We also get a glimpse of the behind-the-curtain machinations of those who governed the sport, from the infighting between league presidents and the ineptitude of the game’s so-called National Commission, the three-man committee whose lack of institutional control led to the creation of the position of Commissioner, which continues to this day.

“Double Plays and Double Crosses” will prove a delight to anyone with an interest in baseball’s history. It is thoroughly researched and engagingly constructed, revealing new details of the tales we know while also introducing readers to new stories with which they might be less familiar. Don Zminda’s passion for the sport in general and this subject in particular is apparent on every page, resulting in an enthralling account of one of the most fascinating moments in the history of a game packed full of fascination.

Last modified on Wednesday, 17 March 2021 09:28

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