At the height of his fame in the 1920s, humorist and short-story writer Ring Lardner was listed among the 10 best-known people in America. He wrote a nationally syndicated newspaper column, short stories for mass-circulation magazines, skits and songs for the Ziegfeld Follies, and the text of a daily comic strip. To the bulk of his readers, Lardner was the regular guy who had made it, the man who golfed with the president but was still friends with the train conductors. The only writer in the country who could get away with the salutation, “Well, friends,” he addressed the average American, the man he repeatedly called “Joe,” and he did this in a natural, unassuming style—a veritable idiom nicknamed “Lardner Ringlish”—removed from the formal conventions of correct prose.
But earlier in his career, Lardner was best known as a baseball writer, and much of his enduring reputation is tied to the national pastime. He covered baseball in what’s been called the Silver Age of the game—from 1900 to 1919—an era that ended with the infamous Black Sox scandal, ushering in, as irony would have it, the Golden Age of baseball. Lardner’s infatuation and eventual disillusionment with baseball offer a number of lessons about how we should think about the scandals in today’s game, and his writing illuminates our own love-hate relationship with baseball.
Hugh Fullerton, a dean of Chicago sportswriters, noticed Lardner’s talent in 1905, when Lardner was covering a minor league team for the South Bend Times and writing with uncommon precision and style. Fullerton got him a job at the Chicago Inter-Ocean, personally introducing a nervous, choked-up 20-year-old to some of his boyhood heroes. For the next five years, Lardner covered major league baseball from spring training to the World Series, and a Chicago readership had a front-row seat in the laboratory of one of sports writing’s great craftsmen, masterly at framing a story:
In the extreme left hand corner of Mr. Comiskey’s new ball park stands a gate, whose pickets are far enough apart to allow a regulation baseball, weighing not less than five nor more than five and a quarter ounces avoirdupois, and measuring not less than nine nor more than nine and one quarter inches in circumference, to roll between any twain of them and into the great beyond.
Citizens who had gone sight seeing around the park were aware of the presence of this gate, but none but the contractors and workmen who had constructed it knew just how far were those pickets apart. Lee Tannehill learned their approximate distance from each other yesterday afternoon by driving a regulation baseball between two of them. It looked like a most fortunate discovery for the White Sox at the time, for there were three other Chicago ball players on bases . . . when Lee made it and the four runs that resulted left the score of the ball game between the Sox and Detroit even, at five runs apiece.
When a fan offered Heinie Zimmerman, the Cubs’ foulmouthed third baseman, $100 if he could refrain from insulting an umpire for two weeks, Lardner channeled Hamlet:
The C or not the C, that is the question—
Whether it is nobler for the dough to suffer
Mistakes and errors of outrageous umpires,
Or to cut loose against a band of robbers,
And, by protesting, lose it? To kick—to beef
To beef, perchance to scream—Yes,
I’ll keep still . . .
Thus money does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native Bronix disposition
Is stifled by a bunch of filthy luc;
And ravings of my own fantastic sort
Are all unheard, tho my long silence does
Disgrace the name of Heinie.
Lardner traveled in the same Pullman cars as the players, ate with them, and stayed in the same hotels. As a journalist he was witty and fun, but also concise and direct, willing to use his column inches to state, good or bad, exactly what he thought of his team’s play. Curiously, this never seemed to disturb the players. Even Fullerton wondered how “he could almost insult them in print and they would laugh as they read while other [writers], who used gentle language, were threatened with a punch on the nose.”
The players may have sensed, beneath Lardner’s criticism, an appreciation of them as people—and maybe beyond that, as literary characters. In “Here’s Real Yarn on Bodie’s Lapse—Mr. Wake Gives Details as to Cause of Ping’s Misjudgement of Fly Ball,” Lardner portrays White Sox manager Bill “Kid” Gleason and Ping Bodie, king of the alibi, in rare form:
Gleason: What was the matter?
Ping: What d’ya mean the matter?
Gleason: You know what I mean the matter.
Ping: What d’ya mean?
Gleason: What was the matter with that fly ball?
Ping: Archer’s fly ball?
Gleason: Yes, Archer’s fly ball.
Ping: What about it?
Gleason: Yes, what about it?
Ping: Well, I didn’t get it
Gleason: Why didn’t you get it?
Ping: I didn’t see it.
Gleason: Why didn’t you see it?
Ping: I couldn’t see it.
Gleason: Why couldn’t you see it?
Ping: The grandstand’s too high.
Gleason: Grandstand’s fault, was it?
Gleason: Don’t pull that on me. Now, what was the trouble?
Ping: The sun was in my eyes.
Gleason: The sun?
Ping: Yes, the sun.
Gleason: You sure it was the sun?
Ping: The wind blew it over my head.
Gleason: Oh it was the wind was it?
Ping: Yes, the wind.
Gleason: What was the matter?
Ping: Honest, Bill it’s awful dark out there.
Gleason: Too dark, is it?
Ping: Yah, too dark.
Gleason: Get in on the bench you _________ You misjudged that ball, didn’t you?
Ping: Yes, I guess I misjudged it.
Gleason: All right: you misjudged it.
Lardner’s literary experimentation culminated in a series of “busher letters” he sold to The Saturday Evening Post in 1914, later published under the title You Know Me Al. The letters featured Jack Keefe, a fictitious rookie pitcher on the Chicago White Sox, writing home to his buddy Al Blanchard in Bedford, Illinois. The stories Jack relates to Al, of the greenhorn from the small Midwestern town thrown into the world of major league baseball, bore some resemblance to Lardner’s own initiation into sportswriting.
Jack Keefe soon became one of the most popular characters of his day, and You Know Me Al was dubbed an instant folk classic. H. L. Mencken marveled at Lardner’s linguistic precision and command of irony, comparing him to Mark Twain. Keefe’s limitations as a narrator take nothing away from the reader’s view of what’s happening:
FRIEND AL: Coming out of Amarillo last night I and Lord and Weaver was sitting at a table in the dining car with a old lady. None of us was talking to her but she looked me over pretty careful and seemed to kind of like my looks. Finally she says Are you boys with some football club? Lord nor Weaver didn’t say nothing so I thought it was up to me and I says No mam this is the Chicago White Sox Ball Club. She says I knew you were athaletes. I says Yes I guess you could spot us for athaletes. She says Yes indeed and specially you. You certainly look healthy. I says You ought to see me stripped. I didn’t see nothing funny about that but I thought Lord and Weaver would die laughing. Lord had to get up and leave the table and he told everybody what I said.
Keefe displays potential as “a athalete,” but fails to improve because of his major-league ego. He undermines his effectiveness with his refusal to hold runners on base, his inability to field his position, and his unwillingness to use any pitch other than a fastball. On a day opponents tagged him for 16 runs, his letter to Al is full of excuses: bad coaching, no support from teammates, a stubbed toe, incompetent groundskeeping, the opponents’ luck (usually a lefty is involved here), and a sore arm.
Along with the laughs, Lardner was beginning to dispense moral instruction to his readers, something he would build on in a series of baseball articles commissioned by The American Magazine. Two of the pieces were devoted to the players he admired most: Ty Cobb and Christy Mathewson.
Lardner considered Ty Cobb the greatest player ever. Today, a century after he played, many would agree. Cobb dominated baseball as no man has since, perennially leading the majors in just about every offensive category. When Cobb retired in 1928, he held records in lifetime batting average (.367), hits (4,191), stolen bases (892), total bases (5,854), and runs scored (2,246).
Many contemporaries, Lardner observed, attributed a good deal of Cobb’s success to luck, and it was true that when he stepped on the field bizarre things often occurred. When he hit routine ground balls, fielders were less likely to come up with them. When he was on the base paths, unexpected opportunities fell into his lap. When he came to the plate, pitchers suddenly lost their control. But Cobb had subjected every pitcher in the league to careful study, learned their every habit and trick. Pitchers had control problems with Cobb because they were looking for a way to pitch to him, knowing that their stronger pitches would be ineffective. Fielders made more errors because, respectful of Cobb’s speed and hustle, they were pressured to rush the play. On the base paths, Cobb complemented his natural ability with aggression and alertness. “They’s lots of other fast guys,” Lardner explained in Ringlish, “but while they’re thinkin’ about what they’re goin’ to do he’s did it.” If you wanted to call Cobb lucky, Lardner reasoned, you had to acknowledge that Cobb manufactured his luck.
Many called Cobb a dirty player—he was known for deliberately gashing infielders with his spikes, and on more than one occasion he climbed into the seats to assault heckling fans. But Lardner preferred to see Cobb as scrappy, competitive, and resourceful. He particularly enjoyed Cobb’s trick of slowing down as he approached second base, timing his arrival so that he could kick the ball out of the fielder’s glove and into the outfield, allowing him to take third. Fans who thought they’d seen him get hit with the ball called him lucky. Lardner, who had witnessed the feat many times, knew better.
Christy Mathewson, the veteran pitcher for the New York Giants, was perhaps the most popular player of his time, and Lardner’s personal favorite. Mathewson ranks as one of baseball’s all-time great pitchers, with 373 lifetime victories and a 2.13 career earned run average. Lardner pointed out that Mathewson was so effective for so long because he was efficient: he was guided by the knowledge of just how much energy was needed in a given situation. In handling a tough hitter such as Honus Wagner, Mathewson would attempt to induce a pop-up on the first pitch, rather than waste his energy on the fastballs that might or might not strike the slugger out. Matthewson was also a consummate team player, able to field his position expertly and to hold his own at the plate. Lardner admired Mathewson’s sportsmanship, intelligence, and modesty. It was clear to him that “Matty” had not actively pursued the credit and fame he received.
Jack Keefe personifies the antithesis of every Lardner ideal. He has talent but, unlike a Ty Cobb, no interest in working to develop it. Even Mathewson, who has a cameo in You Know Me Al, is unable to “learn him” anything about pitching. As for teamwork, nothing could be more alien to the busher. On one occasion, with the bases loaded in the 10th inning, Jack beans the man who stole his girlfriend, walking in the winning run.
Negatively, through the fictional Jack Keefe, and positively through his appreciation of Cobb and Mathewson, Lardner promoted a sportsman’s code steeped in the moral values of the Progressive Era: hard work, consistency, efficiency, modesty, teamwork, opportunism. Although players couldn’t be said to owe fans anything, an appetite existed among baseball aficionados to see the game played well by people of character.
While Lardner was establishing himself as a writer, the sport he covered was undergoing a transformation: from its 19th-century origins as a club sport among the aristocracy to the game of the masses. The phenomenon of a spectator sport of national proportion was new to America. Football would remain secular to collegiate life for decades, and the two other contenders, boxing and horse racing, operated under increasingly strict regulation. By the turn of the 20th century, every major American city had a major league baseball team—New York, St. Louis, Chicago, and Boston each fielded two—and every substantial municipality had a minor league team. The rival National and American Leagues called “a truce” one winter and staged the first “World Series” in 1903. Major league baseball attendance rose steadily, from 3.5 million in 1900 to double that in 1908. That year the New York Giants alone drew nearly a million fans. Attendance rose throughout the 1910s and exceeded nine million in 1920.
But baseball had its problems. The sport was highly sensitive to the economic condition of the nation. The American and National Leagues were nearly bankrupted by financial crises in the 1890s, the recession of 1904/05, a panic in 1907/08, and another slump in 1915. The 1917 and 1918 seasons brought a severe drop in profits due to the war. More threatening were baseball’s internal struggles. Even after the American and National Leagues united, there was still the nemesis of the Federal League, which had ballparks and teams in some of the same cities as the majors, sucking away revenue and attendance. Additionally, there were constant battles among owners and players over contract issues that could alter the game radically.
There’s no surprise here: big money, big problems. What’s noteworthy is how organized baseball tailored its image—not as a business trying to survive and thrive, but rather as a “pastime” to be cherished and preserved. Enter Albert Spalding, the sporting-goods magnate who, in 1907, spearheaded a campaign to discover baseball’s roots. Spalding commissioned a blue-ribbon panel, which included two U.S. senators, to disprove those who held that the national pastime was a bastardized version of some snooty British game. The tale they came up with—of Union Civil War General Abner Doubleday inventing baseball one historic day in 1839 in Elihu Phinney’s cow pasture, just off Main Street in Cooperstown, New York—would become part of American mythology. No matter that Doubleday would have had to be awol from West Point Military Academy on the day in question, or that his obituary informs us that he “did not care for or go into any outdoor sports.” No matter that baseball was in fact a bastardized version of a snooty British game—rounders—already nicknamed “baseball” in Tudor England, where two teams alternated between hitting and fielding.
Spalding’s blue-ribbon panel may seem silly, but in terms of public relations it was the stuff of legend. As soccer fans have repeatedly found out, mass spectator sports don’t catch on in America unless they are seen to have originated in America. The further association of baseball, once called “The New York Game,” with a pastoral setting (in a town named for the father of James Fenimore Cooper, no less) put it in perfect alignment with the progressives’ embrace of agrarian values—the notion that rural life provides a spiritual counterpoise to the degrading effects of city life. As historian Steven A. Riess points out, although the game was entirely an urban product, fans nevertheless “saw baseball as an extension of rural America into the cities.” Ballparks were “green oases in a largely concrete world . . . where spectators could readily slip back into an idyllic, rural past.” This rustic image was so important to Charles Wrigley, chewing-gum king and owner of the Chicago Cubs, that he prohibited the display of advertising in his park. Why spoil the best billboard you could have—the park itself?
Baseball owners had to be thrilled when their franchises were seen as a source of civic pride. The Dial magazine credited baseball with drawing the chaotic multitudes into “mystic unity” with the life of their city. Even the highbrow New York Times gave the sport its due: “Local patriotism is so rare with us that it is refreshing to see it manifested even about baseball.” The promotion of civic pride was in part a response to the growth of cities—the United States shifted from a mostly rural to a mostly urban population between the censuses of 1910 and 1920—and the disturbing sights of urban squalor. The rituals of spectatorship would, it was hoped, provide a kind of safety valve, giving vent to the pent-up anger and frustrations of those living in immigrant ghettos.
In the new Progressive Era lexicon, the cousin of civic pride was melting pot, a notion fueled by old-stock Americans’ fear of being overrun by a plurality of “alien cultures” and their hope of assimilating the immigrants. In a 1910 Baseball Magazine article titled “The Baseball Melting Pot,” sportswriter W. A. Phelon taps into this cocktail of fear and hope as he offers an afternoon at the ballpark as the panacea for assimilating “the seething mass of 40 different nations”: “The ball field is the real crucible, the melting pot wherein the rival races are being mixed, combined and molded to the standards of real citizenship and the requirements of the true American.” Phelon thought that baseball would teach “the lessons learned by pioneers and yeoman farmers.” That’s ridiculous, of course. But when baseball successfully marketed itself as our national pastime, and when revered writers such as Ring Lardner used athletes to elucidate a moral code, the ridiculous yielded to the mythological.
The presentation of baseball as a public institution belonging to the fans, as opposed to a lucrative industry run by private entrepreneurs, is one of the great public relations stunts in the history of American business, which continues to this day. A baseball franchise’s most important product—more than winning—is fan loyalty. Each game needs to be made to appear as an epic battle between two cities, rather than as a contest between groups of individuals privately employed. When the sport is viewed as something akin to a military endeavor, fans require players to be loyal soldiers, not mercenaries. If, in the middle of a pennant race, players were to shift about the league in accordance with higher salary offers, cities would lose enthusiasm for their teams, and baseball as a product would become worthless to the team owners. Hence the owners’ decades-long refusal to relinquish the reserve system.
The reserve system dictated that a player could not be a free agent. The most he could do was bargain with the owner of his club, and either accept the owner’s final offer or get out of baseball. Players seeking offers from other teams became outlaws of the sport, as did teams trying to lure such players. The owners, on the other hand, could suspend, fine, or fire players without due process, and they could trade players without their consent. John Montgomery Ward, president of the first players’ association (founded in 1885), considered the reserve system a form of slavery. Players were subjected to arbitrary regulations, such as the forfeiture of salary due to illness and the 10-day release clause inserted in contracts, which afforded no job security. Owners freely applied league-wide freezes on salaries. In 1911, with the league enjoying a boom in attendance receipts, the average salary of a major leaguer was still below $2,500, the equivalent of about $60,000 today.
“For once in the history of the world,” wrote essayist Charles D. Stuart, “the interests of the financier and the people are one”—whereas the interests of the ballplayer, belonging to neither of these groups, are ultimately at odds with those of his sport. The player is loved by the fans, not as a person with economic rights and needs, but as a soldier “drafted” onto their city’s team. His individuality mustn’t ever transcend the importance of the uniform he wears that bears his city’s name. As comedian Jerry Seinfeld put it more recently, “You’re actually rooting for the clothes, when you get right down to it.”
Stuart asked the question, “Would not any other employer so outwardly monopolistic have been the object of attack by reformers long ago?” That was in 1907; he would have been asking the same question until 1975, for baseball has been one of the impenetrable fortresses in the history of U.S. antitrust law. Even the Supreme Court bought in to baseball’s status as our national pastime—calling it “amusement” in a 1922 decision—not subject to the Sherman Antitrust Act, which applied to “businesses.” Standard Oil, eat your heart out.
Concerning baseball’s business side, Ring Lardner was decidedly unsympathetic to players—and remarkably naïve. In “The Cost of Baseball,” he explains to “Mr. Fan” the difficulties that face “Mr. Magnate” each baseball season. Besides having to cope with such expenses as uniforms, travel, and ballpark maintenance, the owner must also worry about players who unconscionably tax his wallet. A player will devise all sorts of ways of economizing when on the road, Lardner explained, and then quietly pocket the part of his travel allowance ($3 a day for meals) he has not spent. Owners, therefore, were wise to be shrewd, veritable “Shylocks” when negotiating player contracts each year. “It is a strange fact,” Lardner wrote, “that the highest salaried teams sometimes come nearest to setting new records for total defeats.”
One of the most misleading images put forth by organized baseball was that of the idyllic life of the professional athlete. The average tenure of professional ballplayers in Lardner’s time was eight years. Fear was a pervasive aspect of a player’s life—fear of failure, of a prolonged slump, of growing old. Veterans were often more nervous than the younger players because nobody received pensions, and retirees who had no professional training outside of baseball often wound up poor. The nomadic existence made marriage difficult, and the incidence of venereal disease among players was high. There was also an abnormally high incidence of suicide and violent death among former players.
But Lardner was a baseball purist, wanting what was “best for the sport.” Most threatening to him was the dollar rearing its ugly head on the diamond. He did not approve of owners who traded players, and he deplored, most of all, enterprising players with a nose for such deals. When the Philadelphia Athletics’ star second baseman, Eddie Collins, was sold to the Chicago White Sox in 1915 for $65,000, Lardner responded in verse with almost childlike bitterness:
Players who jump for the dough
Bandits and crooks every one.
Baseball’s a pleasure you know
Players should play for the fun.
Magnates don’t care for the mon.
They can’t be tempted with gold.
They’re in the game for the fun—
That is why Collins was sold.
But despite his misgivings, nothing could have prepared Lardner, or the country, for the Black Sox scandal.
When eight Chicago White Sox conspired with professional gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series, it was, on the one hand, nothing new. Earlier that same season Chicago Cubs infielder Lee McGee was caught betting against his own team. The season before, Cincinnati Reds first baseman Hal Chase was suspended for attempting to bribe both teammates and opposing players into fixing games. Prior to the very first World Series, Rube Waddell, the ace of the Philadelphia pitching staff, was offered $17,000 by gamblers not to play, then injured his pitching arm stumbling over a suitcase. In 1916 Lardner reported an attempt by certain New York Giants to fix the National League pennant race. Gamblers were known to put certain players on weekly payrolls, and owners were known to give away suits of clothes to pitchers on other clubs who defeated their rivals.
Yet the fixing of the 1919 World Series was different. For one thing, the series was thought to be a mismatch: the Reds, a team of average players who’d fought hard to win the National League pennant, against the White Sox, one of the best teams ever assembled and thought to be invincible. Gamblers didn’t expect much action on that year’s series, and they never dreamed of fixing it. They also never dreamed eight Chicago players would come to them. For $100,000, to be paid in $20,000 installments after each loss, the players offered to throw the series.
The Black Sox, as they came to be known, made up the talented core of the White Sox team: “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, whom Hall of Famer Walter Johnson called “the greatest natural player I have ever seen”; cagey veteran pitcher Eddie Cicotte, of whom Lardner said, “They ain’t a smarter pitcher in baseball and they ain’t nobody that’s a better all-round ball player”; Lefty Williams, the other pitcher, who was reputed to have the best control in the game; George “Buck” Weaver, a steady .300 hitter, the only third baseman Cobb would not attempt to bunt against; Charles “Swede” Risberg, a gifted and acrobatic shortstop; Arnold “Chick” Gandil at first, a huge man with “hands of iron”; Happy Felsch and Shano Collins, both of whom could start on any ball club, patrolling the outfield with Shoeless Joe. This was the group that owner Charles Comiskey called “the best bunch of fighters I ever saw.”
What Comiskey may not have seen was how unhappy they were. Though he ought to have: the White Sox were the most underpaid team in baseball. Eddie Collins, who negotiated a $14,500 annual salary when he came to the team four years earlier—the trade Lardner condemned—was arguably the only player on the team who received fair pay. The average salary of the conspiring players was $4,300. Shoeless Joe, whose contract had been purchased from Cleveland for the same amount as Collins’s, made only $6,000 a year. By comparison, the salary of Cincinnati’s Ed Roush, whose batting average was 60 points below Jackson’s, was $10,000. For years, second-rate players on other clubs made more than the talented White Sox. Comiskey even skimped on their meal allowance—giving his players $3 a day when every other owner in baseball paid $4. For players like Jackson and Eddie Cicotte, a 14-year veteran getting paid $5,000, the thought of a year’s salary “all in one whack, all green,” was hard to resist.
Many baseball insiders knew of the fix in advance of the series. Initially, the odds were 5-1 against the Reds. This dropped to 8-5 and then, two days before game one, to even money. Arnold Rothstein, the famous gambler who financed the deal, put down $270,000 against one of the greatest ball clubs in history. Hugh Fullerton wired his newspapers: ADVISE ALL NOT TO BET ON THE SERIES. UGLY RUMORS AFLOAT. Lardner could also smell the fix. After watching Eddie Cicotte lose the first game by the score of nine to one—giving up six runs in the first four innings—Lardner asked him up to his hotel room for a drink. Nothing was going on, Lardner’s beloved pitcher told him, he was just “off form, that was all.”
“It’s a Big Scandal,” read his headline after Chicago lost the second game in Cincinnati; it was subtitled “Ring discovers cause of defeat.” But written entirely in busher dialect, it could easily have been taken as a joke. Inspired by the tune “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,” which was being oompahed by the band in the Cincinnati stands, Lardner composed
I’m forever blowing ball games,
Pretty ball games in the air.
I come from Chi.
I hardly try,
Just go to bat and fade and die.
Fortune’s coming my way,
That’s why I don’t care,
I’m forever throwing ball games
And the gamblers treat us fair.
and delivered his rendition from the aisle of the White Sox Pullman car on the way back to Chicago.
The remainder of the series made Lardner more and more disgusted. The talk before the fourth game was that Cicotte had a sore arm. Lardner assured readers there was nothing wrong with Eddie’s arm—“the problem was he had a sore heart.” The Chicago ace proceeded to pitch a masterly five-hitter, flawless save for the fifth inning, in which Cicotte, an adroit fielder, committed two errors and let two runs score. The White Sox lost 2-0.
From his spot in the press box, Hugh Fullerton kept a scorecard with circles drawn around questionable plays and sequences. Fullerton went public with his scorecard once the series was over, exposing the fix, the fixers, and their spoils in a series of articles published by The New York World. Baseball management, not involved in the fix, nevertheless implemented a cover-up to protect their business. Comiskey, while denying the rumors, offered $10,000 to anyone with information about a fix. He requested a grand jury to investigate, and even hired his own team of detectives.
In actuality, Comiskey had known of the fix from game one, when he appealed in desperation to the American League president, Ban Johnson, for help. That winter, when Shoeless Joe phoned him to confess the whole story, Comiskey wouldn’t take the call. When Billy Maharg, one of the gamblers slighted in the deal, wired the White Sox owner offering to tell what he knew, Comiskey never answered.
The grand jury obtained full confessions from Jackson, Felsch, Williams, and Cicotte. Comiskey then reached out to, of all people, Arnold Rothstein, and players’ confessions, along with all pages of testimony containing the name Rothstein, mysteriously disappeared. The upcoming trial would result in an acquittal. But nobody was fooled. “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” the disillusioned newsboy famously pleaded from the crowd as Shoeless Joe Jackson left the courthouse. “To think those fellows we cheered for their heroic work would throw us down,” said another fan in a letter to The Sporting News. “Even the small boys on the sandlots have been swindled,” remarked Edward Prindville, the assistant prosecutor at the Black Sox trial.
For cultural critics the sellout of the 1919 World Series was a signal event in American life. The New York Times called it “an American tragedy.” An editorial in Chicago’s Herald and Examiner stated: “A case like [the Black Sox] might seem unimportant in comparison with disarmament, or world commerce, or the race problem, or prohibition. But at the bottom of every issue lies the national character.”
In their desperation baseball owners voted to bring in an outsider to “run” baseball. For their savior they chose federal judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, starting him at a salary of $50,000. “Nothing is good enough for baseball that is not good enough for America,” blustered the silver-haired judge. In his first act as baseball’s commissioner, Landis banned the Black Sox from the major leagues for life. This is exactly how the owners wanted it to play out: no convictions in court, but baseball cleaning its own house.
Baseball survived, careening into the 1920s, but it did so without one of its luminaries. The White Sox had been the team closest to Lardner’s heart. As much as he had penetrated baseball’s myths, he had nevertheless retained a reverence for the sport, and it was now shattered. (Jack Keefe, asinine as he was, could never have fixed a ball game.) Lardner, who, as writer Eliot Asinof said, “gave baseball class, just by being part of its world,” severed his ties with the sport and never wrote about it again.
To this day, every baseball story involving questionable behavior sets in motion a familiar dance among owners, players, and fans, who are each very much, and very differently, invested in the national pastime. Players and fans are more obsessed with baseball lore and records than owners are; owners and players are more concerned with money than fans are; and fans and owners have a greater stake in team loyalty than players do.
Witness the August 2010 Associated Press report that the Pittsburgh Pirates, who had just clinched their 18th-straight losing season, are doing surprisingly well financially. A “small market” team that benefits from the league’s revenue-sharing policy aimed at maintaining competitive balance, the Pirates used $69.3 million in revenue-sharing proceeds to book a profit of $29.4 million over a recent two-year stretch. The Los Angeles Angels, a competitive, “big market” team, profited only $17.8 million over the same period, while paying out $31 million in revenue sharing.
Obviously the Pirates haven’t used their revenue-sharing money to improve their team. They have the lowest payroll in baseball, don’t offer salaries that attract free agents, and don’t offer contracts to their players once they become stars. In 1992 they won their third straight division title with a trio dubbed the “outfield of dreams”—Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla, and Andy Van Slyke. All were soon released to free agency while still in their prime, and the Pirates haven’t had a winning season since. In 2010, Pittsburgh’s opening-day payroll was just $2 million more than in 1992.
What emerges from the AP story is that a team considered to be poorly run was, from a business standpoint, very effectively run. Their profit margin of 8 percent matches the average profit margin for S&P 500 corporations over the last 30 years. Roger Noll, a Stanford economist, is quoted saying, “Probably the Pirates would be less profitable if they tried to improve the team substantially.”
So the Pirates’ owners attend to the bottom line while the players use the ball club as a glorified farm team. Once they develop their talent they’re happy to go where the money is, and ownership is content to trade them away or let them walk. Of course, by not intending to field a competitive team, they run the risk of alienating their fans—which is why the Pirates are furious about the AP report, which is based on leaked documents of “a private company that has no obligation to publicly report its financial results.” But loyalty to the Pirates—one of baseball’s oldest teams, the team of Honus Wagner, Hank Greenberg, Ralph Kiner, Bill Mazeroski, Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell—runs irrationally deep. “The day I abandon my Pirate fanhood is the day [Pirates owner] Nutting refuses to pony up the extra cash needed to put together a contender,” said 20-year-old Jack Seiner in a 2010 ESPN interview—17 years into his team’s record-breaking streak of losing seasons.
Sportswriters, as stakeholders in the game, occupy an interesting perch. They like to keep reminding their audience that “baseball is a business,” yet their job is about the love of sport, and the good ones can’t help sniffing the same glue as the fans. A thoroughly disgusted sports journalist, as Ring Lardner became, is soon to be a retired one. Baseball writers are the only ones who cast Hall of Fame ballots, and we’re all waiting for their verdict on the so-called steroid era. (So far, no player who’s been directly implicated—i.e., Rafael Palmiero—or just known to have bulked up during his career—i.e., Jeff Bagwell—has come close to garnering enough votes.)
When I hear fans discuss, often very knowledgeably, what steroids have done to baseball, the conversation inevitably turns to the Hall of Fame and the hallowed statistics, the great names accompanied by their immortal numbers: Aaron/755, DiMaggio/56, Williams/.406, Ruth/60, or Maris/61* (the infamous asterisk never actually appeared in the record books, but still made his life miserable). In such exchanges, someone eventually declares that we can’t compare players from different eras on account of different technology, stadiums, lengths of season, rule changes, and so forth.
Here’s another reason you can’t compare eras: each one had its own scandal that affected the record books. The number I keep coming back to is 54—Babe Ruth’s home run total in 1920, the year following the Black Sox. That’s when baseball introduced the latest version of the “rabbit ball”—Lardner called it the “T.N.T. ball”—which had a soft cork center making it much livelier off the bat. The previous record for home runs in a season had been 29, set by Ruth the year before. Two seasons earlier Ruth and Frank Schulte shared the league lead in homers with 11. In 1998, when attendance was still flagging due to a strike-shortened season and a canceled World Series four years prior, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa put on a record-breaking and (as we found out) steroid-fueled home run race that captivated the nation. But long before that, in the wake of baseball’s biggest scandal to date, fans were treated to an unprecedented display of offensive power, the league willing to dilute its record books by putting the ball on steroids.
After 1919, you could argue—as Ring Lardner certainly would have—that it wasn’t even baseball anymore. But should that diminish the achievements of Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Don Larsen or Sandy Koufax? Maybe the question of which numbers are sacred is something each fan needs to answer for himself. For me personally it’s .545, my lifetime Little League batting average, along with the numbers 21 and 42—worn by Roberto Clemente and Jackie Robinson.
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