The 1919 Reds, grand theft victims

1919RedsIt’s difficult to feel sorry for a franchise whose history includes fifteen trips to the postseason, ten pennants and five World Series championships, even if they’ve spent the past five seasons in the pits of the National League Central. Difficult, but not impossible.

The centenary approaches of the Cincinnati Reds’ first National League pennant and World Series triumph, and it’s not unfair to say few outside Cincinnati might care. But you should. If you’ll pardon the expression, bet on it: Ninety percent or more of its commemorative commentary will focus on the guys they beat in the 1919 World Series. Understandable, and patently unfair. To the Reds. The thrill of victory never smelled so much or so without warrant like the agony of defeat.

You know about the Black Sox, too much, not enough, or both. You may know the mythology saying the White Sox untainted by the Eight Men Out would have just annihilated the poor little Redsies who just weren’t enough to withstand a feeding attack from the South Side sharks. That’s a lie equal to one president not having had sex with that woman and a thrice-removed successor having the largest inaugural crowd of all time.

The Reds’ golden age was the 1970s of the Big Red Machine. Five division titles, four pennants, back-to-back World Series conquests, over that decade’s first seven years. Franchises would kill for a piece of that. But the Machinists had no single season winning percentage better than the 1919 Reds. The 1919 edition’s .686 winning percentage was better than those White Sox (.629) and any team in their decade except the 1912 Boston Red Sox. (.691.)

Before anyone suspected foul play, the 1919 White Sox were 8-5 favourites to win the Series overall but 2-1 underdogs for the first two games in Redland Field. (The park would be re-named as Crosley Field in 1934.) White Sox manager Kid Gleason trumpeted what he considered the greatest hitting team that yet played a World Series. Reds manager Pat Moran made a prediction that proved too chilling in due course: “If we beat [White Sox pitcher Eddie] Cicotte in the first game, we ought to win the Series.”

Cicotte, of course, hit the Reds’ second baseman Morrie Rath with the second pitch of the bottom of the first, the signal to the gamblers that the fix was on. But Cicotte would have entered that game suspect even without joining the fix. He suffered shoulder and arm miseries at the end a 306.6 inning, 29-win season. (If you’ve seen the dubious film version of Eight Men Out, you remember the scene in which Cicotte’s suspect shoulder and arm received a linament rubdown from his wife.)

The White Sox entered the Series with two great starting pitchers (Cicotte, fellow Black Sox Lefty Williams), a third (Hall of Famer Red Faber) missing in action thanks to injuries, and a rookie (Dickey Kerr, one of the Clean Sox) who looked like a comer both starting and out of the bullpen but whom observers in the moment considered a kind of  wild card. The Reds entered with five solid, healthy starters: Hod Eller, Ray Fisher, Jimmy Ring, Dutch Reuther, and Slim Sallee. Gleason went into the Series on the shorter end of the pitching stick, even without Cicotte and Williams corrupted. Moran had the luxury of being able to rotate his arms—none of which was particularly overworked compared to Cicotte and Williams (297 innings)—reasonably.

Is one way to measure a team their second-half season’s performance? If so, and if  you’ll pardon the expression, you should have put your money on the Reds based on that. They went 47-19 in their second half. The White Sox went 41-26. The Reds finished nine games ahead of the second-place New York Giants; the White Sox finished three and a half ahead of the second-place Cleveland Indians.

Another measure is how they did against fellow contenders in their league. The Reds went 38-22 on the season against three other contenders (the Giants, the Chicago Cubs, the Pittsburgh Pirates); the White Sox went 35-25 against three others (the Indians, the New York Yankees, the Detroit Tigers). In September alone, the Reds faced other contenders ten times and went 8-2; the White Sox, twelve times, going 6-6.

On the regular season the White Sox out-hit the Reds but weren’t that much better at scoring. The White Sox averaged 4.8 runs per game but the Reds averaged 4.1. And the opposition averaged 2.9 runs against the Reds but 3.8 runs against the White Sox. It’s easy to figure out: The Reds out-pitched the White Sox. Entering the Series, the White Sox pitching staff had a 3.04 earned run average and a 2.88 fielding-independent pitching rate. (FIP: your ERA when your defense is removed from the equation.) The Reds staff had a 2.23 ERA and a 2.81 FIP. The Reds were a little bit better at crafting their own pitching luck.

The 1919 White Sox shut the other guys out fourteen times and got shut out seven times. The bad news for the 1919 Reds: they were shut out fourteen times—but the good news is, they shut the other guys out 23 times. The closer you look, the less the White Sox look like predators and the Reds like prey.

It wasn’t just the tainted White Sox who came up short at the Series plate, Shoeless Joe Jackson to one side. Leadoff hitter Nemo Liebold hit .056 with two walks and one hit in the set. Hall of Famer Eddie Collins, another of the Clean Sox, undermined his own reputation as a money player when he hit .226 with a single run batted in. Collins’ Series average was two points above the team’s.

What of Jackson? His cumulative Series hitting line argues against him going into the tank, but his game-by-game performance looks more suspect. In his best single game at the plate all set long, Game Eight, he had two hits, three runs batted in, two runs scored including on a third inning home run, but the White Sox were blown out, 10-5, to lose the Series. The homer was Jackson’s first hit in the game, and he came to the plate with the White Sox already down, 5-0. Uh!-oh.

Even before White Sox first baseman Chick Gandil and shortstop Swede Risberg instigated the World Series fix, and found both the gamblers and the teammates to execute it, the White Sox and the Reds had a critical difference. The White Sox were riddled with dissension not all of which was provoked by frustrations real or imagined with their owner. They were wracked by clashes between more- and lesser-educated players and by spells of discomfort with new manager Gleason.

Collins played on the Philadelphia Athletics teams that ruled the earlier parts of the decade that the Red Sox didn’t, which went a long way toward fostering the presumed American League superiority. He once said those A’s “believed in teamwork and cooperation. I always thought you couldn’t win without those virtues until I joined the White Sox.”

The 1919 Reds believed as he did. Susan Dellinger, Ph.D., granddaughter of the Reds’ Hall of Fame center fielder Edd Roush, revealed in Red Legs & Black Sox: Edd Roush and the Untold Story of the 1919 World Series that those Reds liked their own new manager Moran, liked each other, played hard, and thought of team first. They mentored each other when need be, made a powerful point making newer players feel at home, and, on the field, as Dellinger wrote, “No one cared who was on third. If he wore the Reds insignia, just get him home.”

Their morale withstood only one threat, Dellinger exhumed, when Roush finally told Moran of whisperings he’d heard that gamblers tried to get to one or two Reds pitchers. Moran called a team meeting piror to Game Eight. The scheduled starting pitcher, Hod Eller spoke up. He’d run off a gambler who tried to buy him off for the game. Then he pitched the distance in the Series-ending blowout.

“Doesn’t everybody say the dream is nonsense? Didn’t everybody say the Reds couldn’t possibly win?” wrote Damon Runyon after the Reds’ Game One win. (The article is collected in the splendid Guys, Dolls, and Curveballs: Damon Runyon on Baseball.) “Experts, ballplayers, and fans—didn’t they all laugh at Cincinnati’s fall pretensions as they have laughed every year for many years? Cincinnati will tell you that they did.”

Didn’t they tell you Pat Moran’s ball club was made up of castoffs of baseball, and that it was just a sort of baseball joke compared to the million dollar club that represents Chicago?

Cincinnati will tell you they did. Cincinnati never tires of the telling, in fact. But all the time they were telling these things about the Reds, Cincinnati was secretly dreaming a great dream that was realized at Redland Field this afternoon, with 30,000 pop-eyed breathless Cincinnati people looking on.

The castoffs of baseball proved better than the sum of their parts and the million dollar club proved worse in more ways than one.

George F. Will had it right when he once described most of the Eight Men Out as “more dumb than dishonest,” a valedictory that doesn’t apply to the ringleaders Gandil and Risberg. Or, to reserve third baseman Fred McMullin, who stumbled upon their plot in its planning and threatened to expose it unless they cut him in on the profit. (Remember, too, that if the gamblers double-crossed the Black Sox, Gandil may have double-crossed his own co-conspirators; he’s said to have kept the bulk of the money the gamblers paid them.)

Will also said of the commissioner baseball selected in the scandal’s immediate wake, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, that he “delivered rough justice, perhaps more rough than just,” when it came to the game-wide malignancy that enabled the Black Sox. Landis was not faultless, including and especially the de facto perpetuation of baseball’s segregation. (He neither ruled formally nor spoke publicly but it was understood he wouldn’t sanction baseball’s integration so long as he held office.) But if he applied an overweight hand to baseball’s original gambling scandal, it was featherweight compared to the cancer the game needed to eradicate.

Jackson made two terrible mistakes, perhaps out of intimidation from the too-rough/too-tumble Risberg. (“Swede,” he told those investigating the World Series fix, “is a hard guy.”) He accepted an envelope Lefty Williams was ordered to deliver to him, containing $5,000, rather than say thanks but no thanks. And, he delayed his oft-discussed attempt to dispose of it and advise team officials what was up.

Third baseman Buck Weaver wanted no part of the fix or its payoffs. He also wanted nothing to do with being a rat against his friends, some of whom were anything but. That seemed more important than aborting the fix, which Weaver could have done by exposing what he knew. If there was a concerted cover-up of the fix, by White Sox officials at minimum, delaying its revelation and resolution by at least a year, Weaver’s silence left room for a cover-up in the first place.

Jackson’s playing record is considered Hall of Fame worthy. But the guileless outfielder was never elected on the (oft-forgotten) couple of times he did appear on the Baseball Writers Association of America Hall of Fame ballots. It’s not unreasonable to say his Hall worthiness married to his banishment inspired subsequent movements to convince baseball’s government to reinstate him and enable his Hall election, whatever the details behind his Black Sox status.

Don’t think that just because the White Sox were riddled by factionalism, and that even some of the Clean Sox were rough and tumble, it means the Reds were a roster full of saints. But several Reds including Roush, Eller, and outfielder Greasy Neale believed the Series was played mostly straight at least between Games Three and Six—because, they said in various ways, the gamblers double-crossed the fixers and the fixers didn’t get all the money they were promised. It neither mitigated the Black Sox nor eroded the myth of the Reds’ comparative modesty.

Seventy years after that World Series came Pete Rose, banished from baseball for violating Rule 21(d)—the rule against betting on baseball, the rule instigated by the gambling corruptions that climaxed with the 1919 Series fix and its eventual exposure and affirmation. You can say many things about Rose, but guileless isn’t one of them. And the very real prospect of his election to the Hall of Fame despite his banished status prompted the Hall itself, an entity not actually operated or governed by Major League Baseball, to rule against baseball’s ineligible being eligible for Hall election.

A nation whose citizens empathise with victims real or imagined should hark heartily to the real victims of baseball’s two most notorious gambling scandals. The first compromised the integrity of the Reds’ first World Series winners through no fault of their own. The second cost the Reds a franchise icon and manager through all fault of his own.

It would be simple enough for baseball to spend 2019 giving the 1919 Reds their long, long overdue. The evidence says they could have beaten those White Sox in a straight, no chaser Series. Baseball can’t give them a Series do-over but it can give the team the championship legitimacy they deserve. Metaphysically and temporally, the 1919 Reds wuz robbed.

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