Party like it’s 1919?

1919 Cincinnati Reds

The 1919 Reds’ threads . . .

Remarkable. Today’s Field of Dreams Game will feature the Reds vs. the Cubs, each wearing throwback replica uniforms. The Cubs will mix it up a bit: their jerseys will be replicas of their later 1920s jerseys while their hats will reproduce their 1914 hats. The Reds will wear reproductions, hats and jerseys alike, of the uniforms they wore in 1919.

On the Iowa field across which the fictitious Shoeless Joe Jackson (played by the late Ray Liotta) trod in the film after which the game is named, the true victims of that tainted World Series will wear the uniforms in which they became the game’s most tainted Series winners through absolutely no fault of their own. Cincinnati baseball doesn’t have it tough enough this year?

“Party like it’s 1919!” the Reds tweeted when the threads were revealed. Some party. And they’re going to play the game against a team so legendary as putzes between World Series championships that, whomever chose their threads, they couldn’t even get the eras coordinated. Their 1914 hats above their late-1920s jerseys? Is that so Cubs, or what?

For now let’s forget that both teams elected to, shall we say, rebuild last year. The Cubs pushed the plunger on their 2021 at the trade deadline; the Reds re-pushed one during the off-season before and after the notorious owners’ lockout. Let’s ponder instead whether the geniuses behind today’s Field of Dreams throwback uniforms really comprehend how the 1919 Reds were robbed.

Yes, it does sound strange to think of a World Series winner as a victim. Especially since it managed to go to fifteen postseasons, win ten pennants and five World Series, over the decades to follow without scandal attached. (The 1990 Reds had one in their rear view mirror, namely Pete Rose the previous year, but there was nothing like sweeping an American League behemoth to ease that pain.)

But for a century plus three years, and despite the best efforts of people to whom history has its proper truthful claims, the Reds have lived with the notion that their 1919 edition would have been squashed like house pests if the White Sox had played it straight, no chaser. I wrote of it approaching the centenary season and on the anniversary of Game Eight of that Series: those Reds weren’t the poor souls portrayed too often.

Contradictorily, the Reds approached the 1919 Series as 8-5 favourites to win the set overall but 2-1 underdogs in the first two games at Cincinnati’s Redland Field. While White Sox manager Kid Gleason trumpted loud and long his squad full of battering rams, Reds manager Pat Moran made a prediction that proved only too chilling: the Reds had a shot at winning the set if they could beat White Sox starting pitcher Eddie Cicotte in Game One.

Going into the Series the Reds actually had the better pitching picture: five healthy and solid pitchers who hadn’t been overworked: Hod Eller, Ray Fisher, Jimmy Ring, Dutch Reuther, and Slim Sallee. The White Sox had two great starters (Cicotte and Lefty Williams) but a rookie named Dickey Kerr who was considered promising but a bit of a wild card. Injuries left their Hall of Famer Red Faber out of the Series picture entirely.

There was also the little matter of the Reds actually out-pitching the White Sox on the regular season. The Reds entered the Series with a team 2.23 ERA and 2.81 fielding-independent pitching (FIP) rate; the White Sox, a team 3.04 ERA and 2.88 FIP. The opposition averaged 2.8 runs against the Reds but 3.8 runs against the White Sox. I still have a tough time with arguments that the White Sox were that much of a 1919 powerhouse.

The 1919 Reds finished the regular season with a .686 winning percentage, the best single-season win percentage in the Show that decade except for the 1912 Red Sox’s .691. The 1919 White Sox finished with a .629 win percentage. Those Reds also went 47-19 in the second half of the season compared to those White Sox going 41-26. On the full season, the Reds went 38-22 against other National League pennant contenders while the White Sox went 35-25 against other American League contenders.

Down the stretch? The Reds faced other NL contenders ten times and won eight; the White Sox faced other AL contenders twelve times and went 6-6. Now you should have a tougher time hearing arguments that those White Sox, who did out-hit the Reds but weren’t that much better at scoring (4.8 runs per game to the Reds’ 4.1), were so formidable as to have the Reds reaching for the tranquilisers.

1919 Cincinnati Reds

. . . and the actual 1919 Reds, whose World Series title remains unfairly tainted.

Cicotte, of course, hit Reds second baseman Morrie Rath with the second pitch of Game One, the tipoff to the gamblers that the fix was on. He would have been suspect even if he hadn’t thrown in with Chick Gandil to seek financial backing for the Series fix from bookie Sport Sullivan and pitcher-turned-gambler Sleepy Bill Burns before bringing in more teammates: Cicotte entered the Series with a barking shoulder and arm thanks to a 306.6 inning regular season.

Two years ago, I wrote elsewhere having as close a look as possible at Jackson’s 1919 Series performance. There remain those who say his .375/.394/.563 Series slash line is evidence that he didn’t take a dive with assorted mates in the Series. It is if you don’t look deeper. If you do look deeper, you’re going to find more question marks than exclamation points.

I looked. And, as I wrote then, Jackson batted six times in that Series with men on base. He had one base hit and reached on an error in those six situations, for a .167 batting average with men on base. By the end of Game Five, the Sox were in a 4-1 Series hole and Jackson factored in the win by scoring the first of three Sox runs after he led off with a base hit.

I continued: “Then the White Sox played three straight elimination games and won the first two. Jackson batted ten times with men on base in those three games, got five hits, and reached on an error once. But in [Game Eight]—the absolute last chance for the White Sox to stay alive—he went 1-for-4 with men on base and drove in two runs with that hit when the game was still far enough beyond reach.”

Nine years ago, former New Jersey prosecutor Bill Lamb published Black Sox in the Courtroom: The Grand Jury, Criminal Trial, and Civil Litigation. “That Joe Jackson was a likable fellow and persistent in his claims of innocence does not change the historical record,” he wrote therein.

On the evidence, the call is not a close one . . . As he admitted under oath after first being confronted, Jackson was a knowing, if perhaps unenthusiastic, participant in the plot to fix the 1919 World Series. And damningly, Jackson was just as persistent in his demands to be paid his promised fix money as the Series progressed as he would later be in his disavowals of fix involvement. In the final analysis, Shoeless Joe Jackson, banished from playing the game that he loved while still in the prime of his career, is a sad figure. But hardly an innocent one.

If you seek those for whom the gamblers’ promises and shenanigans meant little to nothing, be reminded if you will that the Reds shook one off near the end of the Series. According to his granddaughter Susan Dellinger, Ph.D., in Red Legs and Black Sox, the Reds’ Hall of Fame center fielder Edd Roush told Moran he’d heard whisperings that gamblers tried getting to one or more Reds prior to Game Eight. Oops.

No oops, Dellinger exhumed. Moran called a team meeting before the game and the scheduled Reds starting pitcher, Eller, spoke up. A gambler tried to buy him off, but he’d told the gentleman firmly enough to go jump in the lake, or the Ohio River, whichever one was closest. Then, Eller went the distance for the Reds while his mates trashed Williams in the opening rumble of their 10-5 blowout.

“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,” I wrote in 2018. “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.”

Surely I asked too much when I suggested the commissioner’s office might issue at least a proclamation that the 1919 Reds were (and should remain) legitimate World Series champions on the centenary of that event. I’d probably ask too much, too, if I ask for one today, before today’s Reds tangle with today’s Cubs in the Field of Dreams game. (It’s probably asking even more to ask how on earth the game can sell—so help me God—“tickets as low as $501.”)

As the teams walk onto the field across which the fictitious Black Sox were romanticised without warrant in an otherwise charming film, it would be nothing less than their due, for a Reds franchise that’s suffered enough self-inflicted indignity as well as several equally grand triumphs. It won’t help the team’s prospects for the rest of this season, but it might give Cincinnati itself a hard-earned gift.

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