Baseball’s Forgotten Champions|
Why the story of the 1919 Reds deserves a second look
By Nick Buglione
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To serious baseball fans, the mere mention of the year is enough to start a conversation, if not a heated debate.
Nearly 90 seasons have passed since eight members of the Chicago White Sox - Eddie Cicotte, Oscar Felsch, Arnold Gandil, Joe Jackson, Fred McMullin, Charles Risberg, George Weaver and Claude Williams—allegedly conspired with gamblers to throw the World Series. Although the scandal’s far-reaching impact on baseball has been obscured by time and long since supplanted by new controversies, questions about the story linger to this day.
While there are few definitive answers to what precise transgressions took place on and off the field at the end of that fateful season, one thing is clear: The 1919 Cincinnati Reds are considered by few historians to be that year’s legitimate champions. They are all but an afterthought, World Series winners with an imaginary asterisk.
Because of the White Sox' notoriety, little has been written about the Reds, 1919's bridegrooms, their championship notwithstanding - a team that rose to the top not by virtue of their own talent, but because of the unscrupulous behavior of Chicago’s infamous eight.
Some baseball historians, however, maintain that the statistics tell a different story - that, fix or no fix, the Reds were the best team in baseball in 1919.
The Black Sox Scandal has been immortalized in literature and film, perhaps most notably in the 1988 big-screen adaptation of Eliot Asinof’s book "Eight Men Out." Yet some students of the game's history believe that film and other works have perpetuated a myth that there was a cohesive plot among the Chicago players to tank in the World Series.
"There was definitely bribery and plotting before and maybe during the Series," says Gene Carney, author of the 2006 book "Burying the Black Sox: How Baseball's Cover-Up of the 1919 World Series Almost Succeeded." "But my view is that Jackson and Weaver played every game to win. If Felsch and Gandil didn't, they were not big factors. Who knows about Risberg? Anyway, it seems the fix fizzled very early."
Carney isn't alone in contending that the Series might not have been as crooked as perceived through the years. Dr. Susan Dellinger is an author as well as a granddaughter of one of the stars of the Reds that season, Hall of Fame outfielder Edd Roush. Dellinger insists that her grandfather, who went to his grave defending the honor of the championship team, never got the impression that the Sox were intentionally trying to lose the Series - with the exception of Game One.
"Granddad would say, 'OK, so maybe Cicotte tried to throw the first game, but after that everything was on the up and up," recalls Dellinger, who wrote "Red Legs and Black Sox: Edd Roush and the Untold Story of the 1919 World Series" in 2006.
Dellinger's book, and another by Cincinnati native William A. Cook, are perhaps the only ones that tell the story from the Reds' perspective. "I've never denied there was a scandal," Cook says, "[but] I'm convinced some of that series was played on the up."
In fact, Cook believes the Reds would have won the Series even if there had been no fix. "It didn’t make any difference," he says of the Sox' real or imagined efforts to give games away. "I've gone game by game, pitch by pitch, and I’ve found that the Reds would have won anyway."
Statistics seem to support Cook’s argument. The Reds finished the 1919 regular season 96-44, outpacing two perennial powerhouses—the New York Giants and the Chicago Cubs - to take the National League pennant. The White Sox won eight fewer games in the American League that year.
Incidentally, the Reds .686 win percentage that year was second best of the decade, behind only the 1912 Boston Red Sox (.691). And it took eight seasons for a team to finally best the win percentage the Reds sported in 1919 (New York Yankees, .714).
While the Sox featured two of the top pitchers in baseball - Cicotte and Williams - the Reds clearly had a deeper staff: Hod Eller, Ray Fisher, Jimmy Ring, Dutch Ruether and Slim Sallee all had solid seasons on the mound, and the Reds had a league-leading combined ERA of 2.23. White Sox hurlers posted a 3.04 ERA.
"Joe Jackson said that Jimmy Ring had more smoke than Walter Johnson,"
says Cook. "The Reds pitching shut down the White Sox incredibly."
The White Sox didn’t score an earned run for the first 22 2/3 innings of the Series. Aside from Jackson, Weaver and catcher Ray Schalk, no one did much at the plate, Cook says. Cincinnati was also the better-fielding team, having committed a league-low 152 errors and posted a .974 fielding percentage, also the best in the National League.
"The Reds were by no means a pushover team," said ErikVaron, who has
managed the Web site 1919BlackSox.com since 2002. "Whereas the 1919 White Sox possessed numerous star and Hall of Fame players, the 1919 Reds team was mostly non-star players [who played] well together."
Having won the World Series two years earlier, the Sox certainly appeared to have a more formidable lineup than the Reds. Chicago hit .287 as a team, compared with Cincinnati’s .263, and boasted perhaps the best hitter in baseball - Jackson. Still, the Reds had more than enough offense, paced by Roush, who won the NL batting title that year with a .321average.
"The Reds also don’t get enough credit for having Pat Moran," Cook says. "at the time he was considered one of the greatest managers ever."
So why were the Reds the underdogs going into the Series? As it happened, not everyone thought they were. The Collyer's Eye, a gambling publication, had the Reds
at even money to win - if they won the coin toss determining where the Series would begin and hosted the first game, which they did, according to Carney.
Giants manager John McGraw picked the Reds to win based on the strength and depth of their pitching, Carney says. And after watching Cincinnati win the first two games 9-1 and 4-2, respectively, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who would later become baseball’s first commissioner, declared the Reds "the most formidable machine I have ever seen."
"They way you hear it now, it sounds like it would be unanimous predicting a Sox win," says Jim Sandoval, a teacher and amateur baseball historian who knows the 1919 Reds inside and out. "Lots of writers picked the Reds. I definitely think the Reds had a legitimate chance to win."
Dellinger and Cook maintain that only after respected sportswriter Hugh Fullerton, of the Chicago Herald and Examiner, picked the White Sox to win the Series did other journalists do the same. "Once he came out in favor of the Sox, all the other sportswriters picked it up,”"Dellinger says.
As it turned out, the Reds were no less the victims of the Black Sox Scandal than were millions of disappointed baseball fans. And the Reds deserved better. The antithesis of the constantly feuding Sox, Cincinnati was a close-knit club, and the players remained friends long after their careers were over. "What I think was the difference was the spirit of the team," says Dellinger, who remembers many teammates visiting her grandfather through the years. "That team, they loved each other."
Nick Buglione is a high school teacher and freelance journalist from Bellerose, N.Y. He is a lifelong Yankees fan.