One hundred years have passed since sportswriter Hugh Fullerton wrote about eight members of the Chicago White Sox who took money from organized gambler Arnold Rothstein to throw the 1919 World Series. It was a scandal that almost destroyed the game of baseball. Older White Sox fans, many of them still weary from the devastating effects of World War I and the Spanish Flu epidemic that wiped out 30 million people world wide, could hardly process what the eight Black Sox players had done. Young White Sox fans took it even harder as they felt betrayed by their heroes. While the swift punishment handed down by newly minted baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis a year later helped ensure that the game did not meet its demise, the scandal still devastated baseball, and the country. The effect was so tremendous that F. Scott Fitzgerald referenced it in the American classic The Great Gatsby. “It never occurred to me that one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people–with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe.”
Born out of that scandal was folk hero “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, one of the eight players who accepted money from gamblers to throw the series. He had a .375 batting average, 12 RBIs, and hit the series’ only home run in the World Series. These stats, along with making no errors, makes scholars and fans alike question whether he tried to throw the series. Regardless of how well he played, the fact remains that he did take the gamblers money. In fact, during the 1919 World Series, he inquired on a daily basis about whether he’d get his entire share of the payoff. Despite these details, W.P. Kinsella romanticized Jackson in the novel Shoeless Joe, as well as the subsequent film, Field of Dreams. These forms of media appeal to the emotion of baseball fans who believe in Jackson’s innocence. “He continues to be Shoeless Joe,” says Charles Fountain, a professor of journalism and baseball writer who wrote The Betrayal: The 1919 World Series and the Birth of Modern Baseball in 2015, “…the guy in the cornstalks.”
Why Do We Give Shoeless Joe Jackson a Pass?
While it’s easy to fall prey to these appeals for compassion, it’s just as easy to forget that Jackson was one of eight players who tainted the integrity of the game. So why do we give Shoeless Joe Jackson a pass? This question is as relevant today as it was in 1919. In fact, those who suspected that the World Series was fixed, like writer Hugh Fullerton, tried to tell people like White Sox owner Charles Comiskey, as well as other writers, only to be all but shunned from the game for the rest of his career. So why do fans today raise Cain about injustices against Jackson and ignore Fullerton? Why is Jackson seen as a hero and Fullerton seen as a villain?
Hugh Fullerton Blows the Whistle
Let’s rehash the details first. Eight members of the Chicago White Sox, Shoeless Joe Jackson included, accepted payment to throw the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. Hugh Fullerton heard rumors of the fix and sat with New York Giants pitching legend Christy Mathewson in the press box during the World Series to discuss. Together they noted certain suspicious plays for which a White Sox player was charged with an error. They later scrutinized these plays and came to the conclusion that they weren’t honest errors. The White Sox lost the series and the season ended. In December of 1919, Fullerton’s writing blows the scandal wide open. In a story published in the New York World entitled “IS BIG LEAGUE BASEBALL BEING RUN FOR GAMBLERS, WITH BALLPLAYERS IN THE DEAL?” Fullerton demanded that baseball investigate its gambling problem. Jackson, along with the other seven players, stood trial for their crimes and all are acquitted despite their confessions. Landis, now commissioner of baseball, banned the eight players for life anyway. “Regardless of the verdict of juries,” Landis declared, “no player that throws a ballgame; no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ballgame; no player that sits in a conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing games are planned and discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.” Jackson dies in 1951, having never played professional baseball again (unless you count Field of Dreams).
Myths and Legends Born Out of Falsities
Three years ago I sat down with Charles Fountain to discuss Jackson and the 1919 Black Sox legacy. Fountain’s book, The Betrayal, a nominee for the 2015 Casey Award, challenges many of the assumptions that baseball fans have about the 1919 World Series, most of which derive from Eliot Asinof’s Eight Men Out that for many years fans took for gospel. For example, Comiskey allegedly promised Eddie Cicotte, one of the eight players involved in the scandal, a $10,000 bonus if he won 30 games during the 1919 season. When Cicotte won his twenty-eighth game, Comiskey ordered Cicotte benched so he wouldn’t have to give him the bonus. Fountain alleges that this isn’t a true story. Not only did Cicotte consistently pitch throughout the season, but there is no evidence in his contract showing that he was ever going to receive a bonus. Then there’s the story that gamblers threatened Lefty Williams when he tried to renege on the deal. The problem with this story is that Williams wasn’t in Chicago at the time that this alleged threat happened. “Asimov was such a beautiful writer,” Fountain said about the famed author during our 2015 talk, “but was not concerned with fact but instead with story.”
Many Fans Don’t Know the Real Details of the 1919 World Series
Most baseball fans aren’t aware of these new insights unless they’ve read Fountain’s book. It is difficult to say how much it would matter though if baseball fans better knew that information. We live in a time where people more readily accept perception over fact, a behavior fueled by impulsive reactions instead of tempered insight. For many baseball fans, Shoeless Joe Jackson represents an idea that one’s sins shouldn’t be held against them indefinitely, especially if their actions defy the very sins they’re accused of committing. For other baseball fans, Jackson is a cause they can rally around to feel good about themselves. Jackson is “sort of wrong victim,” Fountain explains “…and if you take that away you end the story, while it’s a happy resolution for the Jackson people, we then stop talking about it.” So if baseball fans feel that Jackson was slighted, then why don’t they feel the same way about Fullerton, who tried in vain to call attention to the fix? “…if Fullerton had grown disillusioned with the game,” Fountain wrote in The Betrayal, “the game had grown disillusioned with him too, as he was made to feel unwelcome by many who believed he had broken some sort of unspoken code by writing his December 1919 stories, that his fealty to the image of the game should have trumped his fealty to his readers and the truth.”
Fullerton’s Role and Contributions to the Story
Journalist Steven M. Klein wrote his master’s thesis on Hugh Fullerton at Michigan State University focusing on a complex man of high morals. Klein details how Fullerton upbringing in Ohio and how McGuffey’s Readers guided his education. William H. McGuffey’s books reflected Protestant ideals that focused on morality, integrity, and education. These books profoundly impacted scientists and doctors because they encouraged critical thinking over rote memorization. Fullerton used these books as a basis for his own moral beliefs throughout his career. One of the ideas that the McGuffey books conveyed to its readers included components of integrity and honesty. Fullerton held these ideas in such high regard that one could argue that they influenced Fullerton to speak out about the 1919 Black Sox scandal. He believed that staying quiet about what he noticed about the 1919 World Series contradicted the beliefs he valued.
Gambling in America’s Victorian Era
Fullerton grew up towards the tale end of the Victorian Era in America and was working full time at the dawn of the 20th century. During this time gambling was becoming more and more rampant in baseball, as well as in general society, which challenged a Victorian-based belief system that valued integrity and honesty. Fullerton was a descendent of that era, and was likely one of the few still clinging to these ideas. So many others sports writers had become accustomed to American disillusionment in post-World War I America that it makes sense that they didn’t want to hear Fullerton’s ramblings about the disintegration of morality and honesty in baseball. As Klein writes, “The game needed to mirror America’ perception of itself as a foursquare land of equal opportunity and limitless possibilities.” Hugh Fullerton’s exposure of the 1919 Black Sox scandal exposed this idea as a falsity.
Hugh Fullerton Received No Recognition for his Role, Only Admonishment
Fullerton was later blackballed from the sports writing world because he had refused to look the other way with the 1919 Black Sox scandal. As a scientist and stats guy, he knew that what the eight White Sox players did was not only wrong, but a major insult to what we know recognize as sabermetrics. “The Black Sox scandal provided sports writers of the time with a unique challenge…but only one was up to it,” Klein writes, “What separated Fullerton, however, was his willingness to write about it while others remained silent.”
Why Doesn’t Anyone Remember or Recognize Hugh Fullerton?
So why don’t baseball fans recognize Fullerton’s contributions to the game, particularly his involvement in the Black Sox scandal? One possible explanation is that he kept people from relying on their willful ignorance; Hugh Fullerton ruined the “ignorance is bliss” excuse for fans, writers, and owners who didn’t want to hear anymore bad news in the wake of the decade’s devastating events. While some might find it hard to blame them, it brings unavoidable attention to the contradiction showing unwavering devotion to a self-admitted crook like Jackson. It also shows an intense resentment towards a man of integrity like Fullerton. Why though? Is it because Jackson’s story is one that gives baseball fans a modicum of hope that he wasn’t a crook rather than a great baseball player? An illiterate man exploited by gamblers? Do fans hope that their own sins may find forgiveness too? Or is it because films like Field of Dreams, a film that symbolizes a bond between father and son so strong that fans confuse its emotional bond with truth? Do fans point to Field of Dreams and say “How can you condemn Shoeless Joe Jackson when he was such an amazing character in the movie?” Regardless of how great of a baseball movie it is (I’ll admit that I love it too), it’s ridiculous to cite it as anything more than a fictitious feel-good movie. It’s not a basis of fact. Jackson willingly accepted Rothstein’s money. It doesn’t matter how well he played in the 1919 World Series.
Does Shoeless Joe Jackson Deserve Induction into the Hall of Fame?
Fans that advocate for Jackson’s removal from baseball’s lifetime ban list should ask themselves whether they want him removed for the right reasons. Do they want him removed because of his ban, or so they can feel better about themselves? If it’s the former, then they must also recognize Hugh Fullerton, for he was the writer who tried to preserve the integrity that Jackson’s supporters argue Landis took from him. Does Jackson deserve induction into the Hall of Fame? Probably. But that can’t happen without simultaneously recognizing Fullerton too. For some fans though, that might not be a compromise they want, as it would mean recognizing the sins they’re trying to excuse.