How The ‘Black Sox’ Match-Fixing Scandal Changed Baseball Forever

November 9, 2021

By Aara Ramesh

In an earlier story in this series on sports betting, we wrote about how just as there have been wagers (legal or otherwise) placed on sporting outcomes as long as there have been sports, match-fixing has existed just as long as gambling has. The three factors here have a long and complicated history, with a new chapter set to be added in the era of legal sports betting and the advent of technology.

After several decades of being verboten, sports betting today is becoming the norm, with more and more states legalizing it in the wake of the Supreme Court decision that struck down the 1992 Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA).

For the longest time, Americans had a love-hate relationship with gambling and betting. While it was something almost anyone can and did engage in, it also had a negative connotation as being a vice or a sin. In the early 1900s, it came to be associated so strongly with organized crime and the mafia, that sports leagues themselves campaigned against legalizing sports betting.

In the recent past, however, cultural attitudes have changed significantly. Two in every three American adults view gaming as a positive economic contributor that provides high-quality jobs, and nearly three in every four support decriminalizing sports betting in their state. Further, almost 70% believe the gaming industry behaves responsibly and a majority (57%) believe it contributes positively to the communities it is present in.

Sports leagues, professionals, and law enforcement too support legalizing sports betting due to several factors, including the fact that doing so eliminates a key method through which organized crime syndicates launder and generate money that is used to fund more dangerous illicit activities like trafficking and violence. 

But in today’s piece, we look at a different reason why match-fixing can be so harmful, through the example of the 1919 World Series in Major League Baseball (MLB), which some say “America’s century-long distrust of sports betting can be traced [back to].” 

The Case

The “Black Sox” scandal — as it is popularly known — is one of the earliest publicly known examples of match-fixing affecting the highest level of sports. The story is deceptively simple.

The Chicago White Sox were set to play the Cincinnati Reds in the first World Series post World War I, in a best-of-nine format that had been newly introduced. Going in, the Reds were the clear underdog, with betting odds clearly favoring the White Sox by a significant margin. This proved too attractive an opportunity for some players and illegal gamblers to pass up.

At that time, in 1919, Americans were very much against betting, viewing it as a vice. Almost all forms of gambling were illegal across the country at that point, and Prohibition loomed large. The mob had a strong grip on many cultural and societal aspects of everyday life, and regardless of the dubious legality, wagering on sports was commonplace.

Though the myth says the mafia were the ones to draw up the match-fixing plot, research in later years has shown that it was the players, actually, who came up with the idea to make a little extra money, being that they wagered on games involving other teams themselves. Another myth that has been dispelled is that they did it because they were underpaid. In reality, the White Sox were one of the best-paid teams in the league at that point.

So the plan was hatched by eight White Sox players — they would throw the series, the criminals who bet on the Reds would win big, and the players would pocket a cool $100,000 (about $1.6 million in 2019).

Testimony has shown that the players almost certainly threw the first two games, but it is unclear whether they purposely rigged the rest of the games. Supposedly, they were not paid the amount agreed upon by the mob and decided to call the whole thing off at some point, receiving threats against their families in response, though this is unsubstantiated.

The White Sox lost the first two games, won the third, and lost the fourth and fifth. Then, they won the sixth and seventh, sending the tournament down to the wire. The Reds won the final game 10–5 and swept the 1919 World Series, beating the White Sox in five of the nine games.

For a while afterward, rumors and suspicion persisted about the strangeness of the games, but most people largely just drew the poor play on the White Sox’s part as coincidental. It took one reporter to unravel the whole story — syndicated columnist Hugh Fullerton, whom one article called the first sports data statistician.

Through his investigation, Fullerton alleged that the top brass of the MLB had purposely dropped inquiries into the match-fixing allegation, and that Charles Comiskey, the owner of the White Sox, had actually caught wind of the plot before the tournament started and that he had set private investigators on the case, but that he ultimately dropped it to further his own business interests.

Eventually, it was a grand jury indictment in another match-fixing case that pulled the house of cards down. One White Sox player called to testify there admitted to the whole thing. Soon after, in March 1921, eight White Sox players were indicted, as were 10 other defendants, all 18 of whom were charged with conspiracy. The players were suspended from the team by Comiskey as well.

Though the Assistant State’s Attorney declared the players “traitors who for $100,000 of dirty money sold their souls, betrayed their comrades and the public and conspired to make the only truly American pleasure and sports – baseball – a confidence game,” it was for naught. The judge set a high bar for the jury, saying that returning a guilty verdict would mean that the state not just proved beyond reasonable doubt that the players conspired to lose the games, but that by doing so they actively defrauded the public.

Eventually, on Aug. 2, 1921, a majority of the defendants were found not guilty and were acquitted. One other defendant cut a deal, and others saw their charges dropped. All the players involved were banned from the MLB for life — something a handful tried in vain to overturn through the years.

Why Does This Matter?

Most experts and historians agree that it is unlikely that another large-scale scandal like this could occur today. For one, opportunities to do so are harder to come by, and for another, players rarely have the motivation to do that — though, of course, match-fixing is far from eradicated.

With technology, Big Data, algorithms, and analysts in play, it’s easy enough to identify suspicious amounts bet on unlikely outcomes, and track repeat offenders who try to swindle betting operators. The MLB, too, cracked down on match-fixing post the Black Sox scandal, today partnering with tech company Sportradar, which looks at “line movements across a large number of bookmakers in many different jurisdictions, both legal and illegal” to identify “any sort of unusual betting activity or unusual line activity that might cause concern or might require [a closer look].”

In 1919, baseball was the pinnacle of American culture — “the great repository of national ideals, the symbol of all that was good in American life.” Though there had been a “long-standing, often toxic relationship between baseball and gambling,” dating back to the inception of the sport, most of the public did not know how deeply “intertwined” the two were. For all that match-fixing in baseball existed as early as 1865, the Black Sox scandal was the first time the public found out the scale of the corruption deep-seated in the league.

The result was nothing short of “cataclysmic” for loyal and passionate fans, some historians say. It represented a “loss of innocence” and “a mortal blow to the nation’s confidence as it entered the 1920s,” and caused “diminished feelings” in fans for “the game they once adored.”

This might all seem like hyperbole to a casual fan today, but it is important to keep in mind that America at the time was just coming out of a terrible global war (called the “Great War” then) and was heading into a decade that would come to be characterized by Prohibition, the mob, excess, and — ultimately — the Great Depression. For many, baseball was more than just a sport.

So, sports historians say, although there are real legal and criminal costs associated with match-fixing and capitalizing off it, there is also something less tangible at stake — the passion of ordinary fans, who love and support their team, who place a bet on a game just as they might drink a beer while watching one, but who have something to lose when criminals seek to manipulate their favored sport.

Since the Black Sox scandal, large-scale match-fixing conspiracies in Major League Baseball have been few and far between. America’s past-time rallied and came back shortly after — when, in 1921, a player named Babe Ruth took center stage.