Book: “Scandal on the South Side: The 1919 Chicago White Sox”


TED SIMONS: It's been nearly 100 years since the Chicago White Sox became involved in what has since been referred to as the black sox scandal but a new book by the society for American baseball research suggests that there's more to the story and it's a cold case and not a closed case. Here now is Jacob Pomrenke who is the web editor for the Society of American Baseball Research and editor of scandal on the south side, 1919 Chicago White Sox. Good to have you here, thanks for joining us. I want to talk about SABR the baseball research group because you're not only based in town, you're based in this building, so I want to know more about that. But synopsis? What happened to the 1919 White Sox?

JACOB POMRENKE: Well, basically there were eight players for the Chicago White Sox who got bribed to throw the World Series to the Cincinnati reds. And they lost the World Series in eight games, and then after the scandal got found out, they were banned for life from baseball and this kind of led to the commissioner with judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the modern system of baseball's power structure.

TED SIMONS: We've heard eight men out, we've considered that pretty much the whole story. Are you saying that's not the whole story?

JACOB POMRENKE: The book Eight Men Out was written in 1963 so that was more than 50 years ago and we've learned a lot of new information since then. And we've got a lot of documents, we've got legal documents, trial transcripts from the criminal trial in Chicago that no one had access to decades before. We also have film footage from the World Series in 1919. You can go to YouTube and watch some of the plays from the World Series. There's a lot of new information out there that Eliot Asinof, who wrote the book Eight Men Out 50 years ago didn't have.

TED SIMONS: Let's get to some of the ideas that I thnk most of us have regarding the black sox scandal and the White Sox team of 1919. These were undereducated folks, they weren't paid all that well and they weren't happy with their owner for not paying them all that well thus they get into gambling.

JACOB POMRENKE: That's one of the biggest misconceptions about the entire story. We actually have new information about player salaries and team payrolls that nobody had until 2002 and that information suggests that the White Sox were one of the highest-paid teams in baseball and so one of the things that, you know, this idea that they were underpaid and they were disgruntled and poorly treated by management. Most ballplayers were at that time. The white sox were no different. This is a story where -- The myth has grown up through history that these guys were underpaid, but that's not actually the reason they did it.

TED SIMONS: What about the undereducated aspect and the idea and they were duped by these big city, big time gamblers?

JACOB POMRENKE: The thing to understand about this scandal is that gambling and baseball have grown up together. As long as there's been professional baseball, there's been a seedy underworld of gambling and betting on games and fixed games, too, going all the way back into the mid19th century, and so this is a scandal that kind of grew up, these players grew up in this culture where gambling was kind of accepted, very similar to the steroid era of the 1990s, where everyone kind of did it and a lot of people looked the other way and this was how gambling was in the early 20th century and so these guys grew up seeing games get fixed, being involved with games being fixed so they didn't see anyone getting punished for it. They thought it was a low risk/high reward endeavor.

TED SIMONS: Keeping that analogy intact, the 1919 world series incident changed the way the game looked at gambling, the same way Barry Bonds hitting 70 home runs surpassing Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth changed the way baseball thought about steroids.

JACOB POMRENKE: Absolutely and you know, when the home run record started being broken in the 1990s by Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds, a lot of people said this is taking it a little bit too far. We were okay with more offense but once the sacred records are being broken, this was similar to how when the World Series was fixed, that was a lot different than if a game in mid-May was fixed.

TED SIMONS: Let's get back to those days. You mentioned that gambling was prevalent out there, it was a part of the game in many respects. How different was baseball in general? This was a dead ball -- Babe Ruth kind of saved baseball by hitting all those home runs in the '20s.

JACOB POMRENKE: A little bit. The black sox scandal is kind of the turning point between the old dead ball era and the modern game. You had this era where games were being fixed, it was a pitching-dominant era, low scoring, and this is kind of how they grew up and once the scandal happened, Babe Ruth came into popularity with the New York Yankees and the modern game kind of grew out of that and organized baseball wanted to get away from this earlier era with gambling and kind of a lot of the seedy underworld.

TED SIMONS: We tend to glamorize things in the past but how big a deal was this incident? How much did it change baseball?

JACOB POMRENKE: Oh, it was the biggest story in the country. I mean, when the criminal trial happened in Chicago, they were charged with throwing games and defrauding their teammates and the public. This was called the trial of the century. And, you know, it was a packed courtroom as they were going on trial for conspiracy charges. So this was a very big deal. This was something where a lot of people thought this might destroy the integrity of the game. This was again, if you through some games in the middle of the season, maybe nobody's paying attention but if you throw the World Series, this is a lot bigger deal.

TED SIMONS: And you've got all this new information, and it's coming from a variety -- say it ain't so, Joe. The kid never said that to Joe Jackson, did he?

JACOB POMRENKE: No, that is yet another one of the myths about the story.

TED SIMONS: But it's not a myth that Joe Jackson, that was one heck of a ballplayer. He really was like the premier hitter of his time.

JACOB POMRENKE: He was one of the greatest hitters in baseball history and that's part of what makes this tale so tragic. He got caught up in this scandal. He did take the bribe money but a lot of people do feel that he should be in the hall of fame regardless about that.

TED SIMONS: How do you feel about that?

JACOB POMRENKE: If you're only looking at the on the field exploits, I think he deserves to be in the hall of fame.

TED SIMONS: Is there a correlation there with Pete rose?

JACOB POMRENKE: Absolutely. And any time Pete rose is back in the news, which is wait five minutes and that might happen. Shoeless Joe tends to get brought up, too, because those are the two banned players that a lot of people feel like should be in the hall of fame.

TED SIMONS: The book itself chronicles, a little biography, every player on the team or most player?

JACOB POMRENKE: Every single player.

TED SIMONS: It's fascinating to read about these guys, where they come from, and it's such a different age. They come from farms, they come from this era, and how their lives either went well after that or they got into some completely different business. Talk about the process of writing this book.

JACOB POMRENKE: Well, this is part of SABR's biography project. We have the baseball biography project. And the objective is to write a full-life biography of every player who played in the major leagues and we publish these team-based books and this is the newest one of the books and basically yeah, we're looking at kind of their stories, not just on the baseball field but their family life before and what they did in their careers after, too.

TED SIMONS: You mentioned SABR, the acronym for the society there, American Baseball Research. You guys, first of all, what do you do?

JACOB POMRENKE: We are a membership organization, we've got 6,000 members around the world, they're the most passionate baseball fans you can think of, we've got experts in every possible baseball related subjects from the early origins of the game in the 1700s all the way to modern sabermetric analysis today. We do a lot of -- we do a lot of publications, we also hold events, including one here in Phoenix called the SABR analytics conference and throughout the year we publish books and journals and articles.

TED SIMONS: And you are based, you are headquartered here in Phoenix. You're headquartered in the building we're broadcasting from. Why?

JACOB POMRENKE: Well, Phoenix is the baseball capital of the world. There's year round baseball here with spring training, major leagues and the fall league in October and November. We wanted to be a part of that. We moved our headquarters here in 2011 and we moved into the Cronkite building in the spring of 2015.

TED SIMONS: So far, so good?

JACOB POMRENKE: Absolutely, we love it here.

TED SIMONS: Back to the White Sox, did the punishment fit the crime as far as these players, especially the ones that were banned completely from the -- did the punishment fit the crime?

JACOB POMRENKE: Well, there are different degrees of guilt here. There are players who were heavily involved in throwing the games and taking the money, and then there are other players who did not take any money but they knew about the fix, they had guilty knowledge so they were all punished exactly the same. The punishment was a little bit harsh, depending on who you're talking about, but you can't argue against the effectiveness of the penalty because what it did, Judge Landis was the first commissioner of baseball and he came in and he just wiped them out and said anyone who was even involved in discussions about throwing games was going to get kicked out of baseball. And so what it did is put fear into everyone in baseball that you couldn't even be tangentially involved in a scandal like this, or an operation like this.

TED SIMONS: Reaction so far quickly? What kind of reaction?

JACOB POMRENKE: A lot of praise. I think a lot of people have read the book Eight Men Out and are surprised to learn that there's a lot more to it.

TED SIMONS: All right. Well, congratulations on the book and for being based here in Phoenix and for being a baseball -- it must be nice to be a baseball fan and work in this particular business. Thanks for being here.

JACOB POMRENKE: Thanks Ted.

It’s been nearly 100 years since the White Sox Scandal, and new information continues to emerge in what’s considered a cold case, not a closed case. Jacob Pomrenke is the web editor for the Society for American Baseball Research, and he’s the editor of the new book “Scandal on the South Side: The 1919 Chicago White Sox.” Pomrenke will discuss the book and the Black Sox Scandal.

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Jacob Pomrenke:Web editor for the Society for American Baseball Research

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