For some reason or another, many of us are finding quite a bit of free time available at the present. After finishing all your video games and the rest of Netflix, one could potentially be incited to break into the bookshelf for some hardcore non-fiction.
If you recognize my name, you may know that I used to have a segment on BurningRiverBaseball known as the Burning River Bookclub to review my most recent readings in the world of baseball. While this book isn’t new to the world (it came out in 2006), it is new to me and may be to you as well, so let’s take a look at Gene Carney’s Burying the Black Sox.
To begin, this is obviously not a book about the Cleveland Indians, although the Black Sox scandal does have three major touch points with Cleveland baseball. First, there is the obvious Shoeless Joe connection, then there is the 1920 pennant race that was brought to an abrupt end following the suspension of the eight Sox players. Finally, there was the forced retirement of Tris Speaker following the allegations that he had conspired with Ty Cobb to throw some meaningless regular season games. That’s enough for me to cover the book here despite the fact that Carney barely mentions Cleveland throughout.
To start, the reasoning behind the book appears to be to correct the mistakes made in the definitive (to this point) version of this story, Eight Men Out by Eliot Asinof. While I won’t get into anything too spoilery, which is funny in itself given the events occurred in 1919, I will say that Carney’s primary gripe with Asinof is that he didn’t source any of his material. Since we know at least some of the events and/or people included in the movie Eight Men Out are fictional, not knowing the source material for the book and movie makes it nearly impossible to establish what actually happened and what didn’t. Carney corrects this mistake with 300 pages of extreme detail followed by 40 pages of notes and a 13 page bibliography. No one can ever claim that he didn’t do his research.
Unfortunately, all this detail leads to a story much less interesting than the original Asinof tale. It does, however, give a much better idea about which facts were not quite so and which things were left out entirely. The very first chapter is one of the latter as he goes into detail about Shoeless Joe Jackson’s trial in 1924 when he was trying to get back pay from Charles Cominskey and the White Sox. While the innocence of Jackson has long been professed by many, most notably by W.P. Kinsella in the fictional book Shoeless Joe and by Ray Kinsella in the movie version Field of Dreams, I for one didn’t know that he was actually found to be deserving of his back pay by a jury in Milwaukee only to have the outcome overruled by the judge.
In the general story, the “bad guys” are made out to be Swede Risburg, Chick Gandil, Lefty Williams and Eddie Cicotte (along with the gamblers who financed it) with Jackson and Buck Weaver as nearly innocent bystanders. Carney is the first source I have ever seen attempt to add Cicotte to the list of non-guilty Sox moving him into a more gray, unknown area.
Instead, Burying the Black Sox focuses more on the cover-up of the fix than the 1919 World Series itself. This makes the biggest villains Cominskey and the first commissioner of baseball, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis. In my life, I can’t recall a character in the history of baseball who has made such a 180 in the way he was presented than Landis. My first introduction to Landis came through extremely main stream sources and I recall as a youngster only hearing glowing reviews. He was credited with saving baseball from those evil gamblers and putting it on the right train to righteousness. Boy, how things have changed.
In previous editions of the now defunct Burning River Book Club, I covered Shades of Glory by Lawrence D. Hogan and Satchel by Larry Tye, two books who put essentially the entire blame for the late integration of baseball on the shoulders of Landis. The players of the Negro Leagues were more than willing to sign with MLB teams and multiple teams, including the Phillies, Pirates and Indians, were willing to sign them, but Landis killed any effort. In Paul Dickson’s biography of Bill Veeck, he notes specifically a point in time when Veeck attempted to buy the Phillies to staff them exclusively with black players and was foiled by Landis. This is enough to demonize Landis, but Carney has more.
Beyond being found not guilty in court and in public opinion, Jackson and Weaver didn’t need much more evidence of their innocence, but Carney provides it here. Despite neither doing anything to fix the series for the Reds, the fact that Weaver didn’t take any money and the likelihood that Jackson told Cominskey about the events before the series was over and offered him the money that was given to him, Landis still banned all eight White Sox in addition to others from around the league who received tips and bet on the series. The entire scenario is covered in detail in this book including the many attempts for reinstatement by the players, their families and fans all the way up through the present day (or at least 2006).
In all, this is a very dense book that can be hard to get through, but extremely valuable. Carney repeats himself many times on many subjects, but that was probably necessary due to the convoluted nature of the story. It is unfortunate that no one attempted to write a comprehensive version of the Black Sox prior to Asinof in 1963. If they had, researching and getting witness statements would have certainly been a lot easier. Instead, much conjecture is made based on the limited and questionable evidence available. Carney essentially is just presenting this evidence the best way he can and allowing the reader to make up their own mind of who is guilty, who is innocent and who is in between.
If you happen to pick up this book and find it a bit too difficult, I highly recommend at least working through the first chapter on Shoeless Joe’s unknown trial as well as the two chapters that look in depth into the players who may or may not have thrown the series and how they did or didn’t do it. Those two chapters are titled Shoeless, Knuckles and Lefty and The Other Ghosts of Summer. My personal opinion remains that Lefty was probably the most guilty, but my opinion of Knuckles has certainly become more cloudy while Earl deserves a complete reprieve. Who cares what I think though? Read the book and figure it out for yourself. You know you have the free time.