One hundred years ago professional baseball was much different than it is today. It’s a multi-billion dollar business today, with conglomerates owning teams and player contracts so large they dwarf the national budgets of some countries. Heck, some players have incorporated themselves.
Back in the 1910s, baseball was more quaint, more accessible, and tougher. In one major league game in Detroit in 1918, a man who paid his way into the game as a spectator was commissioned to play the outfield for a few innings. Fans and groups of fans became famous in various cities. One fan with a high-pitch voice in Philadelphia was well-known for giving opposing players a tough time, except on Sundays of course when baseball was not permitted to be played in that city.
Young players entered the top pro ranks with targets on their backs. The veterans weren’t going to help a rookie take their job. Hazing and outright violence among players was common. Rookies would find their bats sawed in half, their shoes nailed to the walls of the dugout, and their personal belongings stolen. Players on opposing teams clashed with venom too. Ty Cobb and Buck Herzog once fought so savagely in a hotel room that blood covered the floor and a physician was summoned to check on the vital signs of Herzog. George Herman Ruth socked a fan in the nose when he questioned the marital status of the Babe’s parents when he was born. Riots in Boston, Chicago and other cities forced games to be forfeited or abandoned. The most likely thing a spectator would be holding in his hand at a ballgame in the 1910s was a beer bottle and he wasn’t afraid to toss it at the head of a player he was unhappy with. Fans is short for “fanatics” for a reason.
Back then the game was less dominated by the almighty dollar too. Even the best players made modest salaries, which is why many of them looked for other opportunities to earn a buck. Even if they were talented prospects they were unlikely to get much money. One story says that Shoeless Joe Jackson was signed to his first pro contract off the farm in South Carolina for $20 and a new baseball glove.
In America in the 1910s labor unions were very rare. Conditions for workers were dreadful, compensation was often sparse, and workers were laid off or fired for just about any reason. Professional ballplayers were not organized. At that time most baseball players came from meager upbringings (it was big news when Christy Mathewson, a college-educated man, became a star). A job playing baseball was a privilege and if a player didn’t like his contract or how he was treated, well that was tough. Baseball clubs were owned by men with 19th century sensibilities who had lots of money and wanted to keep it that way. They were diligent businessmen who ruled their baseball empires with an iron fist. Charles Somers, owner of the Cleveland team, once sent a bill to one of his players for damages made to the outfield wall when the player crashed into it pursuing a fly ball.
Within that atmosphere, the 1917 season unfolded with two of baseball’s best teams battling for the American League pennant. They were the defending “World’s Series” champion Boston Red Sox and the Chicago White Sox. Both teams were stocked with players who would have been perfect characters in a novel. The ChiSox had big first baseman Chick Gandil, a man with a crooked nose to match his character, Oscar Felsch, a broad-shouldered Milwaukee native who loved playing baseball so much that he would find games on off days and earned the nickname “Happy.” Boston’s ranks included several highly-skilled young pitchers: Carl Mays might have been he most feared hurler in the game because of his freakish delivery and propensity for firing baseball’s at players heads; and Hubert “Dutch” Leonard, who fought with management, ownership, teammates, and anyone else who got in his way in a fantastic and controversial career; and 22-year old Babe Ruth, the best lefthanded pitcher in the circuit who was in his fourth year for Boston and hadn’t even hit his tenth home run yet. Such feats would obviously later obscure his pitching exploits.
The Detroit Tigers were not a factor in the ’17 pennant race. The team lost nine of their 14 games in April and spent the season languishing in the middle of the pack in the American League. But over Labor Day Weekend the Tigers were central in a plot that probably placed two games and possibly as many as four games into the win column for the White Sox.
Through the spring and summer months the two socks — Red and White — circled each other like prize fighters as they battled for AL supremacy. In late July the White Sox went 3-1-1 in a five game series against the Red Sox at Comiskey Park and stretched their lead over Boston to five games. But in August the two heavyweights drew closer to each other. By September 1 the team from Beantown and the team from the Windy City were three games apart. Boston was off on Sunday, but Chicago and Detroit were scheduled for a makeup doubleheader. The same two teams would also play two the next day, the traditional Labor Day twinbill. All four games were slated to be played at Comiskey Park.
When the Detroit team arrived in Chicago via train (from Cleveland) for their first doubleheader on Sunday the club was in a foul mood. This was mostly a veteran team who had played much of their careers under manager Hughie Jennings and the bloom was off the rose. Jennings knew his team wasn’t going anywhere in the standings, his team knew their manager wasn’t going anywhere, and most of them were mired in terrible slumps that had lasted nearly the entire season. Only center fielder Cobb (on his way to another batting title with a mark well over .380) and right fielder Bobby Veach were enjoying good seasons at the plate. The clubhouse was also split into two factions over the situation with veteran outfielder Sam Crawford. Jennings had benched Crawford in June for his poor hitting, handing his outfield spot to Harry Heilmann. Half of the team was pissed that Wahoo Sam had been so poorly mistreated in their view, while the other half was irked that Jennings allowed Crawford (in his diminished role) to skip several road trips that summer. The 1917 season would be Sam’s last in a Detroit uniform. The ballclub in a sense was now Cobb’s team.
Somewhere along the way from Cleveland to Chicago, someone on the White Sox, probably Chick Gandil, sent word to the Tigers that it would be greatly appreciated if they wouldn’t take the four games so seriously. A “gift” in the form of a bundle of money was probably offered. The sources for this are later interviews by Gandil, White Sox team owner Charles Comiskey, and three members of the Tigers, Veach, Oscar Stanage, and Pep Young. Gandil would later be implicated as the ringleader of the game fixing scandal that marred the 1919 World Series. In this case he was looking for Detroit to “lay down” so as to assist the Sox in their efforts to beat out Boston for the flag.
It’s likely that most players on both sides were aware of the arrangement, but most of them were not directly involved. In that era if a key player, a pitcher for example, wanted to make some extra cash he might “Have a bad game.” A pair of players: Detroit pitcher Bill James and White Sox shortstop Swede Risberg later claimed that as many as three Detroit pitchers were promised a reward if they were to perform poorly in the four-game set. Those pitchers were probably James, Bernie Boland, and Willie Mitchell.
The Tigers lost both games on Sunday, September 2, the first in embarrassing fashion when Mitchell was pounded for four runs in the first inning. The Tigs lost that contest 7-2. The nightcap may have been played honestly by the Detroiters: in the ninth they plated four runs to take a 5-3 lead. But Jennings, perhaps unwilling to use a pitcher whose motives he couldn’t trust, stuck with starter George Cunningham, who allowed the tying runs to score in the ninth. Detroit lost 6-5 in the tenth inning when two errors set up the winning run. Maybe those errors were truly “errors” or maybe the team didn’t want to play any more baseball that afternoon.
A nice crowd of more than 10,000 filed in to Comiskey Park on Labor Day, many of them wearing straw hats and carrying scorecards or fans to compete with the late summer heat. Howard Ehmke started for the Bengals and the game was competitive throughout, but ultimately the home team prevailed 7-5 on the strength of a few late rallies. James came in to the game in relief and allowed a run.
Finally in the second game of the twinbill, the fourth game in two days, the Tigers threw up the white flag. Boland started and was out of the game by the second inning after surrendering five runs. James came in and was a real patsie, giving up seven hits, two walks, and five runs in three innings. The White Sox pounded out 17 hits in all as they beat Detroit 14-2 to complete a four-game sweep that occurred in a little less than 28 hours.
Meanwhile the Red Sox lost both ends of their Labor Day doubleheader back east in Boston to New York and lost again the next day to suddenly find themselves seven games back of Chicago. The Red Sox would never get closer than 6 1/2 games the rest of the season. The White Sox went on to win the World Series, the last one they would win until 2005.
What happened to the Tigers? After the four losses over Labor Day Weekend at the hands of the White Sox, they got on a train heading west to St. Louis for another hot road trip. Quite probably, Boland, James, and Mitchell had a few extra dollars in their pockets thanks to their poor efforts in Chicago. The Bengals limped to a fourth place finish. No one ever got in any trouble for what happened (or may not have happened) in Chicago over Labor Day. But a few years later eight members of the White Sox, including Gandil, and stars Eddie Cicotte and Joe Jackson would be implicated for fixing the World Series and were banned from the sport for life. Late in the 1920s, Dutch Leonard, the lefthanded hurler on that 1917 Boston team, accused Cobb and others of fixing games earlier in their careers, but those accusations were never proven or were swept conveniently under the rug. Baseball was ready to move on to a new era free from scandal.
The 1917 incident was one of several “game fixing” incidents from the pre-1920s “Deadball Era.” A time when there was often a different definition of sportsmanship. Even as late as the 1920s teams would send congratulatory “gifts” to other teams for beating their rivals. That practice was halted by the commissioner.