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Written by Timothy Sexton
“If he’s such a fan, why doesn’t he pay him a living wage?”
Legendary sportswriter Ring Lardner directs this quote (in sotto voce to a fellow sportswriter) in reaction to Chicago White Sox owner Charles Comiskey publicly voicing accolades to his star pitcher. The fact that this quote occurs very early on and is spoken by the actor who also just so happens to be the director of the film makes lends it a great deal of significance. John Sayles is noted for his left-wing, pro-labor stance in many of his films so it should come as little surprise that the real villain of this movie is not the baseball players accused of cheating or even the gangsters and gamblers bankrolling their scheme to throw the World Series, but Charles Comiskey. The movie is a deftly calculated argument that if Comiskey had only been willing to pay his players what they were worth to his increasing bank account, there would be no Black Sox Scandal of 1919. Anyone looking to counter that argument is going to be facing an uphill battle.
“You say you can find seven men on the best club that ever took the field willin' to throw the World Series? I find that hard to believe.”
Sport Sullivan was a notorious bookmaker and gambler from Boston who colluded with even the more notorious Arnold Rothstein—kingpin of the so-called Jewish Mafia from around the turn of the century through Prohibition—to find and pay enough Chicago White Sox players to ensure they lost the 1919 World Series despite coming in the closest thing to a sure bet in baseball’s short history to that time. The response to Sullivan’s dubious assertion is another brick in the wall constructing a prison of guilt of the owner of the team.
"You never played for Charlie Comiskey."
That was the response Sullivan received upon expressing doubt that the series could possibly be fixed. The speaker is Chick Gandil, the first baseman for the White Sox who battled .290 and drove in 60 runs during the 1919 season. Gandil’s reasoning behind his expectation that finding enough players to ensure throwing the Series was a fait accompli stems from certified facts that Comiskey routinely underpaid his players, refused to provide raises commensurate with personal and team accomplishments and even occasionally hurt his team’s chances of winning games in order to obstruct contractual bonuses from having to actually be paid out.
Eddie Cicotte: You said if I won 30 games this year there'd be a $10,000 bonus.
Charles Comiskey: So?
Eddie Cicotte: I think you owe it to me.
Charles Comiskey: Harry, how many games did Mr. Cicotte win for us this year?
Harry: 29, sir.
Eddie Cicotte: You had Kid bench me for two whole weeks in August. I missed five starts.
Charles Comiskey: We had to rest your arm for the series.
Eddie Cicotte: I would have won at least two of those games. You knew that.
Charles Comiskey: I have to keep the best interests of the club in mind, Eddie.
Eddie Cicotte: I think you owe me that bonus.
Charles Comiskey: 29 is not 30, Eddie. You will get only the money you deserve.
Relative to the obstruction of contractually obligated bonuses referenced above is this perfect example of the type of owner that Comiskey is portrayed as by the makers of the film. Of course, it does help that the casting of Comiskey in such a villainous light is based on factual cases similar to the Cicotte example quoted above. Another perspective might be to suggest that Comiskey was merely being a frugal businessman who had paid grown men more than enough money to say their job was playing a game. But then that perspective would result in an entirely different movie.
"People are human."
Kid Gleason had the great misfortune of 1919 being his first season as manager of the Chicago White Sox. It’s a wonder another quote is not attributed to him; something along the lines of having nowhere to go but up. Gleason was not in on the fix and though he seriously suspected that some of his players were taking the money to throw the World Series, his emotional rollercoaster did not stop at the rage that had to come across him when the slowly moving cart chugged that last inch to the top of the big slide to come His philosophical view of exactly how such an unthinkable event could have come to pass may fairly be summed up as the movie’s greatest insight. It may not be particularly earth-shattering or innovative, but people seem constantly in need of being reminded that every single one of is just a human being. That goes for everybody from Shoeless Joe Jackson to Arnold Rothstein to Eddie Cicotte to Charles Comiskey.
[To the tune of “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles”] “I'm forever blowing ballgames, pretty ballgames in the air.”
Lardner pretty much invented the job of the modern day sportswriter and he got to that position in his field by being not only smart, but witty. Lardner was aware of the rumors of a possible fix even before the first pitch was thrown in the 1919 World Series and even though he may have understood the economic justification on the part of the players, he is enough of a sports writer to refrain from giving the members of the Black Sox a free pass.
“If Landis wants to clean up the game; he should start with those birds on the steps with him.”
On the other hand, Lardner is also in no mood to give the owners a pass for their part in the the scandal. The Landis that Lardner is referring to is Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis who stepped into the fray after the scandal was revealed and—in his first important act the very first Commission of Major League Baseball—unilaterally ignored the fact every White Sox player implicated in throwing the World Series was acquitted in a court of law and banned each of the indicted players from the game for life. The birds on the steps with Landis to which Lardner refers were the owners of other teams in the league.
“Say it aint’ so, Joe. Say it ain’t so.”
Arguably the most famous quote in the history of baseball, although it may not necessarily be entirely factual. Whether some innocent young baseball lover who’d just had his heart broken actually said the words or not is beside the point; the legend goes that on September 28, 1920 when Shoeless Joe Jackson was leaving the courthouse inside which he’d supposedly just admitted to taking bribes in exchange for playing badly enough to contribute to the White Sox defeat to the Cincinnati Reds in the 1919 World Series, a young boy ran up to him beseeching for Joe to say it wasn’t so. Of course, as with most legends, there are some problems when it comes to trying to settle things with reality. For one thing, Jackson always denied having anything to do with the throwing the Series so the very premise of the situation is suspect. Secondly, he was, after all, acquitted by a jury. And, most importantly, Shoeless Joe had 12 hits in 32 at-bats, scored 5 runs and batted in another 6 all while striking out just twice in eight games. If that’s how Shoeless Joe performed while purposely underachieving in order to lose games, imagine what it must have been like as a pitcher to square off against him when he was trying to get to the World Series!
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