About this blog

This isn't designed to be a blog per se, but just a place to store things I've written for easy reference. Most of it will be book reviews, with a few random essays about the stuff that interests me outside work (i.e. nothing on politics and government).

Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Betrayal: A well researched and written, but not flawless, account of baseball's great scandal

Northeastern University professor Charles Fountain’s The Betrayal: The 1919 World Series and the Birth of Modern Baseball retells the story of the 1919 World Series “fix” and explains its ramifications for the game’s development.  He relates the known facts, helpfully clarifying between which is known, which is speculated and even that which is “known” but not really true largely thanks to previous accounts that are as much fiction as fact.  The result is a more accurate account and deeper understanding of how and why the scandal unfolded as it did.

To do this, Fountain takes us back to the 19th century so we can appreciate baseball’s complicated relationship with gambling (and to some extent game fixing).  For “behind the Black Sox story,” he writes, “stretches a long history of organized dysfunction and incorporated hypocrisy.”   Only after a period of toleration did baseball’s powers that be come to recognize that fixed games alienated spectators and threatened owners’ financial interests.  Efforts to clean the game of dirty players were largely successful by the 1880s.

Hal Chase: one of the early game's most gifted players was
also one of the most dishonest to ever play major league baseball;
his antics fixing games and the Commission's failure to deal with
him helped create an environment that made the fix possible

But the events of 1903 would undo this progress, recreating an environment conducive to gambling and fixing.  For it was in this year, Fountain explains, peace was achieved between the warring National League and the upstart American League.  With peace came an end to competition for players and the higher salaries that went with it.  Instead, the reserve clause and their depressed salaries would rule.  In addition, a new owner dominated governing structure would be created and it promptly failed its first test in dealing with allegations of game fixing, choosing to look the other way instead.

In the early 20th century, players’ gambling on the outcome of games was not seen as problematic.  It was even encouraged to show confidence, perhaps like a CEO who takes a large share of their pay as stock options rather than cash.  But so long as there was gambling, there would always be losers seeking to shift the blame.  Allegations of a “fix” would follow each World Series, and when similar allegations surfaced in 1919 even before play began they were not illogically dismissed out of hand.
Fountain spends considerable time on the politics of baseball management, focusing on the rivalry between White Sox owner Charles Comiskey and AL President and de facto baseball CEO Ban Johnson.  By 1919 the two were locked in blood feud, and each would try to use the fixed series as a tool to gain the upper hand.  The result would be a new Commissioner with dictatorial powers. And Commissioner Mountain Kennesaw Landis would react much differently when the 1919 fix became common knowledge than the National Commission had in 1903.

Colorful profiles help keep the readers’ interest.  Besides Comiskey and Johnson, Arnold Rothstein (the gambler who would remain at an elusive center of the fix), “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, Judge Landis and Hal Chase are profiled at length. Although one of the “Black Sox,” as guilty players were tagged, Jackson’s actual role was also very small (he admitted taking money on the understanding he was supposed to be throwing games, but there is no evidence that he did so) but Fountain goes on at considerable length about his life and legacy.

The most famous of the
"Black Sox"; one of baseball's all
time greats.  He took the money, but
may not have kept up his end.

There are some flaws with Fountain’s account.  Many threads, such as the profile of Chase and the relationship between Comiskey and Johnson just to cite two examples, are much longer than necessary to explicate the book’s central story.  As a result the reader frequently finds herself in an alleyway of baseball history, often very interesting but also largely beside the point. Fountain also makes several rather egregious errors when it comes to discussing Jackson and the Hall of Fame.  For instance he writes that it was Commissioner Bart Giamatti who proclaimed that no one on baseball’s eligible list was eligible for election to the Hall of Fame.  In fact, it was an ex post facto rule change in 1991 by the Hall’s governing board in reaction to the Pete Rose case.  Fountain also asserts that writers never had the chance to elect Jackson to the Hall.  In fact, Jackson was on the 1936 and 1946 ballots, but received only two votes each time.

1919: The Great Betrayal contains a great deal of very interesting history about different aspects of the baseball’s early period and brings many of its characters to life even if it is not all strictly related to the 1919 World Series fix. The story is not really complete, however.  Nothing about Babe Ruth, the livelier baseball or the phenomenon of the home run” that began to appear in 1920 and would change the game dramatically appears in Fountain’s account, all of which are necessary to understand the “modern” (or post dead ball) game.  But fans of baseball history will find much to enjoy, ponder and argue with in Fountain’s retelling.

The only winner was Baseball's new Commissioner Kennesaw
Mountain Landis: a publicity hungry judge whose love of the game
led owners to give him carte blanche, which he would exercise
like a czar for over two decades.