Baseball's bad old days before steroids
By Timothy M. Gay | April 27, 2006
NO SCANDAL has ever pummeled the national pastime quite like this one. Front-page news across the country, it batters some of baseball's biggest stars. An outraged commissioner vows to conduct a no-holds-barred inquiry. Pundits, sputtering about the ''integrity of the game," go into high dudgeon, while comedians skewer the hypocrisy of the sport's ruling pooh-bahs.
Barry Bonds, Bud Selig, Bob Ryan, David Letterman, and today's steroids scandal, right? Wrong. Try Tris Speaker, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Hugh Fullerton, Will Rogers, and the gambling imbroglio that nearly tore baseball apart in 1926-27.
As Bonds bids to surpass Babe Ruth's home run record, we (self-appointed) custodians of the game need to take a deep breath and remember two unshakable truths: The pastime will survive this latest mess; and Ruth's era, baseball's ballyhooed ''Golden Age," was seriously tarnished.
Gambling had baseball by the throat back then, not just players, but club owners, managers, and above all, its saloon-carousing fans. Cheating -- or, as the players preferred to call it, ''arranging games" -- was endemic. Hugh Fullerton, the reporter who unearthed the Black Sox fix of the 1919 World Series, maintained that at least four or five earlier post-seasons had been rigged.
During the disputed 1912 Series between the New York Giants and the Boston Red Sox, Fullerton had fumed, ''Stamp out gambling and the end of talk of crookedness is at hand!" The next-to-last game featured Keystone Kops plays by the heavily favored Sox, including a suspicious gaffe by its star center fielder.
Fourteen years later, that brilliant fielder Tris Speaker was accused of tossing a game in cahoots with another immortal, Ty Cobb of the Detroit Tigers. A former teammate of both men presented American League President Ban Johnson with letters implicating the stars in a fix perpetrated years before. Johnson quietly approached the aging icons with a quid pro quo: Quit the game -- and the real reason will be squelched. The sporting world was shocked when, just a few weeks apart in the fall of 1926, the two superstars abruptly retired.
Johnson kept the unsavory facts behind Cobb and Speaker's dismissal concealed from his bitter rival, Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. When Landis finally got wind of the truth, he called a press conference, dramatically announced that the two stars had resigned in the wake of corruption allegations, and pledged to leave no stone unturned in his quest for justice.
No sooner had Landis detonated the Cobb-Speaker bombshell than two old combatants resurfaced. Swede Risberg and Chick Gandil, Black Sox mercenaries whom Landis had banished for life, threw a grenade of their own. On top of all the nasty questions that still hung over the 1919 Series, Risberg and Gandil now claimed that the White Sox had paid opponents to take a dive during the 1917 regular season, all but guaranteeing Chicago the pennant. Gandil hinted that he could dig up even juicier dirt. The commissioner had little choice but to put aside his Cobb-Speaker probe and investigate the Risberg-Gandil charges.
Landis's public hearings in Chicago on the White Sox' 1917 slush fund bordered on the farcical. A bemused Will Rogers, America's leading wiseacre, sat just a few feet from the witness chair, bantering with reporters during breaks. Ten days later, Landis issued his edict: The White Sox slush fund was ''reprehensible but not criminal." Truth is, the White Sox weren't alone: Rewarding compliant opponents with a gift here or a few bucks there was commonplace back then.
After weeks of gruesome publicity, who could blame Landis for wanting to spare baseball a bigger black eye? Plus, by then Cobb and Speaker, on the advice of high-priced legal counsel, had compiled an affidavit that coughed up every bit of diamond skulduggery they'd ever heard of -- and they'd heard of plenty. The two stars played a game of ''chicken" with Landis: Reinstate us -- or we go public and blow the game apart.
Landis not only let Cobb and Speaker off the hook, he ended up releasing an exculpatory statement dictated to him by the stars' legal team. One good thing did come out of the debacle: Major League baseball -- a mere eight years after the Black Sox scandal -- finally adopted a rule prohibiting players from wagering on games.
So as Bonds rounds the bases after whacking number 715 -- and Selig and George Mitchell perhaps fail to touch every base in their steroids inquest -- don't despair. Our beloved pastime has been through worse. It's a shame we can't exhume Gandil. Ironically, he never dished that extra dirt he promised eight decades ago. And the Cobb-Speaker tell-all affidavit? It never saw the light of day.
Timothy M. Gay is the author of ''Tris Speaker: The Rough-and-Tumble Life of a Baseball Legend."
© Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.