MEMBERS ONLY: What Hollywood Can Learn from the 1919 World Series

by Jeremy Fassler

Since the New York Times and The New Yorker broke the story of Harvey Weinstein’s rampant sexual abuse of women, the dam has burst on many other executives and stars in Hollywood who are now accused of sexually assaulting, harassing, and abusing women, children, (and sometimes men). As someone who grew up in Hollywood, I’ve always known that terrible stuff happened behind closed doors since the days of Louis B. Mayer and Jack Warner, but what really shocks me is how hard people worked to keep these allegations secret, using NDAs and payouts to insure word never got out, and news organizations quashing damning reports about powerful men. The culture that enables and protects this behavior is crashing down, and as more charges of abuse come out, the more we are hurtled into the greatest crisis the entertainment industry has ever known.

Everyone will agree that things need to change. But how? The fact that this crisis reaches beyond Weinstein to infect organizations like Screen Junkies and Alamo Drafthouse makes it so unprecedented in its scale that no Hollywood scandal to come before it can be a sufficient model for how to correct things going forward. I propose that we take lessons from how another industry handled a threat to its survival at the turn of the last century: the Chicago White Sox’s throwing of the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. 

The story of the “eight men out” is one of the most dramatic in all of sports. In the early days of baseball, owners like the Sox’s Charles Comiskey were miserly about paying the players what they were worth, and controlled virtually all the profits from the stadium. Comiskey’s greed had angered the players so much that, to strike back at his behavior, they copied it. First baseman Chick Gandil made an agreement with several prominent gamblers to throw the upcoming World Series, and six other teammates joined him: pitchers Eddie Cicotte and Claude “Lefty” Williams, infielders Swede Risberg and Fred McMullin, and outfielders Oscar ‘Happy” Felsch and Shoeless Joe Jackson (infielder Buck Weaver got out of the deal before payments were dispersed but was still implicated in the scandal.) 

Our knowledge of what the players knew and when they knew it is incomplete. We also don’t know which of the gamblers profited the most. Arnold Rothstein has often been cited not just as the scandal’s biggest profiteer, but as one of the masterminds behind it – so much so that F. Scott Fitzgerald based the character of Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby on him, and Gatsby even tells Nick that Wolfsheim is responsible for fixing the Series – but his involvement remains murky to this day. What nobody disputes is that a fix took place, given how obvious it was from game one that something was wrong.

Before that infamous first game even started, Hugh Fullerton, a syndicated Chicago sports columnist, smelled something fishy and warned Charles Comiskey in advance, who didn’t listen. After the Sox lost that game 9-1, Fullerton’s suspicions increased. Clean players who harbored similar suspicions sought him out: Sox catcher Ray Schalk told him that Cicotte had spent the game going against his signals, giving the Reds more hits. When Fullerton confronted Cicotte about it, he laughed and said, “We’ll get ‘em yet.” The idea of a fix became such an open secret among journalists and insiders that writers like Ring Lardner would torment the players by singing “I’m Forever Blowing Ballgames” – a parody of the song “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.”

Fullerton also received help from former Reds manager and Giants pitcher Christy Mathewson. Mathewson, known for being one of baseball’s most forthright men, had no tolerance for gambling, and he had suspended Reds first baseman Hal Chase for making bets behind the scenes in 1916. However, National League president John Heydler undid Chase’s suspension when Mathewson, serving overseas in World War One, could not come back to testify against him. Although his career was tragically cut short by injuries received in training, Mathewson became a reliable source for Fullerton, pointing out which plays he felt the White Sox were blowing on purpose.

The Sox played better midway through the series, when some of its players, disgruntled that they hadn’t received their payments from the gamblers, started winning again. Some even wanted out of the deal, but when threats were made on their families, they backed down, and lost in the eighth game (the Series was 5 out of 9 then.) But, as Fullerton wrote, “the series was lost in the first game.”

Although many knew it to be true Fullerton was assailed by journalists and sportsmen alike for his efforts to expose the scandal. His post-series column, “Is Big-League Baseball Being Run for Gamblers, with Players in on the Deal?” was rejected by both of Chicago’s major newspapers, and had to be published in a watered-down version in the New York Evening World that December. He took comfort when, a year later, during an investigation of a fixed game between the Cubs and the Phillies, the Black Sox scandal came up again, and this time, it was taken seriously. In the summer of 1920, the eight players were indicted. Unfortunately, due to the disappearance of court records – an aspect of the case still unsolved – all men were acquitted that October.

So, let’s look at what these stories have in common:

1. The existence of a long-standing, illegal practice.

2. A refusal to investigate what everyone knows to be true but doesn’t want to acknowledge.

3. Penalization of those who point out the problem.

4. Acquittal in court for those involved.

The situations may seem hopeless, given that the eight men were found not guilty in court despite overwhelming evidence against them – to say nothing of Bill Cosby. But baseball’s reaction to the scandal is where the solution lies.

Until this time, baseball was run by the American League President, the National League President, and the National Commission, a group that mediated tensions between the two. But the uproar over the Black Sox, combined with soaring infighting between team owners and supervisors, that executives saw to it to create a new position in the sport: Commissioner of Baseball. Its first appointee was Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, an independently minded man who set the standard for all commissioners to follow. His first action once in office was to ban the eight ballplayers for life, writing, “no player who throws a ballgame, no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ballgame, no player that sits in conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing a game are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.” He rode this hard line for the rest of his tenure, banning many other players who partook in betting.

Hollywood needs a position resembling that of the Commissioner of Baseball, someone who is not necessarily a film producer or has a financial stake in the industry (Judge Landis had no involvement in baseball other than as a fan.) I propose we call this person an Ombudsperson, a title that invokes independence from studio heads and executives, and represents the interests of those who need it. They would oversee fair hiring practices to put more women and people of color in the workplace, and terminate those who are harassers. As Judge Landis wrote when he took the position, “Nothing but a thorough house cleaning, a change of the heads of organized baseball and wholesale expulsion of players can save the game.” 

The thorough house cleaning that must be applied to Hollywood will not eliminate the problem of sexual assault completely, just as Judge Landis did not eliminate gambling in baseball (hello, Pete Rose), but it, along with the appointment of an Ombudsperson, will ensure that when these problems do arise, they will be taken care of immediately, before they are allowed to fester into scabs that, when ripped off, expose a lot of pus. The culture of sexual assault has thrived behind the scenes for too long, and we must diminish it not only to survive as an industry, but to ensure that women, no longer treated as objects, are allowed to rise to the best of their abilities. 

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