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March|April 2004
A Course of Inaction By John C. Coffee Jr.
Expiration Date By Jessica Sachs
Expiration Date By Jessica Sachs
The Big Fix By Daniel A. Nathan
Elsewhere
Readers Respond: Justice Blackmun

The Big Fix

Arnold Rothstein rigged the 1919 World Series. Or did he?

By Daniel A. Nathan

THE BLACK SOX SCANDAL was the sports crime of the 20th century. In a complicated and poorly conceived and executed conspiracy, several prominent Chicago White Sox ballplayers teamed up with gamblers to lose the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. No sports scandal has similarly shocked America or had such a lasting impact on its culture. Journalists, novelists, poets, playwrights, historians, and filmmakers have all reconstructed the affair and put it to various uses. You can hear echoes of it in Bernard Malamud's The Natural; witness Joe Jackson's resurrection in W. P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe, the novel on which Phil Alden Robinson's film Field of Dreams is based; and contemplate the scandal's complex morality in John Sayles's Eight Men Out, the movie adaptation of Eliot Asinof's popular history. Douglass Wallop, best known for his novel The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, described the scandal as "a labyrinth, an incredible maze of doublecrosses upon doublecrosses, of broken promises, of guileless stupidity among the players, of artful, cruel deceit among those who manipulated them—gamblers, baseball executives, and public officials alike."

Of those artfully deceitful manipulators, Arnold Rothstein was the most skillful, a criminal kingpin who had his hand in all manner of illicit endeavors. Known as "the Big Bankroll" and "the Great Brain," Rothstein helped invent organized crime, and his influence survived his death in 1928. Meyer Lansky, himself a mythic American gangster and an architect of modern organized crime, was a Rothstein protégé. Lansky was the inspiration for Hyman Roth in The Godfather, Part II, the Jewish gangster who explains to Michael Corleone, "I loved baseball ever since Rothstein fixed the World Series in 1919."

Despite his diverse misdeeds, Arnold Rothstein's legacy remains tied to the Black Sox scandal, as David Pietrusza describes in the recently published Rothstein: The Life, Times, and Murder of the Criminal Genius Who Fixed the 1919 World Series. This is true even though Rothstein was not indicted by the Cook County grand jury that investigated the affair in 1920. Rothstein once said, "I wasn't in on it, wouldn't have gone into it under any circumstances, and didn't bet a cent on the Series after I found out what was underway." So he claimed. An earlier Rothstein biographer, Leo Katcher, put these comments in proper perspective: "No one really believed in his innocence, only in his cleverness."

There is no denying that Rothstein was clever. A former pool shark, Rothstein managed to graduate from being a small-time bookmaker to what one historian describes as an important "intermediary between the underworld and upper world of New York." He established successful gambling houses in New York City and Saratoga (then, as now, a popular summer resort town for the well-to-do, especially for those who like to play the ponies) and political connections with Tammany Hall. Rothstein, Pietrusza notes, "pretty much invented the floating crap game," the illicit diversion later made famous by the Broadway musical Guys and Dolls, on his way to becoming "America's most notorious gambler." He was a bootlegger, a labor racketeer, a racetrack owner, a real estate magnate, a bail bondsman, a loan shark, a fence, and, according to Pietrusza, the "founder and mastermind of the modern American drug trade."

Rothstein is widely acknowledged to be F. Scott Fitzgerald's inspiration for the enigmatic gambler Meyer Wolfsheim, Jay Gatsby's benefactor. A small man with a "large head" and "tiny eyes," Wolfsheim mispronounces words, eats "with ferocious delicacy," and wears "human molars" for cuff links. Gatsby explains to Nick Carraway, the novel's narrator, that, despite his coarseness and eccentricity, Wolfsheim is "the man who fixed the World's Series back in 1919." Carraway's response is one of the most famous and frequently quoted passages in the novel: "The idea staggered me. I remembered, of course, that the World's Series had been fixed in 1919, but if I had thought of it at all I would have thought of it as a thing that merely happened, the end of some inevitable chain. It never occurred to me that one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people—with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe."

FITZGERALD WAS WRITING FICTION, of course, so perhaps it's unnecessary to point out that he was basically wrong about Rothstein and the Black Sox scandal. But Fitzgerald met the composed and sober Rothstein only once, and the character he created was, in Pietrusza's words, "crude and uncouth," little more than an "anti-Semitic caricature." Fitzgerald's mischaracterization of Rothstein was likely encouraged by the anti-Semitism common in postwar America. If Fitzgerald happened to be a reader of Henry Ford's Dearborn Independent, for instance, he would have come across the paper's comment that the World Series scandal "was curiously notable for its Jewish character" and the paper's description of Rothstein as "a slick Jew." What is more interesting than the anti-Semitism of Fitzgerald's characterization is his suggestion that the Black Sox scandal was primarily Rothstein's doing, an oversimplification that Pietrusza himself accepts, as have others, including Ken Burns in his acclaimed documentary Baseball.

Pietrusza describes the Black Sox scandal as "the ultimate corruption of our sports heroes" and "the ultimate corruption of American heroism, period." Despite his sense of the scandal's historical and cultural import, he takes almost no account of the historical complexities that precipitated it. In his version of the story, it was "A. R." who did it, and since A. R. was a mastermind, he got away with it.

Rothstein and his bribe money were important in fixing the World Series, but he was merely one part of a complex event. From the beginning, the Big Fix was confusing, which probably contributed to its allure as a public spectacle. Still, some facts are well established. At the beginning of October 1919, the White Sox, led by outfielder "Shoeless" Joe Jackson and 29-game-winner Eddie Cicotte, were favored to beat the Reds in the World Series. But the Sox lost the best-of-nine series five games to three. Many Chicagoans were bitterly disappointed. Often brilliant during the season, Cicotte and his fellow hurler Lefty Williams were unusually erratic on the pitching mound, and first baseman Chick Gandil (who organized much of the fix), shortstop Swede Risberg, and centerfielder Hap Felsch generally played poorly. Jackson and third baseman Buck Weaver, however, were impressive: Jackson had a World Series-record 12 hits, the only home run during the Series, and a .375 batting average.

Almost a year later, as rumors of wrongdoing percolated after the publication of some damning newspaper articles, Cicotte, Williams, and Jackson testified before a Cook County grand jury about the fix. Cicotte and Williams confessed that they had conspired with gamblers to lose the Series; Jackson explained that he knew of the scam and had unwillingly accepted bribe money, but had played to win. In a famous but apocryphal anecdote, a disillusioned street urchin confronted Jackson after his testimony. "It ain't true, is it, Joe?" the youngster asked. To which Jackson reportedly replied, "Yes, kid, I'm afraid it is." Jackson always denied that the exchange took place.

All told, eight ballplayers were implicated in the scheme, including Weaver, who denied involvement. The news sent waves of disbelief and indignation across the country. Although eventually acquitted of conspiracy charges, the implicated ballplayers were banished from the game by baseball's first commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who was hired by nervous team owners in November 1920 to lend the game moral authority, stability, and the appearance of integrity.

Landis's authority only went so far, however. He couldn't punish the handful of small-time gamblers who were tried and acquitted for their role in the Big Fix. Rothstein was not among them, having convinced the grand jury (in voluntary testimony) that he was not involved in the plot. All the same, his name was often mentioned during the trial by witnesses—most of whom were trying to deflect attention from themselves—and later by one of the defense attorneys, who asked, "Why was this man never indicted?"

It was a good question. Rothstein's money, delivered via intermediaries, was probably used to bribe the ballplayers. Nevertheless, no record of his involvement was ever developed, and his role in the Big Fix is likely to be forever clouded, surely in part by his design.

Relying on some well-worn primary documents (mostly newspaper stories) and the standard histories, like Asinof's widely admired book, Pietrusza does a fine job of retelling the basics of this story. But Pietrusza doesn't just want to lay out the basics. He aspires to tell "the true story of the Black Sox scandal—a far more complex and intriguing tale" than Asinof and others have told.

Fair enough. Yet most of the book's new claims and speculations about the fixing of the World Series are not well documented, unlike the rest of the biography, which includes over 60 pages of endnotes and a bibliography. This is not to criticize Pietrusza for dereliction of duty. The point, rather, is that some of the truth is beyond us, lost forever in the shadows of the past. We will never know, for example, to what extent Abe Attell, a colorful, duplicitous small-time gambler and former prizefighter known as "the Little Champ," worked on his own to fix the Series and to what extent he was working for Rothstein. The fact that Rothstein "spent a lot of time and money shielding Attell from prosecution" does not prove that he was buying Attell's silence about Rothstein's own involvement in the fix, whatever it was. There could have been other reasons. Rothstein's intentions were almost always self-interested but were rarely transparent.

To his credit, there are moments where Pietrusza acknowledges that "we'll never know for sure" precisely how the Big Fix was planned and carried out and what happened behind the scenes when it was later made public, investigated, and adjudicated. But in too many places he jumps from assumption to assertion and from assertion to fact.

THE BIG FIX HAPPENED for reasons more complicated than one man's genius and greed. To begin with, fixing games was nothing new. By 1919, there was a long history of baseball players and gamblers associating with one another. In 1877, for instance, a year after the National League was founded, four members of the Louisville Grays were exiled from baseball for throwing games. Their banishment was an exception, however. The men who ran professional baseball at the time generally chose to ignore such malfeasance, allowing game fixing to continue.

The Big Fix was also brought on by the bitter enmity between many ballplayers and their employers. Professional baseball was plagued by exceedingly poor labor-management relations, as it had been for decades. Many major leaguers felt that the team owners exploited them, thanks in large part to the reserve clause, which was first implemented in 1879 and effectively bound players to their teams indefinitely. This situation created a sense of powerlessness and resentment on the part of some ballplayers, who were still generations away from creating an effective union, winning free agency, and earning today's astronomical salaries.

The 1919 White Sox were further beset by tremendous internal fractiousness, despite their impressive on-the-field accomplishments, which included winning the World Series just two years before. One faction, made up almost entirely of poorly educated working-class men from rural communities like Chick Gandil and Joe Jackson, barely spoke to some of their better-educated, better-paid teammates. They also harbored hostility toward their employer, Charles Comiskey, a highly respected baseball man (and one of the founders of the American League) who was often insensitive toward and penurious with his employees.

The extent of Comiskey's tightfistedness and the degree of his culpability for the fixing of the game are often debated. According to one of his staunchest defenders, historian Richard C. Lindberg, "Comiskey paid his athletes what the market would bear. Other owners, like Connie Mack and Clark Griffith, also forced their players to labor under a 'plantation' system that required them to launder their own uniforms and accept substandard pay." But whether or not Comiskey's behavior was typical of early-20th-century businessmen, his attitude toward the White Sox players may have encouraged some of them to become "Black Sox."

Many people, conditions, and relationships helped make the Big Fix possible. Arnold Rothstein's moxie and money mattered, of course, but it is a mistake to ascribe too much responsibility to any one person for fixing the 1919 World Series. In many ways, the fix was "the end of some inevitable chain"—a historical one.

DURING THE 1990S ALONE, at least three dramatizations of the Black Sox scandal were staged. Three books about Joe Jackson were published, as were biographies of Buck Weaver and Kenesaw Mountain Landis. (Pietrusza also wrote the Landis biography, which makes for an interesting companion to Rothstein: his latest book is about the putative dishonest corrupter, the earlier one about the game's purported moral savior.) Collectively, these works, not to mention the amnesty movements for Jackson and Weaver led by sympathetic fans and former ballplayers, illustrate the Black Sox scandal's endurance as an American social drama and a profitable cultural commodity, even as it recedes further into the past.

Representations of Arnold Rothstein and his role in the Black Sox scandal are like representations of the scandal itself: There are many of them, some more interesting and better than others. Some are more consistent with what can be documented; some are more capable of firing our imaginations. Rothstein is a shadowy, nearly nonexistent figure in Nelson Algren's 1942 prose poem "The Swede Was a Hard Guy," which tells the story of the Big Fix through a veil of Algren's bitter memories. He is a man who recognizes "the corruption in American society and made it his own" in Asinof's Eight Men Out. He is an underworld genius, an antihero of mythic proportions in Brendan Boyd's underappreciated novel Blue Ruin. Like Pietrusza's Rothstein, Boyd's is brilliantly analytical, imperious, ruthless, charming when it is convenient, and seemingly omniscient. To Joseph "Sport" Sullivan, the small-time Boston gambler who narrates the story, Rothstein is the apotheosis of the successful American of ethnic origins, "a man who makes things work, a man who knows," but is himself tough to know.

In the end, Arnold Rothstein, like all cultural heroes and antiheroes, tells us something about who we are, what captivates us, and what we fear. That Pietrusza represents Rothstein as the Black Sox scandal's bogeyman, its foremost villain, is not surprising. The great man theory—the idea that history is made by an era's leading figures—is enjoying a renaissance, especially among popular historians like David McCullough.

Casting the Big Bankroll as the Big Fix's mastermind is also a way of assigning blame and of making the complicated and indeterminate appear simple and knowable. "Historians simplify impossibly complex realities into patterns of light and shadow," writes Bill James, one of baseball's most astute students, "and the popular memory then reduces these to black and white." Arnold Rothstein remains in American popular memory as Pietrusza has rendered him: the quintessential fixer, someone who quietly schemes in smoke-filled pool halls and casinos, someone who simultaneously fascinates and frightens us. It's the best legacy a gangster could ever hope for. Historians, however, should hold out for more.

Daniel A. Nathan is an assistant professor of American Studies at Skidmore College and the author of Saying It's So: A Cultural History of the Black Sox Scandal.

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