By Paul Finkelman | 2012-7-24 | NEWSPAPER EDITION
Illustration by Zhou Tao
Photo by Zhou Tao
FOR two years there had been rumors that games were fixed. The best team in the sport had been beaten soundly in the championship. Its skilled players suddenly made mistakes, sent the ball in the wrong direction, ran like wounded old men instead of young superstars.
There were rumors of bribery and thrown games. Gamblers in on the fix had made a fortune, betting heavily on the weaker team. When the owners found out, the guilty players were expelled from the game, there were criminal investigations, and trials.
Chinese football in 2012? No. This was American baseball in 1920. The corrupted team was the 1919 Chicago White Sox, known afterwards as the Chicago Black Sox. Members of the team had accepted bribes from gamblers to intentionally lose the 1919 World Series.
It took almost a year for the evidence to become public. At the end of the 1920 season the owner of the White Sox suspended the corrupted players. The corrupted players were arrested but the jury acquitted them because of missing evidence and the fact that most residents of Chicago were sympathetic to the underpaid White Sox players.
Because players could not freely move from team to team, the White Sox players were forced to play for the club owner, Charles Comiskey, who was notorious for underpaying players. The players' revenge was to take bribes and prevent the team from winning the World Series. After they were acquitted, the players hoped to return to baseball. But it would not happen. The team owners - mostly wealthy business men who were used to getting their own way - knew they had to clean up the sport.
They could not do it internally. These powerful "war lords" of the national sport could barely get along with each other and would not accept leadership from one of their own. But they all agreed that professional baseball needed strong and thoroughly honest leadership. The owners did something almost unthinkable: they ceded most of the power to run the game to a newly created Commissioner of Baseball.
To fill this office they looked outside of baseball. They had to find someone who had unimpeachable integrity, a strong sense of right and wrong, and an iron backbone. The commissioner had to know and understand baseball, he could not be a "baseball man." He had to be an outsider. The owners quickly found the right man for the job in the backyard of the Chicago White Sox. In 1921 professional baseball hired the United States District Judge for the Northern District of Ohio, Kenesaw Mountain Landis.
Born in Ohio, in 1866, Landis was named for the Civil War battle where his father was wounded. As a young man he was a competitive cyclist and played baseball well enough to be offered a professional contract. He rejected this offer: playing baseball was recreation for Landis, he did not want to make it a career. He remained a life-long baseball fan, but turned to law for his profession.
After Landis' short career in politics and corporate law, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed him to the US District Court when he was only 39 years old. Landis was known for his tough, no-nonsense approach to law. He famously forced the oil baron John D. Rockefeller to personally testify in his courtroom in an anti-trust case. While known for sentencing wrongdoers to maximum jail terms, he could also be generous and lenient to those who showed remorse.
Facing the scandal of a corrupted World Series, the owners turned to Landis to clean up the game. Landis quickly ruled that the eight corrupted players would never return to major league baseball.