If I could have been at any sporting event, ever, I would have been there when Robin Hood split the arrow in the bull's-eye, still the most glorious athletic moment of the millennium. But in this little century, what I would most like to have witnessed was the 1919 World Series, the inglorious one the Black Sox fixed.
Sorry, but no other sporting event has ever had such a lasting impact. Say it ain't so, Joe! Say it ain't so! To this day the Black Sox remain a melancholy part of American cultural history, and the whole conflicted saga continues to fascinate us—and affect us, too. Never mind Shoeless Joe Jackson. Pete Rose yet suffers as much from the dark shadows cast by 1919 as from his own modern sins.
You bet I want to be back there. Was there ever a more thrilling year, ever a time when the horizon appeared so golden? In a very real way 1919 was the year the American Century began. Why, in only a few spectacular months, we had won the war to end all wars, then chosen the noble path of outlawing intoxicants and enfranchising women. We were busting our buttons and raising our skirts. A Pretty Girl Is like a Melody. I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles. You Cannot Make Your Shimmy Shake on Tea. If the Roaring '20s lay just around the corner, already no place roared quite like Chicago, "the town that Billy Sunday could not shut down." The White Sox were the premier team in the only team sport that mattered, sure to make quick work of the underdog Cincinnati Reds.
Then on Oct. 1 in Cincy, opening game at Redland Field, bottom of the first, little Eddie Cicotte, 29-7 on the year, 1.82 ERA with pinpoint control, plunks the Reds' leadoff hitter, Morrie Rath, square in the back. It's the signal to Arnold Rothstein, the big-shot gambler, that everything's jake, the fix is on.
I like to think that if I'd been there, I would've been wise to what was up. Certainly, all the sharpies were. Never was a fix more public—and never was one more screwed up, more rife with double cross. Maybe I'd have been a sportswriter, a chum of Ring Lardner, the Chicago Tribune columnist, and maybe I'd have been swilling whiskey with Lardner the next night, after the Sox lost their second straight, riding on the sleeper with the team, going back to the Windy City for Game 3. Maybe Lardner would've needed my shoulder to steady himself when he stumbled down to the players' car and started serenading Chicago's heroes: "I'm forever blowing ball games/Pretty ball games in the air./I come from Chi/I hardly try.... /And the gamblers treat us fair."
Maybe, too, the day after the Reds wrapped up the Series five games to three, I would've gone over to Charles Comiskey's office, to get his drift. Comiskey was the Sox owner—the Old Roman, they called him—a rotten miser of a man. Comiskey, even more than Rothstein, was responsible for the fix. It wasn't the gambler's money the Sox got, so much as it was the Comiskey dough they didn't get, that enticed them to betray the national pastime and defraud the American faithful.
Comiskey would've invited me in. He always sucked up to the newspaper boys. "Have a little nip, Frankie!" But then, when I came out of his office, I'd have seen Shoeless Joe sitting there. Sad and tormented, he'd gone over to tell Comiskey what had happened, to ask him what he should do with the $5,000 he'd finally been paid by the gamblers. But Comiskey high-hatted him. So for hours on end, Shoeless Joe sat alone outside his owner's office. He'd hit .375 in the Series, and even if I'd seen every game, I don't know if I could've been sure whether he was in the bag. Joe took the truth to his grave. If only I could've seen him there that day outside the Old Roman's office and said, "Say it, Joe, say it all!"
Fixing games had been part and parcel of baseball for decades, but this was different. The sheer scope and bravado of the thing: to fix a World Series! After that, we understood better that in this grand new American world of 1919, where anything is possible, so is everything for sale. In fact, just a few weeks later, Babe Ruth would be sold to the Yankees. But that's another moment and another place to wish to be, and, indeed, Babe and the Yanks would be the reason that the Black Sox lost only a Series and not an institution.