JIM THIELMAN: When The Ragamuffin Becomes Fact, Print The Ragamuffin

John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence” might be the most aching, life-ain’t-fair western film. Told in long flashback, it ends with a newsman trashing the notes from an interview that revealed who really pinged an ornery outlaw.

“You’re not going to use the story?” asks Jimmy Stewart’s tired, flawed hero.

The newsman explains, “This is the West. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

“Print the legend” underscores most history, including what is best known about the fixed 1919 World Series that led to the lifetime banishment of baseball players, including one of the best: Joe Jackson. As the pages of our Chicago Black Sox 100th Anniversary Calendar turn to July, persistent myths keep shredding ankles like a spikes-high Ty Cobb slide into second base.

You likely learned the Black Sox story from John Sayles’ wonderful film “Eight Men Out.” The film was based on Ellot Asniof’s book of the same title. If written today, that book might pass as historical fiction. You can replay the scene on the courthouse steps in the sprockets of your mind.

Prohibition-era Chicagoans murmur and jostle as news folk with big flashbulbs in even bigger cameras angle for photos as young Jackson emerges from the courthouse in a fedora, bow tie and pricey double-breasted suit. Then the little ragamuffin with the newsboy cap (how do ragamuffins afford caps?) makes his wishful plea to the fresh-faced baseball star, who smells judicial: You know, of moldy judge’s robe, mahogany and Habinita.

“Say it ain’t so, Joe.” No truer ragamuffin words were never pled. That’s right. Never happened.

When Joe Jackson wanted to order from Sears, his wife had to read him the merchandise descrpitions.
When Joe Jackson wanted to order from Sears, his wife had to read him the merchandise descrpitions.

Heck, Jackson wasn’t even the young, lovable, Gomer Pyle-bumpkin portrayed by 27-year-old D.B. Sweeney in Sayles’ film. Jackson was in his 30s. Although illiterate and relying on his educated wife to read contracts and Sears catalogs, Jackson was smart enough to do all right for himself after he was banned from the major leagues.

Joe Jackson took the money. He lied about it. Then, like most of his teammates who were booted from Major League Baseball, he went on to make good money in “outlaw leagues” — or for the purposes of this story, “Liberty Valance” leagues. Although not part of organized baseball, there were some elbow-rubbing exhibition games against minor and major league players.

The Upper Midwest was a hotbed for such baseball. Banned White Sox shortstop Swede Risberg played in Jamestown, N.D, from 1929 to the mid-1930s. Another Black Sox, Happy Felsch, said he made $600 a month playing outlaw ball when the average American salary was $100.

That let’s us put a Happy ending on it. But a happy one? Naw. There was also no David vs. Goliath storyline. So Asinof dreamed up one. Asinof portrayed some of the ballplayers as witless dupes pitted against a rich baseball team owner. Sorry, but everyone in this story is a bad guy.

Georgia’s Kennesaw Mountain. Remove an “n,” give it some white hair and you have baseball’s first commissioner.
Georgia’s Kennesaw Mountain. Remove an “n,” give it some white hair and you have baseball’s first commissioner.

That includes a mediocre real-life judge, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who came late to The Fix as baseball’s first commissioner. The credits also include the petulant league president, bickering owners, grab-the-brass-ring ballplayers and the we’re-gonna-kill-your-wife gamblers. (There’s no evidence gamblers threatened the wife of pitcher Lefty Williams before the final game of the Series, despite what Asinof wrote.)

The Fix was supposedly triggered by owner Charlie Comiskey. He had moved the St. Paul Saints to Chicago in 1900, where they became the White Sox in the new American League. As World War I concluded, Comiskey cheated star pitcher Eddie Cicotte out a bonus. (Nope.) He underpaid players and made them use their own quarters at the laundromat to clean their uniforms. (Nope and nope.) He wouldn’t let players have heavy data user cell phone plans. (Not sure where Comiskey would fall on this one.)

“Commie” could be called a crochety weasel. Weren’t all the owners? It’s why Jesus never owned a baseball team. Yet the White Sox had five of the 20 highest paid American Leaguers on a ball club that had the third-highest payroll in the league.

For some time, a group comprising doctors, attorneys, authors, fans and assorted hangers-on have devoted themselves to discovering old court documents, letters and news stories to learn the truth about The Fix. Despite their depth of knowledge, the consensus among this august bunch is it’s likely that we’ll never know the truth.

Not contrite, one of the Black Sox said that if knuckleball pitcher Cicotte hadn’t folded like a dollar card table and confessed to The Fix, the boys woulda got away with it. That might have been really bad for baseball.

Baseball could be an obscure game today without The Fix unraveling when it did. The Sox players — likely including self-proclaimed innocent third baseman Buck Weaver — continued to throw games in 1920. It could have gone on for another decade or more if the owners hadn’t clumsily hammered it into submission by hiring Landis, who banned every player involved and took away the chew toys from their dogs.

CUTLINE: Major League Baseball can be thankful that Babe Ruth came out smoking at the right time.
Major League Baseball can be thankful that Babe Ruth came out smoking at the right time.

If all that had happened 10 years later, during the Depression, it might have been the final high hard one to baseball’s noggin’. Hungry, bare-headed ragamuffins and their unemployed parents would have been too busy asking “Buddy, can you spare a dime?” to worry about a bunch of scheming ballplayers.

As it was, the timing of all this allowed Babe Ruth to save baseball.

The Bambino. Big Fella. The Sultan of Swat.

George Herman Ruth hit 113 home runs spanning 1920 and ’21. The entire White Sox team hit 25 in 1919.  Babe — the former incorrigible Baltimore street kid who grew up to eat big, drink big, drive big cars, smoke big cigars and chase women — turned a nation’s lonely eyes from the Black Sox to him.

Baseball was saved, and the ex-ragamuffin bought a lot of cool caps.

Editor’s note: On the 100th anniversary of “Eight Men Out,” the Society for American Baseball Research — of which the author is a derelict member — has created Eight Myths Out, to help set the record straight on what is truly known about the 1919 Black Sox throwing the World Series.

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