by iampunha | 7/16/2008 08:00:00 AM
And just what in the world does a former South Carolina mill worker have to do with Jackie Robinson?

So much. Oh, so much.

Today in 1888 was born a man talked about more than all but a handful of his contemporaries.

He was in MLB for 13 years, to the tune of 1772 hits. In 1908, his first full year, he hit .408.

And he's part of why you know Jackie Robinson as the man to reintegrate Major League Baseball. He's part of why Satchel Paige and Ted Radcliffe didn't do it, why Josh Gibson's contract got figuratively dumped in a trash can by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

"Shoeless" Joe Jackson, born on July 16, 1888, is part of the story of racism in baseball.

For those who have been victimized by the policies of Douglas J. Feith, born on this date in 1953.

Three years and about four months ago, I was writing for an Internet magazine. I was not taking classes, and I think the then-executive director of the magazine still doesn't know I wasn't a student. (I didn't need to be, but still.)

This free time allowed me to research any old thing I wanted, which is how I was able to write a 7,000-word article detailing (briefly, even so) gambling, cheating and doping in the history of sports.

I found out a lot of interesting things while researching that article, such as the fact that people will sell anything other people will buy for way more than the actual cost.

I also found out that baseball had a huge gambling problem until 1919.

There is still debate on the extent of Joe Jackson's involvement in the fix of the 1919 World Series. There are some holdouts on the notion that Charlie Comiskey charged his rats rent and washed his hands with his own tears.

But it is pretty much universally accepted that in 1919, MLB needed to do something about its image. The sport had been tainted by gambling allegations and scandals since at least 1877:

But the greatest infamy was that of the 1877 Louisville Grays. On August13 the Grays had a 27-13 record and a large lead in the pennant race. With 15 contests remaining, Louisville needed to win roughly half. Instead, they played wretchedly, at one time dropping eight in a row, and lost to Boston by seven games.


Suspicion centered on four key Grays, who were ostentatiously sporting diamond stickpins and rings[.]

MLB, to make a 42-year-in-the-making story very short, had an image problem. It also had a competition problem with college football, horse racing and boxing. And if it couldn't convince its fans that its product was genuine, the result of every man giving his best, it was sunk. Simple as that.

So when the 1919 World Series was won by the lesser team, and when allegations of the fix became public, MLB knew it had to do something loud and contrite. It had to be able to point to something and say, "See? This is our new beginning."

The banishing for life for the eight men declared not guilty in court was part of that beginning. (Oh, you didn't know? Yeah. They were not convicted.)

The instatement of a commissioner, beholden to nobody but himself, was the other part. And so Kenesaw Mountain Landis became baseball's first commissioner in 1920, and though reports vary on the number of black players whose MLB contracts Landis vetoed, we know he vetoed every one he was confronted with.

Can I say with any credibility that another commissioner would have acted differently?

You're damn right I can. (The irony of Chandler's and Jackson's birthdays' being so close should escape not one person.)

Happy Chandler took his single term as MLB commissioner and used it for the greater good. He knew he probably wouldn't be rehired, but he was concerned not with making whitey happy but with being fair. Today he is one of the forgotten commissioners, a travesty of history to match that of many others of my topics. (Those of you who think FDR could do no wrong would be well-served to consider that Chandler knew what would happen if he helped Robinson and Rickey integrate baseball. Chandler did the right thing.)

There are, to be sure, other figures involved in one of baseball's ugliest stories. Cap Anson, a man whose on-the-field accomplishments were as stellar as his racism was on and off the field, has not his own chapter in that book but his own section. Charlie Comiskey certainly didn't help things by paying his players poorly, but that was the standard until about 40 years ago, give or take a few. (The line of demarcation can pretty usefully be considered the point at which every team's starters didn't have offseason jobs to supplement their baseball incomes.) And then, as now, MLB was much more interested in making money than having a clean sport, for which we paid for more than 27 years then and for which we will pay for at least that long now.

But now you will perhaps never be able to strike from your mind the notion that driving gambling from baseball cost it integration — from what point, we can never know, but we can know that MLB publicly separated itself from one vice and sucked ever more fervently on the teat of another for 27 years.



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Blogger Jeremy Young on 7/16/2008 11:04 AM:

Great to have you back! I've missed your stuff.


Blogger iampunha on 7/19/2008 12:43 AM:

I should be back to more regular contributions soon. Work has been rather busy, so where previously excess brain cycles had gone to research for things like this (which I wrote in about an hour on July 16 because I was bored), of late they've been going to work.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 7/19/2008 4:45 PM:

Makes sense. They pay you and we don't, unfortunately. :)