How Baseball Has Spent 96 Years Punishing An Innocent Man For The 1919 Black Sox Scandal
Forget Pete Rose. Even President Obama thinks Major League Baseball should reinstate former Chicago White Sox player Buck Weaver, who was banned for life despite not participating in a gambler-orchestrated fix of the 1919 World Series.
Photo via Wikipedia Commons
To baseball, time is a tapestry. Babe Ruth is Hank Aaron is Barry Bonds. The sport's history blends together, starting in black and white, moving into color and then high-definition. More than in any other sport, baseball's caretakers nurture a sense of timelessness, actively cultivating nostalgia.
That's what's so confusing about Pete Rose—reviled, beloved Charlie Hustle—who bet on the game, was kicked out and is making yet another push to get back in. You know why he got the boot? Because of the fallout from the Black Sox, the Chicago White Sox team that took money from gamblers to intentionally lose the World Series.
That happened in 1919. Ninety-six years of fallout. One tapestry.
Of course, time heals. To a point. We have books and movies—Field of Dreams, Eight Men Out—that glorify the Black Sox and make a sympathetic character out of Shoeless Joe Jackson, who probably was just as much of a lowlife as Rose. Moreover, new Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred supposedly is thinking about reinstating Rose—a recent ESPN report showing that Rose bet on baseball as a player likely isn't helpful—a potential move that mirrors calls for Shoeless Joe to be welcomed back, even though he took the money and nearly killed the sport.
But here's the thing: There's really only one guy who needs to have his name cleared, one guy whose place in the tapestry is all wrong, one guy who deserves a reassessment—not because of rose-tinted nostalgia, but because it's simply the right thing to do. And that guy isn't Rose or Shoeless Joe.
It's Buck Weaver.
Yes, Weaver played for the Black Sox. Yes, he was banned for life. In Eight Men Out, he was played by John Cusack. You can remember him that way—or, you can remember him as the only member of that team was never accused of taking money or doing anything other than trying his hardest to win the World Series.
It's time to free Buck Weaver. In fact, it's long overdue.
Weaver hit .324 in the thrown World Series, which Chicago lost to Cincinnati. He didn't make a single error. His unforgivable crime? Apparently, he sat in on two meetings with the gamblers and his teammates. He listened to the pitch. (He may have privately proposed to his teammates a plan to take the gamblers' money, and win the Series anyway). Ultimately, he never took a penny. Baseball busted him anyway. Not for cheating. For not snitching. A lifetime sentence, no parole.
In today's terms, it would be like a player being banned for life for steroid use because he failed to tell MLB's Department of Investigations that teammates were on the juice, even though baseball knew that said never took steroids himself.
Weaver's heart was broken. He spent the rest of his life in Chicago playing semipro ball, running a drug store, a flower shop, and a pari-mutuel window at a local horse track. At one point, he managed a women's softball team.
In Chicago, plenty of people have pleaded with MLB to Free Buck. Dr. David Fletcher, who runs the Chicago Baseball Museum, has for years been the most active advocate, leading a push with Weaver's family. Weaver's niece, Pat Anderson, is now 88 and in poor health. Buck took her in when she was a little girl. She has said she'd love to see Weaver's name cleared before she dies.
Weaver himself appealed to various baseball commissioners until he died in 1956.
Eliot Asinof, who wrote the book Eight Men Out, once told the Wall Street Journal that seven of those Black Sox should be banned permanently, and one shouldn't. Guess which one.
In 2005, a U.S. Senator from Illinois wrote to the baseball commissioner at the time, Bud Selig:
"At the time of the 1919 World Series, the indictments, the trial and for years following, there has been no evidence that Buck Weaver participated in fixing the 1919 World Series ... I respectfully request that your office conduct a posthumous investigation and hearing of the claims of Mr. Weaver's family and those interested Chicagoans and others who believe fervently that this honorable man was treated unjustly. I appreciate your consideration of this request.
Sincerely, Barack Obama.''
Full disclosure: I've pushed for Weaver myself back when I was writing for the Chicago Sun-Times. In doing so, I spoke with legendary baseball writer Jerome Holtzman. I told him that someone had said that the other seven Black Sox shouldn't have their names cleared, but that Weaver's ban should be lifted.
"He's probably right,'' Holtzman said.
"I spent roughly 50 to 70 hours with Jerome before he died,'' Fletcher told me this week. "He basically told me Buck should be cleared.''
Here's one more thing you should know about Holtzman: he was MLB's official historian from 1999 until his death in 2008. He believed in Freeing Buck. Only no one has gotten anywhere. Not even me! I mean, not even the President.
Let me be blunt: MLB decided to screw over Weaver. At first, it was for public relations purposes. Now, it's just to keep from messing with the time tapestry.
In 1921, there was a Black Sox trial, which didn't produce enough evidence to convict anyone. Baseball commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis banned all eight players anyway. Including Weaver. "Buck Weaver certainly was involved in those meetings and knew about the fix,'' says Jacob Pomrenke, co-author of a book on the Black Sox scandal and chairman of the Black Sox research committee for the Society for American Baseball Research. "He had guilty knowledge. But everyone else in baseball did, too. It's something Kid Gleason, the White Sox manager, knew about. Charles Comiskey (the White Sox owner at the time) had knowledge of it. There was no one in baseball Buck could tell who didn't already know about the fix.
"Games had been fixed before, possibly World Series games. There was certainly a lot of smoke for decades before 1919. There were things, gambling, that were part of the culture of baseball. The White Sox players grew up watching no one get punished for it. Buck Weaver was by far not the only person who knew about the fix and had guilty knowledge.'"
Then why was he punished so harshly?
"There are a lot of parallels to the steroid era,'' Pomrenke says. "It was something that was overlooked by baseball for many years. Once people decided, 'we need to clean up this game; fixing the World Series is taking it too far,' they needed scapegoats. And the White Sox players made it very easy for them. Say, 'it was the worst thing that ever happened, and everyone was kicked out. Now everything will be fine.'"
To be fair, it was a huge scandal. When people lose faith in something, it often takes, big showy displays to restore confidence. If baseball felt that people weren't going to trust that it games were legitimate, then the league had to do something drastic. That might explain the overreach on Weaver. Perhaps it also explains why some of his appeals were denied, at least while he was alive. Too soon, maybe. The message from MLB to fans and to players thinking about gambling needed to be clear.
None of that explains why we're sitting here—96 years later!—still scapegoating Weaver and hurting his family.
A few years ago, Fletcher said he finally was able to get Selig's attention, right around the time a potential Rose reinstatement was making news. According to Fletcher, Selig told him he would have Holtzman look into Weaver's case and issue a report with suggestion. Finally, some hope. Only this is where things get murky. Not only did Holtzman tell Fletcher and me that Weaver should probably be cleared, but he also wrote as much in the Chicago Tribune.
Somehow, whatever suggestions Holtzman supposedly made to Selig didn't change anything.
"Selig said he didn't want to overturn a previous commissioner,'' Fletcher said. "He said he didn't want to set that precedent.''
Huh. If Selig didn't want to overturn Landis, then why did he bother to have Holtzman look at the case? In fact, Holtzman once wrote about another attempt someone had made to get Weaver cleared, but MLB's commissioner at the time, Fay Vincent, said the same thing about not wanting to overturn his predecessors.
Kennesaw Mountain Landis is Fay Vincent is Bud Selig.
Here's my suspicion: Selig never had Holtzman write a report. Because said report likely would have suggested that Weaver be cleared. Fletcher says the league gave him a lot of papers about 1919 for the Chicago museum. Did that cache include Holtzman's report?
"I've never seen the file, the official report,'' Fletcher said. "The collection we got in 2007, there was a special MLB file we had to remove. Obviously, MLB has it.''
Without mentioning my suspicion that there is no Holzman report, I asked Pomrenke if he has seen it.
"No, I don't believe that report was ever made public,'' he says. "Whether there even was a report or not, I'm not even sure. Maybe it was to placate the family?''
Now it's Manfred's turn. Vincent is Selig is Manfred. If he's seriously considering reinstating Rose, then here's a suggestion: forget it. Free Buck instead. It has been 96 years. A good man thought about doing something bad. He and his family have done their time. Precedent is fine, but doing the right thing is better. It's okay to let the tapestry unravel a little.