What sets the Black Sox Scandal of 1919 apart from the rest of the many match-fixing scandals of the early 20th century isn’t the magnitude of the games fixed nor the money that changed hands. No, what sets the Black Sox Scandal apart is the widespread panic that followed, a panic that held baseball hostage and irreparably transformed its history.
For the owners, the Black Sox Scandal was a shocking indicator of just how little control they enjoyed over the players. In their panic, the owners turned over significant control to baseball’s first commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis. “Commissioner” was a term of Landis’s own choosing — the original “Director-General” was too “high-falutin” for Landis. The media chose “Czar,” a more apt choice.
As Czar, Landis held near complete control over the players. The reserve clause remained a baseball standard under his watch, removing any agency from players. This later extended to the amateur ranks, as baseball first instituted player drafts to assign minor league players in 1921 at Landis’s suggestion. Additionally, in a clause that still applies to today’s game, Landis had nearly unimpeachable authority to punish players who were found guilty of “conduct detrimental to baseball” — a clause that still exists in today’s game.
The clause is the direct result of the Black Sox Scandal and the then-widespread fear that baseball was dirty, and only the influence of a man with Landis’s power and so-called integrity could clean it up. Only a man like Landis could protect the game from players bent on subverting it through match fixing (or other such acts).
But what about the owners? Only the most naive observers could think those willing to cheat and lie in baseball are those on the field as opposed to those in the luxury boxes. Irving Sanborn asked this question for Baseball Magazine in August of 1927.
“How much of the public’s confidence in the integrity of professional baseball is based on the belief that the crook is certain to be detected and to the knowledge that, when detected, he can be banished from the game for life cannot be estimated. Undoubtedly it is a tremendous factor in protecting the sport from the suspicions of those who judge all others by their own evil standards, and from the poison gas attacks by its enemies in rival fields of commercial pasttimeing. That is why the suggestion was made… that some means ought to be found to give the High Commissioner the same czar-like authority over club owners that he has over the players in organized baseball. If that power over the players helps maintain the public’s confidence in the game, the same power over the men from whom the players take their orders and salaries certainly would add to the public’s confidence.”
Although the “conduct detrimental to the game” clause — or, as it’s usually referred to now, the “best interests of the game” clause — has been applied to owners in the past, most notably when Fay Vincent banned George Steinbrenner from baseball in 1990, it lacked such power when first implemented in the 1920s. The National Agreement — the closest thing baseball had to the Collective Bargaining Agreement in Landis’s era — only allowed for a “public reprimand” or a fine “not to exceed $5,000 for any one offence.” $5,000 in 1920 is roughly equivalent to $60,000 in 2013. As Sanborn put it, “A fine of $5,000 is small change in these days of baseball prosperity, and to deprive a club of representation in joint meetings is no punishment comparable to life expulsion for a ball player.”
Sanborn refers to a pair of issues regarding baseball owners in the late 1920s. First the purchase of the Boston Red Sox by Harry Frazee, who “[made] a wreck of what was once called the ‘best baseball city in the country’ and of a baseball team which for years was the pride and joy of all New England — such a wreck that neither city nor team has yet recovered from that ruinous reign.” Frazee, basically, was a tanker, and the league could do nothing about his lack of interest in winning until he decided he wanted to sell the team.
More pressing was an issue with Rogers Hornsby, the Cardinals great, who continued to own stock in the Cardinals after he was traded to the New York Giants late in his career. As Sanborn wrote, “If the owners of the New York club had made good their threat to play Hornsby in the face of [National League] President Heydler’s ruling that he could not be used by the Giants in a championship game while owning stock in a rival club there would have been no way to prevent it, nor to punish the club owners adequately although that certainly would have been an ‘act detrimental to baseball.’” The courts, in Sanborn’s estimation, likely would have sided with the Giants and against baseball:
“If they had been compelled to go through with it, in case no settlement satisfactory to Hornsby had been made, there is not the slightest doubt but that the courts would have enjoined President Heydler and the National LEague from interfering with the playing of Hornsby by the Giants in championship games. The civil courts have small knowledge of, or regard for, the honesty of baseball when property rights are involved, and there was no denying the legality of the trade whereby New York obatined title to Hornsby’s services. Yet organized baseball would have been powerless to prevent this defiance of an official and necessary edict; powerless to prevent a situation which would have endangered the very foundations of baseball; powerless to punish adequately the men responsible for placing the good reputation of the nation’s pasttime in jeopardy.”
The conflict should be clear: Hornsby had a vested financial interest in the success of the St. Louis Cardinals (a $100,000 block of stock, to be specific), and thus his play in any game impacting the standings of the National League could be called into question. This is a far more tangible conflict that the general fear surrounding match fixing. Baseball decided on a quick-fix solution: “the adoption of a rule preventing the transfer of a player who owns stock in his own team to another team in the same league.” Hornsby sold back the stock and the trade went through. The individual situation at hand was addressed, and the owners could go home happy and worry-free.
For obvious reasons, the owners and the commissioner’s office never had an interest in increasing control over what the owners could and could not do. Even the lifetime ban for Steinbrenner in 1990 was never meant as a real threat — Fay Vincent intended to suspend Steinbrenner for two years before reinstating him, a punishment Steinbrenner rejected over fear it could lose him a spot on the U.S. Olympic Committee. Vincent rescinded the ban for the simple fact that Steinbrenner was too rich to keep out of baseball.
It’s a response we’ve seen nearly every time the game has come under attack — from gambling, from the threat of hard drugs, from the threat of free agency, from the threat of performance enhancing drugs. Major League Baseball’s response is invariably to inflict control over the players, with little thought or question to the fact that the owners themselves could be at fault.
Next time you hear about “conduct detrimental to the game,” “the game” is not the idea of baseball as a sport, as a “National Pasttime.” Baseball is not threatened by the Black Sox scandal, or performance enhancing drugs. Baseball as a moneymaker for the rich men who own the teams is what is truly at stake. Next time Bud Selig stands and talks of the “best interests of baseball,” remember he refers to it not as a game but as an institution, an institution run by and for the owners, with everything — and everybody — else secondary.