Who doesn’t love a good sports scandal? And, in the past, the best coverage could be found in the sports page of your local newspaper. I waded through the depths of Chronicling America,* a free database of historic U.S. Newspapers from 1770 to 1963 maintained by my colleagues in the Library of Congress Serial and Government Publications Division, and picked out five humiliating baseball scandals to share with you. Let’s play ball!
1910 Chalmers Batting Title
In 1910, Hugh Chalmers, president of Chalmers Motor Cars and avid baseball fan (see column two, paragraph two) announced that he would award a new Chalmers Model 30 to the winner of the Major League batting title. In English, this means the player with the highest batting average at the end of the regular season wins a new set of wheels. It was known as the Chalmers Award.
Centerfielder Tyrus “Ty” Cobb of the Detroit Tigers and second baseman Napoleon “Nap” Lajoie of the Cleveland Naps (now Guardians) battled it out towards the end of season with Cobb in the lead with a .383 average. Lajoie had a batting average of .379 going into the final two games of the season, a doubleheader against the St. Louis Browns on October 9. At this point, he would have to play a perfect game to take the title away from Cobb, who decided to sit out the last two games, confident of victory. And this is where things get a little sketchy.
Lajoie went 8-8 for both games combined. That means he got a hit every time he stepped into the batter’s box with four plate appearances per game. This feat is next to impossible. You would have a better chance of winning the lottery before hitting perfectly for two games in a row on the same day. Sportswriters didn’t take long to share their suspicions that maybe a couple of St. Louis’ players let Lajoie earn a few hits. In six of his plate appearances, according to an article in the Birmingham Age-Herald (Birmingham, AL), Lajoie “bunted down the first base line and either beat Third Baseman Corridon’s throw to first base or else Corridon did not attempt to throw.” Also, Brown’s pitcher Alex Malloy may have telegraphed his throws to Lajoie. In the only other meeting between the two, Lajoie only “got one hit in three.” Why St. Louis would help their opponent is a mystery. In any case, Lajoie’s stellar performance raised his overall batting average to .386, surpassing Cobb.
Lajoie was initially tapped to win the Chalmers Award, but with the difference in batting averages between both players being “only .008 of 1 per cent” and to tamp down the specter of controversy, Chalmers decided to give each of them a car. The following year, Chalmers changed the requirements to the award so that it would go to the player who “should prove himself as the most important and useful player to his club and to the league at large.” Cobb was the 1911 American League winner. The award is considered the precursor to the modern-day MLB Most Valuable Player award bestowed upon the best player in each league (American and National).
Cobb Assaults a Fan in the Stands
Ty Cobb makes the list twice. The “Georgia Peach,” considered by many as the greatest baseball player ever, was rumored to not exactly be the friendliest guy. In fact, he was known for his explosive temper and had no problem taking it out on players and fans alike. He did just that when his Detroit Tigers visited the New York Yankees on May 15, 1912.
Back in those days fans and players traded insults all the time, but the verbal abuse rarely escalated to fisticuffs. Cobb participated in this tradition “bandying words with the fans in the bleachers” from the first pitch. By the fourth inning, however, his anger boiled over and he vaulted into the stands and “administered an artistic punching to a man he picked out as his chief tormentor,” as reported in the Washington Times (Washington DC).
That man was Claude Lueker, a former printing press operator or pressman, who “lost one hand and most of the other” when he was injured on the job. Ban Johnson, president of the American League, reacted by suspending Cobb indefinitely. His Tigers teammates balked and refused to play until Cobb’s suspension was lifted. After one game featuring a roster of semi-pro players, Johnson reduced the suspension to ten games.
It is considered by most fans as the worst scandal in baseball history. Eight Chicago White Sox players conspired to throw the 1919 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds for a promised payout of $100,000 split between them.
The masterminds behind the fix were first baseman Arnold “Chick” Gandil and star pitcher Eddie Cicotte along with Boston-based bookie, Joseph “Sport” Sullivan. They, in turn, convinced “Shoeless” Joe Jackson (outfielder), Oscar Emil “Happy” Felsch (centerfield), Fred McMullin (infielder), Charles “Swede” Risberg (shortstop), George “Buck” Weaver (third baseman), and Claude “Lefty” Williams (pitcher) to join the conspiracy.
The entire reason the players decided to intentionally lose the 1919 World Series is unclear. The prevailing theory that White Sox owner Charles Comiskey was a cheapskate with respect to players’ salaries appears to be erroneous. Also, gambling on baseball at the time was nothing new. Grand jury testimony, however, leaves no doubt that some games were thrown. Eddie Cicotte confessed that during Game 1, he threw the ball so slowly that “you could read the trade mark on it.” He also admitted to accepting a $10,000 bribe. Star left fielder Shoeless Joe Jackson revealed that he purposefully failed to catch a few balls that came his way or he would be “slow and make a throw to the infield that would be too short.” Ace hurler Claude “Lefty” Williams went 0-3 with a 6.62 ERA (earned run average) which was highly suspicious if you consider his career ERA numbers.
All eight players were indicted on September 28, 1920 with charges of conspiracy to obtain money by false pretenses. In the subsequent trial a year later, all eight players were acquitted of conspiracy charges.
Despite being exonerated by the courts, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, appointed in 1920 as the first commissioner of Major League Baseball, banned all eight from organized baseball for life. He served as commissioner with an iron fist for nearly 25 years, refusing all requests for reinstatement, and died while still in office on November 25, 1944. Check out the Chicago Black Sox Scandal Topics in Chronicling America to learn more.
Reds Fans Really Exercise Their Right to Vote
Cincinnati Redlegs (Reds) fans took advantage of their right to vote to a whole new level. They apparently stuffed the ballot box for the 1957 All-Star Game resulting in seven Reds players being selected as starters. Regional newspapers across the country were designated by Major League Baseball (MLB) to collect and count votes for each player to determine who would represent their league in the All-Star Game. Fans could vote as many times as they wanted right up to the deadline.
Right before the deadline on Thursday, June 27, 1957, votes came pouring into the Cincinnati Times-Star (Cincinnati, OH) with five Reds players receiving over 400,000 votes each and three additional teammates each receiving 200,000 or more. Here are the numbers for all eight players published in the June 28, 1957 issue of the Evening Star (Washington D.C.):
Commissioner Ford Frick quickly caught on to the scheme and replaced Bell, Crowe, and Post with Hank Aaron (right field), Stan Musial (first base), and Willie Mays (centerfield). Of the three only Musial already had enough votes (363,792) overall to edge out Crowe for first base.
The balloting process has since been retooled with a two-phase voting system. The 93rd MLB All-Star Game is scheduled to be played in Seattle, Washington, on July 11, 2023.
“I’m a Nail Buffer, Not a Ball Scuffer”
Okay, I’ll be honest. I put this one on the list for laughs. Minnesota Twins hurler Joe Niekro was busted for scuffing baseballs during a game against the Anaheim Angels on August 3, 1987. After calling a strike in the fourth inning, home plate umpire Tim Tschida noticed a disturbing pattern to the scuff marks on the baseballs being pitched, so he halted play and approached the mound to inspect Niekro’s glove and hands with the intent of issuing a warning.
Here’s where things go sideways. Niekro gives up his glove but “puts one hand in his pocket as if to hide it” recalls umpire crew chief Davey Phillips (Hartford Courant, Hartford, CT, Aug. 5, 1987, p. F4E). Alerted to Niekro’s suspicious behavior, the umpires order him to empty his pockets. Niekro, literally up in arms, reacted by angrily turning his pockets inside out throwing his hands in the air causing an emery board and a piece of sandpaper to fall out onto the ground. Feigning innocence, Niekro informed the umpires that he uses the emery board to file his fingernails. His teammates attested to seeing him do so in the dugout, but that didn’t explain the sandpaper.
Knuckleballers like Joe Niekro constantly file their nails to achieve the best grip they can on the baseball. The knuckleball is thrown using the fingertips, not the knuckles. New baseballs tend to be slippery right out of the box. Scuffing the ball makes it easier to grip. Thus, the sandpaper turned out to be the proverbial smoking gun.
Niekro was immediately ejected from the game and given an automatic 10-game suspension per MLB Rule 3.02 which states that “no player shall intentionally discolor or damage the ball by rubbing it with soil…sand-paper, emery-paper, or other foreign substance” (Newsday, Nassau ed., Long Island, NY, Aug. 5, 1987, p. 144).
Did Niekro’s infractions really reach the level of a scandal? Probably not, but either way, the whole situation did make for some funny headlines.
* The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
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