EDITOR'S NOTE: This account first ran in the Star Tribune in September 1994 on the scandal's 75th anniversary.
Nearly 75 years ago, eight members of the Chicago White Sox were involved in a plot to lose the 1919 World Series.
First baseman Chick Gandil, whose major league career already
had been dotted with gambling connections and fixing regular-season
games, was the mastermind among the eight. The St. Paul native dealt
with the gamblers, recruited teammates, handled the money and
participated on the field in helping the National League champion
Cincinnati Reds win the Series five games to three.
His first lieutenant in the conspiracy was Swede Risberg, a
jut-jawed shortstop whose fearlessness on the field was matched only
by his quick temper away from it.
Rumors of a fix were rampant in the days before the Series,
during the Series and soon after. By 1920, newspapers were cranking
out reports - the accuracy of which was a product of the yellow
journalism of the time - of what the press dubbed the Black Sox
Late in the 1920 season, the eight were indicted by the state
of Illinois and suspended by Sox owner Charles Comiskey. In 1921,
seven were tried but acquitted (the case against reserve infielder
Fred McMullin was dropped for lack of evidence). "Lost"
confessions, an adoring judge and star-struck jurors in Chicago
worked in their favor.
Even so, their exoneration would be shortlived. The National
and American league owners had hired Kenesaw Mountain Landis as
their first commissioner. His mission: to protect the image of
baseball and keep the turnstiles turning.
Landis seized on his absolute mandate, and in one pitch got
eight men out - Eddie Cicotte, Oscar (Happy) Felsch, Gandil,
(Shoeless) Joe Jackson, McMullin, Risberg, George (Buck) Weaver and
Claude (Lefty) Williams.
The extent of involvement in the fix varied - Weaver never
accepted money and played his best at all times, yet he knew of the
conspiracy. Jackson also knew of the plot and received a $5,000
payoff, yet he put up the best numbers among the Sox in the Series.
Even so, Series reporters were suspicious of some plays that Jackson
made in the outfield.
Landis cared none for degrees of guilt; there would be no
appeals heard, no reductions in punishment, no restoring of good
The first to die among the eight was Jackson in 1951 at age 63.
He was the best player in the group, and his story has grown to
mythical proportions because of fables about his nickname, his
rituals involving candles and collecting hairpins, and the tender,
loving care that he gave his feared black bats. The recent movies
"Eight Men Out" and "Field of Dreams" have added Hollywood stardust
to the legend.
Gandil died in December 1970 in virtual obscurity in
California's Napa Valley at age 82. His four-paragraph obituary in
the St. Helena (Calif.) Star made no mention of his baseball past.
Risberg, whose love for the game never waned, died in Red
Bluff, Calif., on Oct. 13, 1975, his 81st birthday. As with Gandil,
Risberg's obituary, in the Red Bluff Daily News, was brief and did
not mention baseball.
The eight men out had similar backgrounds: little if any formal
education, a quickness to throw a punch to settle a dispute, and
paltry paychecks from Comiskey that bordered on ridiculous. It was
these common threads that bonded the eight and gave root to the
greatest scandal the game has known.
And at the center of it were Gandil, who moved west from St.
Paul as a child with his parents, and Risberg, whose post-White Sox
life included putting down and pulling up stakes in southern
Kate Smath remembers one of the last days of Chick Gandil's
life. Her grandfather lay in the Calistoga Convalescent Hospital in
California, his body surrendering to heart disease and emphysema.
"He said he was going to get in touch with some attorneys and
get `this whole thing straightened out,' " recalled Smath, 66. "But
he never recovered. Evidently, it was on his mind."
Otherwise, Gandil "never talked about the scandal," said Smath,
who lives in Red Bluff. "One of the reasons he never spoke about it
again [was that] he thought all of his fans turned against him."
Fourteen months before his death and with the 50th anniversary
of the 1919 World Series approaching, Gandil did speak of the
scandal, defending his actions, even contending that he did nothing
"I have taken an awful beating in this thing," Gandil said in a
newspaper interview. "But it's all on the record. My hits won two of
the games against the Reds. If I'd been trying to throw the Series,
would I have tried to win those games? If anybody wants to say
I looked terrible, at bat or in the field, let them get the papers
and look it up."
Born Sept. 19, 1888, in St. Paul, 4-year-old Arnold and his Swiss
emigre parents, Christian and Louise, moved west.
At age 14, he was a member of the Oakland (Calif.) High
baseball team, playing every position except first base. He left
home at age 17 (by some accounts, over his parents' objections)
without finishing high school and played semipro ball in Amarillo,
Texas, as a catcher. The next year, he pitched for a team in
Cananea, Mexico. He filled in at first base late in the season, and
that would be his position for teams in Shreveport, Sacramento,
Montreal, Washington, Cleveland and Chicago.
After three seasons in the minors, Gandil made his major league
debut with the White Sox on April 14, 1910. He played well in the
field, batted poorly and was sent back to the minors for another
season before returning permanently to the majors - this time with
the Washington Senators. After four seasons (batting over .300 two
times), he was sold to Cleveland, stayed one season and was sold to
the White Sox in time for the 1917 opener.
With the addition of Risberg - which allowed the Sox to move
Buck Weaver from shortstop to third base, where he blossomed as the
game's best all-round third baseman - Comiskey boasted that his team
was the game's best, and with good reason. He had three quality
starting pitchers, an infield of Gandil, future Hall of Famer Eddie
Collins at second, Risberg and Weaver to go with hitting star Joe
Jackson in the outfield and the leadership of Ray Schalk behind the
plate. The team had no weakness, except perhaps for gambling.
It was during the 1917 pennant drive that Gandil got his first
big-time taste of fixing games.
The White Sox were in first place, with the Boston Red Sox
close behind. The Detroit Tigers, playing out a mediocre season, and
the White Sox were scheduled to play two doubleheaders over Labor
Day weekend in Chicago.
Years later, in a sworn affidavit given in the offices of the
Chicago Tribune, Gandil supported a contention that Risberg had made
earlier: that the Tigers laid down for the White Sox in those four
Gandil told how he met with Tigers pitcher Bill James, and
they agreed that Detroit would go easy. In return, Gandil and nearly
all of his teammates each put $45 in a pool that totaled $1,000 to
$1,100. The four-game sweep propelled the White Sox to the
(In 1927, Landis investigated the allegations of the 1917 fix
and met with several players on both teams - Gandil and Risberg
included. Landis heard contradictory testimony and denials. He
declined to act against any of the players.)
Gandil's ongoing relationship with gambling and his longtime
association with Joseph (Sport) Sullivan, a bookmaker with mob
connections, proved to be the key ingredients that led to Gandil's
offer to fix the 1919 Series. Gandil told Sullivan that it would
take $80,000 to buy the Series.
The money surfaced. Whose money it was has forever been in
dispute. The gamblers doublecrossed the players at the outset (they
withheld much of the bribe money so they could place bets), and the
players doublecrossed them right back (the gamblers were stunned
when the White Sox won Game 3).
But when it was over, the less-talented Reds had won the
best-of-nine series - just as the gamblers and several White Sox had
planned. All the players involved were paid off - some got more
than others - and went their separate ways for the offseason.
Gandil spent the winter in California, reportedly $35,000 richer for
his trouble. That might explain why Gandil, who made $4,000 in 1919,
decided to sit out the '20 season after having his $5,000 salary
request turned down by Comiskey.
As the scandal broke late in the 1920 season, Gandil refused to
reveal his involvement. Cicotte, Jackson and Williams signed
confessions (the veracity of which were dubious, at best). Cicotte
was said to describe Gandil as the "master of ceremonies."
"I never confessed," Gandil said 50 years later. "And five of
the eight players who were accused of throwing the Series didn't."
After his banishment at age 33, Gandil played many years of
semipro and outlaw ball all along the West Coast and in Arizona. He
took up plumbing in the late 1930s and worked in the Bay Area for 14
years before retiring to Napa Valley in 1952.
Kate Smath visited her grandparents often in Calistoga,
bringing her four children with her from Santa Rosa. The children
say their great-grandfather never talked to them about the Black Sox
Smath saw "Eight Men Out," the 1988 movie depiction of the
scandal. She paused before commenting on the film that prominently
portrayed her grandfather. "I went and sat through it," she said.
"He sounded mean and tough, and maybe he was."
"Every kid had to pick a favorite player," Chicago author
Nelson Algren, recalling his grade-school days, wrote in an article
for Chicago magazine. "The kid who owned Swede Risberg moved off the
block, and Swede became mine. My name immediately became Swede. . .
"No rumors of the fix had yet reached us by midsummer 1920. The
White Sox were still white. Swede Risberg was still my favorite
player. I began to walk pigeon-toed because Risberg was pigeon-toed.
I did this for a full year before my mother asked me why I was
walking `like that.' I couldn't explain. I still walk like that."
Despite the exposure in late 1920 of the plot to fix the 1919
Series, Algren said "our love for the game was not shaken. But we
stopped pitching baseball cards and took to shooting dice. The men
whose pictures we had cherished were no longer gods."
Years later, still feeling the sting of childhood betrayal,
Algren said he was asked by a woman in his company why his gait
favored one leg.
"It's an old injury," he responded.
"How did it happen?" she asked.
"A big Swede hurt it when I was a kid. The Swede was a hard
Risberg was hardened by a life that included little formal
schooling, punching out the likes of Ty Cobb after a game, the
ridicule of banishment, losing everything in southern Minnesota
after the Crash of '29, working behind a shovel in Depression-era
South Dakota, running taverns and drawing beers in northern
In the book "Eight Men Out," Eliot Asinof wrote that a called
third strike in a California bush-league game angered Swede to the
point that he knocked the umpire out with one punch.
The good times began in earnest when Swede joined the White Sox
at age 22 in 1917, when he played 146 games at shortstop for the
World Series champions. He hit only .203 that year, but his range in
the field and strong arm kept him in the lineup.
James T. Farrell, author of "My Baseball Diary," remembers
Risberg as "snaring a grounder deep over second base and getting the
ball to first base like a bullet." By the time the scandal broke
near the end of the 1920 season, Risberg had a respectable .266
After Landis took Risberg out of major league baseball, Swede's
passion for the game flowed until his death 54 years later.
Risberg lived his last 13 years in Red Bluff with his son
Robert and Robert's family, which included grandson Jeff. "He
was an avid fan until he died," said Jeff Risberg, 37, of St. Paul.
"He'd have at least two transistor radios [tuned in to baseball
games] . . . and he'd be watching a [third] game."
Undeterred by banishment, Swede managed and played in 1922 for
the "Ex-Major Leaguers," a team that included fellow Black Sox
Jackson and Cicotte.
In 1925, he and Felsch played minor league ball in Scobey,
Mont. Risberg was paid a handsome salary of $600 a month, plus
"I can recall him saying they made more damn money after than
they did as a professional," said Robert Risberg, 68. (Swede never
topped $3,500 a season with the Sox.)
When he wasn't playing baseball in the summer months in some
far-off town, Risberg tended to his farm in Blue Earth, Minn.
Robert tells the story - though historians are at a loss to
confirm - of his father masquerading so he could slip onto Negro
League teams. "He used brown shoe polish and played in the colored
league," Robert said. "Then people would realize who [he was] and
have to move on."
The Wall Street crash of '29 hit the Risbergs hard, Robert
said. "We lost the home, a car agency, a hotel, the farm."
Swede played a season in Jamestown, N.D., then left Blue Earth
for Sioux Falls, where he was "shoveling corn for a dollar a day,"
Robert said. "I can remember going to the Salvation Army and getting
milk for the baby."
In May 1931, Swede signed with the Sioux Falls Canaries of the
Northern League as their second baseman. He told the Daily
Argus-Leader that banishment by Landis cost him $150,000 to $200,000
and "What did they have on me? Nothing. The records show I made a
new mark for shortstops in the World Series, accepting 53 chances
and making 31 assists. They said I hit into double plays. They were
all line drives, and it was just tough luck that they didn't go
safe." (He was 2-for-25 in the Series.)
His teammate and roommate during his two seasons in Sioux Falls
was shortstop Ernie Olson.
"He ran the infield," said Olson, 89, who lives in Gayville in
southeastern South Dakota. "He was one of these guys who was
anticipating on the diamond. He was a jump ahead. He was that good,
a thinker who figured out things. He went all out, as what he was
Risberg's attempt at a coup of sorts in 1932 abruptly ended his
career with the Canaries. "Swede tried to take over the Canaries
near the end of the season by appealing to the other players, and
[owner] Rex Stucker kicked him off the team," said Dave Kemp of
Sioux Falls, a Canaries historian.
From there, the Risbergs moved west, living in northern
California and Oregon. He played some ball and got into the tavern
Mary, his wife of more than 35 years, died in 1960. Swede
worked in the lumber business for a few years and moved in with
Robert and his family in Red Bluff. Jeff Risberg said it was a joy
to have his grandfather in the same house, though he could see that
he was "shattered" by his banishment.
"For my grandfather, baseball was his life," he said. "He was
out of a job at the peak of his career."