If you ever encounter the ghost of Edd Roush, the greatest center fielder in the Cincinnati Reds’ 150-year history, don’t tell him the Reds didn’t deserve to win the 1919 World Series.
It’s been 100 years since Cincinnati reveled in the glory of its first World Series triumph, producing wild Fountain Square celebrations, school closures, a call for the Tyler Davidson Fountain to be replaced with a statue of Reds manager Pat Moran, and a mad crush of fans greeting the team’s train from Chicago. Revelry and glory were short-lived though. Before the 1920 season ended, reports charged that several Chicago White Sox players threw the series after gamblers bribed them. The universe reassigned the Reds to the role of chumps, forever dismissed as phony champions.
Until he died in 1988, Baseball Hall of Famer Roush had a message about that attitude for anyone who asked: “Oh, fizzle!”
Today, Roush’s lifelong chip is increasingly emerging in a broader reexamination, suggesting his Reds were deserving of glory and Cincinnati should truly honor its first champions. “One thing that’s always overlooked in the whole mess is that we could have beat them no matter what the circumstances,” Roush, as an old man, told Lawrence Ritter for his book, The Glory of Their Times. “Sure, the 1919 White Sox were good. But the 1919 Cincinnati Reds were better. I’ll believe that ’til my dying day.”
The “Black Sox Scandal” is an epic sports tale: Bookies paid key players on the favored White Sox to play just badly enough to lose the World Series. The scandal birthed a complete reorganization of Major League Baseball, a sensational criminal trial, lifetime bans of eight Sox players (including legendary Shoeless Joe Jackson), a crusade against the unholy influences of gambling on sports, and numerous books and movies.
The Black Sox Scandal isn’t just baseball. It’s Americana.
But what of the Cincinnati Reds and their 1919 championship? Is it best to just forget them, as time has? “The Reds were a deserving winner of that World Series,” says Greg Rhodes, historian of the Reds Hall of Fame. “If it had been played on the up and up, the Reds had every chance to win that series.”
“You can make a very strong case for that,” agreed Jacob Pomrenke, chair of the Society for American Baseball Research’s Black Sox Scandal Research Committee. “The Reds could have beaten them on the level.”
In dismissing the Reds’ 1919 triumph, the world disrespected one of the greatest teams Cincinnati ever assembled. They won the National League pennant easily, with the best record in franchise history. They had great pitching, a solid lineup, and the game’s best defense.
The starting pitching rotation of lefties Dutch Ruether and Slim Sallee and righthanders Hod Eller, Jimmy Ring and Ray Fisher might have been the Reds’ best ever. Cuban Dolf Luque was a bullpen beast. Roush won the National League batting crown. Third baseman Heinie Groh was among hitting leaders in just about every category. Catcher Ivey Wingo, first baseman Jake Daubert, second baseman Morrie Rath, shortstop Larry Kopf, and outfielders Greasy Neale and Pat Duncan all contributed plenty. So did the bench. “By almost any measure, the Reds were the strongest team in baseball in 1919,” Rhodes declared.
Roush’s granddaughter Susan Dellinger sought to restore his claim to glory in her 2006 book, Red Legs and Black Sox. A country boy from southern Indiana, Roush became a Dead Ball Era superstar, a defensive wizard who was among the league’s top hitters 10 straight years as a Red. Of German-Irish stock, he also was annoyingly honest.
“As long as he lived, Edd Roush did believe that the Reds won the 1919 World Series on the square,” Dellinger wrote. “He would get angry when someone said the Reds won only because the Sox threw the series. He knew in his heart that the Reds were the better team.”
Roush wasn’t alone. “I think we’d have beaten them either way; that’s what I thought then and I still think it today,” team captain Groh told Ritter for The Glory of Their Times.
Neale, who led the Reds with 10 World Series hits, went on to greater fame in football, coaching the Philadelphia Eagles to NFL championships in 1948 and 1949. “It’s a shame the Reds of 1919 were not given the credit they rightly deserved for beating the White Sox,” Neale told syndicated sportswriter Harry Grayson. “There isn’t any question but that there were some shenanigans in the first game, but remember the Sox who fell for the fixers weren’t paid what they were promised. You can bet your life they were shooting in the next seven games.”
The extent of shenanigans is still debated, and never proven. There’s no consensus of suspicious plays, no documented list, and little video to replay. Most Black Sox players denied doing anything wrong on the field, and all were acquitted in a criminal trial. Some baseball historians say that only Game 1 looked suspicious. Others point to poor pitching in Game 2, Black Sox pitcher Eddie Cicotte’s errors in Game 4 and pitcher Lefty Williams’ meltdown in Game 8.
Plenty argue that shenanigans were limited to, at most, six of the eight Black Sox: pitchers Cicotte and Williams, first-baseman Chick Gandil, shortstop Swede Risberg, centerfielder Happy Felsch, and reserve Fred McMullin. Most historians agree that third-baseman Buck Weaver wasn’t part of any conspiracy, and many defend Jackson, the leading hitter for either team in that World Series.
In 1919 there was no internet feed, no television, no radio. A century later, a precious four minutes of silent, Canadian, newsreel film of the series survives. There were only the fans in the stands and the newspaper stories, which reported the action as Roush and his teammates always insisted: The Reds outplayed the White Sox and won.
“I think they felt betrayed,” Pomrenke says of the Reds players. “This black mark on their celebration, I think that was something that always frustrated them and probably embittered some.”
The Reds started 1919 as a patchwork after overhaul of the previous year’s third-place team. Under new manager Moran, though, they found a groove. This was a team, baseball historians observe; the players were close, Roush told his granddaughter. After home games, they headed from Redland Field to the old Foss-Schneider brewery, where they’d gather in the cool cellar and pound beers while Wingo led them in songs. On the road, they hung out together in hotel lobbies, dissecting games. On the field, they gelled.
The Reds snuck into first place in July and clinched the pennant by mid-September. Their final record, 96-44, boasted a .686 winning percentage, better than the Big Red Machine’s best. Sallee finished with a 21-7 record; Ruether, 19-6; Eller, 19-9; Fisher, 14-5; Ring, 10-9; and Luque, 10-3.
Chicago’s veteran club had won the World Series two years earlier. The Sox were a great hitting team, and stars Jackson and Eddie Collins were more famous than Roush and Groh. Chicago’s pitching had two studs, 29-game winner Cicotte and 23-game winner Williams, but no depth. Chicago finished 88-52.
Contrary to mythology, betting lines had the matchup close, Pomrenke says. With far deeper pitching, the Reds had an advantage in a best-of-nine games series (then the norm, instead of the later best-of-seven). Cicotte and Williams might burn out from overuse, especially after a season in which each worked about 300 innings. And, of course, there’s this no guarantee great pitchers will pitch great in the World Series; just ask Clayton Kershaw.
Five different Reds pitchers started in the 1919 series, compared with three Sox. Each Reds pitcher mostly shut down Sox hitters. If that was because Black Sox hitters were purposefully muffing at-bats, it didn’t show. The eight Black Sox combined to hit much better than the 11 clean Sox, including Hall of Famers Collins and Ray Schalk.
Officially, the Reds won the World Series handily, five victories to three, including three blowout wins.
Cicotte surrendered six runs in Game 1 in Cincinnati. And yet, against honest pitchers who replaced him, the Reds kept scoring; so, ultimately, Cicotte wasn’t the difference. Daubert, Neale and Ruether each smacked three hits, and Groh drove in two runs. The Reds won 9-1.
In Game 2 in Cincinnati, Williams pitched wildly and allowed four runs, including two off Kopf’s fourth-inning triple, while Sallee pitched well. Other than Williams’ wildness (six walks marked his season worst) there was little for conspiracy theorists to point to and declare, “Aha!” The Reds won 4-2.
Game 3 in Chicago saw clean Sox pitcher Dickey Kerr beat Cincinnati 3-0.
In Game 4 in Chicago, Reds pitcher Ring allowed only three hits, all to Black Sox. Cicotte pitched well, too, but his two fifth inning errors set tongues wagging for 100 years. First, after retrieving Duncan’s comebacker, he hurried his throw, which skipped off first baseman Gandil’s glove. Next, Kopf drove a ball to left field. Jackson grabbed it on a bounce and threw toward the plate to stop Duncan from scoring. Cicotte tried to cut it off. The ball glanced off his glove, Duncan scored and Kopf raced to second base—giving conspiracy theorists a key turning point. The Reds won 2-0.
Roush always insisted that Jackson’s throw was off-line and would have reached the backstop and bounded away, and then Kopf might have reached third base. Any good pitcher would have tried to intercept it, Roush said; history got it wrong.
In Game 5 in Chicago, Eller shut out the Sox. Williams walked only one this time but allowed four runs, keyed by Roush’s two-run triple. Still, the Reds scored the only run they needed against a clean pitcher in the ninth inning: Roush walked, stole second, and scored on Neale’s single. The Reds’ 5-0 victory, their fourth, meaning they needed to win just one of the final four games. It took three.
In Game 6 in Cincinnati, Reds batters got to Kerr early. Yet Chicago rallied against Ruether and won 5-4 in 10 innings. In Game 7 in Cincinnati, Cicotte beat the Reds 4-1.
Game 8, back in Chicago, featured Williams’ meltdown. Pitching for the third time in eight days, the fast-baller either gave nothing or had nothing left. After the Reds’ Rath started the game by popping out, Daubert singled to centerfield, Groh singled to right, Roush doubled to right, and Duncan doubled to left.
Whether Williams was flopping or just fatigued, manager Kid Gleason pulled him. Regardless, Cincinnati later scored six runs off of honest pitchers. Roush cracked three hits, drove in four runs and made a diving, summersaulting catch in deep centerfield that people marveled at for decades. Chicago showed life late, scoring four runs in the eighth inning and getting two baserunners in the ninth. Then Eller closed out the Reds’ 10-5 victory.
On Oct. 9, 1919, Cincinnati earned its first World Series championship. That’s not what popular history remembers though.
Eliot Asinof’s Eight Men Out book and the movie version define the series as an American morality play, and he spins the yarn as a writer, not as a historian or journalist. The Society for American Baseball Research and others roundly criticized his book for inaccuracies, speculative story-telling and fabrication.
Still, Asinof’s narrative became America’s: The White Sox were Goliath, and the Reds were “a bunch of .250 Davids.” Corruption altered baseball reality. Cincinnati’s glory wasn’t earned and got deleted.
Even now, for the 100th anniversary, little tribute is paid. The Reds themselves have done “practically nothing” to celebrate the centennial, Rhodes says. The city has no events planned. The Reds’ 2019 media guide writeup is all about the Black Sox. Wikipedia’s entry on the series barely mentions that Cincinnati won. Baseball’s official MLB.com web site begins its 1919 World Series article this way: “It was crooked from the start.”
Lost is the prospect that the Reds would have won anyway. “I think Reds fans have every reason to celebrate the first World Series championship and commemorate the 100th anniversary of winning it all,” Pomrenke says. “The Reds have nothing to hide. This was a truly great team.”
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