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Posted by on Dec 16, 2015 in Blog, Essays, Sports Betting | 3 comments

Busting a Myth: How the 1919 “Black Sox” Gambling Scandal Actually Helped Baseball

 

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A myth has been floating around for a very long time, and it’s time to put a stop to it.

For decades, major league baseball’s the so-called “Chicago Black Sox” scandal of 1919 has been cited by critics of legalized wagering as the ugly historical boogeyman.  Corruption is allegedly what happens when there’s gambling on sporting events, even though most evidence reveals this happens with far greater frequently when gambling is kept illegal and is forced underground.  Indeed, at a time when gambling was illegal just about everywhere in America, history does show several players on the 1919 Chicago White Sox conspired to lose a series of championship games because gamblers promised lucrative payoffs during an era when salaries were embarrassingly low and bribes were too tempting to pass up, at least for some.

The popular myth goes, “the 1919 Chicago Black Sox scandal almost ruined baseball.”  Baloney.  Data not only disproves widespread claims that baseball’s reputation suffered during and after the 1919 World Series (of baseball) betting scandal.  To the contrary, there’s overwhelming evidence which suggests gambling (and all the associated publicity and media fallout) may have significantly increased baseball’s popularity.  The facts on this appear to prove irrefutable.

Here’s the data.  The only metric of national popularity at the time was game attendance.  Long before television, and while radio was still in its infancy (the first baseball radio broadcast didn’t occur until 1921), the only reliable way to measure public interest (and trust) in baseball was to examine attendance figures — league wide.  That way, factors that could sporadically influence attendance like the construction of a new stadium or team performance would even out.  The Black Sox scandal occurred in October, 1919.  Then, as rumors began to swirl almost immediately, a series of investigations took place over the next 11 months.  Media attention was particularly intense during the summer of 1920, the midpoint of the baseball regular season.  Accordingly, if claims about baseball’s pending doom because of lack of public trust were accurate, game attendance should most certainly have declined (or remained stagnant) the following years, 1920 and 1921.  Yet, attendance did not decline.  Data from official baseball records reveals quite the contrary:

Major League Baseball — Regular Season Attendance (1919 — 1920)

Boston Red Sox — decreased 3 percent

Boston Braves — decreased 2 percent 

Brooklyn Robins — increased 124 percent

Chicago Cubs — increased 12 percent

Chicago White Sox — increased 25 percent

Cincinnati Reds — increased 10 percent

Cleveland Indians — increased 78 percent

Detroit Tigers — increased 9 percent

New York Giants — increased 39 percent

New York Yankees — increased 107 percent

Philadelphia Athletics — increased 22 percent

Philadelphia Phillies — increased 48 percent

Pittsburgh Pirates — increased 77 percent

St. Louis Browns — increased 13 percent

St; Louis Cardinals — increased 98 percent

Washington Senators — increased 51 percent

For those keeping score, 14 of 16 baseball teams enjoyed healthy increases in attendance from 1919 to 1920.  Only the two teams in Boston experienced decreases, that those figures were minimal — down only about 2.5 percent.  Overall, Major League Baseball attendance enjoyed the biggest percentage jump in history that year — from 6,526,802 to 9,112,492 — up a whopping 43 percent.  Again, let’s make sure this is loud and clear — baseball’s biggest overall attendance increase in history occurred in the immediate aftermath the Black Sox betting scandal.  SOURCE ON YEARLY ATTENDANCE FIGURES — BY TEAM:  Baseball-Reference.com

Yet, we often hear and read unsubstantiated claims that the 1919 Black Sox scandal “nearly destroyed baseball,” which as facts prove, is utter nonsense.  [See Footnote Below]

Instead, data shows baseball attendance skyrocketed in the aftermath the scandal, even while several investigations were happening and public trials were taking place.  If anything, baseball plastered all over the front pages of daily newspapers around the country significantly fueled fan interest.  How else to explain such huge increases in baseball attendance, the likes of which had not been seen before, nor since?  Moreover, the so-called scandalous period of 1919-1921 was followed by the roaring 1920’s, what many consider to be the game’s golden era, when baseball became even more popular in America, much of the increased attention fueled by widespread economic prosperity which went hand in hand with illegal sports gambling, which was rampant in urban America.  Gambling helped baseball’s popularity back then, just as it helps baseball now.

Why does any of this matter today?  This past week, a number of false claims were made citing the Black Sox scandal as nearly ruinous to baseball.  Most of these references related to the Pete Rose gambling controversy.  Time and time again, this myth has continuously been perpetuated by sports gambling’s critics.  Hence, it’s vital to correct one of the most misreported facts in baseball’s long history.  No, the Black Sox sandal didn’t harm baseball.  Quite the opposite occurred.  As has been the case throughout the history of sporting events, gambling actually helped fuel greater interest in games.

So much of what’s widely believed is flat out wrong, and easy to disprove with reliable data.  So, next time you read or hear someone out there citing the infamous Black Sox scandal allegedly doing damage to the game — challenge it.  Better yet, send those who are uninformed a link to attendance figures which clearly demonstrate otherwise.  Those who claim the 1919 scandal almost ruined baseball, which includes many widely-respected sports writers and journalists, have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about.

 

Footnote:  Here’s just a few of the dozens of mistaken sources in various media falsely claiming the 1919 Black Sox scandal “almost destroyed baseball.”  There are several more:

James Reston:  “Collision at Home Plate

Sun-Sentinel:  “Maintain Ban on Pete Rose”

Wayward Rose”

John Kass:  A Sad Opening for Mccuddy’s

NY Daily News:  We owe a lot of Babe Ruth, the Sultan of Swat who saved America’s game

 

3 Comments

  1. As Keith Jackson might say, “Whoa, Nellie.” I know you know the difference, but your article doesn’t address the crucial distinction between “Betting is good/bad for baseball,” and “A betting scandal is good/bad for baseball,” and I expect a lot of folks may misunderstand this point.

    You can’t possibly be saying that you are unconcerned about things like match fixing. You *have* to be very much in favor of the punishments leveled against (at least most) of the “Black Sox”. I certainly am. In as much as the casual fan wants integrity in their sports, the sports better *depends* on it. Why don’t I bet the Bundesliga, low-level tennis, or FIFA international friendlies? Because I know about the corruption in these leagues and how it might affect my bottom line. I can’t afford to bet corrupt sports. Sports bettors are far *more* concerned with corruption in sports than most fans, and regulated sports betting *helps* keep sports honest, which is one of the many reasons why it should be *embraced* by sports leagues. Again, I fully expect you know all this, but it’s very possible for someone to infer the opposite position from your post.

    Also damaging the game is not completely equivalent to reducing attendance. I, and I expect you, believe that the Black Sox scandal did damage the game, it just wasn’t a near fatal blow by itself. It’s impossible to know how the game would have responded in the long term had baseball’s reaction to this incident been more sanguine.

    So, to sum up, the Black Sox scandal was not good for baseball, because the integrity of the game is important. Game fixing is not acceptable and needs to be dealt with harshly by sports leagues. Betting in sports, regulated properly, can help protect the integrity of the game. The Black Sox scandal did not actually damage professional baseball in this country, although if the problems which led to this scandal had continued to go unchecked, it’s certainly conceivable that this could have greatly hurt the sport in the long run.

    By the way, nice perspective on the Pete Rose piece the other day. I continue to believe he should be banned from baseball associations for the reasons you mention, but his accomplishments should be recognized in the Hall with the appropriate asterisks.

  2. We’ll never know if attendance bounced back because it had dropped in prior years due to WWI or because of the scandal. However, given how gambling has decimated audiences for professional boxing and wrestling, I believe the start and end of the war caused attendance to dip and then rise respectively.

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