‘History on Trial’ Series Reexamines Legal Ramifications of 1919 Black Sox Scandal

History on Trial stage

What were the legal ramifications of the 1919 Black Sox scandal? A new theatrical production from the Illinois Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission takes another look in light of recent research that challenges established myths.

The Black Sox scandal occurred when eight members of the Chicago White Sox allegedly threw the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds in exchange for money from a gambling syndicate.

You may recognize some of the names of the accused players: “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, Arnold “Chick” Gandil, Eddie Cicotte, Oscar “Happy” Felsch, Fred McMullin, Charles “Swede” Risberg, George “Buck” Weaver, and Claude “Lefty” Williams.

The Historic Preservation Commission’s production is part of its “History on Trial” series, which recreates relevant lawsuits throughout history to demonstrate that the law is a living, breathing element of society.

Separating fact from fiction

Executive Director Erika Harold and actors from the performance
Executive Director Erika Harold and actors from the performance

The Black Sox scandal has long-held America’s fascination. All of the accused players were acquitted or not tried in 1921. They were, however, permanently banned from organized baseball.

Books and movies have popularized myths about the team and its owner Charles Comiskey, including Eliot Asinof’s 1963 book “Eight Men Out and a 1988 movie of the same name.

However, according to writer, editor, and Black Sox researcher Jacob Pomrenke of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), the scandal is a cold case, not a closed case.

“‘Eight Men Out’ is one of the most influential baseball books ever written,” Pomrenke writes. “But thanks to information that has come to light in the last 50 years, we now know it is far from definitive.”

Research from SABR has attempted to correct some of the myths, including that the Black Sox threw the World Series due to bad pay and mistreatment by Comiskey and that the fixing of the World Series was an isolated “single sin” rather than one in a series of game-fixing incidents.

“What we’ve tried to do with all of our ‘History on Trial’ events is to look at a modern public policy issue through the lens of a historical trial and the Black Sox scandal affords us (that),” John Lupton, Executive Director of the Illinois Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission, told the State Journal-Register.

“There’s sports gambling, which is now legal,” Lupton added. “Can you imagine that in 1919? Would this have even been a scandal, for example?”

Attorney Mary Robinson, who served on the panel, Erika Harold, and Illinois Supreme Court Justice Rita Garman (Ret.)

The ‘History on Trial’ production

To recreate the scandal, actors portray the players, lawyers, and judges who were part of the cases that appeared in the Cook County Circuit Court and elsewhere. The production is followed by a panel that reexamines the scandal through law, ethics, and baseball history.

The first performance was held on Tuesday, Oct. 25, at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield, Ill. Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne M. Burke provided an introduction. The Commission on Professionalism’s Executive Director Erika Harold moderated the performance.

The panelists at the Springfield production included Raymond Doswell, Vice President of Curatorial Services at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City; Mary Robinson, the former administrator of the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission and partner with Robinson Stewart Montgomery Doppke Law, LLC; Scott Szala, a former partner at Winston & Strawn, LLP; and Pomrenke of SABR.

A second performance will be held on Wednesday, Nov. 2, at 6:30 p.m. at the Spertus Institute, 610 S. Michigan Ave., in Chicago. Ticket information can be found here.

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