(I know I haven't been a regular here for sometime, but I wanted to share this with my friends on the WNFF).
I am an inveterate reader of baseball history. I particularly enjoy well researched efforts that shine a new light on established baseball folklore and reveal nuggets of truth that are often stranger and more interesting than the legend. “The Original Curse,” written by Sean Deveney (a reporter for the Sporting News) is just such a book.
I was drawn to this book by its subtitle -- “Did the Cubs throw the 1918 World Series to Babe Ruth’s Red Sox and incite the Black Sox scandal?” Wow! What a concept! But when I try to explain this book to my friends, they invariably roll their eyes -- you see, I am a dyed-in-the-wool fan of the Chicago White Sox, and because of the rivalry my favorite team has with the “other team” across town, the Chicago Cubs, I tend to hate all things associated with the Cubs. My own father, who is a huge baseball fan, told me to “drop it,” and to “get a life,” my incessant negative harping on the Cubs must stop. But while my original fascination with this book may have come from my personal animosity towards the Cubs, that’s not what this book is about.
The book opens with a scene created from the affidavit of Eddie Cicotte, the pitcher for the 1919 White Sox who was one of the ringleaders of the “Black Sox,” the group of players who purportedly plotted to accept bribe money and lose the 1919 World Series on purpose. The setting is late summer, 1919, on a train ride across country, with members of the White Sox team lounging and talking. The seeds of the World Series scandal are being planted, as the players determine whether such an undertaking might actually succeed. Cicotte recalls that one of the players said, “Hey, why not? The Cubs did it last year, and got away with it.”
And so begins a well crafted and well researched look at the concept that the 1919 World Series was not the first time a team took money from gamblers to lose on purpose, and whether there might be some merit in the statement Ed Cicotte heard in that Pullman car as his team plotted to do the very same thing.
To be truthful, Mr. Deveney admits there is no conclusive evidence. No “smoking gun,” no player’s confessing, no later public recriminations specifically indicating that the Cubs of 1918 were on the take. The only evidence is circumstantial. Yet, that evidence, in and of itself, is pretty compelling. Plus, the author gives us a vivid portrayal of the prevalence of gambling in major league baseball in the first quarter of the twentieth century, and how it made the game rotten to its core, and how the baseball establishment did everything it could to cover it up, but to allow it to exist, because the gambling connection meant more fan interest, and therefore more tickets sold. The comparison with the contemporary issue of performance enhancing drugs is not lost on Mr. Deveney, who makes a great case that history has repeated itself.
And even if you can’t accept Deveney’s premise regarding the 1918 World Series truly being “crooked,” the book is much more than just that. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different person involved -- a baseball executive, a player, a government official. The writing style is like a suspense novel. The book is also a portrait of the times -- a country in the midst of a world war, an economic crisis, a concern about foreign terrorism (in the form of German U Boats and spies) and domestic terrorists (in the form of radical labor unions), a concern about a pandemic (the “Spanish flu”) that would eventually kill half a million people in the U.S. alone, and for the baseball players, concern about their future, and the future of baseball itself.
Against this historic canvas as backdrop, Deveney unfolds the 1918 baseball season for both the eventual NL champion Cubs and the AL champs, the Red Sox. We see greedy owners on shaky financial ground trying to “buy the pennant,” as both the Cubs and Red Sox owners purchase or trade for players to ensure their success. We see players trying to deal with the concept of being drafted, or working in war industry, as the Federal Government’s “Work or Fight” order comes down in mid-season. We see influence and power among baseball owners shift and change, setting the stage for the rise of the Commissioner. And mostly, we see the stories of the players themselves. (One particularly interesting side story is the transformation of Babe Ruth from pitcher to hitter, which began in earnest in 1918).
Each chapter focuses on a different person. And one of the interesting concepts Deveney delves into is the popular notion that both teams involved in the 1918 World Series have traditionally been considered “cursed” by its fans, the Red Sox (because of selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees) and the Cubs (because of the Billy Goat incident in 1945). Deveney, while admitting he doesn’t believe in curses, muses that if there is a curse for one or both teams, its logical to connect it to 1918, when the players apparently “threw” the World Series. He adds some interesting anecdotal evidence for a curse, at least on the people involved with both teams during that year. At the close of each chapter, he will include an epilogue about the people discussed. It is amazing how many of these executives and players had short lived careers, met untimely or bizarre deaths, saw their lives ruined by financial collapse or substance abuse, or had some connection to criminal gambling.
And what about the concept that the Cubs “threw” the 1918 World Series? Some might not buy it, but I will say this -- absent the confessions that the 1919 White Sox players provided that they truly intended to lose on purpose, the evidence of how the games were played and how the 1919 White Sox and the 1918 Cubs appeared to be trying to lose on purpose is uncannily similar. The motivation the Cubs had for losing on purpose was there (disputes over the size of the World Series shares for the players), plus many of the Cubs players had direct connections to the same gambling elements that arranged the Black Sox scandal. Indeed, many folks don’t know that the reason the “Black Sox” were even investigated was that in September of 1920, the Cook County State’s attorney was called upon to investigate allegations of losing games on purpose -- by the Cubs!!! Only after that investigation started, and people started pointing fingers at the White Sox as well, were the White Sox players called in to testify, and Cicotte, Joe Jackson, and others confessed.
I won’t let the cat out of the bag, and let other readers digest the evidence and determine whether you believe the 1918 Cubs are at the same level as the 1919 White Sox. But whether you buy the premise or not, the book is an excellent portrayal of a unique time in our history, and how baseball fit into and reflected that time.
I would also recommend reading this book in conjunction with “Burying the Black Sox” by Gene Carney, published a few years back, which focuses on the 1919 World Series, and sheds new light on the evidence surrounding that scandal in a similar fashion. Together, these books show how gambling nearly destroyed baseball from within, and it’s a comparable concept to how baseball has handled its current controversy over steroids. If you are at all into baseball history, I’ll bet you’ll enjoy this book.