Closing the Door on Black Sox Reinstatement

Note: This article was originally published at on January 4, 2016, and is reprinted here by permission.


Less than a year into his tenure as commissioner of Major League Baseball, Rob Manfred gave a definitive answer to a question that had been evaded or ignored by every one of his predecessors: Would baseball finally consider reinstating Shoeless Joe Jackson and Buck Weaver, who were handed lifetime bans by Kenesaw Mountain Landis in the 1919 Black Sox Scandal?

Manfred’s answer was a resounding no, according to letters sent by the commissioner on July 20, 2015, to Arlene Marcley of the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum in Greenville, South Carolina, and to Dr. David Fletcher, who has been leading the charge to clear Buck’s name on behalf of the Weaver family. In his letters, Manfred said, “It is not possible now, over 95 years [later] . . . to be certain enough of the truth to overrule Commissioner Landis’s determinations.” He also cited another former commissioner, A. Bartlett Giamatti, who once wrote that the Black Sox Scandal “is now best given to historical analysis and debate as opposed to a present-day review with an eye to reinstatement.”

While new evidence about the Black Sox Scandal has surfaced in recent years that greatly enhances our understanding of “baseball’s darkest hour,” it doesn’t make Manfred’s decision any easier. Jackson and Weaver’s involvement in the fixed World Series of 1919 has been heavily disputed for nearly a century, and efforts to clear their names have been taken up by their supporters and fans for just as long. Manfred’s firm response seems to finally close the door on those reinstatement efforts once and for all. But it’s worth revisiting just how often the question has come up over the last 95 years and why Manfred felt compelled to provide an answer now.

When Judge Landis announced the permanent suspensions in August 1921 for the eight Chicago White Sox players implicated in the scandal—in addition to Jackson and Weaver, Eddie Cicotte, Happy Felsch, Chick Gandil, Fred McMullin, Swede Risberg, and Lefty Williams were also banned—the news signaled a profound shift in baseball’s gambling-friendly culture. Landis’s decision forced baseball and gambling to end its long, symbiotic relationship, which had given rise to many incidents of game-fixing and rampant betting among players, officials, and fans. After the commissioner showed no mercy to the Black Sox, the game quickly cleaned itself up.

But there were many fans, then and now, who thought Landis’s sweeping decision was too harsh, especially for Jackson and Weaver. Both players had excelled on the field during the World Series, and there were credible doubts whether either of them had agreed to throw the games. On the other hand, Jackson testified that he had accepted a $5,000 payoff from gamblers, while Weaver (who reportedly took no money) was said to have attended several of the fix-related meetings before the Series. Their degree of guilt was surely different from Gandil and Cicotte, who helped initiate and carry out the fix. Yet they all received the same sentence: a lifetime banishment from Organized Baseball.

However, fan support for Jackson and Weaver was widespread from the beginning. And in the years immediately following their banishment, it seemed possible that the unpredictable Judge Landis might reverse his own decision.

In 1922, a petition was circulated at the Polo Grounds in New York before a White Sox–Yankees game “to restore Shoeless Joe Jackson in the good graces of organized baseball.” Petition organizer Edward Phelan, a New York–based amateur baseball promoter, said he had gathered a total of 150,000 signatures—although that number seems preposterous—and Jackson himself gave a stump speech proclaiming his innocence. “I ain’t guilty of nothing,” he told a crowd of about 200 people on July 21 at a New York meeting hall. “I tried my hardest in the 1919 World Series. All I want is a square deal from the fans.”

Months later, Jackson’s friends in Savannah, Georgia, tried to arrange a meeting with the commissioner when he visited during spring training. Jackson told a reporter he was open to meeting with Landis, but he never got the chance. Buck Weaver did receive a face-to-face appointment at the judge’s Chicago office in January 1922, when he made a personal plea for reinstatement. He explained to Landis that he was aware of the fix rumors before the World Series, but he “was not certain just what men, if any, had accepted propositions, or whether they accepted. . . . I decided to keep quiet and play my best.” Landis rejected Weaver’s appeal with the ominous declaration: “Birds of a feather flock together.”

A letter from Jackson did finally reach Landis’s desk in the summer of 1923, when the former White Sox slugger was playing ball for an independent team based in Bastrop, Louisiana. Jackson might have been encouraged by the news on March 8 that Landis had declared New York Giants pitcher Rube Benton eligible to play again despite his guilty knowledge about the fixed World Series. Benton had testified twice before the Chicago grand jury back in 1920, claiming that his corrupt teammate Hal Chase had won $40,000 betting on the Series and naming four of the eight Black Sox involved. American League President Ban Johnson and NL President John Heydler later ruled that Benton was ineligible to play in the Major Leagues, but Landis surprisingly overturned the decision.

Landis also seemed to entertain the notion of giving Jackson a chance to apply for reinstatement. But before he could make a decision, Landis wrote in a letter to Jackson in Louisiana, “It will be necessary for you to forward . . . a full statement in detail of your conduct and connection with the arrangements for the ‘throwing’ of the World Series of 1919.” Jackson didn’t respond. He didn’t have to; Landis already knew the full story. That was the last time Jackson ever tried to contact the commissioner in his lifetime.

Meanwhile, Buck Weaver tried desperately to make any headway with Landis. In December 1926, Swede Risberg made national headlines when he told a reporter the Detroit Tigers had thrown a crucial late-season series to the White Sox nearly a decade earlier. Judge Landis called a special hearing at his office and heard testimony from dozens of players on both teams to investigate the charge of fixed games.

When it was Weaver’s turn to take the stand in Landis’s office, he denied any knowledge of the 1917 scandal and then used the occasion to make a dramatic appeal for reinstatement in front of reporters and dozens of ex-players. Landis responded two months later, in March 1927, with a long, detailed letter outlining Weaver’s failure to report what he knew about the fix to White Sox officials or to defend himself during the Black Sox criminal trial. A frustrated Weaver replied, “I begged for a separate trial, but my lawyers advised me against it. I didn’t testify because they wouldn’t let me.”

At age 37, Weaver had a slim chance of ever returning to the Majors, and now he had struck out twice with Landis. But there was still the possibility of a coaching or scouting job in his future, so the old ballplayer sought out friends to make the case on his behalf. In 1928, Buck enlisted the help of Paul Davis, president of a new Class D minor league in Arizona, where he had spent two summers playing in an outlaw circuit called the Copper League (along with Hal Chase, Chick Gandil, and Lefty Williams). Weaver didn’t know that as a condition of approving the Arizona State League as a sanctioned minor league, Judge Landis ordered Davis not to employ banned players like Weaver and the Black Sox. Strike three.

Joe Jackson’s friends launched several more efforts on his behalf before he died. In 1933, the mayor of Greenville, South Carolina, sent a telegram to Judge Landis hoping to secure a team in the South Atlantic League—with Jackson as its manager. Landis, predictably, denied the request. Finally, in the fall of 1951, Jackson was invited to appear on Ed Sullivan’s “Toast of the Town” after his election by Cleveland Indians fans to the team’s hall of fame. Sadly, he died of a heart attack 11 days before the scheduled TV appearance.

By then, Judge Landis was also dead and the ever-optimistic Buck Weaver was hopeful that a new commissioner would be more sympathetic. In a handwritten letter to Ford Frick in 1953, Weaver observed, “Even a murderer serves his sentence and gets out. I got life.” However, Frick had no desire to overturn Landis’s verdict, and Weaver remained on the outside looking in when he died in 1956.

Posthumous efforts to clear Jackson and Weaver’s names began after the popular films Eight Men Out (1988) and Field of Dreams (1989) brought the Black Sox Scandal back into the public eye. In November 1991, Chicago attorney Louis Hegeman filed an extensively documented petition to Commissioner Fay Vincent seeking to have Weaver’s “name and reputation restored.” On December 12, Vincent’s deputy, Stephen Greenberg, responded: “Matters such as this are best left to historical analysis.”

That same year, in the aftermath of Pete Rose’s lifetime ban for betting on his team’s games, the Baseball Hall of Fame established a rule forbidding players on the Ineligible List—including all the Black Sox—from receiving votes for induction to Cooperstown. This move put a serious dent in Jackson’s chances for reinstatement. The most obvious benefit to clearing Shoeless Joe’s name now would be to make him eligible for the Hall and, with a .356 career batting average that ranks third-highest in baseball history, he is the only one of the “eight men out” with the necessary qualifications. (Eddie Cicotte, with 209 career wins and a sterling 2.38 ERA, also would seem to be a borderline Hall of Fame candidate. But no one today has much sympathy for a man considered to be one of the ringleaders of the World Series fix.)

In 1998, Ted Williams and Bob Feller launched a headline-grabbing campaign to have Joe Jackson’s name cleared, and with the help of Chicago attorney Louis Hegeman, the two Hall of Famers filed a formal letter with commissioner Bud Selig. Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa—the cinematic setting for Jackson’s starring role in Field of Dreams—introduced a nonbinding U.S. Senate resolution calling for baseball to “right this wrong,” and South Carolina Rep. Jim DeMint did the same in the House. Jackson’s hometown of Greenville declared July to be “Shoeless Joe Jackson Month” and commissioned a statue of the left-handed hitter to be erected downtown. Their efforts eventually led to the formation of the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum.

In 2003, Dr. David Fletcher teamed up with Buck Weaver’s nieces, Patricia Anderson and Marjorie Follett, to launch the website and campaign at the MLB All-Star Game in Chicago. Commissioner Bud Selig assigned veteran Chicago sportswriter Jerome Holtzman, Major League Baseball’s official historian, to investigate the case. Selig also promised to listen to Pete Rose’s request for reinstatement. But as each year passed with no response from Selig, and no report from Holtzman, the odds of Jackson—or Weaver or Rose—having their names cleared grew slimmer.

After the Chicago White Sox ended an 88-year World Series drought by winning the championship in 2005, Harkin again introduced a Senate resolution urging baseball to “appropriately honor Joe Jackson’s accomplishments.” Harkin added, “It’s been six years (since he first approached Bud Selig). . . . I hope he will complete his inquiry soon.” If Holtzman ever filed a report on the Black Sox Scandal for MLB before his death in 2008, it hasn’t been made public. But he made his own feelings on the subject clear in numerous articles and columns, and there was no chance MLB would consider reinstating Jackson and Weaver on Holtzman’s watch.

Bud Selig’s retirement in 2014 and the election of Rob Manfred as baseball’s 10th commissioner offered a glimmer of hope to supporters of Jackson and Weaver. Like Buck himself had felt after Judge Landis died, they were optimistic that a fresh face might help change the players’ fate. Last summer, the Chicago Tribune profiled Weaver’s 88-year-old niece, Pat Anderson, and her family’s effort to finally clear Buck’s name. But Pete Rose, not the Black Sox, commanded Manfred’s attention as baseball prepared to celebrate the All-Star Game in Cincinnati. Despite his own ban, Rose was allowed to participate in the All-Star festivities, and he began lobbying for reinstatement soon after Manfred took over as commissioner.

Instead, one week after the All-Star Game, Manfred put an abrupt end to the lingering questions about Joe Jackson and Buck Weaver by declining to reopen their cases — sending a clear message to the 74-year-old Rose that he could expect to receive similar consideration in the future. In December 2015, after meeting personally with Rose, Manfred ruled that the former Cincinnati Reds star would not be reinstated. It seems unlikely that any new appeals by Black Sox advocates will be successful, either, at least during Manfred’s tenure. The tone of Manfred’s letters to Arlene Marcley of the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum and Dr. David Fletcher conveys the sense that baseball doesn’t want to spend any more time dealing with the Black Sox.

But as we approach the 100th anniversary of the 1919 World Series, new evidence continues to surface, and new research continues to provide more insight and context into baseball’s most notorious scandal. And while their fans may be disappointed at recent developments, Joe Jackson and Buck Weaver remain much more famous on the outside looking in than the other way around.

To read more of my articles on the Black Sox Scandal, click here.