This article was originally published in the SABR Black Sox Scandal Research Committee’s June 2017 newsletter. Click here to download the newsletter (PDF).When commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis delivered his famous proclamation following the Black Sox criminal trial in 1921, he said, “Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player who throws a ballgame … will ever again play professional baseball.”1
What Landis left unspoken was a promise kept by nearly every one of his successors for a century afterward: Not only were those players forbidden from participating in Organized Baseball at any level, they weren’t even welcome to enter the ballpark. They were persona non grata in every way.2
Fred McMullin had been the first player to indirectly test Landis’s law when he signed up to play for an independent winter league team in California while awaiting trial. Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Emil “Irish” Meusel, who was also in the league, was fined $100 by his owner, William F. Baker, just for being on the same field with the disgraced Black Sox infielder.3
A few months later, McMullin paid for a ticket to a Pacific Coast League game in Los Angeles involving several of his old friends from the White Sox, Byrd Lynn, Ted Jourdan, and Joe Jenkins, now playing for the Salt Lake City Bees. As the Los Angeles Times reported, there developed “a situation so tense as to be almost painful,” as manager Gavvy Cravath “turned his back” on McMullin and gave him “a stony stare” when he approached the bench to talk to his ex-teammates.4This was the type of treatment the Black Sox players generally received from anyone associated with Organized Baseball during Judge Landis’s reign. But there was at least one notable exception to this rule.
On April 22, 1938, the Detroit Tigers planned an elaborate celebration for Opening Day as they reopened the newly renovated Briggs Stadium against the Cleveland Indians. A pregame parade down Lafayette Blvd. and Trumbull Avenue was scheduled, with Mayor Richard Reading riding in a turn-of-the-century Cadillac along with “dozens of old-fashioned cars, buggies, hacks, and omnibuses.”5 The ceremony would conclude with a traditional march to the flagpole — which was on the playing surface in center field — by the Tigers and the Indians to raise “Old Glory” before the start of the game.
Parade organizer John Roesink6, a friend of team owner Walter Briggs, hatched the idea to invite former Tigers stars to participate in the festivities. The idea of “old-timers’ day” wasn’t yet an annual tradition for major-league teams, but it fit with the theme of the afternoon. So Roesink reached out to Davy Jones, Bobby Veach, Mike Menosky, Oscar Stanage, and other major-league alumni who lived in the area.7
A call also went out to a man who had appeared in just three games for the Tigers back in 1905: Eddie Cicotte. The 53-year-old exiled pitcher, now working for Ford Motor Company and living in Springwells Village a few miles west of the ballpark, accepted.
Surely, Roesink (and Briggs) must have known of Cicotte’s sordid past. Baseball’s doors were no longer open to him and Judge Landis had made it clear, again and again, that none of the Black Sox were to be allowed back in.
But either the Tigers didn’t care or they didn’t ask the commissioner for permission. When the mayor’s Cadillac revved its ancient engine to start the parade, Cicotte was sitting at the top of a bus waving to the fans lined up along Lafayette. And when the sixteen old-time players entered Briggs Stadium for the march to the flagpole alongside the active major-leaguers, Cicotte was in a single-file line with Jones, Veach, Menosky, Stanage, and his other contemporaries, cheered on by a crowd of 54,500 fans.8 Also present was Nemo Leibold, Cicotte’s teammate for six seasons with the White Sox, who had grown up in Detroit.
This is the only known instance of a Black Sox player standing on a major-league field during an official baseball function after Judge Landis banned them for life. That it happened while Landis was still alive is even more remarkable.
Was the commissioner even aware that Cicotte had been invited? Perhaps not. Landis had been a close friend of the Tigers’ former owner, Frank Navin, who died in 1935. But Walter Briggs was a baseball outsider who built his fortune in the automotive industry. Cicotte, like many former athletes, also happened to work in the Ford service department under Henry Ford’s right-hand man, Harry Bennett.9 Those connections certainly helped his standing in Detroit.
There is no record of Landis’s reaction and no way to confirm whether he even knew about Cicotte’s presence. The whole series of events was reported in an unremarkable fashion by the Detroit Free Press; Cicotte was just another old-timer invited to the parade, that’s all.Unbelievably, it wasn’t the last time Cicotte was asked to participate in Old-Timers’ Day. This time, it was the Chicago White Sox who came calling.
Three decades later, White Sox business manager Rudie Schaffer10 decided to stage a promotion to honor all of the pitchers who had thrown no-hitters for the franchise. The six living pitchers11 — including Eddie Cicotte — were invited to gather for a “homecoming” ceremony between games of a doubleheader against the Boston Red Sox on August 27, 1967, at Comiskey Park.12
Cicotte was 83 years old and in poor health, so he was unable to travel to Chicago to celebrate the golden anniversary of his no-hitter against the St. Louis Browns in 1917. But the invitation alone must have raised his spirits and made him feel vindicated. When sports writer Joe Falls had visited his home earlier, Cicotte expressed regrets about his role in the Black Sox Scandal but added, “I’ve tried to make up for it by living as clean a life as I could. I’m proud of the way I’ve lived and I think my family is, too.”13
Once again, no baseball official raised a fuss about the banned Black Sox pitcher possibly making an appearance at the stadium. If Commissioner William “Spike” Eckert had any objections, he never voiced them publicly.
It’s hard to imagine what kind of reception Cicotte might have received at Comiskey Park when his name was announced over the public-address system. Plenty of fans were old enough to remember his World Series sellout and the current generation had heard all about the infamous fix back in 1959, when the White Sox finally broke through to win the American League pennant.
But sports fans are often quick to forgive and by 1967 it’s likely that many of them had already read Eliot Asinof’s best-selling book Eight Men Out, published four years earlier, which offered a sympathetic portrayal of the pitcher and his teammates. While Cicotte was neither a beloved figure like Shoeless Joe Jackson nor a tragic one like Buck Weaver, he had been a great pitcher for many years. That might have been enough for South Side fans to give him a warm welcome if he had been able to make it to the Old-Timers’ Day ceremony. Still, we’ll never know.14
In 1951, seven years after Judge Landis’s death, the Cleveland Indians established the major leagues’ first team Hall of Fame.15 Shoeless Joe Jackson was elected by fans as part of the inaugural class of honorees.
The Indians sent a telegram16 to Jackson’s home in South Carolina inviting him to participate in a pregame ceremony on September 2 at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium. But Jackson, suffering from a weakened heart at age 64, was too ill to attend. He also was unable to travel to New York City for a scheduled appearance on Ed Sullivan’s “Toast of the Town” TV program that winter.
Jackson died on December 5, denying him a chance to hear an ovation from baseball fans one final time.
2 This ban also extended to the underworld figures who helped fix the World Series. In 1926, Joseph “Sport” Sullivan, the notorious Boston-based gambler, was spotted in the box seats behind the St. Louis Cardinals’ dugout at Yankee Stadium during Game Seven of the fall classic. American League president Ban Johnson ordered two security guards to quietly escort him out of the ballpark. See Bruce Allardice, “Sport Sullivan,” SABR BioProject, http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/423c7256.
4 Ibid. See also: Los Angeles Times, May 9, 1921.
5 “Weatherman Promises Perfect Baseball Day,” Detroit Free Press, April 22, 1938, p. 19.
6 Roesink operated a line of men’s clothing stores in Detroit and he was a supporter of many amateur and semipro baseball clubs in the area. He also briefly owned the Detroit Stars of the Negro National League.
7 “Just All Alone, Roesink Waits at a Telephone,” Detroit Free Press, March 24, 1938, p. 16.
8 “Bows in Order as Old-Timers Stage Parade,” Detroit Free Press, April 23, 1938, p. 13. Gordon Cobbledick, “Harder Hurls Tribe to 3d Straight, 4-3,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 23, 1938, p. 1.
9 In the 1940 US Census and on his World War II draft registration card in 1942, Cicotte’s occupation was listed as “chief of factory service,” a high-ranking executive in the company, at the Ford Motor Company’s Highland Park plant.
10 Schaffer was a longtime associate of Bill Veeck and the source behind some of Veeck’s most celebrated promotional innovations, including “Bat Day” and the exploding scoreboard at Comiskey Park.
11 In addition to Cicotte, Charlie Robertson, Ted Lyons, Vern Kennedy, Bill Dietrich, and Bob Keegan were invited.
12 Edward Prell, “Sox Don’t Get Another Shot at the Twins Until Sept. 15,” Chicago Tribune, August 18, 1967, p. 53.
13 Joe Falls, “Nobody Can Hurt Me Anymore …,” Detroit Free Press, November 17, 1965, p. 41.
14 We do know how Pete Rose was treated when he finally stepped onto the field for the first time after his lifetime ban in 1989. It was big news when Rose was granted special approval by MLB to participate in on-field activities for the All-Century Team promotion during the 1999 World Series. He got a standing ovation from the fans at Turner Field in Atlanta.
15 For more on the Cleveland Indians Hall of Fame, see the author’s story in the December 2016 edition of the SABR Black Sox Scandal Committee Newsletter.