In the Red – the Collateral Damage of the Black Sox Scandal

In finance terms, debt and loss are said to reside “in the red.”

So, perhaps, it is appropriate that one of baseball’s biggest losses – its true loss of sporting innocence – involved a team called the Reds. Yet, the Cincinnati Reds, in this instance, were entirely blameless. In fact, there were only eight individuals in all of baseball really responsible. Though, depending on who is asked, that number could drop to as few as five or as high as a few dozen. None of them from Cincinnati, however.

Nevertheless, the moment the news broke that several members of the Chicago White Sox were paid off by gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series the focus has been entirely on the Chicago side of the ledger. For decades, all of the hand wringing over the tainted Series has had to do with vilifying the gamblers and White Sox players who participated in the fix, blaming miserly Chicago owner Charles Comiskey for driving the players to such desperate measures in the first place, and commiserating with Chicago fans and the “clean” Chicago players for the betrayal they had to endure. Shoeless Joe and Buck Weaver have even since been made martyrs in several circles, and there has been the unquestioned assumption that the Sox would have annihilated Cincinnati had the Series been on the square.

But what of the team that was deprived of everything because of the tainted Series – the opportunity to compete fairly, the validity of the championship they won, and their rightful legacy of converting years of mediocrity into one season of glory?

Sadly, all of that has been effectively wiped out by history. However, the 1919 Cincinnati Reds deserve better. At the very least, they deserve some restored visibility. The shadow cast by the scandalous events of that fall has rendered them invisible for decades. It is ninety-two years later, and they are still being treated as a guilty party, even though they did nothing wrong. In fact, it can be reasonably argued that being ignored is, in many ways, just as bad being reviled.

So, who were the 1919 Reds?

They had a vicarious lineage to the legendary Harry Wright, who managed and played center field for the first professional team in baseball history, the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings. Under Wright’s skilled tutelage, the Red Stockings went undefeated – yes, for the entire 50+ game season – and laid the foundation for professional baseball leagues in the U.S. However, Wright’s iteration of the team in Cincinnati didn’t survive the tumultuous early years of the developing pro game and moved away.

When a franchise did return to the city a few years later, the glory days of Harry Wright were gone and replaced with a numbing string of listless campaigns. Entering the 1919 season, it had been over three decades since Cincinnati had finished on top. Although the team had climbed to third place in the National League in 1918, they were still 15 games out of the money and had finished last or next to last in four of the prior five seasons. Still, there was reason for optimism in the Queen City in 1919.

Slick fielding infielders Jake Daubert and Morrie Rath were added to incumbent third baseman Henry Groh, giving the Reds one of the best interior defenses in all of baseball. Twenty-four-year-old Hod Eller was coming off of a 16-win season, and 25-year-old Walter “Dutch” Ruether returned to the team after missing nearly all of the 1918 season while serving in the Army during World War I. The pitching rotation was also strengthened with the addition of veteran lefty Slim Sallee, who was only two years removed from an 18-7 season with a 2.17 ERA for the National League Champion New York Giants. And Cincinnati’s resident superstar, center fielder Edd Roush, already had a batting title to his credit and, at 26, was just entering his prime.

Yet, even in an era of “small ball” – limited power with heavy emphasis on drawing walks, stealing bases, and bunting runners over to produce runs – Cincinnati’s offensive approach was downright microscopic. Hitting only twenty home runs as a team in 1919, they had to assemble individual runs with an even more painstaking level of precision and patience than their peers. Despite the meager home run total, the Reds managed to score the second highest number of runs in the National League, due mostly to leading the league in both walks and sacrifices. In fact, no other team was close in either category as the Reds drew 50 more walks and had 32 more sacrifices than anyone else.

Individually, Roush and Groh were the most potent hitters. The star center fielder won his second batting crown by hitting .321 to go along with 20 steals, 20 sacrifices (the 20/20 club, Cincinnati Reds style), and a team-high 71 RBI’s. Meanwhile, Groh, who had gained nearly as much notoriety for the unique design of his bat as what he did at the plate with it, hit .310 – his third straight season batting over .300 with the Reds. Armed with his trademark “Bottle Bat,” he led the team in on-base percentage at .392 and homers with five.

However, the intricacy with which Cincinnati had to operate the offense necessarily distributed responsibility throughout the lineup. Daubert finished the season as the National League leader in sacrifices with the rather impressive total of 39 and tied Groh for the team lead in runs scored with 79. Rath finished second in the league in walks, and right fielder Alfred “Greasy” Neale – who would later go on to a Hall of Fame pro football coaching career – had a team-high 28 steals.

However, the real hallmarks of the team were pitching and defense. The starting pitching trio of Sallee, Eller, and Ruether were brilliant in 1919, combining for a 59-22 record and a 2.09 ERA. And each contributed to the effort in different ways. Sallee had remarkable control – actually, historically impressive control – finishing the season with more wins (21) than walks (20). Eller led the team in strikeouts with 137 and shutouts with seven. Ruether finished with the third lowest ERA in the National League at 1.82 and allowed only a single home run in over 242 innings pitched. In addition, Eller and Ruether helped their own causes at the plate, hitting .280 and .261, respectively, and driving in a combined 19 runs with 12 extra base hits.

Ray Fisher, Jimmy Ring, and a 28-year-old from Havana, Cuba named Dolf Luque rounded out the pitching staff, compiling an aggregate 34-17 record with a 2.31 ERA and seven saves. Although just in his second full season at 28, Luque would amazingly pitch another 16 seasons in the big leagues and would eventually lead the league in ERA and shutouts twice, while establishing himself as one of the earliest stars from either the Caribbean or Latin America in Major League history.

As with most superb pitching staffs, the Reds were supported by a stellar defense. Though, it was the infield that shined the brightest. While Daubert was a solid defender at first, it was Rath at second and Groh at third who truly excelled. Rath displayed excellent range while compiling a fielding average 15 points higher than the league average. Groh did even better, finishing 26 points better than the league average. In the outfield, Roush flashed some impressive defensive credentials himself – better than average range with a fielding average 22 points higher than the league standard. Although Gold Glove Awards weren’t presented until 1957, the 1919 Reds could safely argue that three of the team’s eight starters had a strong claim to such an award – had it existed that season – and a fourth was at least in the discussion.

With a strong pitching staff and a stingy defense, the Reds finished 1919 with a 96-44 record, nine full games ahead of the perennial National League powerhouse Giants.

As fate would have it, though, the Reds would match up against the American League champion Chicago White Sox in the World Series. And the White Sox were a troubled team – to say the least. Despite a hugely talented roster boasting three eventual Hall of Famers (second baseman Eddie Collins, catcher Ray Schalk, and pitcher Red Faber) and three more players (Buck Weaver, Joe Jackson, and Eddie Cicotte) meriting serious – and, in Jackson’s case, practically foregone – consideration if not for the looming scandal, there was an unsettling tension tugging at different factions within the clubhouse. Ivy League alum Collins was mutually disdained by blue collar first baseman Chick Gandil and shortstop Charles “Swede” Risberg. Southerners Jackson and pitcher Claude “Lefty” Williams tended to sequester themselves from teammates, and all of the players seemed dissatisfied and resentful of owner Comiskey’s penurious ways.

Ultimately, though, it was a combination of economics and isolation that completed the inevitable fracture of the American League champs. Gambling interests of all levels of influence and bankrolls had long been attempting to make money by securing the outcome of baseball games with varying degrees of success. However, the volatile situation roiling through the White Sox locker room provided the perfect opportunity to make the ultimate statement – a chance to control the outcome of, and profit handsomely from, the sacred cow of American sports, the World Series. With the precision of predators on the Serengeti, shadowy figures with cold, hard stacks of cash found the neediest and most willing members of the White Sox herd and took them down. They hadn’t even noticed or cared that the Reds had been irrevocably damaged in the process as well.

In fact, Cincinnati’s first at-bat of the Series set the tone for the entire sorry affair. Cicotte drilled Rath in the back with a fastball, the universal signal to all involved that the genie was out of the bottle. Imagine, though, Rath’s excitement that he had opened the Series exactly as he had hoped – getting on base to set things up for his team in the biggest game of his life. And Rath had taken a rather circuitous way to the 1919 Cincinnati roster. He’d earned a reputation as a slick fielding but light-hitting second baseman playing intermittently with various big league clubs from 1909-1913. However, he spent the next four years in the minors, hitting well over .300, to help build his resume and a possible return to the big leagues. In 1918, though, he enlisted in the Navy as America’s entry into World War I loomed. So, by 1919, it had been five years of the bush leagues and battleships since Rath put on a big league uniform. Yet, standing on first base in Game One of the World Series, he had not only made it all the way back to the majors he was playing for the game’s biggest prize. A base hit and sacrifice fly later, Rath scored Cincinnati’s first run and paved the way for a stunning, lopsided 9-1 Reds win.

Though many wrote the opening game upset off as an anomaly, the Reds took three of the next four games as well to stake themselves to a commanding 4-1 lead in the newly formatted best-of-nine Series. In fact, as if to punctuate their unexpected dominance, Jimmy Ring and Hod Eller threw back-to-back shutouts in Games Four  and Five.

Though Chicago rallied to win the next two games – on the road, no less (they hadn’t even the decency to let the Reds and their fans celebrate at home), Cincinnati hammered Lefty Williams in Game Eight, en route to a 10-5 blowout and Series clinching win. The Reds had done it. The team that had stumbled through decades of mediocrity and misery had capped its miraculous turn around season with a championship. The champagne, in this case, was particularly satisfying because it not only celebrated a long awaited title but also served as a toast to the unlikely cast besting such a dominant opponent.

Though, as with any glow derived from alcoholic beverages, it didn’t last long. And in this case, the hangover was particularly devastating. There had been whispers during the Series lamenting Chicago’s lackluster play, particularly the pitching failures of Cicotte and Williams, and vague grumbling that something just didn’t seem right about the entire thing. However, from the Reds’ perspective, they had been so immersed in the competition and so acutely focused on playing their best on the game’s biggest stage that they hadn’t noticed any let down from their opponents. And how could they? When a team fights for its very sporting life, there’s little room to notice or care about the motivation or effort of the other side.

Nonetheless, once the details of the ill-fated 1919 Series started to come out, they were all-encompassing and shaped public perception of the event for good. Key members of the White Sox were crooked, the gambling interests who had bribed and coerced them were even more crooked, and the integrity of professional baseball in America was in a precarious state. Absent in this perception, though, was what to make of the Series victors.

Though they were unwitting participants in the game’s biggest fraud, the Reds were never fully acknowledged as champions after that, either. Instead, Chicago was vilified for its part in the scandal and Cincinnati was conveniently ignored. As for what could have happened that fall, the White Sox willingly forfeited that potential the moment their players accepted money to guarantee what did happen. And what happened in the box scores was unmistakable – Cincinnati won five games, Chicago only three.

That was little solace to the Reds, though. As time and distance separated them from their remarkable championship run, they were individually left to ponder the meaning and value of 1919 while the rest of the sporting world contemplated what that season meant to everyone but the Reds.

And the magic Cincinnati captured that season didn’t last. They fell to third in 1920 and wouldn’t get back to the World Series for another 19 years. Most of the players from the 1919 roster fared little better, individually. Though Roush, Groh, and Ruether would play superbly for several more seasons (particularly Roush, an eventual Hall of Famer), many of their teammates were out of the game shortly after the championship year. Hod Eller only pitched another two years, bottoming out with an ERA nearing 5.00 in 1921, before leaving the majors for good at just 26. Slim Sallee could only coax another two seasons out of his pitching arm, as well. Greasy Neale had moved on to his football future by 1923.

However, fate reserved its cruelest outcomes for Cincinnati’s dynamic right side of the infield, Jake Daubert and Morrie Rath. Daubert, whose impressive career included a pair of batting titles, an MVP award, a career .303 average, and 2,326 career hits, suffered a serious beaning in the 1924 season. Though he kept playing, his health deteriorated quickly. By October, he was hospitalized and died just days later. He was only 40 years old.

Rath was never able to coax enough offense out of his bat at the big league level to justify keeping a space open for his exceptional glove work. As icing, his walk total dropped by nearly half in 1920 and his Major League career was over. Details of his post-baseball life are publicly scarce, except for his sad final moment. In 1945, he committed suicide at the age of 58.

Though it is impossible to know what kind of darkness took hold to push him to such despair, the ghosts of 1919 may have lingered somewhere in that pitch black place to which he retreated. Some part of him may have even wished that he could somehow go back to that moment he was standing on first base at the start of Game One, full of joy and hope, unaware that the dull pain in his back where he was hit by the pitch was more dagger than baseball.

The exhilaration of hitting the bag at second and dashing for third on Daubert’s crisp liner to right center must have seemed a lifetime ago. The roar of the crowd as he touched the plate on Groh’s arcing fly ball to left would have been unforgettable, though. And the smiling faces of teammates and joyful pats on the back in the dugout were the happy residue of his baseball apex – before it all went bad, before the greed of gamblers and thoughtless opponents took it all away.

And they took it all – every last shred of meaning – for a dirty heap of money.  The only thing left was a hallow crown that no one wanted to wear and few even wanted to acknowledge existed at all. However, the legacy of the 1919 Cincinnati Reds should be taken back from the ghosts who stole it from them in the first place.

Debt and loss may, indeed, reside in the red. However, the team from Cincinnati who rose from the ashes ninety-two years ago to scrap its way to a championship should no longer have to reside there as well. Their rightful legacy should be as a champion, no matter the circumstances of how such a title was won. In fact, it can be argued that the penance they have paid has earned them the moniker in a way as genuine as, or more than, any other champion in the history of the game.

Ultimately, that is a much more fitting way to remember the 1919 Cincinnati Reds – as World Champions and as the happy group of underdogs patting Morrie Rath on the back on the way to taking down Goliath.