Why the Black Sox?

On p. 39 of Freakonomics, we make a passing reference to the Chicago Black Sox, the name given to the Chicago White Sox after eight players were found to have colluded with gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series. A reader recently wrote: “The 1919 white sox were not known as the black sox because they threw the world series. They were called that because their owner (whose name i do not have) was too stingy to have their uniforms cleaned regularly so that they frequently showed up on the diamond in dirty uniforms. You’re welcome.”

This was in fact the second reader to write with this same correction. We had asked the first reader for his source and that first reader said he thought he heard it once on ESPN, but couldn’t be sure. After receiving this second e-mail, I decided to investigate. Here is my reply to reader No. 2:

“I looked into the Black Sox thing. It is true that the Wikipedia entry says this: Although many believe the Black Sox name to be related to the dark and corrupt nature of the consipiracy, the term Black Sox had already existed before the fix was investigated. The name Black Sox was given because parsimonious owner Charles Comiskey refused to pay for the players’ uniforms to be laundered, instead insisting that the players themselves pay for the cleaning. The players refused, and the subsequent series of games saw the White Sox play in progressivly dirtier uniforms, as dust, sweat, and grime collected on the white, woollen uniforms until they took on a much darker shade. (does anyone have proof of this? sounds like urban legend to me)

Two things to say about this. 1) The parenthetical phrase at the end was just added — by me. 2) In other words, let’s remember that Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia that anyone can contribute to. Whatever they want, whenever they want.

Here’s a more reliable source: Eight Men Out: The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series, by Eliot Asinof (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963). On p. 21, Asinof writes that White Sox owner Charles Comiskey was indeed cheap when it came to his players: ‘His generosity here [with reporters] was unmatched. Yet his great ball club might run out on the field in the filthiest uniforms the fans had ever seen: Comiskey had given orders to cut down on the cleaning bills.’

So is it possible that the White Sox were known, even slightly or colloquially, as the Black Sox before the 1919 scandal?

Sure, it’s possible, but Asinof makes no such insinuation throughout the book. In fact, once you get past the book’s opening pages, I didn’t find the words ”Black Sox’ until p. 197, where Asinof writes of the aftermath of the World Series scandal: ‘As the impact of the confessions sank in, the American people were at first shocked, then sickened. There was hardly a major newspaper that did not cry out its condemnation and despair. Henceforth, the ballplayers involved were called the Black Sox.’

Note the key word: henceforth. Is it possible that Asinof was wrong? Sure. But his book is a good one, commonly accepted as the definitive biography of the affair. I don’t feel compelled to check this out further until someone comes up with contrary evidence that’s more reliable than Wikipedia. But if you do, I’ll be happy to research further, or make a change in the paperback of Freakonomics.”

So please, dear blog readers: let us know if we’re right or wrong re the Black Sox. We’ll be a little sad to have been wrong, but a lot happy to correct the mistake in the paperback. A Freakonomics t-shirt goes to the first person who offers hard evidence of the dirty-socks theory.

Leave A Comment

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.



View All Comments »
  1. Like folks higher in the list, I have been unable to find any evidence of the “laundry” theory of Chicago’s “Black Sox.”

    Anyone searching for that term, however, will find references to various semi-pro and colored teams. These teams include an earlier Chicago Black Sox, the Calgary Black Sox (later reorganized as the Chicago Grey Sox!), and the Baltimore Black Sox. That last team in the list — a colored team — made numerous headlines across the country during the same period as the “Black Sox” scandal: “TRIPLE PLAY AS BLACK SOX SCORE” (The Washington Post, July 13, 1920, p. 12).

    But for the filthy White Sox, I can find no reference earlier than Oct 4, 1920: “Harvey McClellan, who is taking ‘Swede’ Risberg’s place as White Sox shortstop, declared tonight that he and Byrd Lynn saw the ‘black’ Sox throw away three games at Boston on the last trip east” (“Sox Player Charges Three Games Thrown in Boston,” Chicago Tribune, p. 19). Clearly, though, the moniker predates this example.

    From that point on — especially in 1921 and beyond — the references multiply.

    Good searching,

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  2. Mike says:

    The Dirty Sox story is in episode three of “Baseball” a film by Ken Burns, . So, send Mr. Burns (the filmmaker, not the cartoon industrialist.) the T-shirt.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  3. Ray says:

    mikek and gt are presenting assertions not evidence. No T-shirts. Just because Ken Burns claims it in a film, or some fan site asserts it, doesn’t make it so.

    This leaves open an interesting question: what qualifies as evidence for the dirty socks => black sox theory?

    How about these?

    A citation using the phrase before the World Series.

    A well attributed citation quoting someone with reasonably direct knowledge of the events, reminescess of a player, sportswriter, or reliable fan.

    A considerable body of second-hand testimonies of people who heard directly from people in the previous list.


    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  4. Squish says:

    Either way, they won today.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  5. MATTHEW ROSE says:

    I don’t remember ever reading that dirty uniforms were the cause for the Black Sox name. It doesn’t make sense unless some reporter in 1919 had it in for Cominsky and wanted to embarass him in print. If that’s the case, the reporter was probably a Cubs beat reporter. The two facts (dirty uniforms and World Series cheating) probably merged after it became known they threw the series. One headline probably sealed forever the Black Sox moniker. But maybe Kevin Kostner knows better.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  6. TheJew says:

    This may not qualify as direct evidence, but a series of articles in the New York Times in the spring of 1921 seem to indicate that “Black Sox” refers specifically to the eight bribed players, and not in any way to the White Sox team generically. In the first article, “White Sox Trial To Be Postponed” (Mar 24, 1921) the article’s author refers to “Clean Sox” as the alternate to “Black Sox”. Specifically:

    <blockquote>Comisky stepped off a train from California today. He had boarded it in Paso Robles to be on hand for the trial of the “Black Sox,” which was scheduled to start tomorrow. If he had known of the contemplated postponement he would have remained on the coast another week and then visited the White Sox training camp in Texas on the way home…

    President Comiskey plans to remain in Chicago as long as there is a chance for the cases of the indicted players being brought to trial. If any long delay is granted, he will go to Waxahatchie to look over the “Clean Sox” who are training there.</blockquote>

    The quotation marks are original.

    There are a couple articles detailing how this group of disgraced former players attempted to form their own team apparently named “The Black Sox” and tried to promote a game (presumably in one of the minor leagues) against a team called the Aristo Giants (or Aristos Giants), at which point the professional baseball organization of Chicago says that anyone associated with the “Black Sox” team will be ostracized from Chicago pro-baseball. “Chicago League Places Ban On Black Sox Baseball Team” Apr 16, 1921; “Black Sox Game Off” Apr 17, 1921.

    Later on August fourth there are two articles referring to the decision to ban the players from baseball at the national level. It also refers to the banned players as “Black Sox”, specifically the term refers specifically to the indicted former White Sox players, not the whole team. Finally in October, there is a story about a black sock(?) suing for back pay.

    My source is a search of the string “black sox” on the ProQuest database of archived New York Times from 8/31/1918 to 12/31/1921. There are only six articles in 1921 that refer to “Black Sox” over this time period, according to the search.

    PS: A Freakonomic link would possibly be even greater incentive then a Freakonomic T-shirt, if there could be such a thing.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  7. Sherman Dorn says:

    Unfortunately, the only paper I have easy access to an historical index for is the New York Times, whose terms would change much later than the Chicago papers. There was a New York Black Sox team playing as early as 1910, what I’m fairly sure was an African-American team (see the issues of June 24, 1910, p. 11; July 11, p. 8; September 2, p. 10; September 4, p. C7). So the term predates both the scandal and probably the claims about Comiskey’s stinginess and uniforms.

    The first reference to the Chicago “Black Sox” in the Times is in the March 21, 1921, issue (p. 6), which mentions the postponement of the trial.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0