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.

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  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,

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  2. Anonymous says:

    After reading a little about the state of the 1919 White Sox, I think that the clique of players involved in the scandal may have also been known in the clubhouse as “black” sox. Since gambling on games was so common that there were signs posted around the stadium warning potential punters, I would have to expect that the Series was not the first time that games were thrown. In fact, the Black Sox were very very good at throwing the Series. The player statistics look like they played a hard fought game. Given the type of contracts the players were under, the market value of a player was only incidentally related to baseball. The clubhouse “black” sox were paid less than the more educated players and may well have worn dirty uniforms more often than the players that were well-paid, possibly earning derision from not only the owner, but their teammates too.

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  3. Anonymous says:

    Go Cubs

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  4. Grant says:

    I couldn’t find any cites to contemporary sources. Most references I came across were in the context of demonstrating how nasty Comiskey was, which leads me to think the story was invented post-scandal as a defense or justification for the players’ actions.

    I found this reference to “radical Chicago novelist” Nelson Algren in an ESPN writer’s column, for example:

    The Chisox first became known as the “Black Sox” not because they were corrupt, but because, as Nelson Algren wrote, their owner “was so begrudging about his laundry bills that his players looked as if they put on their uniforms Opening Day in the coal yard behind Mr. Comiskey’s park, and hadn’t changed them since.”

    I can’t pin down where the quote came from, but it is likely from Algren’s 1973 anthology, The Last Carousel.

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  5. Ken D. says:

    The demonstrable pre-1919 existence of Black Sox teams in African-American baseball means that the term as connoting scandal was not coined on a clean slate; it may even have had a racial tinge. Thus even finding a laundry reference or two before the scandal would not say much about the origins of the current usage, absent specific documentation of a point-to-point derivation.

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  6. SuperNoVa says:

    There is actually a great deal of misinformation in the Asinof book, which was the basis for the Eight Men Out movie, if I recall correctly. Comiskey’s parsimonious is represented in a number of ways, including refusing to allow star pitcher Ed Cicotte to pitch after he had 29 wins because he had a clause in his contract that allowed him a bonus for 30 wins. In fact, a check of retrosheet.org shows that Cicotte had a couple of chances to get to 30 wins in 1919…including the last game of the season!

    The real source to look at is the contemporaneous accounts of the team in the Chicago newspapers circa 1917-1919. If they were known as the “Black Sox” for dirty uniforms, the Chicago papers would invariably have mentioned that.

    (by the way, I run a blog at blackbetsy.blogspot.com)

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  7. Dou-Yan Yang says:

    I found a Sept. 25, 1994 Trib article by Jerome Holtzman (credentials: covered the Sox and Cubs at the Sun-Times and the Trib for more than 40 years, won 1989 J.G. Taylor Spink Award from Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA), named Major League Baseball’s first official historian by Bud Selig in 1999) entitled “ALAS, BURNS’ `BASEBALL’ PROVIDES REST FOR THE WEARY.” Holtzman offers his critique of the Ken Burns baseball documentaries.

    Holtzman notes in the article……….

    Burns and his minions introduce a new wrinkle with the claim that the White Sox, before the fix, were known as “The Black Sox” because of their dirty uniforms. Owner Charles Comiskey, that old skinflint, had forced them to do their own wash.

    I called several authentic baseball historians and told them it was one I never heard before. Lawrence Ritter, the author of “The Glory of Their Times,” which is repeatedly quoted in “Baseball” (without credit), said it was also news to him.

    Cataloguing details:
    Chicago Tribune
    Section: SPORTS
    Page: 15
    Column: On baseball.

    Copyright 1994, Chicago Tribune
    Record Number: CTR9409250446

    Article link:
    ” REL=”nofollow”>http://docs.newsbank.com/openurl?ctx_ver=z39.88-2004&rft_id=info:sid/iw.newsbank.com:CTRB:CTRB&rft_val_format=info:ofi/fmt:kev:mtx:ctx&rft_dat=0EB426199B063B16&svc_dat=InfoWeb:aggregated4&req_dat=0FA31D7DF8CEE8E7

    It looks like the “they are the Black Sox because cheap Charles Comiskey won’t pay for laundry” story is true in terms of appearing in Ken Burns’s _Baseball_, but is not actually a true story.

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  8. Andrew says:

    Why was the Black Sox trial being held in Paso Robles? That’s pretty out of the way, a day’s travel from San Francisco or Los Angeles.

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