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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.