Roger Clemens Trial Echoes Black Sox Trial of Years Past


The controversy is over- no, it has just begun. After and investigation and trial five years in the making, Roger Clemens has been acquitted on two counts each of perjury and making false statements and one count of obstruction of justice. The entire trial process paralleled a famous trial that had occurred 90 years beforehand: the Black Sox Trial.

We are mostly familiar with the actual Black Sox Scandal, but the trial goes on mostly forgotten. In September of 1920, a grand jury in Cook County, Illinois convened to discuss a possible fix of a game by the Chicago Cubs in August of that year. Their focus quickly shifted to the events of 1919 when the Black Sox threw the World Series. Rumors had already spread about the World Series fix and Hugh Fullerton, a writer for the New York World, publicized them even more with his article “IS BIG LEAGUE BASEBALL BEING RUN FOR GAMBLERS, WITH BALLPLAYERS IN THE DEAL?” The grand jury began calling a bevy of baseball personalities in an attempt to exploit the details of the fix. They finally found their man when New York Giants pitcher Rube Benton testified that he had seen a telegram sent to his teammate in September 1919 that blatantly stated that the White Sox would lose the 1919 World Series. He later divulged the names of some of the players involved. Then a few days later, the Philadelphia North American interviewed Billy Maharg, a minor gambler involved with the scandal. The cat was out of the bag and the details were public. All the charges were substantiated when star White Sox pitcher Eddie Cicotte, one of the key players that made the fix happen as he lost two of the World Series games himself, confessed to the Cook County grand jury.

"“I don’t know why I did it. I must have been crazy. Risberg, Gandil, and McMullin were at me for a week before the Series began.  They wanted me to go crooked.  I don’t know.  I needed the money.  I had the wife and the kids.  The wife and the kids don’t know about this.  I don’t know what they’ll think. I’ve lived a thousand years in the last twelve months.  I would have not done that thing for a million dollars.  Now I’ve lost everything, job, reputation, everything.  My friends all bet on the Sox.  I knew, but I couldn’t tell them.”"

Superstar outfielder Shoeless Joe Jackson confessed to the grand jury a couple days later. Reportedly on his way out of the courtroom, a child asked Jackson “It ain’t so, Joe, is it?” Jackson answered “Yes, kid, I’m afraid it is.” Before the end of the day, each of the eight players implicated had received a telegram from Charles Comiskey. The telegram stated “YOU AND EACH OF YOU ARE HEREBY NOTIFIED OF YOUR INDEFINITE SUSPENSION AS A MEMBER OF THE CHICAGO AMERICAN LEAGUE BASEBALL CLUB.” At the time of the suspensions, the White Sox were in first place in the American League. But without the players who would become known as the Eight Men Out, the White Sox crumbled down the stretch and finished second in the AL to the Cleveland Indians. The eight suspensions cost the White Sox the 1920 pennant and an opportunity to atone for the events of 1919.

The eight White Sox players along with five gamblers were charged with five charges of conspiracy: conspiring to defraud the public, conspiring to defraud Sox catcher Ray Schalk, conspiring to commit a confidence game, conspiring to injure the business of the American League, and conspiring to injure the business of Charles Comiskey. Before the trial could begin in June of 1921, something shocking occurred. The written confessions of Cicotte, Jackson, and left-handed pitcher Lefty Williams were stolen from the courthouse. A controversy throughout the trial was how the confessions would be regarded, not only because they were stolen but also because the players claimed that district attorney Harry Replogie offered them immunity in exchange for their confessions.

The prosecution’s first witness was White Sox owner Charles Comiskey, who explained his background in baseball as a player, manager, and executive, especially in relation to the 1919 and 1920 major league seasons. Then they called a shady witness in gambler Sleepy Burns, who was involved with the dealings between the gamblers and White Sox players, and testified in exchange for immunity. The defense called tons of baseball-related witnesses to testify to the character of the players. In the closing arguments, prosecution lawyer Edward Prindeville talked about how the players had cheated the American people.

"“Joe Jackson, Eddie Cicotte, and Claude Williams sold out the American public for a paltry $20,000.  This game, gentleman, has been the subject of a crime.  The public, the club owners, even the small boys on the sandlots have been swindled. They have taken our national sport, our national pleasure, and tried to turn it into a con game.”"

The defense responded in their final argument that the players had indeed agreed to throw the series, but it was a secret deal that was not intended to harm the business of Major League Baseball or Charles Comiskey, nor the image of the National Pastime. In the end, the jurors ruled all the players not guilty on all charges. Bias was clearly rampant throughout the courtroom. When all the players were acquitted, confetti was in the courtroom and hats were flying. Then several jurors actually lifted players up onto their shoulders and paraded them around the courtroom.

But what is remembered more than the trial is what baseball commissioner Kenessaw Mountain Landis had to say afterwards.

"“Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player who throws a ballgame, no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ballgame, no player that sits in conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing a game are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.”"

Because of that decision, not a single player involved in the scandal never played another game of pro baseball. A bigger and more controversial ramification, though, was the fact that the Hall of Fame candidacy of Shoeless Joe Jackson was stalled before it started. Jackson, who owns the third highest batting average in major league history, has been denied induction to the Hall of Fame. No one explained the situation better than Red Sox legend Ted Williams.

"“Joe shouldn’t have accepted the money…and he realized his error.  He tried to give the money back.  He tried to tell Comiskey…about the fix.  But they wouldn’t listen.  Comiskey covered it up as much as Jackson did–maybe more.  And there’s Charles Albert Comiskey down the aisle from me at Cooperstown–and Shoeless Joe still waits outside.”"

Now that we have familiarized ourselves with the Black Sox Trial, what does it have in common with the Clemens trial?

1) They were both trials involved baseball legends.

OK, that’s pretty obvious. But now, let’s get to the interesting things.

2) The trials were not about actual heinous acts in baseball, but side-effects.

The Black Sox were not on trial for throwing the World Series but instead for defrauding the parties involved. Clemens, meanwhile, was not on trial for using performance-enhancing drugs, but instead for perjury, lying about the fact that he did PEDs.

3) Controversy regarding confessions

In the Black Sox Trial, the issue of the stolen confessions of Cicotte, Jackson, and Williams was present throughout the trial while in the Clemens trial, the judge ruled inadmissible Andy Pettitte‘s testimony that Clemens had admitted to him that he had used performance-enhancing drugs, leading to the mistrial the first time the case was tried.

4) Conflict of interest

In the Black Sox Trial, Charles Comiskey had a clear conflict of interest. One of the charges against the players was “conspiring to injure the business of Charles Comiskey.” Comiskey also testified for the prosecution. However, Comiskey wanted his players to be acquitted in order to help his ballclub (and his finances) and an unanswered question is who played for the defense of the players, who had accepted the money from the gamblers to begin with at least because they needed the money (see the Cicotte quote above). The person who played for their defense was either Comiskey or an even more shady person, gambler Arnold Rothstein, the suspected funder of the whole fixing endeavor.

In the Clemens trial, the person with a conflict of interest was Andy Pettitte. Pettitte is well known as a good friend of Clemens yet testified for the prosecution in this case. Following the trial, Pettitte had no comment about Clemens’ acquittal. But you have to think that at least some part of Pettitte was overjoyed when Clemens was declared not guilty.

5) Sketchy, not so reliable key witness

In the Black Sox Trial, much of the prosecution’s case hinged on the testimony of gambler Bill “Sleepy” Burns. The same can be said of Brian McNamee for the prosecution in the Clemens case. In both cases, the defense did their best to discredit the testimony as unreliable, and judging but the final results, they succeeded.

6) Fan reaction following the acquittal

Following the Black Sox Trial, the jurors took the players on their shoulders and paraded them around the courtroom. In the Clemens trial, the reaction wasn’t quite as extreme, but Clemens was still signing autographs for fans after the trial.

7) The players were acquitted…

8) But the pivotal decision is after the trial

It was great for the Black Sox that they were found innocent. But after the trial, Commissioner Landis made the decision that the Eight Men Out would all be banned from professional baseball forever. The part of that decision that still resonates today is that Shoeless Joe Jackson, one of the greatest players to ever play the game of baseball, is still not in the Hall of Fame. Will the same end result befall Clemens? Clemens, unlike Jackson, will be on the Hall of Fame ballot. But will the voters elect him? Will he be innocent in the trial but still guilty in the minds of the voters?