Monday, June 25, 2012

1917 World Series: Circumstantial Evidence

The Teams
American League: Chicago White Sox (100-54) - Second World Series (won in 1906)
National League: New York Giants (98-56) - Fifth World Series (won in 1905)

What Happened
The best part about doing this countdown has been learning more and more things about baseball history, especially from the early years of the game. For example, I knew that there were many rumors that 1919 was not the only World Series that was fixed; I just didn't know how strong the evidence was in some instances.

The 1917 World Series was the perfect example. I ranked this series - and all the series on this list - based on the scores of the games, when the winning runs were scored, the number of games still in doubt in the ninth inning, and so in. I should have done more research. Just like in 1919, the Chicago White Sox were the American League champions in 1917. All eight players who would eventually be banned for life for throwing the 1919 series were already playing for Chicago in 1917, and immediately after the series was over, there was all sorts of complaints - from both fans and reporters - about how it was one of the most poorly played in history.

But here's the thing: The White Sox won the 1917 World Series. It's their opponents, the Giants, who have received some after-the-fact suspicion for throwing the series. It makes sense, too. The Giants had two players - Heinie Zimmerman and Hal Chase - who would eventually be banned from baseball for life for various infractions (10 total players from one series who eventually got banned! That should tell you something), and it's Zimmerman who was involved in the play that everybody points to when they say something fishy was going on.

The White Sox led the series 3-2 entering Game 6, with the home team having won every game. It was the Giants' turn to host for Game 6, but they did their best to give the White Sox the early edge. Two straight errors to open the fourth inning gave the White Sox runners at the corners with nobody out. Happy Felsch grounded back to the pitcher, and the Giants seemed to have Eddie Collins trapped in a rundown between third and home. At one point, though, Giants catcher Bill Rariden left home plate uncovered; Collins got around him and raced toward the plate. Holding the ball, Zimmerman had no choice but to chase Collins across home plate, allowing the first run to score. Collins was known as one of the fastest players in the game, and Zimmerman was not fast by any means, so it seems like he didn't have much of a chance.

But did he have a chance at tagging Collins? Contemporary recollections say that Zimmerman was right on Collins' heels the entire time he was chasing him toward home plate, and surviving photos of the play show Zimmerman jumping over Collins at home plate, indicating he was very close to stumbling over him. Fans who were watching immediately blamed Zimmerman for the boneheaded play, and Zimmerman felt the need to address the media immediately after the game to deny he had thrown the game. Why would there have been such immediate suspicion?

Whether he was innocent or not, Zimmerman was a convenient scapegoat for Giants fans; his bonehead play in Game 6 combined with his .120 average made him a strong candidate for least valuable player in the series. Aside from his Game 6 blunder, he also committed a throwing error that more or less clinched a Chicago win in Game 5. It's a lot of circumstantial evidence, for sure, but it doesn't look good for him, either.

That's not to take away from the White Sox, who were very deserving champions in 1917, regardless of the honesty of the World Series. In fact, it was their dominance that made their loss in 1919 appear - at first - to be so shocking. Plus, the '17 series was something of a high-water mark for them. After their win, it took them 88 years to win another World Series, or two years longer than the Red Sox had to wait.

Defining Game
Looking through the play-by-play of Game 5, you could make a convincing argument that both teams had players who were trying to throw the series. To wit:

  • Chicago starter Reb Russell was taken out after the first three batters of the game reached base - did the White Sox manager suspect something? 
  • Both teams' shortstops committed two-out errors with runners on base in the second - though neither led to  a run, there is no better time to commit an error if you're trying to lose than with two out and runners on. 
  • Reaching base in the fourth with his team leading 2-0, Zimmerman got himself picked off first, yet somehow made it back to first when the White Sox botched the rundown - could that have been a play where, incredibly, both teams were trying to blow it? 
  • After cutting the deficit to 2-1, the White Sox committed errors on three straight Giant plate appearances in the 4th to let the Giants extend their lead to 4-1. No explanation needed there.
  • In the 7th, having cut the deficit to 5-4 (legitimately ... I think), the White Sox had runners on the corners with two outs when catcher Ray Schalk tried to steal second. New York's Buck Herzog botched the play - whether on a catch or on a throw is unclear - to allow Chick Gandil to come home with the tying run. Was Herzog trying too hard to make a big play when he saw a double-steal in motion and just dropped the ball, or did he see an opportunity to help his team lose and just dropped the ball?
  • The White Sox rallied again in the 8th, taking a 6-5 lead with Collins on second. Shoeless Joe Jackson lined a single to center field. The throw to home was, for some reason, cut off by - guess who! - Zimmerman, who then tried to get Jackson advancing and proceeded to throw the ball into center field, allowing Collins to score and Jackson to get to third. Jackson scored one batter later to clinch the game.
Again, the evidence is all circumstantial. But it's pretty convincing.

I spent a lot of time talking about players who might have been trying to lose the 1917 series that I barely mentioned Collins, who had the series of his life. The future Hall of Famer batted .409, stole three bases, scored four runs, and generally wrecked havoc on the basepaths. Pitcher Red Faber was also good, with three wins in the series, though I'm disqualifying him because of the play in Game 2 where he stole third, only to find a teammate already standing there.

(Home team shaded; winners in Bold)

Chicago 2700 84
New York 1225 62

The List
I'm ranking all the World Series, from worst to best. Here are the ones I've done so far:

51. 1917 - Chicago (A) def. New York (N) 4-2
52. 1903 - Boston (A) def. Pittsburgh (N) 5-3
53. 1916 - Boston (A) def. Brooklyn (N) 4-1 
54. 1949 - New York (A) def. Brooklyn (N) 4-1
55. 1942 - St. Louis (N) def. New York (A) 4-1
56. 1974 - Oakland (A) def. Los Angeles (N) 4-1
57. 1955 - Brooklyn (N) def. New York (A) 4-3
58. 1979 - Pittsburgh (N) def. Baltimore (A) 4-3
59. 1987 - Minnesota (A) def. St. Louis (N) 4-3
Numbers 60-69
Numbers 70-79
Numbers 80-89
Numbers 90-99
Numbers 100-107

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