The Chicago “Black Sox” Trial 1921

The Chicago “Black Sox” Trial 1921
“Shoeless” Joe Jackson was one of the players from the 1919 Chicago White Sox banned from baseball for life. | The Chicago “Black Sox” Trial 1921

The Chicago “Black Sox” Trial 1921

In 1921, the Black Sox trial – baseball’s Trial of the Century — took place. The Chicago White Sox were charged with conspiring to manipulate the 1919 World Series, which the much favored Sox lost to the Cincinnati Reds, along with some of the gamblers who bribed them.

For six weeks in the summer of 1921, baseball’s fallen heroes gathered in a Chicago courtroom to await their fate, including Shoeless Joe Jackson, one of the game’s best pure hitters. Their criminal trial generated front-page news all around the country. Today, it’s unusual to see an athlete’s transgressions, whether on or off the field, be completely investigated by the judicial system. Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, baseball’s first commissioner, preferred that the game conduct itself outside of the courts. Following the acquittal of the Black Sox players and gamblers by a jury on August 2, 1921, Landis demonstrated that he would rule baseball with an iron fist by immediately banning the players from ever playing in the major leagues again.

Baseball gambling was a contentious topic in the early twentieth century, and it remains so in the twenty-first. Major-league owners recruited Landis with the goal of cleaning up a tainted sport. Players and front-office personnel were known to publicly wager on their own teams (both for and against) and bettors were allowed to operate freely at major-league ballparks before the 1919 World Series scandal occurred. Fans may gamble on the next pitch from their seats at Wrigley Field in Chicago or Fenway Park in Boston, a scenario that would not be out of place at a ballpark in 2021, given the booming world of regulated sports gambling.

In popular culture, the Black Sox trial has been depicted as a chaotic affair beset by the same forces of corruption and underworld shenanigans that would turn Prohibition-era Chicago into a mockery of itself for decades. The prosecution attorneys were portrayed as clumsy fools in Eliot Asinof’s best-selling novel Eight Men Out, and John Sayles’ film of the same name, which hinted to backroom negotiations between gamblers and baseball authorities. Little of it has turned out to be true.

Researchers were given access to thousands of pages of legal records from the Black Sox grand jury, criminal trial, and civil litigation in 2007, after the Chicago History Museum purchased them at auction and made them available to the public. These files, as well as other primary sources such as player salary contract cards, have helped us gain a clearer picture of what occurred 100 years ago.


Baseball’s Reserve Clause (1970).


The Chicago “Black Sox” Trial 1921

The Law Book: From Hammurabi to the International Criminal Court, 250 Milestones in the History of Law (Sterling Milestones) Hardcover – Illustrated, 22 Oct. 2015, English edition by Michael H. Roffer (Autor)