ONE of the biggest sporting scandals of all time was just about to erupt in the USA 100 years ago this month. It was in the spring of 1920 that a persistent rumour engulfed the Chicago White Sox baseball team.

They had been big favourites to win the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds the previous year, but had been surprisingly well beaten – except it was no surprise to certain people, as eight players from the Chicago White Sox conspired with professional gamblers to rig the outcome of the Series. It has since become known as the Black Sox scandal, a misnomer if ever there was one because no black player was allowed in major league baseball until 1947. The scandal had its origins in the World Series of 1918.

The World Series consists of the matches played between the champions of the American League and the National League, the two divisions that make up Major League Baseball. Though baseball is played professionally in other countries such as Japan, the World Series is usually only contested by American teams, except for the Toronto Blue Jays who won it in 1992 and 1993. In 1918, the Chicago Cubs lost to the Boston Red Sox and immediately there were rumours that the matches had been fixed, just as similar rumours had dogged previous World Series.

Nothing was ever proved, but the very idea of a fix took root among the players of the Cubs’ neighbours and rivals the Chicago White Sox who won the American League the following year.

Though professional gamblers have often been stated as the instigators, research over the last century suggests that most of the eight men of the White Sox who were eventually indicted for the crime of fraud by deliberately losing the 1919 series were in on the ‘fix’ from the outset.

It helped the fixers that the Sox were riven into two factions, though both detested the club’s miserly owner Charles Cominskey. He had a powerful hold on them all – the so-called Reserve Clause meant owners could stop any player who refused a contract from playing anywhere else in the sport in the USA. Bookies nowadays would have spotted something fishy weeks before the 1919 Series began when a flood of money began to be bet on the Cincinnati Reds. No wonder, as the fix was in play.

Eddie Cicotte, Chick Gandil, Claude Williams, Emil ‘Happy’ Felsch, Buck Weaver, Fred McMullin, Swede Risberg and star player “Shoeless” Joe Jackson were all involved and were in league with a professional gambling syndicate led by Arnold Rothstein – the anti-semitic press would later make great play of his Jewishness.

The sums involved were large – the minimum each player would get would be $5,000, around double their annual salaries. Four of the first five games in the Series went the way of the underdog Reds. Some of the White Sox played their usual game, but some of the Black Sox simply did not play up to their usual standard, and it was noticeable.

A sports journalist, Hugh Fullerton of the Chicago Herald-Examiner, had heard the fix rumours and he kept a list of the dubious ‘errors’ of the fixers. Doublecrossed by the gamblers, the Sox won games six and seven of the nine match series, but the damage was already done and when Claude ‘Lefty’ Williams blatantly pitched poorly, the Reds won the game and the World Series.

Throughout the spring and summer of 1920, rumours circulated about the fix that had press reporters looking into the issue. Crucially, press reports in April, 1920, spoke of other match fixes elsewhere in baseball. But nothing could be proven until a Grand Jury was convened in September, 1920, and charges were brought against the Sox and five gamblers.

The Chicago Herald and Examiner carried this famous report: “As Jackson departed from the Grand Jury room, a small boy clutched at his sleeve and tagged along after him. “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” he pleaded. “Say it ain’t so.” “Yes kid, I’m afraid it is,” Jackson replied. “Well, I never would’ve thought it,” the boy said.

America was shocked to the core. Baseball was the nation’s darling and needed to be clean. At their trial the following year the Black Sox defence was that the prosecution had failed to prove anything. The jury agreed and found them all not guilty – then the jurors promptly went for a party with the players.

Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis wasn’t having it. He banned them all sine die, saying: “Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player that throws a ball game, no player that entertains proposals or promises to throw a game, no player that sits in a conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing games are discussed, and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever again play professional baseball.

The scandal even made the pages of The Great Gatsby, the era-defining novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, who puts these words in the mouth of Nick Carraway: “The idea staggered me. I remembered, of course, that the World’s Series had been fixed in 1919, but if I had thought of it at all I would have thought of it as a thing that merely happened, the end of some inevitable chain. It never occurred to me that one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people — with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe.”

It remains the USA’s biggest sporting scandal to this day.