(CNN) — Throwing the World Series.
Would such a brazen act be even remotely possible today?
For baseball fans everywhere who will be watching Game 4 of the 2013 World Series, scheduled to be played Sunday night in St. Louis, the first instinct is probably: There is no way any team could come close to getting away with it.
The 1919 Chicago White Sox — forever known in American lore as the Black Sox — thought, for a while, that they had pulled it off. At the behest of gamblers, a group of the team’s stars purposely lost the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. Their deed has become the stuff of legend in sports history, movies and books. By 1921, eight of the players had been banished from baseball.
Today, though, with multicamera instant replays in the slowest of slow-motion and the closest of close-ups, with media saturation, with Twitter and Facebook available to disseminate conspiracy theories and rumors, players would seem to have no chance to do such a thing. Even looking back at it from the vantage point of our seek-any-edge-you-can era of performance-enhancing drugs, the audacity of what the Black Sox did is almost incomprehensible. Come on. Throwing the World Series?
Say it ain’t so, Joe.
The supposition is that they were able to do it because back then, no one really knew for sure. There was no television, of course, but there was also no radio, as far as baseball was concerned. The first radio broadcast of a baseball game did not occur until 1921. Thus — so accepted wisdom has it — the Black Sox got away with throwing the Series because, whispers aside, no one at the time, or for the next year, was able to authoritatively pinpoint what was going on.
But there is a fascinating and telling artifact in longtime sports columnist Ron Rapoport’s new anthology, “From Black Sox to Three-Peats: A Century of Chicago’s Best Sports Writing.”
One story in the book — a straight sports-news report, written by James Crusinberry of the Chicago Tribune on October 7, 1919, right in the middle of the World Series (which was best-of-nine-games that year) — nails it. Reading the story makes it clear: Even before social media, before sports talk radio, before all the ways of dissecting and discussing the minutiae of the games, a reporter with a good eye could spot, and document, games being thrown.
Rapoport said that when he first came across Crusinberry’s almost-century-old news report, he was startled: “Here was a guy who was writing it in real time, as the games were going on. And he found a way to say it.”
Here are some of the words from Crusinberry’s reporting of that thrown Series:
“‘They aren’t hitting.’
“Those few words spoken by Kid Gleason, manager of the White Sox, offered an explanation for a large part of the cause for the fourth defeat of the south siders yesterday in the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. They got three hits off Hod Eller and never once in the whole game had a good chance to score a run.
“‘I don’t know what’s the matter,’ the Sox leader continued, ‘but I do know that something is wrong with my gang. The bunch I had fighting in August for the pennant would have trimmed this Cincinnati bunch without a struggle. We hit something over .280 for the season in the American League pennant race. That’s the best hitting any ball club ever did in the history of baseball. The way those .280 hitters batted against Eller, they couldn’t make a place on a high school team.’”
And (again, manager Gleason talking to reporter Crusinberry):
“I am convinced that I have the best ball club that ever was put together. I certainly have been disappointed in it in this series. It hasn’t played baseball in a single game. There’s only a bare chance they can win now. The gang that has played for me in the five games of the world’s series will have to have luck to win another ball game.”
And (in Gleason’s hotel room as he spoke to Crusinberry, after the two had shared a cab from the ballpark):
“[Gleason] clearly indicated he was mad enough to lick a lot of people and go to jail for it. He clearly indicated there was something wrong and that he intended to find out what it was. ‘You know,’ he spoke up, ‘it doesn’t seem possible that this gang that worked so great for me all summer could fall down like this. I tell you, I am absolutely sick at heart.
“‘They haven’t played any baseball for me. I thought all of them were my boys. I felt like a school teacher might feel toward his pupils. I loved those boys for the way they fought for me this summer. Those fellows were right around me and I would have staked my life they would have gone through for me in the world’s series…Something has happened to my gang. If they would just play baseball for me for the rest of the series, they might even pull it out yet. The team I had most of the time all summer would do it. I haven’t had the same team on the ball field in a single game.’”
Three days later, after the Black Sox had lost the World Series, Crusinberry quoted manager Gleason:
“I don’t know yet what was the matter. Something was wrong. I didn’t like the betting odds. I wish no one had ever bet a dollar on the team.”
Today, with millions of eyes, both human and electronic, on every move the ballplayers make in a World Series, the thought of a cabal of players presuming they could get away with throwing the games seems unfathomable.
But in the most infamous World Series ever played, there were many, many fewer eyes watching. Yet some of those eyes, it turns out, seemed to understand what they were seeing.
And what they were seeing just didn’t add up.
Editor’s note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose 25 books include “Late Edition: A Love Story”; “When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams,” and “Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen.” Three of his columns are included in “From Black Sox to Three-Peats: A Century of Chicago’s Best Sports Writing.”
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.