CHICAGO — Debra Ebert and Sandy Schley sat toward the back of the second-floor ballroom at the Chicago History Museum, amid the crowd of 200 baseball fans and history buffs, as historians, writers and professors delved deeply into the records and ramifications of the infamous 1919 World Series.
Fans and members of the Society for American Baseball Research spent their weekend listening to debates about the legacy of Sox star “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and club owner Charles Comiskey, gobbling up every morsel of information about the Black Sox betting scandal.
Ebert and Schley’s connection to the topic cut deeper than most at the society’s Black Sox Scandal Centennial Symposium. Their great-uncle, Sox third baseman Buck Weaver, was one of the eight players permanently banned from baseball in the aftermath of the Series.
“Sometimes,” Schley said, “it just feels sad. It feels sad, but you just keep trying. You feel it in your heart.”
One hundred years after the Sox lost to the Cincinnati Reds in the Series — a result quickly shrouded by allegations that several members of American League champion Sox had “thrown” the Series, intentionally playing poorly because they had been promised money from gamblers if they lost — Ebert and Schley remain committed to clearing the name of their relative.
Weaver himself repeatedly appealed to the baseball commissioner for reinstatement, writing letters every year, his family said, for the rest of his post-baseball life. After his death in Chicago in 1956 (he is buried at Mount Hope Cemetery in Chicago), his family took up the mantle. With the help of advocate David C. Fletcher, a baseball fan from downstate Illinois who is founder of the Chicago Baseball Museum, the family staged a protest at the 2003 All-Star Game at Sox Park and again penned letters to the commissioner asking that baseball consider clearing Weaver’s name.
“We’ve done what we’ve done, but MLB was not interested in acting and they refused to meet with his family,” Fletcher said. “He never had due process.”
While many of the specifics of the scandal are murky and steeped in debunked myths popularized by books and movies like “Eight Men Out” and “Field of Dreams,” it is generally believed that Weaver attended at least one meeting about fixing the Series but never took money from gamblers or intentionally played poorly in the field that autumn.
To his family, the punishment has never fit the crime.
“The things that people get away with now, this is like nothing,” Ebert said. “If someone would just listen to us …”
With the Sox set to play the New York Yankees next August in Dyersville, Iowa, at the farm that was used to film the famous ballfield-in-the-cornfield scenes in “Field of Dreams,” the Weaver descendants sense a new opportunity on the horizon.
“We may have to dust off the 2003 plan,” Fletcher said.
The Black Sox’s most famous player, Jackson, whose lifetime batting average is third-highest of all time, will be front and center next year at the “Field of Dreams” game.
Mike Nola, the historian and board member at the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum in the ballplayer’s hometown of Greenville, S.C., said there are no immediate plans for a new advocacy campaign. But Nola said the board recently heard that Major League Baseball, or the commissioner’s office, may not be the best direction for the long-shot remedy. Nola said that since all of the Black Sox players are dead, MLB may believe it does not have any jurisdiction over “lifetime bans,” and that petitions or advocacy may be better directed toward the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
“It’s not like if they reinstate Joe he’ll come out of a cornfield and play ball, it just doesn’t work that way,” Nola said.
The more strategic move, Nola surmises, is to push the Hall of Fame to make Jackson eligible for placement on ballots, giving him a chance to earn a place in Cooperstown.
Nola became interested in Jackson in the 1980s because he remembers his father talking about how he saw the ballplayer after his ban play non-MLB games in Georgia in the 1920s. Nola was one of the people who helped write petitions and gather signatures from fans to clear Jackson’s name.
“It never went anywhere,” Nola said. “It never got any traction. We haven’t done that in years.”
At the museum, located in the house that Jackson built with his wife, Katie, and lived in from 1941 until his death in 1951, fans can view collectibles and artifacts from Jackson’s boyhood, through baseball and in the years afterward.
The museum will soon be temporarily closed while it is relocated down the street to make way for a new condominium development.
Jackson, according to historians, accepted $5,000 in the scandal but appears to have played to win (famously hitting .375, with the Series’ only homer). Though he was also found not guilty at the Cook County criminal trial, he was banned for life like his seven teammates.
While Nola said Jackson clearly belongs in the Hall of Fame — his .356 lifetime batting average is the address of the museum — the fact that he is not has made him a recognizable baseball celebrity, a status that holds 100 years after the betting scandal.
“Quite frankly, he’s a lot more famous outside the Hall of Fame than he would be if he was in it,” Nola said. “I mean, people know who he is and want to know more about him. You’re calling me to talk about him. That wouldn’t be the case if he was Ty Cobb.”
The 1919 World Series began Oct. 1 in Cincinnati, 100 years ago Tuesday. To mark the centennial, the baseball society and the group’s director of editorial content, Jacob Pomrenke, (whose Twitter handle is @buckweaver), and others organized the symposium at the history museum and a pair of walking tours for fans highlighting prominent Chicago baseball landmarks.
“It’s wonderful,” Pomrenke said at the end of the symposium, “to see so many people who are still interested in this.”
Despite an array of research papers, books, documentaries and decades of examination of the Black Sox affair, many aspects of the scandal remain clouded, and certain aspects likely will never been known.
“Why did the Black Sox do what they did?” Pomrenke said during one of the forums. “There’s eight players and nine answers. … Probably there will always be a missing link, figuring out exactly why they did it.”
“The story is not just a baseball story, it’s an American story,” Pomrenke said later. “There are so many things that reflect on American life.
Susan Dellinger, the granddaughter of Edd Roush, a Hall of Fame outfielder for the Reds who played in the 1919 Series, also presented at the conference. She discussed the book she wrote about her grandfather and recalled stories he told about the Series.
“Granddad always said, ‘As long as I live, I think we would have beaten them anyway,’” Dellinger said.
Roush, who grew up in southern Indiana and returned there after his playing career was over, often hosted his former teammates, who became lifelong friends, at his farmhouse. Dellinger remembers listening to the men swap stories of the Series and baseball. Roush, Dellinger said, thought the Black Sox players in on the fix intentionally lost Game 1 but then played to win the rest of the Series after the gamblers didn’t pay them.
“That is what my grandfather believed all of his life,” Dellinger said.
Richard Smiley, a member of the baseball society and a Sox fan from Chicago’s Northwest Side, was one of the hearty fans who endured a drenching rain Friday to take Pomrenke’s Chicago baseball history tour.
The appeal for Smiley is bigger than the Sox or baseball.
“It’s a story of a different time, almost biblical, of losing your way, of going down this way, and then all of a sudden, they are out,” Smiley said, walking from the Billy Goat Tavern toward the old Cook County criminal courthouse at 54 W. Hubbard St. in River North, where the criminal conspiracy trial for the Black Sox players was held. In the driving rain, Pomrenke detailed the facts and myths of the case. (True: A copy of a key grand jury transcript of Jackson’s testimony disappeared but made it into the record at the trial anyway; false: The phrase “Say it ain’t so, Joe” was never uttered by a boy outside the courthouse and appears to be invented by a newspaper reporter covering the case at the time.)
All of the defendants were acquitted of the charges in the 1921 trial, but the day after the verdicts, baseball Commissioner Kenesaw “Mountain” Landis issued his banishment edict.
With the Sox (and the Cubs) absent from the baseball playoffs this year, the 100-year anniversary will come and go without much fanfare in Chicago. The Sox, unsurprisingly, barely noted the centennial, though on Friday they did make note of the anniversary of Jackson’s final major league at-bat in a note on the center-field scoreboard.
The next high-profile opportunity to revisit the reinstatement or Hall of Fame push will be next summer in Iowa.
“For the family, this was about restoring his honor,” Fletcher said. Weaver lost more than his reputation in the fallout from the Black Sox scandal, he said, suffering “tremendous financial loss” from lost wages. Ebert said he spent the rest of his life bouncing from job to job, working as a painter, at a drugstore and at a horse track.
As the symposium wrapped up, baseball fans in 1919-era caps, Reds gear and hats from an assortment of teams across the nation lined up to have their Black Sox books signed by the authors and presenters. The gathering was bittersweet for Ebert and Schley, but they understand the appeal.
“You want so much to discover that piece of the puzzle that solves the whole mystery,” Schley said.
Ebert was only 2 when Weaver died and Schley was not yet born. But the two press forward, both for their mother, Patricia Anderson, who was raised by Weaver, and for their great-uncle. Anderson, who died earlier this year, never gave up hope that Weaver’s name might one day be cleared. Weaver, they said, loved baseball so much he would have played it for free, and the scandal cast a pall over the rest of his life.
“What could have been,” Ebert said. “What could have been.”