Saving the National Pastime's Image: Crisis Management during the 1919 Black Sox Scandal

Article excerpt

This article examines a previously unstudied aspect of the 1919 Black Sox scandal: how Major League Baseball executives' desire to present the game as the national pastime, and the impact of the sportingpress in helping to shape this image, influenced their crisis communcations stragety, including appointing a commissioner and developing a press office. This study suggests the scandal's impact on baseball's image had more to do with the development of the baseball industry's first press office than did economic factor; that is, baseball officals implemented a press oofice for ideological rather than functional reasons. Although organizations often suggest they institute public relations to present the industry's voice in the marketplace of ideas, baseball industry leaders wantedto regain sportswriter approval and acquiescence in order to maintain the game's status as the national pastime.

In 1919, eight players on the Chicago White Sox baseball team conspired with gamblers to intentionally lose the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. When the fix was exposed, the resultant media outcry convinced the Major League Baseball owners to change the game's administration and to develop a press office. The owners hired a commissioner with strong power, federal judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, to replace the weak, decentralized three-man National Commission that had overseen the game's administration since 1903. Commissioner Landis banned the eight "Black Sox" players from the game for life, which helped restore fan and sportswriter confidence in the integrity of the sport. In the next year, to further placate the sporting press, baseball leaders developed a press office to respond to media requests.

Most historians agree that the Black Sox scandal was an important sociocultural event. Explaining the impact of the scandal, historian Eliot Asinof wrote in 1963:

Baseball was a manifestation of the greatest of America at play. It was our national game .... In the public mind, the image was pure and patriotic .... Now, suddenly, that pride was shattered. The National Pastime was nothing more than another show of corruption .... If baseball was corrupt, then anything might be-and probably was. If you could not trust the honesty of a big-league world series, what could you trust?1

Another historian added in 1995, "The Black Sox scandal was an important symbolic event at a time when many old-stock Americans were worried about the future of the country.... If baseball-the finest American institution that epitomized and taught our traditional values was corrupt-what hope was there for the future?"2

The scandal has been analyzed from a variety of perspectives. Among the major studies, researchers have examined the factors that led the players to accept the bribe.' Asinof argued that Chicago White Sox owner Charles Comiskey's stinginess was largely to blame for the Black Sox scandal: if he had not grossly underpaid his players and treated them so unfairly, they would never have agreed to throw the Series.4 Other historians have developed biographies of those involved in the scandals some with the purpose of absolving a person from blame. Historian Joe Thompson, for one, argued that "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, although he knew about the fix, tried his best during the Series and should be enshrined in baseball's Hall of Fame.6 Other historians have written academic articles about the event! Historian David Q. Voigt discredited the myth that the Black Sox crisis was baseball's lone dark blot, discussing other incidents of gambling.8

This article examines one previously unstudied aspect of the 1919 Black Sox scandal: how Major League Baseball executives' desire to present the game as the national pastime, and the impact of the press in helping to shape this image, influenced their crisis communications strategy, which included hiring a new commissioner and the developing the first press office in baseball called the Service Bureau. …