Astros’ Scandal as Bad as Black Sox? Historian Weighs in
The 1919 Chicago White Sox remain the most scandalous team in Major League Baseball history. The Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox will have their own infamy to deal with decades after the revelations and repercussions of their sign-stealing campaigns gripped baseball this week.
But successfully throwing a World Series at the behest of gamblers, that’s its own level, Jacob Pomrenke, head of the Black Sox Scandal Research Committee at the Society for American Baseball Research told Bookies.com on Friday. Both will be tarnished, but the Black Sox stand above the Astros, he believes.
“I think if they get eight people banned for life, that might come close. But no,” he said.
The key difference, Pomrenke said, is the unscrupulous plot involving video feeds and trash can telegraphy was designed to enhance the Astros’ successful bid to win the 2017 World Series and the likewise successful run in 2018 for the Boston Red Sox.
Eight White Sox – organized by Eddie Cicotte and Chick Gandil, joined in varying degrees by Joe Jackson and Buck Weaver – intentionally lost the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. All were eventually banned from the game. The book and movie “Eight Men Out” chronicled the fact and fiction of their case forever.
So far, it’s just four men out in this scandal: Astros manager AJ Hinch, Houston GM Jeff Luhnow, Red Sox manager Alex Cora and Mets manager Carlos Beltran all lost their jobs this week.
Bookies.com spoke with Pomrenke to discuss the differences in the Black Sox versus modern-day transgressions and the teams’ likely legacies.
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Bookies: Will the Astros or Red Sox become the new most infamous team in baseball history?
Pomrenke: I don't think so. I think if they get eight people banned for life, that might come close. But no. The Black Sox scandal is a story we've been talking about for 100 years and there's really not much precedent for the Black Sox scandal before it. … It's never happened again since. The Astros and sign-stealing is a long-standing pattern in baseball and teams trying to use technology to gain a competitive edge. This is one of many, many signs-stealing scandals in baseball history. So, even though we are seeing some repercussions, we are seeing managers and GMs losing their jobs, I don't think this quite rises to that level yet.
Bookies: The main difference being the Black Sox didn’t cheat to win?
Pomrenke: Yeah. And I do think there's a difference there. I think trying to gain a competitive edge and taking it too far and cheating and breaking the rules is something that happens in sports. That's something that the league as the governing body of baseball has to set the rules and enforce the rules so that people don't have incentive to break the rules.
And I think that's one of the failings here in this Astros scandal … I don't even want to say it's an Astro scandal anymore because it's involving multiple teams. But that's one of the failings here, is that there were a lot of opportunities for baseball to take this threat seriously that teams would use the replay monitors and would use other technologies to try to gain a competitive edge. And they kind of looked the other way for a long time. And now here we are.
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Bookies: Would players in the 1900s have used this technology if it was available?
Pomrenke: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. One of the earliest sign-stealing incidents that we're aware of using technology involved an electric buzzer system with the Phillies in 1900. One of the players who served as the third base coach had installed an electric buzzer system and somebody out in the outfield relayed the signs through a telescope and used a buzzer system to let them know what the signs were.
Teams have been trying to gain a competitive edge in any way they possibly can. And if they're not going to get punished for it, if the rewards are so much greater than the risk, I think that's something that a lot of people are going to be tempted to do.
Bookies: Is there a threadline between the scandals?
Pomrenke: There's been integrity scandals before, and there will be again. ... Nobody in baseball comes out of this looking good. And it is a black eye for the sport and for everybody involved. This is something that, it would be nice if baseball would've been able to take this a little more seriously a few years ago and maybe enacted some punishments to stop it before it started.
But now that it has affected the World Series – two different World Series – with the Astros', I think the spotlight is going to be greater. I think that's one of the lessons we've learned from the Black Sox Scandal, is because it happened in the World Series, a lot more people were paying attention. A lot more people were interested. And so, that's one of the reasons why we're still continuing to talk about that scandal.
And I think that's one of the reasons why we'll be talking about the Astros 100 years from now too, because any time you bring up the 2017 Astros, the next sentence is going to be, ‘Well, they were cheating. They were stealing signs.' That's going to tarnish their legacy.
Bookies: Will Alex Cora become the logo of the scandal like Shoeless Joe did for the Black Sox?
Pomrenke: I don't know who the face of this scandal is going to eventually become. It'll be very interesting. It's still ongoing, right? So, we don't know yet. You don't know exactly how it's all going to play out. The Astros are going to have to take the field on opening day and it'd be very interesting to see what type of reaction they get, too.