1919 White Sox

Why Cheating In Baseball Matters

In 2017, the Houston Astros cheated. In 1919, the Chicago White Sox cheated. In one era, eight players were banned for life from the sport. In another, no biggie. Why is that, and does it matter?

Addressing the second point first, hell yes it matters. Cheating violates every aspect of any competitive event. So what about the why? Why are players from the 2017 Houston Astros team—the team that won the World Series that season—moving on with zero repercussions?

Here’s why. A CEO is failing at his job. That’s the commissioner of baseball, and his name is Rob Manfred. His annual salary is $19 million, which is five times greater than the average contract of a major league baseball player and 20 times the annual pay of leaders of similarly scaled organizations.

In 1919, there wasn’t a commissioner of baseball. The position was created in the aftermath of the White Sox scandal (now known as the Black Sox scandal) to restore integrity to the game. A former U.S. District Court judge named Kenesaw Mountain Landis was appointed as the first commissioner in 1920, and the standards he established stood for seven decades through Pete Rose’s ban from baseball in 1989. The owners of professional baseball—out of desperation, yes, but voluntarily—turned over decision-making authority to Landis and paid him $5,000 a year. Adjusted for inflation, that’s about $78,000 today, roughly the same as what Rob Manfred makes in one day. You read that right, one day.

And let’s be clear, Landis banned Shoeless Joe Jackson from the game for life. Jackson is a legend, as is Pete Rose. But neither Jackson or Rose are in the Hall of Fame despite having Hall of Fame careers. And yet, these Astros ….

Did the steroid era of major league baseball wear us down? Did we accept the physical progression of Barry Bonds from a skinny 21-year-old player to a grotesquely muscled human a decade as a fair exchange for the excitement of his splashdown home runs? Have we become numb to the bad behavior around us and lost our own desire for fidelity within institutions like major league baseball?

The commissioner today got hired to uphold and enforce the integrity of the game but is failing in large part due to his $19 million annual salary. It’s inflated and resets his priorities. He’s no longer working as an independent decision-making authority. Right now, he’s working for MLB franchise owners and does not represent the best interests of the game in the way Landis did. Rather, Manfred is protecting the revenue-generating potential of the league and the profits that flow to owners and his own office.

As a relevant aside—given what we’re facing today with the COVID-19 pandemic—think about the timing of when the first commissioner was appointed. It was immediately following the 1918 influenza. Estimates suggest 50 million people died worldwide during that pandemic. World War 1 had just ended. The mood was grim, and the nation yearned for “a return to normalcy.” In fact, that was Warren G. Harding’s campaign slogan when he ran for election in 1920. Cheating was not normal then, and it shouldn’t be now, though I fear we’ve become too accepting of it.

Opening Day 2020 would have been this week. I’ll miss it, but when MLB comes back, my hope is it comes back better than before with a return to integrity. The core traditions of fair play and trustworthiness are too important to cede as artifacts of a bygone era.