By David Fletcher
Before the publication of this book in 2023, fewer than 10 people alive had seen the entire transcript of Joe Jackson v Chicago American League Baseball Club — a dramatic trial between an exiled baseball superstar and his former team — which was held from January 29 to February 14, 1924, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
“The transcripts from the Milwaukee trial are a treasure trove of material that will force many assumptions about the Big Fix of 1919 and its aftermath to be re- evaluated,” declared author Gene Carney, the late founder of SABR’s Black Sox Scandal Research Committee who was the driving force behind much of the modern scholarship about the scandal in the early 21st century.
This trial marked the final chapter in the complex legal proceedings that became known as the Black Sox Scandal. These hearings held over 18 days in Milwaukee offer anyone interested in the ongoing saga more detail than ever before about baseball’s “darkest hour.”
Following the Chicago White Sox’s loss to the Cincinnati Reds in the 1919 World Series, Shoeless Joe Jackson and seven of his White Sox teammates were accused of accepting bribes from gamblers to intentionally throw the games. A grand jury was called in Chicago in the fall of 1920 to investigate the rumors; Jackson and pitchers Eddie Cicotte and Lefty Williams soon confessed their involvement. They were immediately suspended by White Sox owner Charles Comiskey.
In the summer of 1921, the accused players and several gamblers faced possible jail time on criminal conspiracy charges, but a jury acquitted them all in a high-profile trial held in Chicago. Despite the jury’s verdict, newly hired baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis exercised his unilateral power to ban the Black Sox players permanently from professional baseball, ending their careers.
Jackson and three of the other players had signed long-term contracts with the White Sox before they were banned, so they all sued to recover some of their lost salaries. Only Jackson’s case went to trial.
Firebrand lawyer Raymond Cannon — a future US Congressman from Wisconsin who liked to represent athletes and hoped to one day launch a powerful baseball players’ union — filed Jackson’s breach of contract complaint on May 22, 1922, in Case #64771 before the Wisconsin Circuit Court in Milwaukee County. In addition to Jackson, Cannon filed similar actions on behalf of Oscar “Happy” Felsch and Charles “Swede” Risberg. (A separate case was filed by George “Buck” Weaver’s attorney.) Cannon’s three cases were filed in Milwaukee because that is where the White Sox corporation was based when the American League had been founded there at the turn of the 20th century.
Jackson, who was seeking $16,000 in damages for the three-year contract he had signed before the 1920 baseball season, rejected a pre-trial settlement offer of $2,000. “I do not see,” White Sox owner Comiskey told a reporter before the trial began, “how Mr. Jackson can hope to receive anything in view of the statements he made before the grand jury in Chicago.”
Jackson’s statements — those he made to a Chicago grand jury in 1920 and the testimony he would give under oath in Milwaukee — came back to haunt him mightily. He wasn’t the only prominent baseball figure to take the stand during this trial. Comiskey and two other high-ranking White Sox executives, secretary Harry Grabiner and corporation counsel Alfred Austrian, also were called to testify. Their candid admissions about the Black Sox Scandal and their contract negotiations with Jackson and other players sheds new light on the inner workings of a baseball team’s front office.
New testimony for this trial was also given by some important Black Sox insiders, including Eddie Cicotte, Lefty Williams, and Happy Felsch, gamblers Bill Burns and Billy Maharg, investigative reporter Hugh Fullerton, and J.R. Hunter, a Chicago detective hired by Comiskey in the fall of 1919 to spy on the accused players off the field.
Following more than 300,000 words of testimony and arguments between the plaintiff Jackson and defendant White Sox, a jury of 12 Milwaukee citizens delivered a verdict in the ballplayer’s favor, awarding him a total of $16,711 for the salary he lost during the 1921 and 1922 baseball seasons when he was suspended.
But Judge John J. Gregory had heard Jackson give a very different account of his involvement in the Black Sox Scandal in Milwaukee from the story he had originally told to the Chicago grand jury in 1920. In Chicago, he had freely admitted his role in the scandal and complained that the gamblers had not paid him all the money they promised for losing the World Series. In Milwaukee, Jackson denied being involved at all. Even after the White Sox lawyers confronted him with his own grand jury testimony, Jackson denied saying any of the things he had said under oath back in Chicago.
An infuriated Judge Gregory set aside the verdict, declaring that Jackson’s testimony in 1920 differed so greatly from his 1924 testimony that one of them must be false. “Jackson stands self-convicted and self-accused of perjury … because on the record, Jackson lied here or before the Grand Jury, and, in my opinion, he lied here.”
Jackson returned home to Georgia and never received any of the money the jury had awarded him. Raymond Cannon’s other lawsuits against the White Sox were all settled years later for nominal sums. It was an anticlimactic end to a trial buzzing with controversy, with some of baseball’s biggest names forced to answer questions about a scandal that would continue to fascinate fans and historians a century later.
For Black Sox scholars and the legal community, the 1924 Milwaukee trial transcript is considered to be one of the last “Dead Sea Scrolls” related to the scandal to finally become available for public consumption. Bits and pieces have trickled out over the past quarter-century, but only a handful of historians have enjoyed access to what you are now reading in this publication.
In 2001, Donald Gropman published a revised second edition of his 1979 book Say It Ain’t So, Joe: The True Story of Shoeless Joe Jackson, which included brief excerpts from Jackson’s 1924 testimony and some of the correspondence between Jackson and Comiskey that was used as evidence during the trial. Gropman’s book was a sympathetic account of Jackson and ended with a plea for him to finally be admitted to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
That same year, Jerome Holtzman — a longtime Chicago sports writer who had recently been named Major League Baseball’s Official Historian — published Baseball, Chicago Style: A Tale of Two Teams, One City. The first chapter in his book, “Black and Bleak Sox,” was a scathing indictment of Jackson and rebutted the popular argument that the illiterate ballplayer was an innocent victim in the scandal. Holtzman had acquired a copy of the Milwaukee transcript (without the exhibits) and intended to publish the entire transcript in three volumes through his private publishing company. But he died in 2008 without completing the project.
News of a second copy emerged in those years and, in June 2003, author Gene Carney and I were among the first people to look at this file — held at the Milwaukee law offices of Thomas G. Cannon, the grandson of Jackson’s lawyer, Raymond Cannon.
Carney had become bitten by the Black Sox bug and was working on a book about the scandal. He called the 1924 Milwaukee litigation, “The Trial Nobody Noticed,” because so few historians or writers had paid attention to it despite Shoeless Joe Jackson’s emergence as a household name in the 1980s through the Hollywood films Eight Men Out and Field of Dreams. Carney returned to Cannon’s office one more time before his groundbreaking book, Burying the Black Sox: How Baseball’s Cover- Up of the 1919 World Series Fix Almost Succeeded, was published in 2006.
In November 2003, I met with Milwaukee attorney John Busch, who worked for the same law firm that had once employed George Hudnall, who represented Comiskey and the White Sox in the 1924 trial. Busch was the firm’s resident historian and maintained a worn accordion file containing dozens of documents and exhibits from the trial. He generously allowed me access to their file, which held historic documents that were not available at Cannon’s office.
Cannon appeared at a 2004 symposium at the Chicago History Museum (CHM) that I produced, along with two esteemed White Sox relatives, Patti Bellock (Charles Comiskey’s great-granddaughter) and Pat Scanlan Anderson (Buck Weaver’s niece and surrogate daughter). During the symposium, Cannon talked about how he came to possess the second known copy of the trial material:
“My father (Robert Cannon), a sitting judge in the 1950s in Milwaukee, got a call one day from somebody in the Third Circuit Court who told him that the clerk was going through a periodic pruning of old files and they had come across the 1924 lawsuit filed by Joe Jackson against the Chicago White Sox. They were going to throw it out and they asked my father if he would like the box of material and my father said yes and so fortunately that was saved for history.”
Cannon also explained the legal significance of these documents:
“The transcripts are the only surviving account of the scandal in the actual words of the principals themselves. The witnesses in that case included not only Charles Comiskey and Shoeless Joe Jackson, but also (team secretary) Harry Grabiner, Alfred Austrian, who was Comiskey’s lawyer, and some of the other players. So you have basically most of the key participants in their actual words, not the filtered accounts, the second-hand accounts, the abridged accounts that you read in Chicago and Milwaukee newspapers of the trial. One of the weaknesses, I think, of Eliot Asinof’s book (Eight Men Out) is that it was based to a large extent on newspaper accounts of the trials rather than the actual documents themselves. …
“The accounts of the participants were sworn to under oath and therefore they were subject to the criminal penalties for perjury in the event that somebody didn’t tell the truth. … This is the only account that is tested by cross- examination from skilled trial lawyers, and that’s important because even the testimony before the grand jury (in 1920) there was no cross-examination. The witnesses came in, they were questioned by the Assistant State’s Attorney, but there’s no cross-examination and because those witnesses weren’t actually represented by counsel acting in their own interest, you don’t really get the flavor that the whole thing was very trustworthy. … It’s only in the Milwaukee trial that you get what our society has evolved over many centuries as the best way for discovering the truth of a disputed set of facts. So I think the Milwaukee trial transcripts are very significant because again they’re the only account to the actual words of the principles themselves, they were sworn to under oath therefore subject to criminal penalties for perjury and they’re the only statements tested by cross-examination from skilled trial lawyers.”
In November 2007, the Chicago Baseball Museum acquired the private papers and books of Jerome Holtzman, which included his Black Sox research files — along with his copy of the 1924 Milwaukee trial transcript, the one you’re reading now. Over the course of a year, before his death in July 2008, I spent more than 50 hours with Holtzman, who still considered himself the preeminent Black Sox scholar and authority, even though Gene Carney and others had uncovered so much more of the story by then.
That same year, another collection of legal documents — originating from the office of Alfred Austrian, who served as corporation counsel for the White Sox and Cubs for many years — was acquired by the CHM and made available to the public after cataloging. This file contained many documents related to the 1920 Black Sox grand jury, 1921 criminal trial, and the 1924 civil trial.
The CHM acquisition included the detective reports filed by Hunter’s Secret Service, the Chicago firm hired by Charles Comiskey to spy on his White Sox players in the weeks following the 1919 World Series. Just before Gene Carney’s death, I sent him photocopies of the detective reports and his article about their contents was published posthumously in SABR’s Baseball Research Journal. The reports were mentioned in
J.R. Hunter’s testimony and entered into evidence during Joe Jackson’s trial, but no one else had seen them before. Another piece of the puzzle could now be filled in.
In 2013, former New Jersey prosecutor William F. Lamb published his detailed analysis of the scandal’s criminal and civil litigation in his book, Black Sox in the Courtroom: The Grand Jury, Criminal Trial, and Civil Litigation. Lamb spent time at my office in Chicago going over the Milwaukee trial transcript to produce the most comprehensive account written to date about the 1924 Jackson case, correcting many errors and clearing up many misconceptions about what really happened in that courtroom.
There are still more pieces of the puzzle left to be discovered — one day. Only portions of the 1921 Black Sox criminal trial transcript are available at the Chicago History Museum. Perhaps a copy of the entire transcript will see the light of day soon and help fill in more gaps to the story. There is also a mysterious document known as “Harry’s Diary,” a legal ledger notebook maintained by White Sox secretary Harry Grabiner that detailed the blow-by-blow account of the scandal as it unfolded from the White Sox front office’s perspective. Hall of Fame baseball executive Bill Veeck
— whose nephew Fred Krehbiel discovered the ledger hidden in a storage room at old Comiskey Park in the 1960s — quoted from Harry’s Diary in his 1965 book, The Hustler’s Handbook, offering tantalizing details about the scandal. But the full diary has never surfaced.
In October 2022, Jacob Pomrenke and I met in Springfield, Illinois, during a symposium organized by the Illinois Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. We talked about the upcoming 100th anniversary of Joe Jackson’s trial and he knew that I possessed one of the few copies of the entire transcript.
We decided it was the right time to finally release the transcript out into the public domain, where it could be used by future researchers and provide important historical context and analysis about the trial.
We both wanted to fulfill the wish of Gene Carney, who years earlier had written, “A final note — I hope the 1924 Milwaukee trial material becomes widely available someday.”
Two decades after Gene and I looked at the transcript for the first time in Tom Cannon’s office, now it is available. We hope you enjoy reading through it.