B-Sides: The story of a hero and collateral damage

By Mark Bennett

The Tribune-Star October 25,2006

 

TERRE HAUTE - Diving catches and late-inning hits can turn men into baseball legends each October. The St. Louis Cardinals and the Detroit Tigers have their chances right now in the 2006 World Series.

Edd Roush earned that status with his defensive performance in center field 87 years ago. But it was an impassioned, pregame clubhouse lecture to his Cincinnati Reds teammates that made him, well, a hero.

Pinning that label on pro athletes is taboo these days, and understandably so. The ability to dunk a basketball, sack a quarterback or hit a curveball does not necessarily qualify those so gifted as role models. But honesty in the face of immense pressure does.

Roush was 26 years old when he walked into the visitors' clubhouse at Comiskey Field in Chicago on the morning of Oct. 9, 1919. He was the Reds' best player, their hard-hitting center fielder and a future Hall of Famer. Yet on this day, Roush was one of the most emotionally burdened men on earth.

He and the Reds led the World Series four games to three over the vaunted Chicago White Sox. (The Fall Classic was a best-of-nine series at the time.) In the course of those first seven games, Roush got the shocking news that a clique of eight White Sox players had conspired with gamblers to lose the series to the Reds. Then, after Cincinnati won four of the first five games, the Reds lost Games 6 and 7 because of some uncharacteristically poor starting pitching.

An old friend had tipped Roush off to the Sox' plot. But Roush, proud and competitive, refused to believe his team's strong start could have been tainted. Then, after the Reds' odd losses in Games 6 and 7, that same friend told Roush that gamblers had gotten to some of the Cincinnati players. Word of the Sox' fix had spread, and some gamblers - left out of that plot - thought they could cash in by betting against the now-favored Reds in Games 6 and 7.

Suddenly, his friend's revelations seemed painfully plausible to Roush. Had the Reds' starting pitchers in Games 6 and 7 succumbed to the rampant corruption surrounding the World Series? The thought of it felt wounding to Roush's southern Indiana ethics and competitive spirit.

Furious, Roush interrupted Cincinnati manager Pat Moran's team meeting before Game 8 and unloaded his troubled mind on his fellow Reds.

"I hear that someone on this club doesn't want to win today," Roush said. "I understand that gamblers have gotten to some players on this ball club, and damned if I'm going out there and run myself to death trying to win a World Series if somebody around here is trying to throw it."

After some stunned silence, Roush, Moran and a trusted veteran quizzed their Game 8 starting pitcher, Hod Eller, and found out he, too, had been offered $5,000 up front, and another $5,000 afterward, to lose Game 8. But Eller snubbed the gambler and threatened to punch him in the nose.

The Reds got a 10-4 victory, complete with three hits and a somersaulting catch by Roush in center, for their first world championship.

But less than a year later, their accomplishment sank in a sea of controversy when some of the White Sox admitted to the conspiracy. Commissioner Kenesaw "Mountain" Landis banished eight Sox from baseball for life. So instead of a lifetime of memories about a 96-44 team with the best winning percentage in Reds history (yes, at .686, it was better than those of the 1970s Big Red Machine), the boys from Cincinnati spent the rest of their days trying to convince skeptics that they deserved their title in a 1919 World Series known as "the Black Sox scandal."

A book published this year by Susan Dellinger, Roush's granddaughter, is the first to look at this infamous moment in baseball history from the perspective of the Reds. And the tales mentioned above, never told before she penned "Edd Roush and the Untold Story of the 1919 World Series," paint a fascinating and far more complex picture of this well-documented event.

"Those eight men who got banned for life, and who knows if they all were guilty or not, they paid a heavy price. But no one seems to remember the Reds," Dellinger said by telephone from her home in Tampa, Fla. "That was collateral damage, as it were."

Dellinger began her research 30 years ago, long before the death of her granddad 18 years ago. She interviewed him, although she'd heard him rant about 1919 many times in her youth.

"Every time I'd ask about the pitchers [for the Reds in Games 6 and 7], he'd turn all red in the face," Dellinger said, noting that he'd suffered several strokes over the years. "He'd start swearing and ranting, and I didn't want him to hurt himself."

Still, she learned valuable insight about the events of that October from Roush, the last surviving player from either team in the 1919 series, as well as relatives of other Reds. And through investigation of records with members of the Society for American Baseball Research, Dellinger uncovered the roles played by Cincinnati detective Cal Crim and Roush's friend, newsstand vendor Jimmy Widmeyer.

Best of all, Dellinger's story is laced with golden descriptions of the mood and the era from her grandmother, Essie Roush, the woman Edd loved from the moment he saw her playing piano in an Oakland City, Ind., theater until the day he died in 1988 at age 94.

When Roush felt desperately alone and suspicious of everyone around him, Essie was his oasis and confidant. After carrying for days the weight of Widmeyer's tip about the Sox' plot, he explained it all to her in the middle of a sleepless night during the series.

"They were really soul mates, for sure," Dellinger said. "He really played baseball for her, because she was the baseball fan.

"He loved her more than life itself," she added.

Edd outlived Essie by 10 years. But she remained his one and only. And he never wavered from his contention that the Reds were the best team in baseball in 1919. Their statistics and lineup, including a five-pitcher deep starting pitching rotation, backs up that assessment.

As for Roush himself, his .323 lifetime batting average and graceful glove work in center field all happened before ESPN Classic and highlight reels. Some who truly know baseball history haven't forgotten. When Dellinger spoke at Cooperstown this summer, a guy she later realized was Reds Hall of Famer Joe Morgan told her, "Edd Roush - my gosh, he was the best Red ever. So there are people that know."

Dellinger's book (published by Emmis Books) is an enlightening tale of a player and a team worth remembering. Temptation clearly surrounded both the Sox and the Reds. Exactly how many actually gave in "is still a mystery to this day," Dellinger said.

But the moral of her granddad's story seems undeniable. "I guess it's to tell the truth whenever you can," she said.

 

Mark Bennett can be reached at mark.bennett@tribstar.com or (812) 231-4377.

 

Back to Front Page