Answer Man

Answer Man: Did a Belleville man help the Cubs throw the 1918 World Series?

Q. I occasionally hear people claim that the Chicago Cubs threw the 1918 World Series to Babe Ruth and the Boston Red Sox. But what really has caught my attention is that they say one of the principal perpetrators of this alleged scandal is Belleville native Max Flack. What evidence is there that a local boy might have been guilty of such skulduggery?

— John Wegrzyn, of Belleville

A. Let me ask you this: What would happen today if, at the height of his base-stealing career, Lou Brock had been nailed wandering off the base not once, but twice in the same game? Or if Roberto Clemente had refused to move deeper into right field for a power hitter — and then promptly watched a ball sail over his head?

Put them together, and you can bet they would heat up the ESPN radio airwaves for days, much like the Seattle pass call that ended the recent Super Bowl. So it shouldn’t be too surprising that a man who made at least four critical errors — including the one that decided the Series — would raise questions about possible shady motivations a century later.

The whispers are nothing new. In 1920, a grand jury was called to investigate possible corruption surrounding the 1919 World Series between the Chicago White Sox and the Cincinnati Reds. During testimony, Sox pitcher Eddie Cicotte, who admitted being paid to throw the series to the Reds, testified that his Black Sox got the idea from the 1918 Cubs.

“The ball players were talking about somebody trying to fix the National League ball players or something like that,” Cicotte testified. “Well, anyway, there was some talk about them offering $10,000 or something to throw the Cubs in the Boston Series. Somebody made a crack about getting money, if we got into the Series, to throw the Series.”

Did the Cubs actually take the money? Cicotte was frustratingly vague as he avoided providing any names or details or even whether he thought that the Cubs had indeed thrown the series. Cicotte charged that baseball didn’t want to investigate, happy to concentrate on the Black Sox scandal instead.

For the next 90 years, the subject drew little attention. But when the Chicago History Museum released that tidbit of testimony on its website in early 2011, it suddenly set sports fans’ tongues wagging — especially about Max Flack, a Belleville kid who would play 12 years in the majors.

Ironically, even his earliest days in pro baseball would have minor discrepancies. If you look at his local newspaper clippings from the turn of the century, you’ll find his name consistently printed as Mex Flach, son of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Flach. But, according to a Belleville News-Democrat article, he didn’t protest when his name was changed on scorecards and in the press.

“And why would he correct them?” veteran sportswriter Sean Deveney wrote in his 2009 book, “The Original Curse,” an in-depth examination of the 1918 Series. “Max was never quite sure he belonged in baseball, never really felt he was all that good a player.”

But the 5-7, 150-pound Flack began drawing attention with his play on the Belleville Maroons of the old Ill-Mo Trolley League along with stints in Joplin, Mo., and Burlington, Iowa. Then, Flack worked his way onto the Peoria team in the Three-I League.

“I lied about my age,” he told one interviewer. “I was only 22 when I signed a contract with Peoria in 1912, but I wanted to be younger. Everybody did that in those days.”

Finally, after hitting .352 at Peoria in 1913, Max jumped his contract and signed a two-year, $5,000 deal with the Chicago Whales of the old Federal League. He quickly made a name for himself by hammering a double in the final game of the 1915 season, which won the Whales the pennant by a single percentage point. He wound up with a .314 average that year, fourth best in the league. In 1916, he moved on to the Cubs, and there was no looking back.

“Max was determined not to go back to Belleville and make stoves,” Deveney wrote. “His wife, Stella, had just given birth to his first child, Raymond, and Max wanted to provide for his young family. ... He would do anything to provide a good living for them.”

His first two years must have have been disappointing as he batted just .258 in 1916 followed by a .248 mark in 1917. But he had shown promise in two areas. For the Whales, he had been one of the league’s top base-stealers, and even during his later years with the Cardinals, he would twice lead the league in fielding percentage. Perhaps that best explains why Flack’s play in the World Series has come under such scrutiny.

As baseball historians have noted, it is understandable how a bribe might have tempted players. With the war going on and many top players gone in the draft, attendance was down along with the economy. The regular 1918 season ended a month early and some perhaps feared the sport might even disappear for a year or more. Apparently there was talk, for example, that the Brooklyn Dodgers had agreed to lease Ebbets Field in 1919 to the government as a storage facility. And gamblers were often seen not only at the games, but also at the hotels and taverns where players slept and drank.

“(Players) didn’t make much money,” Deveney told the Sporting News. “They had the incentive to do something like that.”

Yet early on, there seemed to be no hankypanky. Even Deveney said the first three games were “tight and well-played,” with Boston eking out 1-0 and 2-1 wins around a 3-1 Cub victory. Deveney also noted that when Babe Ruth came to the plate for the first time, Flack “simply turned around and marched about 40 paces toward the right wall.”

But en route to Fenway Park in Boston for the final three games, the players added the gate receipts and reportedly figured out they were only going to get about half the money they expected. After that, Flack began making his uncharacteristic mistakes.

In the first inning of Game 4, leadoff batter Flack stroked a single to left, but with one out, he took a big lead off first and “just seemed to stop paying attention,” according to Deveny. Red Sox catcher Sam Agnew caught him napping, killing any hopes for an early rally.

Two innings later, Flack reached second with two out. Again Flack took a huge lead and again he seemed to fall asleep as he kicked the dirt. Ruth whirled and fired a perfect strike to second. As a result, Flack, who stole 74 bases in his two years with the Federals, remains the only player in history to be thrown out twice in one World Series game.

Sadly, his bungles did not stop there. In the fourth inning, Ruth came to the plate and, with a full count, Cub hurler Lefty Tyler stepped off the mound, wondering why Flack was playing so shallow in right against the most feared left-handed slugger in the game.

“Tyler waved him back,” the Herald Examiner reported. “Flack did not pay attention to the command. Once against Tyler motioned him, but Max was obstinate.”

You can guess the rest. Tyler grooved one, and The Bambino crushed it to right. Making matters worse, Flack reportedly first took a step in before finally turning around. The ball whistled over Flack’s head and rolled to the fence for a two-run triple. Flack then capped his horrendous showing by grounding out during a two-run, eighth-inning Cub rally as the Sox took a 3-1 series lead with a 3-2 victory.

Flack, however, saved the worst for last. In the decisive Game 6, Flack dropped a routine two-out drive to right field in the third, allowing Boston to score its only two runs in a 2-1 victory. After players had delayed Game 5 by an hour to protest their pay, fewer than 16,000 fans came to see Boston claim what would be its last championship until 2004.

But whether all this circumstantial evidence adds up to anything will remain merely a subject to be debated by the hot-stove league for years to come. If it does, Flack wasn’t the only likely culprit. In Game 4, for example, the baserunning of pitcher Claude Hendrix was so bad that he was yanked even though he was supposed to take the mound in the following inning. And, in the bottom of the eighth, losing pitcher Phil Douglas allowed the winning run when he uncorked a passed ball before fielding a bunt and throwing wildly to first base. In fact, Douglas was later banned for life in 1922 for proposing that another team in the pennant race pay him to leave the team and “go fishing.”

“If you look at the various factors, not the least being that the likely next stop for the players was the front lines of France’s Western Front, you can see how even honest men might have been driven to cheat,” Deveney once told the New York Times.

Others say it’s much ado about absolutely nothing.

“There isn’t anything inherently suspicious to me,” said Bill Lamb, a long-time member of the Society for American Baseball Research who serves on the Black Sox scandal research committee. (He also was a New Jersey prosecutor for 33 years.) “I am aware people do bad things, but just because something is conceivable doesn’t make it so. Where’s the proof?”

If there were any gossip at the time, it didn’t faze Flack. He bounced back from his Series debacle by hitting at or above the .300 mark for the next four seasons. Then, on May 30, 1922, Flack became one of the first two men in baseball history to play for two different teams on the same day when he was traded to St. Louis for Cliff Heathcote in the middle of a doubleheader at Wrigley Field.

“That was a funny thing, that trade,” Flack said later. “I lived only three blocks from the ball park in Chicago and I went home for lunch after the morning game. When I came back, I went into the clubhouse and they told me I’d been traded and to get over with the rest of the Cardinals.”

But Flack was seldom a regular for the Birds. In later interviews, he said a beaning in 1922 left him skittish at the plate. After 12 seasons, he wound up as a career .278 hitter with 391 RBI, 200 stolen bases and a .972 fielding average. After his playing days, he settled in East St. Louis and became a custodian at East St. Louis High School for 22 years as he raised his two children. The grandfather of two and great-grandfather of three died in 1975 at age 85 and is buried in Walnut Hill Cemetery.

He never was able to redeem himself in another championship. He quit baseball after leaving St. Louis for a season at Syracuse in 1926. Ironically, it was the same year the Cardinals played in and won their first World Series.

Today’s trivia

Who is the only pro baseball player to play for two different teams in two different cities on the same day?

Answer to Saturday’s trivia: After an eight-day trial that gained worldwide coverage in 1925, it took the jury only nine minutes to find substitute science teacher John Scopes guilty of teaching evolution in a state-funded school. He was fined $100, which was overthrown on a technicality. The Tennessee law would not be challenged again for 45 years.