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Did a Belleville big leaguer help the 1918 Cubs throw the World Series?

A look back at the career of Major League Baseball outfielder Max Flack

Max Flack was Belleville native who made a name for himself as a Major League Baseball outfielder during the early 20th century.
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Max Flack was Belleville native who made a name for himself as a Major League Baseball outfielder during the early 20th century.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of a particularly historic World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs.

That 1918 fall classic marked the first time “The Star Spangled Banner” was played at a major league game, was played during the height of legendary slugger Babe Ruth’s dominance as a Boston Red Sox pitcher (who led the majors in home runs for the first time in his career), and would launch two of history’s longest pennant droughts.

Now, a century of whispers about gamblers influencing the series’ outcome has swelled to more a persistent murmur. And at the center of suspicion is a Cubs player who was born, raised and is buried right here in the metro-east.

Belleville’s Max Flack collected 1,461 hits and batted. 278 over 12 big league seasons that started in 1914 with the Chicago Whales of the short-lived Federal League. He moved on to the Cubs where he quickly earned a reputation as a good hitter, slick fielder and dangerous base runner.

It’s the later two that made Flack a stand-out goat of the 1918 World Series, which his Cubs lost to the Red Sox in six games.

His .263 World Series average wasn’t far off his season mark and he did take a Ruth fastball off the melon in Game 1. But he made a series of uncharacteristic plays both on the bases and in the field throughout the six games.

In the first game, he reached base twice only to be picked off, once by the catcher at first and again off second by the pitcher. Flack stole 200 bases in his career, yet remains the only player to have been picked off base twice in the same World Series game. He was thrown out attempting to steal three more times during the series.

In the fourth inning of Game 4, Flack ignored pitcher Lefty Tyler’s plea to play deeper to right field and was predictably burned by Ruth, who lined a two-run triple over his head. He had a chance to get those two runs back in the eighth, but grounded out with the tying runs at second and third.

Finally, in the third inning of the decisive sixth game, it was Flack’s muff of a routine pop fly that allowed Boston to score the only runs it needed to cinch a 2-1 victory and World Series championship.

The Red Sox, who were outhit and outscored by the Cubs and totaled a historically-low nine runs in the series, took each of their four victories by a single run.

All of this is circumstantial, of course, and not proof that Flack was on the take by Chicago gamblers. It was the first and only World Series in which he would play, after all. Maybe he was just nervous or mired a poorly-timed slump?

But a discovery made more recently has raised eyebrows and renewed suspicion in those Cubs of ‘18.

1922 W501 Max Flack.jpg
Max Flack, circa 1922. AP

The Chicago History Museum in 2011 acquired legal documents from a federal investigation of the 1919 Chicago White Sox. That team, as you probably remember, has become more widely known as the Black Sox for permitting the pure white of their uniform colors to be sullied by something other than the dusty diamond at Comisky Park.

Though they were acquitted by the court, eight players were famously banned from baseball for life by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis for accepting payoffs from gamblers to throw the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds.

One of those “eight men out,” star pitcher Eddie Cicotte, suggested in a deposition now part of the Chicago History Museum collection, that it was the 1918 Cubs that gave them the idea.

“The way it started, we were going east on the train. The ball players were talking about somebody trying to fix the National League ballplayers or something like that in the World’s Series of 1918,” Cicotte told investigators. “Well, anyway, there was some talk about them offering $10,000 or something to throw the Cubs in the Boston Series.”

Neither Cicotte or any other source known to date have provided any other specifics. No time, no place, and no names.

It’s been left to the record book to insinuate what’s left of this story.

If you believe Cicotte and are a fan of conspiracies, the box scores are pretty damning for Flack and several others. Pitchers Phil Douglas (who was later banned for life for fixing a regular-season game in 1922) and Claude Hendrix (similarly accused in 1920) also have been implicated.

Flack must have lived down any negative notoriety, though, because he lasted four more seasons with the Cubs. In fact, it’s his historically-unique trade to St. Louis in 1922 for which he is probably best known.

It happened in the middle of a double header between the Cubs and Cardinals — he went 0-for-4 with a sacrifice fly in a game 1 Cubs win, then 1-for-4 leading off for the Cardinals 3-1 loss in the nightcap. Flack and Cliff Heathcote remain the only players in big league history to have played both ends of a double header for each team.

After 12 big league seasons, Flack returned to East St. Louis where he worked for 22 years as a high school custodian. By the time he died in 1974 at age 85, he had raised two children, had two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. He’s buried at Belleville’s Walnut Hill Cemetery.

His reputation as a ball player is left for you to decide.

Todd Eschman is the sports and local news editor for the Belleville News-Democrat. He can be reached at teschman@bnd.com or (618) 239-2540.
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