Say It Ain't So, Joe

September 27, 2019
Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove

Nitzavim 5779

To the degree that American sports culture bears the stain of an original sin, this month marks the one hundredth anniversary of the felonious offense. In the final week of September 1919, on the Upper West Side of New York, a group of White Sox ballplayers met to throw the upcoming World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. The details of the fix and the eight members of the conspiring “Black Sox” who accepted money from gamblers, are best documented in Eliot Asinof’s book (and subsequent movie): Eight Men Out. But more than the facts of the case, it is the mythic status that the Black Sox scandal has acquired that has come to loom over the American psyche. Reference is made, among other places, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, as well as by Hyman Roth of “Godfather” fame, who attributed his love of baseball to “Arnold Rothstein who fixed the World Series.” Bernard Malamud’s famous novel and subsequent movie The Natural borrows historic elements from the scandal. Kevin Costner’s “Field of Dreams” affirmed the story for my generation, and most recently, Major League Baseball announced an August 2020 regular season game to be played between the Yankees and White Sox in those iconic Iowa cornfields. Whether or not a child ever actually said, “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” to Shoeless Joe Jackson outside the courthouse (which no child did), is beside the point. It is the moral subtext beneath the events of one hundred years ago, the fall from grace of our heroes, that, from generation to generation, continues to play an outsized role in the moral imagination of our country.

Given the anniversary, given that tomorrow night is Rosh Hashanah, given that we are on the eve of both the pennant race and the penitential season, this morning I want to give a different sort of a sermon. A warm-up of sorts. I want to use the centennial anniversary of the Black Sox scandal as a portal into the subject matter of the season: sin, forgiveness, and the human condition. A moral clinic, if you will, for all the themes that we should be considering in the days ahead.

First, and most obviously: sin. To study the Black Sox scandal is to do a deep dive into the nature of sin. The most striking thing I noticed in every treatment of the scandal was an implicit or explicit gesture towards justifying the actions of the players. The White Sox owner, Charles Comiskey, was miserly. He underpaid his players and got rich off their talents. Who could blame the players for trying to make some extra cash? Alternatively, some reasoned, the eight players who were on the take were just doing what everybody was doing. The Black Sox scandal was neither the first, nor for that matter, the last such scandal. As ringleader Charles “Swede” Risberg revealed years later, there had been four prior rigged games in 1917 between the White Sox and the Tigers that everybody knew about. The World Series may have been a difference in degree but not in kind; those eight players were just following standard practice.

Such arguments are not new. Ever since Adam blamed Eve in the Garden of Eden, people have sought to deflect their own failings.

“Me speeding, officer? I was only keeping up with the flow of traffic!” I am doing nothing that everybody else isn’t doing.

“Everyone is using performance enhancing drugs. I’m getting my edge no differently than everyone else!”

“Our marriage has been on the rocks for years; am I really the one to blame?”

We say to ourselves, “just this once,” which becomes twice, which becomes normalized, and then not a sin at all. It was one of my predecessors, Rabbi Milton Steinberg, who wrote a sermon entitled “Only Human: The Eternal Alibi.” We look back on the year gone by knowing we are masterful moral contortionists. We blame others, we blame the world in which we live, most often we blame our own humanity. We blame anyone or anything to avoid taking responsibility for our actions.

All of which, while fully understandable, is totally contrary to the central premise of the imminent holiday season. The basis of Jewish ethics is that as human beings we have moral agency. For Jews, being human is not an alibi; being human is a call to action – the insistence that we set the moral bar high and believe ourselves capable of grabbing onto it. Nobody is hardwired one way or another. Yes, sometimes we make good choices, sometimes we make bad choices, but that ability to choose – that is what makes us human. Yom Kippur wouldn’t make any sense if we didn’t believe we had free will, that we can repent our past and choose a new course of action. Of course, our world is filled with temptation and corrupting influences, and sin is ever crouching at our door. The days ahead throw down a bold challenge to our humanity: that we can avoid the moral trip wires that abound and rise to our God-given potential.

Second: To study the Black Sox scandal is to wrestle with the dynamics of forgiveness. I imagine in the weeks ahead there will be plenty of retrospectives about the scandal, and I am willing to bet (excuse the expression), that there will be more ink spilled on the irrevocable ban the players received than on the offense itself. To his dying day, third baseman Buck Weaver sought to clear his name and be reinstated to baseball – a campaign that his descendants have continued. Guilty or not, the question stands: Was it fair, was it just, to ban these players for life? Why do athletes found guilty of cheating by taking steroids receive a temporary suspension, but those found guilty of gambling are declared permanently ineligible and beyond redemption? It has been years since I have been to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, but I’ve heard that visitors can now vote on whether or not Pete Rose should be allowed into the Hall of Fame. How does one measure the gravity of sin? How does one determine the proportionality of punishment? And if, as we would all hopefully allow, people are capable of remorse and repentance, then how do we determine when forgiveness is merited?

The dynamics surrounding these questions are very delicate and I want to tread very, very carefully, certainly in a sermon wedged into the day before Rosh Hashanah. We should all be grateful that we live in an age where people’s misdeeds are no longer brushed under the rug, where individuals are held publicly accountable for their offenses, where the veneer of their power, celebrity, gender, or religious leadership provides no protection against their reprehensible behavior: football players, opera singers, and prime ministers, to name but a few from last week’s news cycle. And no question, there are sins and sinners that are beyond redemption, disqualified from re-entering polite society. But what about the more quotidian provinces of our lives? The friend who let you down, the co-worker who broke a confidence, the family member who fell short of expectation. Do they stay benched forever? If someone has expressed remorse and paid their debt, then when exactly do they get another swing at the plate? The corollary to the belief that the consequence of free will is the possibility of poor choices, is the possibility that free will can result in good choices, in self-correction, in being proven worthy of forgiveness. It would be no small thing if members of this community were to spend these next days considering people we have wronged and seeking their forgiveness. But what would be even more impressive would be if we spent these coming days considering those individuals who seek our forgiveness and then . . . if we granted it. We would enter the new year having lightened their burden, and, more likely, having lightened our own.

Third and finally – and I don’t know how to say this in legalese, but I imagine one of the eight hundred attorneys in this room can – is the line, brought into relief by the Black Sox scandal, between guilt and responsibility. As you may know, just shy of two years after the thrown World Series, all eight players were acquitted of criminal charges. But a day after their acquittal, baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis ruled that the players, nevertheless, would be banned for life. His stated reasoning was that regardless of the verdict of the prior day: “No player that sits in a conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing games are planned and discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.” For Landis, the moral bar was much higher than whether a player did or didn’t participate in the fix. It was the mere knowledge of wrongdoing – knowledge and failure to report or take action – that was also an egregious breach of trust, egregious enough to disqualify a player from ever playing again in America’s national pastime.

In the coming days, as we assess not only our own condition, but the condition of our world and our obligations within it, it is on this measure that we know we fall painfully short. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: “In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” Willful ignorance abounds – take your pick from the headlines: CEOs of car companies, of e-cigarette companies; in the private sector, in government, in our own Jewish community. Ours is an age in need of more, not fewer, whistleblowers. What does it say about the moral condition of our age when a four-star general invokes “devoir de réserve,” the “duty of silence” to justify his moral acquiescence to misdeeds around him, and a sixteen-year-old girl is the one who is courageously speaking truth to power regarding the climate crisis? This morning’s Torah reading warns us of the danger of fancying ourselves immune, thinking, “I shall be safe….” (Deuteronomy 29:18), believing ourselves to be innocent just because we are not guilty. As Jews we answer to a higher authority; it is not enough to merely wonder if we are guilty of wrongdoing. In the days ahead, it will be sins of both commission and omission for which we must account, one of which we know to be the failure to speak out. It is both our action and inaction by which we are measured. We are all responsible. We are all moral contributors to the world in which we live.

Sin, forgiveness, the obligation to speak out. The shadow of the Black Sox scandal continues to loom because it is a morality tale containing the fundamental questions confronting the human condition. In the immortal words of James Earl Jones, baseball reminds us “of all that once was good and that could be again.” Who doesn’t want to be taken out to the ball game? Isn’t that what the High Holy Days are also all about? A reminder of all that once was good and that could be again – for us, for our families, and for our country.

Warm-up is over. Tomorrow night, 6:00 pm, here in this sanctuary, our fall classic begins. Play ball!