Baseball Judgments

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Historical myth #3: The 1919 White Sox were one of baseball's best teams ever


By Roger Weber


The movie, "Eight Men Out," was very popular and brought to light and expressed one depiction of baseball's most famous scandal. For effect the movie continually refers to the 1919 White Sox as the greatest baseball team ever. Of course the moviemakers wanted to show the magnitude of throwing the series, but the White Sox finished the season just 88-52. The Reds finished 96-44. Many statisticians maintain that the National League was the weaker league in 1919, but the Reds' superior record and the White Sox' fairly average record for a World Series team does not provide great evidence for the idea that the White Sox were the greatest team ever.


They of course had some great players. Joe Jackson was clearly one of the best players of his era and in the discussion of best outfielders ever. But were the Sox really the better team heading into the series?


The Reds' closest competitor in the National League was the New York Giants. The Reds finished 12-8 against the Giants, so it can be seen that the Reds were not incapable of beating good competition. Of course, the White Sox also finished 35-25 against teams with winning records during the regular season. The 1919 Reds rank 14th all time in winning percentage with a .686 mark but are often left off lists of the greatest baseball teams ever because of the scandal. 


The Reds scored fewer runs than the White Sox but had comparatively better pitching. The Reds had an average margin of victory of 1.9 runs and the Sox just 1.7. The Reds scored 65% of all runs in games they played while the Sox scored just 61%.


And although Brian Connolly did a through study to show that streakiness is not really caused by much more than chance, it is interesting to note that the Reds finished the season "hot". Their worst months were May and June but in they finished the season 59-22 over the last three months, a 73% winning clip.


Bill James has a system of predicting World Series winners based on various statistics and how often the stats correlate with the World Series victor. The system covers stats like runs, batting average, team doubles, walks given up, shutouts and postseason winning percentage among others. For the 1919 series, based on regular season stats, the Reds get more points than the White Sox using the predictor. In fact the margin is 84-32 discounting fielding statistics.


Based on these findings, there is no reason given the team stats to think that the White Sox losing the World Series had anything to do with their betting. The possibility is there, but is not shown through these data. In fact, James' system, by my calculations, predicts that the Reds would win the series 5 games to 2, not 5 to 3 as it was.


The contention that the American League was the stronger league holds good validity. The A.L. took 10 of the first 15 World Series prior to 1919. That seems like a lot, but if the leagues were equal, with a .5 chance for each league to win the World Series every year, the 67% of World Series' that American League took of the first 15 is still well within a reasonable confidence interval, which means we cannot attribute that with certainty to anything but chance. There was a .1 probability of the A.L. gaining an edge at least that large.


The American League won four straight World Series' heading into the 1919 matchup. This could be due to some unknown factor, but it is likely just chance. Runs of four or even five or six in a row are common if the probability is .5 that one occurrence will happen. Still, the dominance is tough to dispute.


The White Sox were an impressive team, but most of the evidence says they were not the better team in 1919. In fact, the Reds were a very strong opponent. The White Sox may have been a great team and they may have thrown the series, but the Reds by most accounts I have looked at were a strong team and had a good shot at winning the series honestly.


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