The Black Sox Scandal of 1919 – Trying to Teach about Cheating

For the past 16 years I have taught one lesson 16 different ways.  In fact, there are many lessons like that for me. I tend not to teach the same thing the same way every year. This year, I am about five weeks away from teaching one of my favorite units in all of history. I call the period, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. It is about the 1920s and 1930s. However, each year, I almost blow it by getting the first lesson wrong. That lesson is on the 1919 Black Sox Scandal.

In the past I have shown a video, watched “Eight Men Out”, done web quests, read actual newspaper articles, had students make cartoons, looked at box scores, and a half a dozen other ways to teach one topic for one day. I am destined to forever teach the topic a different way every year. This year, I am down to two methods. The first method is a trial.

To teach a trial with junior high students is an arduous but worthwhile affair. It requires a lot of prep time for not only myself, but the students need time to go over a script. Not everyone would have a part in the production which almost reads like a play. Everyone is given their bit part to read and everyone acts it out. After the evidence has been presented, an actual jury of 9-12 kids convenes behind closed doors to go over the evidence presented and render a verdict. After the verdict is read, then we discuss as a class how the verdict was reached. The verdict is compared to the real decision and to the decision by Judge Landis to ban the eight ball players. Simulations are fun but they require a lot of leg work upfront the first time. I could do the trial/play but the problem I have always had with plays and simulation trials is not all the students are engaged at all times. On the other hand, it is a learning experience they always remember.

My second choice is to do a teaching method I designed on using pictures and primary sources. Called image by image, it was originally designed in 2008 to teach about the context of an image. I have designed about six lessons involving the Cuban Missile Crisis, Joseph McCarthy, Bull Conner, The Battle of Berlin, Thomas Nast, Woodstock, and Antietam. Today, I have thought about how to do it with the Black Sox Scandal.

I would start the lesson by introducing this picture and have students try to figure out what the players are either thinking, watching or talking about.

From this point, I mix in a series of primary documents from 1919 newspaper articles to trial accounts to testimony to cartoons and editorials to box scores. I refer back to the picture after each document is analyzed to build context. It is a fun way to learn and I spend little time teaching. The pictures, documents, and analysis do all the talking. I just facilitate the discussion. By the end, the depth and breadth of knowledge students have gained over 45 minutes is amazing.

What most people don’t understand about teachers is we make about 500 decisions in one class period. And to teach that lesson, we make about twenty-five decisions on what to include in the lesson and what not to include. As a history teacher, you can’t teach everything about history. It is impossible. I have spent a lifetime learning, and I still am learning. There is no physical way to teach what I have learned in almost 50 years into 174 lessons. But I can teach how to learn for a lifetime.

With the depth of primary sources available on the Internet, teaching has become a much more engaging experience than it was before. The Internet has opened a world of information and sources previously reserved for scholars. I can go to one website and get six pieces of evidence from the White Sox trial along with the 29 page Grand Jury testimony of Shoeless Joe Jackson. Closing summations are also there. Everything I could hope to find is there. Making decisions on what to include becomes challenging. However, a good teacher stays focused on the objectives and funnels the documents to meet those objectives.

People always ask me why I spend so much time teaching about baseball in an eighth grade U.S. history class. For me, baseball is the great barometer of American history. Through baseball, you can see change happen before it happens in the rest of the America. From Civil War Baseball to The Golden Age of Baseball to the Golden Age of Chicago Baseball to Babe Ruth to Jackie Robinson to steroids, there are a lot of lessons of not only the game, but morality, ethics, race, technology, and everything that was right about America, and wrong too. W.P. Kinsella said it best:

The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again. Oh, people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.

But in the end, I think either teaching method will work. I hope students come away with some depth, some context about how athletes are not role models; of how greed is evil. It is a shame what happened in 1919. The scandal was only a harbinger to come of greed in the 1920s. I hope students get that. I also hope they get the fact that by taking shortcuts, you only cheat yourself and that there are consequences for choices. I just hope I make the right one in about five weeks.

For further reading:
Eight Men Out by Elliot Asinof
Douglas Linder UMKC Law School Great Trials Homepage


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