Growing up in southern California, Thom Ross loved the stars of 1960s baseball: Roger Maris, Sandy Koufax, Mickey Mantle.
Now, the acclaimed artist is delving into one of baseball’s darker chapters—the 1919 Chicago White Sox team that threw the World Series—in an exhibit that will debut at the Beverly Arts Center (BAC) next month.
“The Black Sox Scandal,” a series commemorating the 100th anniversary of the infamous team, will run from June 9 to July 21 at the BAC, 2407 W. 111th St., with an opening reception on June 9 from 2 to 4 p.m.
Ross, who now lives in Santa Fe, N.M., created a collection of watercolor and acrylic paintings that he said attempts, in part, to explain why eight players on the team conspired with gamblers to throw the World Series.
Maybe, he said, they shouldn’t be chastised as much as they have over the last century.
“The gamblers are there with the fans and with the ballplayers, just like you’re sitting at a bar drinking with your buddies,” Ross said. “And for these guys, there was a chance to make a few bucks without getting in trouble for it. I just thought, ‘Well, here is a very interesting story about eight guys who are unknown to us today, outside of ‘Shoeless Joe’ [Jackson] because of the great nickname.”
Admission to the exhibit, which will be presented in the BAC’s Simmerling Gallery, is free.
A screening of “Eight Men Out,” the 1988 film starring John Cusack, Charlie Sheen and Christopher Lloyd, will be held on June 19 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $6.
According to Ross, his exhibit will feature about 65 pieces that look at the players, gamblers, owners and sportswriters involved in the scandal.
One piece is a life-sized “Field of Dreams,” a nod to the 1989 film about the Black Sox, which allows attendees to pose for photos wearing replicas of Black Sox jerseys and ball caps alongside some of the players.
Visitors can also use the Smartphone application RealityX2 to learn more about the story behind each piece.
The Black Sox lost the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds in eight games. According to history.com, players agreed before the series to lose on purpose in exchange for $100,000. The Sox fell behind in the best-of-nine series four games to one, and when payments weren’t made on time, they threatened to back off the fix. However, some players suggested their families received death threats, and the Sox went on to lose Game 8.
In October 1920, Joe Jackson, Arnold Gandil, Eddie Cicotte, Claude Williams, Charles Risberg, Oscar Felsch, Fred McMullin and Buck Weaver were indicted on nine counts of conspiracy.
They were found not guilty but were banned from Major League Baseball.
Ross defended the players, saying they weren’t typical criminals such as Al Capone and noting that gambling in sports was widespread at the time. And with horse racing shut down because of World War I, gamblers looked to other sports, and baseball was one of the few professional sports around.
He noted that while some of the players never spoke about the scandal, Cicotte responded to letters that children wrote him.
“He had the redemption,” Ross said. “What he did was stupid and criminal, but that doesn’t make him this evil person.”
Ross has also worked on TV projects for A&E, The Discovery Channel and The History Channel, coordinating with journalist Bill Kurtis for documentaries on Western figures such as Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid, Wild Bill Hickock, Butch Cassidy and Davy Crockett.
He began working on his Black Sox project two years ago, he said, and partnered with the BAC after a friend saw the exhibit and commented about it on Facebook, hoping to find a gallery in Chicago. Shellee Frazee, BAC artistic director, saw the post and made an inquiry.
Ross hopes the exhibit finds a niche in Beverly/Morgan Park, a White Sox bastion.
“I’m the luckiest SOB in the world, but that’s how it happened,” Ross said. “It was a complete fluke, and now it’s perfect.”
“Field of Dreams,” starring Kevin Costner, Ray Liotta and James Earl Jones, is about a farmer (Costner) in Iowa who builds a baseball field and the ghosts of Sox players emerge from a cornfield to play. The film’s themes touch on heaven and forgiveness.
Ross has found his own religious symbolism in the film, he said, and he isn’t afraid to be bold in his artistic works. He invites controversy and wants people to view his Black Sox exhibit and then “get mad and talk about it.”
Other artists may paint more glamorous, mainstream pieces, but Ross takes a different route in appealing to his audience.
“I like to think that I paint what they need,” he said. “It would behoove them to know the story of the Black Sox, so the next time they see ‘Field of Dreams,’ they’ll go, ‘Oh, whoa, that’s what he was talking about.’”
The story of the Black Sox, he said, is “one of those myths that won’t die.”
Most sports fans know about the team 100 years ago that allegedly lost on purpose. Ross hopes they know more after viewing his exhibit.
“They’re still alive and well,” Ross said. “There’s something deeper there than a bunch of idiots who got dumb and try to throw the World Series for a couple bucks.”
For more information, visit the website at beverlyartcenter.org.