“Shoeless” Joe Jackson, star slugger for the Chicago White Sox, is scolded by his wife, Katie, for signing a contract against his interests. She reminds him he is far too trusting of others.
Months later, the White Sox team looks forward to the World Series. Ring Lardner, optimistic reporter, extols the virtues of the “best team in the history of baseball” while his cynical counterpart, Hugh Fullerton, digs for dirt. Ace pitcher Lefty Williams pulls Joe aside and encourages him to consider a plan to “set things right” with cheapskate owner Charles Comiskey.
In New York, professional gambler “Sleepy” Bill Burns works with mobster Abe Attell to finance throwing the Series, while in Chicago eight players meet to discuss joining the conspiracy. Joe, the deciding vote, reluctantly agrees, and the fix is on.
Just before the first game, Ring and Hugh discuss rumors that the Sox will throw the Series. Ring refuses to believe it and waxes poetic about the virtues of “Shoeless” Joe. His spirits dampen when Sox ace pitcher, Eddie Cicotte, hits the first player up to bat.
Four games into the Series, the Sox are down three games to one. But Joe is having second thoughts. “It’s hard to play bad,” he tells Lefty. He convinces him that they and the others should, from now on, play to win.
At a Chicago bar, the Sox celebrate their second win in a row. Abe and Sleepy, nervous the Sox have gone against their word, threaten Joe with Katie’s life if the Sox don’t lose. Lefty, scheduled to pitch the next game, agrees to throw the game, and the Sox lose the Series.
A year later, the Sox are, once again, headed for the World Series. But the mood is different. Rumors of a fix the previous year have cast a dark cloud over the team. Despite having the best season of his career, Joe is consumed with guilt. His co-conspirators insist he keep his mouth shut.
Comiskey and lawyer Alfred Austrian meet newly elected baseball commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who vows to scrub gambling from the sport. Alone, the two chiefs predict the demise of their all-star team, but see an opportunity to replenish their roster with young and inexpensive sluggers.
At a bar, Joe runs into Ring. He shames Joe, who runs home to Katie and confesses. Katie persuades Joe to come clean to Austrian and the public, and the “Black Sox” scandal is blown wide open.
At a sensational trial, the eight accused players face the scorn of Comiskey and the press. The public, however, is on the players’ side, and when a not guilty verdict is delivered, most celebrate. Katie and Joe’s reprieve, though, is short-lived as Commissioner Landis declares the conspiring players banned from baseball for life, effectively ending their careers.
In an epilogue years later, Ray Schalk—now a baseball scout—runs into Ring, who has become an alcoholic and is suffering from tuberculosis. Ray tells him a story of running into Joe, now manager of a small dry goods store in South Carolina. In a flashback, we see Joe—run down and looking much older than his years—ashamed to recognize and acknowledge his former teammate.
Embracing the irony of the moment, Ring once again opines about the Joe that once was a boy from squalor, who made it big on nothing short of a dream.