Gambling in the Deadball Era
Part one of a series looking gambling’s influence on baseball.
It’s impossible to understand the Black Sox scandal without taking into consideration the intimate relationship between baseball and gambling during that era.
Fixing games, betting on games and bribery offers were common practices during baseball’s Deadball Era in the early 20th century — and these were just the schemes initiated by players. Millions of fans bet on baseball, too, in a popular societal pastime that resembles today’s fantasy football leagues and NCAA basketball tournament bracket pools.
Baseball’s powers that be implicitly encouraged this behavior because attendance was soaring. Even when their own players were involved with game-fixing, baseball executives looked the other way. While the fixing of the 1919 World Series may have, in the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, destroyed “the faith of fifty million people,” it certainly was nothing new in baseball. In this series about gambling in the Deadball Era, I’ll explore the culture that made the scandal possible. ~ Jacob Pomrenke
This fact is indisputable: As long as there has been baseball, there has been gambling on baseball. As it grew in popularity before the Civil War, many fans (and players) found it enjoyable to be financially invested in the outcome of a game.
It started with a wager for a meal or a small sum of money, but by the time baseball became a professional endeavor in 1869, gambling was firmly entrenched as part of the culture. Players bet on their own games regularly with one another, friends, fans or bookmakers.
In the grandstands, fans placed bets not just on a game’s outcome but on which team would get the first hit or score the first run, like the ever-popular proposition bets at the Super Bowl today. Some would even place penny bets on whether the next pitch would be a ball or a strike. High-stakes baseball pools, the forerunner of modern fantasy leagues, flourished.
One could argue that baseball would not have become nearly as popular as it did without the influence of gambling. Naturally, all this betting led to bribery as bookies sought to gain an edge and make a profit.
This document from 1877 is George Bechtel’s unsuccessful reinstatement plea after he was banished from the National League in 1876, the that leagues first year in existence. The very rare document is not only signed by Bechtel but also by the first three National League Presidents, Morgan Bulkeley, William Hulbert and A.H. Soden.
The National League’s first major scandal took place in 1877, when four members of the Louisville team — star pitcher Jim Devlin, outfielder George Hall, shortstop Bill Craver and substitute Al Nichols — were accused of throwing three exhibition games and some league games. In a precedent-setting decision, league president William Hulbert permanently banned the four players from organized baseball. The scandal scared straight many players for a generation afterward, but by the turn of the 20th century betting on baseball was out in the open again.
William Hulbert tried mightily to clean up the game of professional baseball. He set a precedent by banning several Louisville Grays players for their roles in attempting to throw the 1877 pennant.
Ban Johnson, president of the new American League, seemed especially vigilant about fighting any trace of gambling. In August 1903, in the AL’s third season, he ordered that all betting at league ballparks be banned. But his proclamation had little effect. That year’s inaugural World Series was troubled by a reported bribery attempt against Boston’s star battery, Cy Young and Lou Criger. Criger immediately informed Johnson, who publicly denounced the plot. Criger was rewarded for his honesty as Johnson paid him a pension out of American League funds for many years after his career ended.
Other early World Series were beset by rumors of bribery. In 1905, after the Philadelphia Athletics had clinched the AL pennant, star pitcher and future Hall of Famer Rube Waddell suffered a suspicious late-season injury and missed the Series against the New York Giants. The official story was that Waddell injured his valuable left shoulder in a playful wrestling match with a teammate, but rumors have long persisted that he was bribed by gamblers and may have faked the injury. The Giants won the Series behind three shutouts by Christy Mathewson.
Rube Waddell was one of the great baseball characters in the early 20th century. During the 1905 World Series when the pitcher missed a start because of a ‘mysterious’ injury, rumors were rampant that gambling might have played a role in his absence.
Before Game 6 of the 1912 World Series, Red Sox ace Smoky Joe Wood advised his friends and family to bet on Boston before his scheduled start, with the Red Sox ahead three games to one (darkness had ended one game in a tie). Wood, the American League’s top pitcher, had already beaten the Giants twice in the Series. Instead, manager Jake Stahl was ordered by owner James McAleer to start the unseasoned Buck O’Brien in Game 6. The Red Sox lost that game and Wood, embarrassed and angered at having wrongly advised his friends, lost the next one, too. Boston won the World Series in a memorable Game 8, but syndicated reporter Hugh Fullerton warned of gamblers’ growing influence in baseball:
“The muckerishness of the ‘fan’ is exceeding itself in muck this fall,” he wrote. “Boston howled that it was ‘all fixed’ then raved over the team when it won. [So] New York screamed that the Giants were throwing the series. For a comparatively trifling bet Wood risked Boston’s title and the wealth that accrued to the winners. Stamp out gambling and the end of talk of crookedness is at hand.”
But bribes weren’t the only manifestation of the gambling culture in baseball. With money on the line and the pennant race already over, players routinely “eased up” during meaningless late-season contests. This form of game-fixing led to some farcical events on the field. Hall of Famer Sam Crawford once claimed that his friend Walter Johnson would throw batting practice fastballs to him when he needed a hit to raise his batting average.
In fact, Johnson would still hold the single-season ERA record if not for a silly incident in the final game of the 1913 season. Johnson came on in relief for the Washington Senators and leisurely allowed two hits before being removed. Both runners later scored and Johnson’s ERA rose from 1.09 to 1.14. Fifty-five years later, in 1968, Bob Gibson posted a 1.12 mark to narrowly best Johnson’s record.
The most famous “easing up” incident occurred in 1910, when popular Cleveland Indians star Napoleon Lajoie was credited with an improbable eight hits in eight at-bats during a season-ending doubleheader against the St. Louis Browns. Lajoie and Ty Cobb of the Detroit Tigers were in a down-to-the-wire race to win the coveted batting title and a new car from the Chalmers Automobile Company.
As Ban Johnson later learned, Browns manager Jack O’Connor had ordered rookie third baseman John “Red” Corriden to play well behind third base. O’Connor didn’t do it for selfish or financial reasons; he simply hated Cobb and wanted the popular Lajoie to win the title. With Corriden playing so deep, Lajoie laid down six bunt singles and beat them all out. Browns pitcher Harry Howell also wrote a note to the St. Louis official scorer, promising him a suit if he gave Lajoie the benefit of the doubt during his at-bats.
Johnson publicly cleared Corriden, O’Connor and Howell of all wrongdoing and allowed Lajoie’s eight hits to stand. Nevertheless, Cobb’s final average at the time was slightly higher (.384944 to Lajoie’s .384084). But Chalmers, reveling in the publicity, decided to give each a new car. Meanwhile, O’Connor and Howell were quietly released by St. Louis in the offseason and never worked for a major league team again.
When a team or a player ‘eases up’ to give an opposing player a statistical advantage over another disliked foe, is that a form of cheating? When Nap Lajoie smacked 8 hits in a row, many routine bunts, to almost snatch the batting crown from Ty Cobb in 1910, fans of Cobb and the Tigers were outraged. Eventually American League President Ban Johnson had to investigate.
A few years later, it was Cobb’s Tigers who were asked to “lay down” to help an opponent, in this case the Chicago White Sox. In September 1917, the first-place White Sox were in a close race for the AL pennant when they met the Tigers in a crucial series. The White Sox won all four games against Detroit and ran wild on the basepaths, stealing 22 bases against catcher Oscar Stanage, who later sheepishly admitted, “That wasn’t too unusual for me.”
Sometime afterward, each Chicago player contributed $45 to a pool for the Tigers pitchers, even “clean Sox” like Eddie Collins and Red Faber. (Buck Weaver, who was injured, didn’t contribute any cash but did throw in a fancy handbag for his good friend Ossie Vitt, the Tigers’ third baseman.) The money was given to Detroit’s Bill James and distributed to the rest of the staff. White Sox officials, including manager Pants Rowland, knew about the pool but said nothing. It was just business as usual in baseball.
Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, tired of dealing with so many of these incidents from the Deadball Era that happened before he became baseball commissioner in 1920, later declared that the White Sox’s money was actually a reward to the Tigers for sweeping the rival Boston Red Sox and helping Chicago clinch the pennant rather than a bribe from the White Sox for throwing the four-game series at Comiskey Park. It was a farfetched claim, at best, considering that at least one of the Tigers pitchers who admitted receiving money, Bernie Boland, did not pitch in the Red Sox series.
Although known primarily for banning Shoeless Joe Jackson and several teammates caught in the Black Sox web during his tenure as Commissioner, Judge Landis surely frowned a lot as he investigated more than a handful of shady incidences related to gambling during the early years of his tenure
In 1919, after the White Sox clinched their second AL pennant in three years, they were swept by the Tigers in the season’s final series. This ensured that Detroit would finish in third place and earn a larger share of the first-division” money that went to the top four teams in each league. Some writers have suggested this was the White Sox’s returning of the favor from 1917.
Again and again, baseball officials looked the other way, whitewashing all evidence of bribery and game-fixing. The players involved were rarely punished, nor were most of them even seriously investigated. The incidents related above are some of the most famous, but they were hardly isolated events.
In the next installment of this series, I’ll write about Hal Chase, the “Black Prince of Baseball,” the sport’s most notorious game-fixer, and how he was given chance after chance to mend his ways.