The Spectre of Gambling
|From Major Leagues by David Pietrusza:
Gambling unfortunately continued, for despite the new league's pious
hopes, human nature was not to be transformed overnight. At the advent
of the National League one Clipper correspondent charged, "Any
professional base ball club will 'throw' a game if there is money in it. A
horse race is a pretty safe thing to speculate on, in comparison with an
average ball match." Public opinion on the issue would not immediately
change--and with good reason.
"Pool-selling" particularly afflicted the game. "Pools" were not direct bets
between two parties; one might welsh on those bets. Instead, "pools"
involved a third party who held the cash, and were formed in "pool
rooms" usually near the local park.
The system was relatively complicated. Prior to a game (actually days in
advance), an auction was held, with bidding on the right to bet on
favorite clubs. Then bids were made on the opposing nine. If the odds
were not favorable, bets could be withdrawn. The pool seller kept
records of these transactions, paid the winners, tried to maintain a
reputation for honesty and received a percentage of each bet.
Although by 1877 "pools" were being challenged by the new English
practice of "bookmaking," they were still exceedingly popular.
Straitlaced Boston alone had eight such rooms, and pools on a single
game in larger New York establishments could reach as high as $70,000.
Rumors particularly swirled around the New York Mutuals in that first
N.L. season. The Chicago Tribune reported that a few of the Mutuals
had plotted to go into the tank on a given date, but when their manager,
William Cammeyer, became aware of the conspiracy, it collapsed and
the team won the game in question. The New York Herald published an
account of a gamblers' plot to bribe Mutuals pitcher Bobby Mathews
(21-34) to throw a game. Mathews declined, however, and nothing
more came of the matter in regard to him. But investigations of several
pool-sellers revealed crookedness, and some were put out of business.
William D. Perrin of the Providence Journal wrote that when the Grays
joined the League in 1879, two "professional men" of the city got
together a pool of $2,000 on the team. Five hundred dollars was
wagered at even odds that Providence would finish above Cincinnati; the
same money at the same odds that they would best Boston; and $1,000
against $4,000 that Providence would win the pennant. How much of
this money was ever placed is unknown.
But the greatest infamy was that of the 1877 Louisville Grays. On
August 13 the Grays had a 27-13 record and a large lead in the pennant
race. With 15 contests remaining, Louisville needed to win roughly half.
Instead, they played wretchedly, at one time dropping eight in a row,
and lost to Boston by seven games.
Louisville's troubles began when third baseman Bill Hague was disabled
by a boil under his throwing arm. To replace him, Grays outfielder
George Hall suggested signing utility infielder Alfred H. Nichols, a former
Mutual now with an independent Pittsburgh club.
Suspicion centered on four key Grays, who were ostentatiously sporting
diamond stickpins and rings: pitcher James Alexander Devlin, who
pitched particularly poorly in the stretch (and who like Hague was also
afflicted with boils that season); shortstop and catcher William H.
Craver, who in 1870 had been expelled from the Chicago White
Stockings for insubordination and gambling and in November of that
year banned for life by the National Association of Base Ball Players;
Hall, around whom rumors of corruption had also circulated back in his
days in the National Association; and Nichols, allegedly involved with
prominent New York City gamblers.
But there were more than rumors. As Louisville headed east to play
Hartford in Brooklyn (Hartford played home games there due to lack of
support in Connecticut) during the Grays' final road trip, club president
Charles E. Chase received an anonymous telegram charging that
gamblers were laying down serious money against the Grays. At first
Chase dismissed the cable as a hoax.
Nonetheless, Louisville lost 5-1 as Nichols, Hall and Craver committed
errors. Chase was surprised to learn Nichols was still in the lineup, since
Hague had fully recovered. Manager Jack Chapman responded that he
had penciled Nichols in on suggestion from Hall, who argued that the
Brooklyn native would bear down harder in front of his hometown
Chase received another mysterious cable prior to the second game in the
series, and once again Brooklyn lost (7-0) to the Dark Blues. Devlin,
Nichols and Hall made damaging errors. Chase ordered Chapman to
But the nose dive continued. The Louisville Courier-Journal was
incredulous, running headlines such as "!!!--??--!!!" and "What's the
Matter?" The paper even made the rumors public when Devlin
mysteriously regained his form in postseason exhibitions ("The Celt has
completely given himself away"). Particularly interesting was that the
Courier-Journal story was by John Haldeman, son of Louisville owner
Walter N. Haldeman.
Chase confronted the suspect players, starting with Devlin. The hurler
admitted he may have been careless in some exhibitions, but that was all.
Chase wasn't buying it. "I want a full confession," he barked. "I'll give
you until 8 p.m. to tell me the full story."
Returning to his hotel, Chase found Hall waiting for him. Hall wrongly
surmised that Devlin had cracked. Chase did nothing to dissuade him,
and soon Hall was spilling his guts, freely admitting throwing games. He
also implicated Nichols, claiming Nichols was the contact with the
Chase returned to Devlin, telling him Hall had confessed. Devlin
admitted his guilt.
The next evening, Chase called a team meeting. He requested
permission to obtain each Western Union telegram sent from or received
by each Gray during the season. Only team captain Bill Craver refused,
and he was summarily suspended.
The contents of these telegrams revealed that Hall, Devlin and Nichols
had been in virtually open communication with the gamblers, particularly
a New Yorker named McLeod. Fixes occurred in both exhibition and
League contests; the code word in the telegrams for a fix was "sash." No
other Grays were proven to be involved.
Nobody owned up to instigating the plot, and each man's degree of guilt
is still a matter of confusion. Hall blamed Nichols, but many believed it
was Hall himself (whose brother-in-law, Frank Powell, had been after
him for a year and a half to throw games), as he had originally recruited
Nichols for the team. Some said it was Hall and Nichols who
approached Devlin, offering him $100 to throw a meaningless exhibition
game at Lowell, Massachusetts. Others said it was Devlin himself who
had been the first of the players to contact McLeod.
In any case, Devlin saw no harm in going into the tank for a
non-championship contest, but once involved he was virtually
blackmailed into throwing the pennant race. He claimed he never
received another cent from the gamblers, but again that contention is
disputed. Some sources indicate he received another $300 for
hippodroming three exhibitions at Indianapolis.
The League expelled all four in December 1877 "for conduct in
contravention of the objects of this League."
Devlin had been an outstanding pitcher, winning 30 games in 1876 and
35 in 1877, leading the league in games and innings pitched both
seasons, and being among the best in ERA. In 1877 he hurled every
single inning for his team--the only pitcher ever to do so. He begged the
authorities repeatedly for mercy, contending his family needed the
money, and further pleading that since expulsion his wife and child had
been in penury. He implored Harry Wright to grant him a second
chance, to give him any sort of position at all, even as Boston's
"I Can asure [sic] you Harry," wrote the semiliterate Devlin, "that I was
not Treated right and if Ever I Can see you to tell you the Case you will
say I am not to Blame I am living from hand to mouth all winter I have
not got a Stich of Clothing or has my wife and Child..., the Louisville
People have made me what I am today a Begger [sic]."
On one occasion Devlin visited League President Hulbert in his Chicago
offices, again pleading for reinstatement. The scene was recorded in
melodramatic fashion by Albert Spalding, nonetheless portraying a very
real human tragedy:
Oddly enough, Devlin was able to find work as a Philadelphia policeman
(and odder still, Craver became a highly respected policeman in Troy,
New York) before dying of consumption on October 10, 1883. Before
Devlin died, a benefit game raised over $1,000 for him.
Adding to public disgust over baseball's gambling was an allegation by
National League umpire Dan Devinney that St. Louis Brown Stockings
manager George McManus had offered him a $250 bribe to throw an
August 1, 1877, Louisville game to St. Louis. Louisville won that game
3-1, however, and no further investigation took place. Devinney did not
officiate in the League the following season.
DeWitt's Base-Ball Guide was particularly harsh on the subject of
gambling. The Guide, pointing out that New York State had legislated
against poolselling in 1877, hoped that the evil had peaked; but the
publication despaired of the gambling mania in the Western states. In
Chicago even the respected Board of Trade had sold pools on the
"Why the base-ball press of the West support the pool-selling curse as
they do, . . . is a mystery," the Guide editor wrote. "Of course while
reporters and club directors and managers countenance pool-selling, as
they did in so many instances in 1877, any hope of reforming players,
even by expulsion, is illusory. While the pool-box is countenanced there
will be rascality among tempted players, despite the most stringent
The St. Louis Globe-Democrat offered a gloomier picture. "The days
of professional baseball are numbered," it opined, "and the hundreds of
young men who have depended on the pastime as their means of earning
a livelihood will be obliged to change their plans of operation."