The Infamous Mr. Rothstein The real story of Arnold Rothstein, the criminal genius behind the 1919 Black Sox scandal.
by David Pietrusza
Let us now praise infamous men.
October is upon us. The World Series awaits, an event so American and so sacred that only the most despicable of miscreants, a Bud Selig or a Donald Fehr, might dare risk its harm.
. . . Bud Selig.
. . . Donald Fehr.
. . . or Arnold Rothstein.
I do not mean to praise Messrs. Selig or Fehr. I have my limits. But I do wish to give some credit to Mr. Rothstein.
Eighty-six years ago, New York gambler Arnold Rothstein played a role in fixing the Chicago White Sox's last World Series appearance. That is fairly well known. In September 1919, two very small-time gamblers, Sleepy Bill Burns and Billy Maharg, thought they could entice certain less- scrupulous members of the Chicago White Sox to throw the upcoming World Series. They did not, however, possess the necessary cash. The pair approached A.R. They wanted him to finance the operation. He loudly, rudely, and publicly refused.
Rothstein's pal, former featherweight champion Abe Attell, however, saw promise in Burns and Maharg's simple yet ambitious scheme. Attell informed them that A.R. had changed his mind, and they should proceed. Attell was lying, but they didn't know that.
Gambler Joseph "Sport" Sullivan then ventured down from Boston. He too wanted to fix the Series. He too knew which players could be bought. A.R. reconsidered. He knew Sullivan. He trusted him. He gave him the cash.
The Black Sox—Shoeless Joe Jackson, Chick Gandil, Swede Risberg, Happy Felsch, the lot of them—proceeded to lose the World Series to Cincinnati.
When the scandal broke, Rothstein went to Chicago, and with the support of White Sox owner Charles Comiskey's attorney, bamboozled the investigating grand jury. Chicago grand juries are easy to bamboozle. He walked away scot- free. Eventually, so did everybody else.
That is the story in the books and in the movies.
It does not do Mr. Rothstein justice.
Today we forget just how big Arnold Rothstein was. In fact, he was the original "Mr. Big." When he died (of lead poisoning) in 1928, few paid much attention to the fact that he had dared to fix a World Series. That was simply among the least dishonest, the least lucrative, of his varied enterprises. Gambling. Loan Sharking. Fencing Stolen Goods. Wall Street Swindling. Rumrunning. Labor Racketeering. Drug Smuggling. Rothstein was big in all these occupations, and each generated more income than fixing some postseason baseball exhibition.
Yet fixing a World Series remained a big deal. "It never occurred to me that one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe," wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby.
It occurred to Arnold Rothstein. And it occurred to him very early on.
A.R. played a far greater role in the scandal than he has henceforth received credit for. A new examination of the evidence reveals:
Rothstein did not become part of the conspiracy after it had been hatched in Boston in September 1919—or after he met with Burns and Maharg. He had already set it in motion no later than that August. Former Chicago Cubs owner Charles Weeghman testified to that before the grand jury.
Rothstein did not refuse to work with Burns and Maharg because he thought fixing a World Series was impossible, he refused because he and his agent Sport Sullivan were already working on a fix and didn't want them in the way.
Abe Attell was not operating separately from Rothstein in pursuing his end of the caper. He took orders from Rothstein every step of the way. In fact, Rothstein had a direct phone line to Attell in Cincinnati.
Abe Attell was broke and hocking his wife's jewelry less than a week before the Series started. The day the Series opened he was supervising a cadre of Midwestern gamblers betting thousand-dollar bills on Cincinnati. From where had Attell's men and capital money so quickly materialized? To ask the question is to answer it.
Rothstein brought Attell into the conspiracy, primarily not to fix the series (since he already had Sport Sullivan working on that) but simply to oversee those Midwestern gamblers in laying down bets—and to deflect blame to Burns and Maharg if anything went wrong.
And from where had those Midwestern gamblers come? They'd been there with Rothstein all along. In fact, they had plotted to fix the 1918 World Series.
Abe Attell did not refuse to tender the Black Sox any appreciable amount of cash merely because he was greedy, arrogant, and shortsighted. He may indeed have been all of those things, but he acted as he did, because he knew the players were already on the take, getting Rothstein's cash from Sport Sullivan and another Rothstein associate, Nat Evans. Attell's outlays would only be superfluous—a waste of A.R.'s money.
Charles Comiskey had little influence over the grand jury. His hated enemy, American League president Ban Johnson, did. It was Johnson who worked to cover-up Rothstein's role in the affair. Johnson's motive: he needed support from Rothstein's shady business associate, New York Giants owner Charles Stoneham to stave off efforts to create a new baseball commissionership. A.R. double-crossed him.
Rothstein, in turn, protected Abe Attell from prosecution. The obvious question: If the two had not worked together in the fix, why would A.R. bother?
You bet. Or rather, Arnold Rothstein bet—at least $270,000 on the Cincinnati Reds.
In 1961 a newspaper columnist asked Abe Attell if the World Series could still be fixed. "Not a chance, the Little Champ responded. "that kind of cheating died when they buried Arnold Rothstein."
David Pietrusza is the award-winning author of Rothstein: The Life, Times, and Murder of the Criminal Genius Who Fixed the 1919 World Series (Basic Books).