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The Infamous Mr. Rothstein
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 1919or
    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 betsand 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?

Confusing?

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).