Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Black Sox, part III: The Big Bankroll

"He is the Napoleon of crime.
He is the organiser of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city ..."

Sherlock Holmes, referring to Moriarty, in "The Final Problem"

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, revealed to an acquaintance, Dr. Gray C. Briggs of St. Louis, that he had based the character of Professor Moriarty on a real criminal from the late 19th century named Adam Worth, but he could have found a suitable model in New York in the person of his own contemporary Arnold Rothstein. (Rothstein died in 1928, Conan Doyle in 1930.) Although Rothstein portrayed himself as a gentleman gambler, he was reputed to have his hands in many of the criminal enterprises in the United States. Some say that he was the one man most responsible for creating the modern structure of organized crime in America. He was a notorious high-stakes loan shark, the "American Shylock." During Prohibition he was once the largest bootlegger in the country, but when the liquor field became too crowded, he became the kingpin of narcotics trafficking. Because he was connected to everyone on both sides of the law, he often mediated disputes between rival gangs, or between the gangs and the authorities, all the while taking a cut for his services. His own businesses met with little interference because he freely and generously spread the profits around. He distributed contributions to many politicians, witnesses, lawyers, judges, jurors and policemen, thus always ensuring that he could pull strings and leverage favors. He may sometimes have overpaid for what he wanted, but that didn't really concern him much because he loved being a big shot, and to that end was always playing the long game, waiting.

His own lawyer, William Fallon (aka "The Great Mouthpiece") said of him, "Rothstein is a man who dwells in doorways. A mouse standing in a doorway, waiting for his cheese." In Damon Runyon's Broadway stories, he is "The Brain." They also called him "A.R."; "The Fixer"; "The Man Uptown"; "Mr. Big" ...

But mostly they called him "The Big Bankroll" because he always carried a wad of large bills, leaving him unfailingly prepared to make a deal, grease a wheel, place a bet, or post bail for himself or an associate. He liked the power of cash and its ability to get immediate results. He also liked the fact that the feds couldn't easily follow its trail, because he didn't like leaving a public footprint. He rarely met directly or communicated directly about illegal matters, except when in the company of trusted associates. His underlings met with anyone not fully vetted. Rothstein himself usually avoided publicity and was rarely photographed. (The pictures here are among the few available.) His penchant for secrecy extended to his deathbed. Lying in a hospital bed after having been fatally wounded by a gunshot, Rothstein was asked by the police to name his assailant. His answer: "I won't talk about it. I'll take care of it myself." He never did. Neither did the law. Nobody was convicted of the murder.

Despite having his fingers in so many criminal pies, Rothstein, like Professor Moriarty, was never convicted of any crime. He managed to avoid prosecution by gaining a financial hold on the era's corrupt officials and outsmarting the honest ones. To make search warrants useless, he maintained his notes and financial records in an indecipherable code, meaningless to anyone but Rothstein himself. When legally forced to decrypt his books from time to time, he would simply offer whatever explanation was convenient to maintain his current alibi. He was always many moves ahead of his criminal rivals and the authorities who pursued him. Essentially he was playing three-dimensional chess when his opponents and pursuers were still trying to master tiddlywinks. Rothstein actually enjoyed testifying in court from time to time because it gave him an opportunity to browbeat and humiliate the lawyers who cross-examined him.

One illustration will suffice. The following anecdote comes from Leo Katcher's biography of Rothstein, "The Big Bankroll," page 200:

In 1923 he was being cross-examined by a sharp lawyer named William Chadbourne in a civil case involving a fraudulent bankruptcy. A company called E.M. Fuller had declared that it had no assets to transfer to its creditors, but an investigation revealed that Mr. Fuller, before attempting to disappear, had written company checks to Arnold Rothstein in the amount of $353,000. Chadbourne, acting as attorney for the investors and other creditors, wanted to proved that money was not a legitimate business expense, but a personal gambling debt, possibly caused by a fixed World Series. The court allowed Chadbourne a lot of latitude to prove Rothstein was a gambler and a fixer, which led into a cross-examination about the 1919 World Series.

Rothstein initially protested that he would not discuss the Series, which was irrelevant to the matter at hand. Chadbourne explained to the court, "I am seeking to prove that the witness had full knowledge that the Series was fixed and that, with this knowledge, he won various wagers, including some from Mr. Fuller." Rothstein protested vigorously, repeatedly refusing to answer, offering various reasons why he should not have to go over this same ground after having been cleared many times of his involvement with that Series. Rothstein's resistance seemed to prove that the line of questioning would be productive, so Chadbourne felt he was on the right track and kept up the pressure. Little did Chadbourne realize that he was falling for the ol' Br'er Rabbit trick. In asking the judge not to let Chadbourne throw him into that briar patch, Rothstein had actually baited a brilliant trip. Chadbourne took the bait, along with the hook, the line and the sinker.

Chadbourne: "Did you bet with Fuller on the 1919 Series?"

Rothstein: "I made a lot of bets. It's a long time. I'm not sure I remember."

Chadbourne: "Check your records."

Rothstein: (Consulting his ledgers, then answering resignedly) "Yes"

Chadbourne: "How much did you bet with Fuller?"

Rothstein: "The bet was $25,000."

Chadbourne: (Triumphantly) "Then you won $25,000 from Fuller on a Series that was fixed?"

Rothstein: (Smugly) "I didn't win. I lost."

Perhaps Quentin Tarantino might have created a movie scene like that, but even Tarantino's fertile imagination might not have foreseen what transpired next. Rothstein just happened to have on him the cancelled check indicating what he had paid to Fuller to settle this wager. My, what a serendipitous coincidence! He handed it to a nonplussed Chadbourne, and the court had no choice but to tag it and admit it as evidence.

Chadbourne was a skilled attorney, but he was not Sherlock Holmes, and he was dealing with, to paraphrase Holmes, the organizer of half that was evil and of nearly all that was undetected in the teens and roaring twenties. Rothstein brought this same level of conniving brilliance and strategic forethought to all his endeavors, including his involvement in the 1919 World Series.


On September 18, 1919, in the lobby of New York's beaux-arts Ansonia Hotel (right), two members of the Chicago White Sox baseball team, pitcher Eddie Cicotte and first baseman Chick Gandil, had arranged to meet with a former pitcher named Sleepy Bill Burns. The White Sox had just completed a series with the New York Yankees, and had a six and a half game lead over their nearest rivals. Since there were only eight games left to play, they were virtually certain to be in the World Series. Two days earlier, in the same hotel, Cicotte had said to Burns, "The Sox will win the pennant, and I have something good for you."

Cicotte had gone into no details about the nature of that prospective boon, but Burns fancied himself a wheeler-dealer, and he knew that Cicotte was aware of that, so Sleepy Bill was drooling at what might be dangled before him when he was summoned to a second meeting. Gandil wasted no time, but came right to the point: "If I could get $100,000, I would throw the World Series." Burns said he would look into it.

Burns (left) and his friend Billy Maharg, a jovial former prizefighter, were interested, but couldn't find a source of that much cash (more than a million dollars in today's money) from their usual contacts in the gambling demi-monde. Several people pointed them to Arnold Rothstein. The two would-be fixers found Rothstein at a race track in the New York area, but could not speak to him directly. Through an intermediary, Rothstein found out what they wanted and arranged to meet them very publicly, in the grill room of New York's Hotel Astor on September 27th. By that time the White Sox had clinched the pennant and were looking forward to the World Series opener four days hence. Burns and Maharg made their pitch. Rothstein sized them up as two bohunks dumb enough to discuss fixing a World Series in front of their eating companions, including a famous private detective named Val O'Farrell. Rothstein loudly declined their offer, telling them it was both wrong and impossible, and making a noisy scene as he called Burns and Maharg "chiselers," "blackguards," and "skunks."

That sort of loud outburst was totally out of character for the measured, soft-spoken Rothstein, but he was starting his chess game with a feint. In front of a famous ex-cop and all the diners at the Astor, he had publicly established an alibi for something he had already decided to do: assure that the Series was fixed. He seems to have decided this long before all the pieces were in place, perhaps even before the players had consented to participate, perhaps even before the White Sox were established as the champs. Way back in August of 1919, a famous gambler named Mont Tennes had told Charles Weeghman, former owner and president of the Chicago Cubs, that Rothstein would fix the Series. The inside talk was that a coterie of St. Louis gamblers was waiting for either the White Sox or the National League's New York Giants to win a pennant because both teams were said to be filled with corruptible players. (The infamously corruptible Hal Chase was a Giant that year.) To Rothstein, it didn't matter which. He didn't even really follow baseball that closely. He was willing to stand in the doorway, waiting for his cheese.

At the same time that Rothstein was establishing his own alibi at the Hotel Astor meeting, he was also setting up the patsies who conveniently fell in his lap - two men whose intentions had been publicly established at that meeting, and therefore could take the blame if the fix ever became public.

A third would soon appear.

The naive twosome split up, having abandoned their scheme for lack of wherewithal. Maharg returned to his home in Philadelphia, but Burns hung around New York for a while and ran into Abe Attell (above), a former world champion prizefighter who had become Arnold Rothstein's occasional companion and bodyguard. Burns brought Attell up to speed on his meeting with Rothstein. Attell, seeing an opportunity and acting on his own, said he wanted to follow up on the matter. He re-entered the plot claiming that Rothstein had changed his mind and would finance the scheme through Attell himself. Although Rothstein had actually said nothing of the kind to Attell, Burns had no way to know that, so he bought into the claim and wired Maharg to meet him in Cincinnati for the first game of the Fall Classic. Completely convinced by Attell's story, Burns went back to the players with the promise of $100,000 in payoffs from Rothstein.

Unbeknownst to Burns and Maharg, Chick Gandil had already arranged another, similar deal with his long-time friend Sport Sullivan (left), a noted Boston bookmaker, who was partnered up with a certain Nat Evans. That particular deal was the one actually backed by Rothstein, who saw in Sullivan and Evans two men he could trust (unlike Burns and Maharg). Sullivan had a good reputation as a man who stayed in the shadows and kept both his word and his counsel. Rothstein also saw in Sullivan a kindred spirit, a genius with calculations. Without even so much as a pencil, Sullivan could instantly compute combinations of odds and wager amounts that would assure him of a profit irrespective of the outcome of the events inspiring the bets. He had been a long-time fixture at Boston ballgames (1906, 1908), actually running his bookmaking operation from the stands until he was banned from the American League park in 1911. Evans was a long-trusted junior partner in several of Rothstein's operations, and they stayed in contact throughout the series. Sullivan and Evans were assigned to take $80,000 out west to pay for the fix, theoretically representing payoffs for the players at ten thousand per conspirator, but really to be used to accomplish whatever was necessary to make things happen, all the while keeping the deal quiet so the odds would not turn dramatically away from the favored Sox, who were 13-20 favorites at the end of the regular season on September 29th, just two days before the Series opener.

(More details on Sullivan and Evans can be found in the SABR Black Sox Committee newsletter, June, 2014, pages 9-17.)

They had not counted on Attell, however. When Sullivan and Evans started arranging their own action in Cincinnati, Attell, Burns and Maharg had already spilled too many of the beans, and the odds had dropped close to even money. (Just one day after the odds were 20-13 in favor of the White Sox, O'Leary's in Chicago had actually installed the Reds as 6-5 favorites.) Attell later admitted that he had even gone so far as to tell some infamous heavy gamblers to avoid betting on the Sox. Rothstein, seeing the odds tumble in New York, must have been furious at Attell's bumbling interference, but a sure thing is sure at any odds, so A.R. got down some mammoth wagers on Cincinnati. Based on some hearsay and the admissions of the losing bettors, the general consensus was that Rothstein made at least $300,000 profit (article to the left from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Feb 17, 1929) on the Series in the final accounting, but he was so crafty that he had sprinkled in some impressively large bets on the White Sox. He knew those bets were losing propositions, but he had them well covered by Cincinnati bets, and once again he was playing chess. Those losses were simply The Rothstein Gambit: he would lose large semi-public wagers on the Sox to disguise much larger private bets on the Reds which would guarantee him vast profits on a sure thing.

By the time Rothstein traveled to Chicago to testify before the Black Sox grand jury, he had credible witnesses whose testimony could prove that that Burns and Maharg originated the fix, then pitched it to Rothstein, only to have him vehemently, almost violently, reject their overtures in public. He had also created proof he could not possibly have believed the Sox were going to lose, because he had bet large sums on them. He publicly stated "Attell did the fixing," through "cheap gamblers" Burns and Maharg, and he accused Attell of using the Rothstein name to give the scheme some credibility. Rothstein then repeated that same assertion to the grand jury. Just in case all of that was not enough to clear him, he had somehow become so friendly with two of the grand jurors in an unfamiliar city that they would later enjoy his hospitality on numerous visits to New York.



When I recounted the gamblers' side of the Black Sox story above, I left the realm of pure fact and tried to construct a single narrative from among many possible scenarios. Most of the gamblers involved in the World Series fix never testified, and never talked publicly of their involvement. Sleepy Bill Burns testified in court under oath, as did Billy Maharg, and Maharg also told his story to the papers, but they were small-timers and go-betweens who were used as pawns. Abe Attell never testified in court, but allegedly confessed in a tell-all piece for Cavalier Magazine, then backed down from the Cavalier story when confronted with his lies by Eliot Asinof, author of "Eight Men Out," as detailed in a later Asinof book, "Bleeding Between the Lines."

The other principals remained behind the scenes. Whenever Rothstein was forced to address the issue, he simply repeated the same lies he had told the grand jury. A.R. was wise to trust Nat Evans, who never told his side of the story at all, not in court nor to the press. Rothstein's trust in Sport Sullivan also seems to have been well placed, because Sullivan lived until 1949, long after the statutes of limitations would have expired on his involvement, yet he never uttered a word about his role either during or after the trial. All we know about the actions of Sullivan and Evans is what Abe Attell has related, and he can be considered unreliable for two reasons: (1) Rothstein allegedly sent Sullivan and Evans to make the deal and cut Attell out of the action, then told the press and the grand jury that Attell fixed the series, so Attell was (understandably) bitter; (2) Attell didn't really have much contact with Sullivan and Evans, so his version of their role is based in the best case on hearsay and conjecture; in the worst case, on outright lies. Attell's version contradicts the Burns/Maharg version, and what Rothstein told the grand jury was obviously completely different from Attell's story, because The Big Bankroll walked away unindicted.

We don't know, therefore, whether Sullivan and Evans were really carrying $80,000 of Rothstein's money, and if they were, we don't know precisely how much of that went to the players, or how much was ultimately received by each individual player. We know that Sullivan came up with the initial ten thousand to cover Eddie Cicotte's demand to be paid that amount in advance of his first start. We know that Attell handed ten thousand to Burns, who then took it to the players, but we don't know how that money was divided among the conspirators. We know by the players' own admissions that at some time during the Chicago homestand, either after game four or game five of the World Series, Joe Jackson, Lefty Williams and Happy Felsch received $5,000 apiece. That money did not come from Attell, so it must have come from Sullivan. Apart from that, nothing is certain. It is presumed those four players never received any additional money, and that Buck Weaver never received any at all. It is further presumed that Gandil, Risberg and McMullin did get some money, but nobody knows precisely when or how much. There has been a great deal of speculation about the money trail, but there is no hard evidence, and probably never will be because the trail is cold. The narrative above is my attempt to reconcile everyone's stories, based on my understanding of the case and those particular individuals. It should not be considered factual.

After the scandal.

For about another decade, Arnold Rothstein continued managing his criminal enterprises and buying public officials, as well as providing loans and bail money to innumerable shady characters, always extending his own influence in the process. Powerful men on both sides of the law remained connected or indebted to him. He also continued his high-stakes gambling exploits, not because he needed it as a source of income, as in his younger days, but because it was his passion and he could not live without it. The infamy he gained from the 1919 World Series didn't seem to scare him away from fixing major sports events. He and Abe Attell were reportedly involved in many boxing dives and fixes, and they may even have fixed a heavyweight championship fight.

  • In the first Dempsey-Tunney fight, Rothstein was at ringside, having wagered $125,000 on Tunney, the challenger, a 4-to-1 underdog. Tunney pulled off the upset. Rumors spread that Rothstein's agents had paid one of Dempsey's bodyguards to poison the champ before the fight.

  • In the Dempsey-Tunney rematch, the so-called "long count" fight, Rothstein and Attell allegedly offered Tunney $1 million to throw the fight, but were rebuffed. Tunney won a unanimous decision.

Arnold Rothstein died young (46), murdered by a firearm. That seemed to be the fate of many gangland figures in the 1920s, but oddly enough, Rothstein was not killed because of his involvement with organized crime and its violent denizens. It was actually his love for gambling that did him in. He was shot over poker I.O.U.s

Arnold Rothstein in pop culture.

After Rothstein's death, his wife Carolyn wrote a tell-all called "Now I'll Tell," which is long out of print. As soon as it was released, it was immediately adapted into an eponymous 1934 movie, but with the names changed and the events fictionalized. Spencer Tracy played an ersatz Rothstein named Murray Golden. Although the film took its name from Mrs. Rothstein's book, some felt it seemed much closer to a failed stage play called Room 349. The playwright (Mark Linder) thought so as well, and filed a plagiarism suit against the movie studio.

Mrs Rothstein's original written version was putatively non-fictional, but most reviewers and other Rothstein biographers call it a whitewash. Regarding the 1919 World Series, she denied any knowledge that Arnold took an active role in the fix, but she wrote:

"If it were charged that Arnold had used his inside knowledge that they were going to be bribed to make winning bets, I would believe it. As a matter of fact, I do believe it. I might go further than that and say I know it."

Leo Katcher's 1958 biography of Rothstein, "The Big Bankroll," was also turned into a film, this time using Rothstein's real name. Unfortunately, the 1961 film virtually ignored the World Series. David Janssen starred in the movie, which was circulated both as "The Big Bankroll" and "King of the Roaring 20s." (Tagline: "The hell-bent, jazz-crazed era and the man who ruled it all.")

One reviewer opined, "Rothstein is always quiet, well-spoken and beautifully dressed in very good suits. He looks and acts more like a corporate Vice-President of Finance than a stereotypical gangster." That may have been meant as a pan, but it's probably a reasonably accurate description of the real Rothstein as well.

In more recent times, Rothstein has appeared as a character on HBO's Boardwalk Empire (played by Michael Stuhlbarg), in the 1991 film Mobsters (played by Salieri himself, F. Murray Abraham), and of course in the classic baseball film about the Black Sox, Eight Men Out (acted by Michael Lerner). In my opinion, it was Stuhlbarg who completely nailed it.

A.R. was also said to be the inspiration for many fictional characters, the two most famous being Nathan Detroit in "Guys and Dolls," and Meyer Wolfsheim in "The Great Gatsby." Although Wolfsheim is a lowbrow ethnic caricature, while the real Rothstein was quite refined, there is no doubt who the character is meant to represent. He is described as a Jewish "denizen of Broadway" and "a gambler. He’s the man who fixed the World’s Series back in 1919."

Next, in Part IV: "Follow the Money"

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