Monday, May 16, 2016

The Black Sox, Part IV: Follow the Money

Unless you are an expert in baseball history, you probably owe all of your knowledge about the Black Sox scandal to a book called, "Eight Men Out," or perhaps to the eponymous movie featuring John Cusack (as Buck Weaver), Charlie Sheen (Happy Felsch), David Strathairn (Eddie Cicotte), Michael Rooker (Chick Gandil), Christopher Lloyd (Sleepy Bill Burns), Michael Lerner (Arnold Rothstein), Kevin Tighe (Sport Sullivan) and other less familiar names.

If so, that is regrettable, because almost everything you think you know is wrong.

"Eight Men Out" (hereinafter called 8MO) has often been described as journalism, and has usually been considered a work of non-fiction. It is neither. It would be correctly defined as an historical novel, because it has the following characteristics in common with that genre:

  • 8MO interweaves genuine historical figures with fictional characters. Author Eliot Asinof has admitted that he fabricated a character called Harry F., a hit man who was hired to threaten pitcher Lefty Williams when the Sox seemed on the verge of tying the series at four games apiece. Asinof claimed that he created this character to see which authors were stealing his account without attribution. "Harry" is not only fictional, but is not based on any historical character, and his actions are not based on based on any historical circumstances. In fact, Lefty Williams testified that he told Joe Jackson on the way to the ballpark that day, "I am going to pitch to win this game if I can possibly win it."

    Asinof never revealed the identity of a second fictional character, but there are two good possibilities: (1) There is a minor character named Alfred Bauer (p. 59), allegedly the head usher in the Cincinnati ballpark, who does not seem to have any basis in reality. Unlike the character Harry F., whose identity and exploits have been repeated by many later authors who assumed Asinof's account to be factual, the Bauer character does not seem to have been considered significant enough to enter the Black Sox canon. (2) A character named Pete Manlis (p. 100), allegedly a friend of Arnold Rothstein, had a brief chat with Sport Sullivan in 8MO. Unlike Bauer, this character's participation was repeated in at least one other source (David Pietrusza's biography of Rothstein). Given the similarity of the Peitrusza and Asinof accounts, it is very possible that Peitrusza based his account on the assumption that Asinof's citation was based on reality. Curiously, a character named "Lips" Manlis was a notorious fictional gambler who gave Dick Tracy a hard time in the comic books of the 30s. Could this have inspired Asinof?

  • 8MO uses imagined interior monologues and combines historically established lines with fabricated dialogue.

  • 8MO's central value is a good story with clear themes, not a meticulous recounting of facts. There are no reference notes, foot-, end- or other.

  • 8MO does not consider possible alternatives to its basic narrative, as any good historian or journalist would do. It establishes a consistent point of view and allows for only a single interpretation of the conflicting and complicated evidence in the Black Sox case.

As a historical novel, 8MO is brilliant. It tells a cohesive, tidy story with a beginning, middle and end, filled with clearly defined characters and motivations. The tale skillfully weaves humor, drama and poignancy. The reader is led into an underlying sympathy for the underdogs (Jackson and Weaver, and to some extent Cicotte, Felsch and Williams) whose lives and livelihoods were trampled under the jackboots of larger-than-life Bond villains in Comiskey, Rothstein and Gandil.

But it's important to establish and understand that it is only a historical novel. Among the important figures in the scandal, Asinof was able to talk only to one gambler, Abe Attell, and one ballplayer, Happy Felsch. (Those links lead to Asinof's summaries of the interviews in another book, "Bleeding Between the Lines.")

Among the ballplayers, Gandil, Risberg and Cicotte refused to talk to Asinof, and the other Black Sox had passed away before Asinof could reach them. Handsome, broad-shouldered Happy Felsch (left) seemed completely ingenuous, a co-operative and truthful contributor, but he had been just an overgrown kid who went along for the ride, not a conniving insider, so he knew almost nothing about how the scheme first developed. Asinof had to recreate the genesis of the plot using only court testimony as his source material, and he was unable to find the appropriate transcripts, so he had to rely on newspaper accounts which were not completely reliable, especially in summarizing secret grand jury testimony.

As for Attell (right), he had been a great prizefighter, but was not a man of dependable character. He told so many different stories through the years that all of his accounts must be called into question. More important still, Attell only knew of his portion of the scheme, which was basically based on a bluff, and which contributed only $10,000 to the players' pay-offs.

Most of the money that changed hands in the scandal went from the gambler Sport Sullivan to the first baseman Chick Gandil for redistribution. Gandil refused to talk to Asinof. Sullivan had been dead more than a decade when Asinof's research began. The other important gamblers, Rothstein, Burns and Evans, were also long dead by 1960, so Asinof had to fill in dozens of details from newspaper accounts and his own imagination.

There may have been many possible reasons for Asinof's factual errors, and it is not worthwhile to speculate about them, at least not in this context. It is more constructive simply to point them out and, to the limited extent possible, to correct them.

According to 8MO, the players were supposed to get $180,000: one hundred thousand from Attell and another eighty thousand from Sport Sullivan; but they ultimately received only eighty thousand from both sources (ten thousand from Attell, seventy thousand from Sullivan). The final individual tally, per Asinof: Gandil $35,000, Risberg $15,000, Cicotte $10,000, McMullin, Felsch, Williams and Jackson $5,000 each. The details of Asinof's accounting are detailed below, followed by comments in italics:
  • 8MO: The first ten thousand came from Sport Sullivan and ultimately went to Eddie Cicotte before the Series began, because he had insisted on that amount in advance.

    This payment has never been disputed, although nobody has established who handled the money before it appeared in Cicotte's room. It is assumed that the play should be scored Sullivan-to-Gandil-to-Cicotte, since Sullivan had to be the source of the money, and Gandil was not only the banker for the corrupted players, but also Sullivan's long-time pal.

  • 8MO: The next ten thousand came from Abe Attell after game two. The two go-betweens, Burns and Maharg, called on a suite occupied by Attell and several gamblers. There they saw an unimaginable amount of money throughout the room. Attell was supposed to hand over $40,000 to Burns at this time, but could only be persuaded to part with ten thousand, which was handed by Burns to Chick Gandil, who is presumed to have kept the money.

    According to the testimony of Bill Burns in the players' back-pay suits, Burns did dutifully pass the money on to the Black Sox players, but not just to Gandil. Seven of the alleged conspirators were in the room at the time, all except Joe Jackson. Risberg and McMullin counted it, then Gandil recounted it. It is not known how the money was distributed, but the presence of so many conspirators in the room makes it unlikely (but not impossible) that Gandil was able to retain all of it.

  • 8MO: The next twenty thousand came from Sullivan to Gandil during the Chicago homestand, either after game four or game five. It was split into four equal parts for Jackson, Williams, Felsch and Risberg. Williams was handed ten thousand, and gave half to Jackson, his roommate.

  • That account does reconcile with the grand jury testimony given by Jackson and Williams, as well as the newspaper interview given by Felsch. Those admissions account for $15,000. As for the remaining five thousand, it is pure speculation that it existed at all, or that it went to Risberg, although neither is an illogical assumption, especially given Risberg's insider status.

  • 8MO: The final $40,000 was presented by Sullivan and Evans to Gandil, McMullin and Risberg at the conclusion of the Series. Risberg got $10,000, McMullin $5,000, Gandil $25,000.

    This payment seems to be a fictional embellishment by Asinof. There is no evidence to support it.

Here is Asinof's delineation of that final $40,000 payment (8MO, p. 125):
"He (Sport Sullivan) met with Brown (Nat Evans) in the lobby of the Congress Hotel. Together they removed the $40,000 Evans had placed in the safe before the Series. Sullivan, as planned, would deliver the sum to Gandil at the Warner Hotel.

When Sullivan arrived at Gandil's room, Risberg and McMullin were waiting for him. Gandil had been right to suspect that the Swede was not going to settle for that earlier payment of $5,000. It could be said that Risberg had good reason: he had made a major contribution to the White Sox defeat. He had barely hit his weight (170) and was no great shakes in the field. He smiled as he saw the forty fresh $1,000 bills that Sullivan withdrew from his coat pocket. The Swede walked away with $15,000: $10,000 for himself and $5,000 for his friend, utility infielder Fred McMullin, who had not yet received a dime.

Gandil watched them all go and sat alone with the balance of the cash. He had collected $70,000 from Sullivan and $10,000 from Attell. Of this he had distributed $45,000, leaving a tidy $35,000 for himself."

There are multiple problems with that account:

First, there are only five men who could have testified to what happened that day. None of them ever talked to Asinof, and none of them ever told such a story elsewhere. Asinof started researching the book in 1960. Nat Evans died in 1935, and never discussed his role in the scandal with any journalists or authorities. Sport Sullivan lived until 1949, but kept mum about his role in the 1919 World Series fix, although he outlived all the pertinent statutes of limitations. Fred McMullin and Swede Risberg never discussed their roles in the fix with anyone. Chick Gandil refused to talk to Asinof, but did tell his side of the story in 1956. Unfortunately his self-serving version of events was riddled with holes, including a claim that he received no money at all, let alone the massive payday described above.

Second, the account is internally inconsistent. McMullin was present in the room when the meeting began, but Risberg ended up walking out with some money for himself and some for McMullin. If McMullin was there, why didn't he take his own money?

Third, Risberg did not "barely hit his weight" unless he was actually a 4th grader. He batted .080 in the Series. Asinof seems to have seen no need to look up the statistics of a World Series he was researching.

Fourth, Sport Sullivan had no reason to give the players their final pay-off when they had already lost the series. They had no recourse if he stiffed them. They couldn't go to the police, thus getting banned from baseball, confined to a jail cell, or both. They couldn't challenge Arnold Rothstein, which might have resulted in their confinement to a much smaller area than a jail cell, one about six feet below ground level.

Fifth, it strains one's credulity to posit that Gandil made $35,000 on the Series. That represented a vast amount of purchasing power in 1919. Since Gandil also got the loser's share of the Series money, some $3,254, he would have walked away from the club with $38,254 that autumn, by Asinof's reckoning. According to the inflation calculator, that would be the equivalent of $530,000 in 2015. In an era when the average worker made $25 per week, Gandil would have been a rich man if Asinof's account were credible, but there was no evidence then, or at any later period in his life, that he actually possessed that kind of money. Club owner Charles Comiskey had Gandil investigated by detectives. The only unusual purchases he made after the Series were a house worth approximately $6,500, on which he made a $3,200 deposit, and a new car that cost about $2,000. In 8MO, Asinof incorrectly reported that the detectives discovered that Gandil had purchased “a sizeable quantity of diamonds.” The detectives actually made no such report, nor anything like it. Since Gandil received $3,254 from his World Series share, which was just enough for the down payment on his house, only the cash for the car remains unaccounted for, and was presumably acquired from his share of the gamblers' pay-offs. For the remainder of his life, Gandil lived modestly and within his means as a semi-pro ballplayer and blue collar laborer. In fact, as early as 1922 Gandil was said to be "broke and working as a house painter, writing pitiful appeals for aid to his old friends in Chicago."

We will probably never know precisely how the money was actually distributed, but the evidence points to the following:

  • In his grand jury testimony, Cicotte admitted to having received $10,000 before the first game of the Series.

  • In their grand jury testimony, Jackson and Williams admitted to having taken $5,000. Felsch admitted to a newspaper reporter that he received $5,000. All three of these payments were received during the Chicago homestand, after game four or five.

  • According to Comiskey's detectives, the family of Risberg's mistress believed that he had received $10,000. This belief does not seem to have come from a direct admission by Risberg, so it can't be considered authoritative, although there is nothing to contradict it. The amount seems to have been pulled out of a hat. It might just as well have been $5,000.

  • Joe Jackson testified to the grand jury that he had heard McMullin got $5,000. This is another number which can't be considered reliable, but is the only known mention of McMullin's share.

  • Buck Weaver has never been accused of taking any money.

Nobody knows exactly how much was paid by the gamblers to the players, but the following outlines the likely possibilities:

  • Before game one: $10,000 from Sport Sullivan.

  • After game two: $10,000 from Attell through Bill Burns.

  • During the Chicago homestand: $20,000 from Sport Sullivan, out of his own pocket.

  • After the series: either nothing, or $40,000 from Sport Sullivan.

We can therefore make some guesses at the payday Gandil might have earned as the instigator of the plot, direct contact to the gamblers, and re-distributor of the players' shares.

Scenario one, assuming the final $40,000 was paid to the players:

If the total amount paid to the players was $80,000 and the total amount paid to the other Black Sox was $40,000, as outlined above (Cicotte and Risberg $10k apiece, Williams, Jackson, Felsch and McMullin $5k apiece), or $45,000, as suggested by Asinov (the additional $5k going to Risberg), then Gandil took the rest, leaving the game with a fortune equivalent to more than $500,000 in today's dollars. If Gandil really had that much money, he kept it well hidden through the years.

In this scenario, Risberg also did a brilliant job of concealing his ill-gotten booty. Counting his World Series shares, Risberg would have had either $13,254 or $18,254 ($180k-$250k in 2015 dollars) at the end of 1919, yet continued to live simply, with no conspicuous consumption in evidence during his life. If he truly received that much money, he never really got much enjoyment from it.

Scenario two, assuming the final $40,000 was fictional:

If the final $40,000 was never paid, then there was only $40,000 to go around. Since Cicotte got his $10,000 upfront and Weaver got nothing, the other six most likely got $5,000 each, as Abe Attell told sportswriter Joe Williams in 1934:

I prefer scenario two, but not because Abe Attell supported it. Over the course of more than 40 years, he retold the story many times, and the tale was different every time he related it, depending on whether he was telling the truth, drunkenly pretending to be a big shot, or disingenuously posing as a victim. There is no easy way to tell honest Abe from crooked Abe or to separate his confessions from his posturing. Attell aside, this scenario seems to reconcile more easily with how the players lived their lives from that point forward, and it supports the more likely supposition that the final $40,000 payment was entirely fabricated by Asinov.

Although one is more likely than the other, both scenarios are merely conjectural. A full century has passed since the Black Sox threw that Series and the whispers have silenced. The money trail is overgrown, and we know of no more evidence that can clear it. All we know for sure, perhaps all we will ever know, is that four players admitted to having received a total of $25,000 (Cicotte $10,000, Jackson $5,000, Felsch $5,000, Williams $5,000), that there was probably at least $10,000 more to spread around (the Attell contribution), and that poor ol' Buck Weaver has never been accused of taking a red cent. What the other three players received will probably remain an eternal mystery, since they have long since finished strutting and fretting their hour on the stage. Gandil, Risberg and McMullin were the guiltiest of the guilty, the coldest of the cold, the hard guys who never broke, but they can neither stonewall nor betray us any longer, for they have moved on - to a place beyond guilt, where a soft, warm breeze is always blowing out toward center, carrying their secrets with it.

Next, in Part V: Charles Comiskey, team owner, the Old Roman.

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