Former Tiger had a role in the infamous 1919 Black Sox Scandal

Billy Maharg was an opportunistic man who was at the center of the conspiracy to throw the 1919 World Series.

Billy Maharg was an opportunistic man who was at the center of the conspiracy to throw the 1919 World Series.

We take for granted that the athletic events we watch are legitimate and the teams we root for are trying to win. The World Series for example. But that hasn’t always been so easy to believe.

The story of the Chicago Black Sox is one of the biggest scandals in sports history. In 1919, several White Sox players (allegedly?) conspired to throw that year’s World Series against the Cincinnati Reds, who were heavy underdogs. Chicago eventually lost in eight games (The World Series was a nine-game affair from 1919 to 1921).

The chronicle is an intricate web, a tangled vein of hearsay, allegation, and dubious testimony. Most of the facts are lost to history, yet we are still fascinated by the whole sordid tale almost 100 years later.

The most famous Black Sox player of them all was Shoeless Joe Jackson, whom many believe was unfairly lumped in with the other conspirators. Today, there are still those who continue to bang the drum to exonerate Jackson and get him into the Hall of Fame.

There is a former Detroit Tiger who played an integral role in the entire charade, although he was not one of the Black Sox. Can you name him?

His name is Billy Maharg, and he also took part in one of the most infamous stunts ever in Tiger history.

Born in 1881, Maharg was a creature of the streets of his native Philadelphia. Despite his small size (5-foot-4½, 135 pounds) he was an athletic type, and played sandlot baseball growing up, while also spending much of his time boxing in the local gym. By his 19th birthday, he had turned professional in the ring (as a lightweight). He had a short pugilistic career, and by 1907 he’d hung up his gloves for good, finishing with a record of 45-11 (including 18 draws) as a pro.

Maharg continued to play sandlot ball in Philly, and it was by pure luck that he donned a Tiger uniform one day.

The story really begins on May 15, 1912, when the Tigers were in New York to play the Highlanders (later to be renamed the Yankees). At one point in the game, Ty Cobb entered the stands to beat up a fan who had been heckling him mercilessly. As a result, The Georgia Peach was suspended by American League President Ban Johnson.
His teammates didn’t agree with the decision. It wasn’t that they particularly liked Cobb (most of them didn’t), or that they sanctioned his attacking a fan. It was simply a case in which the Tiger players didn’t think Johnson should have suspended Cobb without conducting a complete investigation first.

The Tiger players got together and agreed that they would refuse to play until the suspension was rescinded. Three days later, at Shibe Park in Philadelphia, when Cobb was ordered off the field by the umpires, the other Tigers went into action. Or rather, inaction. They followed Ty back to the dugout, and everyone was left wondering what to do next.

Tiger owner Frank Navin, however, had anticipated the move by the players. Earlier in the day, he had recruited a bunch of marginally-skilled scrubs from the sandlots, telling them this was their chance to play in the big leagues. Billy Maharg was among them.

Thirty-one years old at the time, Maharg got into the game at third base. He handled a couple chances cleanly, but in the middle innings a bad-hop grounder hit him in the face, knocking out a few teeth. Maharg also went hitless in his only trip to the plate. And that was the extent of his tenure with the Tigers. The Athletics won the game, 24-2. Ban Johnson threatened to fine the striking Tigers $100 each, and Ty Cobb talked his teammates into ending their one-day protest.

With his moment in the spotlight having passed, Maharg wound up working odd jobs in Philly. He lived in a boardinghouse, which coincidentally was also the residence of Grover Cleveland Alexander, who at the time was a star pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies. Alexander talked the Phils into hiring Maharg as an assistant trainer (although he was really more of a gopher for the players). In the final game of the 1916 season, manager Pat Moran started pulling his regulars and replacing them with anybody who was readily available on the bench. That included Maharg, who entered the game as a pinch-hitter in the eighth inning and grounded out.

Thus Billy Maharg goes into the baseball record books with two official at-bats and no hits. But his impact on the game goes much, much beyond that.

He found a job at the Baldwin Locomotive Works, a railway engine plant in Philly. And he may have spent the rest of his life in anonymity there, until one day he bumped into “Sleepy” Bill Burns.

Burns was a former pitcher for several big-league clubs. He and Maharg had known each other for years, and had once gone on an extended fishing trip together. But they’d fallen out of contact after Burns moved to Texas to embark on a career selling oil leases. Now, Burns was back in Philly on business. Burns was also a big gambler, and he’d always wondered if it would be possible to throw a World Series. Talking with his old pal Maharg, the two concocted the rudimentary framework of a wild scheme. They were perfect partners in crime: Burns had the brains and the cash, while Maharg had the gambling connections through his time spent in the ring.

Burns and Maharg approached gambling kingpin Arnold Rothstein, the eventual mastermind behind the Black Sox scandal. He rebuffed them at first, but the wheels had been set in motion.

That’s how the former Detroit Tiger and Philadelphia Phillie, with a cup of coffee in the major leagues, later became one of the central figures in the most infamous episode in World Series history, one that probably cost Detroit-native Eddie Cicotte a shot at the Hall of Fame.

The Black Sox scandal has been the subject of numerous books, as well as a movie about 20 years ago called Eight Men Out (which plays a bit loose with the truth as we know it today). If you’re interested in learning more about Billy Maharg and the other sleazy cast of characters, there’s a newly-released book entitled The Betrayal: The 1919 World Series and the Birth of Modern Baseball, which this writer recommends.

Maharg fell into obscurity after the Black Sox affair. He worked as an auto mechanic at the Ford Motor Company plant in Chester, Pennsylvania, before passing away in Philadelphia in 1953 at age 72.