Today, baseball has embraced fantasy sports and the millions (and billions) of dollars associated with the popular activity. Many states (including Michigan) have legalized sports gambling, which means tons of money can be bet on baseball, college football, you name it.
But, there was a time when gambling threatened to destroy the National Pastime, and one gambling scandal nearly damaged the reputations of two of the biggest names in the sport. Only the force of Ty Cobb’s character and his determination helped silence a growing investigation that might have exposed a myriad of game-fixing schemes that were common in the deadball era.
What was baseball’s deadball era?
A lot of folks will use the term “deadball era”, but what does it actually mean?
The deadball era commonly refers to the period of professional baseball between 1900 and 1919. During that era, run scoring was low and games were won and lost primarily on advancing runners one base at a time. The stolen base, hit-and-run, sacrifice, and bunt were prominent in the game. The home run was unusual, and many home runs were of the inside-the-park variety.
In the late 1910s, Babe Ruth began ushering in a new style of offense. He held the bat at the end of the handle and swung it hard and with force, attempting to hit the ball over the outfielders and the fence. In 1918, Ruth hit 11 home runs, which was enough during the deadball era to lead the league. Two years later, Ruth blasted 54 home runs and the deadball era was quickly put to rest. By the middle of the next decade, many players were swinging for the fences.
Gambling in early baseball
Prior to 1920, gambling and baseball went together like the horse and buggy. Bookmakers openly plied their trade, and players, who were celebrities and high rollers, were treated like kings and invited to participate in betting at the race track, in gambling parlors, back room poker games, and yes, even at the ballpark.
Noted baseball author and historian Jacob Pomrenke noted that betting and gambling were commonplace and even encouraged by those who controlled the National Pastime during the deadball era:
Baseball’s powers that be implicitly encouraged this behavior because attendance was soaring. Even when their own players were involved with game-fixing, baseball executives looked the other way. While the fixing of the 1919 World Series may have, in the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, destroyed “the faith of fifty million people,” it certainly was nothing new in baseball.
At least five World Series (in 1905, 1912, 1914, 1918, and 1919) were rumored to have been influenced by game-fixers. The 1919 Fall Classic, won by the Cincinnati Redlegs when a contingency on the Chicago White Sox conspired to throw the series, was the nail in the coffin, the straw that broke the camel’s back and prompted the commissioner system that swept gambling out of the sport (for the most part).
But in addition to the game fixing and schemes that hovered like storm clouds over the World Series in the deadball era, every season there were opportunities for a clever player to make extra money by “laying down.” The circumstances of these fixed games often involved teams hopelessly out of the pennant race, late in the schedule when players were weary from a long season and hoped to make a few hundred bucks before heading home for the winter.
At least two dozen incidents are known where players from opposing teams went in cahoots to throw a game on the final day of the season. The players would pool their money and bet on the team that would “win” the fixed contest. In 1919, when the Cleveland Indians were in Detroit to face the Cobb’s Tigers, such an arrangement was concocted. Neither the Indians nor the Tigers were going to win the pennant that season, but the Tigers were in a tight scrum with the Yankees for third place. At that time, a third place finish would mean a small share of the post-season money for every member of the Tigers. The Indians had second place locked up. Veterans Cobb and Tris Speaker of Cleveland huddled prior to the game of September 25th and ironed out the details.
Speaker assured Cobb that he “wouldn’t have to worry” about the outcome of the game. The Cleveland team preferred, Speaker insisted, that Detroit finish in third. By virtue of that finish, the Tigers were likely to make about $500 for each player. Cobb, Speaker, Detroit pitcher Dutch Leonard, and Cleveland pitcher Smoky Joe Wood all agreed to conspire in the fixing of the game.
According to Cobb biographer Charles Alexander: ”Then, said Leonard, the four agreed that they might as well bet some money on the game. Cobb was to put up $2,000, Leonard $1,500 and Speaker and Wood $1,000 each. Cobb suggested a park attendant named Fred West would be a good man to place the bets. But because Detroit was a 10-7 favorite and because the local bookmakers were unwilling to handle so much money, West only managed to get down $600 against the bookmakers` $420 for three betting partners.”
The Tigers won the game on the 25th by a score of 9-5, plating four runs in the first two innings. The Indians committed three costly errors, and Cleveland starter Elmer Myers (perhaps tipped off to the fix or maybe acting on his own whimsy) floated pitches to the plate for the Detroit batters. Speaker banged out three hits, all of them well after the Tigers had control of the game and the outcome was clear. No one is certain whether Cobb, Speaker, or anyone else actually received money from bets placed on the game. It seems, based on the scant evidence that remains, that they were unable to place all the bets before the game.
That winter, Cobb, Speaker, Wood, and Leonard went home and the matter was forgotten. But the four men did exchange letters about the incident, sharing their regret that they were unable to get their bets down in time and that their shared proposition fizzled. Rumors swirled around the 1919 World Series, but that was sadly par for the course in an era of suspicious characters in the game of baseball. It took another full year, late into the 1920 season, for the dirty story to be revealed of the Black Sox, the eight crooked players who threw the World Series. But even then, Cobb and Speaker were safe in assuming that their gambling endeavor in 1919 was never going to be an issue.
There’s a saying that “all bad deeds stink,” and sure enough several years later the putrid smell of the Cobb/Speaker fixing incident drifted out. It all happened because of Leonard, who wanted to settle a score with his former teammate, Cobb, who became manager of the Tigers in 1921. Pitching for Cobb, Leonard saw inconsistent results, and suffered arm injuries. Once, Cobb kept Leonard in a game in which the southpaw surrendered 20 runs, laughing at the suggestion that he pull his struggling hurler. Weeks later, Cobb released Leonard, and according to some, Ty discouraged other teams in the league from signing the pitcher. Dutch stewed, and a few months later, in May of 1926, he presented his letters to baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, confirming the gambling fiasco from 1919 that involved Cobb and Speaker.
It’s possible that Leonard was simply jealous of Cobb, or bitter that his skills as a pitcher had abandoned him. Landis felt that was so, and even though he was intrigued by the letters from Cobb and Speaker that mentioned the gambling scheme, he took no official action. His inclination was to keep Leonard, whom he saw as a loose cannon, from playing in the major leagues again.
Leonard was sure to let the media know about his accusations, and a controversy erupted that threatened to stain the reputations of both Cobb and Speaker, two of the greatest players in the history of the game. At the time, both men were player-managers, and finished out the season with a cloud over their heads. After the season, neither men were retained by their teams, in what many feel was an unofficial punishment. But Cobb was not going to allow his reputation to be besmirched.
With great resources at his disposal, and powerful friends in government, law, and the media, Cobb fought back, just as he did every time he stepped on a dusty baseball diamond. He hired a lawyer and sent threatening letters to Leonard, Landis, and the president of the American League, Ban Johnson. From his regal home in Augusta, Georgia, Cobb told reporters “I have given my life to the game of baseball, and I won’t accept an attempt to darken my image.” Within weeks early in 1927, Cobb received a back-channel invitation from Landis to re-enter the game. In February his contract was acquired by the Philadelphia A’s, and Ty revealed that he would be back for his 23rd season in the big leagues. Speaker signed with the Senators, and the following year he joined his friend Cobb as a grey-haired outfielder for Connie Mack in Phiadelphia. Their betting dalliance was forgotten.
“I should expect that men of honor in the game of baseball will afford me the position I have earned through my years of dedication,” Cobb wrote in a letter to a friend about the incident years later. “I never played to lose one day I put on the uniform.”