The Day the Detroit Tigers met Al Capone

As Detroit Tigers pitcher George Uhle remembered it, it was the last week of May 1931 when the Detroit club took the train to Chicago for a series against the White Sox. One evening he, second baseman Charlie Gehringer, catcher Johnny Grabowski, and third baseman Jumpin’ Joe Dugan stopped at a South Side speakeasy for a post-game beer. It was Prohibition, but Uhle knew most of the right spots in every American League town.

While idly chatting with the blind pig’s owner, Al Capone’s name came up, and one of the players remarked that they’d love to meet Scarface, the world’s most famous gangster. It had only been a couple of years since the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, when Capone had had seven of his rivals machine-gunned to pieces inside a garage on Clark Street. “The fella who owned this saloon kind of worked for Capone—a collector or something,” Uhle recalled. “Anyway, he says, ‘Would you really like to meet him?’ We all said, ‘Yes.’ ‘All right,’ he says. ‘I’ll arrange it for tomorrow night then.’”

The following evening, Uhle, Gehringer, Grabowski, and Dugan returned to the speakeasy, and the owner drove them to the Lexington Hotel at the corner of Michigan Avenue and 22nd Street. Here Capone oversaw his various “business interests”—bootlegging, prostitution, extortion—out an opulent fifth-floor suite of rooms registered under the name “George Phillips.” Nobody was fooled, particularly since Mr. Phillips’s business associates were known to include “Machine Gun Jack” McGurn, Frank “The Enforcer” Nitti, Jake “Greasy Thumb” Guzik, and “Cowboy Frank” Di Giovanni.

“When we walked into the lobby of the Lexington,” Uhle said, “the guy running the elevator stepped away and let us stand there for about five minutes. We stood in the hallway until he must’ve gotten the okay to come on up.

“When we got on the elevator we were searched. Then when we got off on the floor where Capone had his suites, we were searched again. We went down this hallway to a door that led to a corner suite. We went in and there was a guy by that door. And then there was a guy by the door that led into the next room. I’d say we were searched four times by the time we got into Capone’s office.”

The four players sat down alongside a wall and cooled their heels as Public Enemy No. 1 talked business with Ed Strong, a racetrack owner and fight promoter. “Before we were introduced, we had a chance to look around,” Uhle said. “Capone was sitting at this big desk. On the wall behind him were these great big paintings of Lincoln and Washington.” Dugan, a bit of a cut-up, quipped, “Look at this: Washington, Lincoln—and the king sitting in the middle.”

“Capone didn’t hear that,” Uhle said. “But he was glad that we came up. He was a big baseball fan. He wanted us to go out to dinner with him. He was going to some show that he owned, taking the troupe out, all the girls, and he wanted us to join him. We didn’t want to do that, so we said thanks, but we can’t.”

The Tigers were scheduled to play in Cleveland, Uhle’s hometown, during the July 4th holiday. A big heavyweight fight between Max Schmeling and Young Stribling was scheduled for the same city on July 3. “These boys are going to be in Cleveland shortly,” Capone told Strong, who was promoting the bout. “See that they get in to see the fight. Take care of them.”

“Never met him again,” Uhle said of Capone. “But he was fine with us.”

Later that summer, on September 9, Capone attended a charity game between the Sox and Cubs at Comiskey Park. As always, he was accompanied by a cadre of unsmiling men wearing fedoras and bulging suit jackets. A photographer captured Cubs catcher Gabby Hartnett smiling and leaning into the stands as he signed a baseball for Capone and the mobster’s 12-year-old son, Sonny. Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who had been made baseball’s first commissioner for the express purpose of cleaning up the game’s historic ties with gamblers and criminals, was aghast at the widely published image. He fired off a telegram to Hartnett: “You are no longer allowed to have your picture taken with Al Capone.”

“OK,” Hartnett wired back, “but if you don’t want me to have my picture taken with Al Capone, you tell him.”

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