Remembering a forgotten baseball scandal

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World Series 2023 had the lowest television ratings in history. There’s no need to belabor the whys and wherefores. Instead of listening to the ceaseless chatter of announcer John Smoltz, fans would be better off acquainting themselves with the game’s rich history.

A good start: read Dan Taylor’s “Baseball at the Abyss,” which takes a deep dive into the forgotten 1926 scandal that involved Hall of Fame greats Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker, as the principal scoundrels.

Baseball has a long, unhappy gambling history that dates back before the 1919 Chicago Black Sox scandal. In baseball’s early days, bookmakers plied their trade in the open, working the ballpark areas inside and outside, taking wagers. The 1919 World Series may have, in the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, destroyed the faith of 50 million people, about half the U.S. population then, but throwing baseball games was commonplace. As Emil “Happy” Felsch, a White Sox fixer, said, “Playing rotten ain’t that hard to do.”

Author Taylor explains that the dirty deeds had their inception in 1919, when the Cleveland Indians were in Detroit to face the Tigers. Neither the Indians nor the Tigers were going to win the pennant, but the Tigers were in a tight scrum with the Yankees for third place. In the dead ball era, a third-place finish meant a small share of the post-season loot for every Tigers’ member. The Indians had second place locked up. Cobb and Speaker, the respective managers of the Tigers and Indians, huddled prior to the September 25 game to iron out the details.

Speaker assured Cobb that he “wouldn’t have to worry” about the game’s outcome. 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, Tigers pitcher Dutch Leonard and Indians pitcher Smoky Joe Wood all agreed to conspire in the fix.

Years later, Leonard confessed the four had agreed that since their post-season share would be small, they might as well wager on the game.

The Tigers won the game 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 their bets. The scant remaining evidence indicates that the wrongdoers may not have been able to place all the bets they hoped to.

That winter, Cobb, Speaker, Wood and Leonard went home, but the four men exchanged letters about the incident, sharing their regret that they were unable to get their bets down in time and that their shared proposition fizzled. The letters came back to haunt the four.

Several years later, the stench from the fixing incident wafted out. A vengeful Leonard wanted to settle a score with his former teammate, Cobb, now the Tigers manager. Once, Cobb kept Leonard in a 1925 game in which the southpaw surrendered 20 runs, and the manager mocked the idea that he yank his humiliated starter. Leonard never forgot, and the memory ate at him.

Cobb released Leonard, and insiders said Ty discouraged other American League teams from signing the lefty. Dutch stewed, and in May 1926 he presented the letters he received from Cobb, Speaker and Wood – the evidence – to Tigers owner Frank Navin, who turned them over to American League President Ban Johnson. To keep a lid on the percolating scandal, Johnson paid Leonard $20,000 to go back to Fresno where he owned a farm, and focus on his raisin growing. At the season’s end, Johnson forced Cobb and speaker to resign.

Eventually, the superstars appealed their cases to Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis who, sensing that the public and the baseball writers were solidly behind the diamond, absolved Speaker and Cobb, facts be damned.

Landis read the room correctly. Baseball bugs were fed up with scandal. At least five World Series – 1905, 1912, 1914, 1918 and 1919 – were rumored to have been influenced by game-fixers. And the 1923 Teapot Dome Scandal that implicated President Warren G. Harding – considered the greatest presidential scandal until Watergate – was still reverberating among the citizenry.

Cobb and Speaker played until 1928, Speaker for one year with the Washington Senators and one year with the Philadelphia A’s, and Cobb two years with the A’s.

Better to remember Cobb as one of baseball’s all-time greats, .366 career batting average with nine consecutive titles, and Speaker, the “Gray Eagle” who holds outfielder records for assists, double plays and unassisted double plays. Balls hit to center field where Speaker patrolled were considered the place where triples go to die.

Cobb, Speaker, Wood and Leonard got off the hook, and played into their 40s. Pete Rose, however, who holds MLB career records for 4,256 career hits, 3,215 career singles, 3,562 career games played, 14,053 career at-bats and 15,890 career plate appearances, was permanently banned for his gambling infractions.

In life, good timing is invaluable.

Copyright 2023 Joe Guzzardi, distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Joe Guzzardi is a Society for American Baseball Research and Internet Baseball Writers’ Association member. Contact him at [email protected].