Two distinct periods of gambling

Gambling in baseball is summed up in two separate eras: the late 1800s-early 1900s and Pete Rose's time.

Originally Published: January 7, 2004
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

It came all the way across the country, from my editor, at the speed of light ...

What we're looking for from you is a story along the lines of a timeline of gambling in baseball. Go back as far as possible and chronicle gambling events that took place.

"No problem," I replied.

There is a problem, though. The timeline really isn't a timeline at all, but rather two broad points.

    1865-1920: Stinking Cesspool of Greed
    1989-2004: Pete Rose

Is this a gross simplification? Sure.

Is this gross simplification generally accurate? Yup.

You see, it is literally true that there was not, from 1921 through the end of Pete Rose's playing career, a single documented case of a major league player, coach, or manager placing a bet on a major league game, or conspiring with gamblers. On the other hand, prior to 1921 there were so many scandals and near scandals and non-scandals that it's impossible to list more than a small percentage of them. The lowlights, if you will.

But along the lines of a timeline, here are a few of them ...

The 1919 World Series is remembered by most fans as an isolated incident. It wasn't, though. Other World Series -- in 1903 and 1912, to name just two -- were played under a cloud of suspicion, and of course Hal Chase had been throwing games for years. What's more, Chase certainly wasn't alone; he was merely the most brazen of his crooked peers.

1865: Officially, "professional baseball" hadn't yet been invented. But in this, the last year of the War Between the States, baseball in something like its modern form had been played for a couple of decades, and for some number of those years players had been paid under the table.

In 1865, a gambler named Kane McLaughlin paid a New York Mutuals player named William Wansley $100 to ensure that the next day's game against the Brooklyn Eckfords would be won by the Eckfords. Wansley, in turn, paid two teammates $30 apiece to facilitate the fix.

The plan "worked," with the Eckfords winning 23-11 and Wansley doing more than his share. He was a bit too obvious about it, though -- in five innings behind the plate, he was charged with six passed balls -- and shortly afterward an investigation revealed the plot. All three players were suspended by the National Association of Base Ball Players (eventually, all three were reinstated).

1877: In this, the second year of the National League, teams often played exhibition games, and in 1877 four players on the Louisville club were paid by gamblers to lose at least two of these exhibition games (and they might well have fixed some "league games" as well). The four players -- utility man Al Nichols, second baseman Bill Craver, star outfielder George Hall, and ace pitcher Jim Devlin -- weren't particularly subtle, and it wasn't long before all four were investigated and wound up admitting their guilt.

There was nothing particularly novel about their plot; suspicion of wrongdoing was widespread in the new league, and just a year earlier another Louisville player had been suspended for fixing games. But with the permanent suspension of the four players -- Devlin applied for reinstatement many times, to no avail -- the National League did send a message that some things simply wouldn't be tolerated.

At this point, it's worth noting that baseball's scandals weren't related to players betting on baseball games, but rather to players being paid to lose by gamblers betting on baseball games. In fact, in the 19th century there was little or no stigma attached to betting on games, assuming of course that the player was betting on his own team.

Howard Rosenberg, a researcher and author, has discovered 162 instances of players and team officials betting on baseball during the 19th century. Specifically, Rosenburg writes, "As my 2004 book will show, Cap Anson, baseball's all-time hit leader from the 1890s until the 1910s, bet on his team in the regular season at least 57 times. And he was widely viewed as a symbol of baseball's honesty." These bets were not made secretly; Rosenburg found accounts in the newspapers of the day, and nobody seemed particularly concerned about these bets. It was, at the time, considered perfectly natural to bet on yourself to win. In fact, considering how many times players were paid to lose in the game's early days, it must have been somewhat reassuring when a player went the other way.

(Brief editorial aside ... It's fashionable to suggest, when discussing the various crimes of Pete Rose, that betting on your own team is just as heinous and insidious as betting against your own team, but isn't this obviously a ridiculous position? Aren't there various shades of insidiousness?)

1918: On August 26, then-Reds first baseman Hal Chase was formally charged by the National League with attempting to "fix" games. This should not have particularly surprised anybody, as Chase had been considered for many years to be perhaps the most crooked player in the major leagues. However, he also was considered one of the game's best players -- Babe Ruth later named Chase as the best first baseman he ever saw -- and anyway it wasn't like other players weren't throwing games, too.

Despite a wealth of evidence against him, Chase was acquitted by National League President John Heydler in January of 1919, and signed with the New York Giants. Finally, after the season Chase (along with National Leaguers Heinie Zimmerman and Lee Magee) was "quietly pushed out of the game for crooked play."

1919: You know the story. Or at least you know the story as told in a couple of movies, both of which ignored any facts that got in the way of a good story. The best evidence suggests that eight Chicago White Sox knew about the World Series fix, and that seven of them -- Buck Weaver (or John Cusack, if you're watching at home) being the exception -- profited to various degrees. Pitcher Eddie Cicotte, for example, received $10,000 from the gamblers who financed the fix, and Shoeless Joe Jackson received $5,000 (about which he was mighty unhappy, seeing as before the Series he had been promised four times that amount).

Was Pete Rose really the first employee of a major league team to bet on a baseball game since 1920? Probably not. But he was the first who was dumb enough to get caught, and he certainly knew the penalty, which had been written in large print on the wall of every major league clubhouse during Rose's entire career.

At the time of the fix, a number of observers suspected that something was amiss, but the story didn't break until the fall of 1920, with all eight "Black Sox" suspended just before the end of the season (which might have cost the White Sox the American League pennant). Eventually, all eight were permanently suspended by Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who was appointed to the new position of Commissioner largely to clean up the sport's soiled reputation.

The 1919 World Series is remembered by most fans as an isolated incident. It wasn't, though. Other World Series -- in 1903 and 1912, to name just two -- were played under a cloud of suspicion, and of course Hal Chase had been throwing games for years. What's more, Chase certainly wasn't alone; he was merely the most brazen of his crooked peers. The fact is that baseball players in the early 20th century were generally expected to make an extra buck from time to time.

When Landis suspended the Black Sox -- and anybody else who offended his sensibilities -- he sent a vivid message: fix games, or even appear to fix games, and you're out. Forever.

In 1927, Landis proposed a set of rules about baseball and gambling, all of which were adopted in principle and remain on the books today. Among them, a one-year suspension for rewarding players from another team for beating a third team (this was a common practice prior to 1920), a one-year suspension for betting on games "in connection with which the bettor had no duty to perform," and "permanent ineligibility for betting any sum whatsoever upon any ball game in connection with which the bettor has any duty to perform."

And since then? Nothing. Oh, there was a rumor of wrongdoing in the 1922 World Series, and there were tales of pre-1920 games that might have been on something less than the up-and-up. But for nearly 70 years after the Black Sox scandal, nobody associated with major league baseball was suspended for betting on baseball or conspiring with gamblers to fix games.

1989-2004 (and counting): The world discovers that the nickname "Charlie Hustle" might mean something more than everybody thought. The fact that it's been nearly seven decades since the Black Sox scandal suggests that either 1) the harsh penalties mandated against anybody who gambles on baseball served as an effective deterrent, or 2) a lot of players got away with a lot of stuff.

Was Pete Rose really the first employee of a major league team to bet on a baseball game since 1920? Probably not. But he was the first who was dumb enough to get caught, and he certainly knew the penalty, which had been written in large print on the wall of every major league clubhouse during Rose's entire career.

It's been suggested that what Pete Rose did really wasn't so bad, that there's nothing wrong with betting on your own team. But betting on baseball games, even if it's on your own team, creates an unhealthy environment. Judge Landis understood this, so he changed the environment.

It's also been suggested that reinstating Pete Rose will open the door for a return to baseball's bad old days, with players laying down bets from Atlantic City to Las Vegas and all points between. But to suggest that reinstating Rose after a 15-year exile will result in a rash of gambling is just as silly as suggesting that Charlie Hustle = Shoeless Joe. Rose paid a heavy penalty for his crime, and it's not likely that any current players or managers will rush to follow in Rose's clumsy footsteps.

Sources for this column include Daniel E. Ginsburg's The Fix is In: A History of Baseball Gambling and Game Fixing Scandals (McFarland, 1995) and J.G. Taylor Spink's Judge Landis and Twenty-Five Years of Baseball (Thomas Y Crowell, 1947).

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes three columns per week during baseball's offseason. Next spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-authored with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

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