Arnold Rothstein and the Fixing of the 1919 World Series (Book Review)

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It was a gigantic scandal that shocked the sports world. It also came very close to finishing off competitive professional baseball as a game that would soon to be admired by the masses in America.

The year was 1919. The Chicago White Sox had won the American League championship. They were pitted in the World Series against the National League champs – the Cincinnati Reds. Back in those days, the Series was decided in a best-of-nine series and not in seven games like it is today.

The baseball bosses had decided that a nine game series, rather than seven, would bring in more revenue and also increase the popularity of the game. As it turned out, this event became notorious when several members of the White Sox teams conspired with gamblers to throw the World Series games. Cincinnati, the underdog, won the Series. It was close, by a five games to four count.

At the center of this unholy mess was a man labeled as a “criminal genius” – Arnold Rothstein, aka, “A.R.” Check out David Pietrusza’s excellent book on him at: “Rothstein: The Life, Times, and Murder of the Criminal Genius Who Fixed the 1919 World Series.” This particular wrongdoing became known to historians as “The Black Sox” scandal.

The author underscored how the slippery, amoral Rothstein was also the “founder and mastermind of the modern American drug trade.” So, if you have had any family members who got caught up in the drug mess, you can curse out Rothstein for its popularity.

The author touches every base, and more, in bringing this story to life and in doing so, he disputes some of the fables that have surrounded it. Keep in mind that in 1919, there was no Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) like we know it today on the radar. The police authorities were all mostly local, like the ones found in our city, state and county governments.

Sadly, corruption of law enforcement was widespread, too, in that wide open era, particularly in our large cities. Illegal gambling was also everywhere and very influential. The notion that some creeps were looking to fix a baseball game would hardly raise an eyebrow back then,

The idea, however, for putting the fix on the Series didn’t come from A.R. It came, according to Pietrusza, from two characters lost to history: Eddie Cicotte and Chick Gandid. They, however, didn’t have the kind of money or savvy to pull off a deal of that magnitude. It took A.R., along with associates of his criminal enterprises, to implement the scheme. Bottom line: the clever A.R. came out $300,000 richer by betting “on the Reds to win the Series.”

Eight players from the White Sox were implicated in the fix, but were later found “not guilty” by a criminal court. Nevertheless, the new Baseball Commissioner, also its first, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, banned them “for life” from  baseball for either fixing the Series or knowing about it.

In that free wheeling era, Rothstein, in dominating the illegal narcotics business, was so big and so powerful that notorious mobsters such as Frank Costello, “Legs” Diamond, Lucky Luciano and Dutch Schultz worked for him.

Book cover (Amazon)

Author Pietrusza added an “Epilogue” section to his fact-filled book. It’s a treasure chest of information on the characters who played roles in this colorful era before prohibition was implemented in 1920.

Besides the four mentioned in the previous paragraph, there was the likes of Hall of Fame member John McGraw; gangster Lepke Buchalter; the author Stephen Crane; boxer Jack Dempsey; baseball player “Shoeless” Joe Jackson; and finally, famed short story writer, Damon Runyon.

Just weeks before he was gunned down, in his NYC office, supposedly by George McManus, Rothstein lost big in a card game – $322,000, nearly $10,000 an hour.” The author emphasized how he hated to lose and when he did, he suspected he “was cheated.” His ego took a big hit, too. A.R. whined: “I’ve been playing with a pack of crooks.”

One of the winning players responded, “Why you are a low rat…You’re a welcher. You’ve been welching all your life, but you’re not going to welch this time.” After he left, McManus, who hosted the game and who was “morally” responsible to see that all debts were paid, told the other players not to worry that he was “good for it.”

Well, McManus was wrong. Weeks went by and A.R. repeatedly refused to pay up. He was warned about what happens to “welchers.” A.R. ignored all the alerts.

On the evening of November 4, 1928, A.R. paid the ultimate price for not paying off his gambling debts. McManus allegedly shot him dead in a room at the Park Central Hotel. No one was convicted of the crime. The colorful Arnold “The Brain” Rothstein era was at an end.