Shoeless Joe, the Bambino, the Big Bankroll, and the Jazz Age
Most of you have read Shoeless Joe, a novel of magical realism by Bill Kinsella, whom I knew a little bit thirty years ago, before he finished that book and before I became a historian of the game we both so clearly love. Shoeless Joe is a novel about fathers and sons, the baseball of now and then, and guilt, and hope. It is about the transformative power of fable and dream.
Another fellow whose baseball novel about sin and redemption, The Natural, is, like Kinsella’s, more widely known through the film adapted from it, is Bernard Malamud, who once observed, “The whole history of baseball has the quality of mythology.” Yes indeed. This creates a problem no less for the novelist than for the historian. We crave realism not only from game accounts but also from imaginative renderings of an activity that itself is not real. Play, like play acting, is metaphoric action.
Like a novelist who ventures to write about theater or film, the writer tackling baseball always starts off at one remove from reality, and is always playing catch-up. Baseball is not about baseball, at least not entirely, even if you’re playing it. For those watching it or thinking about it or reading about it, this great game is about past glories, power transference, surrogated combat, and unconscious contests of generation and gender.
Yet another author, one who with The Great Gatsby may have written the best of all American novels, used baseball as a symbol of all that was good about our nation, so that he could depict how even this icon could be stained. My own book, too, Baseball in the Garden of Eden, deals with the game’s history and legend and good and evil—the title gives that away rather blatantly—but it is a work of history, not fiction. All the same, it raises issues that one may confront with Shoeless Joe and in one’s observations of what we uncertainly call “real life.” What is real, and what is made up? Can we shape or even alter the facts of history to make for a better story? Can our imaginations create a desired reality? If we do so, are we artists of our own lives, architects of legend, or mere liars, no matter how lofty our intentions might be?
Shoeless Joe’s ballpark in the cornfield speaks to us as a symbol of paradise lost, when rural innocents played ball for the love of the game, when distant fathers could toss a ball with sons perplexed by real life. But baseball’s idyllic past, like America’s and like our own, for each of us, is not history; it is a pretty story agreed upon. Not a lie, exactly, but a sustaining myth.
What might possibly join The Great Gatsby, Shoeless Joe, and my little book? Let’s look to the Jazz Age, the Black Sox Scandal, and the religion of baseball—complete with a creation myth, a fall from grace, an expulsion from paradise, and an eternal longing for a dimly recalled golden age.
Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald—an all-American boy from St. Paul, Minnesota—drifted east with his family’s shifting fortunes and in 1913 entered Princeton University. Graduating with the class of 1917, he went to New York, determined to become a writer. Two years later, after a despairing, impoverished return to bunk in his parents’ home, he linked up with Scribners, a prestigious house, to publish This Side of Paradise, his first novel. Appearing in 1920, it portrayed a generation that, drained of all illusion by the horrific casualties, was heedless in its pursuit of pleasure.
The novel was a great success and launched his magazine career, where the real money was back then. Short fiction in Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, and other story papers often fetched $5,000—a handsome annual salary for a white collar worker and four times that of the common working man.
In 1922 Fitzgerald published a collection of stories titled Tales of the Jazz Age. This enduring term for the riotous 1920s was one that he himself coined. The Jazz Age was a normless bundle of contradiction—alcohol was prohibited by the Volstead Act yet in the cities was readily available, seemingly with greater demand than before it was banned. As the federal income tax, new in 1913, had begun to make America a nation of accountants, the Prohibition era made it a nation of lawbreakers.
Speakeasies offered gamblers and mobsters the opportunity not only to mix with athletes and entertainers, as they always had, but now with suburban businessmen and upper-class youth in search of thrills. New York, always regarded as a den of iniquity by those in the hinterlands, in the Jazz Age became a desired destination for all America: a place where anything goes, where elevator boys offer stock tips and bootleggers enter politics . . . and where the World Series can be fixed by a man such as Arnold Rothstein, the genius who invented Organized Crime and who is portrayed in The Great Gatsby as Meyer Wolfsheim. More about him in a moment.
Where everyday crime had previously been a localized activity, controlled by neighborhood thugs, now, with bootleg liquor, there was a deliverable product desired everywhere. Its transport impelled crime to organize along regional, national, and even international lines (liquor was not illegal in, say, Canada or Cuba or England). Of course there were two forms of crime that had gone national much earlier—gambling on sporting events and manipulating the stock market. The 1920s proved a golden age for both, with an escalating level of violence.
The Roaring ’20s offered jazz and speakeasies, the Teapot Dome scandal and bucket-shop brokers, Hollywood hoopla and network radio, Lucky Lindy and the Great White Way. It was also the golden age of sport, featuring such media titans as Red Grange (football), Bobby Jones (golf), Bill Tilden (tennis), Jack Dempsey (boxing) and, above all, baseball’s Babe Ruth. “He was a parade all by himself,” wrote Jimmy Cannon, “a burst of dazzle and jingle. Santa Claus drinking his whiskey straight and groaning with a bellyache caused by gluttony…. Babe Ruth made the music that his joyous years danced to in a continuous party….”
How did Ruth, who modeled his awesome batting swing on that of Shoeless Joe Jackson, come to be, in the Jazz Age, the game’s great hero and an American archetype? The age of appetite that made a hero of the Babe as the Big Bam, the larger-than-life Sultan of Swat, also made Arnold Rothstein into the character known as The Big Bankroll, immortalized not only as Meyer Wolfsheim in Gatsby but also as Nathan Detroit in the Damon Runyon story that became the musical Guys and Dolls. Ruth and Rothstein, more than any other tandem except the fictional Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan, provide a key to understanding the Jazz Age.
In the first decade of the century baseball became the great repository of national ideals, the symbol of all that was good in American life. It became routine for the President to throw out the first ball of the season. Supreme Court Justices had inning-by-inning scores from the World Series relayed to their chambers. “Baseball,” opined a writer for American Magazine in 1913, “has given our public a fine lesson in commercial morals…. Someday all business will be reorganized and conducted by baseball standards.”
Leaders of recent immigrant groups advised their peoples to learn the national game if they wanted to become Americans, and foreign-language newspapers devoted space to educating their readers about America’s strange and wonderful game. As America was riddled with stock-market scandals, economic panics, race riots, and fixed elections, as its boys were sent off to die on foreign fields, baseball came to be seen as the last bastion of fair play and decency.
This was the mythology, anyway, the public spin. In fact baseball had arisen from a gambling culture in the 1840s and had become worthy of press mention and spectator attention only when its rules became sufficiently understood for ordinary people to place wagers on the outcome of games. Without the attachment of gambling, baseball would not have become an arena for steadily increasing levels of skill; it would have remained a game for boys, avoided by men except those desiring a rather leisurely field exercise. Yes, baseball connected an increasingly urban America with a romanticized rural past, more imagined than real, and this explains the nostalgia at the game’s core; but on the ground, conditions were always more harsh.
The first punished instance of game fixing is not the Black Sox Scandal but instead goes all the way back to 1865, during the amateur era of the game, when three players of the Brooklyn Eckfords confessed to “heaving” a contest to the rival Mutuals in return for payments from gamblers. The offending players confessed and were banished for some years but later reinstated. The second year of the National League, 1877, was blighted by an even larger scandal, in which four Louisville players tossed away what seemed a certain pennant by tanking a series of late season games.
Despite fines and bans and the inclusion of antigambling statutes in the league bylaws, gambling remained a large part of the game. There was an attempt to bribe players in the very first World Series between the American and National Leagues, in 1903, when Boston catcher Lou Criger was offered a bribe to “lay down.” Two years later, Philadelphia pitcher Rube Waddell allegedly received $17,000 to fabricate a tale of a sore arm resulting from a stumble over a teammate’s suitcase, thus rendering himself useless for the Series with the Giants. Other attempted (or successful!) fixes have been reported for the fall classics of 1914 and 1918. By and large, these squabbles and accusations were kept from the public; reporters acted like publicity agents, protecting the game and its players.
All this corruption came to a head in 1919. Even before the first pitch had been thrown in what became Cincinnati’s “improbable” World Series victory over the Chicago White Sox, rumors swirled that the fix was in. It took a year for the rumors to be revealed as true: in September 1920, a Chicago grand jury convened to investigate charges about the 1919 World Series. It turned out that eight Chicago players—immortalized ever after as the Black Sox—had conspired with gamblers to throw the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. The entire plotline of the 1919 Black Sox Scandal is too complex to detail here and now, but suffice it to say that the overall public response to the revelations was shock, dismay, and heartsick outrage.
Following the mysterious disappearance of their grand-jury confessions, the eight Black Sox won acquittal during their June 1921 conspiracy trial, as did two gambler defendants, David Zelcer and Carl Zork. But the newly appointed baseball commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, in an extraordinary move aimed at restoring public confidence in the game, suspended all eight players for life. Landis knew from private sources that it had been the players who had approached the gamblers, not the other way around, but he preferred a version with more popular appeal—that a group of “foreign” gamblers (by which was meant Jewish)—had corrupted the innocent players.
Despite the romantic apologies made for Joe Jackson and Buck Weaver especially, all eight were, in my view, guilty enough to warrant their punishment, even though ballplayers had been throwing games left and right for decades. The principal gripe of men like Weaver and Fred McMullin may have been that they were left holding the bag without getting any of the swag. The other six pocketed some money, if not all that was promised, so what is there left to say, except that there may have been extenuating circumstances . . . Shoeless Joe’s naiveté and remorse, Eddie Cicotte’s backlash against owner Charlie Comiskey’s penury, Buck Weaver’s last-minute change of heart.
The suspicion at the time, that the outcome of the 1918 World Series had been fixed as well as that of 1919, testifies to the endemic level of corruption among the players, but it hardly serves to absolve the gamblers—Arnold Rothstein and his small-fry henchmen, whom he played off against each other to preserve deniability for himself when the plot unraveled. Rothstein, who pocketed hundreds of thousands in sure-thing bets arranged by his lieutenants, never met with the players face to face; he even appeared willingly before the Chicago grand jury to register his astonishment at being implicated. His testimony is worth quoting.
The whole thing started when (Abe) Attell and some other cheap gamblers decided to frame the Series and make a killing. The world knows I was asked in on the deal and my friends know how I turned it down felt. I don’t doubt that Attell used my name to put it over. That’s been done by smarter men than Abe. But I was not in on it, would not have gone into it under any circumstances and did not bet a cent on the Series after I found out what was underway.
As F. Scott Fitzgerald tells the tale in Gatsby, at a luncheon Jay Gatsby introduces Nick Carraway to Meyer Wolfsheim, who displays his unusual cufflinks, made from human molars. Afterward Nick asks Gatsby:
“Who is he, anyhow, an actor?”
“Meyer Wolfsheim? No, he’s a gambler.” Gatsby hesitated, then added coolly: “He’s the man who fixed the World’s Series back in 1919.”
“Fixed the World’s Series?” I repeated.
The idea staggered me. I remembered, of course, that the World’s Series had been fixed in 1919, but if I had thought of it at all I would have thought of it as a thing that merely HAPPENED, the end of some inevitable chain. It never occurred to me that one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people—with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe.
“How did he happen to do that?” I asked after a minute.
“He just saw the opportunity.”
“Why isn’t he in jail?”
“They can’t get him, old sport. He’s a smart man.”
That Wolfsheim and Rothstein are indeed the same person is further attested by an earlier conversation in that same luncheon setting, in which Fitzgerald alludes to a police scandal from 1912 that was still on everyone’s mind a decade later:
“This is a nice restaurant here,” said Mr. Wolfsheim, looking at the Presbyterian nymphs on the ceiling. “But I like across the street better!”
“Yes, highballs,” agreed Gatsby, and then to Mr. Wolfsheim: “It’s too hot over there.”
“Hot and small—yes,” said Mr. Wolfsheim, “but full of memories.”
“What place is that?” I asked.
“The old Metropole.
“The old Metropole,” brooded Mr. Wolfsheim gloomily. “Filled with faces dead and gone. Filled with friends gone now forever. I can’t forget so long as I live the night they shot Rosy Rosenthal there. It was six of us at the table, and Rosy had eat and drunk a lot all evening. When it was almost morning the waiter came up to him with a funny look and says somebody wants to speak to him outside. ‘All right,’ says Rosy, and begins to get up, and I pulled him down in his chair.
“‘Let the bastards come in here if they want you, Rosy, but don’t you, so help me, move outside this room.’
“It was four o’clock in the morning then, and if we’d of raised the blinds we’d of seen daylight.”
“Did he go?” I asked innocently.
“Sure he went.” Mr. Wolfsheim’s nose flashed at me indignantly. “He turned around in the door and says: ‘Don’t let that waiter take away my coffee!’ Then he went out on the sidewalk, and they shot him three times in his full belly and drove away.”
“Four of them were electrocuted,” I said, remembering.
“Five, with Becker.” His nostrils turned to me in an interested way.
Charles Becker was a New York City police officer who was executed for ordering the murder of Manhattan gambler Herman Rosenthal, who had complained to the press that the greed of Becker and his fellow corrupt cops were ruining his business; Rosy didn’t mind paying the usual protection money but the climbing percentages finally got to him. Two days after the story appeared, in July 1912, Rosenthal walked out of the Hotel Metropole at 147 West 43rd Street, just as Wolfsheim described. (By the way, the Hotel Metropole, where Rosenthal’s execution took place, still stands; it is today called the Casablanca Hotel and to soak in the atmosphere I recently stepped up to the front desk, where the Metropole bar once stood.) Rosenthal was gunned down by a crew of Jewish gangsters at Becker’s behest. Rothstein was the beneficiary of the murder, taking over Rosenthal’s business and acting thereafter less as a poolroom shark and horserace manipulator and more as the financier of Broadway shows—a pal of George M. Cohan and Flo Ziegfeld.
How did Rothstein come to be The Big Brain of organized crime? He approached it in a refined, businesslike manner. Lloyd Morris described Rothstein as “the J. P. Morgan of the underworld; its banker and master of strategy.” Gangster Meyer Lansky observed, “Rothstein had the most remarkable brain. He understood business instinctively and I’m sure that if he had been a legitimate financier he would have been just as rich as he became with his gambling and the other rackets he ran.” If business provided a model for Rothstein, his conduct of crime may later have provided a model for business.
By 1912, when he was thirty, Rothstein was a millionaire from the profits of his gambling parlors, poolrooms, and racetracks. One of these, the Oriental Park Racetrack and Casino in Havana, he co-owned with John McGraw, manager of the New York Giants, and Charles Stoneham, a stock market swindler who parlayed his gains into ownership of the ball club. Even after Commissioner Landis ordered McGraw and Stoneham to divest their holdings in the racetrack, Rothstein continued to frequent Stoneham’s private box at the Polo Grounds. He also co-owned a billiard parlor with McGraw. Gamblers and ballplayers were still connected at the hip.
With gambling as his base, Rothstein had access to the cash and political protection needed to make big deals in many other spheres, notably bootlegging. He was among the first to purchase liquor in England, smuggle it to America by the boatload, and distribute it to the speakeasies. From this business he moved on to narcotics, by 1926 enlisting such celebrity thugs as Legs Diamond, Lucky Luciano, Dutch Schultz, and Frank Costello. Two years later Rothstein was dead, felled by a gunshot after a high-stakes poker game in which it is said he welched on a bet. His accused murderer, George McManus, was acquitted (under dubious circumstances) at trial.
Arnold Rothstein was a loan shark, pool hustler, bookmaker, thief, fence of stolen property, political fixer, Wall Street swindler, labor racketeer, rumrunner, and mastermind of the modern drug trade. Today’s investment bankers, credit-card issuers, and lottery hawkers have been enriched by his legacy. He was the Babe Ruth of crime and, ironically, his henchman Abe Attell, with Black Sox winnings, partially financed Headin’ Home, the Hollywood movie Ruth made before the 1920 season. In a way this foray into show business led to the Babe’s epic sale from the Boston Red Sox to the Yankees.
In 1918 Ruth, who in previous years had become the best lefthanded pitcher in the American League, hit 11 homers as a part-time outfielder. This figure led the league. In spring training of 1919 he gave further hint of things to come when he hit six home runs in six at bats (with two intervening walks). Then in the regular season, now as an everyday player, he exploded for 29 home runs, along the way breaking the major league record of 27, set in 1884 by Ned Williamson, a right-handed batter who benefited from a left-field fence at his home park in Chicago that was only 180 feet distant. Ruth’s record-breaking 28th home run sailed over the right-field grandstand at the Polo Grounds, home at that time to both the Giants and the Yankees. It was reported in the New York Times of September 25, 1919 as the longest drive anyone in attendance had ever seen. “Several seasons ago Joe Jackson hit a home run over the top of the right field stand but the ball landed on the roof. Ruth’s bang yesterday cleared the stand by many yards and went over into the weeds in the next lot.”
Jacob Ruppert, owner of the Knickerbocker Brewery and the Yankees, could not help but notice. At season’s end the Times piled on praise for “the mastodonic mauler of the Boston Red Sox,” labeling him “the greatest batsman the game has ever known.” And when Ruth declared his intention not to play with the Red Sox in 1920 unless they doubled his $10,000 salary, the Yankees must have quivered with a sense of opportunity.
On his way from Boston to Hollywood, where he was set to star in the film Headin’ Home, Ruth declared, “I feel that I made a bad move last year when I signed a three years’ contract to play for $30,000.” Two months later, still out west, he added that he could easily make $10,000 a year through several different opportunities, hinting at the boxing ring as well as the movies. Heck, he had made $25,000 for a few weeks’ effort in Headin’ Home.
On January 5, 1920 it was announced that Ruth was now a Yankee, in exchange for $125,000 in cash and what later emerged as a loan to Boston owner Harry Frazee of $300,000—collateralized by, of all things, Fenway Park. Tris Speaker, Ruth’s teammate in 1915, on hearing the news that the Yankees had acquired Babe and planned to use him full time as an outfielder, is said to have opined, “Too bad about Ruth. If he had remained a pitcher, he might have lasted a long time and become famous.”
Ruth made his debut with the Yankees on April 14, 1920, but did not his first home run in pinstripes until May 1. By season’s end Ruth would add 53 more, for a total greater than any other team in baseball except the Phillies, who, playing in the bandbox Baker Bowl, totaled 64. In addition to his new home run record, Ruth scored 158 runs and drove in 137. He batted .376 and slugged an incredible .847. Did he like New York? Against the 9 home runs he had hit at home for Boston in 1919, the Babe now poled out 29. “I cried when they took me out of the Polo Grounds,” Ruth said after his last season there in 1922.
But on April 18, 1923, after an initial ten years in a makeshift wooden ballpark (on the site of the current Columbia Presbyterian Hospital) and ten more as second-class denizens of the Polo Grounds, the Yankees finally opened a home of their own. Fittingly, the Babe christened “The House That Ruth Built” by hitting a three-run homer to support Bob Shawkey’s fine pitching in a 4–1 win over, yes, Boston. The occasion drew the biggest crowd ever to see a major-league baseball game to that time: 74,217. At year’s end, after losing the World Series to their in-house rivals, the Giants, in both 1921 and 1922, the Yankees won the first of their many championships.
The baseball decade of the Jazz Age belonged to the Babe: he had made baseball over in his image by leaving a pile of black ink in the record books that forms an Everest, unsurpassed and seemingly unsurpassable. But poring over stats, even those as great as Ruth’s, can quickly glaze the eyes. It may be easier to grasp this simple fact: From 1920, his first year as a New York Yankee, through 1929, the Babe enjoyed the greatest ten-year stretch of any player in the whole history of baseball. After Ruth hit his 60th home run of the 1927 season, John Kieran of the New York Times wrote:
He’s the Prince of Ash and the King of Crash, and that’s not an idle jest.
He can hit that ball o’er the garden wall, high up and far away,
Beyond the aftermost picket lines where the fleet-foot fielders stray.
He’s the Bogey Man of the pitching clan and he clubs ’em soon and late;
He has manned his guns and hit home runs from here to the Golden Gate;
With vim and verve he has walloped the curve from Texas to Duluth,
Which is no small task, and I beg to ask: Was there ever a guy like Ruth?
Nor was there ever a guy like Rothstein, or Fitzgerald. With Ruth, they made the wild music that the Jazz Age danced to.
1. Cannon, New York Post, n.d.; from The Ultimate Baseball Book, Daniel Okrent and Harris Lewine, eds., Houghton Mifflin 1979, p. 143.
2. “In the Interpreter’s House,” The American Magazine, Volume 76 (1913), p. 97.
3. “Out-Door Sports,” New York Times, September 29, 1865, 8; also, “‘Hippodrome’ Tactics in Base Ball,” New York Clipper, November 11, 1865, 242.
4. “Cussed Crookedness,” Louisville Courier-Journal, November 3, 1877, per Dean Sullivan, ed., Early Innings: A Documentary History of Baseball 1825–1908, University of Nebraska Press , 1997, pp. 101–110.
5. Glenn Stout, Boston Herald, October 3, 1993, p. 6. “In 1923, he filed an affidavit in which he claimed that in 1903 he was approached by a Pittsburgh man before the Series and offered $12,000 to see to it that Pittsburgh won.”
6. Stephen S. Hall, “Scandals and Controversies,” Total Baseball, Warner Books, 1989 and later editions.
7. “Jewish Gamblers Corrupt American Baseball,” The Dearborn Independent, September 3, 1921. “A Cook County grand jury was called into session at Chicago and asked to investigate. When the grand jury had completed its labors, eight members of the Chicago American League team were under indictment for throwing the World Series of 1919, the previous year, to the Cincinnati Reds. And all along the line of investigation the names of Jews were plentifully sprinkled.”
8. David Pietrusza, Rothstein: The Life, Times, and Murder of the Criminal Genius Who Fixed the 1919 World Series, 2004, p. 182.
9. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, Scribners, 1925, Chapter 4.
11. Pietrusza, p. 80.
12. Lloyd Morris, Postscript to Yesterday, Random House, 1947, p. 75.
13. Dennis Eisenberg et al., Meyer Lansky: Mogul of the Mob, Paddington Press, 1979, p. 108.
14. Pietrusza, p. 178.
15. “Ruth, Long Distance Gun,” New York Times, April 19, 1919; also, “Babe Ruth Aims Higher,” July 31, 1919.
16. “Ruth Stands Alone as a Heavy Hitter,” New York Times, October 12, 1919.
17. John J. Hallahan, “$20,000 Yearly the Figure Ruth Names,” Boston Daily Globe, October 25, 1919.
18. “Ruth Talks of Retiring,” New York Times, December 27, 1919.
19. Michael Gershman, Diamonds: the Evolution of the Ballpark, Houghton Mifflin, 1993, p. 104.
20. John F. Kieran, “Sports of the Times,” New York Times, October 2, 1927.