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1924

BASEBALL’S BLACKLIST
TIED TO SACRAMENTO'S PAST

by Rick Cabral, Editor

In baseball circles, Sacramento enjoys a cherished and well deserved reputation for being “a baseball town.” The city was a charter member of the original Pacific Coast League and more than 150 local players have gone on to the major leagues, including several big league managers.

One aspect less well known is Sacramento's association with ballplayers that have been banished from organized baseball: on a per capita basis it probably ranks higher than any other American city.

A discussion of players banished from organized ball always deals with the infamous scandal of 1919 when eight members of the Chicago White Sox conspired to throw the World Series. Five of the players made famous in the book and movie “Eight Men Out” had some association with Sacramento’s early days of baseball.

Arnold “Chick” Gandil was the ringleader of the Black Sox. Born in Oakland, he bounced around the Pacific Coast League and Texas League from 1906-1908 until landing a spot with the Sacramento Sacts in 1909 where he batted .282. The following season he played for the White Sox, but needed two more years of seasoning before reaching the American League again for good.

Claude“Lefty” Williams—the only starting pitcher to ever lose three games in a World Series—played in 1914 with the Sacramento Sacts (who relocated in September to San Francisco and became the Missions), compiling a 13-20 record with a 2.05 earned run average.

In 1910, Southern Californian Fred McMullin was playing ball for the Long Beach Sand Crabs of the newly formed Trolley Car League. Later that summer, after a tryout with the Sacts, he was added to the club for just one game, against the hometown Los Angeles Angels. In his one at-bat he went hitless, but made the one fielding chance he had at third base.

Native San Franciscan Charles“Swede” Risberg played four seasons for Vernon/Venice Tigers in the Pacific Coast League from 1912 through 1916, which meant he passed through Sacramento on many occasions before playing for the White Sox.

And George “Buck” Weaver, the White Sox third baseman also played in Sacramento for one exhibition game in November 1919 that featured the new young slugger of the Boston Red Sox, Babe Ruth. Just one month after the 1919 World Series, Weaver was not having to answer for conspiring to throw the series because news of the fix wouldn’t become common knowledge until late in the 1920 season. Weaver vehemently maintained that he did not “lay down” in the series, pointing to his .324 batting average over the eight games against Cincinnati, nor did he accept bribe money.

Baseball fans are often surprised to learn that a ninth player was banished by Commissioner Landis for his less publicized part in the Black Sox scandal. 

Gedeon_Card

Joe Gedeon from Sacramento was the “ninth man out.” In 1919, the St. Louis Browns second baseman finished the season with the highest fielding percentage at his position of anyone in the American League. 

Gedeon had competed against Risberg, Williams and McMullin in the Pacific Coast League. And he’d been Gandil’s teammate on the Washington Senators. After the ’19 season was over, Gedeon decided to hang out with his White Sox associates, attending games in Chicago and Cincinnati. Quickly, he learned of their decision to “throw the series.” Familiar with St. Louis bookies, Gedeon placed bets on the Reds, arousing suspicion in the gambling community.

After the World Series, rumors circulated that gamblers had infiltrated the games. White Sox owner Charles Comiskey offered a $10,000 reward to anyone with hard evidence. Gedeon contacted Comiskey and met with “the Old Roman” in Chicago to offer his evidence. After listening to his testimony, the miserly White Sox owner dismissed Gedeon’s information as “useless” and Joe left without the reward.

Despite the stench surrounding these players, all played the 1920 season. By September, however, the rumors about their corruption escalated, resulting in the Cook County Grand Jury indicting the eight “Black Sox” players in the gambling scheme. With three games left to play and the Sox in a tight pennant race, Comiskey suspended his players.

Because of his public admission, Gedeon was summoned to appear before the Chicago Grand Jury. He testified against his friends and admitted to gambling on the series based on inside information. He was exonerated from participating in “the fix,” but for his admission the Browns dropped Gedeon immediately from the team. 

Landis
Newly-elected Commissioner of Baseball, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis,
Surrounded by Major League Owners.


In August 1921, nearly one year later, a Chicago jury cleared the eight White Sox players of all criminal charges after documents containing their confessions disappeared. Newly appointed Commissioner Landis, however, stunned the baseball community when he placed all eight on a "permanently ineligible" list, effectively banning them from all organized ball.

Three months later, almost as an afterthought, he made Gedeon—who played no role in the fix—ineligible as well. Several other players known to have had as much sordid information as Gedeon were allowed to remain in the league, including several who played on the 1921 World Series teams.

But Landis showed no mercy and wouldn’t consider reinstatement. Despite long, exhaustive public relations campaigns, all of the Black Sox and Gedeon went to their graves banished from the game.


 

Sand

"Heinie" Sand

 O'Connell_Giants

Jimmy O'Connell

Dolan

Cozy Dolan


Then there is the case of Sacramento’s Jimmy O’Connell, who Frank “Lefty” O’Doul once called “the Irish beauty of Sacramento.”

Called a “left-handed hitter with a quick stroke and greyhound speed,” after high school* O’Connell attended Santa Clara and played on the college team. There he was spotted by San Francisco Seals co-owner George Putnam, who signed O’Connell at 18. The fleet-footed outfielder/first baseman played four years for the Seals (with a career .322 PCL average). 

Sac_High_Baseball_1918
Jim O'Connell (with bat) shown in 1918 Sacramento High team picture. He played three varsity seasons for the purple and white.
(From the Special Collections of the Sacramento Public Library)

On December 8, 1921, the New York Giants outbid other teams when they purchased O’Connell from the Seals for $75,000, the highest price paid for a minor leaguer at the time. Giants manager John McGraw, however, stipulated that O’Connell should play the 1922 season with the PCL club to gain more seasoning and then join his team in 1923. At the time of the sale, it was generally believed O’Connell may have been “the best ballplayer turned out by the Coast organization (the Seals)” and certainly one of the bright stars of the Pacific Coast League.

In late September, before the final game of the season, the Seals held a “Jimmy O’Connell Day” at Recreation Park where he was presented with a gold watch from the local Knights of Columbus and a “monster bouquet of flowers” by opposing manager “Red” Killefer of the Los Angeles Angels.

By 1924, O’Connell was a key figure on the Giants, though still not a regular. For the season he hit .317 in 104 at bats. In a September 2nd double-header against the Boston Braves he went six for nine, including a double and triple in the first game, and four for four in the next, while playing centerfield in the spacious Polo Grounds.

Entering the final weekend of the ’24 season, the Giants hoped to become the first team in the major leagues to win their fourth straight pennant. But the Dodgers were only a game and a half back.

On September 27, prior to the first of three games at home against the Phillies, Giants coach Cozy Dolan reportedly asked O’Connell to approach John Henry “Heinie” Sand the Phillies shortstop with an offer of $500 in exchange for “not playing hard” against the Giants. O’Connell knew Sand from their days in the Pacific Coast League. 

O'Connell_Catch
Jimmy O'Connell, one of the first "bonus babies," was known as a fleet-footed outfielder.

O’Connell apparently had his doubts about the request because when the Giants were congregated around the batting cage he approached Frankie Frisch, “the Fordham Flash” and one of the team leaders, about Dolan’s offer. He said Frisch replied, “Give him (Sand) anything he wants.” Ross Youngs also assured him to follow through with the bribe.

While the Phillies were working out on the field, O’Connell found Sand talking with two other Philadelphia teammates. He opened by inviting them to play in exhibition games that winter in California. After the other two Phillies drifted off, O’Connell asked Sand “How do you feel about these last games?”

“Fine,” Sand replied. “We’ll beat your club.”

“You fellows only have two (sic) more games to play and it will be worth $500 to you if you don’t bear down too hard,” O’Connell said.

Sand asked what O’Connell meant and was told “You know what I mean.” He asked if anyone on the Giants knew; he was told the whole team was in on it.

Sand grew angry and said “You tell your friends there is not enough money in New York to bribe me and they are in for a licking today.”

O’Connell then dutifully reported the conversation to Cozy Dolan who told him “to forget it.” George Kelly later asked O'Connell if Sand took the bribe, according to O'Connell's testimony.

With the Black Sox scandal still top of mind, around the fifth inning Sand unburdened himself and shared the story with fellow Phillies infielder Horace Ford. He asked what he should do and Ford suggested to use his best judgment.

After the game, Sand and his wife returned to the team hotel after dinner and a movie. He saw Phillies manager Art Fletcher in the hotel lobby, but escorted his wife to their room. Afterward he found Fletcher in his room where he related the day’s events.

Fletcher phoned National League president John Heydler. “I’ve got something important to tell you but I don’t want to discuss it with you over the telephone. Where can I meet you?” They agreed to have breakfast the next morning (Sunday) at the Phillies hotel. Fletcher showed up with Sand and directed his player tell the full story. After hearing Sand’s version of the events, Heydler immediately called Commissioner Landis, who was preparing to leave Chicago by train for Washington, host to the first two World Series games.

On September 30 Landis arrived in New York City. At his hotel, Landis listened to Sand’s retelling of the story and was satisfied he understood the accusation. His secretary then phoned Giants owner Horace Stoneham and manager John McGraw and told them to meet Landis at his hotel. Ironically, the final game against the Phillies on September 29 had already been cancelled due to rainy weather.

At the meeting, Landis laid out the accusation for the Giants owner and manager and directed McGraw to immediately send for O’Connell.

The 23-year-old ballplayer arrived and answered Landis’ direct questioning truthfully. Although Landis had summoned a transcriptionist, the man failed to arrive in time to record the conversations of Sand and O’Connell, but Landis recorded his own notes. When he finally arrived, Giants coach Cozy Dolan was being interviewed with O’Connell sitting in the room.

The transcript of Dolan's interrogation reads like the “Who’s On First” skit by the comedy team of Abbot and Costello. Dolan’s response to every question about Saturday’s events were met with “I don’t remember,” or “I don’t recall” and eventually infuriated the elderly commissioner. On occasion, Landis turned to O’Connell to review the facts and refresh Dolan’s memory, but the coach insisted he could not recall any specific conversation with O’Connell or any of the events of that day dealing with an offer to any Phillies player.

When Landis questioned O’Connell once more he asked, “What did you think of (Dolan’s request to bribe Sand)?”

The player replied, “I didn’t think of it. I acted on the spur of the moment.” Under the intense glare of Landis’ direct questioning, O’Connell sounded like a contrite schoolboy while Dolan played the dummy card.

Landis then debriefed Young, Frisch and Kelly individually. Each denied having any conversation about Sand or bribes with O’Connell. They all agreed their young teammate was a fine fellow and the last person they imagined would be involved in such a plot, which they knew nothing about. At one point, each of the three Giants said “It’s all news to me,” suggesting that on their way to the hotel someone had planted their unified defense.

Frisch may have shed insight into what truly happened when he let slip an offhanded comment that “On a pennant contender you always hear a lot of stuff like that (bribes/gambling), a lot of kidding and some things. That is all I ever hear. You’ll always hear that on a pennant contending team.”

Landis bristled at the suggestion that “throwing a game” was frequently discussed in a clubhouse, even in jest. “This is not kidding,” the commissioner scolded the player.

Like a police detective, Landis excused one and recalled another of the accused, grilling each in a withering, redundant style. After Frisch left, Young reentered and told the judge he didn’t recall anything more, and was excused again. Dolan was again summoned and persisted in his amnesiac defense.

Sand was brought back and restated his story, this time on the record.

Two days went by before Landis handed down his ruling on October 1: O’Connell and Dolan were placed on the permanently ineligible list, the former for his admission in the affair and the latter for obviously lying about it. The other three Giants players were absolved, as the Commissioner felt their denials were truthful.

Cries rang out for the commissioner to postpone the series pending a thorough investigation. American League President Ban Johnson, incensed at Landis' refusal to consider suspending the series, vowed not to attend in a losing power struggle with the commissioner.

Three days later the 1924 World Series commenced in the nation’s capital. Ironically, the Sacramento Chamber of Commerce sent a large floral bouquet to honor its two local players: O’Connell and Earl McNeely, the Senators centerfielder. Only one was there to receive the gift.

The ’24 series featured the New York Giants (winners of two of the last three series) versus the Senators star Walter “The Train” Johnson, one of the fastest pitchers and nicest persons in baseball playing in his first Fall Classic. After Johnson lost his two starts, the series came down to Game Seven in the nation’s capital.

In the bottom of the eighth inning, the home team scored twice to tie the score 3-3. Manager Bucky Harris sent Johnson to pitch in relief despite his two previous losses and he held the Giants scoreless for four innings. In the bottom of the 12th inning, after a double and two errors the Senators had runners on second base (Muddy Ruel) and first (Johnson). Up stepped the Senators rookie outfielder McNeely, who was 5 x 26 in the series. McNeely hit a hot smash toward third base for what could have been an inning-ending double play.

Instead, just before Giants third baseman Freddie Lindstrom could glove the ball it struck the ground and bounded high over his head, allowing Ruel to score the winning run. Whether McNeely’s walk-off double struck a pebble, dirt clod or divot is unknown. But it didn’t matter, as Washington claimed its first-ever title in one of the most thrilling World Series to that time. And McNeely was the toast of the town.

While the series was in full swing in New York Dolan and O’Connell met again with Commissioner Landis at his room at the Wald0rf-Astoria Hotel. Both hoped to change the death sentence Landis handed down earlier in the week.

At 11:25 a.m. on October 6, Landis saw O’Connell who wanted to know “just where I stand.” Landis asked if he had received the commissioner’s letter stating he was ineligible. O’Connell affirmed receipt of the letter, but thought it was a “copy” since it had not been signed by Landis. The commissioner asked if he had the letter with him, and offered to sign it personally, if that would make the former Giant feel better.

But O’Connell was more upset that newspaper accounts of Landis’ decision made him appear to be a liar since the commissioner had not taken any action against the other three Giants, Frisch, Young and Kelly. “You have not taken my word against theirs,” O’Connell noted, and Landis agreed. The judge proceeded to rehash the testimony of the four men in his convoluted yet simplistic way, depositing O’Connell back to square one.

The young man then tried another tack referring to a letter that had been reprinted in the Daily Mirror on October 6 with the headline “Broadway Gamblers at Bottom of Bribe Scandal—Dealt with Dolan to Save $100,000 Bets.” O’Connell used the article to prove that he had been “the goat” of the situation and asked if Landis planned further investigation into the gambling allegations.

Landis masterfully turned the argument against O’Connell by showing the ballplayer the purported letter had not been signed or ascribed to a known source. He then lectured him on the journalistic practice of using unknown sources to support sensational stories.

O'Connell_Giants

O'Connell played just two seasons on the New York Giants.

“I don’t believe anyone wrote that letter,” Landis said.

“I just read it in the papers,” O’Connell replied.

Landis dispatched a frustrated O’Connell who accomplished nothing.

The following morning, Cozy Dolan met the judge in his hotel room. He maintained that in his first interview with Landis his repeated comments “I don’t remember” had been misunderstood. “That is my way of answering, honestly, Judge…I didn’t have anything to do with this,” Dolan explained. Landis reminded him he had several chances to rebut O’Connell’s testimony in front of the accuser and never did. At one point it appeared the discussion might lead to fisticuffs, as Landis reminded Dolan he was prepared to fight him despite his age. After Dolan proclaimed the judge had “put me down. I am out of bread and butter. I have nothing in the world,” Landis bid him goodbye.

Later, the commissioner told reporters that he had met with the two former Giants employees but nothing they said changed the facts or his decision in the matter.

Two weeks later, Dolan met with reporters in the office of his attorney William J. Fallon to reiterate his innocence and lack of any material information in the matter. Fallon, the personal attorney for New York Giants owner Charles J. Stoneham also had represented notorious gambler Arnold Rothstein of the infamous Black Sox scandal. He told reporters that he planned to file suit on behalf of his client for $100,000 damages for slander, reinstatement of Dolan’s World Series share and exoneration of any criminal action in Federal Court.

At Dolan’s request, Fallon never did file the suit.

However, a criminal investigation spurred by New York City district attorney nearly resulted in charges being brought against O’Connell for violating a state law passed in 1920 that makes it a felony for a person to attempt to bribe a professional ballplayer to throw a game. Commissioner Landis eventually dissuaded that criminal action, saying “The young man has suffered enough already.”

At the behest of reporters, on January 10, 1925, Commissioner Landis finally released the 30,000-word transcript of his interviews, which revealed nothing new in the matter. In the end, Dolan and O’Connell remained on the "ineligible list” to their final days.

Adding insult to injury, the following spring when O’Connell went to work out at Recreation Park team officials told Jimmy he had to leave the ballpark, reminding him that banishment made him a pariah at any level of organized baseball. He picked up his gear and left.

Several theories abound as to what really happened in the O’Connell-Dolan scandal. It is clear that James O’Connell was incredibly naïve. The one theory that seems to incorporate all facets of the fix, proferred by Phillies coach Pat Ragan, goes like this:

Prior to the game against the Phillies on September 27, guys in the clubhouse were talking about how that one game could clinch the pennant. Someone kiddingly suggested one of the Giants should ask a key Phillies player to “lay down” during the game, ensuring a Giants victory and the pennant. In this jocular environment, a number was thrown out--$500—a small bribe, even in those days.

Afterward, taking the ruse one step further, Cozy Dolan privately asked O’Connell if he would be the one to communicate the offer to his PCL friend, Sand. Knowing this was a clear rules violation, but not being one to challenge authority, O’Connell sought and received affirmation from three of the team’s leading players: Young, Kelly and Frisch, who believed they were just keeping the gag alive.

To their chagrin, and Dolan’s dismay, O’Connell did as he was told and offered Sand the bribe. Realizing the joke had escalated beyond belief, the three Giants’ players conspired to feign ignorance and deny having ever talked about it with anyone.

Dolan on the other hand strained credulity, frequently telling Landis “I don’t remember” even after O’Connell recited with accuracy their pre-game conversations.

It’s also possible that the above scenario is accurate and additionally Dolan in fact did accept a payout from gamblers. There is little to substantiate that facet, however, while the ruse is more likely.

Because of his naiveté and basic honesty O’Connell admitted everything before the commissioner. Landis supposedly told someone, if O’Connell had equivocated just a little, it would have been Sand’s word against his, in which case Landis would have exonerated O’Connell. But he had no choice after the ballplayer confirmed the accusations against him.

At age 23, O’Connell’s once-promising career had come crashing down. The only option left to him—and the one he took—was to play in the Outlaw Copper League in the southwest along with other notorious, banned figures in baseball, including many of the Black Sox.

Years later several baseball men, including sportswriter Damon Runyon, asked Landis if he planned to reinstate O’Connell? “Damon, I am as sorry for that young fellow as you are,” Landis said. “But what can I do? O’Connell confessed his guilt, namely that he tried to bribe another player to throw a game. I couldn’t let him back. Every ball player we expelled would be in my office seeking reinstatement. As for the great bulk of other players…They now know that any action seeking to throw, or otherwise tamper with a game, means expulsion. And it has to stay that way.”

James Joseph O’Connell eventually left baseball behind and went on to a prosperous career in public relations with Richfield Oil Company, settling down in Bakersfield. He still maintained ties with family in Sacramento. John Caffrey, a native Sacramentan and graduate of McClatchy High 1969, is a distant relative. His father Jack Caffrey spoke glowingly about Jimmy, his cousin twice removed, who was “a nice guy who’d gotten a bum rap.”

O’Connell would not be the last person associated with major league baseball to receive a lifetime banishment, but he could possibly have been the nicest and most gullible of them all.


 
* Long-thought to be a Christian Brothers High graduate, new information surfaced showing O’Connell was a 1918 graduate of Sacramento High (when it was located at Ninth and K Streets) and played three years for the varsity nine. Thanks to John Caffrey, whose father Jack kept news articles and columns about his distant relative, we found information clarifying the secondary school disparity, which was later verified with a Sacramento High yearbook, courtesy of The Sacramento Room in the Central Library. 

Uploaded 07/14/12
All Contents © Rick Cabral 2012
(except where other copyrights apply)

 

 

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