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Original Issue

The Tattletale Grays

Scandal soiled Louisville's nine long before the Black Sox affair

Every baseball fan familiar with the history of the game is aware that the 1919 World Series between the Cincinnati Reds and the Chicago White Sox was contested in the midst of deceit and corruption, BLACK SOX! screamed the newspaper headlines a year later when it was revealed that eight members of the American League club—Joe Jackson, Buck Weaver, Swede Risberg, Happy Felsch, Chick Gandil, Eddie Cicotte, Lefty Williams and Fred McMullin—had sold out to gamblers and thrown the championship.

Historians, when discussing this subject, often point out that these guilty players were blacklisted, banished from the sport for life and their records stricken from the books. Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, we are told, was appointed the first commissioner of baseball to ensure that such a deplorable situation would not arise again.

The story is fascinating, but what even most experts don't realize is that it was not the first scandal to rock baseball. Some 43 years earlier, during the then infant National League's second year of existence, an equally infamous sellout had taken place in Louisville.

As the 1877 season got under way, the National League was both morally and financially in trouble. Organized gambling had a tight grip on baseball. Although law-enforcement officials were no longer posting at the entrances to ball parks signs that read NO GAME PLAYED BETWEEN THESE TWO TEAMS IS TO BE TRUSTED, as they had often done before the league was formed, there was more than ample evidence to suggest that betting was as much a part of the game as balls and strikes. And while there had been eight teams the previous season, there were now only six; the New York Mutuals and Philadelphia Athletics, unable to raise funds for Western road trips, had been disenfranchised for failing to complete their previous year's schedules.

However, there were some bright spots. The National League had a strong and energetic president, William A. Hulbert, whose love for the game was balanced by a practical appreciation of sound economics. Hulbert realized that baseball, in order to survive, was going to have to make itself attractive to all elements of society. A dignified image was required, and anything detracting from it must be done away with.

What exactly did this mean? Well, for a start, Hulbert banned all alcoholic beverages from ball parks. None were to be carried in by the patrons, and none were to be sold at the concession stands. The league president was no temperance fanatic himself, but he felt that the numerous complaints his office had received the preceding year concerning unruly drunks warranted action. "Ladies and children must be allowed to view the competition in a dignified atmosphere," Hulbert stated to his colleagues, and to this end the ban on alcohol was rigidly enforced.

But professional gambling was Hulbert's biggest problem. He knew there was nothing he could do about daily baseball pools in such places as Hoboken, N.J., but he was determined to use all his power to eliminate wagering of any other sort on games. Betting booths at entrance gates and the hawking of odds by bookies in the stands, once prevalent, were prohibited. "Ballplayers are to stay clear of anyone known to be tied in with gambling circles," was Hulbert's edict. "Such practices only detract from the magnificence of our teams."

The most magnificent of the teams Hulbert spoke of was Louisville. Throughout the early summer months of 1877 the Louisville Grays had made a shambles of the opposition. Led by captain and outfielder George Hall and Jim Devlin, a talented pitcher, the club had built up a solid 3½-game lead by Aug. 13. The schedule called for only 50 games in those days, and with most of the season gone Louisville had consistently been playing close to .700 ball.

As the Grays embarked upon their final Eastern road trip of the season, the club needed to win only half of its remaining 12 games in order to clinch the championship. Losses to Harry Wright's Boston Red Stockings and the Hartford Dark Blues in the first two of those games were considered minor setbacks. The Kentucky team still led by a comfortable margin over the rest of the league. But Louisville continued to lose. On Aug. 21 Hartford dealt the Grays their first shutout of the year, 7-0. Two days later the same teams played to an 11-inning, 1-1 tie.

Suspicions were aroused. It was well known that Hartford had been the favorite in the Hoboken pool for each game, a most unusual circumstance when a third-place team plays the one on top. The Grays then journeyed to Boston again, where they dropped a 3-2 decision on Aug. 25. Louisville's lead was thereby reduced to one game. And when the Red Stockings swept the final two games of the series, by scores of 6-0 and 4-3, the Grays fell out of first place. Back they went to the Union Grounds in Brooklyn for two more games with Hartford.

By this time, some wheels were beginning to turn. On the morning of Aug. 31 Grays Vice-President Charles E. Chase was eating breakfast at home when a telegram arrived from Hoboken. Who the sender was has never been determined, but the message stated that Hartford was again mysteriously favored, 30 to 20, in the local pools, and that something was clearly wrong with the Louisville players. Chase apparently figured the wire was the work of a crank and disregarded it, but later in the day, when the news reached him that his team had lost 6-3, he felt compelled to send his own wire to Manager Jack Chapman.

Chase wasn't so much concerned with the loss as he was with a substitution that had been made. Why, he wanted to know, had Al Nichols been playing in place of the regular third baseman. Bill Hague? Chapman's reply said that captain George Hall had requested the change. Nichols had been raised in Brooklyn, and Hall had thoughtfully expressed a wish that he appear before the hometown fans.

The answer seemed reasonable to Chase, but only temporarily. The following morning another anonymous telegram arrived at his doorstep staling, among other things, that the game for that day "was to be crooked and Louisville to lose." With Nichols, Hall and Devlin making numerous errors, that is exactly what happened. That evening Chase, now genuinely worried, wired Chapman that Nichols was not to be used in any more games.

The Grays closed out their dismal road trip by losing twice to the last-place Cincinnati Reds, 1-0 and 6-2. Limping home, dragging nine official defeats and several losses to such non-league scrub clubs as Indianapolis and Pittsburgh, the team was in a state of ruin. The championship was gone, as was the confidence of the general public.

Something was definitely rotten in Louisville, and everybody knew it. John A. Haldeman, a reporter for the Louisville' Courier-Journal who was often an official scorer and was a fine amateur ballplayer in his own right, had gone so far as to accuse Hall and Devlin directly of chicanery. Hulbert sent a wire to Chase ordering him to launch an immediate investigation.

Chase needed no further prompting. Summoning Hall and Devlin to his office, he informed the two players of his and Hulbert's suspicions. Neither was willing to admit the whole truth, but Devlin did go so far as to concede that he had "performed carelessly against outside clubs." Chase wired this information to Hulbert, who in turn urged that he close in on the case.

The ultimate confrontation was not long in coming. On the evening of Oct. 4 Chase summoned the entire team to appear before the Grays' board of directors and himself. Mincing no words, he demanded that each man sign an order directing the Western Union Telegraph Company to turn over duplicates of every telegram sent or received by Louisville players during the 1877 season. "If you don't," warned Chase, "it will be considered an admission of guilt. I will suspend you from the club, and request Mr. Hulbert to expel you from the league."

The jig was up. Only Shortstop Bill Craver offered any resistance, for which he found himself immediately suspended. Everyone else gave in to the ultimatum, and when Chase went over the telegrams with Hulbert, the evidence was irrefutable. Three players—Devlin, Hall and Nichols—had sold out to the fixers and thrown games. For their efforts—and the lack of them—they had received sums of money totaling no more than $500, though apparently they had made a few extra dollars by placing personal wagers against their own team.

Much to everyone's surprise, no added evidence could be found to further implicate Craver in the shady deal. Whether he was guilty or only insubordinate is still open to conjecture. Whatever the case, the moody and sometimes irascible player received the full penalty. On Oct. 30 he and his three maverick teammates were expelled by Hulbert for life.

The repercussions were severe. The Louisville franchise was forced out of the league, ending that city's involvement in organized baseball until 1892. Many friends and relatives of the four banished ballplayers besieged the league president's office, petitioning for their reinstatement. But Hulbert was resolute; the expulsions would not be lifted.

There is a postscript to this story concerning an incident that took place in Hulbert's office some years later and which, in retrospect, seems to put the finishing touches on the tale. As recounted by the late player and historian Albert Spalding, who witnessed the little drama, Hulbert was sitting at his desk one cold winter's day when suddenly the door was pushed open and in came a shivering, sobbing wreck of a man. Hatless, coat-less and obviously underfed, the fellow appeared to be, in Spalding's words, "the picture of abject misery."

It was Devlin. Dropping to his knees and assuming a posture of humility and despair, he begged Hulbert to remove the awful stigma from his name. "It is not on my account," the tearful Devlin entreated his onetime friend, "but for the sake of my wife and family."

Hulbert was moved. Reaching into his pocket, he drew out a $50 bill and pressed it into the palm of the distraught ex-pitcher. "That's what I think of you personally," he said to Devlin. "But damn you, you are dishonest. You have sold a game, and I can't trust you. Now go and never let me see your face again, for your act will not be condoned so long as I live."

One can only speculate as to what went through Hulbert's mind as Devlin stumbled out of his office into oblivion. Probably he felt some remorse. He was by nature a gentle and kindly man, with a distaste for harshness, but his actions in this case had helped to save the game of baseball. He had accomplished what many had said was impossible: maintained the integrity of the sport by persistent exercise of administrative discipline.

Forty-three years were to elapse before that integrity would again be threatened, although the saving grace then would be not so much the firmness of a league president as the charismatic exploits of a left-handed pitcher-turned-slugger by the name of Ruth.