Friday, March 13, 2009

Some General Thoughts On The 1877 Scandal

The gambling scandal that rocked the St. Louis Brown Stockings organization in 1877 and, combined with the clubs financial troubles, helped bring about their resignation from the League in December of 1877 was not one scandal or one event but rather several.  There are at least four components of the scandal that I can see:

-On August 1, 1877, umpire P.H. Devinney accuses George McManus of offering him money in exchange for favorable ball and strike calls.  Devinney also stated that Joe Blong encouraged him to accept the offer.  Both McManus and Blong denied the accusations.

-On August 24, 1877, Joe Blong and Joe Battin conspire with Chicago gamblers to throw the Brown Stockings' game against Chicago.  The next day they attempt to do the same but are put on notice that Brown Stocking management are aware of their activities when McGeary moves Blong off the mound after suspicious activities in the second inning.  The conspiracy to throw the games of August 24 and 25 does not come to light until William Spink reveals them in the Globe-Democrat on November 1, 1877, although the club was aware of what was happening before the start of the game on August 25.   

-On October 31, 1877, William Spink publishes information about the Louisville scandal in the Globe-Democrat.  The Brown Stockings were caught in an awkward position, having previously signed Devlin and Hall for the 1878 season, just as they were revealing the depths of their financial trouble to stockholders and attempting to raise funds to pay off their debts from the 1877 season.  The next day Spink publishes his expose on the events of August.  

-L.W. Burtis umpires numerous questionable games in St. Louis.  Burtis, who Spink claimed operated as the middleman between St. Louis players and Chicago gamblers in August of 1877, was accused by the Chicago papers of dishonesty in his umpiring.  Devinney accused him of betting on the Brown Stockings and using his position as an umpire to influence the games that he had bet on.  While not specifically a member of the Brown Stockings, the best that can be said is that the club had unknowingly allowed a crooked umpire into the League and access to their club.  

With all of these events exposing a culture of corruption surrounding the club, it's no wonder that the club's management (which was made up generally of honorable men of some standing in St. Louis) decided to resign from the League.  Combined with the financial difficulties of 1876 and 1877, the revelation of this corruption was a death blow.  All one has to do is read William Spinks' expose in the Globe on November 1, 1877 (which is an absolutely brilliant piece) and it's obvious that there was no way the Brown Stockings were going to survive into 1878.

A couple of more thoughts:

-While the Devinney accusation adds to the portrait of a corrupt ball club, there has to be some serious reservations about Devinney's veracity.  McGeary strenuously denied the accusations and his actions on August 25, when he moved Blong off the mound, support the idea that he was uninvolved in the corruption.  Also, after the 1877 season, the Chicago papers made some accusations against Devinney that were similar to those they made against Burtis.  So while the Devinney accusation is relevant and adds to the weight of evidence against the Brown Stockings, Devinney is not exactly a perfect witness.  

-For some time, I've been trying to figure out, from a historiographical point of view, why the Louisville scandal is better remembered than the St. Louis scandal.  I may be wrong but it's my understanding that the Louisville scandal is the substantially more famous or remembered event.  I assume it's because the events of the Louisville scandal had a major impact on the pennant race.  Also, I would think that Devlin's statements to the press had a drama to them that the denials of those involved in the St. Louis scandal lacked.  But the fact that the stories broke at almost the exact same time and were reasonably similar should have linked the two together in historical accounts.  I'm honestly surprised that we don't have "the Louisville/St. Louis scandal" rather than "the Louisville scandal...and, oh yeah, something happened in St. Louis too and baseball in general had a problem with gambling and throwing games."  Not a really big deal but it's kind of interesting.  I think, in the end, I'm just a bit upset because the 1877 Brown Stockings were as corrupt as any team in the nation and have never received their due.    


Richard Hershberger said...

Excellent summary. I have never really wrapped my brain around what was going on in St. Louis, and this helps a lot. Thank you.

As for why the Louisville scandal is remembered more (and I agree that it is), I think it is because of the player expulsions. They provide a tangible hook for the story. (Consider that only one NL umpire is remembered as being corrupt, and it isn't Burtis: he wasn't formally penalized.) Also, the story of Devlin's pathetic fate gives a satisfying moral ending. It is like a story out of a book, if you overlook that Devlin's fallback job was as a policeman. My impression is that the Louisville scandal received far more national press attention, for the reasons given above.

Jeffrey Kittel said...

I'm glad you liked it.