In the histories of the Black Sox Scandal, perhaps the most shadowy of the major characters is Sport Sullivan. A Boston-based gambler, Sullivan pitches the World Series fix to the players, is later indicted, then seems to disappear. Little is known about his life before or after 1919.
In fact, Sullivan’s life can be fleshed out, using newly uncovered newspaper articles, family lore, and public records. As will be shown, Sullivan never “disappeared” from view. He merely faded from prominence.
Joseph J. Sullivan was born November 2, 1870, near Boston, the son of Irish immigrants Jeremiah and Ellen (McKenna) Sullivan. In 1895 he married Katherine Rose Driscoll. The couple had five children: Helen (b. 1896); Alexina (1898-1995); Joseph (b. 1900, died young); James F. (1904-93); and John F. (1918-88). On the censuses from 1900 to 1940 he lives in Boston or Sharon, Massachusetts, and tells the census takers he works in a real-estate office or brokerage.1 From these records Joseph Sullivan appears to be an ordinary, middle-class businessman with a middle-class household.
Newspaper accounts paint a different picture. The brokerage was in fact a front for a “bucket shop” designed to bilk unwary investors.2 Sullivan soon dropped this line, preferring to make his living as the uncrowned “King of Boston Gamblers.”
As early as 1903, Boston newspapers reporting on the first World Series marvel as “Sport Sullivan” makes thousand-dollar bets on Boston.3 This was an era when $1,000 was a year’s wages for a laborer. In 1904 he was accused of fixing the Jimmy Gardner-Martin Canole fight (perhaps foreshadowing his future).4 He made book on New York City auto races and briefly found the time to manage heavyweight boxing contender Sam Langford (the “Boston Tar Baby”).5
A Boston Herald newspaper article on the all-Chicago 1906 World Series singles out Sport Sullivan, “one of the conspicuous attendants at the ball grounds in this city,” expressing surprise at the victory of the underdog White Sox, implying he’s a figure that sportswriters respect for his expertise.6 In 1906 he’s accused of bribing public officials, and in 1907 he’s arrested for “gambling in a public place” at the Boston Braves ballpark.7
The newspaper headlines the arrest of Sport Sullivan as a major event. The police led Sullivan away in front of the whole crowd, to cries of “welsher,” “piker,” and “tin horn sport.” In his pockets the police found over $500 in cash and a pair of dice. The lengthy article notes that Sullivan was a “professional” gambler and “no novice to appearing in court for the sort of an offense charged.”8
Another lengthy article the following day notes that Sullivan’s arrest “cause(d) much apprehension among the fraternity” of ballpark gamblers.9 Sullivan paid the fine and returned to the park, where he was greeted as a hero by his fellow gamblers. Although plainclothes policemen were nearby, Sullivan started betting on the visiting Cincinnati Reds, inspiring the rest of the gamblers to follow suit and resume their activities. It is evident how high Sullivan ranked in the local gambling world.
Other arrests for gambling are detailed in 1911, 1913, and 1914.10 By this time, Sullivan had attained a reputation throughout the East Coast for baseball betting and prognostication. The New York Evening World of October 6, 1916, went to Sullivan to get an expert opinion on the upcoming Boston-Brooklyn World Series. “‘Never mind about them guys with their arms full of fractions,’ said Sport Sullivan, well known as a betting Bostonian, who had hied himself this way to get a little of the Brooklyn money while it was soft. …” Sullivan is further quoted as saying the Red Sox should be favored for the Series.11
Records show that Sullivan had a nationwide reputation for betting and bookmaking. He was not, as Eight Men Out12 seems to imply, some small-town, small-scale bookie. For example, when the Washington Post wrote on the upcoming 1911 American League pennant race, it turned to Sullivan as the foremost expert on the teams and the odds. He made Philadelphia an even-money favorite to win (accurately, as it turned out). The article noted that Sullivan openly “makes his living by betting on baseball, and these prices, printed in Boston newspapers, presumably are those that he is now prepared to lay against any team’s chances, in his future book. Sullivan does a heavy handbook business on baseball through the season, and is a prominent figure at all of the world’s series games.”13 In 1915 writer Ring Lardner reported that Sullivan had bet $10,000 on a Boston-Pittsburgh ballgame, “the biggest amt [sic] ever bet on 1 game of ball.”14
Sullivan earned his reputation by his thorough knowledge of sports and his math wizardry. Wrote one journalist, “He was well acquainted with the history of baseball and with the personnel of the present-day clubs. It is said of him that he knows more about the records of big league players than the majority of managers. The way in which he rated the respective abilities of world series contenders was a bit of information eagerly sought throughout the East. He had a country-wide reputation for gauging and rating comparative abilities of rivals in any form of sport,” including “college football games,” “horse racing” and “big fistic battles.”15
His baseball expertise was known to gamblers everywhere. Sullivan had “a system of handicapping pitchers that is a wonder to experts. He watches the work of the different twirlers all season, and is so familiar with their period of rest that he can tell in 75 percent of games just who will be the starting pitcher.”16 Sounds as if Sport was an early sabermetrician!
Sportswriters depended on Sullivan for the “inside dope” on the betting odds, dropping by his usual hangout in front of the old Clark’s Hotel in Boston.17 In an article on Sullivan’s life, sportswriter Arthur Siegel of the Boston Traveler, who clearly knew Sullivan well, described his deceased friend:
There was a time when Sport was one of the best in the trade – the trade being gambling. He had a remarkable mind for figures and percentages. That brain of his was just as neat and precise as his clothes and general appearance. He didn’t get the name of Sport, back there in Sharon so many years ago, because he was a gambling man. The Sport came because he was handsome and debonair. He dressed in good taste and wore the best. …
He knew his percentages. He would stand at the dice table and he would tell the dice roller just what chance he had to make a point. He had a remarkable memory. He’d go to a baseball game – back in the days when there was a special section for the gamblers – and he would make 20 bets or 30 bets during a game without making a written notation. All the time he knew just what he stood to win, what his eventual profit would be. For that was his way of operating, placing his bet so that if the game went one way, he would wind up with $300 profit, or if the game went the other way, he’d be making $180 profit. To him, the cardinal sin was being caught with a one-sided book that might cost him money.
Gambling men consulted him about various sports events because of this keen analysis, his sound valuations and, not the least important, his sources of information.18
Sullivan’s appearance fitted his chosen lifestyle. An admiring local newspaper described him as “a big, husky man, about six feet tall, of dark complexion, and often wears glasses.” Chick Gandil found Sullivan “a tall, strapping Irishman who looked like a cop more than he did a bookmaker.”19
There was more to Sullivan’s success than merely a sharp mind and inside information. He also fixed contests. In 1904 he was accused of fixing the Jimmy Gardner-Martin Canole fight.20 And perhaps foreshadowing the Black Sox Scandal, as early as 1904 he tried to “fix” a baseball game. A 1920 newspaper column on the “notorious” Sullivan by respected sportswriter Joe Vila recounted how, during the just-completed Cleveland-Brooklyn World Series, Hall of Famer Cy Young told Vila that Sullivan tried to bribe him in 1904:
“The fellow who tried to tempt me,” said Young, “was a man known as ‘Sport’ Sullivan. He offered to hand over more than my salary if I would ‘throw’ a ball game. My salary was only $1,500 a year, but I promptly handed Sullivan a punch in the jaw and kicked him out of my room.”21
The true story of the Black Sox Scandal will never be fully known. This article will discuss only parts of the scandal, from Sullivan’s angle. In the fall of 1919, White Sox first baseman Chick Gandil and star hurler Eddie Cicotte met Sullivan at Boston’s Buckminster Hotel,22 and talked about the upcoming 1919 World Series. Gandil and Sullivan had been close friends for many years (Gandil later claiming they first met in 1912), while Cicotte had pitched for the Red Sox from 1908 to 1912 and must have (at least) known Sullivan from then.
Again, from a Boston newspaper article: “Whenever Gandil came to this city, ‘Sport’ always had him in tow. They played billiards together and were often seen at various resorts. The friendship has extended over a long period of years, for it is said that when Gandil was with the Washington club, before he went to Cleveland and then to the White Sox, that Sullivan always was informed by telegraph whenever Walter Johnson was going to pitch for the Senators. The two kept in close communication from that time on.”
Reportedly, the rest of the White Sox players also knew Sullivan well. On their last visit to Boston, around August, “Sport took a party of the White Sox players out to his house in Sharon for an all-night card game. Sullivan’s friendship with the White Sox players was not a secret, even in the little town of Sharon.”23
In the 1950s Gandil asserted that Sullivan approached him concerning a plot to throw the Series. The suggestion surprised Gandil, who claimed he knew Sullivan as a bettor, not a fixer.24 Sullivan assured Gandil (who probably didn’t require such assurance) that the World Series had been fixed before, perhaps a reference to the 1918 Boston-Chicago series.25
According to the Boston American, another meeting reportedly took place at Boston’s luxurious Hotel Lenox.26 Sullivan, Gandil, and Cicotte met by appointment “in the room occupied by the automobile club during the last eastern swing of the White Sox. … There the scheme was broached and plans made for the biggest gambling coup in years. It was arranged that Sullivan would complete the plans with the gambling clique while to Gandil and Cicotte27 was allocated the task of lining up the needed number of players to make it a success. Both Sullivan and the ball players were in New York immediately after this first conference.”
The players Gandil recruited met at Gandil’s hotel room in New York City on September 21 and agreed to throw the Series if the gamblers advanced them $80,000. Fix ringleader Gandil relayed that message to Sullivan.
On paper, Sport Sullivan – respected among his fellow gamblers, well-liked, well-connected, a close friend of Gandil and other players – was the perfect man to handle the betting end of the Fix. One problem: Sport, while well off, didn’t have the $80,000 in cash the players were demanding. So he approached Arnold Rothstein, the well-known New York City gambling kingpin, who agreed to front the money.
The movie Eight Men Out implies that Sullivan and Rothstein barely knew each other, but the fact that Rothstein entrusted such a large sum of cash to Sullivan suggests that they were, if not close friends, at least business acquaintances.28 Sullivan met the players in Chicago to finalize the Fix, and also to place nearly $30,000 in bets. The ballplayers later accused Sullivan of short-changing them, a likely event considering Sullivan’s past history.29
Rumor had it that Sullivan made enough betting on the 1919 Series to retire from gambling. This, Sullivan heatedly denied. His wife, Katherine Sullivan, even told an interviewer in 1920, “If Joe had won all that money they claim, we would have a mansion with fine furniture and lots of servants, whereas we haven’t one. … I guess I know what he has. It is true that he has an automobile and a chauffeur, but that is no sign of wealth.”30
When the Grand Jury made the names of the suspects public, Sullivan, who admitted only to “(handling) several [hundred] thousand dollars in bets” on the Series, vowed not to be the “goat” of the fix. “They have made me the goat, and I’m not going to stand for it. … I have the whole history of the deal from beginning to end. I know the big man [Rothstein] whose money it was that paid off the White Sox players – and I’m going to name him. … Within the next 48 hours, I will be on my way to Chicago and when I get there, I will tell the grand jury or any other officials the whole inside story of the frameup.”31
Other than perhaps Gandil, Sullivan knew more about the fix than anyone. Yet it seems the authorities were, for whatever reason, in little hurry to get his testimony. In the end, Sullivan never went to Chicago, and never testified. Reportedly, Rothstein’s lawyer, William J. Fallon, persuaded Sullivan not to go. Rumor had it that Sullivan then fled to Canada or Mexico along with Abe Attell, again presumably at Rothstein’s urgings, but those rumors cannot be squared with the numerous newspaper and police reports of sighting Sullivan in his usual Boston haunts.
Sullivan’s threat to testify might have been used by him as leverage to get Rothstein to use his connections to quash any serious investigation. Sullivan was later indicted by the Cook County grand jury on nine counts of conspiracy to defraud, but was neither arrested nor appeared at the trial.32 The trial ended in an acquittal for all the defendants. Notwithstanding the acquittal, the new commissioner of baseball, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, banned the accused players from Organized Baseball.33
To this author the great missing link in the Fix is Sullivan’s testimony. What we know of the gambler’s side of the Fix comes mostly from Abe Attell, who was interviewed by Asinof for Eight Men Out, and the Bill Burns/Billy Maharg testimony. The former is New York-centered and self-serving; the latter, from relative amateurs in big-time betting who were not (as they admitted at trial) very smart.
None were as connected to all the varying threads as Sullivan. In fact, it is amazing that, so far as we know, no reporter ever tried to interview Sullivan after the statute of limitations on the indictment expired or after Rothstein’s death in 1928 to get his side of the story.
After the scandal, the aging Sullivan slowly faded from public view. Barred from baseball parks, “spring and summer became dull times for him. He began to age. He knew so many people, and yet he was a lonely man during the baseball season. Occasionally, the Boston baseball people and the police who were on duty would turn their backs, look the other way, and Sport would go to the game.”34
One public record of his post-scandal appearances is at the 1926 World Series when the president of the American League, Ban Johnson, noticed “Sport” in Yankee Stadium and had the police escort him out.35 A 1926 Boston Herald article noted that Sullivan, still apparently newsworthy, had traveled to Hartford, Connecticut, to check out a prizefight he had wagered on.36 His and Rothstein’s names were brought up in a 1929 trial in which the Boston Braves were accused of bribing a Boston city councilman.37
However, “it wasn’t the same as in the days when Sport was the handsome king of the gambling section and all the others were sycophants. He began to lose his touch. The keen mind that once was so very right now would, all too often, be so very wrong. He began to fade physically, and the once meticulous Sport would show up with his clothes a bit shabby. His money went. The man who would juggle thousands in one game, so that he might make, say, $500, was making $10 wagers so that he might wind up with a profit of $2 or $3. … He was just a tired old man, grinding a buck here and there. When he died, the boys weren’t even sure that he died.”
His wife, Katherine Driscoll Sullivan, died in 1930. From 1940 to his death, Sport Sullivan lived with his daughter Alexina and son John, at their homes in Cambridge and Dorchester. Sport died of heart disease, unknown and to the larger world forgotten, on April 6, 1949. He was buried in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Stoughton, Massachusetts, next to Sharon, the town he’d lived in during his glory years.38
Note: A version of this article was first published in the SABR Black Sox Scandal Research Committee's June 2014 newsletter.
In preparing this biography, the author relied primarily on major online newspaper databases. Also helpful were David Pietrusza’s Rothstein and the writings of Bill Lamb.
1 1900 Census of Boston (90 Green St.); 1910-1930 Census of Sharon (14 Walnut St.); 1940 census of Cambridge (54? Prospect St.); 1896-1953 Boston City Directories; 1917 Sharon Directory; Phone interview with Sport’s great-grandson Dean Carrick, August 2013; Massachusetts Death Certificate. One of the many difficulties in tracking down Sullivan’s life is that in the 1910s there was a Brooklyn-St. Louis-based boxing promoter named (Martin J.) “Sport” Sullivan, plus any number of Joseph J. Sullivans. In the early 1900s every second man in Boston seems to have been named Sullivan.
2 “Sullivan Is Called ‘King of Gamblers,’ ” Utica Herald Dispatch, September 29, 1920.
3 “Bostons Turn Tables on Fast Pittsburg Team,” Boston Journal, October 3, 1903;
4 Lowell Sun, September 29, 1904.
5 “Maclean Will Be Well Backed,” New York Tribune, November 30, 1904; “Sam Langford on Way to Meet Gunner Moir,” Washington Times, March 6, 1907; “Sam Langford,” Washington Post, March 11, 1907. A photo of Langford and his entourage taken in England (cf. Clay Moyle, Sam Langford: Boxing’s Greatest Uncrowned Champion (Seattle: Bennett & Hastings, 2008), 62) has an unidentified person second from the left who may be Sullivan.
6 “Chicago Americans Win Baseball Championship of the World,” Boston Herald, October 15, 1906. Francis Richter, “Dovey’s Doings,” Sporting Life, October 20, 1906, notes that “ ‘Sport’ Sullivan” of the Boston “betting ring” attended the recent Series.
7 “Lawson Summoned by State House Bribe Probers,” Boston Journal, May 19, 1906; “Police Move to Stop Baseball Gambling,” Boston Journal, July 9, 1907.
8Boston Journal, July 9, 1907.
9 “Gamblers Devise Many Schemes to Evade Law,” Boston Journal, July 10, 1907.
10 “Boy Says Baseball Pools Fleece Him,” Boston Journal, July 2, 1911; “Five Arrests in War on Gaming,” Boston Herald, June 12, 1913; “ ‘Sport’ Set Back $1000,” Boston Journal, November 10, 1914.
11Bozeman Bulger, “Red Sox Rule Big Favorites in Betting Because They’re Regarded ‘Money Players,’ ” New York Evening World, October 6, 1916. He’d bet $1,000 on the A’s in the 1911 Series. See “Crowd Shy of Record,” Washington Post, October 17, 1911.
12 Eliot Asinof, Eight Men Out: The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series (New York: Henry Holt, 1963), is the classic early treatment of the scandal. Public awareness of the Black Sox has been shaped in large part by this book and the subsequent movie. More modern scholarship has shown that Asinof, a TV scriptwriter, wrote for effect more than for historical accuracy. While he interviewed many of the participants, he never took detailed notes of the interviews, and in his book text altered several of the incidents portrayed.
13 “Nationals, 100 to 1. Price Boston Gambler Lays Against Flag Chances,” Washington Post, February 24, 1911.
14 Ring Lardner, “Awake With the News,” Chicago Tribune, October 13, 1915.
15 Burt Whitman, “Sullivan’s Friends Rate His Knowledge High,” Boston Herald, September 30, 1920.
16 “Giants Made Favorites by Bettors in National League Pennant Race,” Colorado Springs Gazette, April 4, 1917.
17 Neal O’Hara, “Take It From Me,” Boston Traveler, November 2, 1956.
18 Boston Traveler, April 21, 1949.
19 “ ‘Sport’ Sullivan Is Said to Have Gained a Fortune From Betting,” Boston Globe, September 30, 1920. Arnold Gandil, “This is My Story of the Black Sox Series,” Sports Illustrated, September 17, 1956.
20 “Fight Was Fixed,” Lowell Sun, September 29, 1904.
21 Joe Vila, “Gamblers Have Been Active in Baseball for Many Years,“ Philadelphia Inquirer, October 16, 1920. Sullivan is a possible candidate for the unidentified gambler who tried to bribe Young in the 1903 World Series. See “Cy Young Tells How Gamblers Tried to Bribe Him Long Ago,” Salt Lake City Telegram, October 19, 1920.
22 The Buckminster was a block away from Fenway Park, and was frequented by the players.
23 “ ‘Sport’ Sullivan is in New York,” Boston Herald, October 1, 1920. Late in life Gandil admitted that Sullivan asked for information on Johnson’s starts, but Gandil claimed he turned Sullivan down. See Gandil, “My Story.”
24 See Gandil, “My Story.” Asinof’s Eight Men Out has Gandil pitching the idea to Sullivan. Tim Hornbaker, Turning the Black Sox White (New York: Sports Publishing, 2014), 269-270, quotes the Washington Post, October 23, 1920, as saying that Sullivan had already received a tip from Hal Chase that some White Sox may be open to a fix.
25 Given Sullivan’s contacts in baseball and the gambling world, if the 1918 Series had been fixed, Sullivan would have (at a minimum) known about the fix.
26 As reported in the Bridgeport Telegram, October 1, 1920, under the headline “Big Gambling Coup of 1919 First Planned in Boston.”
27 Cicotte’s vital importance to the Fix cannot be overstated. The gamblers wouldn’t commit big money unless they saw a “sure thing,” and with Cicotte in the fold, they had as close to a sure thing as gamblers ever get.
28 For example, a 1917 New York newspaper article doping out the coming baseball season mentioned two gamblers by name as setting the regional betting odds – Arnold Rothstein and Sport Sullivan. See Bozeman Bulger, “Giants Club Is 6 to 5 Choice in Betting Now,” Syracuse Herald, April 1, 1917. In 1923 Rothstein admitted to knowing Sullivan. See David Pietrusza, Rothstein: The Life, Times and Murder of the Criminal Genius Who Fixed the 1919 World Series (New York: Basic Books, 2003), 254.
29 He allegedly welshed on a bet during the 1912 World Series. See “$60,000 Lost Here on World Series,” Philadelphia Inquirer, October 1, 1920.
30 “ ‘Sport’ Sullivan Is in New York,” Boston Herald, October 1, 1920.
31 “ ‘Sport’ Sullivan Going to Chicago to Name ‘Great Master Mind’ Behind Baseball Frameup,” Lowell Sun, October 2, 1920.
32 For more on the Black Sox legal proceedings, see William F. Lamb, Black Sox in the Courtroom: The Grand Jury, Criminal Trial and Civil Litigation, Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2013.
33 Gene Carney, Burying the Black Sox: How Baseball’s Cover-Up of the 1919 World Series Fix Almost Succeeded (Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2003), discusses many of the varied rumors surrounding the Fix and the cover-up.
34 Arthur Siegel, “Only Years Obscured Sport Sullivan,” Boston Traveler, April 21, 1949.
35 Pietrusza, 382. The book cites The Sporting News, October 21, 1926, and November 18, 1926, in which Sullivan is referred to only as the well-known Boston gambler who fixed the 1919 Series.
36 “By Bob Dunbar,” Boston Herald, December 14, 1926.
37 “Adams Reveals Tip That Led to Bribery Charge,” Springfield (Massachusetts) Republican, January 4, 1929.
38 Arthur Siegel, “Only Years Obscured Sport Sullivan,” Boston Traveler, April 21, 1949. This death notice was picked up by The Sporting News, May 4, 1949, 45, in an “Obituary” that somehow has eluded prior Black Sox historians. Details from Massachusetts Death Certificate, filed April 9, 1949, vol. 47, p. 303.