SABR

Billy Maharg

This article was written by Bill Lamb.

On September 27, 1920, suspicions about the integrity of the previous year’s World Series between the Chicago White Sox and Cincinnati Reds were given substance by a self-admitted fix insider named Billy Maharg. In an interview first published in the Philadelphia North American and syndicated nationwide immediately thereafter, Maharg maintained that a number of Chicago players had agreed to lose the Series in exchange for a $100,000 payoff from gamblers. Within days, Sox stars Eddie Cicotte, Joe Jackson, Lefty Williams and Happy Felsch all admitted accepting cash payments for their agreement to participate in the fix. Those players and others allegedly involved in the plot were subsequently indicted by a Cook County grand jury and brought to trial in Chicago in July 1921, the event becoming the epicenter of the Black Sox scandal.

Although Maharg was a well-known sports figure in his native Philadelphia – he had been a lightweight boxer active in local fight clubs, a sandlot ballplayer who actually appeared in two major-league games, and an assistant team trainer and errand boy for the Phillies – Maharg was largely unknown in Chicago. To undermine the credibility of this stranger to local jurors, Black Sox defense lawyers began circulating the rumor that Maharg was actually a journeyman big-league catcher named Peaches Graham, concealing his true identity for reasons unknown, but presumably sinister. The claim was ludicrous, readily dispatched at trial where Maharg was generally deemed a credible and effective prosecution witness. Notwithstanding that, the accused players were acquitted by a sympathetic jury on August 2, 1921, only to find themselves permanently banished from organized baseball via edict of Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis issued the very next day. A minor ingredient of more recent accounts of the Black Sox scandal is a curious change in the name of the players’ accuser from Philadelphia. Although he had lived his 72-year life entirely as Billy Maharg[i], a number of modern baseball references, including authoritative ones like Baseball-Reference.com, now state that Maharg’s last name was actually Graham, M-A-H-A-R-G spelled backwards. No evidence is ever offered in support of this assertion because there is none. Indeed, despite its acceptance and repetition by many, the notion that Billy Maharg was actually named Graham is utterly specious, a peculiar but persistent canard refuted by both genealogical inquiry and perusal of historical sports pages.

Billy Maharg was born William Joseph Maharg in Philadelphia on March 19, 1881, the second of three children born to George Alexander Maharg and his Irish immigrant wife, the former Catherine Carney. Although it has other origins, the name Maharg is a relatively common Scottish and Scotch-Irish surname, one of several corruptions of the old Gaelic clan name MacGiolla Chairge (meaning descendant or follower of Chairge, a venerable, if obscure, Celtic saint).[ii] In Billy’s case, the Maharg name was brought to America by his great-grandfather, an immigrant from Ireland who settled in Pennsylvania early in the 19th century. Billy was named for his grandfather, William J. Maharg, a shoemaker-turned-coal miner born in western Pennsylvania in June 1829.[iii] Billy’s father, George Maharg, was the oldest of grandfather Maharg’s five children. Born in rural Pennsylvania in 1857, George later relocated to Philadelphia where he first found work as a common laborer. He and wife Kate were married in 1879, an event followed by the birth of daughter Rebecca Maharg later in the same year. Billy was born two years thereafter, while the belated arrival of younger brother George Alexander Maharg, Jr., in April 1896 made the family complete.

Little is known of Billy Maharg’s early life, but he was raised Roman Catholic and his education was sufficient to permit him to read and write adequately, while acquiring fine penmanship.[iv] The 1900 U.S. Census lists Billy as living at home in Philadelphia with his parents, Rebecca, and George Jr., and working as a farmhand, presumably for his father, by now a local farmer. But Billy Maharg was more a creature of the Philadelphia streets. Small (5-foot-4½, 135 pounds) but athletic, he played baseball on north Philadelphia sandlots but first came to public attention in the ring. Maharg began his professional boxing career on January 12, 1900, losing a six-round newspaper decision to Harry Berger at the Pelican A.C., a Philadelphia fight club.[v] Despite that inauspicious beginning, Maharg was no palooka. He was a durable, if soft-punching (only two KOs) lightweight good enough to be deemed a prospect by no less an authority than George Siler, the country’s foremost boxing referee.[vi] In a November 1902 news column, Siler declared, “Philadelphia has a coming youngster named Bill Maharg, who has proven his superiority over the best 122 pounders in his section of the country.”[vii] Ultimately, Maharg proved unable to fulfill his promise, never rising much above a Philadelphia club fighter. But his seven-year boxing career contains one impressive highlight: On April 11, 1906, Maharg won a “decisive” 10-round decision over Freddie Welsh, a future lightweight world champion and a member of various boxing halls of fame.[viii] Following a newspaper decision loss to Young Loughery on January 3, 1907, Billy Maharg hung up the gloves, having posted a respectable 45-11 record with 18 draws or no-decisions, and never having been knocked out in 74 total bouts.

Maharg entered the major league baseball record book on May 18, 1912, when he donned a Detroit Tigers uniform for a game against the Philadelphia A’s. The 31-year-old Maharg was one of the replacement nine put on the field by Detroit management after Tigers regulars walked off the field in support of an indefinitely suspended Ty Cobb.[ix] The incident that led to Cobb’s suspension (the beating of an abusive heckler named Claude Lueker during an earlier game at Hilltop Park) is well chronicled and need not be detailed here, while Gary Livacari’s biography of Allan Travers, the future Jesuit priest who took the mound for Detroit, offers an informative summary of how the pseudo-Tigers were assembled. Stationed at third base, Maharg handled his first two chances competently, turning ground balls into outs. Several innings into the game, however, a bad-hop grounder struck him in the face, reportedly knocking out several teeth. Although he had gone the distance in 74 professional fights, Maharg was through for the day, having gone hitless in his only plate appearance. With Ed Irvin installed at third in Maharg’s place, the A’s, perhaps not entirely coincidentally, began bunting, quickly turning a respectable 6-2 game into a rout. The final score was Philadelphia 24, Detroit 2.[x] American League president Ban Johnson was not amused and under threat of permanent banishment from the game, the Detroit regulars returned to the diamond the next game. None of the replacement Tigers ever played in another major league game – except for Billy Maharg.

Having left his father’s employ on the farm, Maharg worked odd jobs. He also remained close to the Philadelphia sports scene, with access to the Phillies’ locker room facilitated by friendship with staff ace Grover Alexander. Alex and Maharg boarded at the same rooming house. An affable little man willing to make himself useful, the Phillies eventually took Maharg on, officially as an assistant trainer (his title in a 1916 Philadelphia Phillies team photo caption)[xi] but more practically as a driver/gofer for team notables. In the season-ender of the 1916 campaign against the Boston Braves, a contest that the New York Times would label “a travesty on the national game,” Phillies manager Pat Moran cleared the bench, even sending assistant trainer Maharg into action. Sent up as a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the eighth inning, Maharg grounded out. He then “went out to right field, where he posed in the shadow cast by the large flag at the top of the grand stand.”[xii] Nothing was hit Maharg’s way in the ninth, and the game ended uneventfully, the second-place Phils dropping a meaningless 4-1 decision. The two-game major league playing career of Billy Maharg was now over, his lifetime 0-for-2 yielding a .000 batting average. But flawless in two chances in the field, Maharg was officially a perfect 1.000 fielding with the glove, if not with his face.

At age 37, Maharg registered for the World War I draft but was not called to arms. Rather, he gained employment as a driller at the Baldwin Locomotive Works, a railway engine plant in Philadelphia. Maharg’s appointment with destiny arrived in September 1919, supplied by Bill Burns, a baseball friend with whom Maharg had once taken an extended fishing trip. A former major league pitcher, Burns was now in the business of selling oil leases. But gambling was Burns’ true avocation. Maharg had neither the brains nor the bankroll necessary to make a living gambling himself, but as an ex-prizefighter, he was well acquainted with the gambling fraternity, particularly in Philadelphia. Billy could, therefore, be of use to Burns in arrangement of the financing of a proposition put to Burns by White Sox staff ace Eddie Cicotte: the fixing of the 1919 World Series.

The Black Sox scandal presents a subject far too complicated for detailed treatment here. Suffice it to say that:

  1. Maharg’s Philadelphia gambling acquaintances informed him that fixing the World Series was a matter far beyond their means, and recommended that he approach New York underworld financier Arnold Rothstein;
  2. that when propositioned by Burns and Maharg in the grill room of the Astor Hotel, Rothstein declined their entreaty to finance the fix plan;
  3. that Maharg then went home to Philadelphia thinking that the fix was a non-starter, but
  4. shortly thereafter, he received a wire from Burns informing him that the Rothstein had changed his mind and summoning Maharg to Cincinnati, the scene of Game 1 of the Series;
  5. that Burns and Maharg, later joined by ex-featherweight boxing champ Abe Attell and another gambler calling himself “Bennett,” both posing as Rothstein agents, met with seven White Sox players inside a Sinton Hotel room where the terms of the World Series fix were negotiated by the two sides and ultimately agreed to;
  6. that Attell reneged on the players’ expected $20,000 payoff after the Sox dumped Game 1, and then shortchanged them by half after the Game 2 loss;
  7. that acting on assurances that the corrupted Sox would not win for disdained “busher” Dickie Kerr, Burns and Maharg bet their entire stake on Cincinnati in Game 3 and were wiped out when Kerr shut out the Reds, 3-0; and
  8. that after he got home to Philadelphia, Maharg heard that the fix had been reinstated for Game 8 by Attell and gamblers from St. Louis, who intimidated Sox starting pitcher Lefty Williams into a dreadful first-inning performance that cinched their bets on Cincinnati.

The day after the 1919 World Series was completed, murmurs about the bona fides of White Sox play found public expression in a syndicated column penned by sportswriter Hugh Fullerton of the Chicago Herald Examiner. A few other sports scribes had misgivings about the Series outcome as well, and joined Fullerton’s call for an inquiry. But for the most part, the baseball world simply moved on, with no official investigatory action taken. The grand jury probe that ultimately exposed the Black Sox scandal came almost a year later and initially had nothing to do with the play of the 1919 World Series, being instituted rather to investigate the reputed fix of a meaningless late-August 1920 game between the Cubs and the Phillies. But public pressure and the vigorous behind-the-scenes efforts of AL president Johnson soon changed the probe’s focus and put the 1919 Series center stage before the grand jury. On September 25, 1920, the Chicago Tribune announced that indictments would be returned shortly and publicly identified Eddie Cicotte, Chick Gandil, Lefty Williams, Happy Felsch, Joe Jackson, Swede Risberg, Fred McMullin and Buck Weaver as the Sox players likely to be charged. Accusatory headlines prompted indignant protestations of innocence, particularly from Weaver, McMullin, and Felsch. The burgeoning scandal spotlight then unexpectedly moved to Philadelphia, where Billy Maharg was giving the interview that would blow the scandal wide open.

On September 26, Maharg confided his knowledge of World Series fix events to Philadelphia North American sportswriter James Isaminger. Published the next morning and quickly reprinted nationwide, the Maharg-Isaminger interview was a sensation. Distressed White Sox owner Charles Comiskey immediately telegrammed Philadelphia, imploring Maharg to come to Chicago and repeat his story to the grand jury, offering Maharg the standing $10,000 Comiskey reward for information that incriminated any of his players, if proven true. But Maharg would not budge, declaring that he was not interested in Comiskey’s money. “I don’t want it. I didn’t talk for the money,” said Billy. “My idea was to show how nice a double-cross was rung up. People that know me know that I wouldn’t take the $10,000 and people that don’t know me, I don’t care what they think.”[xiii] Maharg never did testify before the grand jury, but it no longer mattered. In rapid succession, Cicotte, Jackson and Williams appeared before the panel where each admitted accepting money in return for agreeing to lose the Series, while Felsch made an abject out-of-court confession of fix complicity that was published several days later in the Chicago Evening American.[xiv] The long-anticipated Black Sox case indictments were formally returned on October 29, 1920.

Given that evidentiary rules do not apply to grand jury proceedings, Maharg could have been charged himself on no more than a reading of the Philadelphia North American interview to the panel. But Cook County prosecutors needed witnesses, not additional defendants. Thus, Maharg was never indicted for his role in the fix of the 1919 World Series. Rather, he became a star prosecution witness. Of even more benefit to the state, however, was Maharg’s willingness to assist prosecution recruitment of Bill Burns. With expenses covered by Ban Johnson, Maharg traveled to Texas, found Burns across the border in Mexico and then persuaded him to return to Chicago with Maharg and turn state’s evidence. Called to testify on July 20, 1921 and on the witness stand for the better part of three days, Burns proved a surprisingly effective government witness, drawing rave reviews from the Black Sox press corps.[xv] Several days later, Maharg was just as good. The issue of his true identity was addressed immediately. Lead prosecutor George E. Gorman: “It has been intimated by the attorneys for the defense that you are Peaches Graham, is that correct? Maharg: No, I have never been known by anything but Billy Maharg. I know Peaches Graham, but I am not he.”[xvi] Congenial and seemingly guileless, Maharg then repeated his by-now-well-known account of fix events, “adding a strong layer of corroboration to the State’s already strong case,”[xvii] while remaining impervious to attack by defense counsel. But in the end, it did not matter. Notwithstanding facially strong proofs, particularly against defendants Cicotte, Jackson, Williams, Gandil and David Zelcer (Bennett), all nine accused (seven players and two gamblers) who entrusted their fate to the jury were acquitted, the jury members exulting the outcome in the courtroom with the defendants and later joining them for a post-verdict celebration at a nearby Italian restaurant. Few others, however, shared the jury’s satisfaction with the verdict, and within 24 hours Landis acted, permanently banning the acquitted players from organized baseball for life.[xviii]

Following the trial, Billy Maharg receded into obscurity, spending the rest of his working life as an auto mechanic at the Ford Motor Company plant in Chester, Pennsylvania. The Black Sox saga, however, was not quite finished, as Buck Weaver, Happy Felsch, Swede Risberg and Joe Jackson each instituted a civil lawsuit against the Chicago White Sox. As part of the pre-trial discovery process, Maharg was deposed by counsel for the litigants in December 1922, but his story did not change.[xix] Of the lawsuits, only the Jackson case actually went to trial, but Maharg was not called to testify. Instead, his deposition was read to the jury by White Sox attorneys.[xx] A small footnote to the legal proceedings occurred some 15 years later when George Frederick “Peaches” Graham, former Philadelphia Phillies catcher and Maharg’s putative alter ego, died in Long Beach, California on July 15, 1939, at age 62. Billy, meanwhile, continued working at the Ford plant in Chester, as did his diminutive younger brother George Jr., who eventually came to share lodgings with Billy in Philadelphia.[xxi]

According to Rothstein biographer David Pietrusza, Maharg kept a kennel of dogs on the family farm in Burholme, Pennsylvania, and spent leisure time hunting small game. Retiring from Ford at age 65, Billy relocated to Burholme where he “puttered at farming and maintained his friendship with Grover Cleveland Alexander.”[xxii] In later life, Maharg suffered from arteriosclerosis but the heart attack which claimed his life came unexpectedly. He died in Philadelphia on November 20, 1953. Never married, Billy left no immediate survivors. A brief death notice published in the Philadelphia Inquirer for the “beloved son of the late George and Catherine Maharg” invited relatives, friends and the Veteran Boxers Association to attend the viewing at a local mortuary.[xxiii] Following a funeral Mass at Resurrection Church, Maharg was buried at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in nearby Cheltenham, the final resting place of Connie Mack and a score more deceased major-league figures. No headstone marks the Maharg grave. An alternate but fitting memorial might, therefore, be having modern-day baseball authorities delete the “Graham” nonsense from their annals and bestow the correct birth name upon William Joseph Maharg.

 

Notes

[i] The 1890 U.S. Census is lost, destroyed in a fire almost 100 years ago. Billy first appears as William J. Maharg, age 19, and living with family in Philadelphia, in the 1900 U.S. Census. He subsequently appears as William J. Maharg at various Philadelphia addresses in every available census through 1940. He also signed his World War I and World War II draft registration cards under oath as William J. Maharg, while the November 1953 death notice published in the Philadelphia Inquirer listed him as William Maharg.

[ii] As explained at http://www.Surnamedb.com/Surname/Maharg.

[iii] Grandfather William J. Maharg survived into the 20th century. The 1900 U.S. Census has him living with youngest daughter Mary Jane Maharg Anderson and her family in LaGrange, Pennsylvania.

[iv] As evidenced by the graceful William J. Maharg signature that he affixed to his World War I draft registration card in 1918.

[v] At the turn of the century, professional boxing was technically illegal in many places, including Philadelphia. Bouts were therefore staged as exhibitions. Those not ending in a knockout were officially ruled a no-decision, but a winner was customarily picked by sportswriters covering the fight. Such newspaper decisions are oft-times incorporated into tabulation of a fighter’s record. The ring career of Billy Maharg can be examined on various boxing websites including http://www.boxrec.com, the authority relied upon herein.

[vi] Siler was third man in the ring for many big fights, including bouts of Joe Gans, Battling Nelson, Jimmy Britt, and other boxing legends. Most famously, Siler was the referee in March 1897 when Bob Fitzsimmons won the heavyweight crown, stopping champion James J. Corbett with the storied left hook to the solar plexus.

[vii] Chicago Tribune, November 30, 1902.

[viii] Maharg’s bout with the “Welsh Wizard” was fought in Essington, Pennsylvania, a boxing venue where official decisions were permitted.

[ix] As per a retrospective on the Cobb-Lueker affair, published in the New York Times, April 28, 2012.

[x] While this mismatch was in progress, backup Phillies catcher George Frederick “Peaches” Graham (born March 23, 1877 in Aledo, Illinois) was riding the bench during a game against the Cardinals in St. Louis. Graham was released by the Phillies a month later but continued playing in the minors through 1916.

[xi] Among other places, the 1916 Philadelphia Phillies team photo can be found in Paul G. Zinn and John G. Zinn, The Major League Pennant Races of 1916 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2009), 32. Clad in suit and tie, Maharg stands in the top row, far left, next to shortstop Dave Bancroft.

[xii] New York Times, October 6, 1916.

[xiii] As quoted in the Washington Post, September 30, 1920.

[xiv] The Felsch confession was published in an article by reporter Harry Reutlinger. See Chicago Evening American, September 30, 1920.

[xv] The laconic Burns was particularly impressive on cross-examination, deftly parrying hostile questions, bantering with defense lawyers, and even making a joke at the expense of Gandil attorney Benedict J. Short. The critique of the Burns performance in the Los Angeles Times, July 22, 1921, was typical: “The State’s chief witness … hurled excellent ball, permitting the defense few hits in the grilling cross-examination.” For other glowing reviews of the Burns appearance, see Chicago Daily Journal, July 20, 1921; Chicago Tribune, July 21, 1921; New York Times, July 23, 1921.

[xvi] As reported in the New York Times, July 28, 1921. The subject of Peaches Graham went unmentioned when defense counsel cross-examined Maharg.

[xvii] Eliot Asinof, Eight Men Out: The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1963), 263.

[xviii] A complete account of the judicial proceedings spawned by the corruption of the 1919 World Series appears in William F. Lamb, Black Sox in the Courtroom: The Grand Jury, Criminal Trial and Civil Litigation (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2013).

[xix] A deposition is the out-of-court questioning of a witness under oath by the attorneys for civil litigants. At the trial of the case, the deposition may be introduced in evidence in lieu of live testimony by the witness.

[xx] A $16,711.04 award by a Milwaukee jury in Jackson’s favor was vacated by the trial judge, who cited both plaintiff Joe Jackson and witness Happy Felsch for perjury. In time, each of the four civil suits against the White Sox was settled for a modest amount.

[xxi] George Maharg was even shorter than Billy. His 1942 draft registration card lists George A. Maharg Jr., as 5-foot-3, 145 pounds.

[xxii] David Pietrusza, Rothstein: The Life, Times, and Murder of the Criminal Genius Who Fixed the 1919 World Series (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2003), 369. Pietrusza further relates that at the time of his death, Billy Maharg was supplying Gone with the Wind novelist Margaret Mitchell with information on Alexander for a planned, but never written, book on the pitcher.

[xxiii] Philadelphia Inquirer, November 23, 1953. Maharg’s death went unnoted in the other Philadelphia newspapers.

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