William Rumler

This article was written by Terry Bohn

After nearly a century, many baseball historians still wonder how Shoeless Joe Jackson's career might have turned out were he not permanently banned from baseball after the fixing of the 1919 World Series. The same question remains for another slugging outfielder who was also thrown out of Organized Baseball after he was accused of taking a bribe to influence the outcome of games. No, not one of Jackson’s Black Sox teammates, but a lesser known minor leaguer named Bill Rumler.

Already a veteran of three major-league seasons, Rumler led the Pacific Coast League in batting in 1919 with a .362 average. Only 28 years old, he seemed certain to get a chance to return to the major leagues. But he and two Salt Lake City Bees teammates reportedly accepted money to throw a late-season series against Vernon (California), allowing Vernon to win the league pennant. Rumler was suspended from Organized Baseball and spent the next eight years playing in the outlaw leagues.

When his ban was finally lifted, Rumler’s first season back was eerily reminiscent of Roy Hobbs in Bernard Malamud’s novel The Natural, published more than two decades later. Now 38 years old, Rumler returned to the Pacific Coast League with Hollywood in 1929 and hit .386 with 26 home runs, leading the team to the pennant. With that kind of production, eight years removed from his last game before being suspended, one can only imagine what kind of career Rumler may have had if he had been eligible to play during the prime of his career.

William George Rumler was born on March 27, 1891, in Milford, Nebraska, a small Mennonite farming community about 20 miles west of Lincoln. His father, Charles, was born in Germany and of Amish ancestry and his mother, Sophie, was born in Russia. He attended local schools and worked with his two brothers and sister on the family farm until he was about 20 years old.

Baseball-reference.com shows Rumler’s minor-league record beginning his professional career in 1913 with the Great Bend Millers of the Class D Kansas State League. He actually began two years earlier, playing briefly with the Seward Statesmen in the Class D Nebraska State League.1 In 1912 it appears he played with a traveling group of Cherokee Indians. He adopted the name Black Hawk to catch on with the team as a catcher and even donned an Indian headdress in a team photograph.

In 1913 Rumler signed with Great Bend and hit .314 in 61 games before being sold to the Burlington (Iowa) Pathfinders of the Central Association, also in Class D. There he hit .350 in 37 games. Reportedly St. Louis Browns scout Charlie Barrett was in the grandstand in Burlington one day when Rumler caught both ends of a doubleheader and had seven hits (two singles, two doubles, two triples, and a home run) in eight at-bats.2 After the season he was drafted by St. Louis and went to spring training with the Browns in 1914.

Manager Branch Rickey liked the looks of the young, powerful catcher, and Rumler made the Browns’ Opening Day roster. He made his major-league debut, going 1-for-3, as the team’s starting catcher on May 14 against the Chicago White Sox. He played sparingly over the next six weeks, catching on occasion, pinch-hitting, and playing some right field. On June 22, in a game against the Philadelphia Athletics, Rumler ran into the outfield fence at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis, and was knocked unconscious. A week later it was reported he had been sold to Montgomery of the Southern Association, but he never made an appearance with the Rebels. Instead he remained with the Browns all season, but appeared in just 17 more games that season, 13 of them pinch-hitting appearances. In his rookie season, he batted just .170 in 34 games.

In 1915 the Browns sent Rumler to the Atlanta Crackers of the Class A Southern Association to work on his catching. He hit .253 in 122 games and began the 1916 season with another Southern Association team, the Little Rock Travelers. By midseason he was batting .337 and leading the league in slugging percentage. At this point, Branch Rickey, now the Browns’ general manager with Fielder Jones taking over as field manager, was in need of catching help in St. Louis. After the Federal League folded, Phil Ball, owner of the St. Louis entry, the Terriers, bought the Browns and merged the rosters of the two teams. By mid-July, ex-Terriers Harry Chapman and Grover Hartley, the two catchers backing up Browns starter Hank Severeid, were barely hitting above .200 and neither had a home run.

In late July Rumler was recalled to St. Louis, where he finished the season. Several reports noted his strong throwing arm, but apparently he was still lacking behind the plate, because for the rest of the year he was used primarily as a pinch-hitter. During the last two months of the season Rumler made 19 pinch-hitting appearances, drawing four walks and rapping six hits, three of them doubles, in 15 at-bats for a .375 average. This mark was 100 points higher than the .272 he managed in eight games as a catcher. Overall, Rumler hit .324.

Rumler was back with the Browns in 1917 and was again used primarily as a pinch-hitter. In what turned out to be his final major-league season, he hit .261 in 78 games, but those 78 games consisted of 68 pinch-hitting appearances and just nine games in the outfield. The highlight of the season, and maybe Rumler’s entire major-league career, came on June 1. He came off the bench to pinch-hit in the top of the 10th inning with the score tied and lined a two-run single off the Washington Senators’ Walter Johnson, giving the Browns a 4-2 win.

Despite the shortage of players due to World War I, in early 1918 Browns general manager Bobby Quinn sold Rumler to the Columbus (Ohio) Senators of the American Association, where, for some reason, he played under the name James Rumler. After playing in just seven games and hitting .125, on May 23 he was drafted into the US Army. He was assigned to the 5th Company, 163rd Depot Brigade, at Camp Dodge, Iowa, where he rose to the rank of sergeant. He spent most of his time in the Army playing baseball, and an injury during a game probably helped him escape serving overseas. He broke a leg sliding back into first base during a pickoff attempt, and by the time his leg had healed, the Armistice had been signed

Rumler was discharged from the Army on December 11, 1918, and signed with the Salt Lake City Bees of the Pacific Coast League in the spring of 1919. The slugging outfielder won the league batting championship with an average of .362. Rumler led the league in doubles (42), his 17 home runs were second best in the league and 17 triples were good for third place. Salt Lake City finished in third place behind Vernon, which won a close race with Los Angeles for the league pennant.

In January 1920 the Browns tried to reacquire Rumler, but did not offer the players Salt Lake wanted, so the deal fell through. He got off to another strong start with Salt Lake City in 1920. He was hitting .348 in early August when Babe Borton,3 a first baseman for the Vernon Tigers, claimed that several members of the Bees, including Rumler, had been paid to sit out the games in a late-season series between the two teams the year before. This would have increased Vernon’s chances of winning the games and helped them overtake Los Angeles (which they eventually did) for the pennant.

Rumler did in fact sit out several of the games with Vernon, but all evidence suggested he was legitimately injured. Rumler was examined by a local physician, a Dr. Spencer, who diagnosed badly damaged ligaments in his hand and said that playing “would have been a detriment to his own club, and … would have taken chances on cutting short his baseball career.”4 Rumler was also nursing a sore foot and it seems he even tried to play injured. In the September 25 game against Vernon, an 8-2 loss, three hits dropped in front of Rumler in right field that “might have been gathered in by the real Rumler.”5

Rumler was involved in still another controversy at the end of the 1919 season. All season he battled Los Angeles outfielder Sam Crawford, an ex-Detroit Tiger and future Hall of Famer, for the batting championship. Rumler recovered from his injuries enough to play in the season’s final series, against Oakland. In the season finale, on October 6, Rumler had four hits that included three bunts (on two of which Oakland players made no throw to first) and a line drive on which Oaks shortstop Sammy Bohne “made no effort to flag the ball.”6 Essentially, Oakland purposely handed the batting championship to Rumler (.362) over Crawford (.360), reminiscent of the tainted batting race between Nap Lajoie and Ty Cobb in 1910.

On August 11, 1920, just a few days after Borton made his allegations, Rumler admitted to taking $2007 from Borton and signed an affidavit to that effect. Investigators later uncovered a bank draft to substantiate the payment. However, Rumler claimed, and Borton’s later testimony backed up the fact, that the transaction was a “safety bet” between them. According to both men, the plan was hatched in July, when both teams were still in the pennant race. The bet was that if Vernon won the league championship, Borton was to pay Rumler, and if Salt Lake City won, Rumler would pay Borton.

Technically, Rumler did bet on the outcome of games he participated in, and would stand to gain financially if Vernon won the championship, but no evidence was ever put forward that he did anything to influence any games. The sporting press in Salt Lake City always maintained Rumler’s innocence, and suggested that Borton was coincidentally settling his safety bet8 with Rumler at the same time he was paying off two of Rumler’s teammates, Harl Maggert and Gene Dale, who did take money to throw games.

At the time, safety bets were commonplace in baseball, including in the major leagues and even among World Series participants. Essentially both men were hedging their bets, and it was called a safety bet because no matter the outcome, both men stood to gain. The player on the pennant-winning team paid the bet to the other player, but he stood to come into additional postseason money as a member of the league championship team.9 Assuming either Vernon or Salt Lake won the pennant, both Borton and Rumler would be assured of a little extra cash to supplement their regular salaries.

Salt Lake City team officials quickly exonerated their star outfielder, but PCL President William McCarthy was unconvinced, and on August 16 he suspended Rumler, Borton, Dale, and Maggert indefinitely. Over the next couple of weeks, Salt Lake City owner F.C. Lane tried to get Rumler reinstated even though he was out of action after injuring a knee in a game against Sacramento on August 14. By August 30 he had recovered and was scheduled to play against Los Angeles.

Unfortunately for Rumler, at the same time news broke from Chicago about the investigation into the 1919 World Series between the White Sox and Cincinnati Reds. Because of this event, McCarthy felt he needed to take swift and decisive action to avoid the appearance of impropriety. Before Rumler could take the field, McCarthy stepped in and changed his suspension to a five-year ban from Organized Baseball. The National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues backed up McCarthy’s ruling.

At the time Salt Lake City was still in the PCL pennant race, but Lane’s efforts to clear Rumler were motivated more by financial concerns than getting their slugger back in the lineup. Because of Rumler’s hitting over the last two seasons, he was drawing serous interest from several major-league clubs. Just before the scandal broke, Lane had an offer of $65,000 from the St. Louis Cardinals.10 Both Washington and the Red Sox also made offers; Boston reportedly offering $20,000.11 After Rumler was suspended, Salt Lake placed him on its ineligible list instead of releasing him, hoping to still profit from a sale.

Rumler and Lane threatened legal action against the PCL, but in September the league presidents met and upheld the ban. In November, Borton, Rumler, Dale, and Maggert, along with gambler Nate Raymond were brought before a Los Angeles grand jury and indicted on charges of conspiracy. Rumler reiterated testimony given in his earlier affidavit. The indictment was dismissed by Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Frank R. Willis on December 24, 1920. Willis determined that the fixing of a professional baseball game was not conduct prohibited by California criminal statutes, and that the player-gambler collusion, if it occurred, supported only a civil action against the accused. The dismissal was actually harmful to Rumler, because he was convinced he could clear his name by the testimony presented at a trial.

Rumler spent the next several years bouncing around the Upper Midwest playing for whoever would pay him. In 1921 he played on an independent team in Minot, North Dakota, under the name Red Moore.12 There he also began a law-enforcement career, working as a desk sergeant for the city’s police department during the offseason. He hired legal representation and that fall appealed to baseball commissioner Kenesaw M. Landis. Given Landis’s ban of the White Sox players, it is probably fortunate that he did not rule on Rumler’s appeal, or Rumler too might have received a lifetime ban.

The next season found Rumler in Hibbing, Minnesota, in the outlaw Iron Range League. That summer his team played a series against a team called the Black Sox and the lineup featured three other players banned from Organized Baseball: former Black Sox Swede Risberg, Happy Felsch, and Buck Weaver.13 In 1923 Rumler hooked on with Canton, Ohio, in the independent Mid-West League, reported to be the fastest semipro circuit in the Midwest. He played two seasons there and when his manager, Harry Myers, took the manager’s job at Kenosha, Wisconsin, in the same league, Rumler followed and played three seasons (1925-1927) there. No record could be found of him paying ball in 1928; likely he spent the summer on his Nebraska farm.

Rumler’s suspension was finally lifted on December 4, 1928, and the following spring he went to spring training with the Hollywood Stars (his old Salt Lake City team had relocated to Hollywood and still held his rights). Now 38 years old, Rumler picked up right where he left off eight years earlier, hitting .386, tied for third best in the PCL, and slugged 26 home runs in 140 games. The cozy confines of Wrigley Field, the Stars’ home park, no doubt helped his offensive numbers, but his performance was still remarkable considering his age, and the fact that he had been out of Organized Baseball for so long.

Late in the season, in a game against the Mission Reds, Rumler was hit in the head by a pitched ball and knocked unconscious. He was rushed to a hospital, and for a time it was feared he would die, but he regained consciousness during the night. His doctor ordered him to sit out the rest of the season, but he checked himself out of the hospital and showed up at the ballpark the next day. Late in the game, manager Ossie Vitt called on Rumler to pinch-hit and he stroked an RBI single, helping Hollywood clinch the league championship.

Rumler was a big man for his time (6-feet-1, 190 pounds) who hit with power throughout his career. However, his success was primarily due to his mental approach to hitting. When he returned from his suspension, night baseball was becoming more common, and many batters had difficulty adjusting. He quickly realized that high fastballs were easier to hit than low pitches, because the light shone on only the top half of balls delivered low in the strike zone.14

Rumler returned to Hollywood in 1930. Just before Opening Day he suffered the most unusual injury of the many during his career. The team was en route to Oakland for the season opener, when (during a nightmare, it was said) he shoved his foot through the window of the Pullman train car, causing several severe cuts. Once he healed, Rumler had another excellent season, hitting .353 in 95 games. Rather than return to his Nebraska farm, Rumler spent the winter on a ranch in Orchards, Washington, but was released by Hollywood in February.

Rumler declined an offer to manage in Tucson because he hoped to catch on as a player with another PCL team. He finally hooked on with the Denver Bears in the Western League and appeared in 16 games with them.15 In September he was picked up by a team called the Murphys in Omaha for the Southwest Iowa amateur tournament. He also spent some time with a traveling outfit called the Canadian-American Clowns. Another member of that team was an old Salt Lake City teammate, Gene Dale.

In 1932 Rumler was named player-manager of the Lincoln Links in the Class D Nebraska State League. In mid-June, with his team in last place with a 12-26 record, Rumler slugged an umpire. He was fined $25 for inciting a riot and the league suspended him indefinitely. Shortly thereafter, he was replaced as manager, ending his career in professional baseball.

Rumler returned to his home town of Milford, Nebraska, where over the next 30 years he served as the city’s chief of police, as well as fire chief, justice of the peace, and city marshal. He had a reputation as a “tough but fair” law-enforcement presence in the small town. During World War II he was the chief of guards at the Cornhusker Ordnance Depot in Grand Island, Nebraska, and, at age 56, still hit over .300 on the plant’s baseball team. In 1957 Rumler was credited with saving countless lives by driving around Milford blaring his police siren as a tornado was bearing down on the town. He was cited for heroism by the U.S. Weather Service.

Rumler’s marital status and family life were somewhat confusing. When he joined the Canton club in 1923, it was reported his wife was unable to join him because she was caring for her ill father in Minot, North Dakota.16 It was assumed he had married a local woman when he played there two years earlier but no record of this marriage could be found. On the 1930 US Census, his marital status was listed as widowed, but it is not known when and how his wife died. As mentioned earlier, he spent the 1930-31 offseason in Washington state, and he married Elizabeth M. Lamar on January 1, 1931, in Clark County, Washington. By the time of the 1940 Census he was single, and it is not known how this marriage ended.

Rumler retired in 1964 and two years later, on May 26, 1966, died17 in Lincoln and was buried at Blue Mound Cemetery in Milford. He left no known descendants. The complete story of what actually happened may never be known, but Bill Rumler never wavered from his story about the $200 he received from Babe Borton in 1919, and always insisted he never threw a baseball game for money.

 

Acknowledgments

The author would like to thank SABR member Bill Lamb for his assistance in researching this biography.

 

Sources

Baseball-reference.com.

Beverage, Richard. The Hollywood Stars (Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing,  2005).

boblemke.blogspot.com/2014/08/the-bad-news-bees-part-3a-bill-rumler.html.

forgottenbaseball.wordpress.com/2011/06/20/bill-rumler/.

Gerlach, Larry. “The Bad News Bees: Salt Lake City and the 1919 Pacific Coast League Scandal.” In Base Ball: A Journal of the Early Game, Spring 2012..

Ginsburg, Daniel. The Fix Is In: A History of Baseball Gambling and Game Fixing Scandals (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2004).

infinitecardset.blogspot.com/2011/07/85-bill-rumler-exile-and-redemption-in.html.

Lamb, William F. Black Sox in the Courtroom: The Grand Jury, Criminal Trial and Civil Litigation (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2013).

Snelling, Dennis. The Greatest Minor League: A History of the Pacific Coast League, 1903-1957 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2012).

Votano, Paul. Stand and Deliver: A History of Pinch-Hitting (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland,  2003).

 

Notes

1 The author located box scores in the May 15 and May 17, 1911, issues of the Omaha World Herald showing Rumler playing right field for Seward.

2 Unreferenced clipping in Rumler’s Hall of Fame file

3 Borton and Rumler knew each other from the time they were teammates with the 1916 St. Louis Browns.

4 The Sporting News, November 11, 1920.

5 Salt Lake Telegram, September 26, 1919.

6 Ogden (Utah) Standard, October 6, 1919.

7 The original bet was $250, but Borton paid Rumler only $200 of it.

8 It was unclear if the money in Borton’s possession was supplied by Seattle gambler Nate Raymond, or by a special fund from contributions made by Vernon players.

9 After the Pacific Coast League season ended, the champion played the American Association winner, St. Paul. Players on both teams received part of the proceeds from the nine-game series.

10 Milwaukee Sentinel, December 10, 1928.

11 Portland Oregonian, August 18, 1921.

12 Bismarck (North Dakota) Tribune, June 13, 1921.

13 Duluth (Minnesota) News Tribune, June 26, 1922.

14 Portland Oregonian, February 10, 1931.

15 This season is not listed on his Baseball-Reference.com page, but “Rumler?” appears on the Denver Bears team page from 1931, and several citations from the Omaha World Herald verify that the player was Bill Rumler.

16 Canton (Ohio) Evening Repository, April 5, 1923.

17 Several sources indicated Rumler died of a heart attack, but his death certificate states “carcinoma of pancreas” as cause of death.