It is hard to reconcile Henry Chadwick’s world of gentleman baseball players with the portrayal of New York City in Martin Scorcese’s film The Gangs of New York. One link between these two worlds was John Morrissey; immigrant, “wharf rat”, heavyweight champion, gambler, businessman, congressman and state senator.
Morrissey is tied to baseball through accounts of the August 26, 1869, game between the Red Stockings of Cincinnati and the Haymakers of Troy (Unions of Lansingburgh), the only blemish on the Red Stockings’ record that year. The game took place in Cincinnati and ended in what the umpire called a forfeit but the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP) later ruled a 17-17 tie. Many contemporary and later accounts of this game place the blame for what happened on Morrissey’s gambling interests.
John Morrissey was born in County Tipperary, Ireland, on February 12, 1831, and immigrated with his parents, Timothy and Joanna, to Troy, New York in 1833. He had a sister Mary who married a man named Morris and was blind and living in Troy in 1878. He had one year of “common school” and did not learn to read until he was 19, being self-taught in this undertaking. His Father was a day laborer and Morrissey spent his early years as a factory worker. By 1848 he had become involved with a Troy gang and was soon the “chief devil” of the down town gang, winning a fight with 24 year old John O’Rourke, leader of the up town gang.
Morrissey became a deck hand on the North River Steamer Empire, also in 1848, and for the next two years would travel between Albany and New York City. His salary was $15 per month “but his perquisites from parcels, packages, etc. raised the sum to $50 or $100 per month”. This appears to be his introduction to the shadow economy in which he would make his fortune. When his boss was beaten up at the Empire club in NYC Morrissey went for revenge. A fight ensued and Morrissey fought off a crowd of opponents until he was finally subdued by being hit over the head with an earthen spittoon by once and future Tammany Hall politician, Isaiah Rynders. Rynders would later become his ally in Tammany.
Until leaving for San Francisco in 1850, Morrissey would split his time between working legally as a longshoreman and illegally for the gangs as a “wharf rat”—a gang member who raided cargo and committed other crimes on the docks of New York. Morrissey’s move to San Francisco was due to his catching “gold fever’. His obituary recounts an exciting journey shared with Daniel “Dad” Cunningham. Despite chasing gold from San Francisco into Canada, entering that country as a pirate, Morrissey would not find his fortune in gold. Instead he would use his fists to move up in life, discovering prize fighting. In August 1852 he fought George Thompson on Mare Island near San Francisco, winning in 19 minutes. He would lay claim to the heavyweight championship after this fight.
A few months later a match with Tom Hyer “The Champion of America” fell through, as Hyer paid the forfeit rather than face Morrissey. In October 1853 “Yankee” Sullivan fell before Big John in 57 minutes, allowing his rival to win $1,000. Morrissey was largely recognized as the heavyweight champion of the world after this fight. In 1858 he beat John “Benicia Boy” Heenan, a fellow Troy native, in a fight in Canada. Before the fight Morrissey announced that, win or lose, he would never fight again. Despite numerous challenges after his victory the Champ stayed true to his word. This fight resulted in a $2,500 pay day for Morrissey.
Besides taking up boxing while in California, Morrissey and his partner Cunningham started a Faro Bank. Faro was the most popular card game in America at this time, with some even calling it “the National Pastime”. An explanation of the game can be found at http://www.camh.net/egambling/issue16/issue16/jgi_16_turner1.html. Morrissey would build his fortune on boxing and gambling but he always sought to move up to more respectable rungs on the social ladder. In 1854 he married Susan Smith, daughter of Captain Levi Smith, a respected Troy steamboat Captain who Morrissey had once worked for.
When he returned to New York he initially invested in a sporting house on Broadway known as “The Gam” which was located near the Old Broadway Theater but he soon got out of that business and opened a public house on Leonard Street. He was associated with Tammany Hall in this period, organizing a gang of political “shoulder-hitters” who fought with the political roughs supporting Tammany’s opponents including the American or “Know-Nothing” Party. It was this association which ties Morrissey directly to a character in The Gangs of New York.
Bill “The Butcher” Cutting, played in the film by Daniel Day-Lewis, is one of the leading characters in the movie and a thinly disguised version of Bill Poole. Bill “the Butcher” Poole is described as the leader of a West Side nativist gang who “was commonly held to be the champion brawler and eye gouger of his time”. A former Bowery Boy, Poole was avoided by the Five Points and Fourth Ward gangs as much as possible. Hyer and Sullivan were also part of this nativist world. Morrissey came to the attention of Tammany when he outmaneuvered Bill and protected a polling place from a “Know Nothing” attack Poole led, his preparations resulting in the enemies retreat without violence.
Besides his prize fighting Morrissey also engaged in “rough and tumble” (no rules) fights, frequently in defense of Tammany’s interests. Morissey lost a fight to Poole in 1854, which has been described as a boxing match but was more likely a “rough and tumble” as it was not a prize fight. Poole lured Morrissey into another battle in 1855 but it was instead a trap, Morrissey being beaten by a mob. Poole may not have even bothered to show up. Poole was shot several times during a bar fight shortly after this and died. Morrissey, though apparently not present at the fight, was among those charged with the murder of Poole but was latter released.
Crime, politics and sports have all frequently been stepping-stones to business and the professions for immigrant communities throughout much of American history.
John Morrissey certainly fits into the picture of an ambitious immigrant and the baseball world of this time was one of the places where middle-class and would-be middle-class groups met. Gambling was a big part of Morrissey’s life and very popular with baseball fans of the time.
After the Heenan fight Morrissey became involved with a gambling house and became the best card player in the city. He started his own gambling house at 8 Barclay St. which became the most popular such facility in the city and gradually divested himself of his ownership in the partnership that ran the original house. It is very likely that his part of the first house was obtained with the backing of Tammany. From street thug to prize fighter, from small time faro bank operator to “a casino operator catering to opulent New Yorkers”, from “shoulder-hitter” to leadership roles in Tammany Hall, Morrissey saw his opportunities and took them.
The gambling clubs in New York City in this period were so prevalent that many people today believe they were legal at the time. They were not. Since the New York State constitution of 1821 gambling was illegal with three exceptions: certain lotteries, bookmaking and pool selling. All lotteries were outlawed in the constitution of 1846. Bookmaking and pool selling would remain legal until the passage of the Ives pool law of 1877 but this law allowed an exception for horse racing during the New York State season. While Morrissey, therefore, did not play by the rules in his ownership of casinos, he did play by the accepted exceptions of the time. These gambling facilities were so common because law enforcement looked the other way when the operators kept the politicians happy.
And Morrissey himself was becoming one of the most important politicians in Tammany and New York. Even before he became a candidate for Congress in 1866, people were beginning to take notice of him on the national scene. In describing a general he felt was too cautious, President Lincoln is reported to have used the story of a Tammany man announcing his upcoming marriage but who was met with a troubled look from a fellow member. “Ain’t you glad to know that I’m to get married,” said the first member. “Of course I am” said the other but leaning closer he whispered, “Have ye asked Morrissey yet?”
At a nominating convention in Albany in 1866 Morrissey is accused of using his influence with Albany and Troy area toughs to force through the nomination of NYC Mayor John T. Hoffman for Governor. Morrissey, William H. Seward and Thurlow Weed were said to control New York’s Democratic Party, with Morrissey the stronger as “he controls banks full of money”. It was also alleged that Morrissey supported Hoffman in return for being given the nomination for Congress from the 5th District of New York City.
During the campaign, the Democratic Party was frequently criticized for supporting Morrissey, as he had been a prize fighter and faro bank operator. This caused Hoffman and others in Tammany to try to back away from Morrissey but neither he nor the press would allow it. Upstate papers were particularly critical of the Democrats for this, adding vicious and openly anti-Irish and anti-Catholic statements to the mix. All to no avail, Morrissey won handily, obtaining 9,162 votes to General Nelson Taylor’s 6,503 and Eneos Elliott’s 2,293.
In the campaign and in Congress Morrissey was associated with Fernando Wood, a leader of what were called the Copperheads. These were Democrats who had wanted peace with the South early in the Civil War and supported Southern causes during the Reconstruction period. Morrissey’s first act in Congress was to join other Democrats in protesting the exclusion of Southern representatives from Congress. He also encouraged President Andrew Johnson to pardon Governor Vance of North Carolina and voted against a resolution of thanks to Major General Phillip Sheridan. Never losing site of the ideals close to Tammany’s heart, he also was part of an effort by New York congressional Democrats to get President Johnson to consult them on all patronage appointments in the city.
During the impeachment of President Johnson, Morrissey did not rise to speak in favor of the President, as did many Democrats. This was not unusual, he rarely spoke at all in Congress. He also missed the vote on impeachment but his Democratic colleagues stated he would have voted against it if he had not been ill. Missing a vote was also not unusual for Morrissey, he rarely showed up and took leaves of absences, allegedly for health or family reasons, frequently.
When P.T. Barnum ran for the Republican nomination for Congress in Connecticut, the “small swindling showman and self-proclaimed cheat and humbug” was frequently criticized as being another unworthy candidate in the Morrissey vein. Unlike Morrissey, Barnum lost. Boss Tweed and Morrissey were the 5th District of New York’s delegates to the 1868 Democratic National Convention. Morrissey supported Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase for President but Horatio Seymour secured the nomination.
After his reelection in 1868, Morrissey was linked to another famous scoundrel. The Congressman was one of the few victims of James Fisk Jr.’s failed attempt to corner the gold market who got his money back. A mutual acquaintance advised Fisk that he should pay Morrissey the money he had invested, reputedly up to $82,000, if ever wanted to be able show himself outside of his office again. Apparently a word to the wise sufficed.
Morrissey also broke with the Democrats in at least one vote that term. Showing his characteristic generosity, which leavened some of his other faults, Morrissey was one of only four Democrats to support the bill awarding Mrs. Lincoln a pension. Some Republicans, realizing the 5th District of New York was lost to them, even hoped Morrissey would be returned to Congress for a third term, as he rarely talked or voted and was a man of business with business ideas. Instead Morrissey decided not to run again for a job that appears to have mainly bored him.
Gambling remained more to his liking. Horse racing has long been associated with the better classes and New York at this time was no exception. In 1863 Morrissey had played a major role in the creation of the racetrack at up-state Saratoga. While Morrissey’s name did not appear among those of the gentleman incorporators, he did hold the majority of the stock in the corporation that owned the track. He came very close to reaching the top rungs of the social ladder with this step but was never quite fully accepted. His fortune at this time may have approached $1 million. Some of it would soon be lost with the help of his new friend, Commodore Vanderbilt.
Another area of legal gambling Morrissey was involved in was bookmaking and pool selling. While Henry Chadwick and others frowned on these activities when associated with baseball, they were not illegal. Cheating through fixing games and other activities were, however, universally condemned. Morrissey was a fan of his hometown Haymaker club and is known to have bet on their games. He is also reported to have been involved in the club in other ways including in ownership. His son, John Jr. was also reputed to have played on or been a member of the club but the senior Morrissey was not.
Junior, while a member of the club, does not appear in Marshall D. Wright’s list of players for the years 1868-1870 in The National Association of Base Ball Players, 1857-1870. This is not surprising as he was born in 1855 and therefore would only have been 13 to 15 in this period. As researcher Peter Morris points out, “it is always difficult to tell who was making the club’s decisions at this point”. Morrissey does not appear to have taken an active role in the affairs of the club.
Troy lost a game at home to the Red Stockings on June 7, 1869 by a score of 38 to 31, a respectable showing. Their rematch took place on August 26 in Cincinnati and would become one of the most controversial games in the Association years. As if to prove that people of goodwill can disagree, fellow SABR researchers Morris and William J. Ryczek come down on oposite sides of this controversy. Ryczek in When Johnny Came Sliding Home leans towards the view that the Haymakers withdrew from the game due to pressure from gamblers and that the umpire’s award of a forfeit should have been upheld. Morris gives Troy the benefit of the doubt and presents many of the arguments in their favor. It is unlikely that at this late date the full truth of the matter will ever be determined beyond a reasonable doubt.
The Cincinnati Commercial Tribune on September 1, 1869 provides copies of an article from the New York Sun condemning Troy and another from the Troy Times presenting Troy’s side of the story. Troy’s position was that a call in the sixth inning was the last straw after repeated bad calls by the umpire, a Cincinnati native and member of that city’s Live Oak team. The first complaint was that umpire John Brockway allowed six runs to be scored for the Red Stockings in the second inning but two and possibly three of those were credited after the third out should have been called. The second was that the crowd had interfered with Troy’s fielding in the fifth inning which neither the umpire nor the police tried to stop. A general complaint was that all close calls went against the Haymakers. The final straw was the umpire refusing to call an out after catcher Bill Craver made a catch on the bound of a foul tip by Cal McVey, in keeping with the rules of the time. Troy offered to take “Pearce, Chapman or McDonald of the Atlantic club” as replacement umpires but they were refused this request. At that point President McKeon pulled the team off the field, inciting a riot by the fans. They also followed the Haymakers to their hotel, threatening violence until the team sneaked out of town. The crowd was not all against Troy during the game but their withdrawal from the field before the game the fans had paid to see was finished united them against the visitors.
The players and supporters of the two rival teams have argued the truth and falsity of all these claims since the day the game was played. Shortly after the game conventional wisdom became that the Troy President had pulled the team off the field to protect the interests of gamblers, particularly John Morrissey. As Peter Morris points out, the fact that many of the Troy gamblers were getting 2 to 1 odds on their team means withdrawing the team while the game was tied makes no sense. Also there is no proof that Morrissey actually bet on the game although the fact that he was at a game, any game, generally lead to speculation that he was betting heavily on the outcome. Morrissey’s presence at the game along with old pal “Dad” Cunningham was commented on in the press so there is little doubt that he was there. Based on what we know of him, it seems like a pretty good assumption that he did bet on the game, but it is highly unlikely that he would not have gotten the best odds possible nor would he have been stupid enough to pull his team off the field while the game was tied.
Some have made the case that the Troy gamblers thought they had bought off some of the Red Stockings and panicked when it became apparent that this was not the case. This also makes no sense if they were getting 2 to 1 odds and the game was tied.
One wild card might be that Morrissey had bet against Troy and on the Red Stockings. If this were the case and it seemed to him like the game would be closer than a 2 to 1 victory he would have motivation to pull Troy off the field if he could. Harry Ellard at least implies that Morrissey had gotten insider information on the Red Stockings at their first game against the Mutuals and had bet against the New York team in their 4 to 2 loss on June 15, 1869. The Mutuals were reputed to be controlled by Tammany. Betting against Troy, however, seems unlikely, as Morrissey remained a pretty solid supporter of things associated with his hometown throughout his life. Also, by most accounts, including his wife’s, Morrissey was devoted to his wife and son. With his son being a member of the club and his wife, the daughter of a prominent Troy steamboat Captain, a big fan of the Haymakers, it is even less likely that he would have bet against them. But if his gambling interests were the reason for Troy’s withdrawal, the scenario with him betting on Cincinnati makes more sense then the others.
If Morrissey did not bet on the Red Stockings then it is highly unlikely that his gambling interests were the cause of Troy leaving the field. The Haymakers may well have left the field because of the emotions of a team that felt it was being cheated. At this point ball players may have been professionals in the sense that they were being paid but probably not in the sense of “professional detachment” from personal feelings, club or town loyalties, especially on a team still made up of mainly local players and management. True professionals would probably have stayed and protested the game through the established channels after the fact. A less disciplined local club would be more likely to take its ball and go home.
Morrissey seems not to have been bothered by his being dragged into this famous baseball scandal. In 1869 Morrissey was in his second term as a Congressman. He stated that he ran for this office at least in part to leave a better image of himself for his son, who was 12 when Morrissey first ran, admitting to errors in his earlier life in a letter published during his first campaign. Though he was backed by Tammany he was never a favorite of Boss Tweed’s, with some speculating that Morrissey was supported only to keep his political strength connected to the Hall.
Morrissey, though still backed by Tammany, charged during the 1868 campaign that Tweed had sent “roughs” to draw him into a fight and kill him in “self-defense”. By 1871 Morrissey became one of the chief initiators of the “Young Demcracy” revolt against Tammany. This was a brave move as Tweed was still in control of City and State politics. Horace Greeley, owner of the New York Tribune, and Samuel J. Tilden, who narrowly won the popular vote in the 1876 Presidential Election but lost the Presidency in the House to Rutherford B. Hayes, became allies of Morrissey during this effort to bring down Tweed. Morrissey was thrown out of Tammany but returned after Tweed fell.
Morrissey ran for the New York State Senate from the City’s Fourth District in 1875 after a falling out with new Tammany leader John Kelly. Winning with the support of independent Democrats and Republicans like Greeley, his victory was downplayed by Kelly’s supporters, saying he could only win in a “safe” District like the Fourth. Morrissey moved into the Seventh District for the election of 1877, Tammany’s banner District, and beat them again. He died on May 1, 1878 in Saratoga Springs and was buried in St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Troy. While still viewed with distaste in some quarters, he was embraced by the reformers at the time of his death for his efforts against Tweed.
John Morrissey is remembered in the baseball world, if at all, as a representative of the dark forces that threatened the game in its infancy. He was a gambler but his role in the Haymaker controversy with the famous Red Stockings of 1869 is most likely exaggerated. He was a “self-made” man who grew up in what appears to be horrible circumstances. His Mother’s obituary shines some light into what his young life might have been. She had lost her way trying to walk home at night and drowned in a creek. “Mrs. Morrissey was a woman of very unsteady habits, and has probably engrossed the attention of Troy magistrates more than any other single person. She has repeatedly served time in our penitentiary.”
Morrissey appears to be one in a long line of athletes who rise from such circumstances. Many are just a flash in the sports world, going down in flames as personal failings overcome them. John Morrissey was no saint. He made his fortune in the world of vice and had baseball allowed his like to control the game it would have never reached the level of popularity it did and become so much of the fabric of what we think of as good in America. But Morrissey seems to have been “a likable devil” able to win fans and friends and keep them over the long term. He improved on the cards he was dealt, he married into a respectable family and struggled to give his son, who unfortunately died before Morrissey did, a chance at a better life. By the time of his death he was at least as admired as he was reviled.
Besides footnoted sources the author consulted the following:
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Asbury, Herbert. The Gangs of New York. New York: Random House, Inc., First Vantage Books Edition, 2008.
Burk, Robert F. Never Just a Game. Chapel Hill, NC and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1994.
Ellard, Harry. Baseball in Cincinnati, A History. Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2004.
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McClure, Colonel Alexander K. Lincoln’s Yarns and Stories. www.fullbooks.com
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New York Sun, 8/12/1854
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New York Herald March 17,1860
February 12, 1831 at County Tipperary, (IE)
May 1, 1878 at Saratoga Springs, NY (US)
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