Ben and Lou Levi

This article was written by Bruce Allardice

Ben Levi, left, and Lou Levi, right (pictured here flanking their sister), were indicted by a Chicago grand jury in March 1921, two of the five gamblers charged with conspiring to fix the 1919 World Series. The charges were later dropped.While volumes have been written on Arnold Rothstein — who was NOT indicted — and on the Eastern-based gamblers involved in the 1919 World Series fix, historians have largely ignored the Midwestern-based gamblers who WERE indicted.

Early reports on the Black Sox grand jury findings included the names of brothers Benjamin and Louis Levi, who bet heavily on the Cincinnati Reds. Although not charged in the original indictments, the duo were included in the second indictment (in March 1921.) American League President Ban Johnson targeted the Levis, but in the end, the case against them failed, and the charges were dropped.

Benjamin Levi was born in Indianapolis on January 21, 1882, and Louis Levi was born in Peru, Indiana, on September 14, 1886. The sons of Peru scrap iron/junk/hides dealer, Russian-born Samuel Levi, and his wife, Sara Ringolski, they grew up in Peru and Kokomo, with their seven brothers and sisters.1 The local newspaper found the father “a gentleman highly esteemed by all who know him as an honorable, upright private citizen and merchant.”2 The two sons, Ben in particular, would not follow their father’s footsteps.

In 1905, 1908, and 1910, Ben and Louis worked for their father in the family junk business.3

In the years 1912-14, Ben Levi appeared often in the newspapers. In 1911 he and some associates stole some $600 worth of clover seed from a nearby railroad. The next year Levi and the others stood trial for the theft, the first trial ending in a hung jury, the second with a conviction. The conviction was appealed to the Indiana Supreme Court, where Ben got off on a technicality. Tired of spending money on the case, the local authorities declined to re-try the case.4

By 1916 Ben and older brother Abe had taken over their late father’s scrap business.5 By 1918 Ben had moved to Chicago, where he lived with his mother and sisters.6 Later in 1920, Ben and Louis moved to Los Angeles, along with David Zelcer.7 Allegedly, around this time they briefly lived in Des Moines, and became “prominent members of the local sporting fraternity,” although the evidence for this is mostly hearsay.8 While some contemporary accounts say that David Zelcer was the Levis’ brother-in-law, no evidence of that relationship exists.9

Author Susan Dellinger states that in the summer of 1919, the Midwestern group assigned Ben Levi to scout the Reds, to see if any players could be bribed. Evidence for this Zelcer-Levi plot is thin at best.

What is certain is that the Levis’ childhood friend, Cincinnati lumber baron and Reds Booster Club stalwart Fred Mowbray, knew all the players and loved to bet. That summer Ben Levi traveled to Cincinnati to visit his old friend, and used the well-liked, well-known Mowbray as his “in” to meet the players. A well-known private detective viewed Ben talking with several of the players, actions that in retrospect seem suspicious, but that at the time seemed just another routine instance of bettors talking to ballplayers.

In the days before the World Series, Ben Levi tipped Mowbray off about the fix. It seems likely that the Levis heard about it from Abe Attell, Zelcer or some other gambling acquaintance — as Attell later claimed, the players “peddled it [the Fix] around like a sack of popcorn.”10 Reds loyalist Mowbray thereupon wagered heavily on the Reds and won.

No stranger to large-scale wagers, Mowbray was also mentioned in the investigation of a fix of an August 31, 1920, Cubs-Phillies game, with Mowbray allegedly financing Cincinnati-New Orleans gambler Remy Dorr’s bets against the Cubs. This 1920 fix allegation sparked the grand jury investigation that finally broke the 1919 Scandal. Dorr, who knew Arnold Rothstein well, is known to have bet heavily on the Reds in the 1919 Series, and may have been the “big gambler ... known at New Orleans tracks” who handled the betting end of Hal Chase’s part of the Fix.11

Perhaps another angle to the Cincinnati connection can be found in the grand jury testimony of pitcher Rube Benton, who testified that after the Series, a close friend, Cincinnatian Phil Hahn, told him about the fix, and named five of the players. Former ballplayer Hahn, a nationally known “betting commissioner,” denied telling Benton this. However, Hahn knew the gamblers involved in the fix, especially Mowbray, a fellow “Loyal Red Rooter.” And Benton had no reason to lie about what Hahn had told him.12

Attell and the Midwesterners, Zelcer, Carl Zork, Ben Franklin, and the Levis, allegedly “met in a Chicago hotel where they made a final distribution of the ‘jack pot.’ Zork and Franklin were said to have ‘cleaned up’ between $70,000 and $80,000 by the manipulations” and “the two Levis and Zelcer … making almost as much.” A Kokomo Tribune article suggests the Levi brothers had made $60,000, a sum the St. Louis Globe Democrat upped to $80,000. Ben Levi won at least $15,000 on the first two games. Afraid to carry that much cash around, he traded his cash winnings to Fred Mowbray in exchange for Mowbray’s check.13

Chicago Cubs traveling secretary John O. Seys testified that Lou Levi was seen in Abe Attell’s company during the World Series, wagering heavily on the Reds, and that Seys held several of these bets as stakeholder. “First one would make bets [on the Reds], and then the other.” Seys had known Levi for about 10 years, and could make a positive identification of him.14

There’s some indication that Levi thought Attell had double-crossed him. Kansas City gambler Jake Feinberg told sportswriter Otto Floto that “Levy [sic] is awfully sore on Attell,” calling Abe “everything he could lay his tongue to” because Levi thought Attell’s reckless betting had “spoiled the betting for him.” According to this source, Levi told Attell about the Fix only so Attell could “win a couple thousand dollars for himself.”15

The Levis could hardly have denied knowledge of what was going on. The register of the Hotel Sinton in Cincinnati shows that during the Series “Ben and Lou Levi, Chicago” stayed at Room 660 along with Abe Attell and David Zelcer, with the room being one floor below where most of the White Sox were rooming.

For whatever reason, American League President Ban Johnson targeted the Levi brothers in his investigations of the fix, telling one of his private detectives, “We want to convict the Levi brothers.” He urged his detectives to “rough up” Fred Mowbray to get him to implicate Ben Levi.16 Johnson’s focus on the St. Louis/Midwestern end of the fix seems based on the fact that no hard evidence was forthcoming on the wilier New York/Boston gamblers, whereas gamblers who believed they were double-crossed by Zork and the Levis were happy to implicate them.

Johnson’s plan may have been to indict the smaller fry (the Levis, Zork, and Franklin) in the hopes that they would implicate Rothstein. In addition, the Eastern gamblers had indictment-avoiding assets Zork and the Levis didn’t — Rothstein’s ability to bribe witnesses, or if necessary steal confessions. As Rothstein associate “Curley” Bennett once bragged, “Rothstein … can get me out of anything.”17

Former prosecutor Bill Lamb, author of Black Sox in the Courtroom: The Grand Jury, Criminal Trial, and Civil Litigation, infers that the prosecution in the 1921 Black Sox criminal trial made a tactical decision to speed up the trial by not calling witnesses like Joe Gedeon, who might have implicated the Levis. Since no direct evidence had been presented at trial to implicate Ben Levi, and little enough against Louis apart from his being seen betting alongside Abe Attell (Lamb terms the evidence “embarrassingly meager”18), the prosecution made no objection to defense counsel’s motion to dismiss the charges against them.

After the trial Ben split his time between Los Angeles, Kokomo, and Peru,19 managing the family scrap-iron business along with his brother Abe. Ben died in Los Angeles on July 19, 1953.20 Louis became a real-estate broker in Los Angeles, marrying in 1921.21 A cousin remembers Lou sitting in his kitchen in Los Angeles, three phones surrounding him, switching between them making bets. The cousin said, “He was always broke from betting.” He died at his Beverly Hills home on May 7, 1961, of a heart attack, and was buried in the family mausoleum in Home of Peace Memorial Park.22

 

Sources

In preparing this biography, the author relied primarily on major online newspaper databases, the Black Sox Scandal papers in the Hall of Fame Library, the Levi family, and the author’s article for the Black Sox Research Committee's December 2014 newsletter.

 

Notes

1 “Miami County, Indiana’s Jewish Population,” online article at http://in.gov/dnr/historical/files. This biography of Ben and Lou Levi is based largely on Bruce S. Allardice, “The Levi Brothers: Kokomo Black Sox Gamblers,” Black Sox Research Committee Newsletter, vol. 6 no. 2 (December 2014), 8-10.

2 “Peru Historical Descriptive and Commercial Review,” Peru Republican, December 21, 1894.

3 1905 and 1908 Peru City Directories; 1910 Census, Miami County, Indiana.

4 The court ruled that evidence had been improperly introduced. See “Former Kokomo Man Caught in White Sox Case,” Kokomo Tribune, March 28, 1921; “State Rests Levi Case Today,” Logansport Journal, June 12, 1912; “Levi Family on Stand Tuesday,” Logansport Journal, June 19, 1912; “Asks for a New Trial,” Logansport Pharos Tribune, January 15, 1913. Levi v. State, 182 IN 188, 104 NE 765 (1914).

5 “Western Trade Notes,” The Waste Trade Journal, vol. 21 no. 6 (1916), 14.

6 World War I Draft Registration. He lived at 4731 Ingleside Ave., Chicago, in 1918. 1920 census of Chicago.

7 “Former Kokomo Man Caught in White Sox Case,” Kokomo Tribune, March 28, 1921. This article makes clear that the Levis on trial were originally from Kokomo.

8 “3 Des Moines Men Indicted for Sox Gamble Plotting,” Waterloo Evening Courier, March 26, 1921. “Ben and Louis Levi said to be from Des Moines,” Iowa City Press Citizen, March 26, 1921. There was a “Levey” family in the scrap business in Des Moines in 1917, but this was headed by a much older Louis Levy.

9 See David Pietrusza, Rothstein: The Life, Times and Murder of the Criminal Genius Who Fixed the 1919 World Series (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2003). These seem to be based on Gene Carney’s Cooperstown Notes, February 8, 2003 (seamheads.com), which may in turn be based on a report in the Chicago Tribune, May 27, 1921. I’ve traced the Levi family and found no family connection – which knocks out a main prop in a theory advanced by some historians that Zelcer conspired with the Levis.

10 Quoted in Gene Carney, Burying the Black Sox: How Baseball’s Cover-Up of the 1919 World Series Fix Almost Succeeded (Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2003), 238.

11 Susan Dellinger, Red Legs and Black Sox (Cincinnati: Emmis Books, 2006), lays out the Levi-Mowbray tale, utilizing the records of Ban Johnson’s investigators. Johnson urged the investigators to pressure Mowbray to incriminate the Levis, ordering them to “treat [Mowbray] rough.”

For the Mowbray-Dorr connection, see Frank Navin to Ban Johnson, September 7 and September 20, 1920, Black Sox Scandal papers, Giamatti Library, National Baseball Hall of Fame. The (unnamed) New Orleans track gambler who allegedly conspired with Chase is mentioned in “Inside Story of Plot to Buy World Series,” Chicago Tribune, September 25, 1920. Dorr’s presence at Game One of the 1919 Series, and his betting on the Reds, is reported in “Story of Midas’ Gold Real in Case of Remy Dorr,” Daily Illinois State Register, October 14, 1919. Dorr had family in Cincinnati, and the Cincinnati newspapers often mentioned him.

12 Benton’s testimony is in “Inside Story of Plot to Buy World Series,” Chicago Tribune, September 25, 1920. For more on Hahn, see “White Sox Beaten on the Square,” Cincinnati Enquirer, September 26, 1920; “Phil Hahn Expires,” Cincinnati Enquirer, June 23, 1923; “Will Return to the Game,” Cincinnati Enquirer, March 17, 1902.

13 Ralph Christian, “The Des Moines Connection to the Black Sox Scandal,” Black Sox Scandal Research Committee Newsletter, June 2013, 6-13, 10. “Former Kokomo Man Caught in White Sox Case,” Kokomo Tribune, March 28, 1921. Dellinger, Red Legs and Black Sox, 316.

14 “Court will admit confessions,” Chicago Herald Examiner, July 23, 1921. Nobody at the trial seemed surprised that the Chicago Cubs’ secretary involved himself in high-stakes wagering.

15 Otto Floto to Ban Johnson, September 24, 1920, Black Sox Scandal papers, Giamatti Library, National Baseball Hall of Fame. Floto was sports editor of the Kansas City Post.

16 William F. Lamb, Black Sox in the Courtroom (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland Co., 2013), 130.

17 See “Arnold Rothstein the King of the Gamblers,” Boston Post, October 12, 1920.

18 Lamb, Black Sox in the Courtroom, 130.

19 1930 census; 1940 census; 1942 World War II Draft Registration, Peru, Indiana.

20 “Ex-Kokomo Steel Broker, Ben Levi, Dies in California,” Kokomo Tribune, July 21, 1953.

21 To Anne McDonald (1884-1944), of a family that formerly lived in Des Moines.

22 “Former Resident Dies,” Kokomo Tribune, May 9, 1961; “Deaths,” Los Angeles Times, May 9, 1961; Email, Douglas Brazy to author, September 6, 2014.