This article was written by Tony Morante
This article was published in Spring 2013 Baseball Research Journal
In the early days of New York City, baseball and politics were often intertwined in schemes to ensure huge financial gains. Highlighted here are some of the personalities and events that played an influential role during these corrupt years and how, rather than permanently tarnishing its image, professional baseball survived and thrived in the only city with three major league teams.
Baseball and politics are two impassioned national pastimes. In the early days of New York City, they were often intertwined in schemes to ensure huge financial gains. The betterment of the game and the interest of citizenry came second. Highlighted here are some of the personalities and events that played an influential role during these corrupt years and how, rather than permanently tarnishing its image, professional baseball survived and thrived in the city that for over a half century was the only city with three major league teams: New York.
ROOTS OF THE GAME
Early in the 19th century, athletic clubs formed in America to promote leisure and exercise. Two “fraternities” were spawned from these clubs, the “sporting” fraternity and an offshoot called the “base ball” fraternity. During the 1830s, amateur “town ball” clubs were formed, many in the Northeast. A variation on “town ball” was called the “New York game,” and the earliest set of published game rules, the Knickerbocker Rules, was written on September 23, 1845, by William R. Wheaton, a member of the Knickerbocker club. An early use of the statistical box-score was during a game between the New York Knickerbockers and the New York Nine. (The New York Nine prevailed by a 23–1 score.) In the years that followed, the “New York game” persisted over other forms of “town” ball, largely due to the influence of the fast-growing New York press during the middle of the 19th century. These early amateur games were often followed by elaborate parties. But in Baseball: An Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, Ed Rielly states that “as soon as the New York Knickerbockers organized and started competing against other teams, spectators began betting on the outcome. Betting quickly became a problem, as the chance to win a wager fostered a desire to limit one’s risk by predetermining the outcome.”[fn]Edward J. Rielly, Baseball: An Encyclopedia of Popular Culture (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2000), 110.[/fn] Winning and losing took on a different tone as the stakes, literally, went up.
By the early part of the 1850s, baseball had become increasingly organized. In 1856, the game was christened the “national pastime” in the New York Mercury, a newspaper of the era. In the year that followed, the amateur baseball clubs banded together to form the National Association of Baseball Players.
THE NEW YORK CITY MUTUALS AND THE BEGINNING OF CORRUPTION
After the Civil War, the good will of the game began to fade as amateur teams focused more and more on winning, and owners sought out the best talent and paid them “under the table.” Fixing or “hippodroming” of games fostered predetermined outcomes. In 1865 the first documented report of baseball corruption appeared. Three members of the New York City Mutuals, whose leader at that time was William Magear Tweed, conspired with a gambler to throw a game to the Eckfords of Brooklyn.
TAMMANY HALL, “BOSS” TWEED, AND CORRUPTION
The Society of St. Tammany was initially a fraternal organization run along the lines of a social club, but in the 1830s the Society grew more political in nature. The “hall” in the name was a reference to the headquarters of the organization. “Boss” Tweed became the head of the Tammany Hall political machine in 1863. As a member of many boards and commissions, he controlled political patronage in New York City and was able to ensure the loyalty of voters through the jobs he could create and dispense on city-related projects. The powerful cadre that surrounded Tweed was known as the “Tweed Ring,” and the extent of the corruption fostered by the Ring had never been seen in New York City. They controlled elections by bribery and the fraudulent counting of votes, filling elective offices with their cronies. Office-seekers could not get elected without Tweed’s support. The “Ring” wanted to exercise political power, but they also wanted to enrich themselves at the public expense. One infamous example: in 1858, the city allocated $250,000 to build a new courthouse behind City Hall. Upon completion in 1871, the final tab came to a staggering $12,000,000 with 75 percent of that total used as graft for fraudulently contracted bills. The courthouse stands today—with a recent complete renovation—as a monument to the corruption that Tammany Hall foisted on New York City.
For Tammany, baseball was another avenue for pursuing financial gains. The corruption uncovered in the 1865 Mutuals/Eckfords game was merely the tip of the iceberg.
Henry Chadwick, a journalist whom many consider the “father of baseball,” started writing about the game in 1857. Daniel E. Ginsburg in The Fix Is In noted that “Chadwick was the unquestioned leader in pushing for an end to corruption in baseball. He risked libel suits constantly as he worked to expose gambling related corruption in the game and clean up the sport he loved.”[fn]Daniel E. Ginsburg, The Fix Is In (Jefferson, NC and London: McFarland, 1995), 5.[/fn]
THE BEGINNING OF PROFESSIONAL BASEBALL
Even the sterling 1869 barnstorming season across the country by the Cincinnati Red Stockings (not beaten in 64 contests) was touched by the fingers of corruption. Tammany affiliate John Morrissey, leader of the Troy Haymakers and a famous pugilist who won the National Boxing Championship in 1853, was said to have placed a wager of over $50,000 on a game between the undefeated Red Stockings and his Haymakers. According to Ginsburg, Morrissey was so concerned with losing his money that he instructed his team to quit the game if they felt they might lose.[fn]Ibid, 10.[/fn] Sure enough, after Troy had tied the score at 17 in the fifth inning, Troy seized an illegitimate opportunity to walk off the field. Although they forfeited the game, there was no mention of Morrissey having to fork over any cash. A few years later, Morrissey became a member of the anti-Tammany Hall movement.
Steven Riess wrote in Touching Base: Professional Baseball and American Culture in the Progressive Era, “amateur and professional baseball always had close links to Tammany Hall. Several prominent politicians got their start in politics through Tammany sponsored baseball teams.”[fn]Steven A. Riess, Touching Base (Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois: 1999), 55.[/fn] The teams provided a means to attract ambitious, athletically inclined young men to politics. By 1869, Tammany was contributing generously to the upkeep of the Mutuals, who were all on salary, making them a truly professional team. When the New York City Council voted the team $1,500 towards a trip to New Orleans in 1869, Tweed countered with $7,500 from his own pocket, another way to secure votes.
Interest in professional baseball grew, and the first professional organization, The National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, a.k.a. the National Association (NA), was formed at a March 17, 1871, meeting held at Collier’s Café on Broadway and 13th in New York City. The league was run by the players, an undisciplined group with little business acumen, and it lasted only until 1875. John Thorn in Baseball in the Garden of Eden writes, “the low state of the National Association (NA) after the 1875 campaign could be chalked up to rampant corruption and drunkenness, as well as to radically unbalanced competition that permitted Boston to win the championship four years running.”[fn]John Thorn, Baseball in the Garden of Eden (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2011).[/fn]
The National League was formed at a meeting in the Grand Central Hotel on Broadway, between Bleecker and Bond, on February 2, 1876. William Hulbert, a midwesterner and the self-appointed mastermind behind the transference of the NA to the National League, felt that there was too much corruption in the Eastern teams. Under a ruse to gather representatives from some of the NA clubs, Hulbert claimed that he wanted to discuss some thorny problems that were undermining the game. Ironically, a locked hotel room was the venue for the introduction of the National League.
In 1877 the first major-league scandal took place, involving four ballplayers from the Louisville club. Although two of the players had previous ties with Tammany, there are no hard facts to suggest that Tammany had played a major role. There were more scandals in the ensuing years, but none necessarily perpetrated by Tammany Hall.
THOMAS NAST AND THE FAll OF TWEED AND TAMMANY
Seemingly, Tweed could not be touched. There was one man, however, who felt that Tweed was a detriment to society and had to be stopped. Thomas Nast, cartoonist for Harper’s Weekly, was that man. Nast’s most notable drawings include his rendition of a fat, jolly Santa Claus, as well as the Republican elephant and the Democratic Party’s donkey. But his greatest contribution was his full-bore attack on Tweed and his associates. Thomas Nast was an artist who realized that with his drawings, he could expose Tweed and fight his corrupt politics. “Tweed could not believe that his mighty sword was being taken down by a pen and lamented, ‘I don’t care what the papers say! A lot of people can’t read a single word! But oh, those drawings! Anybody can understand what they mean.”'[fn]Syd Hoff, Boss Tweed and the Man Who Drew Him (Syd Hoff, 1978), 36.[/fn] Tweed did what he knew best and tried to buy Nast out for a reported sum of $500,000, to no avail.
Nast made life miserable for Tweed. His initial attempt to sketch him (in September 1868) ironically coincided with The New York Times drawing attention to the corruption of the Tweed Ring and Tammany Hall. Nast would eventually get his sketch and publish his first cartoon focusing on Tweed in April 1870. By June 1871 he would be depicting Governor John Hoffman as a cigar-store “Indian” being pushed by Tweed and his henchmen as a commentary on the fact that Tammny would be backing Hoffman in the 1872 US presidential election. As John Adler reported in Doomed by Cartoon, the day after the cigarstore image appeared, The New York Times called attention to Nast’s latest shot at the Ring. “Harper’s Weekly should be in everybody’s hands. The current number contains one of Nast’s best drawings-a drawing which would alone gain a large reputation for its designer.”[fn]John Adler, Doomed by Cartoon (Morgan James Publishing, LLC, 2008), 136.[/fn]
In September 1870, the Times began attacking Tammany, and by 1871 was in full swing to expose the depth of corruption that existed in Tammany Hall. Edward Robb Ellis in his book, The Epic of New York City: A Narrative History, reported the headline which was the opening salvo against the Tweed Ring and subsequently, Tammany Hall. “THE SECRET ACCOUNTS ….PROOFS OF UNDOUBTED FRAUDS BROUGHT TO LIGHT…. WARRANTS SIGNED BY HALL AND CONNOLY UNDER FALSE PRETENSES.”[fn]Edward Robb Ellis, The Epic of New York City: A Narrative History (New York: MacMillan 1966), 348.[/fn]
Tweed was finally brought into court in January of 1873, but the trial ended with a hung jury. His second trial later that year was prosecuted much more diligently and Tweed’s cronies were kept out of the jury pool. Ultimately, as told by Ellis, Tweed was found guilty of 102 offenses and sentenced to twelve years in prison but served only one—in living quarters fit for a king. On the day that he was released, he was rearrested on a civil charge and sent to the Ludlow Street jail where he lived in a two-room suite that actually belonged to the warden. Minimum security was the order-of-the-day. Tweed lived the life of Riley. One afternoon in December 1875, accompanied by two security guards, Tweed took a carriage ride to his family’s brownstone on Madison Avenue. Then, in an elaborate getaway scheme which cost him $60,000, he walked out the back door to a waiting wagon which spirited him to a rowboat on the Hudson River. He hid out in the Palisades for three months and was then escorted to Staten Island where he hopped a schooner to the Everglades in Florida. He was picked up by a fishing boat that took him to Cuba where he boarded a ship to cross the Atlantic and landed in Vigo, Spain on September 6, 1876. Unfortunately for Mr. Tweed, he was traced to Spain. Although there were no photographs of Tweed that could identify him, the Spanish authorities amazingly recognized Tweed from a Thomas Nast caricature and turned him over to American authorities. Once back in the Ludlow Street jail, the broken Tweed caught a cold and eventually died of bronchial pneumonia on April 12, 1878. The two Tammany bosses who succeeded Tweed, “Honest John” Kelly through 1886 immediately followed by Richard Croker, brought along their own versions of corruption which were different from Tweed’s but no less damaging. Rev. Charles Parkhurst was a leader in the temperance movement and a longtime social reformer. Oliver Allen, in New York, New York, points out that Parkhurst’s observations, after a personal three-week tour of the Tenderloin (an area of New York City where vice and corruption flourished), persuaded the state legislature in 1894 to initiate an inquiry.[fn]Oliver Allen, New York, New York (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1990), 180.[/fn] The Lexow Committee, designed to embarrass Democrats aligned with Tammany, launched a thorough investigation of Tammany’s ties to New York vice and corruption.[fn]Ibid.[/fn] The committee unearthed evidence that the police were engaged in vice operations and were responsible for rigging elections and for police brutality. Another result of the Lexow Committee findings was the defeat of Tammany Hall in the 1894 municipal election. Sensing that the tides were turning against him, Croker resigned and sailed to England where he stayed for three years.
“BIG BILL” DEVERY
Tammany’s grip had been loosened, but the change in regime was not complete, and some of the leaders to rise after Tweed’s ouster also had ties to baseball. One was the corrupt police chief, William “Big Bill” Devery, whose motto was “See, hear and say nothing; eat, drink and pay nothing.” The reform police commissioner in 1895, Teddy Roosevelt (TR), vowed to nab a few upperechelon Tammany members, including Devery, but TR even had to fight members of his own party who were corrupted by the Tammany faction of the opposing party. He lasted only one year as commissioner. (Perhaps this was a blessing in disguise as he went on to become the President of the United States.) Devery eventually became instrumental in bringing an American League baseball team to New York. Ban Johnson, American League president, had been denied a New York team for two years, but Devery would change that. Johnson had brought his Western League to major league status on a par with the National League by offering a cleaner brand of baseball. By its second year of existence, the American League fielded teams in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Washington. But Johnson felt that he desperately needed a New York team in order to survive. Tammany Hall, in control of the city’s real estate, thwarted every attempt on the part of Ban Johnson to establish a suitable site to erect a ball park.
In 1895, Andrew Freedman—a close friend and business partner of Tammany boss Croker—became owner of the New York Giants. As stated by Frank Graham in his book, The New York Giants: An Informal History of a Great Baseball Club, “For eight years Freedman ruled the Giants and almost completely wrecked them. Had he not been restrained he would have wrecked the league as well.”[fn]Frank Graham, The New York Giants (Carbondale, IL: G.P. Putnam, 2002).[/fn] Freedman and Croker worked together to block Johnson’s efforts to plant an AL team in New York.
But the unpopular Freedman irritated the other team owners when he attempted to syndicate the game into what would be known as the National League Trust. As Graham further reported, “Common stock would be used in payment for the eight clubs with New York to receive 30 percent, Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Boston, 12 percent; Philadelphia and Chicago 12 percent, Pittsburg 8 percent and Brooklyn 6 percent.”[fn]Ibid, 25-26.[/fn] Al Spalding, another “father” of baseball and an integral part of its early development, could not stand by and watch this travesty unfold. By way of an improperly held election in the spring of 1902, Spalding bluffed Freedman into thinking that his bold attempt to refashion baseball to fit his own needs had succeeded only in splitting the league wide open and that further measures on his part were bound to fail. As a result of this, Freedman promised to resign as soon as he could find a suitable buyer.
Meanwhile, another faction existed in Tammany Hall that was able to circumvent the efforts of Freedman to block Johnson and the AL. Devery and “Pool Room King” Frank Farrell were able to locate a rocky site for Johnson on Broadway between 165th St. and 168th St. The ballpark on the site would become known as “American League Park,” or more commonly “Hilltop Park.” Farrell and Devery became the first owners of the American League New York franchise that we now know as the New York Yankees. They purchased the Baltimore Orioles on January 9, 1903, for $18,000 and moved the team to New York City.
George Ehret’s Hell Gate Brewery had the top-selling beer 1877–1888, with Jacob Ruppert Sr.’s Knickerbocker beer trailing just behind.[fn]Christopher Gray, “Where the streets smelled like beer,” The New York Times, March 26, 2012, RE6. www.nytimes.com/2012/03/25/realestate/upper-east-side-streetscapes-empires-of-rival-brewers.html?_r=0.[/fn] After his son Jacob Ruppert Jr. took over the running of the brewery, as reported by Glenn Stout in Yankees Century, Knickerbocker needed a little push to grab the top spot in the market. Ruppert the younger joined Tammany, and his membership helped put him where he wanted to be: Number One. Knickerbocker was poured in every Tammany held bar in the city, and Ruppert eventually dominated the market.[fn]Glenn Stout and Richard Johnson, Yankees Century (New York: Houghton Mifflin 2002), 67.[/fn] Tammany recognized Ruppert’s rise by giving him a spot on the finance committee alongside Andrew Freedman, the man reviled by National League team owners. Ruppert was then tapped by Boss Croker to run for Congress in order to cultivate the much needed and rising German vote. Ruppert followed the Tammany line while serving four terms 1899–1907.
Upon leaving Congress in 1907, Ruppert immersed himself in his brewery business. Stout claimed that “he owned yachts, raced horses, bred dogs and collected exotic animals, jade, porcelain, first editions, and mistresses.” But he always had an interest in owning a baseball team, preferably the New York Giants. Giants’ manager John McGraw introduced Ruppert to civil engineer Captain Tillinghast L’Hommedieu Huston, who made his fortune in the Spanish-American War, and then in Cuba. But the Giants wouldn’t be the team that Ruppert and Huston would acquire.
By 1914 the Highlanders/Yankees had fallen lower and lower in the standings, and Devery and Farrell were experiencing growing tensions in both their business and personal relationships. They were bleeding money, basically through a lack of any business acumen. American League president Ban Johnson, not wanting to see his New York franchise go under, set up a meeting with Farrell, Devery, Huston, and Ruppert to discuss the possibility of selling the franchise. A deal was consummated whereby Tammany Hall’s Bill Devery and Frank Farrell would sell their interests in the New York Yankees to former Tammany Hall Congressman Jacob Ruppert and Cap Huston for the sum of $465,000—quite a windfall from the $18,000 that they had spent on their charter.
By the late 1930s the influence of Tammany was beginning to wane, and the Society was officially disbanded in the 1960s. Jacob Ruppert, for his contributions to the game of baseball and the New York Yankees, was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2012.
TONY MORANTE has been a SABR member since 1995 and a baseball fan since 1949 when his father, an usher at the original Yankee Stadium, brought him to his first game. He started working in Yankee Stadium in 1958 as an usher and came aboard full-time in 1973 in the Group/Season Sales Department. Morante, with the encouragement of George Steinbrenner, instituted the Yankee Stadium Tour program and gave his first tour of the stadium in 1979. He is Director of Tours to this day. He serves as Vice-President of the Bronx County Historical Society and is writing a book about New York baseball.
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