Mystery and Tragedy: The O’Connell-Dolan Scandal

This article was written by Lowell Blaisdell

This article was published in 1982 Baseball Research Journal

One of the most famous scandals of baseball history is the O’Connell-Dolan bribe fiasco of September 1924. It was the last of the cycle of “fixes” or attempted fixes that afflicted the game in the period 1917 to 1924. It is distinguished from most of the earlier ones because in those cases we were reasonably sure what took place. What baseball fan does not know the details of the most notorious of all sports scandals, the sellout of the 1919 World Series by the Chicago White (Black) Sox? Likewise, the slippery dealings of Hal Chase which brought his near expulsion are pretty common knowledge. The reasons for the blacklisting of such middle-level figures as Heinie Zimmerman and Claude Hendrix, and the expulsion of Shufflin’ Phil Douglas are less well known, but the O’Connell-Dolan affair wreaks of mystery to this day. If we look at the scandal six decades later, does greater light emerge than at the time?

Let it be observed from the beginning that it is much too late now to dispel fully the clouds of uncertainty and to let in the full light of day. However, examining the evidence with the greater freedom from bias or loyalties that the passage of time provides, certain probabilities — given the nature of most human relationships — emerge, and from these it is possible to construct a fairly plausible scenario as to what actually transpired.

We need first an understanding of the key events comprising the crisis. As the Giants and Dodgers came down the stretch in 1924, they found themselves in a neck-and-neck race. As the last weekend arrived, the Giants had a game-and-a-half lead. However, if, playing at home, they should lose three straight to the lowly Phillies, while the Dodgers were taking a pair from the even more lowly Braves, Brooklyn could still win by a game. Thus, given the Giants’ position in playing a poor team at home, there was some, but — one would think — not overwhelming, temptation to engage in a shady gimmick to ensure victory. The questionable incident indeed occurred.

Before the game of Saturday, September 27, utility outfielder Jimmy O’Connell of the Giants, at the instigation of Coach Cozy Dolan, sounded out Phillies shortstop Heinie Sand as to whether, for $500, he might be willing to avoid “bearing down hard.” Afterwards, O’Connell also contended that Giant stars Frankie Frisch, Ross Youngs, and George Kelly had spoken with him before the game about the feeler. At any rate, Sand rejected O’Connell’s invitation. Growing worried during the course of the game, Sand that evening reported the bribe offer to his manager, Art Fletcher. The latter immediately took the matter to the, executive level. Within a short time, the crisis fell into Judge Landis’ lap. On September 30 and October 6 and 7, the Commissioner held hearings. It is from the transcript of these hearings (New York Times, January 11, 1925) that the main body of the evidence in the O’Connell-Dolan case stems. At these sessions, O’Connell, Dolan, Sand, Frisch, Kelly, and Youngs testified.

We can best try to diminish the mystery by exploring a series of questions. First, did a bribe attempt actually take place? Of this there is no doubt. Sand testified that O’Connell offered him $500. Weightier, O’Connell admitted that he did. Could O’Connell have done such a thing strictly on his own? Surely not, since, as a fringe player, he was in no position financially or in terms of prestige to be throwing his own money around. Who, then, put O’Connell up to it? O’Connell reported that Dolan had.

Dolan testified before Landis twice, on September 30 and on October 7. On the decisive first occasion, his evasive answers led Judge Landis — and would have led many another in the Commissioner’s position — to conclude that Dolan had actually invited O’Connell to commit his act. Though the events had occurred only three days before, Dolan indicated that he could not remember anything. Even when Landis, with O’Connell in the same room, asked Dolan point-blank whether he had requested O’Connell to speak to Sand, Dolan, instead of answering with a resounding denial, took several minutes of presumably deep thought to come up with the answer that he could not remember whether he had suggested a bribe or not! Having received notice from Landis that because of this he was banished, Dolan turned up to testify for a second time on October 7. On this occasion he stated with great vehemence that whenever he said that he could not remember something, this was his unique way of specifying that he knew nothing whatsoever about that something, and that he was entirely innocent of promoting a bribe. Landis refused to accept that any Sensible person, when asked a question that invited a simple negative as the answer, would reply by saying that he did not remember, and that claiming lack of recollection was a way of saying “No.”

Why was it Sand who was approached? This is a critical point.  Players Frisch, Youngs, and Kelly contended that the whole sorry, disconnected story was only a case of O’Connell being led into self-entrapment through failure to comprehend playing field levity.  This version was firmly believed by Freddie Lindstrom, for instance. However, the fact that Sand was the particular player singled out makes the kidding explanation quite improbable. The Phillies lineup featured only mediocrities, except perhaps for the centerfielder, Cy Williams, an archetypal Baker Bowl slugger. But, regardless of degrees of skill, shortstop is a vital position where many a game could be decided by two or three belated reactions.

Even more significant than the position Sand played was his relationship to O’Connell. According to O’Connell, Dolan had asked him if he knew Sand. Indeed O’Connell knew Sand. Both came from the San Francisco Bay area. They had played against each other in the Pacific Coast League. In the course of an investigation by Assistant New York District Attorney George N. Brothers, it even came out that at one time O’Connell and Sand had been roommates. In fact, because it might make trouble for O’Connell, Sand briefly had been reluctant to report the bribe offer, but his second base partner, Horace Ford, advised him to do so (New York Times, January 28, 1925). Is it plausible to conclude that it was sheer coincidence that the player whom O’Connell was asked to sound out was, not merely a personal friend, but even a one-time roommate? As for the “kidding” theory, that Dolan would be indulging in kidding when inviting a player to bribe another player seems equally implausible. Nor did Dolan suggest such a possibility in his testimony. Neither could the misunderstood kidding have emanated from the three players, since two of them denied so much as saying a word to O’Connell on September 27, and the third said that the few words that they exchanged had nothing to do with Sand. Are we to infer, then, that Frisch, Youngs, and Kelly were supporting players in a bribe attempt; It seems fairly likely they were?

Why would three stars have “set up” a young player like O’Connell? Of course they did not so intend. They counted on the encompassing protection of the players’ so-called code against tattling. From beginning to end, everything related to the bribe proposition was strictly verbal. If Sand proved unamenable, surely at least he would not talk. But the players underestimated the powerful incentive that had been created for anyone who received a feeler to report it. Judge Landis had expelled, not only the seven “Black Sox” who had actively engaged in a scheme to lose games in the 1919 World Series fix, but the eighth, Buck Weaver, whose sin it was, not to “throw” games himself, but only to fail to report the others. With regard to the Giant players, they also probably thought that if by any chance Sand should talk, then surely their own teammate, O’Connell, would know enough to deny categorically Sand’s allegations.

This brings us to O’Connell’s personality, another crucial factor in the case. Why would he lend himself as a go-between in the transmission of a bribe offer? The testimony before Landis suggests that O’Connell was a rather naive young man, easily influenced by others. He was well liked by his teammates. He liked to warm up each day with Kelly who also was a Bay area native. For a young player to do something pleasing to the well-established stars would enhance his standing in their eyes.

But when Sand told his story, O’Connell’s naivete had another effect: it made him belatedly very honest, and he confirmed it! Had Jimmy O’Connell chosen to lie, it would have been his word against Sand’s. Under these circumstances, Landis might have had his suspicions, but, in the absence of third-party testimony, his worst punishment for O’Connell hardly could have been greater than the imposition of a period of suspension. But, since O’Connell admitted offering a bribe, Landis expelled him. In an era of “sell-outs”, the Commissioner no doubt felt that he had to be severe. In a later day, O’Connell might have gotten off easier.

Since he had disbarred O’Connell as a self-confessed briber and Dolan as a self-implicated one, why did Landis not expel Frisch, Youngs, and Kelly as well? The answer is that the players flatly denied speaking to O’Connell about Sand. It was their word against O’Connell’s. In the absence of any independent evidence, and, on the basis of the usual assumption of innocence over guilt, Landis had no choice but to accept their statements as made. Unlike Dolan, the three players unmistakably denied involvement. As for Dolan’s ineptitude, his testimony suggests an uneducated and not very intelligent person.

Did the surface events of the O’Connell-Dolan scandal disguise anything deeper? Specifically, could Manager John McGraw or a front-office executive have instigated the scheme? Certainly there is no reason to suspect any officials. As for McGraw, it is no secret that the old Oriole fell far short of being a saint. Throughout his career, he displayed a ferocious desire to win, regardless of cost. Back in 1908 there had been a scandal when it came out that, just prior to the pennant playoff game in which Three Finger Brown defeated the Giants’ Mathewson to give the Cubs their third straight pennant, the Giants’ team doctor/trainer had made an attempt to bribe the umpires. Some suspected that McGraw was behind this act, although he was never so named. The later episode bears a suspicious resemblance to the earlier one, particularly when it is noted that Cozy Dolan was regarded as a McGraw lackey as much as a coach. Thus, it is not improbable that McGraw was behind the 1924 incident.

In 1924, the prospects of achieving what he needed were good — one victory, along with a Dodger loss, in three home games against a seventh place club (virtually what, in fact, occurred), or two wins — whereas in 1908 he was in a dead-heat with no more games to play against one of the great teams in baseball history. In the latter circumstances, why take the chance? Landis probably should have ordered McGraw to testify at his hearings. But he had spoken to him briefly before they started, and nothing in the manager’s behavior suggested anything suspicious. Moreover, Dolan and O’Connell, even after their expulsion, did not name him. O’Connell, like Dolan, testified twice, and Landis repeatedly asked him whether he could add any names to those he had originally implicated, but he said that there were none.

Perhaps even more weighty than the McGraw issue is whether gamblers could have set the bribe wheels in motion. It is extremely unlikely. A letter did appear in the sensationalist New York Mirror, October 6, 1924, claiming that Broadway gamblers, in order to protect $100,000 in bets, had inspired the bribe. Neither Landis nor later Assistant District Attorney Brothers could come up with a shred of evidence to substantiate this. More important, does the Sand proposition sound like the way gamblers operate? They like the sure thing that prior understanding provides. O’Connell testified that there was no previous discussion of his deed; Dolan asked him, and, without cogitating over the implications, he plunged into it. This is not how gamblers navigate. Moreover, Sand was offered a paltry $500. At least verbally, gamblers would be much more generous than that.

On the whole, it looks as if the O’Connell-Dolan disaster was an ill-considered, near spur-of-the moment player-instigated bribe scheme. It can be better understood by analogy to a player-initiated episode some years earlier. Over Labor Day weekend, 1917, the White Sox, involved in a tight race with the Red Sox, swept a series with the Tigers. The felines’ play was exceptionally torpid, notably in bases stolen on them, which abounded. After the 1919 scandal became public, it came out that the Sox, as a team assessment, had awarded small stipends to several of the Tigers for their efforts. Something of this sort probably was afoot in the offer to Sand. If anything should misfire, as indeed it did, the “kidding” story was the fallback position.

Is it disillusioning to think that three Hall of Famers probably were fringe figures in a bribe attempt? Remember that two even more famous heroes, Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker, barely averted condemnation in the belated airing of a 1919 “thrown-game” allegation. In the case of Frisch, Kelly, and Youngs, it might be slightly consoling to think that they were not trying to throw their own games, but merely to act as accomplices in seeking to induce an opponent to ease up against their team.

The most memorable feature of the scandal is the sad outcome for the three principals. Even for Cozy Dolan, it might be possible to generate a twinge of sympathy. After all — as he tried rather inarticulately to explain to Judge Landis at his second audience — it was no fun not knowing what to do with himself, after having just been barred from the only living he knew. It is possible that the incident injured Sand as well. After 1924 the fans booed him regularly as a “squealer”. Could not this have been a factor in his fadeout as a major leaguer after only six years? Most of all, the episode meant tragedy for Jimmy O’Connell. The irony is that, when confronted with Sand, had he chosen to lie, the likelihood is that his baseball life would have been saved. Truth, we say, is like virtue: it is its own reward. Try telling that to Jimmy O’Connell. A young player with a promising future, he told the truth — and it cost him his career. He wound up playing for a Ft. Bayard, New Mexico, team in the outlaw Copper/Frontier League with Hal Chase, Chick Gandil, and others of that ilk.