This article was written by George W. Hilton
This article was published in the 1982 Baseball Research Journal
Since the World Series scandal of 1919 baseball has been so exemplary in avoiding allegations of illicit activity that the exceptions are of special interest. Possibly the most important allegation since 1919 concerned the Houma club in the playoffs of the Class D Evangeline League in 1946. Apart from the intrinsic interest of the episode, it is important because it resulted in a suspension for nearly three seasons of Bill Thomas, the pitcher who holds the minor league career records for games, victories, losses, hits and runs.
To the citizens of Houma, Louisiana, the 1946 season seemed little short of perfection. The city, a fishing and refining community of some 30,000 about 45 miles southwest of New Orleans, was not expected to field a team in the Evangeline League in 1946. In the reformation of the league following World War II, a team was projected for Opelousas, but businessmen there were unable to raise funds. With only a month before the season was to open, Gibson Autin and his associates in Houma organized a corporation, sold stock to the public, and arranged for use of the American Legion Field, even though the facility had neither stands nor lights. Tom Smith was appointed business manager. The club apparently took over the uniforms of the stillborn Opelousas club; the team played with caps lettered with a cursive 0 throughout the season. Although the club was independent, it adopted the name “Indians,” memorializing the Houma Indian tribe, for which the city is named.
Smith’s problem of assembling a team on minimal notice was facilitated by the relocation in baseball following World War II. Teams in the higher minors had struggled through the war largely with older players in whom they had little interest once younger men became available. In particular, the Brooklyn Dodgers engaged in a thorough housecleaning of the Mobile farm club of the Southern Association. After going to a 1-9 start, Mobile assigned to Houma four players: second baseman Mike Conroy and pitchers William C. Thomas, Edward Burkett “Pat” Patterson, and Tom Perry. In this single transaction, as it proved, Smith acquired the Evangeline league’s batting champion of 1946 and the team’s entire starting rotation. Thomas was by far the most important. A sidearming righthander with an excellent curve and superb control, he had already run up a record to beggar the term “rubber-armed.” In 1926, his first season in Organized Baseball, he won 15, lost 12 and led the Blue Ridge League in games, innings and hits. His entire career had been consistent, annually showing large numbers of games, innings, wins, losses, hits and runs. He typically struck out about twice the number he walked, but he was not a power pitcher and never recorded outstanding strikeout totals. He peaked in the late 1930s, pitching in the Pacific Coast League from 1937 to 1943. His best single year had been 1939 when he pitched 49 games for Portland, winning 20 and losing 17. At Mobile in 1945 he had gone 20-13, winning 20 for only the second time in his life. He arrived in Houma with a lifetime record of 296-293. He was 41, and had never played a game in the major leagues.
Patterson, who was 37, had pitched professionally since 1930, but he had alternated between Organized Baseball and semi-pro ball in southern industrial leagues, and did not have outstanding lifetime totals. Perry, a lefthander, had no record at Mobile in 1945, but in Class D he proved extremely effective. In a separate transaction with Mobile, Smith picked up a strong centerfielder, Lanny Pecou. Only 24, Pecou had been in Organized Baseball since 1943, first as a pitcher with Olean and New Orleans, then in 1945 as an outfielder with Mobile. Finally, Smith acquired from Mobile outfielder Mal Stevens, older brother of Dodger first baseman Ed Stevens. As third baseman, Smith signed Alvin W. Kaiser, who was prominent in semi-pro ball in New Orleans. In a single season of Organized baseball, 1941, Kaiser had risen from Cambridge, Maryland, in Class D to Rochester of the International League, where he played 11 games before going off to war. Kaiser secured his release from Rochester and signed with Houma, mainly because he could continue living in New Orleans and travel to games in his car. As manager of the team, Smith signed Paul Fugit, a fine fielding first baseman released by the New Orleans Pelicans on the opening day of the 1946 season.
Houma opened the season at home on April 24, 1946, with Thomas winning 11-3. Stands had not even been erected, but bleachers were shortly built. Lights were not installed until June 20. Most teams assembled in such haste do well to avoid last place, but this one proved little less than a worldbeater. It turned in a record of 92-38, .708, and won the pennant by 6½ games over the Natchez Giants. Thomas pitched 353 innings in 47 games. He proved able to start on alternate days if required, he could pitch without warming up, and he could pitch in both games of a doubleheader. His season record of 35-7 led not only the Evangeline League but all of Organized Baseball. Patterson proved the league’s second leading pitcher at 24-9. Perry turned in a 15-5 mark. Conroy led the league in batting with .372. Fugit led in runs batted in with 130, and Pecou in stolen bases with 53. Irv Clement of Abbeville led in home runs with 25 the only major category which a Houma player did not dominate. The league drew 575,000, leading all Class D loops in attendance.
Under the circumstances, the playoffs promised to be an anticlimax. The Associated Press preliminary story stated that Houma “should have no trouble winning.” So it proved to be. In the first round, Houma defeated fourth place Alexandria 4 games to 1, losing only the fourth game. Houma began the final round by losing a game to Abbeville, but then won four straight to take the championship about as anticipated. Thomas was 5-0 in the playoffs. In the final round, he pitched in all four games that Houma won, winning the second and fifth games of the series with complete games, saving the third for Perry and winning the fourth game in the tenth inning in relief of Patterson. He was made righthanded pitcher on the league all-star team. Fugit, Conroy and Pecou were also all-stars. Columnist Harry Martinez of the New Orleans States characterized Houma as the best team in the history of the Evangeline League, and probably the best Class D team in the country.
Such euphoria as the season induced in Houma’s fans was shortlived. On October 23 the Evangeline League held a formal meeting at Baton Rouge at which it voted to remain in Class D ball, but to expand to 10 teams in 1947 by admitting Opelousas and Lake Charles. At this meeting I. N. Goldberg, owner of the Abbeyule club, presented the allegation that several members of the Houma club had arranged to lose the fourth game of the first round of the recent playoffs, to lose the first game of the second round, and to win the fourth game of the second round. Gambling, though illegal, was widely practiced in the state. Goldberg alleged that after Houma won the first three games of the opening round, a bookmaker in Alexandria had arranged with unidentified Houma players to lose the fourth game. Since Alexandria had lost three of its best players in an automobile accident, Houma was a heavy favorite. Goldberg alleged that the bookmaker had phoned around the league, accepted bets at any odds, and cleaned up on the game. Goldberg claimed that the same bookmaker had then rigged the outcome of two games in the final round. No Alexandria players were accused, but necessarily one or more Abbeville players were suspected.
Initially, as many as seven players were thought to be under suspicion. Judge W. G. Bramham, President of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, the minor leagues’ governing body, summoned the suspected players, who had not yet been identified, to his office in Durham, NC, for a hearing on January 10-11, 1947. Bramham, as it proved, had received phone calls and letters from J. Walter Morris, President of the Evangeline League, since October 1, 1946, during the second round of playoffs, reporting association of players with gamblers, and possible rigging of games. Bramham, who was approaching retirement, was eager to dispose of the case quickly. Harry Owen, president of the new Opelousas club, demanded that the names of the suspected players be revealed so that he could name a manager from among players with clean reputations.
On January 18, 1947, Bramham issued his findings and decision. Five players were named: Thomas, Pecou, Kaiser and Fugit of Houma and catcher Don Vettorel of Abbeville. It was alleged that Thomas and Vettorel had been in contact with gamblers who entreated them to throw games. Thomas testified that Kaiser had introduced him to a bookie who had suggested Thomas might lose three or four games during the season, but Thomas had refused and had not even learned the man’s name. Kaiser and Pecou were accused of working for the bookie and on one occasion resetting his clock so as to bet on a completed horserace. Vettorel was accused of flashing $600 in a bar, saying that he had won it rigging the outcome of games. Specific accusations of misplay were limited. This was, after all, Class D ball, and nothing outstandingly untoward had occurred. Fugit was alleged to have played too far off first base to draw Kaiser’s throws off base. Pecou let a ball drop in front of him on one occasion, but reported it had merely been bad judgment. There were no allegations of misplay by Thomas, and no specific ones against Vettorel. One of the allegations before Bramham was that after the automobile accident to the Alexandria players, bookies endeavored to gather $6,000 to pay off Houma players to lose a game, but the money could not be raised, and Houma won the game.
There were more general accusations of relations between gamblers and players. Money was reportedly passed directly between the stands and the dugout during games. Indeed, it was alleged that the Houma team was so strong because the players, who were good enough for higher levels of ball, were willing to play in Class D for the benefits of dealing with the gamblers in Louisiana. While Houma was playing daytime ball, some of the players were alleged to have played as “ringers” in semi-pro ball in New Orleans, winning money in association with local bookies. (If Thomas was moonlighting in semipro while winning 35 games for Houma, the mind boggles!) Even some owners in the Evangeline League were accused of relations with gamblers.
Bramham’s view was that specific allegations of game-throwing could be substantiated only by confession of one or more of the players, all of whom adamantly maintained innocence. His decision left little doubt as to his actual opinion:
In the case of the investigation here dealt with, there are positive allegations and circumstantial evidence to support them. On the other hand each of the players enter (sic) a vigorous denial. I have a very definite personal opinion in the premises, but do not find itnecessary to predicate any finding of guilt as to this allegation based upon that opinion. There is sufficient other conduct detrimental to baseball established by the record to justify the decision now rendered.
Bramham placed all five players on the ineligible list. All five threatened suit. Thomas was particularly adamant, since with his 5-0 record in the playoffs, he could not possibly have thrown a game. Thomas and Pecou petitioned the National Association for reinstatement at six month intervals, but the rest seem to have drifted out of baseball and lost interest in returning. Pecou was young and thought quite promising. Thomas was apparently a man with few alternatives to baseball. Upon his suspension, he became a roustabout at Texaco’s Houma refinery, and then went off to pitch in southern industrial leagues. Given his age, he could hope to return only to the lower minors, but he continued his efforts and at length succeeded. Thomas and Pecou were restored to eligibility by George M. Trautman, Bramham’s successor, on August 22, 1949, and were allowed immediately to return to Houma, which was in a hot pennant race. Pecou’s ability had apparently atrophied during his layoff, but Thomas helped win the 1949 pennant with three victories in the last 12 games of the season. With Houma and Lafayette in 1950 he was 23-8 at the age of 45. He continued for two seasons, bringing his long career to a close at age 47 at Owensboro in the Kitty League in 1952 with a lifetime record of 383-346.
In retrospect, do the allegations appear valid? Was justice done? Research on the scandal is made difficult by the low level at which it occurred. Houma and Abbeville did not have daily newspapers, but Alexandria had a very good paper, the Daily Town Talk, and the Baton Rouge Advertiser followed the Evangeline League closely. Newspaper accounts of the individual games do not appear to verify Goldberg’s allegations of throwing of three games. In the game of September 16, which Goldberg alleged that Houma threw to Alexandria, utility man Copeland Goss pitched for Houma, losing on a clean single over the head of shortstop Danny Seiler in the ninth. Seiler made two errors in the game and Conroy made one, but none of the accused players made any. None of the accused players did anything untoward notable enough to be mentioned in the newspaper accounts. Houma did leave ten men on base, and the entire team was said to have wasted numerous scoring opportunities.
The game of September 29, which Goldberg alleged that Houma threw to Abbeville, Patterson pitched, losing 7-1. He pitched a complete game, losing when he gave up six hits and four runs in the sixth inning. Seiler, Pecou, Conroy and Goss (who was playing third base) made errors. It is noteworthy that the only pitcher under accusation, Thomas, did not play in either of the games that Goldberg alleged Houma lost intentionally. It is, of course, possible that conspirators arranged to lose only when one of their number was not pitching.
The game of October 2, which Goldberg claimed had been rigged for Houma to win, was a 10-inning contest, which Houma did win 4-3. Houma came from behind to tie it with two runs in the ninth, and then won it on two hits and a walk in the 10th. Vettorel, the only Abbeville player accused, made an error which was not described in press accounts, but this does not appear to have occurred in the course of Houma’s tying or winning the game. Indeed, Vettorel’s play in the other games of the series leave little ground for suspicion. In the third game of the final round, which Houma won 3-2 with three runs in the third inning, Vettorel made a poor play at the plate on a throw from the outfield, allowing the second run to score. Otherwise there seems nothing exceptional about his play.
There seems little doubt that Bramham was correct to reject Goldberg’s allegations. No direct evidence was brought forth to substantiate them, and they do not appear plausible on the basis of surviving accounts. On the other hand, Bramham was clearly satisfied that some illicit activity was going on. I interviewed one member of the Houma team who was not accused in the scandal. He told me he had been approached — by whom he did not state – to participate in a conspiracy, but he refused. He said that the non-participating players for Houma were aware that something untoward was going on, but he stated that no games were actually thrown. He said that Houma actually won the games that were rigged for it to lose. One of the conspirators, he said, had doubled while swinging wildly trying to strike out.
Whether the conspiracy involved exactly the five players who were accused is impossible to say. When the penalties were announced, President L. E. Lapeyrouse of Houma expressed surprise that only one player from Abbeville had been suspended. Of the players suspended, only Pecou is thought to be living. Efforts to locate Thomas proved fruitless. He clearly suffered most from the suspension. Given his willingness to pitch at the lowest level of the minor leagues, he could probably have won at least 50 games in the two-and-a-fraction seasons he was suspended. There is little doubt that he would have passed 400 victories, at minimum. Since Thomas was not accused of throwing a game, Trautman doubtless acted correctly in lifting the suspension. Perhaps winning 52 games between ages 44 and 47 after the suspension is accomplishment enough.