This article was written by Ralph Christian
By Ralph J. Christian
Most people’s visions of Iowa and its connection to the Black Sox Scandal have been shaped by the movie Field of Dreams. Shoeless Joe Jackson’s query “Is this Heaven?” to Ray Kinsella, and his response “No, it’s Iowa,” and the emergence of the Black Sox ghost players from Kinsella’s Iowa cornfield are among this baseball fantasy’s most memorable highlights.
The subsequent preservation of the Kinsella farmstead and the ballfield where the movie was filmed, and its development into a destination for baseball fans and tourists from around the world has further cemented Iowa’s popular image to the Black Sox story and what Brett H. Mandel has described as “the magic of the Field of Dreams.”
Had author W.P. Kinsella desired to insert more realism into Shoeless Joe, the novella that was the basis for the film, or make it into a broader morality tale, he might have had the gamblers, all “dressed to the nines”, emerging from the cornfield with the players.
Such an action would not only had great dramatic effect but would have been in keeping with the historical record, because three of the four gamblers tried with Jackson and the other Black Sox players were from Des Moines, Iowa’s capital city and approximately 170 miles southwest of the pastoral setting where the movie was filmed.[fn]Bret H. Mandel, Is This Heaven? The Magic of the Field of Dreams (Lanham, Md.: Diamond Communications, 2002), 137.[/fn]
When the Black Sox Scandal first came to light and for many years afterwards, the view prevailed that the fix originated with big city Eastern gamblers like Arnold Rothstein, whose ill-gotten gains allowed him to corrupt eight ball players and in the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s narrator, Nick Carraway, in The Great Gatsby “play with the faith of fifty million people-with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe.”
In more recent years, however, the view has prevailed that Rothstein had little direct involvement in the fix, and that it originated with a group of White Sox players frustrated with the tight-fisted ways of team owner Charles Comiskey.
Largely ignored in all these discussions, however, were the activities of a rather loosely organized group of gamblers in Des Moines, Denver, Kansas City, Minneapolis, and Omaha, who moved freely around the country posing as traveling salesmen and legitimate businessmen and wagering considerable sums of money on major league baseball games.[fn]Quoted in David A. Nathan, Saying It’s So: A Cultural History of the Black Sox Scandal (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 67; Council Bluffs Nonpareil, October 9, 1924, 6.[/fn]
Des Moines’ contribution to this contingent were the Zelcer brothers, David, Abraham, Louis, and Nathan. Dave and Abe Zelcer headed the family’s gambling activities, which were masked by seemingly legitimate business fronts.
Born in 1877 and 1879 respectively to Polish immigrant parents in Des Moines, both, by their mid-teens, were working full-time and holding positions as clerks and salesmen in local dry goods and clothing stores. By 1902, David Zelcer appears to have entered the ranks of Des Moines’ “sporting men,” listing his occupation only as “clerk” and not identifying his place of employment. Two years later, Abe likely became a professional gambler as well, listing his occupation only as “traveler.”
In 1905 and 1906, David apparently left Des Moines to gamble elsewhere before returning home in 1907 with enough money to enter the loan business and likely assist his brother Abe in opening a combination cigar store and pool room in the downtown. Des Moines in this era had a reputation as a “wide open” city, and its cigar stores and pool rooms were notorious for illegal sales of alcoholic beverages, gambling of all varieties, and generally rowdy behavior, all under the watchful and protective eye of the local police department.[fn]Des Moines City Directory (Des Moines and Detroit: various publishers between 1892 and 1910); Entries for Jacob, Rachael, David and Abram Zelcer in 1880 United States Census, Des Moines Polk County, Iowa, Family History Library Film 1254359, Family Search, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints at www.familysearch.org; Des Moines Evening Tribune, October 20, 1921, 1; February 9, 1921, 1; Des Moines News, September 27, 1920, 1; September 28, 1920, 2.[/fn]
By 1911 David Zelcer had assumed the persona of a legitimate businessman with his “Success Sales System,” an enterprise in which he partnered with his younger brother Nathan. According to Des Moines city directories, the Zelcer brothers were “merchandise brokers” but provided no further details about their operations. What the directories did reveal, however, was that “Success Sales System” offices were located at 714 Locust Street, the same address as the cigar store and pool room operated by Abe Zelcer and the youngest brother Lou. Apparently, the Zelcer’s combination of legitimate and illegal activities paid them well. In 1916 they purchased a large home at 1706-6th A venue and moved from the downtown area with their widowed mother Rachael into what was then a fashionable upper-middle-class neighborhood on Des Moines’ near north side.[fn]Des Moines City Directory (Detroit: R.L. Polk Company, 1911-1916).[/fn]
Although Dave Zelcer maintained a residence in Des Moines, he likely spent relatively few days in the city as he traveled the country in pursuit of gambling opportunities, whether they be sporting events or various games of chance with other individuals and groups. By 1919, he had been plying his trade for 17 years, largely in the guise of a sales representative, and had become part of a rather loosely organized group of gamblers, mostly from mid-sized Midwestern cities with a similar modus operandi.
In addition to his brothers, Dave had begun to work closely with Ben and Lou Levi, who divided their free time between Des Moines and Kokomo, Indiana. During the winter months, he and the Levi brothers made their headquarters in San Francisco and carried on gambling activities in several California cities. They also made the acquaintance of many sports figures like boxer Abe Attell and baseball players like Hal Chase and Sleepy Bill Burns, who had a penchant for gambling as well and who could furnish them inside information not readily available to others. Zelcer and the Levi brothers also ingratiated themselves with baseball management as well, persuading them to hold bets and pay off winners.[fn]Ibid. 1917-1919; Martin Donell Kohout, Hal Chase: The Defiant Life and Turbulent Times of Baseball’s Biggest Crook (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland Publishing, 2001), 245; News, March 26, 1921, 1; March 28, 1921, 5; Des Moines Register, March 27, 1921, 1-2S; July 23, 1921, 1; Des Moines Capital, March 26, 1921, 1; July 22, 1921, 1; Evening Tribune, July 22, 1921, 1; Nonpareil, July 23, 1921, 1; Wichita (Texas) Daily Times, July 22, 1921, 1.[/fn]
David Zelcer’s role in the fixing of the 1919 World Series has been subject to various interpretations. In some accounts, he is viewed as a lieutenant of Arnold Rothstein while others treat him as an assistant to Abe Attell or even Hal Chase, but none have gone so far as to suggest that he served as the ringleader of the gamblers. What has been overlooked in these interpretations is Zelcer’s tendency to avoid the limelight; his ability to team up with other gamblers; and the relationships he and his cohorts were able to establish with ballplayers and team management, enabling them to obtain insider information that gave them a decided advantage in their betting activities.
According to Tom Fairweather, owner of Des Moines’ entry in the Western League and the city’s mayor at the time, the Zelcer and Levi brothers were “ardent White Sox fans” and had been for some time. Given the fact that they earned their livelihood from gambling, however, their interest and support for the team would have been based more on financial than sentimental considerations. Their ability to acquire insider information about the White Sox likely was enhanced by their acquaintance with Mayor Fairweather, a personal friend of Charles Comiskey, and whose Des Moines team had a close working relationship with the Chicago club, and by the fact that two of the team’s star pitchers Eddie Cicotte and Urban “Red” Faber had toiled for the Des Moines franchise.[fn]Eliot Asinof, Eight Men Out: The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1987), 247, 261; “Others Involved in the Scandal,” from http://www.1919blacksox.com/participants; Harold Seymour and Dorothy Seymour Mills, Baseball: The Golden Age (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), 310; Capital, September 29, 1920, 1; News, September 28, 1920, 1; Davenport Democrat and Leader, September 30, 1920, 6; W.C. Madden and Patrick J. Stewart, The Western League: A Baseball History, 1885 through 1999 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2002), 79, 94.[/fn]
While Dave Zelcer and his cohorts were probably aware by early September, if not earlier, of Eddie Cicotte and Chick Gandil’s willingness to throw the World Series and salivated at the prospect of getting in on the action, they faced a decided handicap. Because they were based primarily in small- and medium-sized cities in the Midwest and West, Zelcer and company did not possess the credibility to be taken seriously for such a large scale enterprise, nor did they possess sufficient capital to carry it out, especially after five other players expressed a willingness to participate.
Faced with this challenge, Zelcer, after receiving considerable financial backing by a prominent Des Moines realtor, and teaming up with Abe Attell went on the road in a whirlwind of activity that eventually would make it appear that the fix was emanating from New York and st. Louis, the easternmost and westernmost bastions of major league baseball.
Zelcer likely enlisted Ben Franklin, who was a well-known gambler in Omaha, to go to St. Louis. Franklin, whose real last name was “Frankel,” may have been a relation of the Frankel family of Des Moines in whose clothing store Abe Zelcer had worked for several years. Masquerading as a “mule buyer,” Franklin enlisted the support of Carl Zork, a St. Louis clothing manufacturer and gentleman gambler, who was a close friend of Abe Attell and who likely knew Dave Zelcer as well. In the meantime, Ben and Lou Levi, operating out of Des Moines, were placed in charge of operations in the Upper Midwest.[fn]Asinof, Eight Men Out, 15-22; Des Moines City Directory (Detroit: R.L. Polk Company, 1902-1904); Register, March 27, 1921, Sec. 3, 23; Capital, September 29, 1920, 1; The Sporting News, November 4, 1920, 3; Entry on Ben Frankel/Franklin from “Family Trees of Moses Kaganovitch, David Solzman, Ruben Schindler and Isaac Jershfelt (Feldman), ID: 10101 at www.ancestry.com.[/fn]
Zelcer’s biggest headache was the East Coast, where his agents “Sleepy” Bill Burns, Joseph “Sport” Sullivan, Rachael Brown, and Billy Maharg encountered problems finding backers for the scheme. On September 16 and 18, 1919, Burns met with Cicotte and Gandil in New York City, where they informed him that it would cost $100;000 to throw the World Series. A few days later, armed with this figure, Burns and Maharg met with famed New York gambler Arnold Rothstein at a racetrack, but he turned them down.
At this juncture, Zelcer and Abe Attell, assisted to some degree by Hal Chase, took charge in a scene somewhat reminiscent of Paul Newman and Robert Redford in the movie, The Sting. A few days before the October 1 start of the World Series in Cincinnati, Zelcer traveled to New York City for a September 29 meeting with Attell, Chase, Burns, Cicotte, and Gandil at the Ansonia Hotel to finalize the details of the fix.
Attell and Chase introduced Zelcer as “Bennett” to Burns and the two White Sox players, possibly because Cicotte may have been acquainted with Abe Zelcer during his years pitching in Des Moines but most likely because of the scam they planned to utilize to make the fix happen. According to Burns, “Bennett said he represented Rothstein” who had agreed to put up the $100,000. Burns then “asked Bennett why Rothstein didn’t go through with the deal with me. Attel[sic] spoke up and said that he once saved Rothstein’s life, and that Rothstein was indebted to him. Bennett said Rothstein authorized him to handle the financial end and that Attel[sic] was to handle the players.” Satisfied with Attell and Zelcer’s explanations, Cicotte and Gandil agreed to put the proposition before the other White Sox players in Cincinnati.[fn]Register, March 27, 1921, Sec.3, Page 1-2S; July 19, 1921, July 19, 1921, 5; Capital, March 26, 1921, 1; Evening Tribune, July 27, 1921, 1; News, March 28, 1921, 1; July 27, 1927, 1; Asinof, Eight Men Out, 261-262.[/fn]
Zelcer then took a train to Cincinnati where he had registered himself, Attell, and the Levi brothers at the Sinton Hotel. Due to some sort of mix-up, Attell’s reservation had been lost, and he and Zelcer ended up rooming together. Zelcer, still utilizing the pseudonym of “Bennett” and claiming to be “Rothstein’s right-hand man,” accompanied Abe Attell to the meeting with the players in Eddie Cicotte’s room on the eve of the World Series, where they agreed to throw the Series for $100,000 or $20,000 a game.
It was probably after this meeting that Zelcer reportedly telegraphed his brother Abe in Des Moines to “pawn the family heirlooms and gamble it all on Cincinnati.” In addition to meeting with the players, Zelcer and his associates devoted substantial time to working the lobby of the Sinton for bets. Attell and Lou Levi even managed to persuade Washington manager Clark Griffith and Chicago Cubs Secretary John O. Seys to hold the stakes for some of their bets. Seys ended up holding $2,250 in bets for the pair, and actually paid off on some of them on his return to Chicago after the second game.[fn]Register, July 19, 1921, 5; July 20, 1921, 1.4; Evening Tribune, July 20, 1921, 1; Capital, July 20, 1921, 1, 14; September 29, 1920, 1; News, September 28, 1920, 1; Nonpareil, July 23, 1921, 1; Daily Times, July 22, 1921, 1.[/fn]
Although Zelcer and his cohorts appeared to be in the driver’s seat after the Reds won the first two games of the series, serious problems quickly developed with their scheme. First of all, the heavy amount of betting on Cincinnati in the days immediately preceding the Series caused the odds in favor of Chicago to narrow considerably, thus reducing the potential payoff. Also, the fact that so many people seemed to be aware of the fix caused many gamblers to become reluctant to bet, believing that the whole affair was a scam in which a band of “touts” were playing “sure-thing bettors for suckers.”
Concerned about cash flow and their own return on the scheme, Zelcer and Attell reneged on their promised payoff to the players, first claiming that all their money was out on bets and then only reluctantly distributing $10,000 after the second game. After Chicago won the supposedly fixed third game and many in the gambling community lost heavily, the odds shifted yet again. On the eve of the fourth game, starting pitcher Eddie Cicotte is said to have found $10,000 under his pillow, and Lefty Williams and Joe Jackson each received $5,000 with the result that the Reds won the fourth and fifth games.
Although no more payoffs supposedly occurred, White Sox victories in games six and seven shifted the gambling odds once again away from the Reds toward the White Sox, thus setting the stage for Cincinnati’s victory in the eighth and final game of the series.[fn]Capital, October 19, 1919, 1; July 20, 1921, 1, 14; July 22, 1921, 1; Register, October 14, 1919, 4; July 19, 1921, 5; July 20, 1921, 4; Evening Tribune, July 21, 1921, 1, 2; July 27, 1921, 1, 3; News, July 27, 1921, 1, 8.[/fn]
One might reasonably concur that Zelcer and Attell, realizing they did not have the financial wherewithal to engineer a five-game Cincinnati sweep, shifted their strategy to one of fixing a limited number of games so as to manipulate the odds on the two teams as they saw fit. Likely, it was this strategy that seemed like a fix on the installment plan that earned them the disdain of Arnold Rothstein, who later described the fix as the work of “cheap gamblers.”
Although Zelcer and Attell initially claimed to have lost heavily when Chicago won the third game, it is highly likely both profited betting on Cincinnati. Dave Zelcer covered up his duplicity by not informing his brother Abe of the change in strategy and allowing him to lose most of the money they had won on the first two games in Des Moines, apparently a small price to pay for a bigger payoff and to ease any suspicions of his local financial backer who lost heavily on the game as well.
According to a report published in the Des Moines News, Dave Zelcer, Abe Attell, Carl Zork, Ben Franklin, and Ben and Lou Levi met in a Chicago hotel where “they made the 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.”[fn]Asinof, Eight Men Out, 219; Capital, September 29, 1920, 1; News, September 28, 1920, 1; March 28, 1921, 1; Evening Tribune, September 29, 1920, 1, 8; July 22, 1921, 1.[/fn]
Cincinnati’s winning of the World Series on October 9 did not quiet the clamor about the games being fixed but since so much of the complaints came from the gambling community, there was a general tendency on the part of most sportswriters to downplay the gambling rumors and focus on the overall play of the White Sox team instead.
Des Moines Register sportswriter Sec Taylor, who had covered several of the games in person, probably typified this point of view. Writing under his own byline on October 14, 1919, Taylor stated his own belief that it had not been fixed for two reasons. First of all, “it would have cost so much to make the ‘arrangements’ that no syndicate could have afforded to undertake the proposition unless it planned to bet several hundred thousand dollars, and if that much money was to be at stake, [Dickey] Kerr and every other player would have been ‘fixed’ so that there would have been no misfire.” Secondly, “had it really been ‘framed’ the Des Moines contingent and other gamblers all over the country would not have known about it. The news would not have been telegraphed all over the country.”
In Taylor’s opinion, “it seems more probable that the boys who thought the games were prearranged were the victims of a band of ‘touts’ who spread the report for their own benefit and who covered most of the Cincinnati bets on the third game themselves … the White Sox played their best but were demoralized and upset following Cicotte’s miserable showing in the opening game of the series.” Taylor closed his piece with a challenge to “those who believe the series was prearranged … to pick up the $20,000 offered by Charles A. Comiskey for proof that his players agreed to throw games.”[fn]Nathan, Saying It’s So, 16-17; Register, October 14, 1919, 4.[/fn]
Among those willing to accept Taylor’s challenge and attempt to get Comiskey’s reward money was Abe Zelcer, who appears to have been largely unaware ofthe extent of his brother’s involvement in the fix until several days after the World Series when Dave patiently filled him in on how events had transpired.
Then about two weeks after the publication of Hugh Fullerton’s sensational article on the fix in the New York World on December 15, 1919, Des Moines Mayor Tom Fairweather, who also owned the city’s Western League franchise, telegraphed Comiskey around New Year’s Day “regarding rumors in Des Moines that the world series had been ‘fixed’ and also telling about actions of local gamblers.”
Although Comiskey and Fairweather were good friends, Comiskey did not respond directly to him, delegating that task to former Western League president Tip O’Neill, who sent Fairweather a letter requesting more specific information. On January 7, 1920, Fairweather wrote Comiskey, telling how just before the start of the World Series Abe Zelcer had received a telegram at his cigar store from his brother Dave instructing him “to ‘pawn the family heirlooms’ and gamble it all on Cincinnati.” Later, “while watching the score board of the game,” Zelcer, “who was always a White Sox fan” informed Fairweather about “the information he had ‘on the inside’ that Cincinnati was to win.”
At the time, however, he paid little attention to these remarks, Fairweather declared, because Zelcer “was under the influence of liquor, and because of his boastful attitude.” Fairweather then related how several local businessmen and professional gamblers, who had received this tip, won substantial sums of money before losing practically all of it on the third game.[fn]Evening Tribune, September 30, 1920, 1; Nathan, Saying It’s So, 17-19; Capital, September 29, 1920, 1; News, September 28, 1920, 1.[/fn]
The general public would not become aware of a possible Des Moines connection to the Black Sox Scandal until late September 1920 when it was rumored that the Cook County Grand Jury would return indictments for at least two Des Moines men. Contacted by a reporter from the Des Moines Evening Tribune, Dave Zelcer declared that “to his best knowledge he did not know of anyone in Des Moines who was on the inside” and when asked about his brother Abe, who was said to have received the tip, he stated that he “positively knew that Abe was not on the inside.”
Zelcer undoubtedly breathed a sigh of relief on October 22 when the grand jury handed down final indictments for the eight White Sox players and Abe Attell, Bill Burns, Sport Sullivan, Hal Chase, and the mysterious Rachael Brown.[fn]Evening Tribune, September 29, 1920, 1.8; News, October 28, 1920, 1; October 29, 1920, 1; Register, October 29, 1920, 1.[/fn]
Zelcer’s sense of relief would be brief, however, because of new information provided to the grand jury by American League President Ban Johnson. On March 26, 1921, a second Cook County Grand Jury handed down 144 indictments against 18 men. The eight players and five gamblers in the previous investigation were re-indicted, but this time Zelcer, Ben and Lou Levi, Carl Zork, and Ben Franklin were included in the indictments. Each person received eight separate indictments containing three counts “charging conspiracy to defraud, obtaining money under false pretenses and conspiracy to do an illegal act.” Bonds were set at $3,000 for each indictment or $24,000 per person. Zelcer’s name was misspelled as “Zelser,” in the indictments, which may explain why the Associated Press listed him as “address unknown,” although that was not a problem for most of the Des Moines press.
At the time the indictments were announced, Zelcer and the Levi brothers were in California where they had been spending the winter. In an interview with the Des Moines News, that same day Abe Zelcer stated that “unless they are arrested and brought back by officers it will be a month before they return … I know nothing about my brother being indicted or anything about his being implicated in the scandal … There were rumors that the Cincinnati club would win the series and naturally the persons that heard of these rumors placed their money on what they thought would be the winning team.”
Two days later, however, Abe told the News reporter that his brother and the Levis would be returning to Des Moines in a few days and adamantly denied “his kinsman had any connection with the deal which brought eight members of the White Sox team to grief’ and asserted that “Dave will be freed when he comes to trial.”[fn]Asinof, Eight Men Out, 231; Evening Tribune, March 26, 1921, 1, 7; News, March 26, 1921, 1; March 28, 1921, 5; Register, March 27, 1921, Sec. 3, 1-2S; Capital, March 26, 1921, 1.[/fn]
Former major-league pitcher Bill Burns was the prosecution’s star witness in the Black Sox criminal trial in 1921. It took quite an adventure — and a lot of money from the American League treasury — to get him on the stand. (BaseballHall.org)
On July 18, 1921, opening arguments were made in the Black Sox trial in Chicago with the eight White Sox players and four gamblers, David Zelcer, Ben and Lou Levi, and Carl Zork as defendants. Of the other six gamblers indicted in March, Bill Burns had agreed to testify for the prosecution in return for immunity; Abe Attell managed to escape extradition by claiming he was a victim of identity theft; Hal Chase by a series of legal maneuvers managed to avoid extradition from California; Ben Franklin claimed he was too ill to attend; Sport Sullivan chose to ignore the proceedings; and the mysterious Rachael Brown’s whereabouts were unknown, although given the fact that Dave Zelcer’s mother used the same unusual spelling for her first name, one might speculate this could have been a pseudonym used by his younger brother Nathan.
On July 20, Burns identified Zelcer as the mysterious “Bennett,” testifying that he had been present at most of the meetings where the fix was arranged and payoffs were made, and had represented himself as a lieutenant of Arnold Rothstein.[fn]Register, July 19, 1921, 5; July 20, 1921, 1, 4; Evening Tribune, July 20, 1921, 1; Capital, July 20, 1921, 1, 14.[/fn]
The following day, Zelcer’s attorney Max Luster cross-examined Burns, failing to ruffle him and receiving sarcastic responses to many of his questions. Luster did get Burns to say he was mistaken about seeing Zelcer in New York City one day before the opening of the World Series when it actually was two days before the event. Luster then asked Burns when he first saw Zelcer in Chicago, and Burns replied that “he saw him walking down a street a few days ago and recognized him from the way he walked, the manner in which he held his head back and his general appearance.”
Luster then closed his cross-examination with a statement to the jury that he “would prove that Bennett was a man who did not answer Zelcer’s description and that he would prove Zelcer was here in Chicago at the time of the alleged meeting with Burns in New York.[fn]Register, July 21, 1921, 1, 9; Evening Tribune, July 21, 1921, 1, 2; Capital, July 21, 1921, 1.[/fn]
On July 22, the prosecution presented its case against Ben and Lou Levi with John O. Seys, Secretary of the Chicago Cubs, as their principal witness. Seys identified the brothers as being among those taking bets on the World Series in the lobby of the Sinton Hotel the night before the first game. Seys then related how he and Washington Manager Clark Griffith were approached by Lou Levi and Abe Attell, who “were taking turns making bets that Cincinnati would win the first game, giving odds of 6 to 5 and that Cincinnati would win the series.”
Seys also testified that “Attell told him he was not betting on Cincinnati in the third game as he thought Pitcher Dick Kerr would win for Chicago.” Finally, Seys told how Attell and Levi persuaded he and Griffith to hold the stakes for their bets. Seys stated that he ended up holding bets for the pair in the amount of $2,250 and that he paid off on some of these in Chicago on the day of the third game.[fn]Evening Tribune, July 22, 1921, 1; Nonpareil, July 23, 1921, 1; Daily Times, July 22, 1921, 1; Capital, July 22, 1921, 1; Register, July 23, 1921, 1-2.[/fn]
The next day, Zelcer’s attorney Max Luster attempted to launch a newspaper blitz against Burns’ testimony, claiming he would “present an alibi for his client that will be bullet proof.” Luster went on to state that “the identification of Zelcer as the mysterious Mr. Bennett was the weirdest part of Burns’ testimony” and that “we shall ‘have no difficulty of convincing the jury that Mr. Burns is guilty of a misstatement pointing out Mr. Zelcer as ‘Bennett’ … We shall disprove it without question.”
Zelcer would not deny that he attended World Series games in Cincinnati and Chicago or that he knew Abe Attell, Luster declared, “but when it comes down to paling around with Hal Chase, the ball player, and Arnold Rothstein, gambler, Mr. Burns is exemplifying the art of sustained fiction. He doesn’t even know these distinguished gentlemen, neither was Mr. Zelcer in New York either on Sept. 29 or 30, prior to the opening of the world’s series games. Mr. Zelcer has a flawless alibi, and many witnesses to back it up.”[fn]Register, July 24, 1921, 1.[/fn]
Zelcer’s alibi suffered a major blow on July 26 when Billy Maharg testified as the prosecution’s final witness. He too identified Zelcer as Bennett and corroborated much of Burns’ testimony about him. Maharg also related how on the night of the second game Zelcer had not wanted to give the players any money before Attell finally relented and gave Burns $10,000 from a large pile of money under the mattress. He also testified about a suggestion from Zelcer that “the players throw the fourth game for twenty thousand which would be put up as a bet.”
After the state rested its case, the defense moved that the charges against the Levis, Zork, Felsch, Weaver, Zelcer, and Joe Jackson be dismissed on grounds of insufficient evidence. The state promptly agreed to drop the case against the Levi brothers but refused to take such an action for the others on grounds they might be further incriminated by the defense testimony. The prosecution readily admitted to reporters that Zelcer “was the only one of the gambler defendants to be deeply incriminated by the chain of evidence.”[fn]Evening Tribune, July 27, 1921, 1; Capital, July 27, 1921, 1; News, July 27, 1921, 1, 8; Register, July 27, 1921, 1-2.[/fn]
Later on that same day, Zelcer took the stand in his own behalf. He denied being in New York City at the Ansonia Hotel on September 28, 1919, claiming that he had been in Chicago that day and had left that night for Cincinnati, arriving on September 29. Returning to Chicago after the first two games, Zelcer claimed he was confined to his hotel for three days due to illness. His testimony was confirmed by a witness who claimed he had gone to a ballgame with Zelcer in Chicago on the day of the Ansonia Hotel meeting, and by a hotel bookkeeper who testified that he had paid his bill and left town that day.
Zelcer also provided the hotel records as evidence, as well as the bills he had paid the hotel for drugs and doctors when he claimed to be sick. “I don’t know Maharg or Burns or any of the defendant ball players and never saw Maharg or Burns until they testified,” Zelcer declared. “I have known Attell for years, but did not know anything of this alleged world series deal, and Maharg and Burns have made a big mistake in saying I am the man they knew as Bennett.”
On cross-examination, the prosecution did get Zelcer to admit that he “had registered himself, Abe Attell, and the two Levis at the Sinton hotel, Cincinnati, Sept. 30, presenting the register as evidence.” Zelcer explained that he “had been moved to another room that day, and had volunteered to take in Attell” when he “could not obtain a room.” He further attempted to explicate himself from this discrepancy in his earlier testimony by presenting a telegram from the Sinton Hotel just received that day stating that he had registered there September 29 and promising “that the register showing this would be sent here if wanted.”[fn]Register, July 28, 1921, 1, 14.[/fn]
On July 29 Assistant State’s Attorney Edward Prindiville, as he began to make his final arguments in the case assailed Zelcer for “making baseball a confidence game.” With his voice rising, Prindiville shouted “And this man Zelcer. He has tried to prove an alibi, to prove that he is not the man Bennett who helped Abe Attell run this deal. Yet we prove that Abe Attell had thousands of dollars under the mattresses in his room at the Commercial hotel. … And Zelcer, after first saying he knew Attell slightly, finally admits that Attell roomed with him at Cincinnati during the series. He then admits that he has known Attell for years and yet he did not know of this conspiracy or of the $10,000 transaction in his own room.”[fn]Ibid., July 30, 1921, 1-2.[/fn]
Prindiville’s outburst had little effect on Zelcer. In an article written on August 1, Earl M. Shaub, who was covering the trial for the Universal Press Service, reported that he “is so confident he will be acquitted that he offered to bet $100 to $25 on the verdict.” Zelcer’s confidence was not misplaced because on August 3, much to no one’s surprise, the jury returned not-guilty verdicts for the players, Zelcer, and Zork. While the players were cheered and photographed in the courtroom and then ended up celebrating in a Chicago restaurant with the members of the jury, Zelcer quickly left Chicago for his home in Des Moines.[fn]Capital, August 1, 1921, 1; August 3, 1921, 1-2; Evening Tribune, August 3, 1921, 1, 4; Register, August 3, 1921, 1; News, August 3, 1921, 2.[/fn]
Minutes after the Black Sox were acquitted on August 2, 1921, the players, their attorneys, and members of the jury (in shirt sleeves) celebrated the verdict by posing for a photo on the courthouse steps. (Chicago Tribune)
David Zelcer’s notoriety quickly dissipated. He and his mother and brothers continued to reside in their Des Moines home at 1706 Sixth Avenue, and the brothers apparently continued their gambling activities. By the end of 1919, Abe Zelcer had closed his cigar store and pool hall, and according to the 1920 United States Census all four brothers made their living as “commercial travelers,” a term in use at that time for traveling salesmen, and in the case of the Zelcers a convenient cover for engaging in gambling.[fn]Des Moines City Directory (Detroit: R.L. Polk Company, 1920-1923); Entries for Rachael, David, Abe, Louis, and Nathan Zelcer from Manuscript of Fourteenth Census of the United States 1920-Population, City of Des Moines, Polk County, Iowa, available at www.ancestry.com.[/fn]
By 1923 Abe Zelcer had retired from the road again, opening a cigar store at 539 Sixth Avenue. It may or may not have been coincidental that about a year after the Zelcer cigar store reopened, American League President Ban Johnson charged that “Des Moines and Omaha were hotbeds of gamblers whose activities were responsible for much of the crookedness in professional baseball.” In a statement on October 7, 1924, Johnson claimed that one of his detectives while investigating baseball gambling in Kansas City found that the problem was not centered there but in Des Moines and Omaha.
Johnson’s charges angered Polk County Attorney Seeburger and E. Lee Keyser, one of the owners of the local team, who questioned whether he had any definitive information since he had not passed it on to local authorities. Des Moines Police Chief James Cavender, however, said that “the police department had heard rumors all summer that local gamblers were betting heavily on baseball games, but that it had been impossible to gain evidence enough to convict them.”
According to Cavender, there were four cases pending against baseball pools before the Polk County Grand Jury. “This, however, is as far as we were able to go toward curbing baseball gambling,” Cavender declared, because “it is an expensive proposition and would take a large fund to put the gamblers out of business. If Ban Johnson or any of the baseball authorities want to furnish us with the necessary money we can do a lot more toward ridding the city of the hotbed of which he speaks.” Omaha team owner Barney Burch added that he “had often heard that there had been gambling going on in Des Moines, Denver, Kansas City, Minneapolis, and Omaha, but thought most of the betting was on big-league games.”
The furor over Johnson’s charges and comments quickly died down, apparently receiving widespread attention only in Des Moines and Omaha, and was ignored by national publications like The Sporting News. Although the Zelcers’ names were never uttered in connection with this brief tempest, given their past history, it seems highly likely they were involved.[fn]Des Moines City Directory (Detroit: R.L. Polk Company, 1923-1930); Register, October 18, 1924, 1; October 19, 1924, 1; Nonpareil, October 19, 1924, 6.[/fn]
While the law never seemed to catch up with the Zelcers, Father Time did. Abe Zelcer died in May 1934, and his mother Rachael passed away soon afterwards. Dave and his younger brothers Lou and Nate continued living in the house on Sixth Avenue for a while, but by 1938, they had sold it and moved into the Hotel Savery, one of Des Moines’ finest downtown hotels. Three years later, Lou Zelcer died. By 1943, the military had taken over the Savery for Women’s Army Corps barracks, and Dave and Nate Zelcer moved to the Martin Hotel. David Zelcer died in 1945 and Nate followed him in death two years later.[fn]Register, May 14, 1934, 3; Evening Tribune, May 14, 1934, 5; Des Moines City Directory (Detroit: R.L. Polk Company, 1938-1944); Dates of death from Zelcer family grave markers at Jewish Glendale Cemetery, Des Moines, Iowa.[/fn]
The fascinating saga of Dave Zelcer and his participation in the Black Sox Scandal is an aspect of Iowa and Des Moines history that has been largely ignored. Part of this may be due to selective amnesia perhaps coming from a sense of shame, but most likely this can be blamed on sheer ignorance of events.
Even at the time events were unfolding in 1919-1921, press coverage was very spotty. In Des Moines, the News and the Capital provided the most detailed coverage on the local angle of the story while the Evening Tribune and the Register provided far less with the latter paper largely ignoring the local aspect until Zelcer and the Levi brothers were indicted in March 1921. All four papers quickly and quietly let the story drop after the charges against the Levis were dropped and Zelcer won acquittal.
Both the News and the Capital were absorbed by the Evening Tribune before the end of the 1920s, and it appears that this paper did no retrospective stories on Zelcer and the Black Sox before it ceased publication in 1982. Particularly surprising was the silence of Register sports editor Sec Taylor, who wrote nothing about the events of 1919-1921 under his own byline except his October 1919 piece in which he expressed his opinion the Series was not fixed. Taylor, who remained with the paper until his death in 1965, apparently never commented in his columns about Zelcer and the Levi brothers in relation to the Black Sox.