Fanatic Fatality: One of the Most Violent Baseball Arguments In History

By Matthew M. Clifford

This article was published in the Fall 2017 Baseball Research Journal.

The underlying aggressiveness in rivalries between baseball teams has been recorded in the annals and burned into our memories for decades. Fans hear yarns about Ty Cobb’s boiling temperament and witness bench-clearing brawls. When that explosive competitive spirit spreads from the field to the fanatics in the streets, the result can be drunken fist-fights at the local pubs as fans defend their favorite teams and players. The most serious and deadly fracas of its kind took place in 1931.

Syl JohnsonOn a warm October evening, in a back-alley speakeasy buried in the borough of Brooklyn, two baseball fanatics vocally and physically defended their opinions regarding the 1931 World Series. For those readers above the riff-raff culture of the 1930s, a “speakeasy” was a place where one could locate alcoholic beverages during Prohibition. Patrons were warned to speak “easy” while occupying the bar, in order to avoid drawing the attention of the police.

The quiet clanking of whiskey glasses and beer bottles echoed in a dark corner of Sunset Park on October 5, 1931. The Sunset Park neighborhood was a hectic sector of Brooklyn, settled by young families and older adults. The tenants had their domestic problems and usual complaints of vandalism, theft, and violence. Owners of un-muzzled dogs were given citations, peddlers with no licenses were pinched, and the local youths accused of stealing crates of live chickens were sentenced with fines. Between these common crimes and the occasional bootlegger brawl spiced up with Thompson automatics (a.k.a. “Tommy Guns”), the coppers from Brooklyn’s 66th Precinct of the New York City Police Department had their hands full.

As October 4 bled into the wee hours of Monday, October 5, Brooklyn lost one of its residents and the borough gained notoriety as the stage for a terrifying tale that would be perpetually linked to the National Pastime. Four days earlier and about one thousand miles away in the State of Missouri, the St. Louis Cardinals welcomed a visit from the Philadelphia Athletics for Game One of the 1931 World Series at Sportsman’s Park. Philly’s Robert “Lefty” Grove defeated the Cardinals with a 6–2 victory on October 1. The following day, St. Louis returned the favor to Connie Mack’s Athletics with a 2–0 win awarded to the Cards’ speedy southpaw, “Wild” Bill Hallahan.

The tied teams spent the next two days planning their strategies to take victory in Game Three on October 5. The evening before the game, St. Louis manager Charles “Gabby” Street spent most of his night pacing the floor of his suite at Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Hotel. The boss flipped a Buffalo nickel in his hand to calm his decision-making pressures. As the coin rotated in the air several times, the Cardinals boss decided to let fate choose his starting pitcher for Game Three. Street limited his choices to spitball hurler Burleigh Grimes or reliable right-hander Sylvester “Syl” Johnson. As reported in the Syracuse Journal, “Before tossing the coin, Gabby said to himself; if it comes down heads I’ll use Grimes, if tails, Sylvester Johnson will get the pitching assignment. It was heads after rolling around the floor a bit and that settled Street’s mind whom he would pitch.”1

Meanwhile, a 35-year old carpenter named Gustave A. Johnson was seated comfortably at a table in a Brooklyn speakeasy. The Swedish laborer shared identical tensions with Gabby Street, as he spoke boisterously to fellow patrons about the Cardinals’ pitching plans. Gustave boldly insisted that Street should have no second thought to choose Sylvester “Syl” Johnson, Gustave’s favorite pitcher. The saloon’s clientele clearly understood that Gustave shared not only a surname but Swedish heritage with Sylvester. Gustave adamantly proclaimed that his blood and namesake, Syl Johnson, should be chosen as the Cardinals’ starter for Game Three.

Also in the speakeasy that night was a 32-year-old man named John Leonard, who did not enjoy hearing his fellow bar attendee sing Johnson’s praises. Leonard yelled at Gustave, “I’m tired of hearing you talk about that Swede, Johnson! Connie Mack is a good Irishman and can beat St. Louis any time he wants to!”2 Gustave quickly stood up from his table to retort. The brawl began around two AM. The speakeasy bartender, Michael Grillo, made attempts to stop the fight but the verbal argument turned quickly to fisticuffs between the two men. Leonard threw a closed right-handed fist that crashed into the side of Gustave’s face.

The Swedish customer lost his balance and his 175-pound body fell backwards. During the fall, the left side of Gustave’s skull slammed against a cold marble table. Leonard looked down at his opponent, who lay lifeless on the speakeasy’s filthy tile floor. The bar filled with silence as Grillo stared into John Leonard’s eyes.

The iron-fisted Athletics fan panicked and fled, disappearing into the shadowed alleys of Brooklyn. A customer ran to a public phone nearby and called the police anonymously to report a homicide at 813 41st Street. The coppers from the 66th Precinct and a Brooklyn ambulance arrived at the address moments after receiving the call.

Johnson was declared dead at 3:15 AM by the ambulance surgeon, and NYPD Detective George McGowan entered the scene. The small, first floor apartment included three marble tables, six chairs, and a 25-foot bar counter. Patrolman David Harris spoke with Grillo about the incident. The bartender agreed to provide a statement of what he witnessed, which was dictated as: “Deponent is informed by Michael Grillo and verily believes that the said defendant did on the 5th day of October 1931 in the County of Kings, at 813 41st Street, feloniously strike one Gus Johnson (deceased) a violent blow with his fist upon the body and as a result of said blow effected the death of said Johnson. On violation of the penal law of New York.3

Steel handcuffs were drawn by Patrolman Harris as Grillo provided details of the homicide he had witnessed. The silver bracelets were slapped on Michael Grillo’s wrists since he was in obvious violation of the Volstead Act. Three bottles of whiskey were seized from Grillo’s speakeasy, chased by the confiscation of seventy-six bottles of homebrew beer. But Grillo didn’t ride solo to the slammer in NYPD’s paddy wagon. John Leonard’s moments of freedom were short-lived when he was found walking nearby. The police pinched him for the crime of killing Gustave Johnson and Leonard denied any misdoing. When asked for his residential address, the accused fibbed and gave his brother-in-law’s home address, which was conveniently located at a nearby Brooklyn gangway.

The lie was quickly discovered, with the assistance of Grillo’s testimony. Leonard was a popular fixture at the 41st Street speakeasy and his accurate address was also on 41st Street, just a few doors down from Mr. Grillo’s illegal bar. A search of police records proved that this wasn’t John J. Leonard’s first tango with the NY lawmen. On September 20, 1926, he had been arrested for petit larceny. His sentence for the property theft conviction was suspended on January 11, 1929, by the New York City District Attorney.

Leonard was taken to the 66th Precinct with Grillo and both were booked for their criminal acts. Leonard was held without bail. Gustave Johnson’s body was taken to the United Israel Zion hospital.

A few hours later, the Philadelphia Athletics met the St. Louis Cardinals at Shibe Park to resume the 1931 World Series. Burleigh Grimes took the mound for St. Louis. Gabby Street told the press that he had intentions of putting Johnson in Game Three since Sylvester had been unable to work in Games One and Two due to a rash he had developed on his arms after brushing against the poison ivy while picnicking with his wife and their four-year-old daughter Beverly in St. Louis. Street proudly spoke of the fateful coin that put Burleigh Grimes on Shibe’s pitching mound while Syl patiently sat on the visitors’ bench and itched his wings. The Buffalo nickel proved its superstitious magic as Grimes pitched a masterpiece. The Cardinals defeated the Athletics 5–2, on October 5, 1931. The late Gustave Johnson’s pitching opinions were proven… dead wrong.

The Brooklyn newspapers printed the box scores of Game Three along with details of the violent baseball argument. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle shared the headline story: “Speakeasy Row Over Series Cost Life Of Bay Ridge Man. According to Detective McGowan of the Borough Park station, Johnson and a group of friends were seated at a table in the speakeasy, discussing the game at Philadelphia. Johnson is said to have maintained loudly that Street would be crazy to start any pitcher except his namesake, Sylvester Johnson. Leonard was seated with friends at a nearby table. According to witnesses, he arose and approached Johnson. He swung a right to Johnson’s jaw, which broke it and Johnson, in falling fractured his skull against a table.”4

The police investigation continued while John Leonard waited in a jail cell for his court call. He claimed his innocence by pleading not guilty to the criminal charge of murder. Detectives identified the address of the deceased and they made contact with Gustave’s wife, Ella Johnson, to inform her about the argument and its horrific outcome. The widow identified her husband, noting the romantic tattoo on his right forearm that consisted of a shield incorporating calligraphy of the words “True Love” with a pair of clasped hands and a five pointed star. New York’s Deputy Chief Medical Examiner Emmanuel E. Marten began the autopsy of Gustave Johnson on October 6, 1931. Dr. Marten’s report noted that Gustave Johnson had been born in Finland to Swedish parents, John and Wilhelmina Johnson, and had lived in the State of New York since 1911. The deceased stood approximately five foot-nine inches tall, weighed 175 pounds, had copious light chestnut-brown hair, blue eyes, and Nordic facial features.

The hype over the Brooklyn speakeasy brawl fell quiet as another headline began captivating the New York papers. On October 4, 1931, the NYPD concluded a two-month manhunt for an Irish gangster named Vincent Coll. The coppers discovered the hood hiding out in a Bronx hotel. The hunt had begun on July 28, 1931, when Vincent’s submachine gun was involved in a drive-by shooting of Joseph “Tough Joey” Rao. Coll’s mark on Tough Joey stemmed from a long time clash with Rao’s boss, Arthur “Dutch” Schultz. Vincent opened fire on Tough Joey on the hot July afternoon as the bootlegger walked fearlessly on a public sidewalk also occupied by four small children. Coll opened fire and one of his bullets killed a five-year-old boy named Michael Vengalli. New York City mayor Jimmy Walker heard the news of the deranged shooting and immediately tagged Coll with the nickname “Mad Dog.”

The New York press ran with the sensational story concerning the manhunt and capture of Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll while Brooklyn’s “World Series murder” faded away. The press coverage turned to Game Four of the World Series. On October 6, 1931, Gustave’s favorite pitcher, Syl Johnson, opened for St. Louis and was defeated by Athletics’ hurler George “Moose” Earnshaw. The fans at Shibe Park screamed in joy as Philadelphia scored three runs off Johnson while the Cardinals produced blank scorecards. The ’31 Series was tied, two all.

While the Philly fans were cheering, the community of Brooklyn’s Sunset Park was outraged. On October 7, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle noted the unrest. Similar to today’s Neighborhood Watch groups, Brooklyn’s “Sunset Civic Association” voiced a gripe against the 66th Precinct’s captain, Bernard Rourke. They were adamant that the captain realize the severity of the recent speakeasy homicide. The group reported that Michael Grillo’s bar was open for business on October 6, despite a patron dying there a day earlier. Speakeasies and their problems were a perennial subject of columns in the Brooklyn newspapers throughout 1931, especially during the month of February. At that time, the police authorities had requested assistance from the federal government to help with locating, investigating, and permanently closing speakeasy establishments.

Seven speakeasies in Brooklyn and six in Queens were in serious trouble during the late weeks of February 1931. As the police had done with Michael Grillo the night of the murder, the coppers confiscated whatever alcohol was discovered and each bartender was hit with a hefty fine. But with the addition of federal assistance, the New York courts added the ornament of a steel padlock to the door frames of all thirteen properties. The message of the federal padlock order spread loudly to the owners and residents of Brooklyn and Queens: “We’ll take your booze and your building.”

The 1931 Sunset Civic Association attempted to sway Captain Rourke to make contact with the Feds and get a padlock affixed to the doorway of 813 41st Street, especially since a man had recently been killed there. The press announced: “Capt. Rourke Seeks Federal Aid After Murder in 41st. Place. Following protests made Monday night by the Sunset Civic Association that an alleged speakeasy at 813 41st St. had been permitted to operate in spite of the fact that a man had been murdered there less than 24 hours before. Capt. Rourke of the 66th precinct declared last night that he had requested the Federal authorities to padlock the premises.”5

As Michael Grillo read about the neighborhood ordering his new doorknocker on October 7, the Series continued. St. Louis defeated Philadelphia in Game Five, 5–1. The fans at Shibe Park were saddened as Gabby Street sent “Wild” Bill Hallahan to defeat Philly’s Waite Hoyt and take the lead in the Series, 3–2. The two teams took the next day off for travel and relaxation. The Series continued on October 9 at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis. Many miles away in Brooklyn, Dr. Marten’s autopsy report citing the details of Gustave Johnson’s death was finalized and the documents were sent to the courts. The report explained that poor Gustave’s morbid demise was blamed on more factors than a debilitating blow to the head.

Dr. Marten’s report declared: “I hearby certify that on the 5th day of October 1931, I made an autopsy of the body of Gustave A. Johnson now lying dead at the morgue and upon investigation of the essential facts concerning the circumstances of death and history of the case, I am of the opinion that the cause of death was cerebral apoplexy; acute alcoholism.”6

The doctor’s report also stated that there was no external evidence of injury, implying that the severe crash his skull suffered from the edge of the marble table didn’t leave any external cuts or bruising. The accused, John Leonard, remained incarcerated in his Brooklyn jail cell while the courts reviewed the details of the case. Meanwhile, Game Six began at 1:30 in the afternoon on October 9. The Cardinals’ Paul Derringer dueled against Philadelphia’s Lefty Grove and the first four innings produced blank scorecards for both sides. In the fifth inning, the Athletic trounced Derringer and delivered four runs. In the sixth inning, the Cardinals third baseman Jake Flowers hit a double. With the assistance of second baseman Frankie Frisch and right fielder Wally Roettger, Flowers scored the only run in St. Louis’s favor. In the top of the seventh, the Athletics’ bats kept swinging to collect four more runs. Game Six ended with an 8–1 victory for Philadelphia. The Series was deadlocked again at three games apiece.

Hours after the game was completed, the evening edition of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle were thrown in bundles at the corner newsstands, containing the following regarding New York’s States Attorney: “United States Attorney Howard W. Amell has promised immediate consideration of the complaint against the alleged speakeasy at 815 41st St., where a murder was committed on Monday. When asked what his office would do about it, Amell declared that he would call the matter to the attention of the proper authorities without delay.”7

The next day, October 10, the morning edition of the Daily Eagle printed the details of the World Series tie in addition to an update of the borough’s sensational homicide court case: “Hearing Set In Fatal World Series Fight. John Leonard, 32, a laborer, who gave a fictitious address at the time of his arrest last Sunday morning, following the death of Gustave A. Johnson, 36, in a restaurant at 815 41st St., is to have a hearing in homicide court Tuesday.”8Leonard was scheduled to appear in court on October 13 before the Honorable Judge George M. Curtis Jr. Dr. Marten’s detailed autopsy report would be included as evidence. At half-past one PM on October 10, the final game of the 1931 World Series began at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis. Cardinals’ spitball pitcher Burleigh Grimes opened for the home team while George Earnshaw defended the Athletics. The seven-game series ended in St. Louis’ favor with the final score 4–2.

John Leonard’s October 13 court case was continued to October 19, 1931. The court records noted that Dr. Marten was absent and his medical report was suppressed. Dr. Marten’s report reflected that Gustave Johnson’s cause of death was a stroke linked to acute alcoholism. It was clear that poor Gus’s clock was already ticking short before he stepped in the ring with John Leonard on October 5. The autopsy notes reflected that the marble table was merely the accessory to the death that was scheduled to commence regardless of the fist fight that had occurred.

Whether he was punched that night or not, Mrs. Ella Johnson was going to be meeting with an undertaker to discuss funeral arrangements for her husband sooner rather than later. The fight and the result of a blow to the head merely advanced Gustave’s lethal medical condition. Since Dr. Marten’s autopsy proved that Leonard was not responsible for the death of Gustave Johnson, the case was dismissed by the grand jury on November 13, 1931. Leonard was declared not guilty and was set free. When he made his way back to 41st Street, he discovered that his favorite tavern was closed for good. As the October 28 edition of the Daily Eagle reported, Grillo’s bar was shut down permanently: “Announcement was made that the alleged speakeasy at 813 41st St., in which a man was killed several weeks ago, had been closed. At a recent meeting of the Association, the charge was made that the resort had continued to operate after the murder had been committed there, and the immediate padlocking of the place was demanded.”9

When the homicide charge initially ran in the New York newspapers, it was recognized as a sensational headline. But with the exciting publicity of Mad Dog Coll’s capture, arrest, and trial, the details of one of the most violent baseball arguments in history fell to the wayside. The press neglected to mention any further details about the homicide and the status of the case after October 10, 1931. The end of the story was determined by examination of copies of the original autopsy report, the original police reports, and the original court records. Not before or since the unfortunate death of Gustave Johnson has any other aggressive baseball argument made such a morbid news story. However, thirty-three years (and five days) later, the New York was the stage for another horrific incident tied to a World Series contest and a homicide. In 1963, a Central Park neighborhood resident named Mark Fein placed a hefty $7,000 bet on the Yankees to beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1963 World Series. After Fein lost the wager, his Brooklyn bookie, Reuben Markowitz, went to see Fein to collect.

On October 10, 1963, when Reuben arrived at Fein’s address, Mark decided to reach for a firearm instead of his wallet. Markowitz was shot dead and his remains were dumped into the Harlem River. After the body resurfaced, the police authorities caught up with Mark Fein for questioning. The gambler was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to thirty years in prison. He filed fourteen appeals of his conviction while he was housed at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York. Some of Fein’s appeals were concocted by the expensive and popular attorney, F. Lee Bailey. Fein was paroled in 1977.

St. Louis pitcher Sylvester “Syl” Johnson passed away in Portland, Oregon, in February 1985. According to a 2012 interview with Syl’s surviving children, the pitcher had never told them about the 1931 Brooklyn brawl that was initiated by his name, his heritage, and his career as a baseball pitcher. Johnson’s eldest daughter, Beverly, upon being told of the events, said, “What a story! My daddy never told me about that. I’ll bet he never knew that it happened. He would have told us about that. Who wouldn’t? A man got killed for bragging about him. I just can’t believe it.”10

Although Gustave A. Johnson expired due to his own poor health, the story of two baseball fanatics fist-fighting to the death to defend their baseball opinions was a memorable headline. Gus had used his final breaths to defend the name, heritage, and talents of his favorite pitcher. Sadly, he would never know that the crux of his most deadly argument was settled by a flipped coin in a Philadelphia hotel suite.

MATTHEW M. CLIFFORD is a freelance writer from the suburbs of Chicago. He joined SABR in 2011 to enhance his research abilities and help preserve accurate facts of baseball history. His background in law enforcement and forensic investigative techniques aid him with historical research and data collection. He has reported several baseball card errors and inaccuracies of player history to SABR and the research department of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He is also a contributing writer to SABR’s BioProject.

 

Acknowledgments

Special thanks and credit to the New York Police Department, Ivy Marvel at the New York Public Library, Old Fulton Postcards, Retrosheet.org, Baseball-Reference.com, Pat Storino and his website NYPDHistory.com, Bernard Whalen, Rob Frydlewicz and his website TheStarryEye.typepad.com, the Kings County Records Division and the family of the late Sylvester Johnson.

  • 1. Syracuse (NY) Journal, October 6, 1931 “Toss of Coin Put Grimes In Box For Cards.”
  • 2. Brooklyn Standard Union, October 5, 1931 “Speakeasy Row Over Series Costs Life Of Bay Ridge Man.”
  • 3. Taken from the original Felony Report for the City Magistrates’ Court of the City of New York completed and signed by Detective George J. McGowan on October 5, 1931.
  • 4. Brooklyn Standard Union, October 5, 1931, “Speakeasy Row Over Series Costs Life Of Bay Ridge Man.” 
  • 5. Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 7, 1931, “Asks Padlock For Alleged ‘Speakie.’” 
  • 6. Taken from the original Autopsy Report created by Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Emmanuel E. Marten.
  • 7. Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 9, 1931, “Home Talk.”
  • 8. Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 10, 1931, “Hearing Set In Fatal World Series Fight.”
  • 9. Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 28, 1931, “The Item.” 
  • 10. 2012 phone interview with Beverly Johnson conducted by Mathew M. Clifford.