Recently I took a quick look at Abe Atell, one of the gamblers involved in the fixing of the 1919 World Series. As important as Atell was in the entire affair, other gamblers should really hold center stage. One of the most important was “Sport” Sullivan.
Joseph Sullivan was born in November 1870. His parents were from Ireland, making him first generation. For most of his life his census records show him as a realtor, or at least someone working in a real estate office. And I suppose he actually did make some money at some point in real estate, but by 1903 he was considered the premier gambler in the Boston area. Newspaper accounts of the era detail him making $1000 bets on the 1903 World Series (he bet on Boston to win). Either he was making a lot of money in real estate or he’d already begun his gambling ventures.
He found sports gambling to be the most lucrative bets, leading to his nickname. He bet on baseball, but he came to prominence primarily as a boxing gambler. He was accused of fixing fights, and of trying to influence early auto races in the Boston area. And as a successful gambler he was recognized as an expert on the sports involved. After all only an expert could make money the way he did when it came to sporting events.
Of course we know there is another possibility that explains Sullivan’s expertise in sports gambling. He was, as early as 1906, getting in trouble with the Boston police for fixing sporting events. He’d pay fines and be back on the streets in hours, but I find no evidence that he spent time in jail. By 1916 he was the acknowledged king of Boston gamblers.
As a gambler, and I suppose this is as good a time to point out that Sullivan seldom “gambled” on anything; he only bet on sure things, particularly things he could fix before hand. But as a gambler, Sullivan was well known in the community of ball players. He was known for cultivating them, dining with them, helping them out in a pinch (there is some speculation that he found them available female companionship). And that got him access to the 1919 Chicago White Sox and the idea of throwing the World Series. It’s impossible to tell who initially came up with the idea of fixing the Series, but Sullivan was front and center in the entire enterprise. He knew Chick Gandil (since at least 1912) and Eddie Cicotte played for Boston for five years (1908-1912). Things get a little murky here because Gandil said Sullivan proposed the fix while Sullivan laid the blame on Gandil (which ever one you believe, make sure you check to see that you wallet is still there when you leave them).
However it began, Sullivan provided much of the money to pay the players and got more from Arnold Rothstein. Not all of it went to the players and Sullivan made a lot of money betting on the Reds to win the Series. But there were consequences to winning all that money. When the dust settled in 1920 and 1921, Kennesaw Mountain Landis banned Sullivan from ball parks throughout the country.
That was the beginning of Sport Sullivan’s fall from the top of the gambling pyramid. Without access to the parks and players involved in the most important sport in the US, he rapidly faded. He still made money, but now was making ten bucks when previously he’d made thousands. He lived on to April 1949, mostly forgotten but not poor either.