Posts Tagged ‘Abe Atell’

The Champ

August 3, 2016
Abe Atell

Abe Atell

Baseball is full of people who made major impact on the game without ever playing at the big league level. Some were people who made positive impacts. Some of them made impact in quite the opposite direction. One of the latter was Abe Atell.

Abraham Washington Atell was born in 1883 (his grave says 1884, his passport 1883) in San Francisco. Although Jewish, he grew up in a primarily Irish neighborhood. He was small, from the wrong ethnic group for his neighborhood, and bullied. He retaliated by becoming a fighter. He was good enough that he got a chance to learn the ropes of professional boxing. Being small, he became a featherweight. By 1900 he was good enough to have his first professional fight. He won by a knockout.

He spent much of his early career boxing on or near the West Coast, establishing himself as an excellent tactical fighter, especially on defense. He seldom took a solid punch and was famous for waiting on the other fighter to make a mistake that could be exploited for effect. At the beginning of his career he scored at least 11 consecutive knockouts (the exact total is in some dispute).

He was 18 when he became the Featherweight Champion of the World. He held the crown for a year before losing to Tom Sullivan in a decision. Atell regained his title in 1906 with a decision over Jimmy Walsh. He would hold the title through 18 defenses (a record that stood until 1985) before losing the championship to John Kilbane. Between 1909 and 1910 his brother Monte was Bantamweight champion, marking the first time two brothers held world boxing titles at the same time.

As with many former athletes, he was restless in retirement. He opened a shoe store that was generally successful, but he wanted back in the ring. He did a little vaudeville, but he seemed to need to continue his boxing career. He fought a handful of times (generally successfully) before facing his final bout in November 1917 (he won by decision).

Atell now turned to managing fighters. He managed one to 33 wins against 11 losses, but gave up the fight business to go back to the shoe store. Along the way he’d met Arnold Rothstein. It is here that Atell begins to intersect with baseball.

Hollywood's version of Atell (Michael Mantell)

Hollywood’s version of Atell (Michael Mantell)

Throughout his career Atell was famous for his betting, as was his entire family (including his mom who made a lot of money betting on her sons to win). There is no evidence he ever bet on himself to lose, although there is ample evidence he bet on himself to win. There is some question as to how often he extended a fight in order to make money on bets concerning how long the fight would go. He also made a lot of money for other gamblers, including Rothstein.

After retirement he went to work for Rothstein doing various jobs including placing bets and collecting Rothstein’s winnings. In that role he became involved in the 1919 Black Sox Scandal. He served as a go-between who worked with Rothstein and funneled money to the eight players involved in fixing the 1919 World Series. He evidently skimmed some undetermined amount off the top to place his own bets on the Series. When things blew up in 1920, Atell headed for Canada where he remained for a year before returning to the US to stand trial. As with the other gamblers, he was acquitted.

After the acquittal, he moved through both the underside of sports and the “good” side of American life. He was arrested in 1929 for scalping tickets (he was again acquitted), then in 1931 was involved in a bootlegging ring. By the late 1930s he settled down to own and run a restaurant, “Abe Atell’s Steak and Chop House.”  Apparently nobody asked him how he got the money.

He retired, was interviewed for Eliot Asinof’s Eight Men Out, and died in February 1970. For his boxing career he had 125 wins, 18 losses, 21 draws, and eight no decisions. In a number of “Greatest Featherweights Ever” lists he still makes the top five after 100 years. He has been elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990. He is buried in Rockland, New York.

Atell's grave from Find a Grave

Atell’s grave from Find a Grave


1910: Sleepy Bill Burns

June 7, 2010


Bill Burns

Today, June 7, marks the 100th Anniversary of the Chicago White Sox sending Sleepy Bill Burns to Cincinnati for $4000. Now some of you are asking yourself why you know that name. He’s a fairly obscure pitcher but the name rings a bell. That’s because Burns was a key figure in trying to fix the 1919 World Series. In the movie Eight Men Out he is played by Christopher Lloyd.

Christopher Lloyd

Burns wasn’t much of a pitcher. He came up with Washington in 1908 as a left-handed hurler, went 6-11 (which actually wasn’t bad at Washington) and got traded in 1909 to Chicago. He went 7-13 then was sent to Cincinnati after pitching a third of an inning in 1910. He managed to go 9-14 with the Reds before going to the Phillies in 1911. At Philadelphia he got to 6-10, then finished his big league career with Detroit in 1912 going 1-4. His overall record was 30-52 with a 2.72 ERA (which sounds better now than it did 100 years ago), 705 hits in 718 innings, and 233 strikeouts to go with 147 walks. Not terrible numbers, but nothing to get excited about.

Today he’s noted for helping fix the 1919 World Series. He’s one of the first to approach the players and worked for a while independent of Arnold Rothstein and Abe Atell. He ended up in court and, like the rest of them, got off.

What I find interesting about the deal that sent him to Cincinnati is the amount of cash involved. At the time $4000 was a pretty good amount of money for a player. Remember Joe Jackson, one of the players Burns tried to recruit for the fix was only making $6000 a year in 1919. It’s also true that Jackson was underpaid, but the closeness of the amounts is staggering to me. Charlie Comiskey could receive $4000 for what was at best a mediocre pitcher, but he couldn’t pay his best hitter more than $6000. When I read numbers like that I get less astounded at the Black Sox scandal.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to exonerate Jackson or his cronies. I think there’s a special place in hell for guys like that, but I do find it more understandable when I read that Comiskey got a bunch of money for a bum pitcher and Jackson could hit .350 and just barely make more than that pitcher. Are you telling me that Shoeless Joe Jackson was worth only $2000 more than Sleepy Bill Burns? Incredible.