Posts Tagged ‘Arnold Rothstein’


September 22, 2016
"Sport" Sullivan

“Sport” Sullivan

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.

Hollywood's version of Sullivan (Kevin Tighe)

Hollywood’s version of Sullivan (Kevin Tighe)

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.

Sullivan's grave from Find a Grave

Sullivan’s grave from Find a Grave




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.