The 1919 baseball season in Philadelphia, like so many others, passed uneventfully. The Phillies and A’s both finished last, a combined 99 ½ games behind the league champions. Together, they drew fewer than half-a-million fans.
A year later, however, when the foul scent of scandal caused journalists and an Illinois grand jury to re-examine the conclusion to that season, Philadelphia found itself at the forefront of an episode that changed baseball forever and inspired a fascination that endures a century later.
It’s been 100 years since eight Chicago White Sox players took money to lose the 1919 World Series. The “Say It Ain’t So” saga of those Black Sox remains one of sports’ most compelling cautionary tales.
But if not for Philadelphia, that sordid affair, like so many other gambling cases during the game’s first 50 years, might have remained an unsubstantiated rumor or been whitewashed by baseball’s powers.
If not for a meaningless Phillies-Cubs game on Aug. 31, 1920, the Chicago grand jury that indicted eight White Sox players might never have been impaneled.
If not for Billy Maharg, a pug-faced ex-boxer from North Philadelphia who acted as a go-between, Arnold Rothstein, the New York gambler who wagered $250,000 on the victorious Cincinnati Reds, might never have been involved.
And if not for Maharg’s decision to confess to future Inquirer sports writer James Isaminger, the grand jury might never have found sufficient evidence and the public might never have learned the truth.
The Black Sox story is a complex tragedy, one in which the motives of those involved aren’t always what they seem. The players admitted taking money but not fixing the games. Acquitted by a jury, they were exiled by baseball. Owners attempted a cover-up, and fans, sold on the myth of baseball’s purity, refused for a year to believe the rumors.
“Baseball is such a great and decent game,” Abe Attell, one of the fixers, would say, “that they wouldn’t believe their own ears and eyes.”
They wouldn’t believe until Maharg, Isaminger and that Phillies-Cubs game pulled the curtain back.
The first rumors about the Series surfaced before the underdog Reds finished off Chicago on Oct. 9, 1919. While game-fixing accusations weren’t uncommon, they typically got subsumed by the belief that baseball was as clean as an opening-day uniform.
As officials tried to quash the speculation, the whispers persisted through the offseason and into 1920. Then in late August, the eighth-place Phillies traveled to Chicago to meet the fifth-place Cubs. Philadelphia lost the Aug. 30 opener, 7-2.
The following morning, Cubs president William Veeck Sr. received tips that gamblers had bet as much as $50,000 on the Phillies to win that afternoon’s game. Concerned, Veeck asked manager Fred Mitchell to scratch scheduled Cubs starter Claude Hendrix, tainted before by gambling accusations, in favor of Grover Cleveland Alexander.
While there’s no indication Alexander was involved, he might not have been the ideal replacement. As a Phillie, one of his closest friends — and also the team’s chauffeur and trainer — was Maharg, well-known to Philadelphia authorities for his gambling ties.
Alexander pitched well, but the Phillies triumphed, 3-0. Winning pitcher Lee Meadows scattered five hits. In the next day’s Inquirer, an unnamed sportswriter noted that the Cubs pitcher had lacked “steady support.” He was referencing a second-inning ground ball that Chicago second baseman Buck Herzog let roll through his legs, negating a possible double play. The 94-minute game’s lone error, it led to two Phils runs.
Veeck initially hired a detective to look into the allegations. When nothing developed, the executive went to tell the newspapers. Chicago sportswriters began clamoring for an official investigation.
A subsequent National League probe failed to “secure any evidence,” but didn’t quell the rumors. Various news stories named seven Cubs as participants. Though none were ever charged, it’s instructive that all, including Hendrix, Herzog, Fred Merkle, and Dode Paskert, were released after the season.
With political and public pressure ramping up, Judge Charles A. McDonald on Sept. 7 convened a Cook County grand jury to look into the contest from a week earlier. But very soon the investigation’s focus shifted to the ’19 Series.
“Had Judge McDonald not instituted the grand-jury proceedings … the crookedness of the World Series probably would have remained a secret,” the New York Sun’s Joe Vila observed.
McDonald framed his decision as an attempt to defend America’s pastime, “a heartfelt, wholesome exercise assailed by a coterie of unscrupulous gamblers.”
The grand jury took testimony from several Cubs but had yet to act when, in late September, Maharg decided to tell his story to Isaminger, a baseball writer he knew at the Philadelphia North American. He told the sportswriter Games 1, 2, and 8 of the then-best-of-nine Series had been fixed.
The 5-foot-4 ½ Maharg was a Runyonesque character. A North Philly street tough, he’d been a successful lightweight boxer. In 74 fights between 1900 and 1907, he won 45, lost 11 and had 18 no-decisions. He also, despite little discernible talent, appeared in two big-league baseball games.
On May 18, 1912, Maharg was one of several Philadelphians pulled off a North Philly corner to play for the Detroit Tigers in a game against the A’s. The real Tigers were boycotting after star Ty Cobb had been suspended for brawling with a fan. Maharg, 31, went 0-for-1 and left the game after a ball struck him in the mouth.
Four years later, he was working with the Phillies as a trainer, chauffeur and gofer. On the last day of the 1916 season, Phils manager Pat Moran put Maharg in uniform. The diminutive 35-year-old pinch-hit late in a 4-1 loss to the Braves, grounding out, and played an uneventful inning in right field.
Maharg was employed at Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1919 when he was contacted by Bill Burns, a former big-league pitcher. Burns asked for a meeting in New York, where the Philadelphian was introduced to White Sox players Eddie Cicotte and Chick Gandil. For $100,000 to be split among those involved, they told Maharg, they’d guarantee Chicago would lose.
“Maharg had neither the brains nor the bankroll necessary to make a living gambling himself,” wrote Bill Lamb in his biography of the Philadelphian for the Society of American Baseball Research, “but as an ex-prizefighter, he was well-acquainted with the gambling fraternity.”
Realizing Philadelphia bookies didn’t trade in the kind of cash the players and crooked bettors expected, Maharg solicited Rothstein. New York’s gambling czar initially turned down the offer as too risky, then changed his mind. Though White Sox owner Charles Comiskey had offered a $10,000 reward for information implicating his players, Maharg insisted money wasn’t his motivation.
“I didn’t talk for the money,” he said. “My idea was to show how such a nice double-cross was rung up. People that know me know that I wouldn’t take the $10,000, and people that don’t know me, I don’t care what they think.”
The story breaks
The North American story hit the national wires, and the stone wall around the rumors instantly disintegrated. The next day, Cicotte and teammate “Shoeless Joe” Jackson admitted taking money to lose the games, though they said they hadn’t lost on purpose.
The reaction across baseball-crazed America was breathless outrage. A Philadelphia Evening Bulletin editorial was typical, comparing the indicted players to “the soldier or sailor who would sell out his country and its flag in a time of war.”
Maharg wasn’t called before the grand jury, which on Oct. 20 returned indictments against eight players and two gamblers. He went on to be a prosecution witness at their trial. His testimony didn’t help. All were acquitted.
He found steady work at the Ford auto plant in Chester and spent the rest of his life at a farm he owned in Philadelphia’s Burholme section. A hunter, he raised dogs there. Maharg died in 1953 at 65.
Isaminger, meanwhile, moved to The Inquirer in 1921 and was its chief baseball writer until he suffered a stroke in 1940. He was elected president of the Baseball Writers Association of America in 1934 and in 1974, nine years after his death, was inducted into the writers’ wing of baseball’s Hall of Fame.
Curiously, while news of the scandal generated cynicism and outrage elsewhere, Philadelphia’s baseball fans — famous for both those qualities — reacted with uncharacteristic grace.
On Sept. 29, a day The Inquirer blasted bold headlines on the scandal atop its front page, the A’s played at Shibe Park. Manager Connie Mack expected rancor and disillusionment from the crowd. Instead, Mack biographer Norman Macht wrote, “about 15,000 people awaited him. As soon as they spotted him in the dugout, they stood and gave him the kind of ovation usually reserved for a game-winning hero.
“They were telling me,” Mack said, “they still believed in baseball.”