Arnold Rothstein and the 1919 World Series Fix

In light of the massive player suspensions recently doled out by Major League Baseball, now seems like the most appropriate (or inappropriate?) time to talk about the great Arnold Rothstein. 

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Arnold Rothstein

Anyone who is a true fan of baseball knows the name Arnold Rothstein.  It exists as an anathema, one of the ultimate curse words.  Everyone knows he fixed (set up who would win the games before they were played) the outcome of the 1919 World Series, when the Chicago White Sox played the Cincinnati Reds; the White Sox – later nicknamed the Black Sox – threw the World Series and lost, and eight of their players were forever banned from the sport of baseball.  Or did Rothstein fix the 1919 World Series?  As many arguments for the Rothstein fix can be made against it; the eight players behind the fix and the actual throwing of the series remain a half-solved mystery.  If anything can be said of Rothstein, though, it’s that he never missed a chance to place a good bet.

Was it audacious of Rothstein to fix the World Series? Of course. Was it wrong and twisted, but brilliant? Absolutely. The question does remain, though: did he do it? Well, that depends on who you ask. The why, though, focuses on just who Rothstein was – a man that never made a bet he knew he would lose money on. So why would Rothstein do something like fix the World Series, something he didn’t think was possible? To understand that, you have to understand the man who was Arnold Rothstein.

Arnold Rothstein: The Early Years

In his book The Big Bankroll: The Life and Times of Arnold Rothstein, Leo Katcher says, “[F]rom the beginning, there was something disturbing about Arnold… He wasn’t gay, outgoing, a child of laughter… He was a baby that did not laugh, an infant who looked out at the world through great brown eyes… [that] never sparkled with kindness.” While still a child, Rothstein began to indulge in gambling, but no matter how often his father scolded him for shooting dice, Rothstein would not stop.  In a rare interview in 1921, Rothstein was asked how he became a gambler: “I always gambled. I can’t remember when I didn’t.  Maybe I gambled just to show my father he couldn’t tell me what to do, but I don’t think so.  I think I gambled because I loved the excitement.  When I gambled, nothing else mattered.”

Frequently during school times, Rothstein would be playing pool or watching card games, and he won most of the card games he entered.  As he grew and learned, so did his bankroll. Katcher says that the prop room of Hammerstein’s Victoria Theatre “provided the scene of Rothstein’s higher education.  There, in miniscule, he conducted the type of operations that were to continue for thirty years…[H]e did his first moneylending at these games.  He always carried his bankroll with him, money accumulated from shooting pool, from running errands, from poker and dice games… He always knew how much money he had.”

By age twenty, in 1902, Rothstein was working for himself, though he was still a professional gambler.  In terms of his business, Katcher notes, “Rothstein was a small operator, but that was the way he wanted it.  He [Rothstein] explained, ‘Never get into a game that you can’t bull.’  That meant a man was a fool to play against a bigger bankroll.  The secret of winning was to have enough money to lose on more bets than anyone else could afford to lose.”

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Michael Stuhlbarg, the actor who plays Arnold Rothstein on “Boardwalk Empire”

Rothstein leaned heavily on his money, and had great pride in the thousands he had accumulated by 1906.  Of course, he was not as big as some other gamblers, but he continued to gamble and build his bankroll.  Katcher says Rothstein, “obscured his personality.  He was well-mannered.  He dressed quietly.  He was abstemious.  His personal life was above reproach…In him there was none of the feckless daring, the thoughtlessness, the intoxication [of other gamblers].  He was a cold-blooded businessman and gambling was his business.”  According to Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays Arnold Rothstein on the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire,” did meticulous research into Rothstein’s background. In an interview with the JewishJournal.com, Stuhlbarg said, “[Rothstein] has been described as having been mild-mannered, conservative in habit and always calm…He didn’t fidget or curse, he never chewed gum, he didn’t smoke, he sipped water; he drank milk; he ate figs.” The mild-mannered Jewish man could be cut-throat and deadly if pushed too far, though he never personally dirtied his hands.

By 1919, Arnold Rothstein was a well-known, self-made gambler, a man respected by many; some of his nicknames included “The Brain” and “The Bankroll.”  He had helped train Charlie “Lucky” Luciano, the father of organized crime.  The Last Testament of Lucky Luciano by Martin A. Gosch and Richard Hammer recalls Arnold Rothstein and his influence on Luciano, who said Rothstein “taught me how to dress, how not to wear loud things but to have good taste; he taught me how to use knives and forks, and things like that at the dinner table, about holdin’ a door open for a girl, or helpin’ her sit down by holdin’ the chair.  If Arnold had lived a little longer, he could’ve made me pretty elegant.”

The Big Fix

The world in which Arnold Rothstein lived is now long gone.  Far more deserving men than he have been forgotten.  But not Rothstein.  His memory is disinterred each autumn when World Series time rolls around.  He is the legendary figure, the ‘man who fixed the world series’.  He did not fix the Series.  The Series, however, could not have been fixed had there been no Arnold Rothstein.  These statements are not contradictory, but complementary.  Rothstein’s name, his reputation, and his reputed wealth were all used to influence the crooked baseball players.  But Rothstein, knowing this, kept apart from the actual fix.  He just let it happen.”
Leo Katcher, The Big Bankroll: The Life and Times of Arnold Rothstein

 

Without the 1919 World Series fix, Rothstein would probably have faded away into history and been forgotten today. Whether he fixed the Series, though, is a great topic for debate. There is a great deal of evidence for and against Rothstein being involved. Daniel A. Nathan, in Saying It’s So: A Cultural History of the Black Sox Scandal says, “It is now generally agreed upon that Arnold Rothstein…did not fix the 1919 World Series… Nevertheless, like virtually everyone associated with the affair, Rothstein was no innocent.  He knew of the fix early on and profited greatly from it.”  Because of the scandal, the White Sox were nicknamed the “Black Sox,” and that name has stuck in association with the 1919 World Series team.

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The eight White Sox players involved in the 1919 World Series Fix

The 1919 World Series starred many players, but eight names have become infamous: pitcher Eddie Cicotte, center fielder Oscar “Happy” Felsch, first baseman Arnold “Chick” Gandil, outfielder “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, utility infielder Fred McMullin, shortstop Charles “Swede” Risberg, third baseman George “Buck” Weaver, and pitcher Claude “Lefty” Williams.  For participating in the fix, all eight players were eventually banned from baseball.

The motive behind fixing the 1919 World Series was entirely monetary. Charles Comiskey, owner of the White Sox, believed in paying his players the lowest price possible. At that time in baseball, a reserve clause was in effect; if a player left Comiskey and the White Sox, he would not be able to play elsewhere. Katcher states, “Baseball’s reserve clause, which bound a player to one team so long as that team desired his services, was in effect…A ballplayer had no freedom of choice, could play only for the team with which he had originally signed.  Comiskey…used his power to keep wages low.  Some of his players were paid less than $4,500, other were paid the big league minimum of $2,500.”

 The White Sox players were unhappy with their meager wages, and decided to do something about it.  Pitcher Eddie Cicotte was “the ring leader, as he later admitted…Chick Gandil, the first baseman, has written that he connived with Cicotte from the start.”  Together, Cicotte and Gandil sought out a gambler for help: “[t]heir choice was Joseph (“Sport”) Sullivan, of Boston.  Sullivan was the biggest gambler in New England.  Cicotte laid the proposition on the line for Sullivan.  The White Sox would deliberately lose to Cincinnati…if Sullivan would pay $10,000 to each of the players who would be involved in the plot…[Cicotte’s] price for throwing the Series was set…at $100,000.”

According to testimony at the Cook County Grand Jury trial, during which all eight White Sox players were indicted, William Maharg said that he and former baseball player Bill Burns “made an appointment with Rothstein.  We met Rothstein by appointment in the Astor and the put the proposition [of the fix] to him.  He declined to get into it.  He said he did not think such a frame-up would be possible” (Katcher 142).  For a while Maharg was disappointed until he received a telegram: “I returned to Philadelphia, thinking everything was off until I received the following wire from Bill Burns: – ‘Arnold R. has gone through with everything.  Got eight [players] in.'”

During the court trial, and after, private detectives were hired to found out the truth about the 1919 World Series.  “In September, 1920,” Katcher states, “[president of the American League, Ban] Johnson announced the results of the investigation.  He stated categorically that the Sereies had been deliberately lost by the White Sox and added: ‘The man behind the fixing of the Series was Arnold Rothstein.’”  Almost immediately, Rothstein issued a denial: “‘There is not a word of truth in the report that I had anything to do with the World Series of last fall. I do not know if it was fixed…My only connection was to refuse to do business with some men who said they could fix it…I intend to sue Ban Johnson for libel’” though Rothstein never filed charges on Johnson.  Later, Rothstein would blame the entire fix on boxer Abe Attell.

In a statement to the press that contained part of his Grand Jury testimony, Rothstein said, “‘I’ve come here to vindicate myself.  If I wasn’t sure I was going to be vindicated, I would have stayed home…The whole thing started when Attell and some other cheap gamblers decided to frame the Series and make a killing.  The world knows that I was asked in on the deal and my friends know that I turned it down flat.  I don’t doubt that Attell used my name to put it over… But I wasn’t in on it, wouldn’t have gone into it under any circumstances and didn’t bet a cent on the Series after I found out what was under way.”

The odd thing – or perhaps not – about the legal battle surrounding the World Series fix is that “[a]ll the records and minutes of the Grand Jury disappeared.  So, too, did the signed confessions of Cicotte, Williams and Jackson… The state, virtually all of its evidence gone, sought to get the players to repeat their confession on the stand.  This they refused to do, citing the Fifth Amendment.” Eventually, the judge had no choice but to dismiss the case.  Katcher states, “Thus, on the official record and on the basis of [State Attorney Maclay] Hoyne’s statement, Rothstein was never involved in in the fixing of the Series.  Also, on the official record, it was never proved that the Series had been fixed.”  All eight White Sox playerss were forever banned from the game of baseball.  Despite all his denials, though, Katcher notes that “while Rothstein won the Series, he won a small sum.  He always maintained it was less than $100,000.  It actually was about $350,000.  It could have been much – very much – more.  It wasn’t because Rothstein chicken out.  A World Series fix was too good to be true – even if it was true.”

Retirement

In 1921, Rothstein decided to “retire.”  He made the announcement via newspaper: “From now on, I shall devote most of my attention to my racing stables and my real estate business.  It is not pleasant to be, what some call, a ‘social outcast.'”  During this time, Rothstein became involved in bootlegging during the early years of Prohibition, particularly with Waxey Gordon of Philadelphia, and later expanded, along with Lucky Luciano, into the drug trade, namely heroin. His influence on Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano was critical in their formations as some of the biggest American gangsters.

Rothstein remained a cutthroat businessman who exercised his power judiciously. He became the Jewish kingpin and can be called the big businessman who founded and funded American organized crime, particularly in New York. Within a few years of Prohibition beginning, however, Rothstein grew bored with it and moved in the illegal trading of heroin, as seen in the season 3 ending of “Boardwalk Empire.”

 

 What Rothstein never stoppped doing, though, was gambling. Eventually, it killed him. Rothstein died on November 4, 1928.  Katcher says, ‘[T]he desk sergeant at the old West Forty-seventh Street station house in New York…received a call from a police box informing him of a shooting… ‘Man reported shot in Park Central Hotel, Seventh Avenue and Fifty-sixth Street…Arnold Rothstein, male, 46 years…gunshot wound in abdomen.'”  He had been leaving a card game.  The shooter was never found.

Arnold Rothstein’s Legacy

Rothstein, a legend in the world of organized crime, an amazing gambler, one of the key parts of the bootlegging and drug trade in the 1920s, could very well have disappeared forever without the infamous 1919 World Series fix. Of course, he is mentioned in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby, but as the shady Jewish character Meyer Wolfsheim. Fitzgerald had no qualms pinning the fix on Wolfsheim and even hinted strongly that Wolfsheim had a major influence on Gatsby’s wealth and business dealings. Rothstein-esque character have appeared in “The Godfather: Part II,” Hyman Roth.  F. Murray Abraham played Rothstein in “Mobsters;” Michael Lerner was Rothstein in the 1988 movie “Eight Men Out”. 

While these characters are Rothstein in disguise, we have HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” to thank for truly reviving him. Michael Stuhlbarg is Rothstein, from his mannerisms to soft speech to always wearing a bow tie, a signature style of Rothstein’s. “Boardwalk Empire” also dances carefully around the issue of the World Series fix; it is mentioned heavily in season 1, but they are never so bold as to say “Yes, he fixed it” or “No, Rothstein was innocent.” The viewers are allowed to make up their own minds on that. For the most part, the information surrounding Rothstein’s possible fix is handled incredibly well and remains factual. Sure, some elements are dramatized, but the character of Rothstein is expertly preserved and presented by Michael Stuhlbarg. Thanks to “Boardwalk Empire,” Rothstein and his legacy will live on and on as a myth and a man.

So, did he – or didn’t he – fix the series? I’d love to hear what you think.  Maybe we’ll find out on Boardwalk Empire in future seasons.

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