Dutch Leonard Affair: Baseball's misunderstood scandal - NBC Sports

Dutch Leonard Affair: Baseball's misunderstood scandal
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March 13, 2014, 11:30 am

With the release of Kostya Kennedy’s new book on Pete Rose and the recent interviews with somewhat disgraced Ryan Braun and Barry Bonds, I thought it would be worth going back and deeper into one of baseball’s most famous — and misunderstood (certainly by me) — scandals: The Dutch Leonard Affair.

* * *

The setup

In early November 1926, Ty Cobb suddenly retired from baseball. It was mildly surprising but certainly not a complete shock; Cobb had been player-manager for the Detroit Tigers, who had finished a disappointing sixth in the American League. Cobb played in only 79 games (fewest since he was 18 years old) and hit what was, for him, a disappointing .339. It was certainly no secret that Cobb was struggling as a manager … to no one’s great surprise. “The same quality which made him a great player dimmed his record as a manager,” the New York Times surmised. This seemed an almost unanimous point of view: Cobb’s great attributes as a player (his ferocity, his daring, his individuality or selfishness) were seen as weaknesses when it came to dealing with players and building a team.

Anyway, scores of tributes to Cobb appeared in newspapers all around America.

“Babe Ruth is the master artisan, but Ty Cobb was the artist,” wrote the St. Louis Post Dispatch. “Baseball as Ty Cobb played it was freed of conventions. If it was the thing to do, Cobb didn’t do it.”

Cobb’s explanation for retiring seemed reasonable enough. He said that he did not see a way he could pull the Tigers out of their doldrums, and he did not want to end so bold a career as a failure. He said he was going back home to Georgia, the state he loved, where he could spend his time hunting and golfing, two things he loved more than anything except baseball.

Roughly three weeks later, Tris Speaker suddenly retired from his job as player-manager for the Cleveland Indians. His resignation was a much bigger surprise. Speaker was a year and a half younger than Cobb, and though he was perhaps not the player he had been, he did hit .304 with 52 doubles in full-time play in 1926. More to the point, had managed the Indians to a thrilling second place finish — Cleveland had cut the Yankees lead to just two games in the final week of the season before succumbing. There were rumors that Speaker was just setting himself up to become manager of the Boston Red Sox, but he insisted that wasn’t true. He was done.

“I am taking a vacation from baseball,” Speaker said, “that I suspect will last for the remainder of my life.”

Nobody in the public eye seemed sure of what to make of it. Other big stars — Eddie Collins in Chicago, George Sisler in St. Louis — had quit as managers too. Newspaper men wrote that it was just the turning of the leaves and what was left was only to celebrate the greatness of these baseball giants.

This turning of the leaves theory lasted just three weeks. And then, the Dutch Leonard letters were released and everyone knew exactly why Cobb and Speaker had quit.

* * *

The letters

Hubert “Dutch” Leonard was an often superb and always exasperating left-handed pitcher during the Deadball Era. He is sometimes confused with the right-handed Emil “Dutch” Leonard who won 191 games for Brooklyn, Washington, Philadelphia and the Chicago Cubs in the 1930s, '40s and early '50s. This second Dutch — Emil — is sometimes called by Bill James the most underrated pitcher in baseball history.

But the Dutch Leonard in our story played a quarter-century earlier and set a record in 1914 that may never be broken: He went 19-5 with an all-time low 0.96 ERA. Yes, he gave up 24 earned runs in 224 innings. In those days, Leonard was fast and overpowering — in 1914 he struck out more than seven batters per nine innings, which was otherworldly during Deadball. Walter Johnson himself only pulled that trick twice in his amazing career.

Leonard was also pain in the neck. In a time when no one was particularly happy with pay, he was the king of complaining about his salary. He was often cited for insubordination — meaning he wouldn’t show up until he got more money. He had a reputation among teammates of ducking out against good competition. The umpire Billy Evans said he whined more about calls than any pitcher he’d ever dealt with. Ty Cobb — long after their nasty feud had gone public — would say that Leonard was one of only two players that he’d ever purposely spiked … and Leonard deserved it because he was a dirty ballplayer.

On Dec. 21, 1926, Baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis released more than 100 pages of testimony documenting Dutch Leonard’s claim that in 1919 he — along with Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker and former pitching great Smoky Joe Wood — met to fix a game between the Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians.

The game was played on Sept. 25, 1919 — a game the Tigers won 9-5 in an astonishing one hour and six minutes.

Some background: The Indians had the day before clinched second place (they were locked out of first) and so had nothing to play for. The Tigers, meanwhile, were still in a battle for third place; there was money given to the third-place team and none to fourth. Leonard said the Indians players — Speaker and Wood — agreed to essentially throw the game. I’ve read accounts that say this was outrageous and others that suggest such swaps (hey, we’ll lose this game, you lose one for us later) were not uncommon for the time.

What WAS uncommon by all accounts was Leonard’s next charge. He said the group decided that since they were playing a fixed game anyway, they might as well lay down some bets on the Tigers and make themselves a little extra money.

The charge was given some weight by two letters sent to Leonard, one from Cobb and the other from Smoky Joe Wood.

The Cobb letter:

Augusta, Ga., Oct. 23, 1919

Dear Dutch,

Well, old boy, guess you are out in California by this time and enjoying life.

I arrived home and found Mrs. Cobb only fair, but the baby girl was fine, and at this time Mrs. Cobb is very well, but I have been very busy getting acquainted with my family and have not tried to do any correspondence, hence my delay.

Wood and myself were considerably disappointed in our business proposition, as we had $2,000 to put into it, and the other side quoted us $1,400, and when we finally secured that much money it was about 2 o’clock and they refused to deal with us, as they had men in Chicago to take up the matter with and they had no time, so we completely fell down and of course we felt badly over it.

Everything was open to Wood and he can tell you about it when we get together. It was quite a responsibility and I don’t care for it again, I can assure you.

Well, I hope you found everything in fine shape at home and all your troubles will be little ones. I have made this year’s share of world series in cotton and expect to make more.

I thought the White Sox should have won but I am satisfied they were too overconfident. Well old scout, drop me a line when you can. We have had some dandy fishing since I arrived home.

With kindest regards to Mrs. Leonard, I remain,

Sincerely,
TY

A couple of brief explanations. The $2,000 and $1,400 figures were — according to Leonard and backed up by various research — the 7-10 odds they could get on the Indians-Tigers games in question. The details about “men in Chicago” almost certainly refers the money men behind the bookies. What Cobb was saying — and what Wood’s letter confirmed — is that the bookies simply did not have time to get the Chicago mob to to take such an enormous bet.

One other fascinating bit in the letter is the part about the White Sox — soon to be known as the Black Sox — and their losing of the 1919 World Series. Cobb would admit to laying two baseball bets in his entire life, on Chicago in Games 1 and 2 of the 1919 World Series. He says he lost $150 and never again bet on a baseball game.

The Wood letter is more specific.

Cleveland, Ohio, Friday.

Dear Friend Dutch,

Enclosed please find certified check for sixteen hundred and thirty dollars ($1,630.00).

The only bet West could get down was $600 against $400 (10 to 7). Cobb did not get up a cent. He told us that and I believed him. Could have put up some at 5 to 2 on Detroit but did not as that would make us put up $1,000 to win $400.

We won the $420. I gave West $30, leaving $390 or $130 for each of us. Would not have cashed your check at all, but West thought he could get it up at 10 to 7, and I was going to put it all up at those odds. We would have won $1,750 for the $2,500 if we could have placed it.

If we ever have another chance like this we will know enough to try to get down early.

Let me hear from you, Dutch. With all good wishes to Mrs. Leonard and yourself, I am,

JOE WOOD

OK, a couple more points of clarification. It seems that Leonard had put up a $1,500 stake — that’s why he got a $1,630 check (his $1,500 plus his $130 in winnings).

Joe Wood tried to get the whole amount down at those 7-10 odds but West (Fred West, a Detroit clubhouse attendant who Cobb had suggested for the job) could only get the bookies to take $600. That bet won $420 and, after paying off West, it left $130 for three people. Wood was one. Leonard was two. There was no mention of who the third person was and it remains a mystery.

Leonard filled the void in his charge: He said the third person was Tris Speaker. But you will notice that Speaker’s name was not mentioned in either letter. There was, in fact, no evidence connecting Speaker to any of this except for the word of Dutch Leonard.

The release of the letters and Dutch Leonard’s charges became a gigantic story across America — as big, in its own way, as the Black Sox scandal itself. Congress got involved. Sports sections filled entirely with stories about it. Petitions were circulated. Protests were arranged. Furious editorials were written — some castigating Cobb and Speaker but more, many more, attacking Dutch Leonard and his cowardly ways and baseball leadership for irresponsibly allowing the good names of Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker to be sullied by such nonsense.

As goes with every major scandal, people had no idea what was really happening behind the curtain.

* * *

The first grudge

In early 1922, Dutch Leonard refused to sign his contract and show up to play for the Tigers. This was pretty typical for Dutch. This time, though, he decided to go an extra step — he went back home to Fresno and played for his hometown team in what people called an Outlaw League. This was in direct conflict with baseball’s famed reserve clause — which basically made players powerless to play for any team other than the one that owned them — and Landis banned Leonard from Major League Baseball.

Two years later, Leonard petitioned Landis for a chance to return to the big leagues, and Landis granted it. At age 32 and armed with savvy and a spitball — he was using the spitter before it was banned so had his spitball rights grandfathered in — Leonard rejoined the Tigers. The team’s manager was Ty Cobb.

Leonard’s relationship with Cobb is hard to figure. The letter in 1919 suggests a personal friendship. But there’s no question that by 1924, Leonard truly loathed the Georgia Peach. Why? Well, no one disputes that there were an endless stream of reasons to hate Ty Cobb. But there is one interesting theory: Some believe that Leonard remained convinced that Cobb and Wood had cheated him out of the TRUE winnings of the 1919 game, that they had gotten down their own bets and kept the money. The theory is entirely without evidence but makes for good conspiracy talk.

What needs no evidence is that Cobb hated Dutch Leonard even more. He systematically went about destroying Leonard in 1925 by working him and working him until his arm would presumably blow up. Leonard said when he complained about this to Cobb — saying his doctor was worried for his future health — he was pulled before the whole team and Cobb shouted: “Don’t you dare turn Bolshevik on me. I’m the boss here.”

On July 14, 1925, Leonard faced Philadelphia and was left in for all nine innings despite the fact that he gave up 20 hits and 12 runs. The beating reportedly got so bad that even Philadelphia manager Connie Mack pleaded with Cobb to take Leonard out: “You’re killing that boy!” Cobb made him finish the game anyway. Leonard lasted one more start and was waived.

Dutch Leonard felt sure that his old teammate and friend Tris Speaker would pick him up on waivers as manager of the Indians. But Speaker — perhaps working in cahoots with Cobb — passed on Leonard. Dutch Leonard never pitched again in the big leagues and he never quite forgave Cobb and, to a lesser extent, Speaker for running him out of baseball.

Dutch Leonard did not deny that revenge was on his mind when he started peddling those two letters to baseball people in the spring of 1926. At times he even bragged about it. At first, he wanted to show the letters directly to American League president Byron "Ban" Johnson but, in time, he started showing them to anyone he thought could create havoc … and give Leonard money. When Leonard showed the letters to Detroit Tigers owner Frank Navin, he reportedly made two direct threats:

1. He was considering selling the letters to a newspaperman.

2. He had affidavits from five Detroit teammates proving that Cobb had maliciously run him out of the game — thus offering the possibility of a lawsuit.

Navin and Ban Johnson handled the Leonard unpleasantness in a way that will be familiar to everyone who watches political movies or followed the Tony Bosch Biogenesis story — they paid him off. They paid $20,000 to Leonard for the letters. Ban Johnson then kept the letters and the charges quiet for the rest of the season. This was Johnson’s way. He was an authoritative figure, full of arrogance and strength, and he did things his own way, at his own pace, without any particular concern how others would feel.

At the end of the season, Ban Johnson told Cobb and Speaker that they needed to retire. In exchange, presumably, he would make sure that the story of the 1919 game would be kept silent.

What we don’t know — and presumably will never know — is what Johnson ACTUALLY told Cobb and Speaker and why they both so quietly acquiesced and retired. Later, both players were adamant that they were completely innocent of a fix; Speaker would say he was unaware even of the bet. So why not fight back? Why retire and simply accept the ravings of a disgruntled former teammate?

There are two prominent theories.

1. There are those that say their prompt retirements were a confirmation of guilt on their part — or at least there was enough smoke that they decided it was better to just walk away.

2. There are those who say Cobb and Speaker were bluffed by Ban Johnson, who claimed to have much more evidence of a fix than he actually had.

Believe it or not, there is actually quite a bit of circumstantial evidence that the second of these might be more true than the first.

* * *

The second grudge

Ban Johnson was perhaps the pivotal baseball figure of the early part of the 20th Century. He began his career as a sportswriter and after developing friendships with various influential baseball people such as Charlie Comiskey, he became president of the fledgling Western League in 1893.

Johnson had a powerful vision for professional baseball — he wanted it to be a family game. He did not like the rough and tumble attitude — both on the field and in the stands — of National League baseball. In truth, he HATED the National League and always would, to his detriment in later years.

But at first, his insistence on being all things non National League worked. He renamed his Western League the American League in 1900 and declared it a Major League in 1901. He insisted on umpires being treated with respect (something that was notably not the case in the National League), put teams in cities that had been abandoned by the NL and was constantly pushing for better fan experiences.

His league also paid players better. This wasn’t hard to do in 1901 — the National League unwisely declared a a salary limit of $2,400 (about $67,000 today). Understand, that was the MOST teams were allowed to pay. Johnson’s league didn’t exactly treat players great by modern standards, but compared to the National League of the time is was like salvation. Players jumped to Ban Johnson’s American League.

Johnson ruled over his blossoming American League as a dictator. for two decades. Then the 1919 Black Sox happened. There were countless baseball fixing scandals through Deadball but the 1919 World Series, for whatever reason, was different from all those. It actually captured America’s imagination (and fury). Maybe it’s because this fix was so blatant and so shoddily done. Maybe it was because it involved the famous Shoeless Joe Jackson. Maybe it was timing; the Black Sox threw the World Series just after World War I ended, when people had wanted to escape into the (nonexistent) innocence of the game.

Whatever the reason, the Black Sox scandal was the nastiest baseball had ever faced … and Ban Johnson botched it entirely. The strengths that made Ban Johnson so effective as a leader — his sense of purpose, his confidence, his ability to solve problems through sheer force of will — faded and yellowed as he grew older. He seemed to think he could solve this problem like all the others — with an iron hand, at his own pace and by his own conscience. But everyone had basically lost faith in him. The owners, in a panic, decided they needed a paragon of virtue to get people to trust baseball again.

The man they had in mind said he would only take the job if given almost unlimited authority. The owners, over Ban Johnson’s reluctance, agreed. And Kenesaw Mountain Landis was hired as commissioner of baseball.

Ban Johnson’s hatred of Kenesaw Mountain Landis made the Dutch Leonard-Ty Cobb feud look like kindergarten stuff. On numerous occasions, Johnson tried to take Landis out — his most brazen attempt coming in 1924 over a, yes, gambling scandal. But Johnson, as the Godfather line goes, didn’t have that kind of muscle anymore. in the 1920s, Johnson was growing erratic and, at times, illogical. In 1925, after the Pittsburgh Pirates beat the Washington Senators in the World Series, he publicly lambasted Washington manager Bucky Harris, an unseemly thing for a league president.

Landis, for his part, was biding his time. He seemed to know that before too long the increasingly undependable Ban Johnson would run himself out of the game.

* * *

The undercard fight

My best bet is that it was Ty Cobb who first decided to fight back against the Dutch Leonard charges. His quiet retirement did not fit at all into his fiery personality, and anyway he began to look into things. He soon had to realize that Ban Johnson didn’t have NEARLY the case that he had made seem so open-and-shut behind closed doors. Cobb demanded that Judge Landis show him and Speaker and Wood the evidence and give them an opportunity to speak. This, it turns out, was something Landis was more than happy to do.

When the players saw Dutch Leonard’s rather flimsy evidence — two alternately specific and vague letters that did not have any word of a fix, specifically cleared Cobb of laying down a bet and did not mention Speaker at all — there was some fury. The players demanded that Dutch Leonard come to Chicago so they could face their accuser. Leonard replied that, no, he would not come — he said that people got knocked off in Chicago.

Well, that really set off Cobb, Speaker and Wood. There was no way they were going to let this coward ruin their good names. They believed (and were generally right) that if people saw the smoky evidence, they would side with Cobb and Speaker. By most accounts, it was Cobb and Speaker who asked Landis to release all the records. They were ready for a fight in the open.

The funny thing is … their fight was pointless. It SEEMED important — and the papers covered it as if it was important — but who were Cobb and Speaker even fighting? Dutch Leonard? No. It’s clear from Leonard’s response that he had already won his fight. Leonard had received $20,000 for two letters and he had cast doubt on the legacies of the two men he blamed most for running him out of the game. He left the arena with his winnings. “I got my revenge,” he told the writer Damon Runyon.

So Cobb and Speaker (and, to a lesser extent Wood) were left fighting a ghost. They challenged Leonard to come make his accusation public. He declined. They called him every name they could think of calling him. He shrugged. At one point, people screamed angrily about Leonard naming Speaker when he was not even in the letters. Leonard then denied even naming Speaker. “Who did it, I don’t know,” he said. “But I have heard it was Cobb in an effort to extricate himself. But that is nothing for me to worry about.”

No, they couldn’t lay a glove on Dutch Leonard, so they were left trying to unring the bell.

At times, their defenses were embarrassing. West and Cobb publicly stated that the bet referred to in the letter was not even a baseball bet … it was a horse racing one. That was patently absurd; the Joe Wood letter specifically mentioned “Detroit.”

Then, Cobb and Speaker tried to get more specific. Cobb pointed out that he went one-for-five in the game — would he have done that if the game was fixed? Speaker talked about how he had three hits, two of them triples — would he have done that if the game was fixed? Of course such logic is circular — if you wanted to convince people you were NOT in on a fix when you were, you would go 1-for-5 or hit two triples as long as it didn’t interfere with the desired result.

In Congress, several senators — the Baseball Bloc of Washington, they called themselves — came to the players defense. “I think it is gross injustice to convict two of the most honorable men in baseball on the word of a disgruntled, discharged employee,” said Georgia Senator William J. Harris.

For the most part, that was the theme of the newspaper stories. The umpire, Billy Evans, lashed out at Dutch Leonard in his syndicated column. Other columnists did the same. There was briefly some backlash toward Landis for making the information public, but Landis knew that was about to turn. Outside the game, everyone wondered what would happen to Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker. But inside, there was little doubt what would happen. That’s because the bigger fight — the one between Kenesaw Mountain Landis and Ban Johnson — was about to begin.

* * *

Another fixing scandal

As if this whole saga needed another twist, right in the middle of all this a whole other gambling scandal emerged, this time driven by disgraced Black Sox shortstop Swede Risburg. He came forward with a claim that in 1917 the White Sox players had taken up a collection to bribe Detroit players to throw consecutive doubleheaders played on September 2 and 3.

Three points for the record:

1. The White Sox DID sweep both doubleheaders, 7-2, 6-5 on the first day and 7-5, 14-8 on the second. The White Sox stole 19 bases in the series, and the Tigers committed nine errors, which added to the intrigue.

2. The doubleheader sweep did lift The White Sox from 3 1/2 games up to 6 1/2, at which point they breezed to the pennant.

3. There seems to be no dispute that the White Sox DID collect money from all the players (including the seemingly incorruptible Ray Schalk and Eddie Collins) and they DID give that money to Detroit players. The only question was: Why?

These fixing scandals were really ticking off Judge Landis — at one point he reportedly asked an associate if he was ever going to be freed from stuff that happened before he became commissioner. In early January, before he could deal with the Cobb-Speaker mess, Landis held a hearing to deal with this bribe fund mess. Risburg testified that Pants Rowland, the White Sox manager at the time and then an umpire, engineered the whole thing. He said the players pooled together a bribe fund that fellow Black Soxer Chick Gandil paid Tigers players to “slough off” during those important doubleheaders against Chicago.

Risburg, like Leonard, brought grudges with him. He was, of course, angry at baseball for banning him and his teammates. He was angry that the White Sox were taking all the heat for what the baseball powers knew had been a thoroughly corrupt era (see steroids, 1990s). He and the rest of the Black Sox were particularly angered at Collins, who they they believed arrogant and superior and not as pure as he let on. Risberg made sure to single out Collins on numerous occasions in his testimony, saying that when Detroit made one of its nine errors too obvious that Collins groaned and worried they would give things away.

“They pushed Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker out on a piker bet,” Risburg said. “I think it’s only fair that the white lilies get the same treatment.”

Chick Gandil came in to back up Risburg’s story. He was, however, somewhat reserved and elusive in his endorsement. A third Black Sox player, Buck Weaver, was there, presumably to confirm the story but instead he spent an uncomfortable few minutes pleading with Landis to reinstate him because he had taken no money or held back in any way during the 1919 World Series. Landis cooly said, “Get back to me on that Buck,” and never did respond to his pleas.

And then, 29 men from the Tigers and White Sox stepped forward to deny every Risberg’s story, some of them making implicit threats toward Risberg. Well, to be technical, they did not deny EVERY WORD of Risberg’s story — just one specific part. Yes, they said, there had been a pool of money collected by White Sox players. Yes, they conceded, that money was paid to the Tigers. But they insisted the money WAS NOT paid to throw those doubleheaders. No, instead, the money was paid to Detroit pitchers for beating second-place Boston in three straight games in the last two weeks of the 1917 season and helping Chicago clinch the pennant.

That was what it came down to: Was the money for fixing games or a reward for beating Boston? Either would, these days, be viewed as a major violation, but in 1926 this somewhat blurry difference was everything. Landis eventually ruled that the money was a “gift fund” not a “bribe fund.”

“It was an act of impropriety, reprehensible and censurable, but not an act of criminality,” he said. Then, with that dispatched, Landis recommended a series of acts to prevent this sort of thing from happening again, the most significant being a statute of limitations for gambling and fixing charges. He just didn’t want to deal with these gambling cold cases anymore.

Well, there was one cold case he was looking forward to adjudicating.

* * *

The knockout

Landis never said it publicly, but privately he had to know: Ban Johnson was about to do something reckless and self-destructive. The criticism that had been spread around — some for Dutch Leonard for being vindictive and dirty, some for Cobb and Speaker for being involved, some for Landis for making it all public — was about to all focus on Ban Johnson. He had tried to quietly and singlehandedly run out two of the greatest players in baseball history on what could only be seen as questionable charges. And once the criticism grew loud enough, he would undoubtedly do something stupid.

And he did.

On Jan. 16, 1927 Johnson made a long statement to the press. It was, to be blunt, a complete and utter meltdown by the once great man.

First thing Johnson said was that Cobb and Speaker would never again play or manage in the American League. So it shall be written. So it shall be done.

Then, he explained his reasoning. With Cobb, he sounded almost reasonable; said it was simply a matter of Cobb being involved, even in the background, with gambling on baseball. “I don’t believe Ty Cobb ever played a dishonest game in his life,” he said. “If that’s the exoneration he seeks I gladly give it to him. … We let him go because he had written a peculiar letter about a betting deal that he couldn’t explain and because I felt that he had violated a position of trust.

“I love Ty Cobb. I never knew a finer player. I don’t think he’s been a good manager, and I have had to strap him as a father straps an unruly boy. But I know Ty Cobb is not a crooked player. … He was heartbroken and maintained his innocence in that alleged betting deal which his letter tells about. I told him that whether guilty or not he was through in the American League. I did not think he played fair with his employers or with me.”

But when it came to Speaker, however, it was clear that Johnson had lost any sense of balance or comportment. Johnson had known and worked with Speaker for many years; he had been a part-owner of the Cleveland Indians. Here is an extended quote from him on Speaker:

“Tris Speaker is a different type of fellow. For want of a better word I’d call Tris ‘cute.’ He knows why he was forced out of the management of the Cleveland club. If he wants me to tell him I’ll meet him in a court of law ad tell the facts under oath.

“I have men working for me, on my personal payroll, whose business it is to report on the conduct of our ballplayers. We don’t want players who are willing to lay down to another team either for friendship or money. That’s why I get these reports. … This data belongs to me and not to Landis. The American League gave Landis enough to show why Cobb and Speaker were no longer wanted by us. That’s all we needed to give him. I have reports on Speaker which Landis will never get unless we go to court.

“I sent a detective to watch the conduct of the Cleveland club two years ago. I learned from him when and by whom bets were made on horse races and ballgames. I learned who was taking the money for the bets. I learned the names of the bookmakers who accepted the wagers and how much the betters made. I was gathering evidence. … Speaker was implicated in the deal by statement of Leonard. Also I had the data of my detectives.”

And so on. Johnson was going Joe McCarthy, saying he had all sorts of secret information he had no intention of sharing with Landis … but he definitely had it. And he saved his angriest stuff for Landis, calling his release of information an attempt for personal publicity and saying he had this whole thing under control before the commissioner butted in. “It is from Landis that Cobb should demand an explanation,” he said. “The American League outed Cobb, but it was Landis who broadcast the story of his mistakes.”

It was an epic breakdown … and Ban Johnson did not stop there. Soon, stories were appearing in newspapers quoting an unnamed source about secret information on Cobb and Speaker that had not been revealed yet. Everyone in baseball knew that Johnson was that unnamed source. And it was all untrue. Johnson had no more information. He never did release anything from his so-called detectives. When Johnson appeared before Landis in a hearing that the papers hyped like it was a heavyweight fight, he had to admit that he had nothing. He had been bluffing. And he was a goner.

After the embarrassing hearing, Johnson announced he was “retiring.” He cited his health. He did try to return to the American League offices in the spring entirely on his own firm and delusional belief that he was meant to always be in charge. It was embarrassing for everyone. He was replaced and he returned to St. Louis where he died four years later. It was a sad ending for a legendary baseball figure.

Two days after Ban Johnson was dispatched, Kenesaw Mountain Landis announced that Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker were completely exonerated. They were returned to their big league teams and granted something like free agency.

In California, Dutch Leonard claimed to be “too ill to talk with reporters” and stayed safely indoors.

* * *

The aftermath

Cobb and Speaker each played two more seasons, though neither one ever managed again. It was rumored that this was an unspoken part of Landis’ ruling.

Smoky Joe Wood, who had only two years earlier been hired to coach baseball at Yale, was retained. He would be the Yale Coach for another 15 years.

Kenesaw Mountain Landis would rule as commissioner of baseball until he died at age 78 in 1944. His legacy as commissioner is a mixed one, but most people credit him with saving the game after the Black Sox scandal.

Dutch Leonard became a millionaire as owner of a vineyard. He would not talk about the scandal or his own baseball days, even with his family.

Did Cobb and Speaker fix the game in 1919? Well, first they should not be viewed as one entity. When it comes to Speaker, there is no evidence of his involvement, other than the word of Leonard, which we cannot take at anything close to face value. My sense, based on the way Ban Johnson lashed out at Speaker, is that he had a personal grudge or hidden reasons to believe Speaker was dirty. He may have been guilty but, based on what we can prove, he should never for have been included in this scandal.

As for Cobb … people see it differently. My view is this: I do not believe the 1917 game was “fixed” as we might generally view that word. I think the ethics of the time were different and on Sept. 25, 1919 the Tigers had motivation to win and the Indians did not. That Cobb, Dutch Leonard and Smoky Joe Wood had a conversation about this is certainly unseemly but I think something sadly common in those days. The clear and generally undisputed fact that they intended to lay down a large sum of money on the game, however, was high level baseball corruption, worse than anything that has even been proven about Pete Rose.

Cobb insisted that he did not bet on the game. There is, however, some room for doubt even about that. In Joe Wood’s letter, he felt it necessary to write, “Cobb did not get up a cent. He told us that and I believed him.” Why even say, “I believed him” unless there was some reason to NOT believe him? Cobb’s chummy letter to Leonard, meanwhile, has the air of a somewhat sheepish man.

This is not evidence though, so let’s assume Cobb did not get his bet down on the game. The rules were different then — gambling on baseball was not explicitly against the rules. But if this had all happened In Pete Rose’s time, I think Cobb would have been banned for life even if nothing else was proved. Consider what we know to be true.

– Cobb admitted to betting twice on the 1919 World Series.

– Cobb’s letter shows a clear effort to bet on a game he was playing in, a game he believed was something of a sure thing.

That is enough for a lifetime ban. And I doubt it ended there. The fact that Cobb always said those were the only two things he was guilty of is a lot like ballplayers who used PED’s admitting only to what they were caught doing. Cobb was a great player who obviously played to win. He lived in a time, however, where gambling on baseball was rampant and tore at the fiber of the game. I’m not persuaded that he was was above his era.

Fewer than 10 years after the Dutch Leonard affair, the Baseball Writers Association of America had their first vote or the soon-to-be-built Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Ty Cobb was elected on the first ballot — he was the highest vote getter, receiving more support than Babe Ruth or Walter Johnson. Tris Speaker was elected on the second ballot, the same year as Ban Johnson.

Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on twitter @JPosnanski



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