By Scott A. Rowan
Gambling, guns, and gals: countless athletes have relished the celebrity lifestyle that attracts the three Gs of potential trouble. But there is only one manager who both drew death threats from the mob and was connected to a suspicious death.
Baseball isn’t the only sport to have problems with gambling among managers, coaches, and players. But it has had more than its share of insiders consorting with nefarious characters—the most troubling of them all being a Hall of Fame player and manager who made history with the St. Louis Cardinals, New York Giants, Atlanta Braves and Chicago Cubs.
Before delving into this controversial area that connects the dots from Major League Baseball to organized crime during the 1920s and 1930s, it seems only fair to balance the ledger, so to speak, by reminding readers of some of the more recent headline-making gambling scandals in other sports. In the National Football League, for example, the Baltimore Colts’ Art Schlichter was banned from the 1983 season for betting on NFL games, a punishment precedent set in 1963 when famous NFL players Paul Hornung (with the Green Bay Packers) and Alex Karras (of the Detroit Lions) were suspended for a season for betting on their own games. In the National Hockey League, Phoenix Coyotes assistant coach Rick Tocchet pled guilty in 2007 to running a gambling ring that included millions of dollars in play and involved Janet Jones, wife of hockey icon Wayne Gretzky. And in January 2010, National Basketball Association commissioner David Stern suspended Washington Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas for the remainder of the 2010 season after Arenas brought guns into the team’s locker room to settle a dispute with a teammate concerning debts owed from card games on the team’s chartered flights.
In college basketball, Tulane University shut down its program for three years after a 1985 scandal that revealed players were shaving points; other programs have also been found to have point-shavers on their teams (Arizona State, 1993–94; Northwestern University, 1994–95; and Boston College, 1978–79), but didn’t shut down their programs. Boston College was at the center of one of college football’s biggest gambling probes, which resulted in the suspension of 13 players during the 1996 season for betting on games, including some players who bet against their own team. In 2013, Europol revealed that an 18-month investigation had produced proof that nearly 700 international matches were fixed beginning in 2008. According to the Associated Press, these fixes resulted in an estimated $10.9 million in profits and included approximately $2.7 million in bribes to players and officials.
Nearly all of the biggest scandals in sports gambling history have involved players rather than coaches or managers. Even the most infamous sports scandal in history, the “Black Sox” ordeal of 1919, involved players, not management. When members of management are involved in gambling, the story becomes highly unusual. Pete Rose’s lifetime ban from baseball in 1989 by Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti is the easiest example to cite, and arguably the most infamous since he still had not been reinstated to baseball as of 2013. In 1947, Commissioner Happy Chandler banned Leo Durocher for a year due to his relationships with known gamblers. But Durocher was allowed to return to baseball, leading the New York Giants to the 1954 World Series before taking over the Cubs for seven seasons.
While investigations and public pronouncements have laid the facts behind these examples bare, some of the most captivating stories involving sports and gambling have been handled behind the scenes and have taken years for the public to learn about. Even when such cases become public knowledge, there are often many questions that are never answered.
For example, in 1993 NBA legend Michael Jordan retired, ostensibly to grieve for his recently murdered father, James Jordan. Rumors immediately swirled that both Jordan’s retirement and his father’s murder were related to the star’s alleged gambling problem, and that Commissioner Stern had agreed to have Jordan “retire” temporarily instead of enforcing a suspension for gambling on one of the game’s greatest players of all time. Evidence has never surfaced proving any aspect of this story, but 21 months after retiring, his “Airness” returned to the NBA, as so many people had predicted he would. Questions still abound about Jordan’s brief retirement and his father’s murder.
Through all these extreme stories of the overlap between gambling and sports, none hold the unique place in sports history of Rogers Hornsby, who was fired by the Cubs as manager (and technically released as a player, since he was the team’s manager/player at the time) due to his gambling problems. Looming even larger was the question of whether Hornsby had ushered in an era of comingling between baseball and the mob, a dark partnership that has been hinted at and feared by baseball purists. While much remains unknown, it seems clear that there was a great deal of overlap between the realms of baseball and organized crime during Hornsby’s day.
Hornsby was both one of the game’s all-time greats and its all-time jerks. He was a Hall of Famer who captured seven batting titles (including six in a row), hit .400 or better three times, and won the Triple Crown and Most Valuable Player awards twice. He was also an infamous bigot, was sued more than 10 times in his life for failure to pay his taxes or debts—including settlements on car accidents that cost one woman her sight in one eye and a man the use of his arm—and was incredibly unpleasant to be around, according to any and all who knew him.
“Rogers Hornsby was, in my opinion and in that of many others, the most blunt and tactless guy in the world,” said Gene Karst in Peter Golenbock’s book The Spirit of St. Louis. Karst was the public relations manager for the St. Louis Cardinals during Hornsby’s tenure with the team prior to joining the Cubs. “Hornsby didn’t like Catholics and Jews. He was really prejudiced against blacks and Jews, Catholics and everyone else.”
Addiction vexed Hornsby as well—not to alcohol or narcotics, but the ponies. The “Rajah,” as he was sometimes called, didn’t drink, smoke, or do drugs. He also didn’t read or watch movies for fear it would ruin his eyesight. But he did bet on horses, and he didn’t care who knew, including Commissioner Landis.
Rajah and Landis locked horns often over the years, usually about betting on horses. Landis despised gambling. Hired to clean up baseball after the 1919 Black Sox scandal, Landis made it his mission to remove gambling of all kinds from the sport. But going to the horse track was not illegal, and Hornsby delighted in reminding Landis of that fact. According to Landis biographer David Pietrusza in his book Judge and Jury: The Life and Times of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the former commissioner once called Hornsby to his office and asked directly about rumors that he had bet on horses:
“They aren’t just rumors,” Hornsby said, “I bet on horses. They are my only recreation. . . . I know it’s gambling, and baseball and gambling don’t mix. That’s why I never play cards in the clubhouse with the other players. They’re playing for money. I wait till later and maybe pick out a horse. . . . Look at it this way, I don’t drink, smoke or go to the movies. Don’t even read anything but the baseball box scores. Don’t even go to the races over once or twice a year. I can relax by betting a horse now and then.”
“Everybody hated Rog,” said Marty Marion, a former player-coach on Hornsby’s St. Louis Browns. “Rogers was kind of an independent cuss. He would sit down and just be by himself. He never seemed to have any friends to talk to.”
Hornsby came into the league at the end of the 1915 season for the St. Louis Cardinals, where he played 12 seasons before finally wearing out his welcome with owner Sam Breadon. Two factors were at the forefront of Hornsby’s trade, the same two things that would repeatedly haunt both his personal and professional lives: contemptuous arrogance with anyone who challenged him and an addiction to gambling.
One story tells of an incident in 1925 in which Breadon entered the locker room and began to address the team. Hornsby wheeled on the owner and threw Breadon out of “his” clubhouse. Enraged that an employee would claim the locker room was “his,” Breadon began making plans that day with general manager Branch Rickey to get rid of Rajah despite the skills he brought to the team.
Rickey made it clear that he did not like Hornsby. But he knew Rajah made the team better, so he purposefully dragged his feet on trade talks. The gamble paid off. Hornsby won his first MVP award after the 1925 season and Breadon, shockingly, decided to make the second baseman player/manager the following season. It was a horrible decision.
Buoyed by his promotion, Hornsby began bringing Frank Moore, a known bookie, to spring training, and then allowed the underworld figure to sit on the bench during the season. The Cardinals owner told Hornsby to stop bringing Moore to the ballpark, but Hornsby would not allow anyone, even his boss, to tell him what to do. Moore continued to be a presence around the team all season long.
It was precisely the scenario that Landis predicted would happen if major- league players and/or managers consorted with gamblers. Bad ideas usually start small and end up getting bigger. And so it did with Hornsby. The 1926 St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series led by Hornsby. But when the season ended, the real battles began. Not only did Hornsby demand a three-year/$150,000 contract, but Breadon was also asked to intervene in a growing dispute between Hornsby and Moore, who claimed that Rajah owed him $92,000 in unpaid gambling debts. That was the final straw for the Cardinals owner. Despite having led the Cardinals to the 1926 World Series, where they beat the New York Yankees in seven games, Hornsby was no longer wanted in St. Louis. On December 20, 1926, Breadon traded him to the New York Giants.
The following year, Breadon shared his side of the saga with a reporter for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Under the headline “HORNSBY WAS SOLD BECAUSE OF HIS DEBTS,” the article explained, “Hornsby’s friendship with Moore was the real reason for the break in relations between the Cardinal owner and manager.”
Knowing that Hornsby had received stock in the Cardinals from Breadon, Moore approached the Cardinals owner to see if he would help settle the debt his player/manager owed. Predictably, Breadon refused to get involved and, wanting to wash his hands of the growing gambling problem, traded Hornsby. “I don’t approve of any men who make their money playing baseball [and] gambling it away on horses,” Breadon said. “I have nothing to do with Moore collecting his debt from Hornsby.”
Hornsby spent just one year with the Giants, who promptly traded him to the Boston Braves, where he spent only one season because the team couldn’t afford him. William Wrigley and the Cubs could. Wrigley gave the Braves’ $200,000 and five players for Hornsby, who brought all his offense—and offensiveness— with him to Chicago.
The move was particularly stunning given the fact that Hornsby’s gambling debts had reached a new low to which no other baseball manager or player had sunk in the sport’s history. On February 9, 1928, before Hornsby was traded to Chicago, newspapers ran stories reporting that Chicago mob members were out to either kill or injure Hornsby because he still hadn’t paid off his gambling debts to Moore. Wrote David J. Walsh for the Syracuse Journal on February 9, 1928, in a front-page column headlined “THREATEN ROGERS’ LIFE”:
Certain men in Chicago claim they had to “take the slap” for part of Hornsby’s race track “investments” with Frank Moore and that they are out to get the ballplayer the first time he crosses the line into Cook County. Sinister threats of “taking him for a ride” accompanied the tip. In the argot of Gangdom, this means a shooting, mostly fatal.
Rebuffed by both Hornsby and Breadon, in 1927 Moore took the unprecedented step of trying to sue Hornsby in court for his unpaid debts. Moore originally charged that Hornsby owed him $92,000, then lowered the amount to $70,075 and then $45,075. On December 21, 1927, a Missouri grand jury found in favor of Hornsby—which meant, according to Walsh’s sources, that Chicago underworld figures who were in turn owed by Moore were not going to get paid.
That made Wrigley’s pursuit of Hornsby even more perplexing, given that it would bring the slugger into the city that was home to known powerful underworld figures who were apparently intent on hurting the baseball icon. Unless, of course, having Hornsby playing for the hometown team was exactly what Chicago mobsters wanted.
Walsh’s column did not mention Capone specifically—it included only a general reference to “certain men in Chicago”—but it is hard to imagine that any gangland activity involving Chicago would not also include Al Capone. No evidence is known to exist of any conversation between Capone and Wrigley about bringing Hornsby to Chicago. Wrigley was a shrewd businessman, and there is no evidence to indicate he would compromise himself in such a manner. But if Walsh’s story was accurate, why would the mob allow Hornsby, who owed a small fortune to Moore and thus to Chicago mobsters, into their city? “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer,” is one of the most well-known gangster mottos. What better way to keep track of a known gambler than to have him right there on your home turf? That way, if he didn’t pay his debts, other forms of compensation could easily be arranged—such as access to knowledge about the team and/or their opponents. It’s notable that the time Hornsby spent in Chicago coincided with the most established connections between the mob and the Cubs.
Hornsby’s first season in Chicago, 1929, was his best as a player; he batted .380 with 149 RBI and 39 home runs. He won his second MVP award that season for leading the Cubs to the World Series, which they lost to the Philadelphia Athletics in five games. The following season, Hornsby replaced Cubs manager Joe McCarthy late in the campaign, and played himself at second base.
Hornsby’s addiction to gambling on horses was as well-known as the fact that teammate Wilson, who set the MLB record for 191 RBI that year, was a favorite at Capone’s speakeasies.
“Hornsby used to bet on the horses a lot,” said Bill DeWitt Sr., general manager of the St. Louis Browns, one of Hornsby’s former bosses, in “The Spirit of St. Louis.” “He was a big bettor. He’d bet $50 across the board or $100 across the board. Sometimes he’d bet $1,500 on a race. He’d bet eight or nine different races. And he was placing bets all over the country.”
Meanwhile, This wasn’t news to baseball insiders or Landis, who had numerous run-ins with Hornsby over the years about his gambling. Landis was handcuffed by the fact that betting on horses was not illegal, however, the commissioner was eager to make sure that Hornsby didn’t consent to allowing bookies on the bench in Chicago as he had in St. Louis, especially considering that Capone’s men would likely be the ones in the dugout. Landis’ fears came close to reality at the end of Hornsby’s only full season as Cubs manager when, on September 30, 1931, newspaper photographers took a photo of Cubs catcher Gabby Hartnett signing a baseball for Capone, who was sitting on in the front row. Technically, the regular season had ended three days earlier, the Cubs finishing third with an 84–70 record. Capone, who would be charged with tax evasion less than three weeks later, was attending the first game of Chicago’s City Series between the Cubs and White Sox.
Livid over the photograph, Landis sent Hartnett a telegram reading, “You are not to have your picture taken with Al Capone.” Ever the jokester, Hartnett replied with a pragmatic answer: “OK, but if you don’t want me to have my picture taken with Al Capone, you tell him.”
During spring training before the 1932 season, Hornsby severely hurt his ankle on a slide attempt. He would play in only 19 games that year, his lowest game total since his late-season call up in 1915. Hornsby gave up on the Cubs’ chances in late July, telling general manager William Veeck that the team didn’t have what it took to overcome the Pirates’ 4.5-game lead. Sensing that something was holding his veteran team back, Veeck began investigating the dour attitude of the team. What he found alarmed him and left him with few options.
Not only was Hornsby constantly berating his players and ruining their mental approach to the game, but he was also borrowing money from them to pay off his gambling debts. Upon investigation, it was discovered that Hornsby had borrowed approximately $11,000 from his players despite the fact that Landis had made it clear that he did not want the star to gamble at all. Veeck realized Hornsby’s gambling addiction had become a team problem, not just an individual problem.
Cubs third baseman Woody English, who roomed with Hornsby on the road before he became a manager, was quoted in the book Wrigleyville as saying, “[Hornsby] borrowed from me, borrowed from Guy Bush . . . Pat Malone was one. [Hornsby] said it was to pay his income tax, but it was gambling debts, and that was the main reason he got fired.”
Charlie “Jolly Cholly” Grimm was tapped as Hornsby’s replacement. The fun- loving first baseman was just what the Cubs needed. Chicago rallied for the rest of the season and met the New York Yankees in the World Series. So despised was Hornsby by the Cubs at that point that the team voted against the former player/manager getting a share of the 1932 World Series payout. Hornsby pled his case to an unsympathetic Landis, who upheld the players’ vote. “That fellow will never learn,” Landis said. “His betting has got him into one scrape after another, cost him a fortune and several jobs, and still he hasn’t enough sense to stop it.”
Hornsby continued playing until 1937, but was a shadow of his former self. And while his playing skills had diminished, his love of the racetrack had not. He continued to manage in the major leagues with the St. Louis Browns and the Cincinnati Reds until 1953, when he was linked to the mysterious death of a woman in Chicago. The scandal helped usher his MLB career to its end and cast another dark shadow over his legacy.
On September 6, 1953, Hornsby’s Reds lost 7–2 to the Cubs at Wrigley Field. After the game, he met his mistress, Bernadette Ann Harris, for dinner, bringing along Cubs general manager Jimmy Gallagher and his wife. Harris had occasionally identified herself as “Mrs. Hornsby,”—and even had a driver’s license with the name “Bernadette Ann Hornsby”—even though the real Mrs. Hornsby, Jeannette, from whom Rogers had been estranged since 1944, was still his legal wife.
Jeannette (also identified in reports as Jeanette) married Rogers in 1924, filed for divorce briefly in 1934, rescinded the petition, then filed for divorce again nine years later in May 1953. Jeanette’s 1953 divorce petition claimed Hornsby was a violent man who had hit her several times before leaving her and their son, Bill, in 1944. Even worse, Jeannette claimed in a wire story that Hornsby had taken and squandered the $25,000 inheritance she had received from her mother. Jeannette sought $600 per month in her divorce papers, but Judge Robert J. Kirkwood lowered it to $400 per month plus $200 for legal fees.
It was four months later that Hornsby, along with the Gallaghers, had dinner after the Reds-Cubs game with Harris. It was the last meal Harris would ever eat. After dinner, Harris returned to her apartment at the Fleetwood Hotel at 6026 Winthrop Avenue. Later that night her body was found on the ground outside the building. A local coroner ruled her death an apparent suicide from jumping off the building brought on by depression. Investigators were called in when it was found that Harris had a card in her purse that read “In case of accident notify Rogers Hornsby” and that she had a safe deposit box and a will that listed only one beneficiary: Hornsby. When authorities opened the box, they found $25,000 in cash. “The Gallaghers probably knew and others close to Hornsby guessed, for some time [Hornsby had] been using Bernadette Harris to hide money from Jeannette Hornsby,” Robert C. Alexander explained in his book Rogers Hornsby: A Biography.
No newspaper articles linked the $25,000 found in the safe deposit box with the same amount Jeannette claimed was taken from her by Hornsby. The former ballplayer paid his estranged wife $400 per month under the separate maintenance order until her death on May 30, 1956.
As for Harris’ death, Hornsby readily agreed with the coroner’s ruling of suicide brought on by depression. “She complained she was going blind, that she couldn’t talk, that she heard buzzing noises,” Hornsby was quoted in the Chicago Tribune days later. “I tried to encourage her not to worry.”
Cantankerous and callous to others, Hornsby is the only known manager in baseball history to ever be threatened by the mob for unpaid debts and was fired for borrowing money from his players to cover even more gambling debts. Despite sharing his side of the story, Hornsby’s connection to the mysterious death and suspicious will of his lover doesn’t help his case for being one of the most offensive men ever to play the game.
“He was a cold man,” Cubs infielder Billy Herman summarized bluntly.
It’s doubtful anyone will ever argue with his assessment.
“Gambling Scandals in Sports,” SI.com,http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/multimedia/photo_gallery/0707/gambling.scandals/content.1.html, accessed June 18, 2013.
Peter Golenbock, The Spirit of St. Louis: A History of the St. Louis Cardinals and Browns (New York: Avon Books, 2000), 106.
David Pietrusza, Judge and Jury: The Life and Times of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis (South Bend, IN: Diamond Communications, 1998), 316.
Golenbock, The Spirit of St. Louis, 316.
Golenbock, “The Spirit of St. Louis,” op. cit., p Ibid., 99.
“Hornsby Was Sold Because Of His Debts,” Sarasota Herald-Tribune, January 19, 1927, http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1755&dat=19270119&id=aBseAAAAIBAJ&sjid= EGQEAAAAIBAJ&pg=1349,6123740.
Golenbock, “The Spirit of St. Louis,” op. cit.,p 270-271.
William McNeil, Gabby Hartnett: The Life and Times of the Cubs’ Greatest Catcher (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2004), 147.
Pietrusza, Judge, 318.
Golenbock, Wrigleyville, 229–30.
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