Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Black Sox had nothing on Babe Borton

(This three-part article, an earlier version of which was published in Sports Collectors Digest on Aug. 27, 1993) concludes a series about the 1919 Pacific Coast League gambling scandal. Earlier presentations detailed the involvement of "Bad News Bees" players Gene Dale [June 14-15], Harl Maggert [July 10-11], and Bill Rumler [Aug. 15-17]).
Over five seasons (1914-20) Babe
Borton was a popular star in the Pacific
Coast League before it was discovered
he was a ringleader in fixing ballgames
and pennant races. (1914 Zeenut
candy card courtesy Mark Macrae.)

            Though it would be almost a year before the press and the general public discovered it, the 1919 baseball season was undoubtedly the dirtiest in the history of the national pastime. The Black Sox scandal of the 1919 World Series was only the culmination of a year’s worth of fixed and throw ballgames at the major league and minor league levels.

            Because it involved the revered Fall Classic and some of the best players in the game, the World Series scandal overshadowed the other chicanery to such an extent that the average fan today has heard little or nothing about baseball’s other dirty doings in 1919.

            Sure, fixing the World Series was a big deal and everybody today – thanks to books and movies – knows the story of the “Eight Men Out” and all the colorful characters on the periphery. But how many know the name of Babe Borton, the man who fixed an entire pennant race?

            At any other time in baseball history, the selling of the Pacific Coast League pennant race of 1919 would have been front page news nationwide. The P.C.L. was a virtual third major league at the time that no team in the American or National Leagues was situated west of St. Louis. But, because the details of the scandal were unfolding at the same time the World Series fix was being revealed, the story of Babe Borton’s tampering with the West Coast pennant race is virtually unknown today. It is a story worth knowing.

            Like the Black Sox scandal, the fixing of the P.C.L. pennant race was a secret kept tightly locked in the confines of the locker room. It may have never seen the light of day except that an innocent ballplayer could no longer take the accusatory jibes flung at him throughout the 1920 season.

            The 1919 Pacific Coast League pennant race had been a three-team thriller right into the final month of the season. By mid-September the Salt Lake City Bees, still in third place, had dropped to 10 games back, leaving the Los Angeles Angels and their cross-town rivals, the Vernon Tigers, in a tie for first place.

            On Sept. 16 the Bees and Tigers began a 13-game home-and-home series while L.A. hosted the fourth-place San Francisco Seals and then traveled north to play tail-end Seattle. When the Sunday double-headers were over on Sept. 28, Los Angeles was ahead of the Tigers by 2-1/2 games. While Vernon had taken nine of the 13 games against Salt Lake City, the Angels had beaten San Francisco five-of-seven and, after arriving in Seattle two days late because of train trouble, swept the Rainiers in six games.

            The 1919 Coast League pennant race came down to what should have been an incredibly dramatic finish – a seven-game series at Vernon between the Tigers and Angels for all the marbles. The teams split a Wednesday double-header on Oct. 1, then Vernon ran away with the gonfalon by sweeping the final five games of the season.

            In winning the pennant, the Vernon players also won a $10,000 purse put up by their fans, plus an $8,000 share of the best-of-nine “Junior World Series” in which they beat St. Paul of the American Association. Each Tiger pocketed the equivalent of several months’ pay at prevailing P.C.L. salary levels. As it turned out, several Salt Lake City player also received a well-earned, but dirty, bonus from the Vernon post-season pot. And many more players around the league were accused of having done the same, which caused the entire plot to unravel.

            In mid-June Los Angeles traveled to Salt Lake City for the first meeting between the teams in the 1920 season. The Seraphs, led by center fielder and manager Wade “Red” Killefer, began immediately to roast Bees pitcher Ralph Stroud. They accused Stroud of accepting $500 from Vernon the previous season to jump the Salt Lake City team during the critical series with Vernon. Indeed, after pitching twice in two days against San Francisco just prior to the critical Vernon series, Stroud left his team, citing irreconcilable differences with manager Eddie Herr. At the time he quit the Bees, Stroud had about the best winning percentage among regulars on the staff, 14-11 with an ERA of 3.84. When Herr was replaced by Ernie Johnson for the 1920 season, Stroud returned to the Bees and ran up a 26-13 record on a 3.20 ERA.

            Killefer would not accept Stroud’s explanation, nor the testimonial of Johnson, to whom Stroud had gone for help in quieting the accusations, that Stroud was on the level. In desperation Stroud appealed to P.C.L. President William McCarthy.

            McCarthy immediately began an investigation which culminated in late July when one of Stroud’s teammates was observed by a detective taking a $300 payoff from Vernon first baseman Babe Borton. Meanwhile, reports of bribes, attempted bribes and other efforts to throw ballgames during the 1919 pennant race piled up in McCarthy’s dossier against Borton. On Aug. 1, Babe Borton played his last game in Organized Baseball. He was suspended by the Vernon management pending the outcome of McCarthy’s investigation.

            Borton’s career had begun more than a decade earlier, when he signed his first professional contract in 1910 at the age of 21. Borton began with Springfield of the Three-I League Indiana, Illinois, Iowa), just down the road from Marion, Ill., where he had been born in 1888. He actually played his first pro ball for Ottumwa, Iowa, in the Central Association (Class D), on option from Springfield.

            He batted .293 at Ottumwa, fourth-best in the league among those who played more than 100 games. Borton’s team finished second in a field of eight that season.

            In 1911 Borton moved up to the Class A Western League, having been drafted by St. Joseph (Missouri). Borton led the league with a .343 batting average, and also paced the circuit’s first sackers in fielding. The Saints finished second.

            Borton was drafted by the Chicago White Sox for 1912, but was beaten out for a back-up first baseman’s job and returned to St. Joe. Borton again led the W.L. in 1912, batting .364. In late August, fearful of losing him to another team in the draft, the White Sox recalled Borton. In his month at Chicago he hit .371 and earned a first base platoon job with Rollie Zeider for the 1913 season.

On June 1, 1913, the Chicago White Sox traded
both their first baseman, Rollie Zeider and Babe
Borton (above), to the Yankees for Hal Chase. 

            On June 1, 1913, the ChiSox traded both of their first basemen, Zeider and Borton, to the New York Yankees for the game’s premier player at that position, Hal Chase.

            The Yankees gave Borton a month to prove himself, but when he was hitting just .130 after 33 games they assigned him to last-place Jersey City in the International League. Borton refused to report to the Skeeters, and went home to St. Joseph, where he went back to his off-season job working as a clerk in a cigar store. He tried to get St. Joe to buy his release, but they chose not to get involved. A deal to send him to Atlanta also fell through.

             After the close of the season, Borton requested a trade and was sold to Toronto, also in the I.L. In the interim he’d gone out to California to play in one of the winter league’s that flourished there at the time. Deciding he liked the climate, he informed Toronto’s management that he would not be reporting in the spring. His contract was returned to Jersey City, who made a deal to allow Borton to remain on the Coast, with Venice.

            The first baseman had a good season with Venice in 1914, hitting .307 (eighth-best in the P.C.L. among those playing 100 games or more) and leading the league’s first basemen with a .992 fielding average.

            Despite the fact that Venice finished fourth in the six-team league, Borton was hailed by Sporting Life as “the best first sacker ever in the Coast League with the exception of the ‘native son’ Hal Chase.” That status did not go unnoticed by the Federal League when it stepped up its raids on Organized Baseball to stock the teams of its “Third Major League.” For 1915 Borton signed a contract with the St. Louis Feds.

             With the Federal League St. Louis Terriers in 1915, Borton again had a strong season, hitting .286 and leading the Federal League in runs scored and bases on balls. His .993 fielding average was tied for third-best among all major league first basemen. Reading the writing of the Federal League imminent demise on the wall, in mid-August Borton tried to buy his release from St. Louis, hoping he could return to one of the "old" major league clubs.

After jumping to the St. Louis Terriers of the Federal League in
1915, Borton returned to the American League with the
St. Louis Browns (above) for 1916, his last season in the majors.

              As part of the Federal League's peace agreement with the National and American Leagues, Phil Ball, owner of the St. Louis Fed franchise was allowed to purchase the St. Louis Browns. When the players from the two teams were combined for 1916, Borton made the roster of the Browns.

              Playing behind future Hall of Famer George Sisler at first base, Borton made the majority of his appearances with the Brownies as a left-handed pinch-hitter. He was not very successful in that capacity, hitting just .171 off the bench, and only .224 overall, with little power.

(continued tomorrow)


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