Friday, September 26, 2014

Technicality freed Borton, crooked P.C.L. players

(continued from yesterday)

Among the first to come forward were Salt Lake City pitchers Ralph Stroud and Spider Baum. Stroud swore out an affidavit that said Borton and Chase had approached him prior to a game at Vernon on April 28, 1920, and offered him $300 if he would throw that day's game. Stroud said he spurned the offer, but went on to lose 5-1, giving up nine hits and four walks in seven innings. He said that Borton attempted to press the $300 on him after the game, but that he'd refused the money, telling Borton he'd pitched as hard as he could and been fairly beaten. Stroud came back to pitch the final game of that series, winning the second game of the traditional Sunday double-header 5-3 on a four-hitter. Baum, whose brother served as P.C.L. president from 1911-19, made a similar accusation against Borton and Chase.

Ed "Tubby" Spencer, catcher for Salt Lake City in 1919, swore out a statement that he had been offered $1,750 by Borton to cooperate in fixing games that season. Borton later admitted that he had made a bribe offer to Spencer, but not in anywhere near that amount.

Portland's second baseman, Paddy Siglin, made a statement charging that Borton had offered him $100 to stay out of the line-up during a week that Vernon was playing the Beavers in 1919.

The following season, when Vernon was visiting Portland, Borton apparently had his money on the home team to win. Two Beavers reported that Borton offered to tip them off when they were base runners.

Pitcher John Glasier said, "Babe Borton told me while I was a runner on first base to get a good lead off first,as he would tell me when the Vernon pitcher would throw to first, and if I was caught he would not tag me."

Portland right fielder Dick Cox told a similar story. "In one of the games I was on first base and thinking the pitcher had the ball I was just going to get my lead off first and Borton told me (Vernon second baseman Bob) Fisher had the ball so I stayed on the bag and Fisher did have the ball, waiting for me to get off the bag." He recounted a second incident, "In another game of the same series I was on first base and Borton told me, 'Don't get too big a lead, kid, the pitcher is going to throw over here' and sure enough he did throw over to catch me, but I did not have a big lead so he didn't get me as Borton had told me right."

By mid-August McCarthy's investigation had turned up three actual payments of a suspicious nature from Borton to members of the Salt Lake City Bees.

Outfielder Harl Maggert had been observed accepting $300 cash, and bank drafts in the amounts of $200 and $500 were traced to outfielder Bill Rumler and pitcher Gene Dale, respectively. Called on the carpet, Maggert said the 300 iron men he'd been paid were owed from a card game or a dice game (his story varied, according to the local press) from the previous year. Dale said the $500 he'd received was repayment of a loan made to Borton. Rumler's alibi was that the $200 he got from Borton was the proceeds of a "safety bet" made by the pair when each of their respective clubs was near first place in the 1919 pennant race. Safety bets, despite what baseball's hierarchy liked to believe, were a common practice at the time. According to Rumler, his agreement with Borton was an effort to insure that each would get at least some share of the post-season money regardless of which team won. When Vernon won, Borton owed Rumler $200; if Salt Lake City had won the pennant Rumler would have paid Borton $200. Technically, of course, it's betting against your own team, but it was a common practice in that era -- even among World Series opponents, who often paired off and agreed to split the winner's and loser's shares 50-50.

When word of the payoffs to the Salt Lake City players was received, Maggert and Rumler were immediately suspended from the team. Dale had moved on to Dallas for the 1920 season, and finished the Texas League season there before his name was dragged into the scandal.

As might be expected, lawsuits and threats of litigation began to fly. In late August, McCarthy virtually ordered Vernon's management and players to sue Borton for slander in naming them as participants in a bribery cabal. Borton threatened to counter sue. Hal Chase threatened to sue the P.C.L.'s owners for barring him from its parks. Bill Rumler threatened to sue the league for $50,000 for handing him a five-year suspension.

In 1913 the Yankees traded Hal Chase to the White Sox for
both their first basemen, Rollie Zeider and Babe Borton. In
1920, having been run out of Organized Baseball, Chase
joined Borton in fixing Pacific Coast League games. He was
subsequently barred from all P.C.L. parks 

Borton struck first in the courts, slapping Vernon manager (and his former roommate) Bill Essick with a $50,000 criminal libel suit for labeling Borton's contention that other Vernon players were involved in the bribery a "mass of lies." Borton promised that when his suit came to trial he would prove his story true "and that Essick was as deep in the plot as any of them." Borton eventually abandoned his suit against Essick and, for reasons that can only be guessed at, Essick and the Vernon players did not press their suits.

That, however, did not keep the affair out of the courthouse. In October, spurred by constant agitation of the L.A. newspapers, District Attorney Doran convened a grand jury. Under the direction of Deputy D.A. Stafford, the panel seemed unable to get beyond what McCarthy's league investigation had already turned up.

Borton expressed delight at the official probe. Los Angeles baseball best writer Matt Gallagher wrote, "Whatever else is to be said of Borton, he is one of the eager ones in getting the grand jury busy, which makes it appear he thinks the inquiry will do more to clear him than damn him -- or rather damn others with him. Borton has confessed his part and says he is sick and sore at being a goat because others, as he alleges, have not had the nerve to face the music."

After a week of taking testimony, Stafford could say only that there had been "some tall lying done by witnesses examined." Many of the Vernon players from 1919 were called into the hearing, as were various other P.C.L. players whom Borton had named as recipients of bribe money. One by one they denied knowledge of any general conspiracy by the Vernon team and evidence mounted that Borton had been acting as sole agent for the gambling interests.

The grand jury's net even brought in the known gamblers who testified that prior to the crucial Vernon-Salt Lake City series of September, 1919, the odds had swung to 3-1 for Vernon to come out on top. Gamblers who normally bet no more than $100 on a game were said to have wagered up to $1,500 per contest on some of the games in that series, a strong indication that the "sure-thing" bettors knew when the fix was in.

On Dec. 10, after six weeks of "exhaustive inquiry," the grand jury concluded that there was no truth to the allegations that any other Vernon player or official had taken part in any bribery. Indictments were returned against Borton, Rumler, Maggert and gambler Raymond, charging them with criminal conspiracy and "collusion to throw ball games in the Vernon-Salt Lake series in Los Angeles" in September, 1919. The charges carried potential penalties of up to two years in prison and fines of $2,000.

No other players were indicted, according to the grand jury, "so their names are not to be mentioned in the case as far as legal proceedings are concerned, whatever opinions the officials of the league may have, and regardless of any action the league may take later."

It was fully expected that the trials of the indicted fixers would bring out facts implicating other, unindicted, players, so the case, from a baseball standpoint, was not closed by any means.

L.A. County Judge Frank R. Willis ordered the arrest of the indicted men, setting bail at $1,000 each. Borton and Maggert appeared voluntarily a few days later to post bond. Rumler, at home in Nebraska, indicated he would appear for trial. Raymond was laying low in Seattle and was not heard from.

On Dec. 24, the criminal justice system gave the players and the gambler an early Christmas present by dismissing the indictments. Judge Willis held that there was nothing in California law that prohibited a ballplayer from throwing a ballgame. 

According to San Francisco writer "Seal Rock," the judge's decision "was not entirely unexpected. It had been pointed out that there was weakness in the California statutes that raised a great doubt as to the baseball prosecutions holding, and that as a matter of fact the Los Angeles indictments were merely regarded as test cases."

Rock editorialized, "A ball player can be as crooked as his conscience will permit, in California, and the law can't tuch him. He can even admit he is a crook and get away with it, so far as the law in concerned."

In dismissing the indictments, Willis said the players had entered into contracts to play ball to the best of their ability, but their failure to do so amounted only to a breach of civil contract and was in no way actionable as a criminal offense. The judge did excoriate the players with his personal opinion that their actions were reprehensible and he expressed regret that the law could not reach them.

The powers-that-be in the Pacific Coast League could, however, reach the players, and they did so. Borton, Maggert, Rumler and the unindicted Dale were formally expelled from the league. To add insult to injury, the players' 1919 season stats were expunged from the league's official records.

Borton never again played in Organized Baseball. He died in Berkeley, Calif., July 29, 1954, at the age of 65.

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