Rumors of Fatal Accident Show Gambling Influence in Baseball

On Sept. 9, as the Yankees came to Cleveland for a crucial series, several brokerage houses received urgent telegrams saying that Babe Ruth, the Yankees’ feared slugger, was incapacitated in a car wreck that killed two of his teammates.

It was Ruth’s second near-death experience that year. One was real and one was rumored.

Ruth, who had become a celebrity upon his arrival in New York City, thanks in no small part to the princely paycheck he would receive, bought a Packard Twin Six. The company, which emphasized its engineering and luxury with an ad campaign saying, “Ask the Man Who Owns One,” made the first production V-12, a powerful engine. And Ruth was determined to drive it as fast as he could, making regular appearances in New York courts for speeding tickets.

In addition to traffic laws, Ruth was indifferent to the Volstead Act, the federal law banning the sale or purchase of alcohol, making Prohibition the law of the land. So Ruth had bought some bootleg alcohol after completing a series in Washington with a 17-0 drubbing of the Senators. Ruth was in his Packard with his wife Helen, teammates Frank Gleich and Fred Hofmann, and coach Charlie O’Leary, roaring through rural brick roads in Delaware County, Pa., on the way back to New York City.

Ruth, who by some accounts was bordering on intoxicated, couldn’t take a turn, and the car went off the road and flipped onto its roof. Everyone extricated themselves from the wreck except O’Leary, causing Ruth to fear he was dead. He was just asleep, awaking to say, “What the hell just happened, and where’s my hat?”

Ruth went to a nearby farmhouse for aid, and the party caught a train back to New York. Ruth, who had a bruised and bloodied knee after the accident, went 1-for-4 with an RBI, but the Yankees lost 4-3 to the Tigers, shaving a half-game off their one-game lead against the idle Indians.

That morning, some Philadelphia newspapers had reported that Ruth was killed in the car wreck. The rumors were proven untrue, but not before changing betting lines.

In September, the Yankees came to Cleveland for another important series, 1 ½ games back of the league-leading Indians. The White Sox were in second, a half-game ahead of the Yankees. Brokerage houses in Cleveland, New York and other big league cities received telegrams saying that Ruth had broken his leg, shoulder and three ribs, while teammates Del Pratt and Bob Meusel were killed. Ruth liked to drive separately, and had a new car to replace the Packard he mangled in Southeastern Pennsylvania. The Yankees were coming from Pittsburgh, where they had played an exhibition game against the Pirates the day before.

The telegrams were signed by another brokerage firm, which investigation revealed did not exist. Newspapers in Cleveland and New York were slammed with telegrams questioning the veracity of the rumor – by fans and even by some of the players’ families. But the rumor was immediately quelled.

“It’s a sure thing gamblers started this story,” said Yankees owner Tillinghast Huston. “I have no facts on which to base any charges, but one can understand the possibilities of gamblers getting unfair odds through just suck tricks. I want to say, however, that there has not been a suspicion of anything wrong, no matter what one may think about betting on baseball or anything else.”

That was incorrect.

In addition to Cleveland police investigating allegations of gamblers planting the rumors, allegations of a fixed game in August were being probed in Chicago. There was heavy and irregular gambling action on an Aug. 31 game between the Phillies and the Cubs – enough that a Cleveland bookie wouldn’t take bets on it.

At the prodding of Cubs president William Veeck – whose son Bill would own the Indians a generation later – a grand jury was impaneled. Testimony was being taken, and a private investigator in Veeck’s employ had even spent Labor Day weekend in Cleveland, investigating other suspicious cables.

Allegations of a fix of the Phillies-Cubs game were never proven. But what the grand jury did find out would shake the game of baseball – and the country’s faith in its institutions – to its very core.


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