clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Baseball's Greatest Scandals, #7: The Louisville Grays

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Bill Craver, one of four men expelled in the 1877 Louisville Grays scandal.
Bill Craver, one of four men expelled in the 1877 Louisville Grays scandal.

"Any professional base ball club will 'throw' a game if there is money in it. A horse race is a pretty safe thing to speculate on in comparison with the average ball match."
  -- Beadle's Dime Base Ball Player, 1875

This isn't the only entry on the topic of throwing games for money we'll see as we move up the top ten, and nor was it the first to hit the game. Since the very early days, baseball has had an unwilling relationship with gambling and gamblers. The latter, keen to find an edge, attempted to bribe players to throw contests. Particularly in the early days, when salaries were low and entirely controlled by the owners, they sometimes found a receptive ear in those who could make more money by losing a few games, than by legitimately playing for an entire season.

Baseball isn't alone here. On the other side of the pond, cricket's rise to become England's national sport in 17th- and 18th- centuries was largely driven by gambling. At that time, newspapers "were more interested in publishing the odds than the match scores. Reports would say who won the wager rather than who won the match." As early as 1664, the English Parliament was forced to pass a law limiting stakes to 100 pounds per game (still a huge sum at the time). Many teams were also funded by gamblers, seeking to cover their bets by providing "incentives" to their favored side, or covering the costs of bringing in outside help. This was not seen as improper.

It's also important to draw a distinction between the blanket ban on gambling now present in baseball, and the far laxer rules in the 19th-century. Indeed, pretty much through World War I, it was fine for players to bet on themselves to win, as an entry from the Dec. 9th, 1894 Washington Post shows. "[Cap] Anson has already started making wagers on the position the Chicago Colts will have in the race for the National League Pennant next year. He put up $100 a few days ago that his team would finish higher up in the race than the Pittsburgh Pirates." Now, any such report would make Bud Selig's head explode: then, it was only throwing games that was deemed a problem.

For example, in 1865, Thomas Devyr, a player on Tammany Hall's Mutuals team, came forward to testify that team-mate William Wansley had made advance to Devyr and another player on the team, offering $100 in exchange for throwing the first game of a series against the Brooklyn Excelsiors. All the players were expelled from the team, though the trio's punishments were revoked by 1870. Suspicion of links to gambling were also one of the factors that helped bring about the end entirely of the National Association in 1875, the first professional baseball league. Two years later, its replacement, the National League, faced its first scandal.

In 1877, the Louisville Grays were in their second season. In their first, they had finished a respectable fifth in the NL, with a 30-36 record. Their starter, Jim Devlin*, had led the league in WAR with 12.2 [and when I say, their starter, he was basically the only pitcher]. The following season, they retooled the outfield, signing English-born George Hall, the NL home-run champion the previous season with Philadelphia. With the marvelously-named Orator Shafer swatting three home runs - good enough for second-place in the league - Hall batting .323 for the season, and Devlin working every inning that year, they went 9-2 in July, and on August 13th, were 27-13, four games up.

However, the Grays imploded, losing 10 of the next 11, to drop 6.5 games back. While they recovered in the final couple of weeks, the league pennant went to the Boston Red Caps. They did a Rockies, going 20-1 down the stretch, and took the lead for good with a three-game sweep of Louisville from Aug 25-28. The sudden slump of the previously unstoppable Grays drew suspicion, and team official Charles Chase also received anonymous telegrams before two games against Hartford. Louisville lost them, with Hall and utility infielder Al Nichols - signed at the suggestion of Hall - committing key errors in both games; Devlin also played poorly.

The team's failure on the East coast trip also drew press attention, particularly from the Louisville Courier-Journal's John A. Haldeman - whose father was the Grays' president. Haldeman was intimately acquainted with the team as a journalist, and even played emergency second-base for them in a game earlier that season, going 0-for-4 against Cincinnati on July 3 [Nick Piecoro and Steve Gilbert, eat your heart out!] He wrote afterward, "I had followed the club so closely during the season, and was so well acquainted with its inner workings, what it could and what it could not accomplish, that I knew that 'funny business' had been going on during its last Eastern trip."

George Hall, in his pre-Grays days with the Boston Red Caps

In particular, Haldeman noted that Devlin had abandoned the use of his best pitch, the "ground-shoot" - the equivalent of Brandon Webb abandoning his sinker - while Hall had gone just 4-for-28 on the trip. Haldeman had no hesitation in hinting to his readers that something was up, though he had no specific proof at this point. Meanwhile, suspecting a fix, Chase had a meeting with Nichols, who denied involvement, but agreed, after some pressure, to allow Chase to read any telegrams sent to the player. And towards the end of September, messages were received from a known bookmaker in Brooklyn, wanting to know why Nichols hadn't been in contact.

After the season ended, Devlin's pitching "miraculously" improved, causing Haldeman to write, scathingly:

"This will look unaccountably strange to anyone who failed to see him work yesterday against the Bostons. His last three games here certainly been marvelous exhibitions, and only go to prove what the man can do when he wants to do it. Two-base hits in three games! Unparalleled, vexatious, significant... In making for himself a reputation at this day, the distinguished foreigner smears something over his fair name every time he keeps an opposing nine down to a single hit in a game. You are not politic, Sir James; not politic, sir, by a large jug full."

Chase had a meeting with those suspected of involvement, starting with Devlin, who denied everything. However, the meeting was enough to scare Hall into a full confession, and he implicated Nichols, stating he was the contact man with the gamblers. Chase was able to get the content of the telegrams sent and received by the suspects from Western Union, and they proved damning, linking the trio in particular to a New York gambler named McLeod. They had agreed to throw both league and exhibition contests; Devlin had originally succumbed only to the latter, but once he had done so, found himself in no position to decline the more important games.

The conspiracy unraveled entirely in October, with the players running to throw each other under the horse-drawn pantechnicon. Another Grey, Bill Craver was implicated - he had been expelled from the Chicago White Stockings in 1870 for 'insubordination and gambling,' and it was noted he was the only player to have refused to give permission for his telegrams to be read. On October 30th, Hall, Devlin and Nichols were expelled from the club, "for selling games, conspiring to sell games and tampering with players," while Craver was also ejected, for "disobedience of positive orders of general misconduct and of suspicious play."

That ended their careers, because any player expelled by a club, could not play elsewhere without the unanimous agreement of all league members. However, it's interesting to note that other players were not punished, even those like Shafer, who were apparently aware of the fix - or, at least, it's possibility - and did nothing to report it to the authorities. Shafer testified during the hearings, "Nichols told me that "if he had a chance he would not be a sucker," meaning that if he had a chance to throw a game for money, he would do it... Nichols said he thought that some of the players were not working on the square. I understood him to mean Craver."

The scandal shook the newly-founded league to its core, to the extent that a St. Louis newspaper wrote, "The days of professional baseball are numbered, and the hundreds of young men who have depended on the pastime as their means of earning a living will be obliged to change their plans of operation." The NL had been started to make a clean break from gamblers and their ills, but as well as the Louisville saga, umpire Dan Devinney alleged that the St. Louis manager had offered him $250 to throw an August game against the Grays. It was also noted that, while 14 men had officiated Louisville games, they had more wins under Devinney than all others put together...

The National League managed to survive: the Grays, however, did not. It may not have been just the loss of three core players that was responsible, as the team also made a loss of $2,000, a significant sum in the 1870's - though they were hardly alone among baseball clubs of the time there. Regardless of the cause, the next season the directors voted not to field a team and the National League accepted this as the franchise's resignation from baseball. The city got another shot in 1882, when the Eclipse joined the American Association, winning the pennant as the Louisville Colonels in 1890, and folding again just before the turn of the century.

Curiously, Craver and Devlin both ended up working as police officers, though Devlin died of typhoid pneumonia, apparently complicated by his fondness for strong liquor, less than six years after his expulsion. He had made repeated requests to be reinstated, on one occasion traveling to Chicago to visit league president William Hulbert to plead his case. The meeting was described by Albert Spalding, founder of the sporting goods company, in terms more befitting a Victorian melodrama:

I heard Devlin's plea to have the stigma removed from his name. I heard him entreat, not on his own account, he acknowledged himself unworthy of consideration, but for the sake of his wife and child. I beheld the agony of humiliation depicted on his features as he confessed his guilt and begged for mercy.

I saw the great bulk of Hulbert's frame tremble with the emotion he vainly sought to stifle. I saw the president's hand steal into his pocket as if seeking to conceal his intended act from the other hand. I saw him take a $50 bill and press it into the palm of the prostrate player. And then I heard him say, as he fairly writhed with the pain his own words caused him, 'That's what I think of you, personally; but, damn you, Devlin, you are dishonest; you have sold a game, and I can't trust you. Now go; and let me never see your face again; for your act will not be condoned so long as I live.'

Additional sources:
Major Leagues, by David Petruza
The Louisville Grays Scandal of 1877by William A. Cook

* - Not to be confused with the other Jim Devlin, who pitched a few years later, and who also died young, at the same age of 34. And whose photo almost adorned this article until I suddenly realized they were two different players. Minor trivia note: "our" Jim Devlin also threw the first pitch ever to a batter belonging to the franchise now known as the Chicago Cubs. Though they were then known as the Chicago White Stockings. Like I said, this 19th-century baseball thing can get pretty confusing...