The Story of the 1877 Louisville Grays Baseball Betting Scandal

The Story of the 1877 Louisville Grays Baseball Betting Scandal
The 1876 Louisville Grays team included Jim Devlin (middle, back row), who would become embroiled in scandal the following year (Image: Wikimedia)

For longer than organised sport has existed, people have been gambling. The rise of betting on sporting contests was inevitable. Nefarious activity in the form of match fixing was sadly therefore inescapable.

As the popularity of baseball grew in the late 19th century, professionalising the game was unavoidable, so the National Association began in 1871. It was later superseded by the National League, which followed in 1876, and is still going strong today.

The National Association was riddled with corruption, with gamblers openly tolerated and game fixing rife. In 1874, a magazine noted “there is no sport now in vogue in which so much fraud prevails as in baseball. Any professional baseball club will throw a game if there is money.” The primary aim of the new league was to institute a moral code to control gambling.

One group of interested parties who were obviously not in favour of this development though were the gamblers themselves. As baseball historian Lee Allen noted in 100 Years Of Baseball, they were “alert to the fact that professionals would be much more difficult to manipulate for their sordid purposes than amateurs”. They needn’t have worried, as several players for the Louisville Grays proved all-too-susceptible to their overtures.

 

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The Men At The Centre Of The Storm

When the National League was formed, the Louisville Grays were one of the eight founding members, alongside teams from Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Hartford, New York, Philadelphia and St. Louis.

The Grays, as a group, enjoyed hanging out in bars and betting on sport, including baseball. But so did most of their contemporaries in the sport at the time. Were they the only ones to overstep the mark? It seems unlikely – as far back as 1865 games were known to have been fixed – but it is four of their players who have gone down in infamy.

The quartet in question were Bill Craver, Jim Devlin, George Hall and Al Nichols. Craver was the captain and had the worst reputation. He was an established bettor, and in 1876 was savagely beaten by a gambler for double-crossing him on a fix.


responsible Craver developed one of the worst reputations for match fixing in 19th Century baseball (Image: Wikimedia)

Devlin was the Grays’ pitcher. He wasn’t just a superstar at the time, but a man whose name looms large in pitching records to this day. His career ERA of 1.896 is the third best of players who have thrown at least 1,000 innings. Devlin led the league for strikeouts in 1876, and would finish second in the ranking the following year.

Hall was the National League’s first home run king, topping the chart while playing for the Philadelphia Athletics. But where a player would need around 50 to bag top spot now, five homers were all it took in 1876. It was a very different sport. Even so, Hall would surely have posthumously found his way to Cooperstown had he not succumbed to temptation.

As with Craver, trouble seemed to follow Al Nichols around, and he had a reputation of tanking games for money. Though he only played six games for Grays, they were enough for him to become embroiled in the scandal.

How Were Their Heads Turned?

There was probably not one reason alone why the Grays began to fix games. Multiple factors were clearly at play.

In 1876, George Bechtel was suspended by Louisville’s management for allegedly trying to deliberately lose a game. He sent a telegraph to Jim Devlin beforehand which read: “We can make $500 if you lose the game today”.

But Devlin wasn’t interested, replying “I want you to understand that I am not that sort of a man. I play ball for the interest of those that hire me”. Had Bechtel sowed the seed of an idea with Devlin though?

One could argue the rules of the league left players needing to make a quick buck too. Ahead of the 1877 season it was decreed players would have to pay for their own uniforms and some of their travel expenses.

That’s before we get to the issue of unpaid salaries; Devlin and Hall were each owed over $500 by the Grays, around a quarter of their contracted pay for the year. A little extra money on the side might have proved very appealing.

The 1877 Season

The New York Clipper’s preview of the 1877 season highlighted one man for Louisville: Jim Devlin. “The Louisvilles rest on the chance of Devlin’s improvement under the incentive of a rival pitcher being at command to take his place”. Yet this never occurred; Devlin pitched every inning of every game, and remains the only man ever to do so. With no rotation, was he a soft target for corruption?

After a moderate start – they were 13-11 after 24 games – things clicked into gear in July for the Grays. Louisville went 10-1 between 7th July and 4th August, moving from 2.5 games back to three up.

But in mid-August the Grays headed to Boston, where the wheels fell off their pennant challenge. They began with a 6-1 loss some experts believe may have been fixed, while others disagree. Either way, it was the start of the rot in their results, and was followed by two heavy losses to Hartford.


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After a 1-1 tie with Hartford, the Grays faced three more games against Boston, and lost them all. Following the first, a 3-2 defeat, both Boston and Louisville had a record of 27-17. It was the last time the Grays would hold a share of first place, as they then lost 6-0 and 4-3.

A 6-0 loss may appear suspicious, but reports suggest it was down to excellent pitching by Boston’s Tommy Bond. He struck out nine, at a time when his average of 2.9 per game made him the league’s leading strikeout pitcher that year.

The Grays’ miserable road trip was almost at an end. On the morning of the final game, the issue of fixing began to be revealed.

The Scandal Comes To Light

On 31st August, Grays were due to play Hartford. That morning, Louisville’s vice-president Charles E. Chase received an anonymous telegram, which advised him to ‘watch your men’ as the sender believed something was wrong with how they were playing. Their 6-3 loss that day did nothing to dampen Chase’s concerns.

Following the defeat, Grays headed to Cincinnati. It was here that Hall made a proposition to Devlin which would end their careers. Louisville lost the first game 1-0, after Devlin gave up a home run in the eighth inning. The Grays then won for the first time in ten (3-2), before losing the final game of the series 6-2.

By now suspicions were being raised on a scale beyond telegrams to club officials. John A. Haldeman, a reporter, wrote about his doubts in the Louisville Courier-Journal.

He alleged Devlin had not used his best pitch – a ground-shoot, akin to a sinker – and wondered why not. Haldeman pointed the finger at Craver, Hague and Hall too. The latter was certainly in a slump on the road trip, hitting .143 when his average for the season was .323, the seventh best in the league. Haldeman continued to write questioning articles, hoping to smoke out a traitor.

On 14th September, Grays beat Cincinnati 12-6 in their best win for a month. But by then they were six games back with only eight to play, leaving their pennant chase over. Their next assignment was two weeks away, so plans were made for the final road trip of the year. The house of cards then finally came tumbling down.

Nichols requested he not go on the trip, and be released by the club, as he knew the noose of guilt was closing. Chase challenged him, and Nichols claimed to not know about games being thrown, though he confessed to betting on them. At Chase’s request, Nichols reluctantly agreed that any telegrams sent to him on the road trip could be read.


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Two such telegrams were from a pool-seller from Brooklyn, P.A. Williams, asking why Nichols hadn’t contacted him and if arrangements were in place. When questioned by Chase, Nichols pleaded ignorance, but the former knew he had a serious problem on his hands. Devlin’s refusal to have his telegrams read when requested didn’t assuage Chase’s fears either.

Once the season ended – with the Grays finishing second, seven games back from Boston – the club played exhibition games. They immediately returned to top form, adding more fuel to the fire. Devlin claimed he had lost form on the infamous road trip due to arm troubles which had since improved, but few were convinced.

Meanwhile, Haldeman’s continued comments in the press started to worry the guilty parties. He had no proof, but claiming he did had the same effect. Hall contacted him to say he should focus on Nichols, which did little to win over Haldeman with regards to either player.

With the wider baseball world waking up to the problem, the game was up. National League president William A. Hulbert contacted Chase and demanded he begin an investigation. Chase began by confronting Devlin, who denied he had thrown any league games but owned up to careless play in exhibition games.

Based on Devlin’s form, his explanation made no sense. And then Chase’s investigation bore fruit the same day, when Hall cracked and came clean, believing his boss knew more than he actually did. Hall had first confessed to his wife, and the wives of the players had discussed the issue and threatened to tell the club if the players did not.

Time To Confess

In late October, the board of directors of the club, alongside an attorney, questioned all of the players. Hall went first.

“About three or four weeks after Nichols joined, he made me a proposition to assist in throwing League games. Devlin first made me a proposition in Columbus to throw the game in Cincinnati.

"We went to the telegraph office and sent a dispatch to a man by the name McCloud (a pool-seller) saying we would lose the game. Never got a cent from Nichols for the games he and I threw. Nichols said ‘George, try and get Jim in’. Devlin accepted the proposition.”


responsible George Hall pictured during his time with the Boston Red Stockings before his move to the Grays (Image: Wikimedia)

Devlin was the next to give his side of the story. “McCloud sent me $100 in a letter and I gave Hall $25 of it, told him McCloud only sent $50.” These men weren’t just being dishonest to their employees, team mates and fans, they weren’t even being straight with each other. Devlin continued, “I never had anything to do with Nichols. Received $300 from McCloud in total, for one Cincinnati and two Indianapolis games.”

Before he departed for Brooklyn, Nichols was expelled from the club on Hall’s testimony combined with the fact he admitted to gambling on games.

To understand the full scale of the problem, Chase demanded all players allowed him to read the telegraphs they received and sent that year. Craver refused, and was immediately suspended. He wasn’t aided by the testimony of three teammates – Gerhardt, Shaffer and Latham – who all claimed he had deliberately rattled them, causing them to make errors.

But even so, he was banned from baseball on circumstantial evidence. In the modern era there would be no way he’d be expelled from the sport on the evidence – if you can even call it that – used against him.

On 30 October 1877, the four men were expelled from the club by the Louisville Grays’ board of directors. They felt there was evidence the players had thrown at least two of the games to Boston and Hartford and another to Cincinnati.

Rule 6 of the National League’s constitution stated: “If a player was found guilty of any dishonest play, he would be banned for life,” and so it proved. Bill Craver continued to protest his innocence for years afterward and became a policeman, believe it or not, as did Jim Devlin.

Conclusion

Cheating takes many forms. The Grays fixed games, Richard Higham became baseball’s first crooked umpire in 1882, and 140 years after the Louisville scandal, the Houston Astros won the World Series in part thanks to stealing signs electronically.

Perhaps the most famous of all were the ‘Black Sox’ in 1919. That scandal led to the appointment of baseball’s first commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis. In August 1921, he issued a statement:

“Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player that throws a ball game; no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ball game; no player that sits in a conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing ball games are planned and discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.”

His words hang in every major league clubhouse to this day. It remains a crying shame the crooked Louisville Grays did not think as Landis one day would.


With thanks to William A. Cook’s book, ‘The Louisville Grays Scandal of 1877’

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