Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com on March 26, 2018, and is reprinted here by permission. Click here to read Part 1 of this series.
In April 1921, American League President Ban Johnson sent a telegram to a Philadelphia newspaper reporter who had helped publicly expose the Black Sox Scandal months earlier. He was on the hunt for Sleepy Bill Burns, a former Major League pitcher who had served as a liaison between the eight Chicago White Sox players who agreed to fix the 1919 World Series and the gamblers putting up the money to bribe them to lose to the Cincinnati Reds.
The eight White Sox players—Eddie Cicotte, Happy Felsch, Chick Gandil, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Fred McMullin, Swede Risberg, Buck Weaver, and Lefty Williams—had been indicted by a Chicago grand jury and were set to stand trial on conspiracy charges soon. But the prosecution’s case was full of holes and they needed Burns, a fix insider, to corroborate the story under oath. That’s when the man long known as baseball’s “czar” stepped in to help.
Ban Johnson’s urgent note to James Isaminger of the Philadelphia North American said: “Must have immediately Burns’ exact Texas address. . . . Burns should have no knowledge we are looking for him.”
Thus began one of the most incredible manhunts in baseball history. The saga would have repercussions that changed the course of the Black Sox Scandal and would influence the game’s power structure forever.
Johnson sent his secretary to Philadelphia to retrieve Billy Maharg, Burns’s former partner and a one-time professional boxer. Maharg had stayed at Burns’s ranch in central Texas to hunt and fish on several occasions. He wrote a telegram to Burns’s last known address, but Western Union sent back a vague reply: “Party gone to San Angelo.” Other attempts to reach Burns brought reports that he was staying in isolated towns like Ranger or Del Rio, or even somewhere across the border in Mexico.
Maharg persuaded Johnson to send him to Texas, where he might have better luck locating Burns. Reluctantly, State’s Attorney Robert Crowe, the prosecutor in Chicago handling the case, agreed to pay the expenses for Maharg’s trip. If he couldn’t secure Burns’s cooperation, he felt he stood a poor chance of securing a conviction against the Black Sox. On the night of April 21, Maharg boarded a train at Union Station and headed south to Burns’s ranch in San Saba.
While Maharg was on his way, Johnson pursued a different tack. He sent a letter to Burns’s estranged wife, Laura, in Cincinnati and asked her for help. She knew little about Burns’s whereabouts, but she did provide some insight on how to reach her husband. “If he does not write you,” she wrote to Johnson, “it is not because of lack of interest or appreciation but simply because he is a poor letter writer. He resorts chiefly to telegraph services as a means of communication.”
Johnson also enlisted the help of his friend Harry L. Davis, the new governor of Ohio, whom he asked to intercede with Texas Governor Pat Neff to make sure Burns would be properly extradited for the Black Sox trial if he rejected the prosecution’s offer to turn state’s evidence. Neff assured them he would honor any extradition request.
When he got to central Texas, Maharg rented a car and visited the Burns ranch in San Saba. As he expected, there was no sign of the former pitcher. Burns’s friends had heard “the law in Chicago wanted him,” and they refused to offer any assistance. Maharg remembered that Burns had once taken him fishing on the Colorado River near the town of Cherokee. When he arrived at the hut they had stayed at, he found the place occupied—by rattlesnakes! Another tip took him to Milano, where suspicious locals pulled a gun on him until he convinced them he was a friend of Burns.
Crowe and Johnson were growing restless. After one week and hours of driving around Texas, Maharg seemed to be no closer to finding Burns. On a recommendation from Burns’s wife, Maharg boarded a train to San Antonio and visited Laura’s brother, but that was no help, either. Finally, Maharg headed west to visit one of Bill’s brothers in Del Rio. There he learned of Burns’s hideaway in Comstock, on the Devils River just a dozen or so miles away from the Mexican border. It was “wild country, rough and rocky, with cactus bushes about the only vegetation.”
Billy Maharg’s discovery of Sleepy Bill Burns is “perhaps baseball’s only version of the Stanley-Livingstone story,” author Gene Carney observed. And without it, the Black Sox trial might have never taken place. Months later, Burns was asked on the stand about his last exchange with Chick Gandil during the World Series as the fix was unraveling. “Where did Gandil tell you to go?” the prosecutor asked. “To hell,” Burns replied. “So you went to the Devils River instead?”
When Maharg got to the hideaway, he found Burns “calmly sitting on a rock casting for bass.” Burns greeted his friend cordially—apparently, he didn’t find it odd that the Philadelphia boxer would show up unannounced to this remote fishing hole thousands of miles away from home—and made him dinner. They talked for hours, with “wolves howling all night,” and Burns agreed to meet with the prosecutors and Ban Johnson, “the one man in baseball who has strained every muscle to get to the bottom of the scandal,” as the Boston Globe reported.
As soon as they learned Maharg had caught his man, Johnson and Assistant State’s Attorney John F. Tyrell hopped on a train for Texas. They met with Burns and Maharg at a bar in Del Rio, one of the many stops on Maharg’s wild goose chase during the previous week. Burns agreed to tell his story of the World Series fix in court.
Maharg went home to Philadelphia, where Isaminger, the newspaper reporter, learned about his trip. Isaminger asked for an interview with Burns, but Johnson said no.
“We were obliged to ‘put him away.’ If the Texas story became public property, our most important witness might be uncovered by the enemy,” Johnson said. “Just as soon as he is in our possession, I will have no objection to a full write-up of the chase through Texas to the Mexican border.”
But the story almost came out anyway. In early May, Burns was spotted by a reporter walking down Dearborn Street in downtown Chicago and then entering the Cunard Building, the home office of American League attorney Charles V. Barrett. The Chicago Tribune scribe—who was taken aback because Burns was reportedly still in hiding somewhere near the border—called Ban Johnson and asked him what he knew.
“We would rather that nothing was published concerning his presence. It might hurt our case,” Johnson said.
“Whom do you mean by ‘we’?” the reporter asked.
“Why, the state’s attorney’s office,” Johnson replied.
After meeting with the lawyers, Burns returned to his ranch in Texas to await the Black Sox trial out of sight. Johnson knew that once they put Burns on the list of potential witnesses, that would open him up for questioning from the Black Sox’s defense lawyers. So Johnson paid him about $300 to lay low. Johnson also sent Burns and his wife to a vacation resort in Michigan for a week.
Johnson kept up his correspondence with Laura Burns to make sure “Sleepy Bill” didn’t disappear again. Laura thanked him for sending regular checks to cover their expenses. Just two weeks before the trial was set to begin, Johnson instructed James Price, a minor league executive and close friend, to go down to San Saba to retrieve Burns again. This time, the ex-pitcher was a lot easier to find. When he returned to Chicago a second time, prosecutors announced that he had been granted immunity on all Black Sox–related charges.
Burns’s testimony was worth all the trouble. He spent most of three days on the witness stand, and his dramatic retelling of the World Series fix was hailed as a home run for the prosecution. He pointed the finger at the players for instigating the plot, he identified the gamblers involved, and he explained in detail how each group tried to double-cross the other.
He proved to be unflappable in cross-examination and even brought the gallery to laughter a few times with his witty responses. Once, defense attorney Ben Short expressed his frustration after he couldn’t get Burns to budge. “You don’t like me much, do you Bill?” he asked. Burns responded in a deadpan monotone: “Sure I do, Ben. You’re a smart fellow and I wish we had someone like you at the head of this deal. We’d all be rich now.”
While Burns’s testimony was widely praised by the media covering the trial, the jury thought otherwise and—despite the confessions of three players under oath—voted to acquit the Black Sox and the gamblers of all charges. One unidentified juror said afterward, “We thought the State presented a weak case. It was dependent on Bill Burns and Burns did not make a favorable impression on us.” Author Bill Lamb, a retired prosecutor and baseball historian, explained that jurors tend to take a more skeptical view of accomplice testimony than reporters and spectators.
The jury may have kept the Black Sox out of jail, but baseball officials still had the means to levy their own punishment. New commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, asserting himself as the game’s supreme authority, quickly announced that all eight Chicago players were banned for life from professional ball.
Ban Johnson, the AL president, had made “heroic efforts,” in his own words, to bring the Black Sox case to trial. But in the end it cost him dearly. His ongoing feud with Charles Comiskey would last the rest of their lives, as the White Sox owner never forgave him for leading the investigation into his corrupt team. Meanwhile, Landis was now firmly in control as commissioner and receiving the lion’s share of credit for cleaning up the game in the wake of the World Series scandal.
Over the years, Johnson made attempts to establish himself as the hero of the story and gain credit for his role. In 1922, he issued a bulletin banning all players and gamblers involved in the Black Sox Scandal from even buying a ticket to any American League games. But in doing so, he omitted the names of Bill Burns and Billy Maharg. Johnson issued annual passes to both of them for the rest of his tenure as league president, according to Comiskey, and even vacationed with Burns at his San Saba ranch a few times. Johnson didn’t seem to mind that they had once helped fix a World Series!
Johnson’s motives in pursuing the Black Sox investigation, especially his manhunt to find Sleepy Bill Burns, were questioned by baseball insiders. During the criminal trial, defense lawyers called out the American League president by name for his behind-the-scenes machinations. “Why,” asked A. Morgan Frumberg, attorney for one of the other gamblers, “was [Arnold Rothstein] never indicted? Why were [Nat Evans], [Sport] Sullivan, [Abe] Attell, and [Hal] Chase allowed to escape? . . . Ask the powers of baseball. Ask Ban Johnson who pulled the strings in this case.”
Johnson had indeed ignored the gambling world’s heavy hitters in his search for evidence on behalf of the prosecution. He seemed to be solely interested in bringing down the Chicago players who had betrayed his beloved American League—and their team owner, Charles Comiskey, whom he now despised. He traveled to the ends of the earth, or at least to Devils River, to find the proof he thought he needed to destroy the Black Sox. But he paid little attention to the powerful underworld figures who nearly brought down the National Pastime.
When Johnson controlled baseball’s National Commission during the early twentieth century, his decisions were often seen as inconsistent and arbitrary, sometimes based on personal vendettas, and he had made many enemies because of that. But his pursuit of the Black Sox was a step beyond anything he had ever done before in his two-decade-long reign as American League president. It was perceived as a last-ditch power grab and an attempt to hurt the credibility of both Landis and Comiskey, whom he rightfully perceived as threats to his once-enormous influence on the game.
If Johnson could have sent Comiskey’s players to jail and position himself as baseball’s conscientious hero fighting against the scourge of gambling, then perhaps Landis would not have been able to shove him aside and take over as baseball’s sole authority. Perhaps Johnson’s legacy would not be hampered by the charge that he had turned a blind eye for so long to baseball’s problems. Perhaps he would have been celebrated for his obsession with airing the game’s dirty laundry, cleaning up the Black Sox Scandal once and for all.
“The public,” Comiskey later wrote, “can draw its own conclusion.”
“Black Sox Scandal (American League Records), 1914-69,” National Baseball Hall of Fame Library.
Black Sox Scandal Collection, Chicago History Museum.
“Burns, Indicted in Sox Scandal, is Found Here,” Chicago Tribune, May 7, 1921.
“Burns Says Players First Made Offer,” New York Times, July 22, 1921.
Carney, Gene, “Notes From the Shadows of Cooperstown #389,” February 17, 2007. Accessed online at SABR.org.
Lamb, William F., Black Sox in the Courtroom: The Grand Jury, Criminal Trial and Civil Litigation (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2013).
“Maharg Found Burns in Wilds of Texas,” Boston Globe, July 24, 1921.
Wray, John E., and J. Roy Stockton, “Ban Johnson’s Own Story,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 18, 1929.