Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com on March 19, 2018, and is reprinted here by permission. Click here to read Part 2 of this series.
As the star witness in baseball’s “trial of the century”—the criminal conspiracy case against the fixers of the 1919 World Series—Sleepy Bill Burns was asked whether he was out for revenge in testifying against his former partners, the eight Chicago players involved in the Black Sox Scandal.
“Do you think you are even with the boys now?” the prosecutor asked.
“I am liable to be before I leave here,” Burns replied, drawing a fit of laughter from the overflow crowd gathered inside the sweltering courtroom.
How the former Major League pitcher got “here,” as an unlikely prosecution witness in Chicago during the summer of 1921, was one of the most inconceivable stories of the entire scandal. Central to the saga was a secret manhunt that involved the American League president, two state governors, and a journeyman boxer. The Chicago Tribune described it as “a wild west thriller, filled with moonshiner’s gun play, rattlesnakes, wolves and the discomforts of the chaparral cactus trail.” The chase culminated with Burns agreeing to turn state’s evidence at a rugged ranch near the Rio Grande at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Before he got wrapped up in the Black Sox Scandal, Burns had been struggling to adapt to post-baseball life in his hometown of San Saba, in the hill country of central Texas. He had pitched for the Chicago White Sox and four other teams between 1908 and 1912, then he bounced around the minor leagues for a few more seasons before retiring and entering the oil business.
In 1919, he agreed to manage a semipro team in Mineral Wells, Texas, which brought him in proximity with the White Sox, who held their spring training camp in that town. One of his old teammates, Chick Gandil, was still on the roster. Near the end of the season, as the White Sox were preparing to clinch the American League pennant, Gandil and pitcher Eddie Cicotte approached Burns about fixing the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds in exchange for $100,000. Later, teammates Happy Felsch, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Fred McMullin, Swede Risberg, Buck Weaver, and Lefty Williams also became involved in the fix to varying degrees.
Burns and a friend, an ex-professional boxer from Philadelphia named Billy Maharg, agreed to serve as the liaisons between the ballplayers and the underworld financiers putting up the money, which included the powerful New York kingpin Arnold Rothstein and perhaps a half-dozen other gambling syndicates around the country.
After the White Sox lost the first two games of the Series, the gamblers refused to pay off the players as promised. So the Sox defiantly won Game 3 against the Reds. Burns and Maharg, who had bet their winnings heavily on Cincinnati that afternoon, were wiped out. They spent two days attempting to renegotiate a deal with the players, but Gandil rejected their offers.
Now that Burns was of no use to either the White Sox players or the gamblers in charge, he went back home to Texas. The fix went on, thanks to a group of Midwestern gamblers who raised more money to pay off the players, and the Cincinnati Reds claimed their first World Series championship. Meanwhile, Burns returned to his struggling oil business and watched from afar as rumors swirled throughout the 1920 season that the White Sox had taken a fall.
On September 27, 1920, Maharg gave an explosive interview to a Philadelphia reporter that publicly exposed the plot to fix the World Series. Over the next two days, Eddie Cicotte, Shoeless Joe Jackson, and Lefty Williams all testified before a Chicago grand jury. Indictments were quickly handed down against the eight White Sox players, along with Burns, Maharg, and three other gamblers. They were charged with a conspiracy to defraud their teammates, White Sox management, and fans who had bet on them to win.
The Black Sox Scandal was the biggest crisis in baseball history and threatened to destroy the game’s integrity forever. Baseball officials hoped to reassure fans and send a message by convicting the Chicago players who had been caught fixing games.
The prosecution against the Black Sox hit a snag in the spring of 1921, a month before Opening Day. The case was assigned to Judge William Dever, who set a deadline of March 14 for the trial to begin. But Robert Crowe, the new state’s attorney of Cook County in Illinois, was in dire need of more evidence before he felt ready to try the case.
Burns’s testimony was considered crucial to the prosecution’s case against the Black Sox. While Cicotte, Jackson, and Williams had all confirmed their involvement in the World Series plot by testifying before the grand jury, there was little firsthand evidence against the other five players—Felsch, Gandil, McMullin, Risberg, and Weaver—all of whom maintained their innocence in public. Prosecutors needed someone on the inside to spill the beans in order to strengthen their legal argument.
As author Bill Lamb explained in his indispensable 2013 book, Black Sox in the Courtroom: “The Cicotte grand jury confession could only be used as evidence of Cicotte’s guilt and not as evidence of fix involvement by Jackson, Williams, or the other defendants. . . . [This was] a mandate of the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment. An inanimate object like the Cicotte grand jury testimony could not be subjected to cross-examination by the others named in it. The testimony of a live witness like Bill Burns, however, was different.”
But first, prosecutors had to find Bill Burns; no one had seen him since the World Series ended.
With the trial date approaching, Crowe made a strategic decision to give himself more time. He dismissed all charges (the legal term is nolle prossed) and then immediately convened a new grand jury, which re-indicted the original 13 defendants plus five additional Midwestern gamblers. The trial was rescheduled for June, in Judge Hugo Friend’s courtroom. The clock was now ticking for the prosecutors to build their case.
Ban Johnson, the American League president, sprung into action. After initially dismissing rumors that the White Sox had fixed the World Series—in part because he was blinded by his hatred of team owner Charles Comiskey—he had played a key role behind the scenes in bringing many witnesses to the grand jury before Cicotte finally confessed. The American League had committed $40,000 for Johnson to hire detectives and provide any help with the investigation.
Now, with the prosecution’s case slipping, Johnson saw another opportunity to take charge: He would personally find Bill Burns and bring him back to Chicago.
“Black Sox Scandal (American League Records), 1914-69,” National Baseball Hall of Fame Library.
“Burns Says Players First Made Offer,” New York Times, July 22, 1921.
Carney, Gene, “Notes From the Shadows of Cooperstown #389,” SABR.org, February 17, 2007.
Lamb, William F. “Billy Maharg,” SABR BioProject, SABR.org/bioproj/person/60bd890e.
Lamb, William F. Black Sox in the Courtroom: The Grand Jury, Criminal Trial and Civil Litigation (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2013).