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Sox Century: June 16, 1917

Boston gamblers storm the field in attempt to prevent another White Sox victory

The only known photo of the Boston gamblers’ riot.
The Boston Post, June 18, 1917

For the second time in as many chances in 1917, the White Sox acted a speed bump for Babe Ruth. The Red Sox’ ace managed to go the distance this time, but not without taking some lumps along the way.

The White Sox tagged him for single runs in the first, fourth and seventh innings, and just when it looked Boston might get back in the game against Eddie Cicotte, the White Sox tagged him for four more to win it going away.

Yet it’s somewhat surprising that all of these numbers were allowed to go on the record, because this game should have been forfeited in favor of the White Sox when a mob of gamblers stormed the field in an attempt to prevent the game from becoming official.

The home team had been in the middle of a rut when the White Sox came to town. The Red Sox had lost six of seven entering the game, and Lefty Williams handed them their fourth shutout over this stretch the day before. When Cicotte started the one by extending Boston’s scoreless innings streak into the 30s, the natives starting getting restless -- particularly those who had money riding on the defending champions day in and day out.

Fenway Park was a haven for betting rings, and the Red Sox were the subject of game-fixing rumors from time to time. SABR’s Jacob Pomrenke wrote a detailed article all about this day, and he provides the background here:

By the middle of the decade, as theater mogul Harry Frazee took over as owner of the Red Sox, the city was “regarded as the biggest center of baseball gambling” in the country. Boston gamblers such as Joseph “Sport” Sullivan, who would later figure prominently in the 1919 Black Sox scandal, and Jim Costello were familiar faces in the hotels and bars where ballplayers congegrated. An American League investigator later claimed that Frazee “entertains more gamblers in his right field pavilion every day than the rest of the majors combined.” Nor was the activity contained to Fenway Park; the National League’s Boston Braves were reported to have a similar laissez-faire attitude toward gamblers, as well.

The teams took the field under a light rain, and under some tension between the managers, according the Boston Herald:

Manager Rowland of the White Sox had protested the game at the very start. Manager Barry of the Boston saw the way the Chicago manager was jockeying his pitchers before the game, and he assayed to go him one better by naming Wyckoff and Jones in place of two of the regulars, Walker and Hoblitzell. Howland protested on the grounds that neither Wyckoff nor Jones were on the bench in uniform, and were therefore not ineligible [sic] to be included in the batting order.

When Rowland announced Cicotte as the pitcher, Barry gave the names of Walker and Hoblitzell as subtitutes for Wyckoff and Jones. Duringg the before-the-game practice, Reb Russell warmed up alongside of Cicotte, which caused Barry to name his pitchers in the original batting order.

But the game started just the same, and the White Sox struck first when Shano Collins singled, moved to second on a bunt and scored on Joe Jackson’s double. As Cicotte kept the Red Sox off the board, and as the White Sox kept the fourth inning alive under heavier rain, the crowd — particularly the gambling contingent in the right-field bleachers — began to get anxious. They yelled “Call the game!” as Happy Felsch walked, took second on a passed ball and scored on a Chick Gandil single to lengthen the White Sox’ lead. They continued as Cicotte pitched a perfect bottom of the fourth.

After Ruth retired the first two batters in the top of the fifth, making the game one out away from being official, the fans took matters into their own hands. From the Chicago Tribune:

When two men were out some tall fan in a long rain coat took command. Waving to his comrades to follow, he boldly leaped out onto the field. In ten seconds he must have had 500 followers. They didn’t rush at the playres or umpires. The latter stood fazing in amazement. The grand stand crowd became absolutely still. But instead of fighting the mob simply surged out upon the field, clear up into the diamond, and stood around.

The lack of police didn’t help. The Tribune said umpires could only spot two officers, and even when five presented themselves, it wasn’t enough. The Tribune says the mob retreated briefly when Boston manager Jack Barry said the Red Sox would have to forfeit, but just when it looked like they were going to finish clearing the field, “new leaders and recruits came from the gamblers’ stand. Some of them came from the left pavilion, then the first crowd piled out of the boxes again. This time the mob was riotous. Officers, five all told, came forth. They were helpless and didn’t try very hard.

As the fans overwhelmed the scene and rain fell, the teams were ordered into the clubhouse, but that only set the stage for allegations. Frustrated with the lack of action from the overwhelmed authorities, Ray Schalk got into it with a cop, while two players reportedly exchanged blows with fans. From the Chicago Examiner:

This was a signal for the wild bugs to congregate at the Boston bench and several efforts were made to assault the Chicago players as they passed into the dugout. Some of the athletes had wisely provided themselves with bats and these menacing weapons probably prevented the fans from going the limit.

But not all the players got out of the mess without fighting. Fred McMullin had to use his fists, while Buck Weaver wielded a bat. Both players were to be served with arrest warrants for these interactions with spectators, and the Tribune said both players “denied afterwards that they had struck anyone more than was necessary to push their way through the mass to the exit.”

The Herald provided some evidence for Weaver’s defense:

Under the grandstand Buck Weaver was assaulted by a sailor, who planted his first on Buck’s jaw.

Weaver’s day wasn’t done. After play resumed, he responded to Boston’s two-run eighth with a two-run homer off Ruth in the top of the ninth helping seal the Chicago victory. For his actions both sanctioned and unsanctioned, he ran into more problems after the game, according to the Tribune:

Weaver was hit by a pop bottle while leaving the field after the game and there was a free for all battle, which the officers broke up.

It was an embarrassing affair for baseball, and especially the Red Sox. The papers, local and national, pointed fingers at the enabling of gamblers in the bleachers, and American League president Ban Johnson tried to use the riot as an impetus toward kicking Frazee out of the league, as Johnson already cared little for the Boston owner.

The independently wealthy Frazee wasn’t all that concerned with abiding by Johnson’s wishes, and so gambling continued to be an active presence around the game. Pomrenke, who is the chairman of SABR’s Black Sox Scandal Research Committee, draws a line connecting this riot and the scandal that exploded three years later:

The punitive treatment of the Chicago players was a product of baseball’s struggles in the early twentieth century to effectively deal with the gambling element that was pervasive throughout the game. The 1917 Boston gamblers riot was one of the most highly visible links between gambling and baseball in that era, and it might have served as a catalyst for baseball to rid itself of the menace once and for all. Instead, Ban Johnson’s anger was directed mostly at Harry Frazee; his quest to get rid of the Red Sox owner took precedence over kicking gamblers out of Fenway Park or any other ballpark. It took the severity of the Black Sox scandal, plus Judge Landis’ unilateral decision to permanently punish every player associated with it, to finally make it clear that gambling and baseball would not be allowed to mix so freely ever again.

Thanks to Jacob Pomrenke for providing me with context and additional materials.

Record: 35-17 | Box score