Today, Chicago Cubs management talks of welcoming gamblers to Wrigley Field.
A century ago, it was calling the cops on them.
Recent news of the Cubs’ plan to open a betting parlor at the Friendly Confines recalled when police staged a gambling raid in the ballpark’s bleachers on May 24, 1920, arresting 47 spectators during a game against the Philadelphia Phillies.
“CUBS PARK RAIDED,” blared the front-page banner headline in the next day’s Chicago Tribune.
Acting on a complaint from management of the ballpark, which wouldn’t be renamed Wrigley Field until 1927, undercover officers sprang into action at the end of the scoreless first inning.
“The 47 were basking in the sun, exchanging opinions and money, some writing down bets they had made,” the Tribune reported. “The next instant a horde of teamsters, sailors, soldiers, ice wagon drivers, sewing machine agents, bootblacks and farmers – seemingly – had rounded them up and told them, ‘You’re under arrest.’ “
From someone at Town Hall police station supposedly came word: “All the bases are filled. I mean the basement is filled. Better call some of these chaps out on bonds.”
The Tribune’s account suggests this was not exactly heavy lifting for detectives, who had begun casing the bleachers a week earlier.
“They ate peanuts,” the newspaper said. “They drank pop and lemonade and things. They kept the score. They rooted. They watched the betting men and got acquainted with them, and had a nice time.”
Gamblers, who had paid youths $1 to hold their regular unreserved seats for them, wouldn’t start taking action until the umpires announced who the starting pitchers would be.
Wagers on the game’s outcome would be followed by proposition bets on balls and strikes, fouls, hits, errors, balks and more.
Examples offered by the paper included:
“A dime says he takes his base on balls.”
“A dollar the pitcher changes his windup on the next one.”
“Who wants $10 on the handsome runner? Ten dollars says he streaks it down to second on the next ball pitched.”
Said an officer as he took three men into custody: “Fifty cents says you’re going to the cooler. Fifty cents! Who wants this 50 cents?”
It was a sad scene for some taken in, though the brother of Phillies shortstop Dave Bancroft reportedly “took it all as a joke.”
One unemployed man, who said he was only watching the game and wasn’t gambling, had been given $1 by his wife to go job hunting and had only 13 cents on him.
“First time (at a ballgame) this year, and I only saw one inning,” the man said, seeking mercy. “Sergeant, have you got a wife?”
The sergeant conferred with his boss and others, then let him go. But the Tribune named the man in its story, so it still might not have had a happy ending.
It wasn’t clear in the reporting if it was the same person, but the paper said an arrestee feared his wife would divorce him if she discovered what happened to him.
“Six bits says she’ll find out,” someone responded.
Four men expressed fear they would lose their night-shift jobs because each lacked the requisite $25 cash bond to get out of jail in time for work.
A well-heeled man who had been jailed with them (and complained “a nice looking scout” holding his stake on a good-sized wager escaped police custody) peeled off $100 on behalf of the four to cut them loose in time to work despite saying they had never met before.
“I have some faith in human nature,” their benefactor said. “I’m betting they show up in court.”
Cracked a cop: “Can’t cure you of gambling, can we? Even in jail, you gamble.”
The Tribune, it appears, did not deem the innocence or guilt of the 47 newsworthy. It didn’t even cover the arraignments the next day in court on Sheffield Avenue.
Cubs management, however, was in no mood to wait for due process and was undeterred by police saying most of the 47 were not professional gamblers, just ordinary fans looking for a bit of added excitement.
Team President William Veeck Sr., father of future Chicago White Sox owner Bill Veeck, said he would try to ban the men from the ballpark.
Baseball at the time – in the shadow of the 1919 World Series, which members of the favored White Sox conspired with gamblers to fix and growing mistrust of the game by some – was keen to be seen cracking down on gambling.
On the same day the 47 were arrested at the Phillies-Cubs game, three men were arrested at New York’s Polo Grounds for taking bets on a game between the Detroit Tigers and New York Yankees with another taken in for interfering with police.
American League President Ban Johnson told the Tribune he had put his own detectives in every AL park and expected more raids throughout baseball.
The Cubs, incidentally, wound up beating the Phillies, 6-0, one of what would be a league-leading 27 victories and 33 complete games future Hall of Famer Grover Cleveland Alexander threw that season.
Alexander allowed only six hits. One of them was off the bat of a 29-year-old right fielder – his name, Casey Stengel.