Truth about Tigers emerges in pennant race

Grand jury exposes Borton's misdeeds, mars Vernon's 1919 title

Vernon's Babe Borton (left) and Salt Lake's Harl Maggert were among the key figures in a 1919 bribery scandal.

By Josh Jackson / MiLB.com | January 6, 2020 11:00 AM

This is Part II of a two-part series detailing the wild story of the Pacific Coast League's Vernon Tigers in 1919 and 1920. Part I is available here. For similar stories, check out www.MiLB.com/history.

By the end of his first year as a baseball empresario, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle had gotten enough from the game. His 1919 Vernon Tigers won the Pacific Coast League title and a national championship, but Arbuckle resigned as team president soon after. Days later, the club belonged to Eddie Maier again. And, with the notable exceptions of Bob Meusel and Zinn Beck, the championship team was largely intact for the 1920 season.

Writing a column in the Los Angeles Herald in March, returning manager Bill Essick admitted that while other clubs had also gotten stronger, "With the season nearly two weeks away, my club is 25 percent better now than it was at the same time last year."

His confidence proved warranted. Although they finished April with a 12-11 record, on July 31, Vernon was in first place, 70-50 and five games over second-place Salt Lake.

Then, a bombshell.

On Aug. 7, the Los Angeles Times reported that there'd been an "air of mystery" surrounding a possible PCL gambling scandal over the last couple days. Babe Borton -- one of the heroes of the 1919 season and one of the PCL's best hitters -- had been accused of trying to bribe Bees righty Ralph "Sailor" Stroud ahead of a July 30 matchup and paying outfielder Harl Maggert "a sum of money," the paper said. The Tigers won that game, 2-1, with Borton getting a hit and scoring a run. The Sacramento Union recap noted that Stroud was "in fine form."

Maggert, incidentally, had once baited an umpire, Red Held, into a brief scuffle during a game in July 1914 by jawing about rumors the ump had been involved with gamblers. Six years later, suspicion was growing about Maggert himself. 

But Borton was really in the hot seat. Two days after the Times story, he was summoned to meet with PCL president William McCarthy.

McCarthy revealed that Borton denied he'd ever tried to bribe Stroud but admitted to paying various sums to three Salt Lake players -- Maggert ($500 -- $200 paid in '19, the remainder delivered during the July 1920 series), 1919 PCL batting champ Bill Rumler ($250) and Gene Dale ($500) -- for games thrown to Vernon in the '19 season. He added that an unspecified teammate had paid or agreed to pay another Salt Lake player, three Portland players and a Seattle player. He also pointedly mentioned the names of 18 teammates and his manager.


The Tigers' old Vernon neighborhood is heavily industrial today.

"Just before the close of last season manager Bill Essick came to me and wanted to know if I could get any of the Salt Lake players to lay down so that we might win the pennant," Borton said, as relayed by McCarthy to reporters. "I told him I would see what could be done."

The money, according to Borton, came from a pool put together by the Vernon team, which included funds Los Angeles fans raised to give to players on either the Angels or the Tigers -- whichever club won the PCL flag and prize money from the series against St. Paul. This slush fund was supposedly worth $2,000.

McCarthy got to work investigating. After interviewing nearly everybody connected with Borton's story and a few people who weren't, he concluded that it was "a mass of falsehoods. ... Concealed beneath the mass of lies there may be some truth." He reviewed the Vernon books with Tigers club secretary Howard Lorenz and, based on that and his interviews with Essick and other Tigers players, found the claim that Borton was paying bribes with pooled money highly dubious. He asked Borton to explain the discrepancy between the evidence he'd seen and Borton's story, and Borton "made no answer."

On Aug. 10, the Tigers released Borton. He would never play professional baseball again. The scandal was only beginning.

Within days of the opening of McCarthy's investigation, the name Nathan Raymond began to pop up in papers. Raymond was commonly identified as "a Seattle sportsman" -- that is to say, a gambler. The PCL barred him from ballparks, and on Aug. 12 an Associated Press story said Raymond was suspected of offering Rainiers players $3,000 to throw games. This was likely seen by many as an explanation for Borton's stories that didn't add up. Being in cahoots with a gambler would look worse for Borton than his tale about a team wanting to win so badly that it bribed the other teams at the manager's behest, not to mention the likelihood that if he were caught doing Raymond's bidding, he'd have to shoulder a severe punishment alone.

That night, Maggert, released by the Bees, met with McCarthy and admitted having received $500 from Borton. Two days later, newspapermen questioned him. He denied knowing anything about anybody trying to buy the pennant on behalf of Vernon.

"Did you think the $500 was manna from heaven?" one interviewer reportedly asked. Maggert didn't have an answer.


Harl Maggert logged 77 games in the Majors over two seasons. (via Library of Congress)

Meanwhile, fans in Los Angeles clamored for the suspension of the Bees' Rumler. Borton and Maggert had been effectively expelled, and Dale had been shipped out of the PCL to Dallas in the Texas League during the offseason (supposedly because he "was strictly a shine-baller," and there was "increasing disapproval of the shine ball" in the PCL, per the Times). Of the four players credibly suspected of wrongdoing, only Rumler continued to play in the league. The LA Evening Express sent two telegrams to McCarthy demanding that he suspend Rumler, but the PCL president replied that he wasn't trying this case in the papers. Nonetheless, by mid-August, McCarthy did suspend Rumler indefinitely and called for his release.

Salt Lake owner Bill Lane (who later founded both the PCL's Hollywood Stars and San Diego Padres) and manager Ernie Johnson objected. 

"I believe Rumler is innocent," Johnson told the press. "And I believe he will be cleared. So why should Salt Lake release one of the greatest players in the Minor Leagues?"

As the month came to a close, McCarthy sent Lane two telegraphs. In the first, he said he was further investigating the specifics of Rumler's involvement in accepting bribes in 1919. In the second, he announced that his indefinite suspension of the 29-year-old Rumler had been changed to a five-year ban. Lane, it seems, fumed. McCarthy admitted to the press that he and Lane didn't see eye to eye but vowed, "As long as I am at the head of the Pacific Coast baseball league, Bill Rumler shall not play in the organization."

That held true. Of the quartet of Borton, Maggert, Dale and Rumler, only Rumler would ever play pro ball again. But he'd have to wait until McCarthy was out of office. When he suited up for Lane's Hollywood Stars at the age of 38 in 1929, Harry A. Williams, who'd written about Arbuckle's on-field exploits for the Times, was the PCL's president.

McCarthy, though, continued to try to bring to light all the details of the Borton scandal. Perhaps sensing the case was beyond his scope, perhaps determined to prove in the most public venue possible that the PCL was committed to a clean future -- or, probably, motivated by a combination of both -- he lobbied for and received a Los Angeles County grand jury investigation.

On Thursday, Oct. 14, a Borton-less Vernon club topped Portland, 5-3, to improve to 107-87 and clinch its second straight PCL title. The very next day, the grand jury probe began. Borton was among the first witnesses called, and he told his original story about a team slush fund to buy games. Over the next two months, LA deputy district attorney general Frank Stafford dismantled that story. 

Sailor Stroud, the Salt Lake pitcher who had come forward that August when Borton had tried to bribe him, was among those to offer damning testimony. Borton, he said, had tried to pay him after the Tigers beat him, even though Stroud had declined Borton's pregame bribe and pitched his tail off. Ernie Johnson, the Bees' manager, followed and had with him a sworn affidavit from catcher Edward Spencer in which Spencer said Borton had previously tried to pay him $1,700 -- over $20,000 in today's money, and certainly not the kind of cash a group of early 20th-century PCL players would have available in a slush fund to spend on one player -- if Spencer would see that the Bees lost to the Tigers.

McCarthy himself also testified, although his time on the stand was interrupted by the testimony of the accused in the trial of serial killer Louise Peete. Peete had been romantically involved with and then killed a Texas oil baron in 1913 (she was acquitted of murder on a self-defense plea); had later married a hotel clerk, stolen jewels from the hotel's safe and left town after the clerk shot himself; and had recently been indicted for the murder of Jacob Denton, a Southern California millionaire with whom she'd also become romantically involved. When her time on the stand was complete, McCarthy resumed telling what he'd learned from his own investigation -- chiefly, that he believed Borton made up a story about his teammates to hide his own involvement with a crooked gambler.

In maybe the most compelling testimony, Tigers team attorney Edward Wehrle presented the case that Borton was working for Raymond and perhaps other gamblers and without the knowledge of his teammates or manager. He revealed that before the grand jury had even convened, the Tigers had hired private investigators to look into "sure-thing gamblers" -- that is, fixers. The team, he said, was planning to file a libel suit against Borton. In the meantime, he revealed three statements from Portland players (Paddy Siglin, John "Bert" Glaiser and Dick Cox) alleging that Borton and Borton alone had tried to bribe them either in 1919 or earlier that very year.

Wehrle complemented those statements with a presentation of hotel registrations from Portland, San Francisco and LA. All proved that Nate Raymond had been in those cities at the same time the Tigers had. The implication was clear: He was following the team from city to city, using Borton to buy games for Vernon.

On Dec. 11, indictments -- and arrest warrants -- were issued. Raymond, Borton, Maggert and Rumler were all on the hook for criminal conspiracy to fix games for Vernon during the 1919 season.

"If they, the defendants, Maggert and Rumler, had used their best efforts to win baseball games for Salt Lake," the grand jury findings read in part, "the [Angels] would have won more games during the season of 1919 than any other of said clubs and would have been declared the pennant winner thereof."

According to the AP,the grand jury "also declared the 'fan fund' raised in 1919 by Los Angeles fans ... was not diverted to any illegal purpose as charged by Borton."

The day after the warrants were issued, the Sacramento Union found Maggert working his offseason job in the Bay Area.

"I saw in the papers today that I had been indicted, whatever that means," he said. "But I'm too busy delivering coal to worry about a little thing like that. I have to deliver five more loads today and I start on a duck hunting trip tonight. I'll report to the Los Angeles officials whenever they want me. All we ever wanted was a chance to prove our innocence in open court and we're going to get it now."

But no such chance came. On Christmas Eve, LA superior court judge Frank R. Willis dismissed the indictments and ruled they could not be amended or revised to be submitted again. The ballplayers may have violated the terms of their contracts, he said, but however "reprehensible" their actions were, throwing baseball games was not a criminal act.

Maggert, leaving the courtroom to catch a train back home to Berkeley, had some parting words for the LA Herald.

Offseason MiLB include

"You can tell them all that I've still got one more year of good baseball in me," he said.

Of course, he didn't. He was done in organized baseball, although he lived long enough to see a son, Harl W. Maggert, enjoy his own career, reaching the bigs with the Boston Bees for 66 games in 1938. When Rumler returned to the PCL in '29, he helped the Stars win a title. After his playing days, he served as a police and fire chief in his hometown of Milford, Nebraska. Dale, although not among the indicted (he avoided a subpoena by staying out of California), was finished, too. He lived out his days working with steel in St. Louis.

Immediately after his suspension, Borton worked in the motion picture industry but, according to The Baseball Necrology by Bill Lee, he spent most of the rest of his life as a process operator for Standard Oil in the Bay Area. He died in 1954 at the age of 65.

The end of the Vernon Tigers as a whole was not far behind. The Angels won the PCL crown in 1921. In 1926, the Vernon franchise moved to San Francisco, where they played as the Mission Reds until they returned to LA as the second iteration of the Hollywood Stars in 1938.

Josh Jackson is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @JoshJacksonMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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