Looking Back: Betting Scandal Breaks in Nashville

By Bill Traughber / Nashville Sounds | April 16, 2018 11:18 AM

  When the Chattanooga Lookouts arrived in Nashville for a series with the Vols in July 1959, their players were asked to wear coats and ties. This was an unusual request for the players that wore casual clothing for road trips. What they did not know, there was an accusation and investigation that one or more Lookouts' players were involved with betting and gamblers. They were summoned to a meeting at the Andrew Jackson Hotel in Nashville on July 3.

   The Tennessean gave this report:


"Two Chattanooga baseball players who failed to report information they had after an alleged fix of Southern league games in which they were involved, yesterday were suspended for an indefinite period.


"First baseman Jesse Levan and shortstop Waldo Gonzales were notified of their suspension by Southern league president Charlie Hurth just a few hours before last night's game with Nashville in Sulphur Dell.


"The action culminated a day of hearings here, over which Phil Piton, assistant to minor league president George Trautman presided. President Hurth, Chattanooga president Joe Engel, Nashville general manager Bill McCarthy, and the two suspended players attended the meeting.

   "McCarthy sat in on an invitation of Hurth and Piton, and last night Hurth emphasized that the investigation had not involved any Vol players. The Southern league president apologized for his evasiveness concerning the hearing, saying:


"Naturally we cannot disclose the nature of charges which we are unable to prove." Also the investigation will continue from the office of President Trautman.


"Hurth said he thought the national association president would be able to make a ruling on the future of Levan and Gonzales by the middle of next week. Lifetime suspension from baseball is the maximum penalty if they are found guilty. Under baseball law, a player does not have to be found guilty of fixing games under this sentence. He can be banned for failure to report contact with a gambler, whether he made any effort to co-operate or not.


"The city in which the contact between players and gamblers is alleged to have occurred was not revealed. Hurth said it took place before the first half of the split Southern league season. The dividing date was June 14."


As the news broke around Nashville and the Southern Association, players and fans were stunned. For Nashville Vols' fans, players and the organization, questions were being raised as to any involvement with the Nashville players. There was a hint in late June when Atlanta Journal sports writer, Bob Christian, reported that a serious investigation was in process by the Southern Association's leadership.


The Tennessean recorded these quotes from Nashville Vols' players and personnel:


Nashville manager Dick Sisler asked his club if they welcomed the investigation and wanted to know if any guilty players. Their response was "Hell, yes."


Said Sisler, "This is a terrible thing to say about the Southern league. If true, the cities, dates and players guilty should be revealed. In my three years as a manager in the league I have seen nothing to indicate such has come about. If it has, I certainly want to know if any of my players are involved."


Said outfielder Ray Shearer, "I've never heard of it and this is my fourth year in the league. In the first place, who can foul off pitches deliberately? This thing has got to be completed now."


Said first baseman Marv Blalock, "The generalization without pinpointing the guilty parties is very unfair. It is hurting everybody in the league. I've never heard of it and certainly hope the investigation will be pushed to the limit."


Said second baseman Bob Durnbaugh, "Nobody likes the idea of playing baseball under suspicion. I would like to see the probe pushed to the limit. The guilty should be named and the innocent should be cleared, by all means."


Said shortstop Phil Shartzer, "I have never heard of such a thing in my two years in the league. My high school basketball coach was Dale Barnstable, who was involved in the Kentucky basketball scandals. He made a talk telling us how he became involved and warned us how easy we could get involved in the same kind of thing. Ever since then I've been very cognizant of the bad influence of gambling. I certainly don't want my name connected with it in any way."


Said outfielder Buddy Gilbert, "I welcome an investigation. That fellow Christian should name the guilty players. If he doesn't, he is as guilty as the ones he wrote had been doing this thing."


Said Jack Norman an attorney that played a major role in the formation of the fan-owned Nashville club the previous year,

"If there is any proof that any Nashville player has had any connection with gambling activities we will take immediate steps to dismiss him, if it means getting rid of the whole team. On the other hand, we are going to stand by our players and do all we can to remove the stigma from them. We feel that our players have the right to demand this attitude."


This is a summary of the incident (source: article by Warren Corbett, "Why, They'll Bet on a Foul Ball"):


Infielder/first base coach Sammy Meeks once played for Mobile. Meeks told investigators that Levan once approached him when the Lookouts were in Mobile and introduced him to a gambler. It was suggested to Meeks, while in the coach's first base box, he relay signs to his batter.


Meeks would be giving signs instead of stealing signs. Gonzalez, the Lookouts' shortstop, was involved. If Gonzalez stood erect, the pitch was a fastball. If Gonzalez crouched, it was a curveball. Meeks refused any money, but became a part of the scheme since it gave his team an advantage. Levan and Gonzalez were the culprits and gamblers were at an advantage. There were only two games where this was supposed to have occurred-a June 6 doubleheader.


A few days later, Meeks was released and joined Chattanooga. His release had nothing to do with the scheme. Now that his loyalty was to the Lookouts, Meeks told Chattanooga's catcher Ray Holton about the incident in Mobile. Holton told his manager Marion and he reported the incident to Engel. Engel notified Trautman. Therefore a meeting was set up in Nashville on July 3rd.


In the Andrew Jackson Hotel, the meeting lasted five hours, which all Chattanooga players were placed under oath with a stenographer present. Jim Heise, a Lookouts' pitcher, said Levan approached him asking if Heise would like to make some money to throw a game. Heise refused. Tom McAvoy, another pitcher said Levan also approached him about throwing a game, but thought it was a joke.


Corbett wrote about Levan: "Questioned by Hurth, Engel and Piton, he first denied Sammy Meeks' accusations, but acknowledged that he had introduced Chattanooga players to 'an individual unknown to him, but obviously a gambler. Levan was to receive an unstated amount of money for his services.' He insisted he never received any money and 'he knew nothing of any program to throw games by deliberate tipping of signs.'


"As to Heise's testimony, 'Levan admitted the contacts, but continued to insist that he did not know the real purpose of them. He denied McAvoy's accusation altogether. Levan's questioners then asked, in effect, 'C'mon, you must have known that this gambler wanted to fix games.' Levan replied, Yes, sir, I'll agree.' With that, Levan ended his baseball career."


Levan also confessed to the scheme involving tipping signs by Gonzalez. Gonzalez admitted the idea of tipping pitches had been discussed, but denied his involvement. Both Levan and Gonzales would be suspended and later banned from playing professional baseball "for failing to report a bribery attempt by a gambler."


Another aspect of a gamblers attempt to profit from a baseball game was that of foul balls. Corbett wrote about a Christian's Atlanta Journal story: "Betting on foul balls has become increasingly popular in the league's parks, replacing much of the 'action' that formerly was placed on 'fly balls,' he wrote. He quoted odds set by bookies on whether a player would hit a foul, such as 'three-to-one on [one] the next three pitches' or 'three-to-two on any pitch."


The Southern Association's betting scandal that broke in Nashville in July 1959 was confined to a few of Lookouts' players without any involvement concerning the Vols and other teams.


Traughber's Tidbit: This notice for the Nashville amateur teams was printed in the April 13, 1868 newspaper Daily Press and Times with the heading "New Base Ball Rules:" The new base ball rules for 1868 require that all balls used in a match must be stamped with the size, weight and maker's name, and if any other is used the game will be "null and void." The new ball is smaller and lighter than the old one, being but nine inches in circumference, and weighing five and a quarter ounces.


Tidbit Two: This notice appeared in the March 29, 1919 issue of the Tennessean with the heading "Some Rules:" The following rules and regulations were adapted unanimously at the powder plant yesterday governing players in the Old Hickory baseball league: "No crap games will be allowed while the games are in action; no bracelet watches shall be worn by any of the players, and all players shall be required to take at least one bath at the beginning of the season and one at the close."


Tidbit Three: The book "Nashville Baseball History, From Sulphur Dell to the Sounds" is available at Amazon.com and local bookstores. The foreword was written by Farrell Owens and contains over 70 photos with 32 chapters with stories from the origin of Nashville baseball to the Sounds and First Tennessee Park. Included are Sounds and Nashville Vols' records and a timeline of Sounds highlights. There are many rare and never published vintage photos.


If you have any comments or suggestions, contact Bill Traughber via email WLTraughber@aol.com.

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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