Book sheds new light on baseball scandal

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Book sheds light on baseball scandal
Ian Kahanowitz's new book takes an in-depth look at the infamous wager scandal involving Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Smoky Joe Wood, and Dutch Leonard. Courtesy photo

Book sheds new light on baseball scandal

The date was Sept. 25, 1919, when a baseball game between the Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians took place.

Under ordinary circumstances, the game would be a minor footnote in baseball history, but for the actions of a few that reverberated through the years. The result is one of the more notable scandals in baseball history, explored in intense detail by author and historian Ian Kahanowitz for his new book, “Baseball Gods in Scandal: Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, and the Dutch Leonard Affair,” released earlier this month.

This scandal involved a wager placed on the game by Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Smoky Joe Wood, and Dutch Leonard, said Kahanowitz, a North Attleborough resident, occurred in part because baseball players weren’t the millionaires they are today. This also involved Cleveland throwing the game so Detroit could get their share of World Series money, which was given to the top three teams in each league in those years. 

Over the years the scandal would take a myriad of twists and turns as the players attempted to leak information to the higher-ups in the leagues or the media. In 1926, Leonard met with then-American League President Ban Johnson to present letters from Cobb and Speaker which implicated them in the wager. This led to a $20,000 payment to remain silent on the matter, according to Kahanowitz. Many times people changed their stories as to who did what. Forty years after the incident, Wood took responsibility for the bet.

“He took the blame so the two stars’ legacies couldn’t be touched,” said Kahanowitz.

While the story itself is fairly well known, Kahanowitz spent months researching it, learning a number of new details, some of which changed the shape of the story, while others forced him to revise his opinion of the players. For example, Leonard was often seen as a bad person, but Kahanowitz learned that when the U.S. government interred millions of Japanese Americans in World War II, he maintained the farm of his Japanese neighbor. When the neighbor was released, Kahanowitz said Leonard returned the land. He also learned that Speaker was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, but added that back then, if someone lived in the South and wanted to get ahead, membership was mandatory.

“Back then being part of the Klan was like being part of services like Netflix or AAA, whether or not you believed in it,” he said. 

Kahanowitz said Wood was the most sympathetic of the book’s cast. While not a saint, the author said Wood guided Yale for 25 years as its head baseball coach.

“He watched all his friends go into the Hall of Fame, but he never got there,” said Kahanowitz. 

The writer said it can be hard to parse out the truth after countless books and news articles, but after all his research, believes that Cobb and Speaker—who were eventually inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame–did take part in the bet. But had they been implicated, Kahanowitz believes the impact to the sport would have been devastating.

“It would not have survived,” said Kahanowitz. “Baseball would have never recovered.”