Decades before Commissioner Fay Vincent exiled George Steinbrenner from commanding the New York Yankees, commissioners took even harsher action, stripping Philadelphia Phillies owner William Cox and St. Louis Cardinals owner Fred Saigh of their teams.
Cox was a New York lumber executive who bought the Phillies in early 1943 and would later claim to have resurrected "a dead organization with the hot breath of the sheriff on their necks." Cox, then 34, named veteran manager Bucky Harris to run the team, and the Phillies seemed to revive.
But Cox feuded with National League President Ford Frick and stirred up a storm in mid-season when he fired Harris, replacing him with Freddie Fitzsimmons. The players nearly staged a strike in protest. But it wasn't until after the Yankees-Cardinals World Series that Cox's short career as an owner would end -- and Harris would return as his hangman.
Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis had heard rumors that August that Cox was betting on Phillies games. Cox told Landis the bets were placed by an associate in his lumber business, and when he heard about them in May, he ordered the wagering to cease. But Landis's subsequent investigation found otherwise and on Nov. 15 ordered Cox to a December hearing.
Cox tried to wriggle out of the hearing with what he must have thought was a preemptive strike: without acknowledging that he had told Landis early that month that he had actually placed cash bets, he wrote to the commissioner to say he was resigning as team president and selling the Phillies to devote himself to his lumber business.
But Landis struck back. In a Nov. 22 letter to Cox, released to the press the next day, Landis revealed that on Nov. 3, Cox had admitted to having "placed through a bookmaker approximately 15 or 20 bets of "from $25 to $100 per game on Philadelphia to win" and that the betting began "about a week after the 1943 season started" though May 20. The letter said that Cox had told Landis that he stopped the betting when he learned of the Major League Baseball rule prohibiting the practice. But ducking the hearing and refusing to give Landis a full account of his betting infuriated the commmissioner, who declared Cox "permanently ineligible to hold any office or employment" in organized baseball. Second Thoughts
The next night, Cox bid farewell to baseball on radio and admitted to making "some small and sentimental bets before I learned of the rule against this. I leave it to the public and my friends to decide whether I was wrong."
Within two days, the Phillies were sold to Robert R.M. Carpenter, who placed the team in the hands of his son, 28-year-old Robert Jr. But Cox had second thoughts. Four days after the banishment, Cox asked Landis to reinstate the Dec. 4 hearing, and Landis agreed.
According to his lawyer, Cox said the "sentimental bets" were of hats and cigars, not cash, and that he had told the earlier story of his wagering to test the loyalty of a Phillies executive. During the seven-hour open hearing at the Roosevelt Hotel, Cox and his lawyer tried to prove that his non-cash bets were only on the batting and pitching records of his players and the Phillies' place in the standings, not on any games.
Cox testified that he heard rumors of gambling before he fired Harris, and wanted to smoke out the guilty party, whom he testified was team vice president and shareholder L. Wister Randolph.
But other witnesses pointed anew to Cox's gambling.
Harris, the final witness, was all Landis needed. The ex-manager told of visiting Cox's New York office, where he said Cox's secretary made a phone call to ask about the odds on the day's game. "When she completed the call," said Harris, "I asked her what were the odds, and she replied, '13-5 Brooklyn.' "
Harris was shocked. "Do you mean to tell me that Mr. Cox is betting on baseball?" Harris said the secretary was amazed by the question and said, "I thought you knew that. I have to keep a book on that."
When the hearing ended, Landis was unmoved. His banishment of Cox stood.
Ten years later came the Saigh case. Fred Saigh was an aggressive lawyer who acquired the Cardinals in 1947 for $4 million with his partner, Bob Hannegan, the former U.S. Postmaster General. Saigh made his mark on baseball only after buying out Hannegan in 1949, especially as part of the group of owners who toppled commissioner Albert B. "Happy" Chandler from office in 1951.
But Saigh's end came on Jan. 28, 1953, when he pleaded no contest in federal court to tax evasion, was fined $15,000 and sentenced to 15 months in prison by Judge Roy Harper, a former minor league baseball executive. In addition to the fine, Saigh, then 47, owed the government $558,811 in taxes and fines.
"This means, of course," Saigh said, rising nervously to address the court, "that I will have to dispose of the Cardinals."
Two days after his court appearance, Saigh was in New York, where the National League was holding meetings. After conferring with Frick, then commissioner, and league president Warren Giles, Saigh agreed to set up a three-man committee to run the team until he found a buyer.
Although accounts of the day don't indicate how much pressure Frick applied to Saigh, former commissioner Bowie Kuhn said, "Ford told him, 'You're going to have to sell this thing,' and unhappily, Saigh complied." Frick praised Saigh to reporters, saying: "He is doing this to spare baseball any repercussions. He certainly was entitled to bow out of baseball with all the grace possible under these unfortunate circumstances."
Saigh placed a value of $4.25 million on the team, and within days, numerous prospective buyers were rumored, including the Ford auto family. But on Feb. 20, 1953, Saigh sold the team to the Anheuser-Busch brewery and its president, August A. Busch Jr., for about $3.75 million, with the stipulation that the team stay in St. Louis.
'I Know Better'
Meanwhile, on May 4, Saigh was driven to a federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind. "This is a terrible thing to happen to a guy who doesn't deserve it," said Saigh, his eyes filled with tears, as he entered a federal marshal's car for the ride to Terre Haute. In a statement, he said: "Until this humiliating thing happened to me, I thought all Americans were governed by the same set of rules and regulations. Now I know better."
Saigh served six months of his sentence before being released on parole. In an odd twist, he wrote to Kuhn in the early 1970s, asking to be considered as a prospective owner of the Chicago White Sox.
"He felt that having done his time and with the passage of time that there ought to be reconsideration of his situation," Kuhn recalled. "He was financially sound and vigorous. But I told him I couldn't reopen the matter. He wrote me a very unhappy letter in response."