Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 20, No. 5, 2021
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Robert J. Lewis
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Don Dewey
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Leon Wieseltier
Nayan Chanda
Charles Lewis
John Lavery
Tariq Ali
Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward


showgirls and busted flushes



Donald Dewey has written some 40 books of fiction and nonfiction, as well as contributed scores of stories to magazines and other periodicals. He has also had some 30 plays staged in Europe and the United States. Dewey was editor of the ASME-award winning magazine Attenzione and was editorial director of the East-West Network, overseeing a dozen in-flight magazines and the PBS organ Dial. Don's latest book, Nullo, is now available.

Long before Babe Ruth became baseball’s principal attraction in New York in the 1920s, three other figures from the national pastime dominated both day life and night life in the city. And much of their relationship -- one of the strangest in professional sports history -- was measured by pool and billiards tables.

The first of the trio was John McGraw, once described by the venerable Connie Mack as “the only manager” in baseball. Between 1903 and 1931, the pugnacious McGraw piloted the New York Giants to three world championships, 10 pennants and 11 second-place finishes. Even in the rare years when they didn’t finish in the first division, the teams he put together over that span were never colourless. They might have differed in their emphases on pitching, hitting, or speed, but they were alike in their raucous brawling on the field and their late-night hobnobbing with show business celebrities, politicians and racketeers after the games were over. On one club alone, the 1919 edition, the roster included 10 players linked to scandals involving everything from throwing games to selling stolen automobiles, plus an eleventh who once shot a hunting partner to death after mistaking him for a cougar. Among the most popular after-hours hangouts for these characters and their cronies were two pool rooms owned by McGraw in the Herald Square nexus of 34th Street, Sixth and Seventh avenues. The propriety of players spending their leisure time in establishments owned by their manager, and where more than one kind of gambling went on, was not a throbbing ethical concern of the period.

The second member of the triumvirate was Hal Chase, the first baseman for the Yankees (then known as the Highlanders) who became the sport’s chief drawing card for women as soon as he stepped into the major leagues in 1905. Known as The Prince for his flamboyant personal style, the California-born redhead revolutionized defensive play on the diamond while getting rid of money as fast as he could away from it with the help of showgirls and busted flushes. Although he would later gain a (highly questionable) reputation as the biggest crook in baseball history, Chase was the city’s most popular position player in the pre-World World I years -- a primacy he did not surrender until long after he had left the Yankees and Ruth arrived from Boston. For much of his playing career, he was also able to count on McGraw as one of his biggest boosters in baseball circles, not least when he was being flayed with game-fixing accusations. Chase became such a regular on McGraw’s pool premises that he often sat in as a cashier.

If Chase wasn’t New York’s most popular baseball player period in the first decade of the century, it was because of the third member of the trio -- Giants pitcher Christy Mathewson. Mathewson’s surface appeal was the direct opposite of Chase’s -- the college-educated boy and one-time choir singer who didn’t drink because his mother had asked him not to on her deathbed. In fact, however, the Hall of Fame right-hander who won at least 20 games 13 times and topped the 30-mark three years in a row had a taste for gambling more honed than that of most professional athletes at the time. When he wasn’t prodding teammates to get a crap or poker game started, he was usually to be found at the nearest race track. The big difference was that, while Chase relished having such a reputation, Mathewson got the word early on that such an image would not be good for the turnstiles at the Polo Grounds (or for the novels upholding the values of clean living that he was co-writing for teenage boys). McGraw reinforced the message by making it clear that the pitcher he always viewed as his “good son” (Chase was the “wild son”) could find better things to do with his time in the evening than hang around his manager’s Herald Square pool halls. For this reason, Mathewson needed years to add pool and billiards to the list of gambling activities he routinely indulged in. To close the circle neatly, however, it was Chase who eventually instructed him in the wonders of Eight Ball.

McGraw was no novice to the business when he decided to sink some of his winnings from the 1905 World Series into a pool room. While still an active player with the Baltimore Orioles in 1896, he and teammate Wilbert Robinson had purchased a major property near the centrally located Academy of Music theater on North Howard Street, installing steel lanes for a bowling alley on the street floor and six tables for a billiard parlor upstairs. The Diamond Cafe had turned into a popular meeting place for sports figures and gamblers not only from Baltimore, but from Washington and other nearby towns. (It has also been often cited as the source of the bowling variation of duck pins.) Indeed the venture had proved so successful that in 1902 McGraw had been able to trade in his half-ownership profits in the cafe as a key financial move in a syndication scheme that destroyed the Orioles franchise and allowed him to depart for New York as the Giants manager.

The atmosphere was even more promising for pool investments in New York in the fall of 1905. At the time there were an estimated 130-140 public rooms operating in the city, and this did not count the saloons or other premises with the odd table or two. More than a dozen manufacturers of pool and billiards equipment were recorded as averaging almost a million dollars of business annually at the time. Aside from the thriving state of the industry itself, of course, McGraw had his own name going in, and that was never more of a magnet than after the Giants had defeated Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics in the 1905 Series. His two partners didn’t hurt, either. The first was Tod Sloan, the recently retired world-renowned jockey who had brought shortened stirrups to horse racing. The second was Jack Doyle, one of the neon lights of the city’s sporting crowd and the owner of another successful parlor eight blocks north in Times Square.

The party opening the Herald Square room in February 1906 was the social event of the season for everyone who liked games and liked to bet on them. In addition to actors, vaudevillians, boxers, politicians, newspapermen and judges, the guests included 18-year-old Willie Hoppe, already famous for his table exhibitions and only months away from his first billiards championship in Paris. The main area of the establishment consisted of 15 tables, described by the weekly Sporting Life as “works of art and the highest priced ever placed in a billiard room in the world.” What the periodical did not mention were a couple of back rooms that soon became the scenes of some of the city’s most noted poker games. There was no published reference, either, to a 23-year-old cigar salesman who had been moonlighting as a pool hustler all over the city -- future rackets king Arnold Rothstein.

Because of his need to be in Memphis for spring training and then on the road for half the major league season, McGraw never pretended he would be a seven-day-a-week host, leaving most of the practical operation of the room to Doyle. But when he was back in New York for a homestand, he was a Herald Square fixture. More to the point, he didn’t have to be in the city for the word to get around the American League as well as the National League that there was a new fun center in town. Since the Yankees were usually home when the Giants weren’t, Chase became one of the establishment’s primary promoters, showing up regularly not only with teammates, but with members of visiting AL clubs eager for a few racks in familiar company in the big city. That was the plus for business.

The minus was that the small-town natives and farm boys who took off their spikes to go to McGraw’s didn’t find the modest prices they were used to back home. From the beginning, McGraw and Doyle had made it clear they weren’t seeking clientele in off the street, but were after what they called “class customers.” As usual with such a phrase, this translated into far-higher-than-normal money, in this particular case $1.20 an hour for a table. The cultural shock for out-of-towners accustomed to paying only a nickel or a dime was considerable, and inevitably meant that only the higher paid players continued to make the pool room a routine stop-off during their visits to the city. At least one major leaguer, however, wasn’t content to grumble and spend his evenings at vaudeville houses.

During the first visit by the Phillies to the Polo Grounds in April 1906, third baseman Paul Sentell marched out of the pool room in high dudgeon after being told how much his evening at the table had cost him. He immediately went to a Philadelphia reporter to complain about the tab, and the reporter in turn didn’t lose the opportunity to find another reason in print why the rest of America should hate John McGraw and anything to do with the Giants. McGraw, who never forgot a slight, kept his own counsel until the Phillies returned to New York in July and until Sentell, apparently over his snit, returned to Herald Square. As soon as he spotted the infielder, the manager sometimes known as Mugsy got off one of his customary ethnic slurs (“you’re a dago with no right to live in this country!”) that apparently had something to do with the player’s New Orleans origins. Whatever the crack was supposed to have meant, Sentell responded to it by taking a swing at McGraw. He missed. Before McGraw could retaliate, Harry Tuthill, then a boxing cornerman and the future trainer of the Detroit Tigers, intervened on behalf of the proprietor and took his own swing at Sentell. He, too, missed. But then Sentell swung back at Tuthill, not only breaking the trainer’s nose, but fracturing his own hand. The hand never healed properly, ending the third baseman’s widely publicized promise as a major league star.

By most yardsticks, the pool room prospered through the rest of the year. McGraw’s personal extravagance, however, made his criteria more exacting, so that by the following spring he was forced to sell out his share of the establishment to Doyle for some quick cash. But barely a year later, with his finances in better shape, he bought into a second Herald Square place, in the Marbridge Building diagonally across the street from the first pool venture. His partner going in this time was Fred Knowles, the club secretary of the Giants. A year later, the seriously ailing Knowles had to sell out to Hoppe, by then an internationally acclaimed master of the baize table.

There was also a silent partner: the racketeer Rothstein. The Marbridge Building pool room would in fact turn out to be only the first of several business deals putting Rothstein in bed with McGraw and New York Giants officials, raising nagging questions about the team’s regular involvement in fixing scandals all the way through to the Black Sox World Series year of 1919 and beyond. At the time, however, Rothstein was still mainly known as a small-time gambler who liked to talk about having wads of cash in his pocket for taking on anybody who wanted to challenge him with a cue. Nobody doubted his prowess at the table, especially after a 34-hour Nine Ball marathon with Philadelphia’s Jack Conway shortly after the opening of the Marbridge room. The game ended in a tie when McGraw himself closed down the table, ruling that both players were too tired to go on.

As skilled a shooter as Rothstein was, he had little on Chase. Even as a teenager growing up in the Bay Area, The Prince was known for his table talents. If he never got into the kind of marathon duels with Rothstein that Conway did, it owed in significant part to his risk-all approach when there were competing attractions in McGraw’s back room from the poker table and the Ziegfeld Follies dancers who draped themselves over regulars. Hoppe, for one, always called him the best non-professional Nine Ball shooter he ever played against, including Rothstein. It was praise that would come back to haunt all the principles -- Chase, Hoppe, Rothstein, McGraw, and Mathewson -- in a setting as far removed from Herald Square as it was possible to be while remaining on the continental United States.


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Also by Donald Dewey:
Ebbets Field: Where Legens Were Made
Capricorn Three
Baseball, Myth, and the Gods of Summer Pt. I
Baseball, Myth and the Gods of Summer Pt. II
Double Bill
Heroes and Victims
The Relationships Conundrum
The Finger
Smoke Blowers
Noticing Death
Passive Resistance
Not Playing It Safe
The Expectation Medium
Crisis in Critics
Words Not to Live By
Knowing the Killer
Racism to the Rescue
Punk Times
Not Playing It Safe
Meeting the Author
The Overwriting Syndrome
Writers As Ideas
Let Them Entertain Us
It's a Kindergarten Life
Being and Disconnectedness
History of Humour in the Cinema
Cartoon Power


Don Dewey's latest book, entitled Nullo, is about Danny, a reporter for a New York daily, who receives a deus ex machina for his frazzled life when a bureaucratic snafu sends the wrong coffin from Italy. Soon, he finds himself assigned to Rome to escort the sister of the man who should have been in the coffin.

As he accompanies her dance through Italian red tape, he realizes two things -- that he is in love with her and that he is far more interested in the story of the Italian whose body had been sent to New York than in that of her deceased brother. The dilemma becomes only more complicated when a third body is found to have been misplaced and when one of the three turns out not to be very dead.

You can purchase Nullo through Sunbury Press at or anywhere books are sold.











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