Evangeline League: Betting scandal marred baseball circuit’s reputation – Daily Comet
Next year will be the 70th anniversary of a betting scandal that rocked the minors and landed four Houma Indians and one for the Abbeville Athletics on baseball’s ineligible list.
In what The Society for American Baseball Research calls the “most celebrated gambling scandal since the Black Sox,” the players stood accused of fixing contests in the 1946 Evangeline Baseball League’s post-season in which the Indians met the Alexandria Aces in the play-offs and the Athletics in the championship series.
An investigation ensued. The punishment meted out to the five men, however, was not for throwing games but for their ties to bookies and gambling activity off the field. Charges games were fixed could not be proven.
Questions haunt those games to this day.
“I hate the Houma Indians. That team caused us to be looked on as cheaters.”
That was how former New Iberia Cardinals player Bill McCullogh put it to Dr. Paul Leslie a Nicholls State University American history professor. His efforts to preserve the Evangeline Baseball League’s history has led to the acquisition of a wealth of league memorabilia. Pieces from that collection, which is stored in the NSU archives, are now on display in the Ellender Room next door to the archives at Ellender Memorial Library.
McCullogh registered his strong feelings about the 1946 disgrace during an interview with Leslie at the former player’s home in New Iberia. Though McCullogh did not play for the Indians, “he, like a lot of others, felt that the scandal had undermined the image of the league as a very good training place for future major leaguers,” Leslie said.
In “’Say It Ain’t So’: The 1946 Houma Indians and the Baseball Scandals,” Leslie details the dark chapter in the now-defunct league’s long and colorful history. According to the 1994 article published in the quarterly, “Louisiana History,” the season started with Houma baseball fans beside themselves with excitement their city finally had a team to call their own and ended with fans’ pinching their noses at the sour odor hanging about the championship title the newly minted Houma Indians had secured.
“Seeing those idols tumbled from their pedestals was a mighty tough blow to the idealism of the cash customer who had cheered himself (and herself) hoarse at almost every game,” Leslie quotes Courier editor John B. Gordon as writing.
According to Leslie’s article, minor league commissioner Judge William G. Bramham conducted a close-to-the-vest inquiry that ended in January 1947 with his barring from the game Indians first baseman-manager Paul Fugit, third baseman Klim Kaiser, center fielder Lenny Pecou and pitcher Bill Thomas. Abbeville catcher Don Vettorel was also declared ineligible.
“Testimony indicated that some of the Houma players were employed by bookies,” according to SABR’s “The National Pastime: A Review of Baseball History.” “Fugit said some players came to Houma after a crackdown on gambling in New Orleans left them unemployed.”
The players referred to in the quotes were not identified.
George W. Hilton wrote in his article for SABR, “The Evangeline League Scandal of 1946,” that Vettorel was accused of boasting in a bar that he’d won $600 fixing the outcomes of games.
“Indeed, it was alleged that the Houma team was so strong because the players, who were good enough for higher levels of ball, were willing to play in Class D for the benefits of dealing with the gamblers in Louisiana,” Hilton wrote.
The games under suspicion were the fourth game of the playoffs between the Indians and the Alexandria Aces and at least two games in the championship series between the Indians and the Abbeville Athletics. Both Leslie and SABR reported that Bramham declared evidence the players were in on a fix was circumstantial. In the absence of a confession or more concrete proof, Leslie wrote, Bramham concluded the players could not be found guilty of throwing the games.
Shortly after his ruling, Bramham retired.
“The situation in the Evangeline League is very, very bad,” SABR’s “The National Pastime” quotes Bramham saying to his successor George Trautman.
For their part, all five players denied wrongdoing. Three years later, Pecou and Thomas were reinstated, according to SABR’s “The National Pastime.”
“I knew there was betting on the series, on the part of the fans” Fugit told the Courier, according to Leslie’s “’Say It Ain’t So.’” “But (I) never heard of any on the part of the players. There is a tendency to bet on everything in Louisiana.”
That fans gambled was as evident as the bleachers they sat on at games. Bramham, who attended a game in Thibodaux, was appalled to witness fans openly exchanging money in bets amongst themselves over play calls won or lost, Leslie said.
The ball park wasn’t the only venue for league-related gambling.
“In many of the cities, local bars put the pictures of players on slot machines, and it became a way the player could get a bonus from their fans,” Leslie wrote in email.
This was true for Thibodaux and Opelousas and possibly Houma, he said, and it predated the year the Houma betting scandal broke.
“Jerry Stromh whose brother was a manager and a commissioner, Harry, said when he went to Opelousas in 1938, he thought that he was stepping back into the Old West with all of the gambling.”