Author: Greg Oakes
Publication Date: 2006
The headline in the newspaper The Referee and the Baseball World, announcing the death of Bert Collyer, Saturday August 6, 1938.
(Reproduction courtesy of the author).
Bert Collyer ran a journalistic empire during the 'Roaring Twenties' in Chicago. A flamboyant figure, he published a scandal sheet for 'Jazz Age' gamblers. Truth never got in the way of a good story. His newspaper, Collyer's Eye, the bible for horse track bettors and sports gamblers, expanded to include stock market tips. Controversy sold copies, and Collyer was always in the eye of the storm. His greatest coup was disclosing the World Series baseball scandal in 1919.
THE EARLY YEARS
Robert (Bert) Collyer was born in Durham, Ontario on September 6, 1876, and his parents moved to Guelph when he was an infant. His father, John Thomas Collyer, had emigrated from Woking, Surrey, England, and married a Durham woman, Elizabeth Eva. John came from a family of nurserymen, and he was employed with the parks department in Guelph.1
Bert Collyer was a newspaper carrier during his school years in Guelph. His impoverished family rented a place on Hearn Avenue.2 They attended the Christadelphian church. Bert and his only brother, Rufus, enjoyed athletics and both were keen runners.3 One of Bert's first jobs was as a cub reporter for the Guelph Herald. At the time, newspapers were the main source of information and being the first to report a story sold newspapers. Speed trumped accuracy; there was no second best.
During the Klondike Gold Rush, Collyer headed north to try his luck. He had a working relationship with the Hearst newspapers and a former Herald supervisor, then in charge of The Victoria Colonist, had referred Collyer.4 Collyer was on the site of the Chilkoot Trail Avalanche in 1898, when 69 people from around the world were killed in a snowslide. Several famous news correspondents reported the accident and then chartered boats for Victoria, the nearest telegraph site, to file their stories. Collyer gathered a full account of the tragedy and chartered a steamer for Victoria, nonplussed that his rivals had an 11-hour lead on a four-day journey. A wild steamboat race ensued, and Collyer passed his nearest rival in the Wrangell Narrows but he was still behind the leader. Collyer, who had volunteers on his ship breaking and shovelling coal, eventually passed his lead rival in the Seymour Narrows, both vessels shooting six-foot flames from their stacks.
Collyer won the race, only to discover the telegraph lines were down in Victoria. He also discovered a stowaway on board his craft from The London Times but he paid the ship's captain to detain him. He leased the telegraph lines, instructing the operator to broadcast the contents of the Bible if the lines became operative. When released, the angry Times reporter had to wait for access to the lines. Meanwhile, Collyer chartered a launch to Port Angeles, Washington, and scooped the world for the San Francisco Examiner. It was a prestigious triumph for Collyer, who immediately returned north.5 He spent several years in the Yukon. When the gold rush ended, Collyer worked for Hearst publications in Florida and Kentucky.
Collyer, who loved horses, owned a few horses and developed a reputation as a race handicapper. He recalled his biggest thrill was winning the King Edward VII Coronation Stakes on the main street of Dawson City in 1903. Aboard Black Alder, Collyer out-rode the subsequently famous quarter-mile jockey Bob Wade.6 Collyer also spent time in the saddle as a jockey in Jacksonville and Louisville, and rode steeple-chase at Woodbine in Toronto. Collyer was eventually transferred to the Chicago American and became the turf editor. The Chicago American, known as the 'madhouse on Madison Street,' filled its columns with news of gangsters, dance marathons, and spicy divorces.7 The Hearstlings solved murder mysteries, calling the police after the final edition had gone to press with the exclusive story. Macabre, absurd, dramatic, exaggerated, and flamboyant were apt adjectives for the paper's contents and its contributors.
In 1914, Collyer founded Collyer's Eye for horse-race gamblers. Gradually he expanded to include betting odds and tips on all sports and the stock market. Collyer's Eye was a weekly, published in Chicago but distributed nationwide. It was the gamblers' bible, its headlines akin to today's supermarket tabloids. After immigrating to America, Collyer became a naturalized citizen in 1910 and lived most of his life in Chicago's 23rd ward.8 Though popular and profitable, Collyer's publications were considered disreputable. Despite the proliferation of gambling, its proponents were frowned upon.
THE FAMOUS BASEBALL SCANDAL
Baseball's 1919 World Series pitted the Chicago White Sox against the Cincinnati Reds, with the latter club victorious five games to three. Underworld mobster, Arnold Rothstein, fixed the series by bribing the 'Black Sox' to throw the series.9 Collyer's Eye began its investigation immediately after the last game and assigned reporter Frank Klein to the story. In return, the Eye received abuse from the baseball establishment. Collyer's reputation was questioned, and his group was dismissed as, 'mindless muckrakers' out to sell papers with sensational headlines.10 No other newspaper dared such an exposé for fear of libel and lack of evidence, but Collyer was undeterred. On October 18, 1919, he broke the scandal and Collyer's Eye named Abe Attell as the fixer. 'Little Champ' Attell was a former feather-weight boxer employed as Arnold Rothstein's bodyguard. Unfortunately, the Eye had a poor reputation, and the story went unnoticed by the main-stream media.
In the October 25, 1919 issue, the Eye named Claude "Lefty" Williams under the headline, "Involve White Sox Pitcher". On November 8, 1919, under the headline, "Eye Refuses to Accept any Part of $10,000 Reward", Eddie Cicotte was accused of, "Being in on things." A week later, the Eye headline read, "Discover Pay Off," and named seven of the eight players who were eventually indicted; however, Buck Weaver was left off the list.11 South-side Chicago fans were aghast to see the reputations of their heroes, Cicotte, Claude "Lefty" Williams, Swede Risberg, Oscar Emil "Happy" Felsch, "Shoeless Joe" Jackson, Chick Gandil, and Fred McMullin challenged. The November 15, 1919 issue also reported that gamblers from New York, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Chicago "Cleaned up." The December 12, 1919 headline read, "Catcher Ray Schalk in Huge White Sox Expose," and the catcher suggested that seven of his team-mates would be missing at spring training - he named the same seven as the Eye.12 It would be a year before the scandal broke wide open in papers across the nation.
A week before the scandal exploded nationally, the Los Angeles Times printed the list of those subpoenaed to appear before the Grand Jury investigating the scandal. The list included celebrities and gamblers, the baseball establishment, players, reporters, and sports editors. Ring Lardner topped the latter list and buried in the middle were Bert Collyer and Frank Klein, a reporter for Collyer's Eye.13 In the coverage of the grand jury hearings, there is no evidence that Collyer ever testified.14 Sox player Cicotte confessed and it all became moot. If Collyer had testified, what else might we have learned about the fix? With Cicotte's confession confirming the fix was in, the October 1, 1920 issue of Collyer's Eye reiterated its earlier revelations that were finally proven by a Chicago grand jury a year after the series ended - Collyer's Eye was vindicated.15
(Reproduction courtesy of the author).
Baseball, unlike sports such as horse-racing or boxing, had a wholesome image. Baseball was a legal monopoly that made the team owners rich. Collyer made his living advising gamblers, and if baseball could be fixed, the element of chance declined. Ironically, it was the dark-side of the marriage between gambling and baseball that wanted things cleaned up. Baseball took full credit and Collyer was admonished by baseball purists. However, Collyer's clients were impressed that he was the real deal. Writing after the scandal was proven, the Eye's business manager Hugo L. Eberhardt wrote that the Eye was cautious, using good judgement in releasing their stories and ensuring that there was fire behind the elusive smoke.16
An ad for Collyer's Eye appeared in the Washington Post on November 21, 1920. It contained the seven Eye headlines related to the 'Black Sox' fix just as they appeared in summary in the October 1, 1920 issue. There was also a coupon: readers of the Post could purchase two years of the Eye for the price of one year (or ten dollars). Collyer's Eye called itself the leading authority on sports and the most accurate in the analysis of market conditions. Not only was the Eye the first to expose the scandal of the 1919 series, but it was also the only paper to declare repeatedly that profits could be made in railroad and petroleum securities. The ad mentions that Collyer's Eye first noted the connection between the 'Fix' and Big Oil when discussing that Harry Sinclair bet big on the 1919 Series and lost to Rothstein.
Collyer was fearless. In the August 18, 1923 issue, he insinuated that Arnold Rothstein might be up to his old tricks and trying to entice the Cincinnati Reds to lose games. In an August series the New York Giants - the eventual champions - greatly increased their lead taking five games straight from a strong Cincinnati club. The Eye named two Cincinnati players who were offered 15,000 dollars each. Baseball went on the offensive and the players were instructed to bring 50,000 dollar libel suits against Collyer's Eye. Collyer asserted that he did not accuse the players of accepting bribes, only that they had been approached. Collyer refused to reveal his source. The matter was settled out of court, and Collyer paid 100 dollars to each player and the court costs. Both sides claimed vindication. Collyer offered to advise baseball authorities on the activities of the gambling fellowship within baseball but was rebuffed. Little has changed. Since 1943, four men have been expelled from baseball for gambling: Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, George Steinbrenner, and Pete Rose. Only Rose - "Charlie Hustle" - has not been reinstated.
Bert Collyer was buried in the Woodlawn Cemetery in Guelph. The Collyer Memorial is made of Canadian pink granite. The lettering is made of lead, The general shape of the letters are created by punching little holes in the granite. Lead is then hammered into the holes and the shape of the letter hand cut from the resulting thin sheet of lead.
(Text courtesy of Woodlawn Memorial Park. Photography courtesy of Ann Guthrie).
Collyer also exposed one of horse racing's big scandals. Horse races were often fixed by jockeys taking bribes. As a result of Collyer's work, the Kentucky racing commissioned barred several jockeys, members of the infamous 'thousand dollars a pull' jockey ring. In finance, Collyer decried the rigging of the grain market under the Wheat Export Company and the Armour Yellow Wagon combines.18 Was he familiar with Guelph's other Chicago export, Arthur Cutten, who made millions trading in the Chicago wheat pools?
Collyer founded a news service supplying daily newspapers with horse race selections. His scientific handicapping system was adopted by millions of readers. He published an annual yearbook that gave predictions for all sports. It promoted his system of horse handicapping with detailed ratings for all major thoroughbreds and advice on modifying ratings after each race. Collyer's system is still revered today.19 Collyer alleged he reached 19 million readers daily at his peak.
The monument is designed in the Art-Deco style. Two lions grace the top of the monument - one is sleeping, and the other is awake.
(Photography courtesy of Ann Guthrie).
In 1925, Collyer travelled to Europe in regal style on the ocean liner Aquitania. He visited the capitals, the museums, and the tracks. Collyer claimed to have scooped the world again when he interviewed Field Marshall Paul von Hindenberg, then the German President (1925-1934).20 He published a book The Truth About Europe.21 His biggest thrill was a 500 dollar win ticket at nine-to-one odds on the winner of the English Derby at Epsom.22
Collyer never forgot his roots nor his family. He built his parents a large house, "Atlasta Flame," on Chadwick Avenue in Guelph where it still stands and bears the inscription, "Mrs. Elizabeth Collyer," on the mail slot. He sponsored sports in Guelph, especially long distance running. The Collyer Trophy, which now resides at the Cutten Club, was first presented in 1923 for the winner of the five-mile annual Thanksgiving Day Race.23 Collyer and his wife attended the event annually. He was fond of his mother and wrote a column for her on every Mother's Day, even after her death.24 The Collyer's chauffeur-driven limousine was a frequent sight on Guelph streets.
Bert Collyer died at age 61 on July 28, 1938. Tributes poured in from people as diverse as Damon Runyan and the Chief Clerk of the United States Supreme Court.25 He was survived by his wife Frances and was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Guelph under a unique Art-Deco tombstone with two lions carved on top - one sleeping and the other awake.
Bert Collyer was an amazing figure who challenged contemporary morals and rubbed shoulders with gamblers and athletes. His literary, mathematical, and business skills supplied a niche market of shady dealers. Reviled by the mainstream media, Collyer's role in baseball's greatest exposé is not even mentioned in the 1963 book Eight Men Out nor the 1988 film adaptation, the most popular depiction of the 1919 World Series 'Black Sox' scandal. History may forget those on the fringe of respectability, but Bert Collyer deserves to be remembered for his 'Black Sox' scoop.
- "Late J. T. Collyer," The Guelph Evening Mercury, January 29, 1917.
- Findlay Weaver, "Former Guelphite Rufus Collyer Famous in Several Sports Fields," The Guelph Daily Mercury, May 12, 1966.
- Depending on the source, Bert Collyer's brother is referred to as either Rufus or Lally. In their father's obituary, the sons are listed as Bert E. and Rufus G. of Chicago (Guelph Daily Mercury, January 28, 1917).
- "Cub Hired Ship, Beat Rivals in Klondyke," Toronto Star, August 27, 1937, p. 12.
- Pierre Berton, Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush, 1896-1899. (Toronto: McClelland-Stewart, 1972), p. 259.
- "Cub Hired Ship, Beat Rivals in Klondyke, " Toronto Star, August 27, 1937, p. 12.
- See George Murray, The Madhouse on Madison Street, (Chicago: Follett Publishing Co., 1965).
- United States. Census, 1920; Gene Carney, "Notes from the Shadows of Cooperstown: Observations from Outside the Lines," No. 320, January 17, 2004. http://baseball.com/carney/indexphpstoryid=229. (Edit: https://seamheads.com/blog/2004/01/17/11539/).
- The team was called the Chicago White Sox. The term 'Black Sox' refers to the eight that were banned from baseball. The author does not recall when the term was first coined.
- Carney, Gene. "Notes from the Shadows of Cooperstown: Observations from Outside the Lines," No. 358, August 27, 2005. http://www.baseball.com/carney/index.phpstoryid=27l. (Edit: https://seamheads.com/blog/2005/08/27/11581/).
- Frank Klein was a reporter for Collyer's Eye and later General Manager of Collyer's publications. He was Collyer's right-hand man. His photo is in Collyer's Yearbook (1932) at Toronto Reference Library.
- The hearings were stopped before many people testified due to the confession of Eddie Cicotte.
- "White Sox Indictments Vindicate Collyer's Eye," Collyer's Eye, October 1, 1920, p. 1.
- Gene Carney, Near or on Friday. (Unpublished).
- "Reds Will File Suit," New York Times, September 1, 1923, p. 9; "Collyer's Lawyer To Cincinnati," New York Times, September 8, 1923, p. 11; Taylor Spink. Judge Landis and Twenty Five years of Baseball. (Sporting News, St. Louis, 1947): p.113-114.
- Bruce Morrison, "Bert E. Collyer Loses Heroic Fight For Life," The Referee and Baseball News, August 6, 1938, p. 1. (Charlotte Mackie of Guelph Woodlawn Cemetery provided this source and details about members of the Collyer family buried there. The only other surviving copies of Collyer's Eye that the author is aware of is a five-year bound stack at the college in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois).
- Richard Eng, "It's Helpful To Listen To Others," Las Vegas Review Journal, May 28, 2000.
- Bruce Morrison, "Bert E. Collyer Loses His Heroic Fight For Life."
- Paul S. Warden, "Warden Tells Highlights of Collyer Career," The Referee and the Baseball World 24, No. 20, August 6, 1938.
- "Bert Collyer Noted Sports Figure Is Dead," The Guelph Daily Mercury, July 29, 1938; "Bert Collyer Goes To Sleep In Surroundings Dear To Him," The Globe, July 30, 1938, p. 16.
- Yern Mcllwraith, "Guelphite Bared Baseball Scandal," The Guelph Daily Mercury, April 16, 1970.
- Damon Runyan was a novelist and playwright who met and wrote graphically about the, "Guys and dolls," of the underworld.
Stewart, Robert. A Picture History of Guelph. Guelph, Ontario: Robert Stewart, 1976-1978.
Carney, Gene. Burying the Black Sox: How Baseball's Cover-up of the 1919 World Series Fix Almost Succeeded. Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books Inc., 2006.