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Bill Burns

  • Series: 1919 Black Sox Scandal
  • City: Washington, D.C.
  • Team: Senators
  • League: American League

William Thomas Burns (1880-1953) was an American League pitcher who didn’t finish well. He began his career of failed finales in his rookie season, 1908, with the Washington Senators. Bill took a no-hitter into the ninth inning and got two more outs before Germany Schaefer spoiled his bid and won the game. A year later with the White Sox, and facing his former teammate Walter Johnson, Burns lost another no-hitter with one out to go. Not until Dave Stieb had the misfortune of losing (consecutive!) two-out no-nos in 1988 would such a fate befall another major leaguer.  The ‘08 season was a fine one for Bill, who apparently didn’t earn his “Sleepy” sobriquet until later, when he developed a reputation for a lackadaisical demeanor on the mound. He had an outstanding 1.69 ERA in 1908, but would never win more than eight games in a season en route to a 30-52 career record.

It was his career-ending tour with the Tigers in 1912 that would prove fateful for Sleepy Bill. On May 18, teammate Ty Cobb couldn’t resist battering a maimed and abusive fan, earning a suspension from league president Ban Johnson and triggering a walk-out by the team. Detroit’s owner wanted to forfeit and Johnson threatened to fine him if he didn’t field a team in Philadelphia. Thus Burns crossed paths with Billy Maharg, who was one of the replacement players against the Athletics. Years later, the two would team up in a scheme that provided the most notorious of endings for Bill Burns: the end of any reputation for honor in baseball. He and ex-boxer, and shadowy operator Maharg, likely at the behest of the most famed gambler of his day, Arnold Rothstein, would fix the 1919 World Series. Burns met with Eddie Cicotte and Chick Gandil at a New York hotel prior to the postseason. Investigation later revealed that Burns acted with Rothstein’s chauffeur, Maharg, and claimed to be representing someone known as “A.R.” For all of the rumors and speculation surrounding the Black Sox scandal, one bit of testimony was clear. Burns told the Assistant State Attorney: “I had the hundred thousand dollars to handle the throwing of the World Series. I also told them that I had the names of the men who were going to finance it.”

  • Sleepy Bill, known for carelessness as a pitcher, was a willing henchman to the biggest crime lord of the era. He displayed a carelessness for the truth, for morality and integrity, forever staining America’s Pastime
  • Another footnote to the Black Sox: Jean Dubuc was a player on the 1919 New York Giants (and had also been on the 1912 Tigers). Despite having an excellent year for the Giants in 1919, John McGraw released Dubuc, unexpectedly and without explanation, before the 1920 season. Dubuc then left the country to play and, in retrospect, lay low in Canada for 1921, and returned to play minor league ball in the States in 1922, but would never again play in the major leagues. When asked later why he had released Dubuc, McGraw stated that Dubuc "constantly associated" with Sleepy Burns and suspected that the two of them, along with Hal Chase, had conspired to ensure the Giants would lose out to the Reds during the 1919 pennant chase. Further raising suspicions of Dubuc's complicity in the year-end gambling scandals of 1919, his former Giants teammate Rube Benton testified in court during the Black Sox hearings that Dubuc had been tipped to the world series' fix by an anonymous telegram that urged him to place bets on the Reds. Combining that testimony with McGraw's suspicions, many (including The Sporting News) considered Dubuc's "guilty knowledge" of the fix as evidence of conspiracy equal to that of some other scandal participants, such as Buck Weaver and Joe Jackson, but Jean Dubuc somehow escaped such judgement from Kenesaw Mountain Landis and was never formally banned from professional baseball.  Dubuc would hence go on to have a successful career as a scout for the Detroit Tigers, signing Birdie Tebbetts and Hank Greenberg. Nobody knows who sent Dubuc that anonymous telegram in 1919, but the most common candidate proposed by historians is Sleepy Bill Burns.