Ice Fishing, Christmas Trees, And Booze: One Spy's Failed Infiltration Of The Black Sox

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Excerpted from The Betrayal: The 1919 World Series and the Birth of Modern Baseball, by Charles Fountain.


At the end of the 1919 World Series, with rumors of a fix swirling, White Sox owner Charles Comiskey scrambled to find a way to gain control the developing scandal. Comiskey met with his lawyer, Aflred S. Austrian, and the two hatched a plan: They’d hire private detectives from a firm called Hunter’s Secret Service to spy on Comiskey’s own players, the goal being to gather as much information as possible about the alleged fix in order to come up with a strategy for how to control that information.

This is the story of Operative 11, who was tasked with infiltrating the life of White Sox center fielder Happy Felsch.


Finally, there was the Inspector Clouseau-like pursuit of Happy Felsch in Milwaukee by a detective identified in the communications between Hunter and Austrian as “Operative 11.” His reports are filled with mentions of stakeouts, oil leases, ice fishing, union suits, Christmas trees, and a great deal of time spent bellied up to the bar in a variety of neighborhood taverns. Now, Comiskey and Austrian were not by nature jocular men, and this was not a moment in their lives when they would likely be given to mirth. Nonetheless, from the remove of nearly a century, it seems possible that the reports from Milwaukee might have produced at least a rueful smile or two in an otherwise very nervous moment.

Operative 11 was quite clearly a Milwaukee resident, but at first he had a difficult time even finding Felsch, who was hiding in plain sight. The detective spent a couple of days staking out the wrong house, until he learned that Felsch had recently moved from the Teutonia Avenue house under surveillance to another home on the same street. Finally, beginning on Friday, Nov. 7, Operative 11 turned his attentions to the correct home, but his timing was off. He seemed generally to arrive at Felsch’s house after the outfielder had left for the day; he was getting up early to go hunting most of these off-season days.

While Felsch was in the woods, Operative 11 repaired to Rehberg’s Saloon, a neighborhood watering hole that Felsch was known to patronize, and spent a lot of time with his foot on the rail there, trying to steer the conversation to Felsch and whether or not his friends had seen him demonstrate any recent profligate ways. He did learn that Felsch had just bought a five-passenger $1,850 Hupmobile car. But little else of any use came from these conversations.

The home office began to grow a little restless at the lack of progress, and sent another detective up from Chicago to help. This operative tried to force the issue. He knocked on the door of Felsch’s home and spoke with his mother-in-law. His story was that he was an oil-lease salesman and wished to speak to family mem­bers with money to invest. Why an oil-lease salesmen would be going door to door in this working-class neighborhood was apparently never questioned; it was hardly a neighborhood in which one was likely to find the sort of disposable income necessary for the investing in oil leases, or anything else other than the rent and grocery bills. Felsch’s Teutonia Avenue home was a $22-a-month, eight­ room flat with no bathroom, and he was sharing it with his wife, her parents, her sister, and her sister’s two children. The ruse yielded nothing; the second opera­tive returned to Chicago. Operative 11 went back to working the saloons.


It was Christmas trees that finally gave the Hunter man entree to the White Sox center fielder. Felsch was selling Christmas trees; the front yard of his home was filled with the evergreens. Operative 11 knocked on the door—again Felsch was not home—and told Felsch’s father-in-law that he, too, wished to get into the Christmas tree business and asked if the man would be interested in making a bulk sale. For that, replied Felsch’s father-in-law, you must speak with my son­ in-law. Eureka.

The Hunter man had been on the case for more than a month, and finally he was going to meet the target of his inquiry. They met on Monday, Dec. 15, and Operative 11 arranged to buy 25 Christmas trees from Felsch, the negotiations conducted and completed in Rehberg’s, where Operative 11 had become almost as familiar a figure as Happy Felsch. The Christmas tree deal was the beginning of the friendship the detective had hoped for. Felsch was an accommodating sort, particularly when plied by drink—Felsch and a man with a bottle in search of information would become a recurring scene as the Black Sox story unraveled over the years—and soon he was in easy relaxed conversation with a man who was decidedly not his friend.


Over the next three days Hap welcomed this new friend and business associ­ate into his home, and the Hunter man somehow grew to genuinely enjoy the ballplayer’s company. Hap showed off and proudly played the new player piano he’d just bought for $560. He told him his tale of woe about the Hupmobile, saying that it had frozen up in his barn in Milwaukee’s early December cold, and it was now up on blocks in a local garage. In response to the operative’s queries about what else was new in his life, Felsch told him about the dozen union suits—six summer and six winter—he just received for free from an underwear maker con­templating an endorsement deal. Two days after his first Christmas tree purchase the detective agreed to buy another 190 trees from Felsch. (The Hunter man was apparently selling off his trees to another dealer.) This cemented the friendship.

Nonetheless, Operative 11 had trouble steering the conversation around to baseball. In the bar that first night after consummating the Christmas tree deal, Felsch and his tavern companions wanted to talk only of bowling, despite the Hunter man’s repeated requests for stories about Hap’s baseball life. In the days fol­lowing, Felsch would talk of hunting, fishing, and bowling, but not baseball. “I find that it will be necessary for me to get him alone, and in the proper mood, before he will begin to talk about baseball,” Operative 11 wrote in his report to Austrian. Hap had promised to take his new friend on an ice-fishing trip, but the weather wasn’t cooperating. The intense cold had cracked the ice, Felsch told the detective, and the lake water had washed out, melting the snow, making the conditions inhospitable for fishing; the trip would have to wait until the next snowfall.


Nonetheless, Happy Felsch and the private detective working for his employer were now boon companions, practically inseparable over the final two weeks of December and the first weeks of January. The men’s wives even became chummy, and from this friend­ship, Operative 11 reported back to Austrian, he had learned that Felsch be­lieved the team’s pitching had let them down, particularly Lefty Williams, who had gotten himself roaring drunk the night before the decisive game. Felsch’s wife said that that was the reason, Felsch had told her, for Williams’s final-game ineptitude.

The detective got his fishing trip—two of them in fact. The first, which ended on Christmas Eve, had others along, and provided no chance for individual conversation. Still, the talk did come around to baseball. Felsch, mentioning no one by name, said players felt that team executives and employees throughout the game were on the take, accepting graft from team suppliers, encouraging the use of some brands of equipment and prohibiting the use of others. The men also talked about sports in general, and whether or not a game could be fixed. Hap talked in broad generalities about how no sport, baseball particularly, was immune from manipulation. But he put some of the onus for this hypothetical manipulation on the owners, who could bend an outcome to their will by asking players to do their nefarious bidding. Reading between the lines of Operative 11’s reports on Happy Felsch, it is easy to see a man who sees everyone else bending the rules and taking something for themselves, and probably justifying his own decision in that way.


Shortly after New Year’s Day 1920, Operative 11 got Happy Felsch alone on a three-day fishing trip to Okauchee Lake, some 40 miles northwest of Milwaukee. Here, the two men fished and drove about the countryside by day and sat in the cottage smoking and talking at night. Operative 11, knowing that this was probably going to be the end of his professional pursuit of Felsch, finally broached the matter of the Series fix rumors. He did so indirectly, asking Felsch if he’d seen a late December story in the Milwaukee Journal about the status of Comiskey’s reward offer. Felsch had, and told him that he could not “imagine that any player would stoop so low,” and he offered up the observation “That some hard loser has probably caused such a rumor to be spread.” Felsch was also clearly uncomfortable talking about this, the detective sensed, and quickly changed the subject whenever it came up.

Like E.W.M. in St. Louis and Chicago and Hunter in Los Angeles, Operative 11 had no smoking gun from his two months in pursuit of Happy Felsch. But he did have a conclusion. “My observations to date: I believe that ‘F’ is innocent, but at the same time I believe he knows more than he cares to tell,” he wrote in his final report back to Austrian and Comiskey.


Such was essentially the case for the entire investigation. In Hunter’s final report to Charles Comiskey, dated May 11, 1920, he said his findings “Gave some color of credibility to the surmises of bribery extending to the World Series player,” but conceded, “We were not able to make any specific connection between the players and the gambling combination.” He then told Comiskey the bill for the six months of work and expenses came to $3,820.31.

Photo via AP

Reprinted from The Betrayal: The 1919 World Series and the Birth of Modern Baseball by Charles Fountain with permission from Oxford University Press, Inc. Copyright © 2016 by Charles Fountain.