Jewish American Gangsters: The Infamous Arnold "The Big Bankroll" Rothstein

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Avid baseball fans during the first half of the twentieth century will never forgive or forget Arnold Rothstein, a major figure in the 1919 World Series scandal as a financial backer. Nicknamed "The Big Bank Roll" because he carried around wads of hundred dollar bills in his pockets, Rothstein played an integral role in the 1919 World Series scandal that not only forever tainted the reputation of Major League Baseball for decades to come but also the integrity of other sports as well (Peterson). Although he consistently denied being involved in the infamous baseball scandal, his wealth and reputation greatly influenced the actions of the White Sox baseball players, playing a major role in one of baseball's darkest moments (Peterson). Rothstein’s actions present baseball as a public institution that belonged to a lucrative industry run by entrepreneurs rather than to the public, which has tarnished the reputation of America’s pastime for the rest of its existence. He equated money with power and obtained it without legal sanction. Unlike business moguls such as J.P. Morgan who earned money and power within the confines of the law, Rothstein overtly disregarded legal parameters. Nonetheless, his activities had a long-lasting effect on the social fabric of American society, as he inscribed his own character, values, and beliefs on the American economy.

Rothstein was born and raised in New York in 1882 to an orthodox Jewish family. A successful man, Rothstein’s father, Abraham Rothstein, used his wealth to engage in philanthropic projects and finance other pious works. Arnold’s older brother Harry pursued a more religious path and became ordained as a rabbi (Pelaia). Arnold Rothstein, however, immersed himself in the gambling world as a very young man because he cared very little about succeeding in school despite his obvious intellect (Peterson). An introverted adolescent, Arnold had a poor relationship with his father and brother. By the age of sixteen, he decided to drop out of high school, leave home, and become a traveling salesperson (Katcher 30). Soon, he decided to spend his time in pool halls, which fostered in him an addiction to gambling. At the age of twenty, the self-employed Rothstein placed bets on horse races, elections, baseball games, and other sporting competitions. One newspaper quoted him as saying that he would bet on anything but the weather because one could not predict the weather (Goetsch). Rothstein also began giving out loans that carried exorbitant interest rates (Peterson). His business-like mindset fostered a desire to finance all possible deals as soon as possible, so he carried around wads of hundred dollar bills. In 1914, he found his fortune when he began a bookmaking business, running a discount house for people to make wagers. Rothstein also purchased racetracks. When the Eighteenth Amendment passed in 1919 and codified the prohibition of alcohol consumption in the United States, Rothstein involved himself in the business of bootlegging. He bought alcohol from places outside of the United States, smuggled the goods into the country, and sold them to willing buys. His experience in bootlegging alcohol soon included narcotics (Pelaia). As a result of these various enterprises, he became a millionaire by the age of thirty.

Rothstein’s reputation as a perceptive, pragmatic, intelligent and stylish businessperson led to his quick rise in mobster circles, attracting the attention of some of the most notorious gangsters during that epoch. Jewish mobsters gained prominence in the Lower East Side of New York during the first few decades of the twentieth century (Fried 1). Rothstein became an idol for other Jewish mobsters he associated with such as Meyer Lanksky and Charles Luciano, who praised Rothstein for teaching them how to comport themselves with elegance and sophistication in the business world. Rumors circulated that Rothstein inspired author F. Scott Fitzgerald to model the character Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby (Pelaia). Although he participated in illegal activities, Rothstein also had a philanthropic side, which also earned him respect within Jewish mobster circles. He provided funds to construct synagogues, helped his father out financially when he fell into debt and often allowed financially strapped tenants to make payments when they could afford to do so. Rothstein’s involvement in illegal activities, as well as his philanthropic actions, reveals the complexity of his character and nature despite his often amoral actions in the realm of crime.

The popularity of Rothstein, especially within the community of Jewish mobsters, ensured that Rothstein would have heirs to carry out his style of business for decades to come. Rothstein financed business without legal sanction, so laws that aimed at curbing the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few such as those in the New Deal did not affect him. His associates and followers carried on his business according to the strict guidelines he laid out for them, which structured crime after big-business. In doing so, he shifted the world of crime from an anarchic state to an authoritarian one. Crime transformed from isolated events such as petty larceny to big business (Katcher 9). The fusion of crime into a well-oiled machine still remains today and represents one of Rothstein’s most enduring legacies.

The popular memory of Rothstein, however, remains etched in the realm of baseball, a sport he routinely bet on. Baseball’s origins trace from the nineteenth century when only members of the aristocracy would partake in the club sport. It later transformed into a phenomenon whereby the masses played in it and allowed it to become a spectator sport of national importance by the beginning of the twentieth century. The sport quickly rose to national prominence, and by 1903, every major city had a baseball team, which gave birth to the famous World Series. Public consumption of the sport increased exponentially every year, and by the 1920s over nine million people on average attended games. Despite the overwhelming support for a sport that would become America’s pastime, baseball remained inextricably linked to the U.S.’s wavering economic condition. Both the National and the American Leagues that comprised Major League Baseball experienced bankruptcy because of the boom and bust nature of capitalism at the outset of the twentieth century. Although external factors threatened the further existence of baseball as a national public institution, internal struggles also plagued it. Competing baseball leagues depressed attendance numbers and thus revenue necessary to sustain the league’s existence. Furthermore, owners and players bitterly argued over contracts. Thus, during its infancy, the image of baseball was one as a business struggling to survive rather than one of a beloved and preserved pastime (Goetsch). Within this context, Arnold Rothstein ascended to public infamy through the Black Sox scandal, which would forever alter the image of baseball.

In response to the poor economic health of the nation, eight Chicago White Sox players conspired with professional gamblers to fix the 1919 World Series by purposely losing to the Cincinnati Reds, a team they were favored 5-1 to defeat. Gambling in sports was not a new phenomenon. Both players and owners partook in illegal activities in order to receive more money or clothing. However, the fixing of the 1919 World Series shocked the world for various reasons. The Chicago White Sox was one of the great teams ever assembled in baseball, even in comparison to teams in the present day. When eight White Sox players approached gamblers, they were shocked that these players offered to throw the series in exchange for $100,000. These players became known as the Black Sox, and their actions puzzled many observers because they were the most talented players in the league. However, despite their talent and success, the White Sox players were paid the least out of all of the players in the league. Many baseball insiders knew about the fix prior to the beginning of the series, which quickly altered gamblers’ odds regarding the series’ outcome. Behind the scenes, Arnold Rothstein financed the fix. Approached by two different groups of gamblers to procure funds for the eight Chicago players, Rothstein chose to work with Joseph Sullivan, a mobster who enjoyed a good reputation in the gambling circles (Peterson). Rothstein shockingly bet $270,000 against the reputable Chicago White Sox. The media quickly became suspicious, and newspapers warned the public not to place bets in the series because “ugly rumors” were afloat about the integrity of the series. Newspapers such as The New York Times dubbed the fix an “American tragedy,” and other media sources lamented that it revealed inherent flaws in America’s national character (Goetsch). As the national pastime, baseball was put on a pedestal by a swooning public who now questioned the ethics and motives of sports in general in a positive light.

Despite the fix tarnishing the reputation and character of the baseball as a beloved American institution, baseball survived during the 1920s. Four of the eight White Sox players offered full confessions. Arnold Rothstein, however, maintained his innocence regarding the affair when called to testify. Mysteriously, court documents and players’ confession that cited Rothstein as an integral figure in the fix mysteriously disappeared. Instead of admitting fault, Rothstein blamed his former associate Abe Attell (Peterson). Eventually, Rothstein received an acquittal, but the court of public opinion never exonerated him despite the fact that he promulgated his retirement from gambling in September 1921 (Peterson). He sought to disassociate himself from the scandal and regain a sense of anonymity. Thus, he resigned ownership of the gambling houses he owned. Unfortunately, Rothstein still did not abstain from other illegal activities, as he engaged in bootlegging, drug dealing, and labor racketeering (Peterson). To the chagrin of many, Rothstein was never convicted of a crime during his lifetime. On Sunday, November 4, 1928, amidst a tense political campaign for president of the United States, an unknown man shot and murdered forty-six-year-old Arnold Rothstein at the Park Central Hotel in New York. Initial reports erroneously claimed that the murder occurred during a card game. In actuality, the motive for murder stemmed from a card game that had taken place two weeks earlier (Katcher 1). Rothstein purportedly stalled or refused to pay off a debt incurred during the game (Pelaia).

Although he became a central figure in one of the worst moments not only in baseball but also in sport's history, his legacy remains marked by his ability to transform crime into a corporation. Despite committing a plethora of crimes and involving himself in dozens of murders, Rothstein died with a clean criminal record and never officially broke any law. His activity shined light on the corruption that underlies American sports and that wealth and greed would forever mar the spirit of America's pastime as well as other major sporting events. The fear of "fixing" series for money has percolated into the present-day. The 2002 NBA Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Sacramento Kings provides one recent example. Commentators believe that the referees made certain calls during critical times in order for the Lakers, a big market franchise, to advance to the NBA Finals and generate more wealth for the league. Thus, Rothstein's legacy in fixing sports will continue to dominate public discourse regarding fairness in sporting competition. Furthermore, organized crime will never fully disappear from the American landscape. Through trial and error, Rothstein reshaped organized crime into a corporation-like institution with himself as its leader. This structure remains in use in the present day and will no doubt continue for decades to come.

Works Cited

Fried, Albert. The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Gangster in America. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1980. Print.

Goetsch, Douglas. "Baseball's Loss of Innocence." The American Scholar. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2014. <http://theamericanscholar.org/baseballs-loss-of-innocence/>.

Katcher, Leo. The Big Bankroll: The Life and Times of Arnold Rothstein. Victor Gollancz: London, 1959. Pp. x. 369. Print.

Pelaia, Ariela. "Arnold Rothstein." About.com Judaism. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2014. <http://judaism.about.com/od/jewishpersonalities/a/Arnold-Rothstein-Jewish-American-Mobster-Boardwalk-Empire-Character.htm>.

Peterson, Traci. "Biography of Arnold Rothstein." Biography of Arnold Rothstein. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 Mar. 2014. <http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/blacksox/rothsteinbio.html>.

Pietrusza, David. Rothstein: The Life, Times, and Murder of the Criminal Genius Who Fixed the 1919 World Series. Basic Books: New York, 2011. Print.