Jack Riley: The last season of the Shanghai City League

 

NOTE: This is Part 2 of a two-part series – you can find Part 1 by clicking HERE.

Though he was well into his forties, Jack Riley still made sure his Wednesdays and Sundays were cleared for playing baseball. Riley had been living in Shanghai, China since the 1920s, and every summer he had been a fixture in the Shanghai City League.

Riley – or “Lucky Jack” as he was known to friend and foe alike — was the undisputed king of Shanghai’s slot machines and a major kingpin of the city’s illicit nightlife. His life before he washed up on the China coast was a mystery. Over the years, he’d alluded to having been a gunboat sailor on the Yangtze, amateur boxer, and professional gambler – but no one knew for sure. It didn’t really matter because many ex-pats in Shanghai were there to shake off a shady past and start anew. Jack Riley was one of the few successful ones.

After arriving in Shanghai via Manila in 1925, Riley found a job as bouncer at one of the many infamously seedy sailor dives found along the waterfront. Through a series of rigged poker games, Riley eventually won ownership of the Manhattan Bar from its original proprietor and used it as a base to begin his rise to the top of Shanghai’s underworld.

Riley began importing slot machines into Shanghai, and soon virtually every bar and nightclub in town had at least one of his “one-armed bandits.” From these slots flowed the coins with which he bought into every vice the city had on tap: nightclubs, bootlegging, heroin smuggling, gun running, dog racing – in Shanghai, the motto really was “anything goes.”

THE REASON for Shanghai’s reputation as a city wide open to vice goes back to the 1800s. After a series of one-sided wars and colonial beatdowns, most of the major world powers had forced China into unequal trade and territorial concessions located in key locations throughout the country. The port city of Shanghai was the largest of these “foreign concessions.” Shanghai was divided up into separate sections that included the French Concession, Japanese Hongkew District, International Settlement, and the Chinese Municipality. Each of these sections governed and policed themselves according to the customs and traditions of their ruling powers. Because Shanghai was an “open city,” no passports were required to enter. This loophole meant that the city attracted everyone from criminals fleeing the law in their own country to those who just wanted to reinvent themselves where no one knew their pasts.

The United States officially operated as part of the International Settlement. Within its boundaries, the British were the main players, but the US and a dozen other countries participated in not only trade and business, but also the local government. Though the American consulate was supposed to have authority over their citizens in the city, they had no police of their own nor the means to actually maintain control over their countrymen who perpetrated any wrongdoing in Shanghai.

By the late 1920s, this had begun to change. A permanent American court was set up while the U.S. Marshals Service and U.S. Treasury agents opened their own offices in town. To avoid any American meddling in his operations, Jack Riley bought himself a passport from a corrupt diplomat giving him Chilean citizenship. This would keep him safe from the American courts, but that took care of only one of his worries.

Operating a criminal organization anywhere in the world meant the powers that be had to be bought off; in Shanghai this was exponentially true. Besides the local Chinese gangsters, Riley also had to deal with the multitude of Jewish crime rings, White Russian gangs, corrupt French Concession officials and Japanese military authorities. All these palms had to be greased in order for Riley to operate freely within the city. Yet, despite all the cash he had to hand out, the money kept flowing into Riley’s coffers. The rise of Hitler and the threat of war in Europe ensured a continuous flood of anxious refugees with money seeking refuge in Shanghai – and Riley’s nightclubs and slot machines were there waiting to take their minds off their perilous plight.

THROUGHOUT THE 1930s Riley grew his vice empire, extending his operations to several successful nightclubs and heading up a tough gang of ex-pat gangsters, AWOL US Marines and grifters of every conceivable nationality. Besides his racketeering, Riley formed his own baseball team consisting of members of his gang alongside nightclub performers and homesick American businessmen. Riley was the team’s pitcher, and a good one at that. His “Rabbit Ball” ripped past opposing batters from US Navy teams and visiting Japanese university nines. For a while his team even boasted a real ringer in Thurman “Demon” Hyde, a semi-pro legend from California who palled around with home run slugger Lefty O’Doul.

A Shanghai City League was formed with games played on a makeshift diamond laid out on the infield of the Shanghai Race Club’s horse track. The Shanghai baseball scene was good enough that in 1934 a big league all-star team featuring Lefty O’Doul, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig stopped in after touring Japan. The Americans pooled all the local military and civilian talent to form an all-star roster to face the big leaguers. Though he was listed in The North China Daily News as a starter, Lucky Jack was almost 40 at the time and he spent the game on the bench as Ruth & Co. clobbered the younger guys, 22-1.

As he aged and his “Rabbit Ball” slowed, Riley evolved into the ultimate utility man, playing every position on the diamond including catcher. One game account in a 1935 Shanghai newspaper noted “Jack Riley being sent from third base to catcher to shortstop and back to third base” all in one game.

AS THE 1930s drew to a close, Riley’s felonious fiefdom had grown exponentially. He was among Shanghai’s criminal elite, a real mover and shaker in the city’s underworld. He was a millionaire at a time when that was such an unreachable goal many looked upon it as something found only in movies. But the world around him was rapidly changing. Where once he had relative freedom as foreigner of ambiguous origin, American authorities were now trying to figure out just who Jack Riley was and what they could do to stop him and his Shanghai vice empire.

At the same time, China was at war with Japan. While the two nations had been fighting a savage war of attrition since 1937, it rarely affected Shanghai’s foreign settlement and its inhabitants. But now, the Chinese government had abandoned Shanghai and the Japanese had occupied all the areas surrounding the International Settlement and French Concession. With China on the ropes, Japan had its eye on taking over the rest of Shanghai for themselves and sweeping away all the other foreigners. And with all the European powers at war on the other side of the globe, there was no one left to stand in their way. The good times and loose laws of old Shanghai were rapidly coming to an end. As the summer of 1940 began, everyone in Shanghai knew it was just a matter of time before everything in their secular little enclave came crashing down, washing them away forever in a vicious tsunami of war and change.

Despite the outside world closing in on them, the foreigners in Shanghai tried their best to ignore the inevitable. Fabulously opulent nightclubs such as the Del Monte Café and Farren’s continued to offer the best in floor shows, dance bands and upscale gambling; the stands at the Shanghai Race Club still boasted a capacity crowd for their annual Champions Stakes races; and baseball season began once again for the Shanghai City League.

THE 1940 Shanghai City League consisted of five teams – four from the United States military: Headquarters “Orphans,” 1st Battalion “Champions” and 2nd Battalion “Leathernecks” from the Marines; “YangPats” from the Navy Yangtze Patrol ships; and the Shanghai Amateur Baseball Club consisting of civilians who took their nickname, “Gallopers,” from their manager, Herby Gallop.

The SABC club was much different than the original team Riley formed back in the early 1930s. Apart from himself, gone were the underworld characters and hungover nightcrawlers, replaced now by respectable college educated American businessmen. Riley too had changed. He was now 43, still a lean and athletic teetotaler, but the years of stress from running a 24/7 crime empire on black coffee and Benzedrine while eluding the authorities was catching up with him.

The 16-game season began with the Marines 1st Battalion “Champions,” picked to repeat their 1939 title behind ace pitcher Lefty Houston and slugging outfielder Jesse Baze. However, the Gallopers had two talented starting pitchers in Joe Honeycutt and Al Huebner. Shortstop Bill Lamneck and catcher Buster Kabbert powered the offense while old-timer Jack Riley was ready to fill in at any position Herby Gallop pointed to.

From the first week, the Gallopers looked the best they had in years. By week four, Honeycutt was racking up strikeout numbers Bob Feller would be envious of, and Lamneck, Kabbert and first baseman Bill Fielden were all batting around .400. On the downside, Jack Riley’s stats were far below his usual output.

IF RILEY SEEMED a bit distracted on the field, he had good reason. The U.S. Marshals Service’s man in Shanghai, Sam Titlebaum, recently teamed up with the resident Treasury agent Martin Nicholson to take down the American slots king. At first, results were negligible. When the G-Men asked around about Riley, they were told a million different stories about who he really was and where he came from. When the agents obtained items from which to get his fingerprints, they found the mysterious Riley had foiled them by burning his fingertips smooth with acid.

While he was currently successful in staying one step in front of the authorities, Riley knew time was running out on all sides. If the G-Men didn’t get him, it was obvious war was coming with Japan, and the first place hell would break loose would be right there in Shanghai. He began hiding his millions in cash all over town, consolidating his rackets, and buying and selling stock in the local utilities. And in between, he played baseball every Wednesday and Sunday.

BASEBALL SEASON was postponed in the second week of August due to a dramatic shakeup in the International Settlement. The British made the startling decision to withdraw all her troops from Shanghai and Northern China. This caused a mass mobilization of the remainder of troops in the International Settlement, including the US Marines, Navy and American civilians enlisted in the Shanghai Volunteer Corps. Baseball and all other activities were suspended until mid-August when the city’s lines of defense were stabilized.

When the season resumed, Saturday games were added to make up the postponed games. The Gallopers were still four games up over the 1st Battalion Champions. Riley continued to play any position he was needed, including catcher, third and all three outfield spots. On August 19 he hit his only homer of the year, a two run shot off Fitch of the 2nd Battalion Leathernecks.

The season ended on August 25 with the Gallopers beating the YangPats 20-12. This put the amateurs’ record at 12-4, unseating the 1st Battalion Champions by two games. Honeycutt and Huebner proved to be an excellent one-two rotation, going 6-1 and 5-1 respectively. Bill Lamneck was the undisputed batting champ, hitting .407 and swiping 15 bases. Jack Riley played every position on the field except pitcher and first base, and while he batted a subpar .211, he was brilliant in the clutch and finished second on the team in RBI.

This would be the last season of the Shanghai City League. World events were closing in fast on the International Settlement, and by the next spring no one would have time for pleasant distractions such as baseball.

THE BEGINNING OF THE END for Lucky Jack came just after the season ended. The FBI was finally able to piece together enough of Riley’s burnt fingertip prints to ID him as Fahne Albert “Johnnie” Becker: escaped convict from Oklahoma.

Johnnie Becker was born in a Colorado logging camp sometime in 1897 and grew up in a Tulsa, Oklahoma orphanage. He ran away at age seven and made it to Denver, earning his keep as a janitor in a saloon/brothel. When he turned 17, he joined the US Navy, serving in China and the Philippines through 1921. The Navy taught him baseball and boxing and introduced him to the opportunities available in the Orient to anyone willing to take a chance and bend a few rules. After his discharge, Becker floated back to Tulsa. He worked as a taxi driver while gradually slipping deeper into Tulsa’s criminal underworld of bootleggers, hijackers, and drug dealers. In the fall of 1922 he and a couple of gunmen hijacked and robbed two men coming back from a roadhouse on Broken Arrow Road. Becker’s former girlfriend turned him in, and he was sentenced to 25 years in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary.

Behind bars, Becker joined the prison baseball team. Oklahoma State’s warden, Colonel W.S. Key, allowed his ball team to travel to “away” games with little more than the “honor system” ensuring they’d return. For years the team had toured the state with no missteps, but on Sunday May 10, 1925, the inevitable happened.

The Oklahoma State Convicts traveled to Holdenville for a Sunday ballgame. Arriving the night before and staying at a hotel in town, the only chaperones were the warden’s secretary, Howard Campbell, and two guards. After the game, the team was to clean up and change back at their hotel, then meet up later at the railroad station for the early evening train back to prison. The convicts dutifully followed the plan, all except for the team’s shortstop, Laster Fisher, and pitcher Johnnie Becker.

Newspapers later reported that after the ballgame, Fisher and Becker met up with a Holdenville resident named Grove. Turns out Grove used to be employed at the Oklahoma State pen. In any event, Grove took the two ballplayers for a ride in his car before dropping them off at their hotel. Grove said that Fisher and Becker told him that the rest of the team had already left for the train station and that “the two men seized their grips and left hastily, saying they would walk to the station.”

It goes without saying they fled in the opposite direction of the train station. Fisher escaped to Arizona where, under the alias “Roy Counts,” he played baseball in mining towns until he was recaptured in 1928. Johnnie Becker hopped trains heading west. When he reached the end of the line in San Francisco, he rolled a drunken sailor and took his papers identifying him as Edward Thomas Riley. He added the nickname “Jack” for good measure and caught a ship to Manila and a new start.

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JACK RILEY was locked up in the formidable Ward Road Goal while his lawyers fought his extradition to the United States. On December 4, 1940, Riley was brought before the court for a hearing when he used the lunch break to escape. This began a Shanghai-wide manhunt covering all the sections of the city. Riley was able to grab much of the cash he had squirreled away for just this purpose. Liberally handing out wads of cash, he circulated amongst his friends and business associates, moving from one place to another as the dragnet closed in on him. One by one his safehouses were raided. Though he stayed a half step in front of his pursuers, only a fool couldn’t recognize the end was near. Jack was lucky, but he wasn’t a fool.

The inevitable came on March 28, 1941. The Shanghai Municipal Police riot squad accompanied by US Marshal Sam Titlebaum, Treasury agent Martin Nicholson and a contingent of Japanese gendarmes swarmed a run-down boarding house in the Japanese Hongkew District. In a room on the ground floor Titlebaum and Nicholson found a well-used baseball mitt and a wallet embossed with “JR.” Lucky Jack had heard the commotion and had taken off running, stuffing tens of thousands of dollars in his pockets as he climbed the stairs trying to escape via the rooftops. When he fpund the adjacent roofs were crawling with snipers and machine gun toting riot squad men, Riley tried hiding under a bed. It was no use. Within minutes the room was crowded with cops aiming Tommy guns and shotguns. With no place left to go, Riley called out, “O.K. boys, all’s up” and surrendered peacefully.

Johnnie Becker, aka Lucky Jack Riley, was quickly convicted of violating US gambling laws, then shipped back to the States to serve his 18 month sentence in the McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary in Washington.

Ironically, the US Marshal who caught Riley, Sam Titlebaum, was himself sent to McNeil Island just a few months later. Turned out that Sam Titlebaum was an imposter who was convicted right after the Riley bust for stealing and re-selling government weapons. In hindsight, Jack Riley and Sam Titlebaum were lucky. A few months after being kicked out of China, the Japanese invaded, capturing all the Americans who remained. Interned in hellish prison camps in China and Japan, many died from maltreatment, and those that survived never forgot their barbarous imprisonment.

AFTER HE SERVED his federal time, Riley was sent back to Oklahoma to do the rest of his 25-year hijacking and robbery sentence. With the war in full swing, the governor of Oklahoma pardoned Becker after he served a few months. Lucky Jack made the newspapers for one last time in August of 1942 when the Seminole Producer ran a small item about his wish to obtain a new passport and return to Shanghai. How he thought he would do that while the city was occupied by Japan, he did not say, but if anyone could have done it, it would have been Lucky Jack. And, for all we know, he just might have, for just after that article appeared, Johnnie Becker, aka Jack Riley, completely disappears from written record, fate unknown.

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STATISTICS OF THE 1940 SHANGHAI AMATEUR BASEBALL CLUB

OK, look, I know there’s not much interest in seeing the statistics from a pre-war semi-pro league in faraway China. But something about that time and place, with its impending doom, made me feel like I had to do something to preserve this special part of baseball history and the men who played. Just over a year after the Shanghai City League played their final game, the Japanese attacked the United States. Most of the ballplayers who played the 1940 season were swept up in the beginning stages of the war. Within months, almost all the marines and sailors were killed or captured; those that survived faced years of torture in Japanese prison camps. Many of the civilians faced a similar fate. First baseman Bob Biesel and his family and pitcher John Honeycutt were interned in a camp for two miserable years before they were released. Catcher and university teacher Ben Schaberg watched helplessly as the Japanese arrested hundreds of his students, never to be heard from again. He and his brother John were among the lucky ones to escape just before the war. Owen Krause was on his way home from China in December 1941 when his ship was captured. He and the other 2,000 civilian prisoners in his prison camp were hours away from mass execution by the Japanese when rescued by US paratroopers in 1945. Captured in 1941, Bill Kabbert lost his passport and couldn’t prove his citizenship or return to the US until 1949. Chet Holcombe, a radio correspondent when not behind the plate, went to visit his family in the US for Christmas and just missed being captured after Pearl Harbor.

It’s for these and the other fellas that I took the time to record their last season of baseball in China.

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This story is unique among all the others I’ve done because I was able to combine my three favorite subjects: baseball history, the US Navy, and early 20th century China. My interest in China came from my dad introducing me to the Steve McQueen movie The Sand Pebbles, which took place on a Yangtze River gunboat in 1926. I first came across the name “Jack Riley” while a member of the Yangtze Patrollers Association back in the 1980s. Their newsletters were full of 1920s and 30s vets reminiscing about their China service, and Jack Riley was a character often mentioned. Over the years, I collected old newspaper articles that referenced him, but never could I get a full picture of who Riley really was. Then came Paul French’s book, City of Devils. French is the foremost writer on pre-World War II China and one heck of a storyteller. City of Devils is about two foreigners who rose to the top of the Shanghai underworld: nightclub owner Joe Farren and Jack Riley. It was while reading French’s book that I was able to link together another story I had been slowly researching, that of Laster Fisher, the other convict who escaped from the Oklahoma State Penitentiary with Lucky Jack in 1925.

Until now, I’m not sure anyone has ever linked these two very interesting stories and characters together.

I’d like to thank Paul French for helping me out with a few details about Riley. If you are even remotely interested in Shanghai or China before the Commies took over, be sure to grab one of Paul’s books. City of Devils is the one about Jack Riley, but Midnight in Peking is his big hit, a true crime story that reads like a novel. Destination Peking and Destination Shanghai are two wonderful compilations of short vignettes about the characters who wound up in China between the wars. Anyway, just look up his work online and pick any of his books – you won’t regret it.

On the Laster Fisher/Roy Counts story, I’d like to give a thank-you to Brian over at the Diamonds in the Dusk website. Diamondsinthedusk.com covers many of the same or ancillary characters that I link to on my site. Brian did a short piece on Laster Fisher a few years back that reignited my interest in the escaped convict angle and led to me connecting him with Jack Riley.

As Mel Allen would say, “How about that!”

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This week’s story is Number 40 in a series of collectible booklets.

 

Each of the hand-numbered and signed 4 ¼” x 5 1/2″ booklets feature an 8 to 24 page story along with a colored art card attached to the inside back cover. These mini-books can be bought individually, thematically or collected as a never-ending set. In addition to the individual booklets, I envision there being themed sets, such as the series I did on Minor League Home Run Champions. You can order a Subscription to Season 3 as well. A year subscription includes a guaranteed regular 12 issues at a discounted price, plus at least one extra Subscriber Special Issue. Each subscription will begin with Booklet Number 030 and will be active through December of 2021. Booklets 1-29 can be purchased as a group, too.

2 thoughts on “Jack Riley: The last season of the Shanghai City League

  1. Thanks Gary (great name, by the way) it’s always a risk to do too many “obscure” players – fact is, most like to read the same Ted Williams stories over and over. But then again, that’s not why I started my blog. Thanks for the vote of confidence, it’s great to know someone out there cares about reading of the 1940 Shanghai City League and escaped convicts!

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