Referee John K. Fraser has asked the Missouri Valley Conference to remove him from its list of active basketball officials. The conference has done so.
Fraser is the referee who was identified in the March 4 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED as the subject of reports that he had been used by gamblers to control the point spread (on which basketball gambling is based) in certain games that had been bet on heavily. Such rumors about Fraser were not new. The Big Ten, for which Fraser also had officiated, had heard them in the spring of 1956. Fraser's connection with the Big Ten was severed, but not in any way that would reveal he was under suspicion.
Indeed, it was not then revealed to the Missouri Valley Conference that he was under suspicion. He was merely told that available dates on the Big Ten schedule would conflict with his MVC commitments. The MVC, therefore, continued to employ him.
But in time the MVC heard similar rumors. It was acting with pussyfoot discretion at least equal to that of the Big Ten (a minor automobile accident was used to cut him off the MVC schedule) when SPORTS ILLUSTRATED published its report and suggested that it would be much healthier for a sport as recently embarrassed as college basketball if such matters were brought into the open. Since then the MVC investigation, and others, have been proceeding. They have turned up some astonishing facts and have led to Fraser's resignation under fire.
Last week the MVC held its annual spring meeting in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Members of its Officials' Committee and the MVC faculty representatives (the governing body of the conference) considered the Fraser matter for two days. When the MVC refused to make a public statement on its meeting, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED asked four questions. The questions and the answers follow:
Q. At the last meeting (March 10) of the MVC officials' committee you stated that your investigation into Fraser's background was to be continued. Is it now concluded and, if so, what is the outcome?
A. As of this date (May 10) our investigation has been concluded unless further evidence warrants the case being reopened. Mr. Fraser has requested that he be removed from the list of active officials.
Q. Have you received information from official sources that Fraser has a criminal record and has associations with gamblers?
A. On the 30th of March, 1957 we received information from law-enforcement agencies that Mr. Fraser has a conviction dating back 22 years. On that same date information was received that alleged association with gambling elements was being investigated.
Q. Do you consider Fraser a suitable man to referee your college basketball games?
A. The Missouri Valley Conference does not believe in sacrificing any official to public rumors or accusations. However, the conference believes that no person should officiate in intercollegiate athletic contests where there is any reasonable question as to his complete integrity.
Q. Will he continue to referee next season, and if not, why not?
A. No. Mr. Fraser has requested that he be removed from the list of active officials.
What the MVC had discovered about Fraser is mostly a matter of public record, easily accessible.
In the course of its investigation, the MVC called on the St. Louis police department and discovered that the police, alert to the possibility that St. Louis gamblers might be involved, had already assigned members of its intelligence squad to the case. St. Louis gambling these days is, however, decidedly minor, by no means of syndicate proportions. Major gambling activity in the area is centered across the Mississippi River in the nearby East St. Louis-Alton area of Illinois, base of the Buster Wortman mob, hard by the home of John K. Fraser.
As the investigation proceeded, eyebrows rose. John Fraser had been known to coaches, fellow referees and athletic directors of the MVC, the Big Ten and the Big Seven as a highly competent and fearless referee, singularly unaffected by the partisan furies of home-town crowds, respected by players and popular with newspaper sports-writers, neighbors and tavern customers.
With only cursory investigation, quite another picture developed. He began to look less and less like a proper person to officiate at basketball games.
When the investigation began, Fraser admitted readily that in two respects his past had blots on it. (It was to develop later that Fraser admits readily whatever is a matter of police or court record or can be proved otherwise.) He admitted that at the age of 16 he had been declared an incorrigible delinquent in his home town of Carlinville, Illinois. He was accused of theft, of knowingly associating with criminals. He was put on probation for a year.
Six years later he was a basketball coach at a small coed school, Blackburn College, in southern Illinois. Three of the girls accused him of rape. An all-male jury convicted him on one charge (the other two were nol-prossed) and he was sentenced to three years in Menard Penitentiary. He served one year and was paroled.
When Fraser made these admissions he pleaded that he was the product of a broken home (it was a shattered home) and that the rape charges were false. He said he had rehabilitated himself and pointed to his success in business and to friends who knew of his past and who admired him for overcoming it. Seven years after his conviction, Governor D wight H. Green restored his right of citizenship.
Thus, after spending Sunday, March 10, in consideration of the case, the MVC made no public announcement of these facts but instead declared there was no evidence to support rumors that Fraser had been involved in gambling fixes. It added that its investigation would continue.
At this point it was a fair bet that the MVC, if nothing further turned up, would reinstate Fraser. Indeed, Father Charles L. Sanderson, president of the MVC, so declared: "If nothing more shows up, he certainly will be exonerated."
But MVC's and other investigations continued, and in time a clearer picture emerged.
The "rehabilitated" Fraser was a habitual wife beater. His wife, whom he married shortly after his release from the penitentiary, divorced him after two years of marriage on grounds that he not only punched and kicked her but (according to her sworn complaint, uncontested in court by Fraser): he attempted to take the life of the plaintiff with a revolver which he then and there held in his hands and told the plaintiff he intended to kill her; pointed the revolver at her and was prevented from taking the plaintiff's life by reason of the plaintiff's having previously removed the cartridges from said revolver. Later, Mrs. Fraser said, he again threatened to kill her and their infant daughter.
Fraser married again. His second wife has twice divorced him, both times on charges that he beat her brutally but she also has remarried him each time and they are still married. Their third marriage, he says, was in Oregon, where he was stationed for a time during World War II.
Fraser has a tendency to violence. He is disarmingly frank about it, tells about it in a man-to-man, straightforward way and, somehow, there is a tendency to overlook the fact that some victims have been women.
"Let's face it," Fraser says. "I am a hell of a hard guy to live with." You couldn't ask for fairer than that.
The investigation then led to discoveries more immediate than Fraser's rape conviction and subsequent marital violence (past crimes which Christian charitableness might consider expunged), and more directly linked to basketball fixes: he was currently associating with gamblers and persons known to the police. Firstly there was his long friendship with Dominic Todaro, notorious professional gambler and something of a political power in the area where Fraser lives and operates his Hitching Post tavern. At first Fraser represented this as a mere casual acquaintance. But Todaro spoke more frankly and, in the end, Fraser admitted that the intimacy was of long standing.
Todaro is a squat, fat, round-faced man who has been the kingpin of gambling in the Alton area for some 30 years. He operates the Domino Club, a not too imposing establishment on the southern outskirts of Alton, a few miles south of Fraser's Hitching Post, which is in Godfrey, Illinois. The Domino Club has been the scene of gambling games over a long period. There are several gambling convictions on Todaro's record, a fact he mentions lightly, and his two brothers, who work with him, have been indicted for receiving stolen goods. He wields, nevertheless, great political influence in that part of southern Illinois and is a professional bail bondsman.
"I've known John for 10 years," he said, "and he comes here often. He was in here just last night. Some people thought I lent him money to buy his tavern, but I didn't."
Fraser tells pretty much the same story now of his friendship with Todaro. As against his furious tongue-lashing of a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED photographer last February, Fraser received this reporter cordially. He was behind the bar of the Hitching Post, busily serving beer.
"We bought this place April 11, 1955," Fraser said. "My wife and I work here seven days a week. We have just one bartender. So we've made a lot of money."
They have truly made a lot of money from such a modest establishment. Fraser paid only $20,000 for it but, according to his own account, last year he had a net profit of approximately $17,000. In fact, he has claimed a similar rate of profit since he began operating it (he lives in a $21,000 house, had earlier this year $10,000 in a bank account and drives a 1956 Cadillac and a 1948 Plymouth). Fraser attributes this prosperity to low overhead. When the SPORTS ILLUSTRATED story was published he offered to let the MVC audit his books and income-tax returns. The offer was accepted but, before it could be completed, Fraser refused all cooperation. He had also offered to take a lie-detector test but withdrew that offer, too.
As to Dominic Todaro, Fraser later agreed that he knew the man well and frequented his establishment. There were indications that Fraser might know others whose reputations made them improper acquaintances of a referee. Gus Sansone, for instance. Sansone is a friend of Todaro's and has a gambling record. Until recently he was connected with some of St. Louis' tougher hoodlums. It has been learned that Sansone has known Fraser for five years.
"Sansone?" Fraser said. "I wouldn't know the guy if I saw him. I might have met him someplace but I wouldn't know him."
Sansone was once employed by a produce company in Alton, but Fraser said he did not buy produce for his tavern.
"I just sell sandwiches, already wrapped," he said. "It isn't that kind of a place."
This made it rather odd that, while Fraser was a referee, he had been in contact several times with the Bommarito Produce Company in St. Louis. Police regarded this firm as a mere front for Frank (The Bomber) Bommarito's gambling enterprises. But Fraser insisted he did not know Bommarito, whose produce company has since been closed.
Fraser did acknowledge, with another burst of disarming frankness, that he was familiar with the King's Bar in St. Louis, an establishment owned by Jimmy Michaels Jr., the son of Jimmy Michaels Sr., a notorious racketeer who lives in St. Louis but operates on the Illinois side of the river, where there is much less heat. He went there quite often, Fraser said.
The talk shifted to the origin of the basketball gambling rumors, so far as the MVC is concerned, in Wichita, Kansas. This reporter had talked with Little Joe Stevens Jr., star player on the University of Wichita basketball team. It was to Little Joe, whose father is a bookmaker, that Lee Cole, who had a conviction for possession of gambling equipment, had made the remark that Wichita was going to lose its next three games. Cole insists he meant only that he did not believe Wichita could hope to compete against such teams as Western Kentucky, St. Louis and Bradley. But Little Joe reported Cole's statement—whatever it was—and it was noted by university officials that Fraser was the only referee assigned to all three games. That led to a conference between Wichita and St. Louis University authorities and it was decided to drop Fraser from the last two games. Wichita lost them anyhow. If a fix had been in, however, the point spread might have been different.
Little Joe had promised his coach that he would not discuss Cole's statement, or even admit that it had been made, but he did express an opinion of Fraser.
"I liked him," he said. "I thought he was all right. You know, he'd talk to the players all during a game, keep up a chatter; when he'd hand you the ball, he'd say something like, now you're ahead, so hang on to the ball. Stall. Stall."
This was odd advice from an official to a player.
There had been talk, it was mentioned, that Fraser might have been involved in a feather-bedding racket during his days as a steward in the hod carriers' union.
"Nothing to it," he said. "Some of those guys would turn up drunk, they didn't want to work, and I had to beat up a couple of them. That's why some of them don't like me."
A great many men in the Alton area do like Fraser, however. That was obvious in the banter across his bar and it was obvious also at a stag dinner at the Alton Elks Quarterback Club on March 28. Fraser was, in effect, guest of honor and, seated at the head table with his lawyer, heard a glowing tribute from Robert Burnes (sports editor of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat). Burnes, according to the Alton Evening Telegraph report, described SPORTS ILLUSTRATED as "that scurrilous magazine."
But Burnes has himself discussed Fraser in private, relayed gossip about him, including one rumor to the effect that while traveling with another official by car on a basketball assignment Fraser had stopped several times at taverns along the way, and on the return trip picked up envelopes at the same taverns. According to Burnes, Fraser does some gambling. Fraser denies this vehemently.
John K. Fraser is now out of basketball, so far as the Missouri Valley Conference is concerned and quite certainly as far as other conferences are concerned. The conferences have learned that it is not enough to specify that a referee be "of good moral character" but that there is a responsibility on college officials to make certain, by investigation and not by mere dependence on easily obtained character references, that the moral character of referees and others who guide college sport is indeed good. The MVC has had to learn it the hard way.
A WARNING TO COLLEGE ATHLETICS
There are grave lessons to be learned from the sadly mishandled case of John Fraser, the basketball referee whose "resignation" has just been accepted by the Missouri Valley Conference.
The MVC, after an investigation which was at first culpably perfunctory and only reluctantly undertaken, found that charges of "fixing" games, made by anonymous gamblers against Fraser, have not been proved. But it also found that Fraser has a criminal record and a current background of association with gamblers and undesirable elements.
It emerged that Fraser was indisputably a man who should never have been hired as a college referee. As far as citizenship and character are concerned, he no more Fitted the definition given by Asa Bushnell (see page 19) than the man in the moon.
These conferences hired a referee whose background they cannot have investigated. Their irresponsibility involves a threat of deadly import to college athletics in general, and the great and growing sport of basketball in particular.
Basketball has become so popular so fast, and so much money is being bet on it all over the country, that it is obvious that unless the game is rigidly administered and controlled by men of determination and integrity it will inevitably become smeared by scandals as terrible as those which almost killed the sport six years ago.
Mr. Bushnell points out that among the prime requisites of a college referee are "strength of character, good citizenship and unquestioned honesty." The Big Ten and MVC did not satisfy themselves on these points when they hired Fraser. When they discovered their mistake, there was forthcoming no note of righteous anger, but every evidence of a desire to avoid washing dirty linen in public and even an attempt to conceal the existence of the dirty linen.
Investigation was at first smothered; it became the intention to camouflage an overdue, outright dismissal as a discreet resignation.
A disagreeable chapter is now closed. It should be pondered by college officials everywhere in America.