The conclusion of Allan May's three part series on the rise and fall of the notorious race wire service.
by Allan May
Part Three: Ragen and McBride and the End of the Race Wire
U. S. Sen. Estes Kefauver once called the Continental Press the nation’s Public Enemy Number One. "In my opinion, the wire service keeps alive the illegal gambling empire which in turn bankrolls a variety of other criminal activities in America."
When Moses Annenberg, under pressure from Capone, disbanded Nation Wide News Service in 1939, Arthur B. "Mickey" McBride established the Continental Press. Born in Chicago in 1888, McBride had a long career in the newspaper business. Recalling an incident as a child, he said he once purchased 50 newspapers for 50 cents, "I sold the batch of papers for $1, and I’ve been making business deals ever since." McBride learned the newspaper circulation business by working for William Randolph Hearst. In 1911, McBride became Hearst’s circulation manager for the Chicago American which took on the Chicago Tribune in a bitter circulation war.
In 1913, McBride was hired by Clevelander Daniel R. Hanna to manage the circulation department of the Cleveland News, an afternoon daily. This was one of two newspapers owned by Hanna, the son of famed politician Marcus A. Hanna. The other newspaper, the Cleveland Leader was a morning edition. Hanna hired McBride’s friend James M. Ragen, Sr. as circulation manager there.
McBride stayed with the newspaper until 1930. He then got involved in the taxi cab business and eventually became the owner of the Yellow Cab Company in Cleveland. In addition, McBride had extensive real estate operations in Cleveland and in Coral Gables, Fla., where he was in business with Alfred Polizzi, the former boss of the Mayfield Road Mob. McBride became the first owner of the Cleveland Browns football franchise, which began playing in 1946 in the All-American Football Conference. He owned the team for several seasons before selling the franchise in 1953. In Miami, where McBride owned radio station WMIE, the commentators would regularly blast the area’s gambling opponents.
McBride insisted that he began the Continental Press "on a modest bankroll of $20,000 purely out of sentiment and goodwill to provide a job for my brother-in-law, (Tom) Kelly," who had lost his job when Nation Wide folded. "I didn’t buy anything from Nation Wide, not so much as a toothpick," McBride told the Kefauver committee in 1951. "I started a new business."
McBride, who claimed he never wanted to run Continental, asked Ragen to take the reigns. Ragen declined the offer at the time because he was "having problems with his federal income taxes." Instead McBride worked out a deal for James Ragen, Jr. to help Tom Kelly operate the service.
The new Continental Press’s set up was designed to avoid the problems that Nation Wide experienced by establishing "distributorships" for its information instead of selling directly to bookies. These distributorships, a total of 24, were in the publishing business and produced racing guides and scratch sheet information. However, many of these operations were of dubious legality. These distributors in turn sold their information to the local bookies. The Continental Press claimed it was none of its business what the distributors did with the information they purchased. Several dummy operations were disguised as distributorships with the money going right back to Continental. One of these was the Illinois Sports News, located in Chicago and run by Tom Kelly’s brother.
McBride testified that in 1942 he sold the Continental Press to James Ragen, Jr. One year later James Ragen, Sr. took over and asked McBride to buy back into the operation for $50,000. McBride compromised making the investment in behalf of his son Edward "Eddie" McBride, who was still attending college. The desire to have McBride involved was because Ragen felt Mickey’s relationship with underworld figures in Cleveland would help ease the pressure he was under from the Capone mob in Chicago.
James M. Ragen had been a close associate of Annenberg dating back to his childhood growing up in Chicago’s "Patch." When Moses first got involved in Chicago’s newspaper circulation battles, he hired James and his brother Frank, who headed the infamous Ragen’s Colts, a quasi social / political organization which turned into a gang-for-hire operation. After the brutal circulation wars in Chicago, Ragen headed for Cleveland. While circulation manager for the Leader, he was involved in a vicious battle with the city’s other morning newspaper the Plain Dealer. This battle came to a head when a man was killed during a skirmish in November 1914. The war came to an end in 1917 when the Plain Dealer purchased the Leader.
Ragen got back together with Annenberg and in the late 1920s was Moses’ top man in the General News Bureau, sometimes being listed as president of the bureau. When the Capone mob began to muscle Annenberg in the mid1930s, it was Ragen who the gang contacted to try to persuade him to turn against his boss. Now with Ragen in an ownership position, the Chicago mob was again attempting to gain control.
The initial approach was made by Jake Guzik, Anthony Accardo and Murray Humphreys. The mob wanted to cut itself in on the operation, build up the business and by doing this they felt they could employ several hundred hoods in the business. Ragen would continue to be a partner and his share of the profits would increase due to the enhanced income created by the Chicago mob’s involvement.
Ragen, however, saw things in a different light and figured that once the mob moved in and gained experience, he would become expendable. He sought to ease concerns for his own personal safety by meeting with Chicago FBI agents. He also prepared affidavits in which he named Frank Nitti and others involved in the plot to murder Annenberg. He felt these moves would serve as an insurance policy against the mob's efforts.
In late 1945, the Capone mob struck by establishing the Trans-American Publishing and News Service to compete with the Continental Press. As the new wire service established offices around the country its employees engaged in a terrorist campaign against the offices of the Continental Press in an effort to force them out of business. In Las Vegas and on the West Coast, Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel acted as the representative of the Capone mob, forcing the new service on bookmakers through strong-arm tactics.
By the spring of 1946 Trans-America was making serious headway. On April 18, Harry "Red" Richmond, a Chicago bookie, was gunned down in front of his home in Chicago. He had recently stopped using the mob's wire service and switched back to Continental. Eleven days later, as Ragen drove from his home, he was followed by another car containing two men. After a 15-mile chase, that reached speeds of 60 miles-per-hour, Ragen pulled to a stop in front of the Morgan Park police station and ran inside.
Ragen explained to the police who was out to get him and why. Chicago police provided him with 24-hour protection, but after a few weeks Ragen dismissed them and hired his own bodyguards. On Monday, June 24, 1946 Ragen was driving on State Street and stopped at the intersection at Pershing Avenue behind a gray sedan. The 65-year-old Ragen was in his car alone, followed by two bodyguards in a separate automobile. Soon a shabby old truck pulled along side to the right of Ragen’s auto. The small delivery truck was partially loaded with orange crates and miscellaneous boxes, and its skeleton sides and top were covered with a tarpaulin. As Ragen waited for the light to change, the tarpaulin on the left side of the truck was pulled up and two blasts were fired. One tore through Ragen’s upper right arm and shoulder. The two bodyguards jumped from their automobile to return fire. One of the guards tried to fire his shotgun, but it jammed, the other emptied his revolver at the truck as it sped away. The truck, which was later found abandoned, had been fitted with quarter inch steel plates to make it bulletproof from the rear. The gray sedan took off down Pershing although it was not known if it was involved in the shooting plot.
Ragen was rushed to Michael Reese Hospital where he was placed in an oxygen tent in serious condition suffering from shock and loss of blood. He was given 10 blood transfusions. Doctors discussed amputating the mangled arm. The shotgun pellets had shattered Ragen’s collarbone, broke his right shoulder, and his right upper arm.
In trying to locate the would-be assassins, Chicago police sought Accardo, Guzik, Humphreys, and Hymie Levin. The Chicago Tribune reported that Accardo "is generally considered to be the new leader of the old Capone gang, and takes orders from higher ups in the old Unione Sicillione."
Ragen remained alive, but in critical condition. On Aug. 8, he had emergency surgery on his kidneys. On Aug. 14, he died at 4:55 a.m. with family members present. It was later reported that Ragen’s autopsy showed traces of mercury in his blood indicating that someone had entered his room and poisoned him.
The fighting between Trans-America and Continental continued for months until May 1947, when McBride purchased back the wire service from the Ragen interests. The Continental Press was now under the sole ownership of 23 year old Eddie McBride. On June 13, 1947, Trans-America announced it was going out of business. During the Kefauver hearings held in Cleveland during January 1951, the committee wasn’t satisfied that young Eddie, now a law student at the University of Miami in Florida, was the true owner. McBride explained the deal this way: "I talked it over with Eddie…and I said, ‘Eddie, what do you think about it?’ And he said, ‘Well, I will be getting out of school. I will have to have someplace to go…I will take a shot at it if you think that would be all right.’"
Chief Counsel Rudolph Halley questioned McBride about his son’s safety in purchasing the wire service for him in the wake of the Ragen murder. "Weren’t you afraid that your boy would be bumped off?" Halley inquired.
McBride responded, "Well, Mr. Halley, that business has been in existence for over 60 years and one man got killed, you say, in it. I know a hundred lawyers that got killed in the last 40 years."
When Eddie McBride was questioned before the committee in Miami, Halley challenged him about the ownership. "You are a complete figurehead and dummy, is that right?"
"I guess you would put it that way if you wanted to," Eddie McBride replied.
Later Tom Kelly testified that his nephew, Eddie, received an income before taxes of over $692,000 for 1949.
On Feb. 28, 1951, the Kefauver Crime Committee announced from Washington D. C. that the "Continental Press, national horse track news service, is controlled by the ‘Capone mob in Chicago’ instead of Arthur B. McBride or his son, Edward." The committee announced that when it makes its final recommendations for legislation that it will ask for a ban on interstate gambling information, and that interstate transmission of betting be prohibited to help drive the race wire out of service.
The committee got what it asked for as Congress passed legislation after the hearings drew to a close. After a 60-year run, the race wire service in general, and the Continental Press in particular, went out of existence.