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Why gambling used to scare baseball and why it doesn’t anymore

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Baseball and gambling used to be mortal enemies. Here’s how they fell in love.

The mayor of Las Vegas attended the Major League Baseball Winter Meetings in 2004 with a showgirl on each arm and an Elvis impersonator behind him. This is not an exaggeration. Oscar Goodman was a former mob lawyer who represented “Tony the Ant,” the inspiration for Joe Pesci’s character in Casino, but in his second life, from 1999 to 2011, he was a wildly popular mayor of Las Vegas. His mission was to draw attention to the viability of Las Vegas as a home for a future MLB team. The Expos were on their way out of Montreal, and Goodman had designs on them.

It took a corny stunt for Vegas to get baseball’s attention back then, in other words. As the Elvis impersonator snarled “Thankyouverruhmuch” three times a minute and took pictures with attendees, Goodman was desperately hoping baseball would notice Las Vegas. Look at my city. Love my city. Consider my city? Please?

Baseball was never going to consider Las Vegas. It was a city that existed only to celebrate the same vice that had almost ruined baseball nearly a century before. Nine years after Goodman’s promotional jaunt, Bud Selig, acting in his capacity as the commissioner of Major League Baseball, testified under oath that gambling was an “evil, which creates doubt and destroys your sport.” Selig declared then that Las Vegas would never have a baseball team, and responded to New Jersey’s ongoing fight to legalize sports betting by saying “This is corruption, in my opinion.”

The showgirls didn’t work at the 2004 Winter Meetings. The Elvis impersonator didn’t work. Nothing was going to work. Nothing was ever going to get MLB interested in Las Vegas.

Except fresh blood, perhaps. Fresh blood, a Supreme Court decision, and an absolute shit ton of money. Vegas didn’t have to show up to the 2018 Winter Meetings and act corny; the Winter Meetings showed up at Vegas. It’s no coincidence that the annual meeting of baseball powerbrokers was in Sin City this year. It’s a nice place to take someone that you’re dating, after all, and baseball and gambling look so cute together now that they’re sharing exclusive and proprietary data. There’s a non-zero chance that they’ll get drunk and marry.

The Supreme Court decision that broke down the final wall was Murphy v. National Collegiate Athletic Association. It was a case originally brought by the four major professional sports leagues and the NCAA against the state of New Jersey after the state passed legislation enacting sports betting. New Jersey argued the federal government doesn’t have the authority to limit a state’s ability to allow legal sports gambling. The Supreme Court agreed and overturned the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act from 1992, and now gambling is up to the states.

This doesn’t have to mean new commissioner Rob Manfred is much more open to the idea of a team in Vegas (though he is, especially if it helps him get to his dream equilibrium of 32 teams). No, it means that MLB is suddenly into the whole idea of Vegas, and gambling in general. They aren’t putting a toe into the water, they’re diving in headfirst, signing an exclusive agreement with MGM that includes the limited sharing of proprietary Statcast information. This is data that even the Major League Baseball Players Association doesn’t have access to, and it certainly isn’t data that the stat nerds have.

After a century of making the sign of the cross and launching an investigation whenever a baseball player knew a guy who knew a guy with a gambling problem, baseball is suddenly very, very into the whole gambling thing. Manfred even did that thing where he said the quiet part out loud, suggesting that baseball’s stop-and-start pace of play could be perfect for in-game wagers. This is baseball steering into the skid.

In 2013, Selig gave sworn testimony about the Lovecraftian horrors that would emerge from gambling’s depths to consume baseball.

In 2018, his replacement waxed poetic about just how snugly the sport and gambling fit together.

This is how baseball stopped worrying and learned to love the casino.


Black Sox, Pete Rose. “Say it ain’t so, Joe”, and betting on your own team. Signs in the clubhouse and permanent bans. Repeat over and over again. That’s the commonly known story about gambling in Major League Baseball. Black Sox, Pete Rose. “Say it ain’t so, Joe”, and betting on your own team. Signs in the clubhouse and permanent bans. Don’t do it, or you’ll be shot into the cold vacuum of space.

There are plenty of other baseball gambling stories out there, though. One day I went to sleep, and when I woke up the next day, I read the words “Don Zimmer” and “November issue of Penthouse in the same sentence. I want you to have that same feeling:

In an article in the November issue of Penthouse, writer Jerome Tuccille details the gambling habits of former Chicago Cub manager Don Zimmer. According to Tuccille, Zimmer bet from $3,000 to $5,000 a week on football and basketball games while managing the Cubs.

If you want to find stories about gambling and baseball, you can go down a rabbit hole that’s far deeper than Rose or the Black Sox. The early days of baseball were absolutely fraught with it, and it has come up more recently than you think, too.

Not enough time is spent exploring why baseball cares so much about gambling, though. Or why it used to. Gambling used to scare the absolute crap out of baseball, and for good reason, so it’s worth a primer.

When members of the Chicago White Sox conspired to throw the 1919 World Series, it had been just 18 years since the American League had joined the National League to create what we now know as Major League Baseball. The Federal League, the last established rival to the major leagues, had been a serious threat just four years earlier. Baseball was popular, baseball was beloved, but baseball was not yet entrenched. The idea of a professional sports league at all was not yet entrenched. Baseball was the first in North America, after all. The sport wasn’t exactly on shaky doe legs, but it was definitely erring on the wrong side of the fad-to-institution spectrum.

A widespread belief that the sport was irreparably illegitimate could have been fatal.

Baseball wasn’t just a place to park a butt for 120 minutes and yell things. It was something that emerged from the Progressive Era, a wholly American invention with rules and manners and structure. The players who played the game were unrefined louts, mostly, but the sport was supposed to be a pure representation of the country’s potential and inventiveness. The idea of baseball as being something of a national metaphor wasn’t invented by Ken Burns; it was a mythology that came early in the sport’s history.

From Steven A. Riess’ Touching Base: Professional Baseball and American Culture in the Progressive Era:

In the Progressive Era, club owners and sympathetic journalists created a self-serving ideology for baseball. They encouraged the public to believe that the game was one of the foremost indigenous American institutions and that it epitomized the finest qualities of a bygone rural age.

Baseball was seen as an American ideal of manners. It was expected to be far more refined than the sports that were historically controlled by gamblers. One of the fathers of professional baseball, Albert Spalding, devoted several passages of his 1911 book America’s National Game to the specter of gambling, including this one about the formation of the National League:

The public was interested in the game, but the gamblers would not permit it to be played except under their direction.

This passage didn’t age well, considering that eight years later, gamblers arranged for the World Series to be thrown:

In all the former battles for the life of our national sport the men who stood for the preservation of Base Ball in its integrity had won. Every form of abuse had been so completely eradicated that public confidence had been regained, the press of the country united in its declaration that the game was clean; that gambling had been kicked out

A widespread belief that the sport was illegitimate maybe should have been fatal.

But new commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis acted quickly after the eight White Sox conspirators were found not guilty of conspiracy to defraud. He put all eight players on a newly created ineligible list for life, sending a powerful message. The Black Sox story wasn’t even ferreted out until the season after it happened, when Hugh S. Fullerton kept picking at a scab that the Chicago newspapers wouldn’t touch but it soon became an existential threat to the game, to the point where there are still signs in every clubhouse in the majors warning players and coaches that the penalty for violating Rule 21 is permanent expulsion.

The fear that baseball players will throw games in exchange for money is just one leg of baseball’s distaste for gambling, though. There was also the fear of compromised compulsive gamblers cooperating and affecting on-field results to avoid physical harm. If you think that sounds alarmist or abstract, consider Denny McLain, who had two toes dislocated by a mobster looking to collect on a debt.

Getting sucked into an addiction spiral is always an awful fate, regardless of the addiction, but gambling and athletes make an especially poisonous cocktail. With a gambling addiction, it’s far too easy for a debt to be wiped clean by an athlete who gives his debtor an educated guess about a future outcome. MLB investigated Zimmer and suspended McLain even when their betting had nothing to do with baseball. It’s a slippery slope once a person involved with the sport starts losing, and the way out might be a simple quid pro quo with someone who isn’t above breaking toes.

There’s the third leg of the stool to consider, too, and that’s the possibility that a gambler can affect baseball games at all. Rose was a manager who bet on his own games, sure, but he always bet on his teams to win, so what’s the big deal?

The big deal was that it would have been nearly impossible for Rose (or any other gambling manager) to compartmentalize in a situation with money and addiction-fueled endorphins at stake. Every pitcher looks like Nathan Eovaldi in the 2018 World Series when there’s $50,000 or more on the line. Even if the wager is less important than the outcome, there’s no way for a gambler to separate the two when making decisions that affect the game. Decisions that can affect the health and well-being of other players

Gambling is baseball poison because players might be tempted to throw games for money. It’s poison because baseball players can become vulnerable when the debts pile up. It’s poison because gambling players, managers, or executives can affect the game. It’s a poison that almost ruined the sport before it really got started.

So you can understand why baseball has traditionally treated gambling like, well, poison.


And here’s what all of that has to do with Las Vegas and legalized gambling in the year 2018:

Nothing.

Absolutely nothing.

None of the horrors detailed above relate to the current state of legalized gambling. None of it applies to Las Vegas, certainly. The Vegas-as-Disneyland comparison is overused to the point of clichè, but that’s because it still works. The final voiceover from Martin Scorsese’s Casino includes the line, “After the Tangiers, the big corporations took it all over. Today it looks like Disneyland,” and it’s only gotten Goofier in the quarter-century since.

On the timeline of vice-to-Disneyland, gambling has been OK for awhile now. Whether it was the proliferation of local casinos, state lotteries, or the bring-the-whole-family vibe that Vegas has been cultivating for decades, we’re firmly on the other side of the spectrum now.

Or just take it from Commissioner Manfred himself, who said this to ESPN in 2015:

Gambling, in terms of our society, has changed its presence.

No, baseball doesn’t want its players gambling. But the corporations sanitized it a long time ago, just like they do with every vice. Strangling people for sport used to be against the rules, but now it’s a multi-billion-dollar industry. Bigger and bigger corporations are already coming for legal weed. And, of course, the most obvious parallel is right in front of our nose. Here’s Albert Spalding again:

Base Ball is the only game which suits the mighty populace and yet is wholly free from ties to bind it to the gambling and the liquor-selling element, whose aim it is to victimize that populace.

Baseball is, uh, not free from the liquor-selling element these days. There is an entire franchise named after the craft of creating alcoholic beverages, and they play in a park named after alcoholic beverages. In the last century, alcohol went from verboten vice to something that made corporations lots and lots of money. Which means it became something that made baseball lots and lots of money.

That doesn’t mean any of it is good for you. Oh, heavens no. Alcohol or gambling will ruin your life. But they’re gonna make someone lots and lots of money.

If there can be a Milwaukee Brewers, surely there can one day be a Las Vegas Pit Bosses. Baseball will start small with the gambling, partnering with MGM for lots and lots of money, while making sure they’re a part of how the whole endeavor works.

Controlling just how legalized gambling is going to work in baseball is probably the most important component of this, too. Here’s Manfred again:

We talked to sports (leagues) in Europe when we realized this was coming. They said the single biggest mistake you can make is not being active in trying to determine what the legal framework’s going to look like from an integrity perspective

Rather than worry about the perils of illicit gambling, it’s far more preferable to roll around in the revenues from licit gambling and have a say in how it’s operated. It might be the only sensible option.

And forget about all those old objections from the last section. They’re all ridiculous in the current context. Take the one with the Black Sox throwing a World Series for money. How much would it cost to bribe a player in a sport where the minimum salary is over a half-million dollars per year? Even if you come up with a figure, how would you turn that into enough betting to make a profit without drawing suspicion? This isn’t an age where players are getting flat bottles of champagne as a bonus anymore.

There could be, in a perfect storm, a willing career minor leaguer with no delusions of grandeur, someone for whom a permanent ban wouldn’t be an existential crisis. Someone intimately familiar with buses and Tacoma motels who is used to making $75,000 a year, at best, while floating through Triple-A. Let’s pretend it’s a pitcher who gets called up in a roster emergency and starts a game. That player might be interested in some sort of five-figure payday if he knows that he’s not likely to stick around in the majors.

Except with legalized gambling, the casinos and sports books have just as much incentive to prevent this as organized baseball, and they’re ready for it. There’s no way to drop big money on a Tigers-Twins game with a 30-year-old rookie starting without drawing suspicion. Hell, the casinos already know you by your tattoos. The best part about codifying the whole mess has to do with the safeguards, and an underpaid short-term player futzing around with a single game would be obvious. By partnering with MGM Resorts International, there’s roughly a zero-percent chance of shenanigans. It’s the shenanigans that used to worry baseball so.

If there’s another Pete Rose in baseball’s future, someone so consumed by addiction that they’re willing to risk a permanent ban, they were going to exist with or without MGM partnering with baseball. Those risks aren’t gone; they’re exactly the same. And that’s what’s behind baseball’s “Why not?” change of heart.


Vegas has always allowed wagering on baseball, so the biggest difference with the MLB-MGM deal isn’t going to be felt at a casino. It’s going to appear in the form of an app on your phone that will be available in whichever states decide to take advantage of the Supreme Court decision.

If you want to bet on baseball in Nevada, you can do it from the toilet, just like God intended. Push a couple of buttons on a resort-sponsored app, and you’re all set — prop bets, straight wagers, whatever you want. Your payment information is saved, so you don’t have to keep reentering the same account number. It’s the kind of post-modern, easily accessible harm that can make for bad speculative fiction.

This will spread to other states eventually. Not at first, but money is a contagion that spreads quickly. People are going to be betting on baseball like never before, and it’s going to be accessible in a way that would make Mr. Spalding dizzy. Major League Baseball will be tethered to it every step of the way.

But MGM will have a slight advantage with that Statcast data. Brett Smiley is the editor-in-chief of SportsHandle.com, a site that covers the sports-betting industry and related legislation, and he gave me his best educated guess as to how that black-box data might be used.

It could help inform their bookmakers in setting lines and corresponding prices ... (a lot of) Statcast data isn’t public info beyond what they put out on MLB Network and other broadcasts, so if the MGM bookmakers know that Aaron Judge’s launch angle has dipped recently, and he’s at a park with a higher wall in right field, I suppose they would have an advantage that even the sophisticated sports bettor wouldn’t have, and they might adjust the odds on Judge hitting a home run, knowing that people typically like to bet “overs” and on more scoring.

The demand probably wouldn’t be that high in a traditional casino setting for ultra-granular prop bets, but technology is going to make it so damned easy. Now imagine it with the ol’ MLB.com referral push. And while this is easy to paint as a huge money-making operation figuring out a way to make more money, there’s also a compelling case to make that this is a net positive when it comes to baseball’s popularity. Think the sport is too boring, that there’s too much time between balls in play? Well, maybe you should spend that time making poor decisions that shoot sweet, sweet chemicals around your cerebral cortex. That’ll make the time fly by, and, suddenly, baseball isn’t so bad.

Gambling is coming to baseball, and it’s an inevitable paring that’s been a century in the making. The 1919 White Sox gave the World Series to gamblers because that was the only way they were going to make money, and the 2019 White Sox will be a part of a sport that’s actively courting gamblers because that’s yet another way to make money.

Riess’ book can, yet again, help us make sense of this all.

Despite the rhetoric of professional baseball which claimed the sport was free of that vice, baseball was strongly tainted by gambling ... in fact, several baseball owners were professional gamblers, horsemen, heavy bettors, or friends of professional gamblers.

What’s old is new again. Get ready for a whole new era of baseball and gambling.