“Baseball is the heart of America. As a patriot, I would never do anything to degrade …”
“Besmirch. It’s better.”
“… to besmirch our national pastime.”
–Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), rehearsing his testimony with his attorney before the grand jury convened to determine whether the 1919 World Series was fixed, “Boardwalk Empire,” Season 1, Episode 8 (“Hold Me in Paradise”)
One hundred years might seem like a long enough time to wait. But what we are talking about here is the Black Sox Scandal, baseball’s darkest hour and an oft-told tale that has captured the imagination of historians, novelists, filmmakers and those fans who feel the betrayal in their bones. The gamblers and crooked ballplayers who conspired to fix the outcome of the 1919 World Series robbed people not only of their money but also of their faith in baseball.
That’s why baseball became puritanical about gambling, why Rule 21d, the prohibition of betting, has been posted in clubhouses since 1927, why the all-time hit king, Pete Rose, was banished from baseball. For years, MLB argued in courts to prevent states other than Nevada from legalizing sports gambling. But then Major League Baseball and MGM Resorts announced last November that they had entered into an agreement to promote legalized gambling just in time for the 2019 season, and ever since, the gnats of irony have been buzzing about.
They just happened to choose the centennial anniversary of the 1919 World Series and the 30th anniversary of commissioner Bart Giamatti ejecting Pete Rose to roll out this new policy. The same Pete Rose who often signs autographs at MGM Resorts’ Mandalay Bay resort in Las Vegas. The same MGM Resorts that owns the Borgata, a rose-colored high-rise paradise north of the Boardwalk in Atlantic City. The same Borgata where disgraced NBA referee Tim Donaghy liked to try his luck.
Oh, and how’s this for irony? Borgata is lingo in Italian for mafia. Among the protégés of Arnold Rothstein, the man behind the fix, were such mob legends as Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano.
All of which brings me to the Borgata on this beautiful late-summer day. As a baseball romantic and a gambling agnostic, I am curious to see if MLB is selling its soul to the devil or just keeping up with the Joneses — all the other major team sports have embraced wagering as a way of increasing both revenue and “fan engagement.”
The real Arnold Rothstein, as portrayed in David Pietrusza’s excellent biography, “Rothstein,” would certainly like it here. “The Brain,” as he was known, loved poker so much that he literally died for it, and there’s a world-class tournament going on. He was a billiards aficionado, helping to bankroll New York Giants manager John McGraw’s pool hall near New York’s Herald Square, and there’s a billiards table in the men’s spa at the Borgata. There are restaurants and shops and slot machines and games of chance and patrons galore.
Deep in the heart of the casino floor is a sportsbook and restaurant called Moneyline, where a litter of puppy TV screens surrounds one big 40-inch LED mama. Turned to various sports events, they shed their ambient light over gamblers nursing drinks and burgers while studying their crib sheets before tapping their phones or heading to one of the six betting windows. Today, the action is mostly about baseball: 15 games on the schedule, starting with the Washington Nationals at the St. Louis Cardinals at 1:15 p.m., and ending with some West Coast evening tilts.
The bettors know far more about the matchups than I do, but I suspect I know something they don’t. On this date, Sept. 18, 100 years ago, the scheme to fix the Series was formally hatched. It too happened in a hotel, the Buckminster in Boston. According to “Eight Men Out,” Eliot Asinof’s classic account, that’s where the first-place Chicago White Sox were staying as they played out the regular season and where first baseman Chick Gandil invited an old acquaintance, gambler Joseph “Sport” Sullivan, up to his room to discuss a proposition. Chick and seven of his teammates could make it so that the underdog Cincinnati Redlegs would win the upcoming Series. All they wanted was $80,000, 10 grand apiece. Chick and friends had won the World Series two years before; this time they preferred filthy lucre to a shiny trophy.
The details of the scandal are still being debated. How much did Rothstein really have to do with the fix? (He was officially exonerated, but he did bankroll Sullivan.) Was 29-game winner Eddie Cicotte ripe for the pickings because he didn’t get an expected chance at a 30th victory and a bonus? How much did outfielder Shoeless Joe Jackson really have to do with losing the Series if he hit .375 in the eight games, 149 points higher than teammate and eventual Hall of Famer Eddie Collins?
There is another, more personal reason for my quest. Gambling might be in my blood. I recently heard of a dormant family rumor that we on my father’s side of the tree are somehow related to Arnold Rothstein. Curiosity led me to a search of the internet that revealed this fascinating tidbit from the engagement announcements in the New-York Tribune of Oct. 14, 1919:
“WULF-ROTHSTEIN — Mr. and Mrs. Charles Rothstein announce the engagement of their daughter, Lillian, to Mr. William Wulf.”
My great-grandfather Charles Rothstein and Arnold’s father, Abraham Rothstein, were both in the garment industry. I have yet to find a direct connection, but were there so many clothes-making Rothsteins in New York at the turn of the century that they weren’t related? Maybe Arnold went to the wedding after he didn’t fix the World Series. I do see a facial resemblance between my grandmother and Arnold. And I know that before the Series, he met with gamblers in New York’s Hotel Astor … which is also where my father had his bar mitzvah.
Anyway, I settle in for my afternoon at the Moneyline and open a menu called the Playbook. On the right-hand pages are various unhealthy choices, while on the left-hand sides are quotes from famous sports figures such as Babe Ruth and Muhammad Ali, Hank Aaron and Vince Lombardi. One of the quotes that catches my eye is from one of my old acquaintances, Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda:
“In baseball and in business, there are three types of people. Those who make it happen. Those who watch it happen. And those who wonder what the hell happened.”
Count me among that third group. I never thought I’d see this day.
“Fixed the World Series?”
The idea staggered me. I remembered, of course, that the World Series had been fixed in 1919, but if I had thought of it all, I would have thought of it as a thing that merely happened, the end of some inevitable chain. It never occurred to me that one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people — and with the singlemindedness of a burglar blowing a safe.” —Nick Carraway, the narrator of “The Great Gatsby,” by F. Scott Fitzgerald
There is a gambler in “The Great Gatsby,” Meyer Wolfsheim, whom Fitzgerald patterned after Rothstein. But for baseball fans, the most evocative line in the novel might be the last: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
So we bet on, recalling a time a century ago when baseball was so caught up in the current of gambling that the powers-that-be brushed aside rumors of games fixed by the likes of Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker and Hal Chase. You weren’t supposed to wager in baseball, kinda like you weren’t supposed to drink during Prohibition. Prop bets, called freak wagers then, were particularly prevalent. ESPN’s David Purdum recently uncovered this item from the Sept. 23, 1919, issue of the Chicago Tribune:
“Betting on the great baseball classic picked up in Indianapolis today and quite a few freak wagers were offered. … [The] board at the Dennison had lots of Chicago money offered at 90 to 100 that the White Sox would cop the first game in Cincinnati. Even money was offered that the Pale Hose would steal more bases during the series than the Reds.”
The more things change… After the MLB-MGM deal was announced last November, Jim Murren, the MGM Resorts chairman, talked about why the pace of baseball was an asset for micro-betting. “Baseball is perfectly suited for this,” he said. “It will increase social networks. People will be talking about the next pitch, the next out, the next inning … regardless of the outcome or the score in that given period.”
As for the so-called forbidden fruit of gambling, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred put this spin on the partnership: “It’s more than just making a business deal. It’s having in place a set of policies for the industry that gives us comfort on what is always our most important issue — that is integrity.”
If Arnold Rothstein was the most renowned gambler of his day, that distinction today probably belongs to James Holzhauer, whose run on “Jeopardy!” earlier this year (32 wins, $2,464,216) captivated the nation. Holzhauer, who became a professional gambler because he couldn’t get a job in Major League Baseball, was kind enough to answer a few email questions. When asked what his reaction was when MLB and MGM announced their deal, he wrote: “I had two reactions. 1) It’s long overdue for leagues to recognize the legitimacy of sports gambling. 2) Apparently, MLB could put a price on its so-called ‘integrity,’ after all.”
It would be naive to think that baseball shouldn’t reap some of the benefits of a billion-dollar industry. But it certainly wasn’t shy about trumpeting its new four-year, $80 million relationship with MGM. At the Japan Series between the Oakland A’s and Seattle Mariners on March 20 and 21, A’s players wore MGM Resorts Japan patches sewed on the right sleeves of their uniforms.
With integrity concerns in mind, major league managers now have to provide their lineup cards to the league office 15 minutes before they’re released to the public to reduce the possibility that sharp bettors could benefit from inside information. A Swiss company called Sportradar is now the official distributor of major league baseball data. On July 25, the fantasy sports site DraftKings announced a multiyear agreement with MLB to become the “Authorized Gaming Operator.” Peeking into the future, Matt Rybaltowski of SportsHandle.com wrote, “Imagine a scenario if Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw is facing New York Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge in Game 7 of the World Series. The bet types could allow fans to wager on whether Kershaw’s next pitch would be a ball or a strike.”
This embrace of gambling is a little unsettling for those of us who grew up thinking that the ghost of Kenesaw Mountain Landis — the commissioner who cleansed the game in the 1920s — was still in charge. The quirks of betting laws also lead to some creative workarounds. If you drive across the upper level of the George Washington Bridge, for instance, you will see pedestrians and bicyclists stopped a little more than halfway toward the New Jersey side, placing bets on their apps because New Jersey allows mobile sports betting and New York does not, even though the state does permit sports betting at its upstate casinos.
But even upstate New York — namely, Cooperstown — is having a problem with the new policy. In August, esteemed Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan wrote a scathing column that took baseball to task for barring Rose from the Hall of Fame. “Keeping him out because of gambling when you are now officially in partnership with gambling interests is hypocrisy of the highest order,” Ryan wrote. “Pete Rose didn’t come back to baseball. Baseball came back to him. Give the Hit King his plaque.”
Ryan doesn’t think the character clause is cause to keep Rose out. “Pete Rose is no angel, but neither are a lot of guys in the Hall of Fame,” he says. “We’re keeping a player with 4,256 hits, 17 All-Star appearances and three world championships out of Cooperstown because he did something that baseball now says it’s okay to do.”
Another interested party in baseball’s changing views on gambling is Allison Jackson, a 24-year-old fitness instructor from Greenville, South Carolina. She also happens to be the great-great-grandniece of Shoeless Joe, who was banned from baseball because of his alleged involvement in the Black Sox scandal. “He had the highest batting average and the only home run in the 1919 World Series,” she says. “He has the third-highest batting average in history and he was proven innocent in a court of law. And you’re gonna tell me that betting’s not so bad now?”
But legalized gambling comes with a larger concern than injustice — namely, treachery.
Holzhauer, for one, isn’t worried. “I can see why any discussion of gambling makes people think of the Black Sox,” he says. “But that scandal has nothing to do with the current state of sports betting. If a team tried to throw the 2019 World Series, the extreme imbalance of betting action in today’s regulated market would get them caught immediately.”
Kevin Braig, an attorney from Columbus, Ohio, is uniquely suited to talk about the subject because he is an expert on gaming, a die-hard sports fan (he grew up in Cincinnati watching Rose) and a baseball historian with a particular interest in the 1919 Black Sox. Braig agrees with Holzhauer that gambling is too well-regulated now to allow a repeat of 1919: “By moving into the gambling space, MLB is strengthening the integrity of the game. There was no commissioner then and a weak National Commission that did not want to engage with gambling at all. There is another reason we should trust the outcomes. The most valuable asset in sports is rivalry — Ohio State vs. Michigan, Yankees vs. Red Sox. Nobody has a greater interest in making sure that the games are contested to maximize authentic, genuine rivalry than an organization like MLB.
“I have zero, zip, zilch concern about MLB and gambling. None.”
Eddie Dominguez begs to differ. He’s a former Boston police officer who was the security agent for the Red Sox from 1999 to 2007 before moving over to MLB’s Department of Investigations in the aftermath of the Mitchell report on use of steroids and other PEDs in the game. With co-authors Christian Red and Teri Thompson, Dominguez wrote the 2018 book “Baseball Cop,” subtitled “The Dark Side of America’s National Pastime.”
“The vast majority of players and coaches are honest, decent people,” Dominguez says. “But I can also envision all sorts of scenarios in which someone with inside information who doesn’t make a lot of money will tip off friends who gamble as to what a pitcher will throw on a certain count. Baseball can’t control everybody around the game.”
Dominguez should know. In one chapter of his book, he relates a story about former Red Sox star David Ortiz. In the summer of 2005, Dominguez says he became suspicious about a member of Ortiz’s clubhouse entourage known as “Monga.” Dominguez says that an informant close to Monga, Ortiz’s “top aide-de-camp,” witnessed Monga placing a bet on a game in Chicago between the Red Sox and White Sox. Dominguez had Monga and some other members of the group banned from the clubhouse. Ortiz was not happy.
Dominguez takes it from there: “The All-Star Game was at PNC Park in Pittsburgh in 2006, and I was sitting at home watching the Home Run Derby when I saw Monga on the field — along with several [others] I had identified to MLB as shady characters — toweling off Ortiz and other Dominican players. For god’s sake, they were practically getting at-bats.
“I called Dan Mullin, who was second-in-command to Kevin Hallinan in the security department at the time and was at the game. He told me they tried to keep them out, but Ortiz had said, ‘If they don’t come with me on the field, I don’t participate.’ [Commissioner Bud] Selig and [Executive VP Rob] Manfred had given in and said, ‘Let them on.'” MLB issued this statement in response: “Major League Baseball actively cooperated with a law enforcement investigation into the illegal gambling operation that took these alleged bets. Ed Dominguez reported to his superiors at MLB that that investigation, which led to multiple arrests in 2008, did not implicate any players.”
(Flash backward: When American League president Ban Johnson recognizes Black Sox fixer “Sport” Sullivan sitting in the stands in Yankee Stadium during the 1926 World Series between the Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals, he orders the police to throw Sullivan out of the ballpark.)
“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball.” –Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) in “Field of Dreams,” the 1989 movie based on the novel “Shoeless Joe”
Just before a Sept. 14 game at Citizens Bank Park, Phillies president Andy MacPhail agrees to share his unique perspective on baseball’s changing attitude on gambling. Besides being a 1976 graduate of Dickinson College with a degree in American studies, he is a third-generation baseball executive. His grandfather, Larry MacPhail, introduced night games to Major League Baseball in 1935 as general manager of the Reds, won the 1941 National League pennant as president of the Dodgers and nearly traded Joe DiMaggio to the Red Sox when he owned the Yankees. His son and Andy’s father, Lee MacPhail, was the general manager of the Orioles (1958-65) and the Yankees (1967-73) before becoming the highly respected American League president for nine years.
Andy has had his own distinguished career, first as the GM of the Twins, who won the World Series in ’87 and ’91 under his guidance, then as the president of the Cubs, who won their first postseason series in 95 years under him in 2003, the Orioles and — after a three-year sabbatical — the Phillies. And now there’s a fourth generation: His own sons, Drew and Reed, work in baseball.
“My grandfather and father would have had very different views on legalized gambling for baseball,” Andy says. “Larry would have thought, ‘This is great. It’ll create fan interest.’ He lived through the Black Sox Scandal, but he was also all about bringing people to the ballpark.
“My father would have been much more cautious. He would want to make sure we checked all the boxes on integrity and public perception before we went ahead. No, he might not have thought it was a good idea to introduce legalized gambling exactly 100 years after the Black Sox.
“As for me, all I can say is that it’s a whole new world. I was looking at a betting app the other day and watching the odds change, and I realized that times are changing too.”
The crowd has started to file into the park on this beautiful evening to see the Red Sox and Phillies cling to faint wild-card hopes. The official money line on the game is Boston -110/Philadelphia +120, i.e. the Red Sox are slight favorites, and the over/under on runs scored is 8.5, but the important thing to Phillies fans is that their team hasn’t been to the postseason in eight years.
They do have a real appreciation of history in Philadelphia, so all the new Harper jerseys are interspersed with Schmidt and Utley and Rollins and Carlton and, yes, even a vintage Rose from 1980.
The game itself is a battle between Eduardo Rodriguez of the Red Sox and Aaron Nola of the Phillies, neither of whom allows a run for the first six innings. The teams trade runs in the seventh inning, and for a moment in the bottom of the eighth, when Rhys Hoskins hits a fly ball deep to right, it looks as if the Phillies might win. But the ball dies on the warning track, the Red Sox push across a run in the ninth, and the Phils lose 2-1.
Despite the loss, the fans can find comfort in the crisp, good old-fashioned pitching duel in this age of rabbit balls and tortoise tempo. It’s a really good game, and a really good product, even without betting apps.
“Flip a coin. When it’s in the air, you’ll know which side you’re hoping for.”
–the actual Arnold Rothstein
Now that the day I never saw coming has arrived, 60 miles east of Philadelphia, I pretend I’m prepared. I have 15 games on my hands at the Moneyline and some sort of crabcake slider. I had done some perfunctory homework, studying the recent performances of the starting pitchers and their records against their opponents while factoring in things like home/away and importance and past 10 games. What I really wish I had done a little more research on, though, is the menu.
Baseball betting is an acquired taste. As James Holzhauer points out, “Baseball is not an appealing game for the casual gambler — it’s a lot easier to make sense of a 6-point spread in an NFL game than a +160/-170 baseball money line.” Being even less than casual, I had just picked the games regardless of money line, and picked them all, even ones I was unsure of. They were small bets, so I basically flipped a coin.
Sitting across from me, studying his crib notes, is James, a supermarket manager from Long Island. “I’ve been to a couple of places in Atlantic City,” he says, “but this is clearly the best.” We’re watching the Nationals at the Cardinals, Max Scherzer vs. Adam Wainwright — he has the Cards, I have the Nats.
James, who was a pitcher in high school, clearly knows baseball and betting: “I’ve got the Cardinals in a parlay with the A’s and the Yankees. I’m a Yankees fan, so that’s the one that worries me. The one rule I have is, ‘Bet with your head, not your heart,’ and I’m not sure if I’m convinced the Yankees are going to beat the Angels or I’ve convinced myself that they’re going to win.”
When the fifth inning ends with the Cardinals up 2-0, James gives a little fist jab. “I had them winning the first five.” You can do that? “Oh, yeah, there’s a lot of ways to make the games more interesting.” By the time St. Louis has handed Washington a 5-1 official loss, three other afternoon games have started: Mets at Rockies, Royals at A’s, Marlins at Diamondbacks. At first it’s fun to go on a busman’s holiday and meet players I only know from my fantasy league, but after a while, I have to get out of there. I drive to the actual Boardwalk to breathe in some sea air, then return to see how I’m doing. All three of the late-afternoon games go down to the wire, and the place comes alive when the Mets pull out a 7-4 win with four runs in the ninth. I win all three.
Maybe it is in my blood.
But now comes the madness, 11 games with first pitches ranging from 6:35 to 8:05 p.m. Because there is no actual audio, the sportsbook becomes a kaleidoscope that yields an occasional surprise — oh, two 39-year-olds, Albert Pujols and C.C. Sabathia, are facing each other. Say this for legalized betting too: It actually makes you care about a Blue Jays-Orioles game. (The Jays explode for 6 in the ninth to win 11-10 and produce a windfall for a hypothetical bettor who took them with three outs to go.)
When Cody Bellinger homers in the eighth inning to give the Dodgers a 6-4 lead over the Rays, I give a little clap because an L.A. victory will mean I make a little money on the night. But just before last call at midnight, Kenley Jansen gives up two runs in the ninth. The Rays win 8-7 in 11.
Once again, I wonder what the hell happened.
Now that gaming and the game, head and heart, are married, I wish them luck. I just hope they know what they’re doing — four teams winning at least 100 games and four losing as many as 100 is not conducive to action.
As for me, well, I don’t think I’m related to Arnold Rothstein after all.