Betting on games

"Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it," -- Winston Churchill quoting another sage.

Churchill, being a British citizen, can be assumed to have known little or nothing of American sports, but he might as well have had them in mind when citing the aforementioned quote. The lightning speed in which baseball, football, and basketball have made a u-turn on the issue of sports betting is mind-numbing. For more than a century, gambling in sports was considered to be the worst of all sins. It almost caused the destruction of major league baseball in the early part of the 20th century.

We all know the story of the Black Sox scandal of 1919 when eight members of the Chicago White Sox were recruited by agents of New York racketeer and gambler Arnold Rothstein to throw the World Series that year. It was big news when the story came out because it had to do with the World Series, but gambling was already rife within the game of baseball, to the point where fixed games were not at all rare and baseball was beginning to lose its credibility with the public, which would have reduced it to the level of professional wrestling. For example, there was the alleged fixing of a game between the Cleveland Indians and the Detroit Tigers on the final day of the 1919 season, just before the opening of the ill-fated World Series. The thing that made it noteworthy is that it supposedly involved the direct participation of baseball's two biggest stars of that time, Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker. It was a story circulated by former Tigers' pitcher Hubert "Dutch" Leonard (not to be confused with Emil "Dutch" Leonard, a pitcher during the '30s and '40s).

According to Leonard, he and Tigers' player/manager Cobb met with Indians' player/ manager Speaker and one of his pitchers, Smoky Joe Wood, to arrange for the Tigers to win that final game of the season and thus clinch third place in the American League. Cleveland had already clinched second place. The Tigers, by finishing third, would be eligible for a small share of postseason money (about $500 per man).

With the fix thus in, it was decided that the participants might as well make some money off of the pre-arranged result. Cobb was alleged to have put up $2,000 and Speaker, Wood, and Leonard $1,000 each. A Detroit clubhouse attendant was drafted to place their bets on Detroit for them, but he had trouble finding bookies who could cover such large bets on such short notice, and only a relatively small sum was bet.

A brief look at the results of that final game of the season reveals that the Tigers jumped into a quick four-run lead in the first two innings and then cruised to an easy nine-to-five victory. Cleveland starter Elmer Myers was pounded for nine runs and 18 hits but was left in the game for its entirety by manager Speaker.

Leonard's accusations against Cobb, Speaker, and the others were not made until 1926, by which time the Black Sox scandal had long since been put to rest, and Leonard and Cobb had become bitter enemies. Leonard was convinced that Cobb was deliberately overworking him, causing damage to his arm. Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, knowing of the personal animosity between Leonard and Cobb, took no action; but American League president Ban Johnson decreed that both men should leave their posts with their long-time teams, which they both did. It should be noted, though, that they did come back to play two more years with Washington and Philadelphia.

It should also be noted that baseball itself had changed dramatically in the few years since 1919. Babe Ruth had arrived on the scene and begun swinging from the heels, causing a sensation. In 1919, playing for the Red Sox, he had set a major league record for home runs with 29; the very next year, as a New York Yankee, he smashed that with 51 of them; and, in 1921, he topped that with 59 round-trippers. The dead ball era was over and Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, and their ilk were yesterday's news. Their alleged fixing of a game in 1919 quickly faded from the headlines, and the issue of players and managers betting on games faded with it.

But it never went away, as the Pete Rose case demonstrated, and leagues in all professional sports remained vigilant in guarding against it. But now, suddenly, those same leagues are partnering up with gambling interests to share in the profits to be made from sports betting. There is heavy advertising reminding people of what fun and how exciting betting on sports can be. But it can be dangerous, too. We all know of people who have gotten caught up in it and have ruined their lives in the process. Just because something is now legal doesn't make it automatically safe.

It's probably too late to do anything but hope for the best. Sports betting is fast becoming a part of the game, whether it be baseball, football, or basketball, and your favorite team is a part of it. The Super Bowl this year set all kinds of records for gambling. Oh sure, players and officials are not allowed to be involved with it, but everyone else is encouraged to. How long do you expect that to hold? Betting on games almost caused the downfall of baseball more than a century ago. Could it do the same to it and other sports in this day and age? Stay tuned.

- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.