Naughty Alex Rodriguez. You should have been listening to Commissioner Selig and the league in 2007 when they warned you to stay away from the underground high-stakes poker games in New York. Now, you’re in trouble for getting into a high-stakes game out west where reportedly cocaine was openly used, and it all very nearly got violent. You’re just the next piece of baseball’s long history with gambleing.
You don’t have to remind most that the relationship between gambling and baseball goes back, possibly to its beginnings, but certainly to prominence as part of the Arnold Rothstein and 1919 Black Sox scandal in which the World Series was thrown. You get the commissioner (Kenasaw “Mountain” Landis) as a result. And, you certainly get Pete Rose and his banishment from the game. But, there are a multitude of ties to gambling, both by players, owners, the clubs, and even umpires, if you look back over just the last 40 years. Here’s just a small sample of things you may have missed.
“Say Hey” in 1979 and the Mick in 1983
Before there was a union for the players, there was no player pension. All but a handful of players made enough to sustain them through retirement, so picking up extra dough through promotion deals happened as often as opportunity presented itself.
Commissioner Bowie Kuhn took the matter of gambling and baseball seriously. All the way to the point that players looking to make a buck at the end of their careers were forced between taking the money or banishment from baseball.
Willie Mays found out the hard way. Offered a 10-year contract with Bally’s to be an ambassador of sorts for their Atlantic City casino – a greeter most of the time. He would get paid $100,000 over the first three years with raises over the last seven. The deal was offered to Mays just 3 months after being inducted into the Hall of Fame, but still technically had two years left on his contract with the Mets.
On Oct 29, 1979 Kuhn banished Mays from baseball saying, “Such associations by people in our game are inconsistent with its best interest.” The deal Mays reached with Bally had been months in the works through William S. Weinberger who was the president of the Yankees just a few months before, but left to take the position of running Bally.
“I don’t think I have done anything wrong,” said Mays at the time. “I would never do anything to hurt baseball. My involvement with Bally has nothing to do with gambling and I feel I’ve been a model for baseball during my 22 years in it. But now I have to think primarily of my family.”
For Mickey Mantle, he found that opportunity, when tied to a casino, got you in hot water with Kuhn on Feb 08, 1983. There, Kuhn pulled out the “best interest of the game” powers, just as he had done with Mays and banished Mantle for accepting the position of Director of Promotions for the Claridge Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City. "His situation is like Willie Mays. Baseball and casino employment are inconsistent," said Kuhn. The commissioner pulled back a hair from what he had done with Mays saying that Mantle could play in old-timers and make unofficial appearances for the Yankees. For Mantle, it was the same as Mays. While Kuhn warned him, he was looking to sustain his lifestyle.
"I've been out of baseball 14 years and I don't have Panasonic and Mr. Coffee knocking at my door," Mantle said, in reference to endorsement deals that Reggie Jackson and Joe DiMaggio had landed.
It wasn’t until Peter Ueberroth became commissioner that the suspensions were lifted in 1985.
Ueberroth Opens Pandora’s Box with Lotteries
It wasn’t what it is now, but it was the beginning of MLB being in bed with legal gambling. In 1985, Peter Ueberroth began allowing clubs to take advertisement deals from state and Canadian lotteries.
“This does not signal a change in baseball’s continuing opposition to legalized gambling on team sporting events,” said Chuck Adams, a league spokesman for Ueberroth at the time.
Nails Plays Cards in Mississippi
Here’s something A-Rod should be reminded of…. Long before the woes that he now faces, then Philadelphia Phillie Lenny Dykstra was placed on 1 year of probation in 1991 due to his involvement in poker games in Mississippi. All told, Dykstra admitted to losing $78,000.
"Mr. Dykstra fully cooperated with representatives of the commissioner's office," then commissioner Fay Vincent said. "He exhibited remorse and acknowledged that he had injured baseball and damaged his own reputation. He gave me his full assurance he would not engage in such conduct again."
Umpires Under Investigation in 1991
In 1991, the league put two umpires from each league on probation for one year for gambling, although their names never surfaced. The umps had placed small bets on games other than baseball.
"The public has a right to know when persons are removed from the field of play," deputy commissioner Steve Greenberg said at the time. "Otherwise, it will not become public."
Illitch and the Wink-Wink Relationship to Casinos
MLB does not allow owners to be involved in direct ownership of casinos, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t nepotistic ways to get around it.
Case in point, Mike Illitch, the owner of the Detroit Tigers. While he’s not a casino owner, his wife Marian, is. In 2005, she became the owner of Detroit's MotorCity Casino. Since then, Mike Illitch’s wife has made minority investments in casinos across the country including the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians and Little River Casino Resort in Manistee, MI. Ilitch has partnered with the Shinnecock Indian Nation in Hampton Bays, New York to develop a recent casino in New York. Ilitch also a partnered with Barwest, LLC and Los Coyotes Band of Cahuilla and Cupeno Indians to develop casinos in Barstow, California.
MLB and Legal Gambling
Since Ueberroth started the league down the slippery slope of easy money tied to lotteries, many clubs have engaged in scratch-its. The Boston Red Sox have a deal with Massachusetts as do the Nationals have a similar deal with the DC and Virginia Lotteries, to name just two.
Casino Partnerships with MLB
Casinos (ahem) rather, “gaming establishments” are now regular partners with the league. There is hardly a club in the league that doesn’t at least have an advertisement deal with them. Look at the outfield walls in most any ballpark and you’ll see them.
And, it’s moved well beyond that. Mohegan Sun, the Connecticut-based casino, has a sports bar at Yankee Stadium. Partnerships with gambling and MLB have become common place.
The Mets Partner with Harrah’s
In 2009, the New York Mets got MLB as close to gambling without it being “gambling” as they could. Before Citi Field opened, they announced a multiyear marketing and promotional partnership with Harrah’s in which the world's largest provider of branded casino entertainment became a Signature Partner. As the press release announced:
The destination presence for Harrah's will be the naming and branding rights to the Caesars Club, a 12,000-square foot, 900-capacity, fully enclosed, climate-controlled club with a wide selection of dining options located on the Excelsior Level at Citi Field. The Caesars Club will offer an elevated experience that fans of the Mets and customers of Harrah's Entertainment have come to expect. Guests of the Caesars Club will enjoy exclusive food and beverage options that will set a new standard in dining experiences at sports and entertainment venues.
Fans throughout the season will experience a variety of programming from exciting offers to Harrah's owned casinos in Atlantic City to themed nights that bring the fun of Harrah's and Caesars to the New York Metropolitan area. On opening night April 13 at Citi Field, the Caesars Club will welcome baseball fans by hosting a DJ, providing fans with a commemorative gift, along with providing opportunities to take photos with iconic Caesars personalities.
Harrah's has also signed on as the exclusive Casino partner for prominent in-venue signage at Citi Field, including presence atop Citi Field's left field roof, first and third base rotationals, and identification throughout the concourses.
Harrah's promotional rights extend to the Mets' minor league affiliates at Tradition Field (Port St. Lucie, Fla., home of Mets Spring Training and the St. Lucie Mets) and KeySpan Park (Coney Island, N.Y., home of the Brooklyn Cyclones).
The Thin Line
There is a thin line for MLB and gambling. Clearly, one rule is given to players, while owners and the league play by a different set. The worry, of course, is its beginnings – that Black Sox scandal in which the World Series was thrown. The league will say gaming is part of everyday life now, and doesn’t impact game outcome. Players are told not to get involved with gambling or risk suspension because the league feels players can become compromised and wind up putting game outcome at risk. It’s a tight balancing act for the league.
Maury Brown is the Founder and President of the Business of Sports Network, which includes The Biz of Baseball, The Biz of Football, The Biz of Basketball and The Biz of Hockey, and is a contributor to Forbes SportsMoney blog.. He is available as a freelance writer. Brown's full bio is here. He looks forward to your comments via email and can be contacted through the Business of Sports Network (select his name in the dropdown provided).
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