You Bet Your Life

You Bet Your Life

I wonder how many people remember that Groucho Marx, the brains of the Marx Brothers, had his own quiz show on early TV, called You Bet Your Life. Adapted from the radio show of the same name, the game consisted of competitive trivia questions. Groucho always started by engaging in a conversation with the contestants. He became known for his wit and ability to ask provocative questions, some on the lascivious side and especially with his female contestants.

One contestant was notable, not only for his winning $10,000, which was a great deal of money, in those days, but more importantly what he did with his winnings. When the host asked him that, he answered by saying, I plan to take time off and work on my novel. The winner was William Peter Blatty, and the novel was the Exorcist.

I do not think that anyone actually lost their life from being on the show, but its name was certainly prescient with meaningful warning for this country 75 years later as gambling has become a national obsession, especially with our professional sports teams. I have already written on this topic (Vice as Virtue), but much has happened since then.

I had alluded to Baseball’s innate disdain for and plain fear of gambling, especially when the infamous Black Sox scandal and the fixing of the 1919 World Series tainted its reputation until Babe Ruth started raining down home runs by the gallon. I also mentioned its lifetime ban on Pete Rose, the game’s most prolific hitter. Given MLB’s deep involvement in professional gambling now, one can only imagine how Rose and the rest of the baseball world feel about the sport’s 180-degree turn on the issue. The players still cannot bet on baseball but only a police state could keep track of all the ways around that.

MLB recently lowered the boom on a handful of players and one umpire for betting infractions. Four of them were minor leaguers but had all made their debuts in the Big Show except for one. Though all of the suspensions were for a complete season, this is still a sizable loss of earnings. One player lost several hundred thousand dollars for placing $99 in bets. The umpire, Pat Holberg, who is the most accurate umpire behind home plate, is appealing his removal from the field.

But the biggest loser was Tucupita Marcano, who suffered a lifetime ban from baseball. He had appeared in 149 games in the majors over three seasons. To make matters even worse, Marcano lost 95% of his $150,000, which he had wagered on baseball. His place on the San Diego Padres is gone forever. Now he has effectively lost his future. 

These penalties were overt violations of Rule Misconduct 21, Sec. D of the players code, which covers gambling. The year-long suspensions were for players who had no material connection to the teams they bet on, while Marcano had bet on games which involved his team. 

The overview is that none of these players are recognizable to the average fan. While the reasoning here is that when you have to make an example of players who broke the rules, MLB will usually select only those who are 100% expendable. They were the proverbial sacrificial lambs, whose suspensions were for the good of the whole. However, these gambling violations paled in comparison with what the Black Sox had done. None of these players altered the outcome of any league games.

Writing in the June 5, 2024, edition of USA Today, Gabe Lacques wrote of MLB’s symbiotic relationship with baseball. It upholds the integrity of the games while aiming to profit off legalized gambling. He goes on to say it allows for additional revenue and something called data licensing. 

Lacques follows this with the ludicrous idea that it has increased the fan’s participation in the game because millions of them who had a child who had to get up early the next day for school, wanted to avoid the rush to the gates or miss the traffic on the trip home will stay because they have a monetary dog in this fight that supersedes team pride or basic loyalty.  

These so-called fans need to make certain that their opponents do not change the results of their bets. The term opponent could even apply to the players on their team. The win or loss for their team’s game is not their motivating factor. As I used to quip, in a paraphrase of Grantland Rice’s famous dictum, It is not whether you win or lose but if you beat the point spread.

Ironically, earlier in his piece Lacques cited the horrific example of superstar, Shohei Ohtani and his Japanese translator, Ippei Mizuhara whose gambling addiction cost the Dodgers’ DH upwards of $17 million in filched funds and wire fraud. This is more than an anomaly as millions of fans are betting the milk and rent money to garner the big score. 

Betting odds are an integral part of the chyrons that regularly run during game telecasts. I find them irritating and a distraction from, not only the game, but my interest in finding information about other games around the leagues. To me they are at best an imposition and at worse an amateurish attempt to condition or brainwash the fans. 

However, the worst aspect of MLB’s evolving relationship with professional gambling is the adverse effects it is having on the men who play the game. Gambling fanatics are threatening and harassing many players because of the effect they have on game outcome and their winning or losing of countless millions of dollars. 

I was unaware of what has become an epidemic of virtual insanity. That is, until I read USA Today columnist Bob Nightengale’s prescient article, in the June 10th edition of their newspaper. Entitled MLB fear: Threats, harm over betting, it reads like a litany of psychologically demented fanatics with blood lust in their hearts because players did their level best, though the results of their good or bad days cost the fans a barrel full of money. This is a serious facet of the gambling trend, or should I say obsession, which has befallen our once proud national pastime

Nightengale acts as a sounding board for their many fears over these so-called fans calling them every rotten and profane name in the book of disrespect. Many have the element of some kind of serious criminal intent or mental imbalance. The players, who do not seem to be the stars, are unafraid of giving their names, though they are less insulated against such taunts. 

Paul Sewald, the Diamondbacks key closer was very candid. You hear it all…You blow a save. You don’t come through…%$#&, @$(%$…You cost me money…all of this money…It gets ugly really quickly. It’s scary, and it is sad. Sewald used the word scary frequently during this interview. It used to be fans who were upset because you blew the game, but not with gambling. These people really don’t care about the Diamondbacks. They just care about their bets and we are talking about money they don’t have that they are losing. Now when MLB players take the field, they may be betting their lives literally or at least their livelihoods.

The journalist offers a sample of some specific threats these so-called fans continually shout at Sewald. I’m going to kill you and then kill your family. I cannot imagine the extent of stress that these comments cause. This is far from a symbiotic relationship. Jacques should have used its scientific opposite, which is parasitic

Chicago White Sox outfielder, Tommy Pham spends a lot of time in Las Vegas casinos in the off-season. He has noticed how legalized sports betting has dramatically changed fans’ acrimony in recent years, particularly from those who are betting beyond their financial means. I think most players, who have experienced this kind of behavior from the fans from a distance or close-up will say these people are addicted. MLB knows this as well, however their constant flashing of their salve in the form of an 800 number so they can get help would be risible if this were not so serious. This meager attempt is a band aid on a gaping wound.

San Francisco pitching ace, Logan Webb, says people are really passionate about teams and now that they add money to it, it’s bigger than ever. Phone technology has played a large part in the pressure on the players. They know immediately everything pertaining to their wagers. When D-backs’ first baseman Christian Walker comes to the plate, instead of their fans cheering for him to get a hit, fans will remind him that they have him in their parlay, and he better hit a home run or…a double.

MLB prohibits betting on the home scoreboard. But according to Walker, it used to be that fans made their bets before the games but with new phone technology and betting apps, the players are at the gamblers’ mercy for the whole game because of their phones and their ability to measure each pitch throughout the game…you are under their thumbs for the whole time you are in the game.

How bad can it get? Benjamin Tucker Patz, a 24-year-old sports gambler, pleaded guilty in 2021 for sending a string of social media messages to four players on the Tampa Bay Rays and one on the White Sox after a 2019 game the Rays had lost. According to Nightengale, here is a sampling of these terrifying messages.

*I enter your home while you sleep and sever your neck open. 

*Everyone you love will soon cease.

*I will cut up your family.

*Dismember them alive.

Patz sounds as if he bets on several teams. He sent other messages, including to players in Oakland, Atlanta, Kansas City… So, what was his punishment for spreading terror, such as this? Three years of probation and six months of home confinement. Not a single day of jail time. Nightengale speculates that the odds of Patz’s deviant behavior being just an isolated event is the same as believing there are no other players who gamble on baseball.

Despite all these negative things working on the minds of many of its players, MLB does not seem concerned that gambling has created a legion of dangerous and deranged people frequenting their games. Betting advertisements walk hand-in-hand with baseball and the other major sports. Sewald says you cannot watch a commercial between innings without one from, FanDuel, DraftKings, MGM, Caesars…

Nightengale thinks it is too late to stop baseball’s affair with gambling because it is far too lucrative to owners to halt all the promotions, sponsorships and advertisements from gambling sites. Some baseball parks, such as the Diamondbacks’ Chase Field, have a Caesars Sportsbook as you pass through its gates. 

How convenient for the fans to bet the family farm on some of the more arcane events of the game. The journalist sees more things on the horizon to bet on such as the more than likely introduction of electronically called balls and strikes, which proves to be more accurate than the human calls of traditional home plate umpires. He sees fans betting on challenges and all other tiny aspects of the game.

Nightengale also sees a dire future for MLB and by proxy for all major league sports. He opines, unless the promotions and advertisements start…to be curtailed from their own networks and games, unless fans’ harassment, threats and intimidations stop don’t be surprised if gambling scandals become as much a fabric of baseball as pine tar. 

Unsurprisingly, this gambling scenario evokes vivid images in my mind of my seeing Ray Walston strutting on the stage in August of 1998 in the St. Louis revival of the musical Damn Yankees. The only change was the venue from Washington D. C. to St. Louis where a baseball fan sells his soul to the devil just so the St. Louis Browns can win the pennant. Walston was menacing in his reprisal of his 1955 role as the devilish Mr. Applegate.

There is no way to put the gambling genie back in its bottle, no matter how dangerous the death threats and family destruction taunts become. Baseball has made a Faustian bargain with the devil of gambling and according to Nightengale, corruption and consequences be damned. Baseball is sacrificing its integrity, history and its fans for the Almighty Buck. 

As a lifelong fan I never thought that this would ever happen. Given my understanding of our history and the country’s downward moral trends, I should have thought it possible, given the cultural swamp the regime has forced us to adopt. Our situation reminds me of Justice Robert Bork’s 1996 book, Slouching Toward Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline. 

I should not be surprised because the premise of my study of Baseball history in the early seventies taught me that Baseball was the great reflector of the culture and its surroundings and therefore a great teacher. It was this premise with which I based my accredited Baseball History course at Maryville College, 1973-74. I called it, The Thinking Fan’s Guide to Baseball History, which I believe was the first of its genre in the Midwest. 

Now my worst fears are here, in their worst iteration. In reference to the 1952 sermon of a Brooklyn priest, Father Herbert Redmond, who said in regard for the Dodgers struggling hitter, Gil Hodges, during a beastly July Sunday in 1951. It’s too hot for a sermon. Go home and pray for Gil Hodges. For those of us who love the game of baseball, we need to pray that its owners and executives reconsider the deleterious effects their Greed is having on the culture of the game they control. I think MLB is flirting with killing its Golden Goose and with it all their players livelihoods and quite possible a few lives, making 1919 look like a typical day at the park.

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Written by
William Borst