“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”)

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2 Related

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.

From the wild-card game through the World Series, we’ve got it all covered. Complete coverage

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.”

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.