Fraternization, the Black Sox and Blood in the Hay

There is a reason gambling and sports aren’t supposed to mix. Every so often, someone’s life has to be ruined -or even worse, ended- for us to be reminded of that.

The Chicago Tribune reported on the Black Sox scandal in 1919 and then again on a gambling-related story five decades later.

My involvement with baseball and gambling began when I was just a kid. Growing up as a Chicago White Sox fan in the 1960s, the cultural memory of the 1919 Black Sox scandal was as strong and pungent as skunk spray on a puppy. My grandfather -who was 21 at the time the Sox threw the World Series- taught me a new word: fraternization.

“You see, Willie, the players will never talk to each other before a game,” he told me as the Sox warmed up for an afternoon game. “They can’t, it’s against baseball’s fraternization rule. It’s a rule put in after the Sox lost the World Series,” he told me.

Rule 3.09 was and is on the books, though not enforced. It reads: “Players in uniform shall not address or mingle with spectators, nor sit in the stands before, during, or after a game. No manager, coach or player shall address any spectator before or during a game. Players of opposing teams shall not fraternize at any time while in uniform”

The rule is widely disobeyed today and there is fraternizing going on before, during and after games between players and with fans in the stands. Go to a game and watch for yourself. It’s like a frat party out there with all the hugging and high-fiving going on. People say they wonder what the players are talking about… surely not about rigging games.

There weren’t many things that bothered my grandfather. In 1919 he was already a veteran of the Mexican Border War and had been wounded in World War I. But the thought that a bunch of gamblers could get great players like Chick Gandil, Swede Risberg, Buck Weaver and Shoeless Joe Jackson to cough up games for money bothered him for the remainder of his nine decades on Earth. And here’s why it bothers me to this day.

I flipped on the MLB Network this afternoon and there on the screen with the balls and strikes and outs and the score was the “money line.” This is the odds of either team winning the game. It’s very useful for a guy sitting on his couch to see the money line and make a call to his friendly neighborhood bookie and make a wager.

So what? A few bucks here and there wagered for fun, right? No different than those state-sanctioned “scratchers.” Then there’s fantasy baseball. I like fantasy baseball. I was in one of the first leagues in 1984 before it was a “thing,” and, much to my wife’s dismay, I still run a team. The game prompts me to research and follow players. I am still interested in a 10-2 game in the seventh inning because one of my batters might get a hit or one of my pitchers may earn a few points in garbage innings. Some leagues I have been in put a little money in a pot and the top three teams take home the spoils. It’s usually under $50 or so.

But in recent years the innocent fun is being drained out of fantasy. A couple of wagering companies have made it easy to bet on fantasy baseball. It was recently announced that Major League Baseball has an investment stake in the DraftKings gambling website and is a partner with the company Diamond Eagle Acquisition Corp. DraftKings also swallowed up some of its competition when it merged with the Fan Duel site.

The possibilities are endless. Look for in-stadium betting from your seat via a “free” computer coming soon! Imagine betting on whether the guy of at bat gets a hit! Or if the pitcher strikes the next guy out. Or spits! Or adjusts his cup!. Full disclosure: I bought five shares of DraftKings stock at $290.00 per share after I read about the “partnership” with MLB.

When I talk about baseball and gambling people say there is no reason to worry about players throwing games since they make so much money these days. The motivation for the Black Sox was that they were paid so little they had to take desperate measures to earn a living. That is true.But things may not be as different today as many think. The average MLB career lasts 2.7 years. The minimum salary is $570,500. So we can estimate the average guy will have earned $2.7 million by the time he’s out of baseball by age 28 or so. That’s nice coin and as much or more as many people will earn in a lifetime. Hopefully these kids have solid financial planners to minimize taxes and keep expenses in line so the money lasts a lifetime. But I know what I would have done at that young age with that much cash and it would not have involved sober analysis of my financial future. So I think the temptation is there.

The game isn’t much different than it was 100 years ago.. One fastball up a little high in the zone. One errant throw in a crucial situation, A base running “blunder.” They all happen daily. The situation concerns me and bears watching. The greedy hearts of men know no bounds.

But more than money is involved, and it’s the real reason gambling makes me uneasy. When I was fifteen I was on a good amateur team. It would be called a travel team today and probably have some splashy sponsor. In those days it seemed like these teams just materialized after a few dads from the neighborhood got together and thought their sons would benefit from playing ball after the American Legion season was over. They went out and hired a coach who was one of the most memorable people I ever met. His name was Jim Wondergem. He was in his early twenties and was one of those guys that was, “every inch an athlete.” He was trim and sandy-haired with intense steel-blue eyes that flashed when he smiled, which was always. He drove a 1968 Pontiac GTO, and paid an extra $500 to get the one with 390-horsepower and 428 cubic inch engine. He frequently drove up with a stunning woman in the passenger seat. He was a twitchy type, and chewed his nails and smoked cigarettes in the dugout. He was the first real baseball coach I had, not a dad or some gym teacher coaching baseball for a few extra bucks. He seemed to know everything about the game, how and infielder raced out to get the relay throw, timing plays, how to backpick. He never yelled or screamed when you messed up, but was always encouraging. When you struck out he’d say things like “Babe Ruth struck out 1,330 times and he turned out OK.” He was the guy I could talk to as a friend and quickly I learned to admire and respect him and yes, love him. He was the first person I wanted to grow up to be like.

He’d played minor league baseball but it was his most recent sport that fascinated his young baseball players: he was a trainer of horses that ran in harness races. Sometimes he was the driver at one of the big tracks outside Chicago. This was so outside our world he might as well have been a Parisian chef or a Spanish bullfighter.

After about a week of practice we played our first game and things got really interesting. He brought a black sock full of nickels, dimes and quarters into the dugout. He spread them out on the ledge between the protective screen and the wooden bench. “Ball or a strike?” he called out. Soon we were wagering against Wondergem on what the next pitch would be. “I’m the House,” he said, “put your money down, boys.” He carefully ratcheted the game up and established odds on balls, strikes hits and outs. It was fun but you had to have thick skin. “For Christ’s sake Gaffney you just cost me 75 cents,” someone groused after the 14 year old served up a three-run gopher ball. We noticed the “House” was doing pretty well in the wagering. “Two things I can read,” Wondergem said. “Horses and pitchers.”

We badgered him all season and finally he relented and took us out to the track. He took us around, showed us the betting windows and I learned exciting new words like “pari-mutuel” and “vigorish.” The real treat was when he took us to the stables behind the immense grandstand. Everyone knew him and liked him and patted him in the back. “Man, everyone knows him,” one of the kids said. “It’s like he lives here.”

Wondergem overheard the remark. “I do live here,” he said.

“Where’s your room?”

“It’s here,” he said, pointing to the stable. The scent of horse manure and hay lingered in the air.

“You sleep…in the hay next to the horse?” someone asked.

“How do you think I afford that GTO” he replied. We started to leave when he grabbed my arm. He’d noticed I’d shied away from the horse.

“Go ahead, pet him on the nose and feed him this,” he said, handing me some sugar cubes. The big horse licked the cubes off my hand with one flick of his tongue. Wondergem smiled. “There’s nothing like the outside of a horse for the inside of a man,” he said. He walked us up to good seats in the grandstand. “Fix these lads up with a few beers,” he told an usher. “After all they’re baseball players.”

The races began. I saw a crowd like I’d never seen before, people jumping and yelling as the two wheeled sulkies with drivers aboard were pulled around the track. Some of the boys laid down bets. None of them won. We were so caught up in it no one noticed Wondergem had disappeared until the fifth race. The usher noticed our consternation.

“Don’t you know boys? Your coach is driving in the seventh race.”

We shouldn’t have been stunned or surprised. Wondergem was our Superman. We tied to make out his silks in the mass of horses and finally saw him as they made the turn for home. We stood and yelled and screamed and an older woman in a frumpy green hat smiled at me and said, “That’s right, baby, you cheer for Wondergem!”

He stoked the horse lightly with his whip, and driver, horse and sulky moved as one, as gracefully as he walked. They were up a length, then another and glided across the finish line well ahead of the pack. I tingled in excitement and felt happy and proud that I knew him. “He’s my baseball coach,” I yelled at the lady in the green hat. I wanted to tell the whole grandstand I knew him.

I never got back to that track. The summer wound down and the season ended. We played in a playoff tournament and got knocked out in the semifinal round. We balked in the winning run for God’s sake. We clustered along the right field line as the crowd drained out of the stadium and the lights dimmed. “Well,” Wondergem said with a big grin on his face. “What are the odds of balking in the winning run?” He never gave speeches and never issued bromides or talked about life lessons or any of that garbage coaches like to babble about. I was the last one to go up and shake his hand. It was late now and his girlfriend was in the parking lot next to the GTO. I heard her voice, soft and pretty, delivered on the breeze. “Jim……Jim,” she beckoned. He turned at her and waved and turned back to me.

“Jim…uh, Jim,” I said. I knew it was unlikely I’d ever see him again. I knew it was unlikely I’d every get coached by anybody like him again. I tried to fight back the tears and my head shook with the effort. He put his hand on my shoulder and looked in my eyes. “There are no words,” he said. “But know that I know.”

A few years later they found him dead in the stable. The newspaper said it was an execution-style murder. The story said the hay in the stable was soaked in his blood. It was rumored gambling was involved, that he was in debt. Several people, including the owner of the horse he trained, were implicated in the crime.

So that’s why gambling and baseball make me feel uneasy. I don’t want to hear about any thrown World Series, or any blood in the hay.

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