- Historic Sites
Nation Of Gamblers
Once seen as a vice and now as a public panacea, the national passion that got Thomas Jefferson in trouble has been expanding for two centuries
September 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 5
It was so in the case of the Grays, as evidenced by a series of telegraphed messages from a New York gambler named McCloud to Al Nichols, a Louisville infielder. After the fixes became public, baseball was given a dim future as a “national pastime,” but the efforts of two Chicago businessmen resuscitated it into the National League and chastened its image, at least until about 1910, when gamblers returned to baseball parks and betting pools handled millions of dollars a week in baseball betting. As before, rumors flew around, until 1919 when a New York gambler named Arnold Rothstein thought to perfect Mr. McCloud’s scheme, directing eight Chicago White Sox players to throw the World Series; Rothstein walked away from the Black Sox scandal with as much as $350,000 (and a place in literature as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s model for Meyer Wolfshiem in The Great Gatsby ). Baseball has been understandably rigid on the subject of gambling ever since.
Three inventions developed in the latter part of the nineteenth century allowed gambling in America to expand from a diversion into a major industry. The first one, the telegraph, could have done the job all by itself. The others were the parimutuel system and the slot machine.
The telegraph was first exhibited in the United States in 1837 by S. F. B. Morse, but an 1872 refinement called the duplex system allowed more than one message to go through a line at once. Thomas Edison invented the quadruplex system in 1874 that allowed for simultaneous transmission of four messages; through these means, telegraph lines were soon readily available to private concerns. Bookmakers could obtain information on races all over the country, almost immediately. They could also make connections with bookmakers in other cities, forming powerful syndicates for moving around money and bets.
From about 1890 to 1908 the horseracing world was in turmoil. There were too many tracks (314 in 1897) and too many days (364 days of racing at East St. Louis in 1893) to allow for an effective policing system. Tracks did not handle betting in those days, though they could charge book-makers a fee to operate on the premises. Sometimes they took a profit from a crooked race: bookmakers had access to jockeys and trainers, and most of them, even the great rider Todhunter Sloan, were accommodating to offers of bribery. Nearly every state had banned horseracing by 1908, when just 25 tracks remained in all America. In fact, it was during this dry spell in racing that bookies and professional gamblers found an unfortunate substitute in baseball.
Three nineteenth-century inventions allowed gambling to grow from a diversion into an industry.
Horseracing was nearly dead, and then, just before the Kentucky Derby in May 1908 the mayor of Louisville served what seemed to be a death stroke by banning bookmaking at the track. The track manager of Churchill Downs, Matt Winn, knew that without betting, racing was not viable. He appealed in court but was offered only a slight concession: bookmaking was outlawed, but not pool betting. Winn accepted the decision and retired to the basement rooms at Churchill Downs, where he rummaged around until he found some parimutuel machines that had been purchased from the French manufacturer about thirty years before. The machines could add each new bet to a general pool and calculate each winner’s share of that pool, after overhead expenses had been subtracted. Not only did parimutuel wagering obviate the trackside book-makers, it also allowed state governments to take a tax on bets. New York State legalized parimutuel betting in 1913, and many other states followed suit. Never again, however, could the country support as many as 314 race-tracks—not when, thanks in part to the telegraph, it was supporting nearly ten thousand local bookies.
The modern slot machine was invented by Charles Fey in San Francisco in 1895, but Chicago has been the manufacturing center for them almost ever since. They quickly became common- place in many drugstores, taverns, gas stations, country clubs, and veterans’ and fraternal clubs. Most slot machines paid off in cash, though some of the ones in public places would pay off in gum or cigarettes, which could easily be redeemed for cash.
Perhaps because the slot machine is inanimate, it identified and attracted a vast population of dormant bettors, people who found gambling appealing but contact with gamblers repugnant. Standing at a slot machine, a person is alone and in control, as at the wheel of an automobile or sitting with a radio or television; such things come quite naturally to most people, whereas standing at a craps table, for example, does not, with jostling and shouting, dice flying, and money- one’s own!—pushed and pulled by a snappy croupier. Gamblers usually like the company of other gamblers, but slot-machine players are a world unto themselves. That is the covenant that has made slot-machine play, which a gambler out of the Old West once disparaged as “teasing nickels out of Rebeckah lodge hellions,” the most popular form of casino gaming in America.