“I’d be willing to bet you, if I were a betting man, that I have never bet on baseball,”
– Pete Rose
For as long as sports have been around, there has been betting on sports.
Cavemen probably bet each other over who had the fastest pet woolly mammoth, and as far back as the Ancient Greeks there is plenty of evidence of betting on the early version of the Olympics.
The Romans too were well known for placing the odd wager or two on gladiator fights and chariot races, and presumably on the big Saturday night fights between the Christians and lions, although I’m also presuming not too many of them backed the Christians.
It’s also a well-known fact the ancient bookies lost a ton of silver pieces on the whole David and Goliath upset, and the payouts set a new industry high, which forever changed the way the Vegas casinos operate. (Alright, the last part might not be exactly true, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was.)
In the middle ages, English sports fanatics were known for betting on archery competitions and jousts, as well as mob ball, while the Germans had their skittles (not the candy but an early version of bowling), and the Italians had their bocce ball.
In fact, just about every nation had their own version of competition the people enjoyed betting on, a way to display their own competitive spirit without actually competing.
That’s basically what betting in sports is all about. Sure, some idiots think they’ll get rich on it, but for most of us it’s less about the money and more about the way it makes us feel, especially when you bet on your own team. (To win, that is).
It’s a way for us to feel more a part of the occasion. To feel as if we’ve won as well. And it gives us the satisfaction of being able to talk smack, even if we don’t actually follow through on it. When you win a sports bet against a friend, sometimes a subtle smile and a slight nod of the head says it all.
Naturally when it comes to betting and large sums of money on the line, there is always going to be some idiots looking for an edge.
Just how much match-fixing or herbal steroid supplements plagued the ancient version of sports is up for debate, but the first big reported sporting scandals were in the English sport of pedestrianism.
Pedestrianism became one of most popular English sports in the 18th and 19th centuries, and is essentially an early version of race walking, which is actually an Olympic sport.
Yes indeed folks, English people were so bored with their lives back then they watched other people walking for excitement.
And naturally they bet on the outcome, which was probably the only thing that made the occasion more bearable.
I wonder what else the English bet on back in those days. What country they’d invade next? Who drank their tea with the most elegance? Shin kicking? (Actually the latter is true, but more on that a little later.)
Pedestrianism reportedly became so popular among the people with boring lives that match-fixing scandals and general forms of corruption soon began to surface, and it wasn’t long before the “sport” had degenerated into a 19th century version of the WWE.
At least there were no pedestrianism hooligans. Actually, maybe there were.
Across the pond, meanwhile, Americans loved their gambling just as much, although in the pre-civil war era it was confined mostly to card games and casinos.
After the civil war, horse racing became hugely popular, as it was starting to become elsewhere, and never has a sport been founded so fundamentally on betting.
The rising popularity of baseball in the latter part of the 19th century naturally led to the rise in popularity of betting on baseball games, which in turn inevitably led to the rise of match-fixing scandals in the sport.
Most people know all about the Black Sox scandal of 1919, when eight of the Chicago White Sox players were implicated in deliberately losing the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. But long before that, the 1877 Louisville Grays were found to have been involved in a match-fixing scandal that resulted in four players banned for life.
(And some of you want asterisks next to the modern-era records. Corruption in baseball and sports is as old as the sports themselves. An asterisk warehouse store couldn’t keep up with the demand.)
The most iconic case of controversial betting in contemporary sports is Pete Rose. As a player, you’ve got to love the guy, he was legendary. But as a person you’ve got to believe he’s as dim as a five-watt bulb.
Rose, for those who don’t know, is one of the all-time greats in baseball but was banned from the sport for life when he was caught betting on games.
For years, he denied it, and pulled a Lance Armstrong by lying repeatedly to all the faithful fans, only to turn around one day and finally admit it in a desperate plea for sympathy.
But that didn’t work out too well. He had been lying to our faces for too long by then. And sometimes when it comes to sports it’s not easy to forgive.
Whether or not Rose belongs in the Baseball Hall of Fame has long been a hotly debated subject (he does), but few would deny he belongs in the sports fools hall of fame.
“I’d be willing to bet you, if I was a betting man, that I have never bet on baseball,” he once said.
And that just about sums up that.
As for myself, I have a betting problem. I’ll admit it.
My problem is I bet on the Dolphins, and the only time they’ve reached the Super Bowl in the past three decades was in an Ace Ventura movie.
But losing money is one thing. Losing a piece of your pride is another.
I once bet a Patriots fan friend of mine the Dolphins would beat his team. I really should have known better. But I was a little drunk, and I’m not talking about my personality.
They had Tom Brady at quarterback and Bill Belichick as coach, and had recently won three Super Bowls. We had Cleo Lemon and Cam Cameron and were in the midst of a 1-15 season.
I idiotically made the bet one night, and it was one of those stupid pride bets you barely remember the following morning, when you ask yourself in a hungover stupor what the hell was I thinking. Or why wasn’t I thinking?
Of course I lost the bet, and I paid up.
So the following Sunday, I had to wear a Patriots jersey to the bar to watch my Dolphins game, complete with a paper bag on my head to hide my shame.
But I have also had a little luck when it comes to sports betting.
One night during the 2008 Olympics I won a bet on the women’s gymnastics competition, while watching at the bar, thanks to NBC’s delayed coverage.
My friend thought it was live, but it wasn’t and I knew who had won. I had seen the wire reports hours earlier while working at the newspaper, which made betting on the outcome much less stressful. It really did. I felt like Biff in Back to the Future Part II.
I told my friend afterwards, but I still made him pay up. (The bet was one beer.)
That’s the thing with bets. Once you make them, there’s no backing out. No matter how foolish they may seem in hindsight, and no matter how much you might immediately regret them. To most people it’s more of a law than the law itself.
And as sure as “there’s no crying in baseball,” there’s also no welching in bets.
That makes it tough sometimes when you’re a proud Dolphins fan.
(From the book, Help, My Horse is Drowning! by Ray Hamill, available at Amazon.com.)