A Brief History of Slime (Part One)

The 1919 Chicago White Sox. Photo by History Locker.

One of the first thing someone opposing sports betting would say is, “What’s going to keep athletes from throwing a game?” The answer, as it always was, “Nothing.” There will always be people willing to do dishonest things for money; if you doubt that, I’ll point you in the direction of Congress.

With that in mind, here are some of those dishonest people.

The 1919 “Black Sox” World Series scandal. The only one of the point-shaving/game-throwing/match-fixing instances that I can think of that had a movie made about it (Eight Men Out – 1988), as well as being mentioned in The Godfather II, The Great Gatsby, and Ray Liotta’s portrayal of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson in Field of Dreams. Spurred on by their miserly owner Charles Comiskey, several players conspired to “throw” the World Series and lose to the Cincinnati Reds.

Eventually, the players are found out, tried in a court of law and found not guilty. That’s not the end of the story as baseball’s owners had appointed their first commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, to help restore the public’s faith in the game. Following the “not guilty” verdict, Landis, using the unlimited powers granted as a condition of him accepting the job, placed the players on the “Ineligible List” leaving them suspended from professional baseball, effectively, forever.

Two things about this instance strike me as working against anyone hoping to bribe or blackmail a player into changing the outcome of a game. First, players make extraordinary sums now, not like the players in 1919 or even the early 1990’s when players made excellent money, but nowhere near the amount we’re talking now. Second, if players know that they will be banned from the sport they play and lose the ability to make that money, will they still be willing to risk it? I doubt that very much.

How about the 1951 college basketball point-shaving scandal? Probably less well known than other instances, this was still a huge scandal in its day which included:

  • Thirty-five active and former players accused of fixing games and twenty eventually convicted.
  • Eighty-six games “fixed” between 1947 and 1951.
  • Fourteen gamblers indicted and convicted.
  • Adolph Rupp’s “Fabulous Five” Kentucky teams were implicated and, for the first time, a college team received the “Death Penalty”, forcing them to sit out the 1952-53 season (in which they were favored to win the NCAA Title again).

So many careers were ruined and players, coaches, and gamblers convicted that I doubt that any players would risk the punishment that a comparatively minuscule payout would garner.

Boston College’s Mob Connection. In 1978-79 Boston College basketball player Rick Kuhn conspired with Lucchese crime family member Henry Hill (Ray Liotta again in GoodFellas) to fix nine games during the season. Kuhn eventually convinced teammates Ernie Cobb and Jim Sweeney to join him in the “enterprise” and for their troubles the trio earned $10,000. Eventually Kuhn was sentenced to a 10-year term for point-shaving (later reduced to 28 months) while Cobb and Sweeney were not charged.

This instance was the subject of a 30-for-30 film on ESPN called “Playing for the Mob”. With the push for players to receive cash for playing college athletics, legalized sports gambling will likely contribute to that pot and help in keeping players from associating with “unsavory elements.”

I’ll continue this tomorrow with Part Two of “A Brief History of Slime”.