The Thirty-Year Journey of a Major League Pitcher and Broadcaster

22 January 2010

Betting in the Bayou: Gambling in New Iberia, Louisiana

There's been a lot of news coverage lately about players behaving badly. Nellie is always sad to hear stories about the use of performance-enhancing drugs, which are nothing new in baseball. If you have not yet seen it, take a look at the late Dock Ellis' recollections of the use of amphetamines ("greenies")--and other substances!--in this animation about his unusual no-hitter in 1970:

While playing in Louisiana, one of his favorite places in the world, Nellie discovered the world of wagering on games. Here is an excerpt from his chapter on his Bayou baseball days:
During the summer of 1948 at New Iberia, I encountered another vice: Gambling. Wagering was and probably still is a part of life in the Bayou country. Young and naive about the dangers of gambling, I spent a lot of my daytime hours in the downtown pool hall. The owner, Tom Spiros, invited all the players to use the pool tables “on the house.” Along with the pool tables, constant poker games were being played for high stakes.
The index finger of Tom's right hand was amputated halfway to the knuckle. I never asked how or why, but it was no handicap to him. I took interest in watching him play poker, particularly his method d for counting silver dollars. Using the stub of the partially amputated right index finger, he would stack five silver dollars exactly, picking them up with his thumb and middle finger. He was never questioned by anyone at the table.

The pool hall’s main attraction for me was a Western Union ticker tape that kept an up-to-date score of every major league baseball game being played on a given day. With many games played in daytime then, I took delight in following the scores and, on occasion, posting them on a nearby blackboard as they came in over the wire. It was an entertaining place to spend the daytime hours. I never saw or knew of any players getting involved in gambling at the pool hall. The stakes were too high for players who were earning from $125 to $200 a month. 
However, as the weeks went by, I began to understand why Tom Spiros was so willing to have us frequent his place. The conversations at the pool hall usually got around to the New Iberia game of the night before and the one to be played that evening. The habitues' interest was not strictly that of a fan. Gamblers are always looking for a slight advantage, and we were naively providing it by talking casually about our team, its strengths and weaknesses, and its strategies.
Gamblers who bet on horses can’t have the same relationship they do with baseball players. Horses don’t talk. Following the final game of the 1948 season in New Iberia, Pete McGarry and I retired to our usual bar. As I was about to leave, I expressed my thanks to the bartender for the many memorable evenings spent there. I was amazed when he said, “You know, you cost me a lot of money this year.” With my “social lubricant” working, I loudly inquired of him, “I won 20 and lost only 13, and you're blaming me for costing you money?” As a parting shot, I said, “You gotta be the dumbest-assed gambler in town.
The fans in the Bayou Country, and particularly at New Iberia, loved to wager. They bet not only on the outcome of the game, but on whether a pitch would be a ball or strike, which created animosity against the umpires, and frequently resulted in foolish fan retaliation. The most drastic reprisal I recall was when disgruntled fans poured sand into the gas tank of an umpire's car. 
In Houma, one of the towns in the Evangeline League, two players on the team that 1948 season got into trouble for stealing money from a bookie joint that took wagers on horse racing. They managed to develop a friendly relationship with the bookie and then worked a scam for making winning bets. According to the story, one player would distract the bookie; the other would turn the bookie's clock back ten or fifteen minutes. With a direct line to the track where the races were being run, they would get the winner then place their bet with the bookie. Trusting and unaware of the scam, the bookie took the bet and paid off.
This went on for a while before someone got wise. The players were barred from baseball. They were lucky some guys with flat noses from Chicago didn't come to visit them. If this betting on horses warranted expulsion from baseball, there really is no defense for any player who bets on baseball games. Warnings against this violation were posted on every clubhouse door,  from Class “D” to the major leagues. Pete Rose saw them every day, knew the rules, and still failed to abide by them. He paid the price. The Black Sox Scandal in the 1919 World Series nearly destroyed fans’ loyalty to the game and ushered in the first strong commissioner of baseball, Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis....

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The Thirty-Year Journey of a Major League Baseball Pitcher and Broadcaster