By Denise Dunbar
When I turned on the T.V. Monday night to watch the pre-game show before the Washington Nationals baseball game, instead of interviews and updates on players, the station was giving detailed information on betting odds for the Nats and other games around the league. They were encouraging people to place bets on baseball games.
Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Bowie Kuhn and Bart Giamatti must all be spinning in their graves.
Those three former baseball commissioners strove to protect their sport from the corrupting influences of gambling. Current MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has opened the coop and pulled up easy chairs for the foxes right next to the chickens.
Landis was baseball’s first commissioner, a post he assumed in 1920. A federal judge who famously fined Standard Oil $29 million in 1907 for antitrust violations, Landis banned eight members of the Chicago White Sox from professional baseball for life after they conspired with gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series.
All-time great “Shoeless” Joe Jackson was among those banned. The movie “Eight Men Out” tells this story, while sentimental favorite “Field of Dreams” references it. It was at this time that owners gave the commissioner the right to act “in the best interests of baseball.”
Lawyer Bowie Kuhn was baseball’s fifth commissioner, serving for 15 years, from 1969 to 1984. Kuhn exercised the “best interests of baseball” power several times to keep the sport free from gambling influences.
Kuhn suspended Detroit Tigers pitcher Denny McLain, the last pitcher to win 30 games in a season, for his involvement with bookmakers. Kuhn issued permanent bans – which were overturned by his successor – on Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle because they were paid to promote casinos.
Former Yale President Bart Giamatti served as commissioner for only five months in 1989 before dying suddenly of a heart attack. During that brief time, he made the wrenching decision to ban baseball’s all-time leader in hits, Pete Rose, from baseball for life because he believed there was overwhelming evidence that Rose bet on baseball games he was involved with. Giamatti died eight days after banning Rose.
Fast forward to 2021.
The Washington Nationals announced earlier this year that they’re partnering with MGM to set up a sports betting operation inside Nats Park, right across from the team store. Just think, fans can go buy a Max Scherzer jersey and then walk across the plaza and bet on Max to win the game. How convenient – and repulsive.
Late last year, casino operator Bally’s bought the naming rights to several networks around the country. So now, fans of everyone from the Atlanta Braves to the St. Louis Cardinals to the Detroit Tigers – 14 teams in all – tune into gambling-sponsored networks to watch their teams play.
This sell-out comes at a time when team values and player salaries are through the roof. The average value of a major league baseball team is $2.2 billion, according to Sportico. The average annual salary of major league baseball players is more than $4 million, according to work.chron.com.
In other words, neither the owners nor the players are hurting for money, and there is no excuse for corrupting the sport in this way.
Meanwhile, everything that can be sold, is. When you watch games on T.V., the names of sponsors are projected on the walls behind the batter’s box. Some networks project corporate names onto the pitcher’s mound and on the ground in foul territory.
In short, in Manfred’s baseball universe – and make no mistake, he’s doing the bidding of team owners – everything is for sale and nothing is sacred.
The purity of the game I have loved for a lifetime has been lost because of greed, leading to previously unthinkable alliances between Major League Baseball and gamblers.
I haven’t walked away just yet. But bit by bit, professional baseball is breaking my heart.
The writer is publisher and executive editor of the Alexandria Times.