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Tuley's Take on sports gambling in the U.S.

We’re heading toward the Fourth of July here at the Tuley’s Takes home office, and I’ve been humming the old advertising jingle, “Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet.”

I’ve never owned a Chevy, so I couldn’t care less about that part of the song. But with baseball still not having started in this country this year, I propose replacing it. Football long ago took over as America’s No. 1 sport. However, I think the more appropriate activity should be gambling, as it is interwoven with every sport we love and is as American as all of the above.

My VSiN and “Point Spread Weekly” colleague, Brady Kannon, wrote about his top 10 gambling movies in the May 27 issue, and Mitch Moss and Pauly Howard have contributed their lists on their “Follow the Money” show. I won’t take too much issue with their rankings, as they pretty much reach a consensus of movies that should be in anyone’s top 10: “Rounders” (1998), “Owning Mahowny” (2003), “Casino” (1995), “The Gambler” (1974), “The Sting” (1973), “The Hustler” (1971) and “The Cincinnati Kid” (1965). And I applaud Moss for being the only one to include “Let It Ride,” the 1989 horse racing tale with Richard Dreyfuss.

All the movies on that list show Americans’ love affair with gambling, for better or worse, and it makes sense that most of these are movies our generation grew up watching in our formative years. I would also make the case for “Guys and Dolls” (1955). I think that was where I found out that older generations were more well-versed in gambling lingo than I had realized. The movie opens with the song “Fugue for Tinhorns” (though I always thought it was titled “I’ve Got the Horse Right Here”), in which one of the singers mentions liking a horse at 5-to-9 and everyone’s running around trying to get down on a horse race. Later, Frank Sinatra (as Nathan Detroit) sings the title song about a bunch of guys and how “it’s better than even money,” “a probable 12-to-7” and “you could give odds forever” that they’re doing whatever it is they’re doing for some doll. And there are other legendary songs like “Oldest Established Permanent Floating Crap Game” and “Luck Be a Lady.”

All these movies are great, but while I love horse racing, I really love when movies touch on sports betting — which, of course, was illegal in most of this country until the Supreme Court overturned the federal ban in May 2018. I’m not going to nominate last year’s “Uncut Gems” for any top-10 lists, and while I love it that Bruce Willis played frequent VSiN guest Alan “Dink” Denkenson in “Lay the Favorite” — and note that Willis also played a boxer who was supposed to throw a fight but instead bet on himself and won in “Pulp Fiction” — I really have a soft spot for older films that reference sports betting and odds.

And I mean really old films, of the black-and-white variety, as it again supports my contention that we’ve been a country of gamblers for a long, long time.

During this coronavirus pandemic, I’ve been watching a ton of AMC and TCM, going through my cable guide every week and taping any old movie that has a gambling theme. The latest I saw was “Three Little Pigskins” (1934) starring the Three Stooges. The film starts with a newspaper headline:

Joe Stack’s Tigers Meet

Cubs in Professional

Football Classic

Stack is then shown talking about a $50,000 bet he made on his team — quite a bet in the Depression era — and then getting a troubling phone call and whining, “Here we have the big game coming up Saturday and three of my best backs go out and get plastered and land in a ditch with a car on top of them.” One of his girlfriends, played by Lucille Ball, says, “Why don’t you go up to Boulder Dam College and get those Three Horsemen that have been running wild all year?” That was an obvious play on the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame, made famous in 1924 by New York Herald Tribune sportswriter Grantland Rice.

In predictable form, the Three Stooges are mistaken for the Three Horsemen and comedy ensues. It’s important to remember that pro football wasn’t that big a deal at that time. In fact, Jay Berwanger was the first Heisman Trophy winner in 1935 and didn’t even play professionally. It’s also interesting that the game scenes were filmed at Gilmore Stadium, which was demolished in 1952 and became the site of CBS Television City. 

Another unexpected sports betting reference I saw recently was in “Too Many Girls” (1940), which ironically also starred Lucile Ball as a celebrity debutante of sorts. The plot was that Ball’s father hires four college football players from the East Coast to spy on his daughter for $50 a week at Pottawatomie College in New Mexico (again, that was seen as more appealing than preparing for a pro football career). The players end up making Pottawatomie a national power but then decide not to play in the big game. I was shocked (shocked!) when a coed then actually accused the players of sitting out because they probably bet on the other team at odds of 4-1! Spoiler alert (but it’s 80 years ago, so I don’t feel bad): They played and won.

So, yes, gambling is part of our social fabric and has been mainstream for a lot longer than many people are willing to admit. Be sure to celebrate our heritage with a wager on the Fourth of July. And maybe have a hot dog and some apple pie too.

 

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