(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Even before this week’s Supreme Court decision striking down federal restrictions on sports gambling, it was already shaping up as a rough season for baseball lovers. Many of the game’s biggest stars have been faltering. And with a quarter of the season behind us, there seem to be only two really good teams — the Yankees and the Red Sox — both of whom have been trying to buy the pennant, never a happy thought for purists. Worse, the season features an unusually large number of horrible teams, climbing over (perhaps we should say under) each other in their race to the bottom.
And then this gambling thing comes along — and, boom, panic. Major League Baseball warned of “profound effects” on the game. Some worries were distributional — questions about who will get richer and who will get poorer. But most of the concerns echoed former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent, the man who banned Pete Rose from the sport. Vincent met the decision with a question: “How do you protect the integrity of these games?”
But the outcome in Murphy v. National Collegiate Athletic Association was anything but unexpected and, as a matter of constitutional law, probably correct. (No, the justices did not create the right to gamble; they held only that Congress can’t keep the states from allowing gambling.) And my libertarian soul always chafes when individual freedom, except in extraordinary circumstances, is swept aside in the name of the greater good. So I should be happy.
Only I’m not. And I think I know why. It’s because of what else this baseball season represents for me.
As my regular readers know, I love baseball, the most graceful and pristine of major sports; with respect to the game, I am admittedly a purist. And, as it happens, 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the event that first began to shape my curmudgeonly view of the sport. It was 1968 when my parents gave me “The Third Fireside Book of Baseball,” often regarded as the finest collection of journalism ever assembled about the national pastime. Until then, I had been a baseball fan, obsessing about home runs and strikeouts, wins and losses. After devouring the book’s 500 pages over the next few days, I became what I am today: a fan of great baseball writing.
And here’s the point of the story: The volume opens with a piece by baseball historian Lee Allen titled “The Wansley Affair,” an article that served as my introduction to serious sports journalism. Originally published in the 1950s, the essay seeks the origins of what Allen calls baseball’s “phobia about gambling.” Bypassing the 1919 Black Sox scandal, Allen traces the fear to contest between two early clubs, the Mutuals and the Eckfords, in September 1865, now widely accepted as the earliest instance of a professional baseball game being fixed by gamblers. At that time, Allen writes, baseball was still “an amateur endeavor in theory.” Nevertheless, betting on the outcome of games was commonplace. There was money to be made if you knew the winners in advance.
All of which is to say that even now, half a century after first cracking the binding of “The Third Fireside,” I approach the question of sports betting gingerly, sharing, perhaps, the “phobia” that Allen described. I am unable to escape the bias learned from the writing I devoured as a young teenager. My bias, I suppose, is the same as Major League Baseball’s: that gambling on sports is dangerous to the public image of the game. The perception of integrity matters.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m no gambler, but I do think sports betting should be allowed. For the reasons I’ve mentioned already, I think the Supreme Court was right on both law and ethics. And whatever fears we purists (and Major League Baseball ) might harbor, the facts are on the side of the legalizers.
In the first place, the dangers to baseball from sports gambling are much smaller than they once were. The bribery scandals arose in an era when players were paid a pittance for their highly profitable services. Even as the game became professionalized, the players were rarely paid very much. According to data collected by the Society for American Baseball Research, as late as 1899, the highest-paid player in baseball earned $1,800 a year, about $54,000 today. By the time gamblers fixed the 1919 World Series, the highest-paid player in baseball was Ty Cobb, who was earning $20,000, around $290,000 today — still a pittance by modern standards. Small wonder, then, that games were thrown with some regularity.
Nowadays, even marginal professionals earn what for most people would be a small fortune. With the average salary hovering around $4 million, bribing the stars would be too expensive. (“They make too much money,” laments a character in Mario Puzo’s 1996 novel “The Last Don.”) In college, where the athletes cannot be paid, one might think that fixed contests would be more common, but the evidence appears to be to the contrary.
Besides, the adamant opposition to sports gambling by professional leagues, baseball included, has done little to stop the practice. The betting simply gravitates to places where it’s legal, such as Nevada, or overseas; to the gray area of wagers among friends and colleagues; or the illegal gambling markets run by mobsters. Most estimates place illegal betting in the U.S. in the hundreds of billions of dollars. So legalization, in addition to bringing sports gambling out of the dangerous shadows, will also create a new source of state tax revenue — a fact that probably would have made legal sports betting inevitable in any case.
On the other hand, a professional league is perfectly free to prohibit gambling by its players, in the same way that it can keep players from doing other things that call the sport into disrepute. Still, even if they result from collective bargaining, the prohibitions should be as clear and unambiguous as possible. Fair warning is a value, too.
Probably the lords of baseball are right. The changes in the sport will be profound. But we purists accustomed ourselves to multiple divisions and wild-card teams and the designated hitter. Before long, only a few curmudgeons will even remember why betting on games was ever considered objectionable.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.