Gambling at the Hall of Fame: Part One
I want to tell you an amazing story about gambling at the Hall of Fame, but to appreciate the irony of the story fully, you need the background to put it in context. For that, I have to take you back twenty years to my first tenure in Cooperstown.
I arrived here in April 1991, intending to spend five or six months doing research at the Hall of Fame library for a novel based on the adventures of Charles “Victory” Faust. I wound up spending exactly one year, setting a record that still stands for the longest continuous research visit, and by the time I was done I had abandoned the novel and embarked on what wound up being a nonfiction book about Faust. I did complete my planned research by the end of September, figuring I’d head back to my home in sunny Las Vegas rather than sticking around for the upstate New York winter. Instead, I was hired to do the research for a very fine book by Richard Scheinin titled “Field of Screams”. It was a long, cold winter, but I survived and didn’t return to Las Vegas until April 1992.
By then I was firmly established as part of the Hall of Fame library’s family, a close-knit group of seven employees. Mostly I hung out with the two full-time researchers, Bill Deane and Gary Van Allen, arriving with them when the doors opened at 9AM and staying until they kicked me out at 5PM. By mid-summer they allowed me to fetch my own files, located in the large room on the second floor where visiting researchers sat across from each other around a large central block of tables. That’s where I met Bob Davids, who had founded SABR in that room two decades earlier. That’s where I met Danny Peary, who recommended me to Richard Scheinin, and where I met Dan Heaton, who later served as editor of my book on Victory Faust.
Most days I was on my own, eventually going through well over 1,000 clipping files, and some days I was completely on my own. When they had staff meetings, they literally left me alone in the library, suggesting that I answer the phone if it rang and answers inquiries if I could. Looking back, this seems like quite an odd practice, since that was the era when a lot of material was stolen from the library. They apparently had no concept of security and preservation, as they do now. They’re still paying the price for those lax practices. But I enjoyed having my run of the place and not having to impose on them to fetch all those files, and I did answer the phone a couple of times.
Eventually I dead-ended on the Faust novel and my money ran out, so it was time to go back to Las Vegas and start dealing poker again, which I had done on and off since 1980. While continuing my Faust research and getting sidetracked writing a screenplay about him (four drafts, two years), I dealt at tournaments from 1992-95, eventually putting in five years as a dealer at the World Series of Poker. Along the way, I realized that researching and writing about baseball history was what I enjoyed most, but that was easier said than done.
Sometime in the year after my exit from Cooperstown, Bill Deane alerted me that the library had gotten the authorization to hire a third full-time researcher. He urged me to apply, and I jumped at it. He wasn’t sure how long the hiring process would take, but that didn’t matter to me. I felt that researching at the Hall of Fame was my destiny, and I was prepared to wait. Little did I know that the wait would amount to a full decade.
In June 1993, I returned to Cooperstown to deliver a paper (on Faust as an early example of the media creating a celebrity out of thin air) at the third Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture. Librarian Tom Heitz suggested that this would be a good time to interview me for the prospective researching job. That interview was conducted over lunch at the Doubleday Cafe, with Bill Deane sitting in. Heitz told me, “We like you and we’d like to have you working at the library. But there’s one problem. The people in charge are concerned about your poker background.”
For the past year, he explained, the Hall of Fame had been the target of much criticism in the press for the change in policy that prevented Pete Rose from being elected. He would have been eligible for election in 1992, but was barred from inclusion on the BBWAA ballot because he was on MLB’s “Ineligible List”. Heitz mentioned one Cincinnati writer in particular, Tim Sullivan, who was regularly raking the Hall over the coals for excluding the popular all-time “Hit King”. I had attended the 1992 induction ceremony, after which a crowd gathered to chant “Where’s Pete? Where’s Pete?” at Commissioner Fay Vincent as his car left the site. The whole issue was painful for the Hall of Fame officials to deal with.
Heitz asked for permission to have MLB’s Security Chief, Kevin Hallinan, conduct a background check on me as a condition of my application going forward. I said fine and provided a list of two dozen figures in the Las Vegas gaming industry they might interview, including the folks who ran the World Series of Poker. I had nothing to hide.
After lunch, I delivered my paper and then went right back to the Hall of Fame for two more interviews. The first was with the #2 man in the operation, Bill Guilfoile. I had spoken with Guilfoile many times during my one-year visit to his domain, and he had been very friendly to me. I had even interviewed him for an hour or so about his earlier posts as publicity director for the Pirates and Yankees. But on this occasion he was clearly on edge and not in a smiling mood. He was candid about his concerns, telling me about Tim Sullivan and others who had been hypercritical of everything the Hall of Fame did. His chief concern was, as he put it, that these writers “will accuse us of being hypocritical if we hire someone with a background in gambling at the time time that we’re barring Pete Rose from election because of his gambling.”
I like the response I made, though I can see now why he didn’t. “I think it would be a feather in the Hall of Fame’s cap,” I told him, “to show that you can make the distinction between a self-destructive, low-life law-breaker and someone who has spent over a decade in the industry while maintaining his integrity.” That was the end of that subject, though the interview lasted most of an hour.
After Guilfoile was done with me, I moseyed down the hall to be interviewed by Hall of Fame Director Howard Talbot. This was a strange, short conversation, no more than ten or fifteen minutes, in which Talbot asked me no questions about baseball history, research, the library, or anything possibly related to the job for which I had applied. As I departed, he made the only relevant remark made in that office, saying, “maybe you can teach me to play poker.” Sure, Howard, any time.
Back in Las Vegas, I resumed work on Faust and awaited my Hall of Fame fate. Bill Deane told me that after the interview, Tom Heitz consulted with him and Gary Van Allen, telling them, “We have six candidates for the job, and these are the top three. Please rank them–and it will help if you don’t rank Gabe first.” Bill and Gary went off to neutral corners, did their rankings, and both placed me first. I will note here that in retrospect, I would have ranked myself third. The other two top candidates were more qualified. Tom Shieber had already been a high-ranking SABR officer and done significant research, most prominently on baseball photography. Rob Neyer was the protege of Bill James, the sabermetrics guru who had changed the way researchers approach baseball history. The only advantage I had over them was that Bill and Gary knew me personally, liked having me around, and could more easily picture working with me than with a couple of guys they hadn’t met.
Heitz saw their preference and said, “Okay, if that’s who you want, I’ll support you. But it will take time.” Two factors might delay the date when a third researcher might be allowed to report for duty. One was that the Hall of Fame was midway through a massive renovation in which the library–a separate building since it opened in the late 1960s–would finally be joined to the museum itself. Since late 1991, the library had been housed in the old movie theater down the block from the museum; in fact, as part of the library family, I had helped them make the move. The new library was slated to open in 1994, and it was possible that the new researcher might not be needed until the larger facility opened. The other factor, I was told, was that both Talbot and Guilfoile were nearing retirement and simply might not want to deal with the repercussions of hiring me. So I was advised to be patient.
Within a few weeks, however, the whole situation changed. I forget the order in which two events combined to make the situation seemingly clearer. One was that Rob Neyer took himself out of the running after accepting a job with ESPN. The second was that Gary Van Allen died suddenly. This was in July 1993, not long after my interviews. Now the arithmetic was easy: there were two research jobs available, and two preferred candidates.
The logical course of action, even from the viewpoint of Talbot and Guilfoile, was simple: hire Tom Shieber to replace Gary Van Allen, and either hire this Schechter guy when the new library opened or at least okay his hiring after they were out of the picture. Did they do any of this? Nope. They didn’t hire anybody, not even after Bill Deane left early in 1994, creating a vacuum with no full-time researchers. The powers-that-be were willing to let the library’s service deteriorate to a scandalous state–part-time interns answered the phones the rest of that year and let unanswered research inquiries pile up–rather than hire anyone. It wasn’t until Tim Wiles arrived in January 1995 to fill the newly created post of Director of Research that a qualified researcher joined the staff.
Meanwhile, Tom Shieber and I were left to twist slowly, slowly in the wind. In 1995, during my next visit to Cooperstown, Tom Heitz showed me a copy of the “background check” compiled by Kevin Hallinan’s crack staff. It was a joke. They had not interviewed a single person on the list I had provided. All they did was go to City Hall to check public records, establishing that I didn’t have a police record or any blotches on my credit history. That was all. The biggest joke in the report was the notation that I was residing on “an empty lot”. That’s right. Talk about wishing that I’d vanish into thin air! In reality, I was living in a new condo that had been built in 1991, but the blueprint the “investigators” checked two or three years later identified it as an empty lot, and that was good enough for them. Obviously the whole notion of the background check was a smoke screen, and I realized that they had no intention of hiring me.
I took that personally for a long time, until years later when I met Tom Shieber, who was hired by the Hall of Fame in the late 1990s as a curator. We compared notes and discovered that we had been treated the same, i.e. totally ignored. Nobody representing the Hall had informed either of us that our applications had been rejected, or were dormant, or that the whole hiring process had been put off. The only news I ever got was from Bill Deane, and that had usually amounted to “hang in there, we haven’t heard anything yet.”
I never heard anything until 2002, when I returned to Cooperstown to do research for what I planned as my third book, and to keep showing up at the library until they hired me. Six months after my arrival, I was hired. Tim Wiles interviewed me, and I don’t recall being asked anything about poker, gambling, or the gaming industry, even though it was only two years since I had dealt my last hand of poker. I’m not sure he was even aware at that point of my application for a research job nearly a decade earlier. This interview was job-related, and I got the job.
So it seemed that with the new regime and with the passage of time, nobody cared about my poker past. Howard Talbot and Bill Guilfoile were long since retired, and Talbot’s successor, Donald Marr, had given way to Dale Petroskey. It was a new century, a new library, and a new life for me. I wouldn’t even have to think about dealing poker again–or so I thought.