Gambling at the Hall of Fame: Part Two
Are you ready for the bizarre story I promised you last time, about gambling AT the Hall of Fame? If you haven’t read “Part One” please do so before reading this one. In it, I told about the Hall of Fame refusing to hire me in the mid-1990s because of my background as a Las Vegas poker dealer, telling me that they were afraid of employing someone with a gambling background at the same time they were being criticized for excluding Pete Rose because of his gambling indiscretions. You have to read that story to appreciate fully the irony of what happened a decade later.
Between the time the Hall of Fame snubbed me and the time they finally hired me in 2002, I left Las Vegas, spent nearly five more years dealing poker in California, and published two books of baseball history (VICTORY FAUST and UNHITTABLE!) which gave me enough credibility as a baseball historian to get hired as a researcher in the library. There I peaceably went about my business and limited my poker involvement to playing in the same once-monthly, 25 cent-limit, friendly game I had enjoyed during my first Cooperstown tenure a decade earlier.
In 2005 the Hall of Fame folks decided to launch a new program: a fantasy camp. Many major league franchises were running these popular camps, and it made sense to stage one at the Hall of Fame. In addition to the baseball fun and publicity, the Hall’s aim was to find a bunch of fellows rich enough to spring for the $8,000 price tag, gather them in Cooperstown, and possibly persuade them to become substantial museum donors. Here is the announcement released to potential attendees:
“For an experience that will never be forgotten, lovers of baseball will flock to Cooperstown, NY, to spend five days with some of the greatest names in baseball history.
Baseballâ€™s First Annual Hall of Fame Fantasy Camp
For five glorious days in October, baseball fans from around the country will share the field with some of the greatest sluggers the sport has ever known. From October 5 through October 9, you can play baseball each day on historic Doubleday Field, walking the same ground as the greats of baseball history at the first annual Hall of Fame Fantasy Camp sponsored by the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
The Hall of Fame Fantasy Camp gives baseball enthusiasts a chance to experience the atmosphere of a real major league-style locker room as they practice and play the game using professional bats and equipment provided by the Louisville Slugger company. You can share laughs and stories with some of the greatest players in baseball history, while making friendships with other lovers of the game. The camp managers will be:
* George Brett, three-time batting champion with 3,154 hits, inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1999
* Lou Brock, Hall of Famer inducted in 1985 with 938 stolen bases and 3,023 career hits
* Phil Niekro, inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1997 with 318 career victories and 3,342 strikeouts
* Duke Snider, Hall of Famer inducted in 1980 with 407 career homers and 11 World Series homeruns
Other Hall of Famers who will be on hand as camp coaches to offer professional tips include Mary [sic] Wills, Joe Niekro, Jamie Quirk, Carl Erskine, Dave Bergman, and Jon Warden. You can watch the seasonâ€™s playoff games at night with Hall of Famers, get their autographs, and have your picture taken with them, so you can bring your camp experience home with you. Play golf with the Hall of Famers on the lush Leatherstocking Championship Course of the Otesaga Hotel, where youâ€™ll be pampered in luxury for four nights. A private behind-the scenes tour of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum will be conducted exclusively for camp attendees. The camp week will conclude with a private, candlelight dinner in the Hall of Fame Gallery where fantasy camp accomplishments will be recognized and honored.
Only 48 places are available, and the package includes lodging, ground transportation, all meals, and special gifts. The cost is $7,995 for individuals and $7,495 apiece for groups. Cost for Friends of the Hall of Fame Benefactor members is $6,995, and the cost for Friends of the Hall of Fame Benefactor members coming with friends is $6,495. To reserve your spot on the roster, call 1-607-547-0327 or register online. The fantasy camp is open to both males and females, and you can bring along a non-playing guest for a small fee. Come live your baseball dreams, or honor a friend or loved one by giving them this once-in-a-lifetime experience. All you need is a love of the game.”
It sounds great, and it was great for those who didn’t flinch at the cost. Illness prevented Duke Snider from making it, and Robin Roberts took his place. Nearly all the available places were sold, and the other spots on the four rosters were filled by Hall of Fame staffers, including President Dale Petroskey. Everyone had a great time, and only one thing went wrong: it rained. The rain began Friday morning and continued through the weekend, preventing them from finishing the two-games-a-day schedule. For some reason, however, the people running the fantasy camp hadn’t considered the possibility that it would rain, and when it became apparent late Friday morning that they suddenly had the whole afternoon to fill and nothing besides ballgames scheduled, a Plan B was necessary.
What do you think they did? Pause a moment to think about what you would have done in their place, with more than 40 men sitting around the five-star Otesaga Hotel, having ponied up $7,000+ to play ball with Hall of Famers at Doubleday Field, and suddenly with no ballgames on the dark gray horizon.
Shortly after noon my office phone rang. It was Greg Harris, the Hall’s Vice President of Development. “Hey Gabe,” he chirped. “Our fantasy campers have been rained out and we need to come up with something for them to do. How would you like to deal a poker tournament this afternoon?”
A chill ran up and down my spine when I heard this. I couldn’t believe that the Hall of Fame, which had once considered my poker background poisonous, was actually asking me to contribute that expertise to an officially sanctioned Hall of Fame event. Greg knew I could run a tournament because earlier that year, I had been asked to run a couple of little tournaments at Cooperstown’s exclusive men’s organization, the Mohican Club. Those had gone smoothly, and he wanted me to do the same thing for the fantasy campers.
“I don’t know,” I told Greg. “In light of the Hall of Fame refusing to hire me in the 90s because I was a poker dealer, I would feel extremely awkward dealing poker FOR the Hall of Fame. Are you sure that you want to sanction gambling here?”
He thought for a moment and replied, “Well, suppose the money all goes to charity and not into somebody’s pocket. Would that be okay with you?”
It was my turn to think for a moment. There was no escaping the absurd hypocrisy of the basic request, but making it a charitable enterprise would remove it from the realm of gambling. I found three other reasons to go for it: it would be an entertaining change of pace from sitting at my desk; I would be coming through for the big boys when they needed me, which might be rewarded down the road; and, like the campers, I would get to hang out with some Hall of Famers. So I said yes.
Twenty minutes later I was at the Otesaga, where a terrific locker room had been set up in a basement conference room. The campers had everything a quasi-ballplayer could ask for: lockers, couches, a big-screen television, boxes of cigars, two barrels of beer, and a handy poker table. It was a great place to hang out during a rain delay, and most of the participants drifted through during the afternoon. About a third of them participated in the poker action; the rest used the free time to explore the museum or the memorabilia stores lining Main Street.
I set up one-table, Texas hold’em freezeouts that would take about an hour apiece. Nine or ten guys would buy in for $20 apiece to play no-limit poker, getting eliminated as they ran out of chips, and continuing until one player had all the chips. I had run similar tournaments at the Sam’s Town poker room in Las Vegas, and it’s a foolproof format. The campers loved it, because at worst they would be eliminated early, grab a beer, hit the couch, and watch ESPN.
And the winner. . .well, the winner kept the cash. I can’t say that I was surprised when the first winner, one of the campers, stuffed $180 into his pocket and wandered off to see which souvenir store would get his windfall. I wondered if Greg had even run the notion of donating the buy-ins to charity by the campers before getting them to sit down at the table. You don’t get to be a vice president of anything without knowing how to pull legs. But it was too late for me to do anything about it. I had already participated in gambling AT the Hall of Fame, and I wasn’t going to cause a scene and storm off, refusing to entertain them further. So I kept dealing.
I ran four or five freezeouts that afternoon, and everybody had a lot of fun. The majority of the players were campers, but some of the ex-major leaguers played. The life of the party was Jon Warden, who looks and sounds like John Goodman. His performance at that initial fantasy camp has made him a staple at all such Hall of Fame events since then, including the present “Hall of Fame Classic” exhibition games, a nice gig for a guy whose major league career consisted of 28 games with the 1968 Tigers. He could make a living as a full-time baseball clown, and he was a hoot at the poker table.
Joe Niekro, Dave Bergman, and Jamie Quirk all played at different times, but the other celebrity star of the afternoon was George Brett. I’ve seen him at other Hall of Fame events, and his ebullience is always a crowd-pleaser; he was the liveliest player of the afternoon. When I’ve told this tale to people, I’ve emphasized my belief that the guys who played in those poker freezeouts got the most genuine major-league experience of all: “they drank beer in the locker room,” I explain, “smoked cigars, played poker, and got to have George Brett call them ‘fucking dickheads’ when they beat him out of a pot!” How can you beat that?
My afternoon ended at 5pm, when my workday ended. I went home and told my wife-to-be Linda all about it, and we shared our amazement at the Hall of Fame’s willingness to break the law when it suited its short-term purposes. Late the next morning, we were about to have lunch when the phone rang. It was Greg Harris. It was still raining. It was still impossible to play ball at Doubleday Field. And they still hadn’t come up with an alternative activity. He added that after I had left at 5pm, the campers had run another freezeout without me, and it was a fiasco. “How would you like to deal some more freezeouts this afternoon?” he asked. “You’ll get paid for working, and we’ll throw in a free buffet at the Otesaga.”
All I could do was laugh. The only reason they’d be willing to count this as work time was that the Hall of Fame wouldn’t let me work more than 35 hours a week to begin with. That was my limit for the last seven years I worked there. I was like a researcher on the equivalent of a pitch-count, as if that extra five hours a week would cause my brain to deteriorate or blow out my annotator cuff. By paying me for dealing five hours on Saturday, they could get me up to 40 hours without having to pay me overtime. Don’t think they didn’t take this into consideration! Greg had checked with the Inhumane Resources Department, and I was advised how to make the entry on my time-sheet.
So I spent a second afternoon at the Otesaga. The buffet was plentiful and tasty, the campers treated me like a comrade in arms, the freezeouts went smoothly, and a fine time was had by all. Once again, the winners pocketed all the $20 buy-ins. Shocking! During the year that followed, Greg and I talked about making the freezeouts an official part of the program, to be played during the evenings if it didn’t rain. That never happened. I learned later that when the campers saw the poker table, they arranged to play a dealer’s choice, high-stakes game instead of piddly $20 freezeouts. That’s how it went during the remaining few years of the
Annual Hall of Fame Fantasy Camp, and I was just as glad. It was still illegal, and they didn’t con me into participating any more.
It still strikes me as absurd and hypocritical that the Hall of Fame staged a gambling event–but not surprising. It goes hand in hand with Major League Baseball officially banning gambling while accepting revenues from gambling entities. Watch baseball on television and you’ll see ads for casinos flashing on the front of the grandstand behind home plate. When I went to a ballgame in Montreal–remember when baseball was played in Montreal?–there was only one billboard on the whole expanse of the outfield wall, and it was for a casino. When the Arizona Diamondbacks played the first home game in franchise history, the largest ad on the center field scoreboard was for a Las Vegas casino. New York Yankees broadcasts are sponsored by one of the New England casinos. The list goes on and on. Apparently it’s very BAD for players to gamble, but it’s okay to take money from the casinos that fans might frequent. And it was just fine in the eyes of the Hall of Fame to let their fantasy campers–and potential major donors–gamble as much as they wanted to. But after getting conned into it that first year, I was happy that they opted to–in the words of Yogi Berra–include me out.
So that’s the story, and it turns out that there will be a Part Three to this series. This one has gone on long enough, but I still have to tell you about the gambling that is still going on AT the Hall of Fame. Stay tuned!