How Much Money Did Sports Betting in 1920?

In early November 1920, the New York Times ran an article describing how a “sports betting frenzy” had gripped the nation. For decades, Americans had enjoyed a relatively relaxed attitude toward sports betting, with a majority of the population viewing it as a harmless pastime. But after the 1919 Black Sox scandal and the Red Sox winning the World Series in just four games, ending an 86-year championship drought, fans had become disillusioned with sports betting. The Times described how in some places, people had even stopped playing cards for money. The newspaper reported that throughout the country, “games of chance and skill are giving way to odds on the side and to the fever for money to wager on odds.”

Although interest in sports betting had subsided after the World Series, it had not disappeared. People simply took alternate strategies to wager on games. In some places, it was still possible to buy a newspaper and find a betting line for the day’s games. If you were a fan of a certain team, you could take a sneak peek at the betting lists in the back of newspapers and try to figure out which games might be worth wagering on. If you were smart, you could even make some money on the side by betting on sports.

A Small but Viable Market

Although sports betting was still a popular pastime in some parts of the country, especially in the South, it had mostly died out in the North. Conventional wisdom holds that Americans had become more sophisticated and sought other entertainment options, such as film and jazz music, which are now viewed as forms of art. But this narrative fails to acknowledge that fans in some of the most dominant sports’ cities still found interest in sports betting. The “fever” the Times described was most likely a combination of the Black Sox scandal and economic factors. It is well known that the Great Depression and the Prohibition era largely wiped out the middle class and the stigma of “gambling” that came with it. This left a void in the marketplace that was eventually filled by organized crime. Even though the practice was technically illegal, the criminal underground thrived in the absence of legal sportsbooks, providing fixes and odds on games. In the 1950s and ’60s, when the “greatest generation” came of age, many former athletes became wealthy as the number of people who were willing to wager large sums of money on their sports teams exploded.

A National Pastime

After years of having some interest and even participating in informal betting pools during World Series seasons, Americans had a newfound appreciation for sports. By the early to mid-20th century, many major professional sports had evolved from having male-only crowds into becoming multi-generational, family-friendly events. This had a ripple effect on society at large; people began seeing sports as a way to socialize their children. In the 1910s and ’20s, major sports leagues had instituted rules intended to create a level playing field and eliminate corrupt practices, such as selling players’ contracts and fixing games. These rules essentially created a national pastime – a game that transcended social and racial barriers and became something that people across America could get behind.

Changing Odds and Offers

Although interest in sports had increased, so had the complexity of the odds and the range of wagers available. Back in the 19th century, when bets were accepted only at race tracks and state fairs, the favorite, long shot, and place odds had basically spelled out the entire betting market. But with the rise of organized crime as a major force in fixing games and making money off them, the odds were twisted to give an advantage to the house. As a result, “tote” odds – where the payout for winning is divided by the total number of bets – became the norm. In some places, the total number of bets was so high that the house cut a small corner off the payoff for every customer. This practice is known as “juicing the odds,” and it is still legal today.

Why the Red Sox?

When the New York Times profiled sports betting in early November 1920, one of the teams that had inspired the “fever” was the Boston Braves, who had just become the St. Louis Browns. The Braves were a well-established baseball franchise that had been to the World Series five times, most recently winning it all in 1912. They were currently struggling beneath the ownership of a group of Boston investors who were trying to turn the team around, so when an offer to bet on them came up, fans were interested.

With the exception of one game, the Browns, who were still playing under the assumption that they would become the St. Louis Cardinals, had compiled a 7-4-1 record against the Braves. However, the Browns were located in a city that was still smarting from its recent loss in the World Series, while the Braves were enjoying a national profile as a result of their recent successes.

What About the Black Sox?

The Times also reported on the “disappearance” of sports betting in some places after the 1919 Black Sox scandal. The newspaper described how baseball had been “defiled” by the scandal, which was caused by a scheme to fix the World Series. Eight players were accused of conspiring to fix the series, and seven of them were banned from baseball for life. Although most fans had turned away from sports betting after the scandal, it had not disappeared entirely. Conventional wisdom holds that the practice had simply taken a different direction, and instead of acting illegally, fans were turning to more respectable venues, such as sports books run by bookmakers, which were generally staffed by honest, law-abiding people.

No More Black Dogs?

Although the first recorded baseball game was played in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1857, the sport did not become popularized until after the Civil War. It eventually became an extremely popular pastime in the United States, leading to the development of major professional leagues, such as the National League and the American League, which were founded in the 1870s and ’80s, respectively. One of the reasons that baseball became so popular during this time period was the use of “color” in team names and uniforms, which were intended to signify the race of the players. For instance, the Detroit Tigers have been known to wear orange and blue, which are the official colors of Michigan, while the Cleveland Indians have been referred to as the “Blacks” because of the color of their uniforms (nowadays, they are known as the “Indians”).

After years of using the “black dog” as its unofficial symbol, the Boston Braves had changed their name to the Red Sox in the late 1910s. They had originally been called the Braves in honor of their Boston stadium; however, the name “Red Sox” had been used for a different baseball team, which had been established in 1901 in Philadelphia. The name change was intended to signify the team’s “return to its Revolutionary origins” and, in the words of Red Sox owner Harry Frazee, “to embody the fighting spirit that made our American ancestors famous.” But the name change was met with some backlash. In the “Valley of the Shadow of Death,” people were still grumbling about a “black dog” being part of the team’s identity.

A Familiar Face

Although the odds had been “juiced” in favor of the Browns and their fans had been deprived of a championship for far too long, the season was still young. The team had many familiar faces – some of whom had even been to the Hall of Fame before – and it was fun to bet on them. As the season wore on, injuries piled up, and the team stumbled through a disappointing season. When the regular season ended, the Browns were in last place, and their fans began to lose interest. But then, in June 1921, the Browns finally made the World Series, thanks in large part to a player who had been given the nickname “The Greek God” for his extraordinary ability to score runs.

One of the popular betting options during this time was the over/under on how many runs The Greek God would score in the World Series. For decades, Americans had been willing to bet on just about any game or event, and the over/under had become a popular choice because it was such a limited field. The bet was 5.5 runs, and The Greek God hit a homerun in his first at-bat in the series, a feat that had never been accomplished before. This single event did wonders for the sport’s popularity, leading to the creation of an entire season – the “rematch” season, as it came to be known – and the suspension of the over/under on runs for the next 30 years.