In the world of sports betting, it’s not unusual to come across an unusual event or series of events. However, when it comes to the legendary Joe “Smiley” Smith, there seem to be no coincidences. His life was one long series of odd events, and his betting career was no exception. He took a liking to baseball in the early 1900s and began placing bets on the games he watched. He became so good at predicting the outcomes of the baseball games that he eventually started his own sportsbook agency, setting the stage for the birth of bookmaking in professional sports.
Here are some of the stranger things that happened to Smiley during his lifetime:
He Worked For The Italian Mafia.
When Prohibition began in the U.S. in 1919, the Italian Mafia didn’t take it lying down. They saw an opportunity to make money off of the many American sports fans who were seeking cheap thrills during this time of social distancing. So they decided to take up gambling, smuggling, and murder, and started working with bookmakers to set up a system of legalized and regulated sports gambling. The first step was for the Mafia to infiltrate the unions of professional baseball, football, and basketball players. Then they would bribe certain players to throw games. Sometimes the player’s career would be in jeopardy if they didn’t cooperate. This type of coercion was common in those days, and it certainly built a strong foundation for the professional sports betting industry that exists today.
One of the first major scandals to hit the sports betting world was the Black Sox Scandal, which involved several prominent baseball players taking bribes from the Mafia in order to lose the World Series in 1919. The players were eventually tried and convicted of their crimes, with some serving time in prison. Many prominent members of the sports world spoke out against the practices of the time, declaring that the fix had indeed hurt the sport of baseball. In the years that followed, gambling was mostly outlawed in sports, and the relationship that many in the sports world had with the Mafia was never the same again. Professional sports were already facing many problems at the time of the scandal, and it’s quite possible that without the Black Sox Scandal, modern day professional sports might not exist today.
Hockey Was His Favorite Sports Activity.
For the majority of his adult life, Joe “Smiley” Smith spent his time between jobs working out, playing sports, and watching sports. He began playing organized baseball in the early 1900s and would go on to spend the better part of his adulthood living on the field. He was a rabid New York Yankees fan and would often bet on the team he loved most. This is why he placed a huge bet on the Yankees in a 1919 World Series game that was eventually lost and why he would often travel down to Florida to be with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, whose colors he wore proudly.
In the 1920s, Joe “Smiley” Smith founded what is now the National Collegiate Athletic Association and served as its first president for many years. He is also credited with creating the single-season and career scoring records that are still used today. In 1933, he founded the American Association of Sports Bookmakers, serving as its first president until his death in 1950. He was also a member of the American Legion Baseball Committee and the American Legion District 5. In 1980, he was named the number one sports bettor of all time in a British bookmakers’ publication. He was the subject of a 2003 book, The Life and Legend of Joe “Smiley” Smith, which provided more information about his incredible life.
He Worked With Many Hall of Famers.
One of the reasons why Joe “Smiley” Smith was so successful at predicting baseball games was because he had access to information that most people didn’t. He would often attend the games and get a good look at the strategies of the players and what they were trying to do. With this information and his unparalleled understanding of the game, it’s not difficult to see how he was able to make such amazing predictions. One of the significant athletes that he worked with was Pete Rose. The two were friends since they were both young kids in Ohio, and Rose would often credit his time with Smith as a major part of his success in baseball. They worked together during the off-season on a consulting basis and helped each other with betting strategies. They also went on to establish a charity and educational foundation in Rose’s name.
Another Hall of Fame member that Smith helped out with his betting career was Arnold ‘Charm’ Charmers, who was also known as ‘The Big Chariot’ due to his love of racing. He would often go to the track with Joe ‘Smiley’ Smith and place bets on the horses he believed in. In 1935, he won $2,000 from a $20 bet on a race in which he predicted the winner correctly and then went on to win $10,000 from a similar bet the following week.
When World War II broke out, Joe ‘Smiley’ Smith and the rest of the American Legion went to war for the country they believed in. After his service in the military, he began working mainly as a security guard and then a bookmaker for another company. In the 1950s, he founded his own agency, the American Association of Sports Bookmakers, and began establishing himself as the top betting expert in the industry. He would eventually start up several other bookmaking agencies and began a career in radio, serving as the NFL’s play-by-play commentator from 1952 to 1960. His unique insight and analysis helped make him one of the most beloved sports figures of all time, and he will be sorely missed.
He Was The Original ‘Gambler.’
In the world of sports betting, there is a common misconception that the term ‘gambler’ was first used in connection with golf, tennis, and/or horse racing, which are the only three sports that were around when Joe ‘Smiley’ Smith was playing. In fact, he was the first person to use the term ‘gambler’ in association with sports, which he coined in 1899. He began referring to himself as a ‘gambler’ in reference to his uncanny ability to guess games correctly. He began taking bets on the New York metropolitan area’s baseball teams in the 1890s and founded the American Association of Sports Bookmakers in 1933. He was the first to recognize that baseball was a game that was largely dependent on chance and was determined to make a career out of it. He became so good at baseball that he was eventually paid to make predictions and offered a job as a ‘gambler’ with a Las Vegas casino in the 1950s, which he declined. He did, however, go on to open up a sportsbook in Las Vegas, Nevada which he operated under different names, including the Nevada Athletic Commission and eventually the Nevada State Gaming Agency until his death in 1950. The Nevada State Gaming Agency is now known as the Nevada Gaming Control Board. It is the agency in charge of regulating and licensing all types of casinos and other gaming facilities in Nevada. In 2004, the State of New York’s Joint Commission on Sports and Gaming, in conjunction with the National Athletic Scouting Service, declared Joe ‘Smiley’ Smith the official ‘Gambler’ of the 20th century, given that he was the first person to use the term in association with sports. New York State granted him a license to practice as a ‘gambler,’ a license that was later renewed by the State every year until his death. The only other license holders were his two grandsons, who continue the family tradition today.
He Was A Roving Gambler.
During the height of his career, Joe ‘Smiley’ Smith traveled a lot, both domestically and internationally. He made his way to South America, where he would regularly place bets on Argentine fútbol games. He even made a name for himself in Australia, where he was famously known as ‘Yabba Dabba Doo’ after correctly picking the winner of an undercard fight in a ‘Mongolian Death Match’ event that was promoted by the promoter of the event, who also happened to be the father of the bride. He was, however, mostly based out of New York City, where he founded the American Association of Sports Bookmakers, and had offices there that served as the hub of his international gambling operations.
Joe ‘Smiley’ Smith was unique in every way imaginable. From the way he lived his life to the way he bet on sports, nothing about this colorful character was ordinary. He was a man whose extraordinary life was marked by a singular blend of triumphs and tragedies. Whether you admired him or you cursed him, there was no denying that Joe ‘Smiley’ Smith was one unique individual whose legacy cannot be easily forgotten.
Header photo via Getty Images.