Berger’s Burg: I was a baseball-betting teenage gambler

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Gloria and I recently had dinner at our favorite Italian restaurant, Aunt Bella's, in Little Neck. The owner, Richard Coy, was seated at an adjacent table and had his back to us. He was very involved gabbing with three other customers. We thought he hadn't noticed us. When we finished, the waitress handed us the check and I handed her my credit card. Seconds later, she came back to tell us that there was no charge for our meal. Then I remembered the big bet.

A few months earlier, Gloria and I were dining at the restaurant when Rich sat down at our table. We discussed football and the impending Jets-Giants football game scheduled for Dec. 5. Rich, a die-hard Jets fan, and I, a die-hard Giants fan, were joined in the discussion by another Giants fan occupying the adjacent table. We Giant fans love Italian food.

As we all debated the merits of our teams, Rich made the bet. He was so confident that his Jets would win that he would give us a free dinner if they lost. We shook hands on it. The Giants won, 41-28. I had forgotten about the bet, but Rich remembered.

On the drive home I remarked to Gloria that this was the first time I had bet on anything since I was a teenager. Then, my checkered past began to flash before my eyes.

When I was a 12-year-old attending an all-boy intermediate school (it was called junior high school back then), every kid feverishly followed one of the three New York baseball teams (Yankees, Dodgers, or Giants). So I, a poor boy with great dreams, devised a plan to make some money.

I drew up a betting sheet I named "Six-Hit Parlay." The students would list the names of three players to make six hits between them in the next day's games. If the three players were on the same team, the odds were 11 to 1.

If they picked players from different teams, the odds dropped to 8 to 1. And the kids would line up to give me five cents for the bet. Since they seldom won, I would pocket the princely sum of at least one dollar every school day. The saddest day of my life was when I graduated.

You ask what I did with all my ill-gained money. Well, after purchasing a baseball glove, I brought most of it home to help my father defray the cost of raising eight children.

I told my parents that I had an after-school job. If they had known where the money came from, they never would have accepted it and they would have killed me soon thereafter.

Once gambling got in my blood, I didn't want to stop. In high school, I teamed up with my best friend, Stan Drescher (the uncle of Fran) as betting partners.

We would bet $5 ($2.50 each) every day on baseball games from the money we earned as delivery boys.

We felt like big shots as we sauntered over to the bookie to bet. He had his "office" in the pool room on Delancey Street, overlooking Levy's Hot Dog Snack Bar.

After placing our bets, we ate a frankfurter for luck.

The pool room was an active gambling hall where a real-live bookie (with a toothpick dangling from his mouth) accepted bets).

We had to give him a fictitious code name (ours was "Familiarity") in the event of a police raid. He scribbled it on a scrap of paper and took our $5.

How he was able to keep track of the hundreds of bets booked on little scraps of paper I never did know. But I guess bookies have to be good bookkeepers.

One Sunday, Stan and I bet on the Athletics to sweep a double-header with the Detroit Tigers in Philadelphia. If we won, we would be paid double. Stan suggested that we take a bus to the City of Brotherly Love and cheer our team on. We went, we cheered, and we lost.

The A's were shut out in both games. We suffered in silence as we rode the bus back to New York.

However, my days as a gambler were quickly coming to an end. The coup de grace occurred a year later when the St. Louis Cardinals were coming to Ebbetts Field to play the Brooklyn Dodgers. I was a staunch Cardinals fan (yes I was), and both teams were battling for the pennant.

I wanted to make a quick killing on one of the games. The Dodgers' Kirby Higbe was a fastball pitcher. He was opposed by Mort Cooper, the pitching ace of the Cardinals. The odds were 8 1/2 to 5 that the Cardinals would win. That means if I picked the Cardinals, I would have to lay $8.50 to win $5. That was all right.

I studied the rosters of the Cardinals and discovered that most of their players were fastball hitters. I studied the Dodgers' lineup and surmised that they could never beat Mort Cooper. The game was a lock, or so I thought.

So, what does a poor boy with a sure bet like this one do? Yes, I collected all the other money I could "beg, borrow and steal," and bet it on the "Redbirds."

I never considered involving Stan since he was a Red Sox fan and would never bet on the Cardinals.

I smiled at the bookie as I placed my bet. He counted my money twice to make certain that it was as high as it was. I floated out of the pool room with visions of a huge monetary windfall dancing in my head. I then ran home, turned the radio on, and listened to the game.

Yes, kind readers, you are right, the Cardinals LOST. They LOST, LOST, LOST! My heart pounded and my head swooned, I never had such a bad day. I had lost money that wasn't mine. How was to repay it? I spent many uncomfortable days thereafter avoiding angry "friends."

I worked long weekdays and weekend hours as a delivery boy to raise money. It wasn't until the following year that I was finally able to pay everyone off. I had learned my lesson.

Posted 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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