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Authors: Dan E. Moldea

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Mort Olshan, who later became one of the most respected sports handicappers in America, told me, “McNeil might not have invented the point spread, but he certainly refined it. There were scattered but reliable reports that point spreads had preceded McNeil in various regions of the country. They were based on regional games, particularly in the South, rather than on national projections. I understand that the point spread was used during the 1930s—before McNeil came along.”

There were at least two oddsmakers who were using the point spread form of handicapping during the early 1930s in Minneapolis: Darby Hicks and Karl Ersin. During my interview with Ersin, he told me, “It was the Depression, and I needed something to do. I always liked sports very much and used to read everything I could. I kept book after book about football. It just got to be a habit. There was already a handicapper at
The Minneapolis Journal
named Darby Hicks. So, during the early 1930s, I went down to the other newspaper,
The Minneapolis Star Tribune
, and said, ‘Can you use a handicapper?' And they hired me. I put an article in there every week. Darby and I used the point spread as our way of handicapping, and we had a contest to see who could do better [in picking the games].”

Ersin's oddsmaking career did not end there. “Billy Hecht owned a liquor store I used to go in, and we got to talking. He had just started something called the Minneapolis Gorham Press. He didn't know anything about setting a line, and so he hired me and a couple of other guys. I liked handicapping on football best; it's the best betting sport, particularly with the use of the point spread.”

The Minneapolis Gorham Press, which was created by Hecht in or about 1937, became the first national oddsmaking institution. Many considered its newsletter to be a bible for gamblers, the first national “service” for bookmakers to set and distribute the line—a list of point spreads on sporting events. Its subscribers, who numbered only a few hundred, were also invited to telephone in during the week and receive the latest adjustments to the line on the upcoming games.

Speaking of the hazards of “suspicious” games, Ersin says, “We suspected that games were fixed in the thirties and forties, but we could never find out for sure. So the games we didn't want much action on we just circled. We always knew what was going on when we got loaded up with bets on them: unnatural money. We were scared of pro games because we didn't know what was going on with them. There were too many winners. We thought the fix was in often enough. Our clients complained that they wanted a line on the pro games, but we wouldn't give it to them very often—because we just didn't trust the games.”

Five-feet-six Leo Hirschfield—who had lost the hearing in his right ear after a bout with influenza while in the Marine Corps during World War I—bought into the Gorham Press in 1940 and
became Hecht's partner. Hirschfield changed the name of the company to Athletic Publications, Inc.; and its newsletter,
Weekly Gridiron Record
, became better known as simply
The Green Sheet
. The whole operation consisted of only eighteen full-time employees but, at its height, annually grossed nearly $10 million.

Mort Olshan, who was like a “surrogate son” to Hirschfield, worked on
The Green Sheet
along with Karl Ersin, Jimmy Harris, and Joe Katzman, who was the senior handicapper. Olshan told me, “There were four handicappers with Leo Herschfield, who was the active partner with a one-third interest and ran the service operation. I never met Billy Hecht in my whole life; he was never around. He had another partner [Joe Numero] in the separate bookmaking part of the operation. They were bookmakers and took the action. They had separate jobs and separate offices from the service activity.

“Leo was a totally honest man, and he avoided all the shady associations. He had a mind that worked like a computer. Even though he wasn't a sports fanatic who followed the games religiously, and he didn't have anything to do with the actual handicapping of the games, he knew instinctively when a wrong line was set.”

Born in 1926, Olshan is a Buffalo native and a Marine combat veteran who saw action in Okinawa in World War II. He attended the University of Buffalo for one year, hoping to become either a sports reporter or play-by-play announcer. He says that he, too, has been collecting newspaper and magazine clippings about football since he was seven years old.

“I read an article entitled ‘The Wizard of Odds' about Leo and the Minneapolis line in
Collier's
magazine, and on an impulse I went to Minneapolis to ask Leo for a job. I thought that there was excitement in betting and handicapping, and that there might be a future in it for me. Athletic Publications, Inc., also published player statistics and the schedules for all the games in the entire country, including the rotation of the games—which was crucial to the industry and really united it.

“I started working at
The Green Sheet
in 1948 making ninety dollars a week as a statistician. By the end of my first month, my salary was increased to a hundred. And after a couple more months, I was raised to a hundred and fifteen dollars. I had tears in my eyes when they gave me those raises, because that was big
money for a twenty-two-year-old man at the time. When I got there, we expanded
The Green Sheet
with different features and write-ups, so that it became more of a full-service, multidimensional publication with interesting stories and analyses of games.”

Olshan says that each of
The Green Sheet
handicappers worked independently of one another. “We would read everything we could get our hands on—maybe as many as forty daily newspapers each day. Most of our work was done on Saturday and Sunday after we analyzed the college and professional games. On the basis of our information, we would set our own lines.

“Every Monday morning, the four of us then went into Leo's office with our own numbers. Because we were trying to equalize or balance the public's money on each game, we would have to carefully assess the strengths and weaknesses of the two teams and the public's perception of the games and then anticipate how the public would bet. It was rare, if ever, that we could achieve a totally even distribution of the betting, but we worked hard to get as close as possible. Joe Katzman would compare our individual point spreads, and we would often argue over the numbers. Joe would arbitrate the differences and would make his own adjustments based on the discussion. He would then set the ultimate line that would then be distributed around the country. The whole idea was to come up with a line that our subscribers could use and profit by.”
2

As NFL commissioner, Bert Bell began the process of calling cooperative bookmakers and gamblers, particularly those associated with the Minneapolis line, during the week before NFL games were played. His intent was to discover if there were any unusual fluctuations in the betting line.

“He took to the grave with him the names of his contacts in the underworld,” Bell's son Upton told me. “My father had three phones. One was for regular use. Another was for the players who could call him at any time. And there was a third phone that he used for the gamblers and the people who were feeding him information about the odds or about a player's behavior. All of these guys had a code name. And Bert Bell was the only one who had these names.

“There was a certain honor among them. They wanted the games on the up-and-up because if they placed a bet they wanted
to know that some guy down the line wasn't fixing the game. They knew if they told Bert Bell, they could get to the bottom of it. If he saw any great fluctuations from Monday right up to game time on Sunday, he was right on the phone to the team involved.”

Among other bookmakers Bell kept in touch with were those controlled by Meyer Lansky, Frank Costello, and the then-boss of the New Orleans Mafia, Sylvester Carolla. The three syndicate figures had agreed in 1947 to create “a national communications center in New Orleans to transmit financial information. Such a clearinghouse would, for instance, make it possible for the bookmaking syndicate in New York to know instantly if a horse, ball team, or what have you was being heavily wagered elsewhere in the nation. Any break in the betting patterns would indicate a fix or an attempt to swindle the syndicate.”
3

Ed Curd, Costello's personal bookmaker, set a major national line on sporting events during the late 1940s that rivaled that published by
The Green Sheet
. Curd told me that he had met Costello in 1946. “Costello said that he could handicap his own horses and his baseball games, but he wanted me to give him a football team or two. What was I going to say? No? He told me that if I ever needed anything in New York, that I shouldn't hesitate to call on him.

“There wasn't anything he wouldn't do for me. And we did business together for several years. Later on, he wanted me to go to Vegas, and he would see that I was taken care of. But I turned him down. I always thought that staying in the middle of the road was best for me. I wanted to do my own thing. I didn't want any partners.”
4

Operating with two Teletype machines, three telephones strictly for long-distance business, and four secretaries, Curd ran his line out of Kentucky and distributed it across the country. He also was responsible for a new innovation in gambling: 11-10, the bookmaker's standard 10 percent vigorish on all losing bets.

“We had so much business on football that we had two ways of dealing,” Curd recalls. “We had nine to ten odds for up to fourteen points, that's ninety cents on the dollar. And we had six to five for fourteen and over. And then we had an outcome price on every game—sometimes as ridiculous as one to twenty and fifteen to one. We had a price on every game. Well, we had control of the business. But it was getting awkward handling everything.

“So one Monday morning, just before we sent out the line, I said, ‘We're going to change things, and see if we can get away with it.' What I wanted to do was get rid of the outcome prices. I wanted to eliminate them altogether. But they were being dealt all over the country. So I knew I had to give the operators around the country something better to work with, more money. So I made up my mind that regardless whether there was a bet on a four-point game or a twenty-point game, I'd put it right on the spot. Let them lay eleven to ten [put up $11 to make $10], and that would be our commission.

“When we came out that Monday, each place saw it the way we saw it. Eleven to ten looked more inviting and less trouble for the operator. It was accepted because they could keep their businesses together a lot easier. And eleven to ten has been the standard ever since.”

Curd also became known for his sixth sense about how the injuries of players would affect the point spreads of the games their teams played.

Meantime, when Frank Filchock's NFL suspension was lifted, he joined the Baltimore Colts, which was part of a new, rival football league called the All-American Football Conference (AAFC), which had been founded in June 1944. The new league, fielding eight teams, had been dreamed up by influential
Chicago Tribune
sports editor Arch Ward. Twice offered the position as NFL commissioner in 1940 and 1941, Ward turned it down both times. Instead he had recommended Elmer Layden for the job.

Several early team owners in the AAFC were high-stakes gamblers, including trucking executive John L. Keeshin, who had bought the Chicago Rockets; Indiana oil company president Ray Ryan, who had petitioned for a New York team with the widow of baseball star Lou Gehrig; New York Yankees owner Dan Topping and his minority partner, developer Del E. Webb; racetrack owner Ben Lindheimer of Chicago, who bought the Los Angeles Dons along with actor Don Ameche, who had tried but failed to obtain an NFL team; and cab company owner Mickey McBride, who founded the Cleveland Browns, named after his head coach, Paul Brown.
5

The owner of a Chicago trucking company, Keeshin was known to have made a direct cash “loan” to James R. Hoffa, then the head of the Central Conference of Teamsters.
6
Government
investigators later viewed the loan as nothing more than the price for labor peace with the Teamsters. Also a racetrack owner, Keeshin did business with Allen M. Dorfman, Hoffa's handpicked fiduciary manager of the Teamsters' Central States Health and Welfare Fund—and later the Central States, Southeast and Southwest Areas Pension Fund. Dorfman's stepfather, Paul “Red” Dorfman, had been the head of the corrupt Chicago Wastehandlers Union and was responsible for introducing Hoffa to numerous Midwestern underworld figures. Although both Keeshin and the Dorfmans principally lived in Chicago, they each had second houses in Eagle River, Wisconsin, and were close friends.

Ray Ryan proudly proclaimed himself as one of the biggest gamblers in the country, particularly on professional football games. A close associate of Frank Erickson and Texas oil tycoons H. L. Hunt and Jack Davis, Ryan was the co-owner of the Mount Kenya Safari Club in Africa, along with actor William Holden.
7
Members included Erickson, as well as East Coast Mafia figures Gerardo Catena and Tommy and Pasquale Eboli.

Ryan had also been a partner in the syndicate that purchased RKO Pictures Corporation from Howard Hughes in 1952. However, after
The Wall Street Journal
reported that Ryan and his partners had all been involved with “organized crime, fraudulent mail-order schemes, and big-time gambling,” and Ryan was specifically linked to mobster Frank Costello, the RKO deal collapsed. The studio's ownership reverted back to Hughes—who kept the $1.5 million down payment put up by Ryan and his partners.

A onetime associate of Hughes told me, “Howard Hughes knew the kind of people he was dealing with; he always did. He knew their backgrounds, and he knew their associations. That was the way he operated … He took their down payment and then waited. At the right time, he leaked the story to the press.”

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