- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The idea that a sporting event could be fixed by a single individual astounded Nick Carraway, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s creation. “It never occurred to me,” he said in “The Great Gatsby,” “that one man could start to play with the faith of 50 million people — with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe.”

After mulling it over a bit longer, Nick still couldn’t quite fathom it. “How did he happen to do that?” he asked Gatsby.

“He just saw the opportunity,” came the reply.

In today’s more cynical times, it isn’t hard at all to imagine a man — one man — playing with the faith of 50 million fans, fooling with the credibility of an entire sport. So much money is bet on games, legally and illegally, that the temptation is always there. As Gatsby says, all a fellow needs is an opening … and the wherewithal to exploit it.

And so we have an NBA referee, Tim Donaghy, serving as the focus of an FBI gambling investigation. The bureau is looking into whether Donaghy, a 13-year veteran, might have manipulated outcomes — point spreads, over/unders, etc. — for his own benefit and that of others.

The details thus far — the possible involvement of organized crime, the use of wiretapping — are sketchy but oh so familiar. Indeed, in many ways, it seems like 1946 all over again.

That was the year a New Jersey bookmaking operation tried to fix the NFL Championship game. How close did the gamblers come? Well, the Wednesday before the game, their front man, Alvin Paris, met with Giants quarterback Frank Filchock at a New York City luncheonette and tried to bribe him to go along. Even though Filchock turned him down, Paris was present at a team practice later in the week (accompanied by a couple of the players’ wives).

Suffice it to say the history of the NFL might have been much different if Filchock and Giants fullback Merle Hapes, the other player involved, had agreed to throw the game. After all, the low-lifes they were dealing with had already fixed some college basketball games — and one of them had been sent to prison for it. That’s why law enforcement authorities were tapping the phones of Paris and his cohorts when the names of Filchock and Hapes unexpectedly came up. (The players were suspended indefinitely from the league for failing to report the bribes, though Filchock was reinstated in 1950 and played briefly for the Baltimore Colts.)

In the old days, pro football and gambling coexisted all too cozily. Giants founder Tim Mara was a bookie — back when such an occupation was legal. Cardinals owner Charlie Bidwill owned a race track (along with a service that transmitted horse results throughout the country). Then there was Steelers boss Art Rooney, who loved to bet the ponies and once got national attention for winning several hundred thousand dollars during a particularly hot streak.

An actual newspaper quote from Mara in 1937: “Rooney started his streak at the Empire Track [in New York]. He won himself $25,000. I told him, ‘Stick that dough in your kick and forget about the horses. I ought to know. I’m a bookmaker. It’s my business to take money from guys like you.’

“Well, the very next day the horses are running at Saratoga, and I see Rooney. He gets me to mark his [racing] card for him. I said, ‘All right, sucker. Go ahead and blow your dough. I’ll be here when the races are over if you want car fare back home.’

Rooney wasn’t [placing his bets with] me. He was betting some of the other fellows. … When the races were over, I asked him how he made out. ‘Pretty well,’ he said. ‘I won $108,600. How’d you do?’ I didn’t tell him, but I’d lost close to three grand on the day — Mara, the smart guy, too.”

For Filchock and Hapes, it all started so innocently. Hapes was at an Elks Lodge gathering late in the ‘46 season when he met Sidney Paris, Alvin’s father. He had no clue Sidney was a convicted felon who had served four years for mail fraud. Sidney invited Merle to a party at his son’s house, Merle told Filchock to come, and pretty soon Alvin was asking Merle how he thought the Giants would do in their next game.

It’ll be interesting to hear Tim Donaghy’s back story. According to the New York Daily News, “a Philadelphia wiseguy wanna-be is believed to have threatened to use his contacts in the Gambino family to hurt Donaghy if the ref — already known as a heavy gambler — did not share inside information and help fix games.”

Yikes. Sounds like an episode of “Law and Order” — with one big difference: It doesn’t begin with the discovery of a dead body. Donaghy, at last report, is very much alive and perhaps prepared to talk. Some bookies might also be willing to provide information.

Greta Van Susteren and Roger Cossack, start your engines.