Circa’s Sports Gambling Hall of Fame is a natural and its inductees are sure to make news

May 18, 2023 8:57 PM
Photo: Shutterstock
  • John L. Smith, CDC Gaming Reports
May 18, 2023 8:57 PM
  • John L. Smith, CDC Gaming Reports

I couldn’t help smiling at the announcement that Circa Resort & Casino was adding the Sports Gambling Hall of Fame at its sportsbook.

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There, at the same location that casino man and sports fan Mel Exber paid tribute to his beloved Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers inside the Las Vegas Club, downtown’s newest and biggest sports fan was doing it again, only bigger.

Not that you needed one more reason to visit Derek Stevens’ shrine to sports gambling, but the largest book joint in the world should have a place to celebrate the pantheon of characters who have played such outsized roles in the tumultuous history of betting on ballgames.

The first three names revealed: sports gambler Billy Walters, computer-era handicapping innovator Michael “Roxy” Roxborough, and the late Outfit oddsmaker and chaos-maker Frank Rosenthal.

Not long after the first three were named, Circa’s own sportsbook director, Nick Bogdanovich, was added to the list. (He’s a worthy selection, but note to betting fans: Any sports betting hall of fame that doesn’t immediately include the great Bob Martin should be taken off the board.)

As I understand it, the Sports Gambling Hall of Fame (not to be confused with the existing Sports Betting Hall of Fame, which was founded in 2016) was the idea of Spanky Kyrollos, who certainly knows his way around a sportsbook. He was right to call it a “no-brainer” to connect the tribute to sports betting with the largest sportsbook. In a statement, Circa CEO Stevens framed it in nostalgic terms. “At Circa, we are all about recognizing those who have made our city and industry what it is today. We look forward to celebrating these individuals and ensuring that their legacy is cemented.”

With that, I will give a nod to sports-betting king Billy Walters, who in recent years, in addition to making money, has made more than his share of notorious headlines. Something about insider trading. Something about a sentence commuted. The takeaway: Expert gamblers should always stay with what they do best and no game is harder to handicap than Wall Street.

As for Roxborough, the handicapping brain whose efforts help provide the bridge from the old world of bookmaking to the new, a real thanks is due. Without Roxy and a handful of his allies, this branch of gambling would remain in the Dark Ages.

And speaking of that, let’s give a warm Las Vegas welcome to Mr. Frank Rosenthal!

“Lefty,” as some people called him, was the Chicago Outfit’s favorite handicapper. He talked his way into Las Vegas after busting out of everywhere else and will always be known as the man who made such a mess of the mob’s action on the Las Vegas Strip at the Stardust.

He was also a helluva handicapper, especially if he could fix the game.

I’ve had the good fortune of being acquainted with all four of these men. I count them as Hall of Fame characters.

I have no quibble with the choices, but I have to think that Roxborough and Bogdanovich are looking to the left and right and feeling uncomfortable. After all, they haven’t been convicted of a felony.

I have more to say on this issue, but let’s focus for a moment on Mr. Rosenthal, who some powerful underworld people once called “Crazy.” Others called him the best handicapper and game fixer they’d ever seen this side of Arnold Rothstein.

Rosenthal gets extra points for surviving a car bombing and living to the ripe age of 79. But frankly, Chicago’s Charles McNeil deserves more credit for creating the framework of what most people consider oddsmaking and the betting line than the fixer, Rosenthal.

If you’ll excuse the digression, whenever Rosenthal‘s name is mentioned, I’m reminded of my favorite phone call with the guy. I was seeking his opinion about his “ownership“ of a Florida nightclub called Croc’s. He’d busted out of Las Vegas, was in the Control Board’s Black Book, and survived that aforementioned car bombing. He was about to be memorialized in Hollywood legend by Robert DeNiro in the Scorsese gangster classic Casino. Candid as ever, unless he was under oath, Rosenthal took the call.

He might have liked his privacy, but Rosenthal sure missed the limelight of Las Vegas. He greeted me with a sneer in his voice and a memorable line, “You couldn’t put out the morning newspaper without Frank Rosenthal.“

Now there was a man in love with his mirror. He talked in circles for a few minutes, then asked me what was happening on the Strip, even though I knew he had at least two people looking into buying real estate with a plan for an eventual return of “The Frank Rosenthal Show.”

For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll limit my thoughts to Rosenthal‘s celebrated handicapping skills. He certainly had a great brain for oddsmaking, especially when there was a chance to get the edge. He wasn’t above fixing the rooster’s crow at sunrise if he could get away with it. In his lifetime, he shaved points, pleaded the Fifth often, poisoned a ball team, and tried his best to corrupt top athletes. A sweetheart, he was not.

But as far as having a place in a sports gambling hall of fame? You bet.

Did I mention this ain’t a church choir?

Rosenthal’s choice is not only inspired, but it also serves as a reminder of how far Las Vegas has come from its shadowy days. Not so long ago, a mere mention of Rosenthal around the Strip would have sent a team of FBI and Gaming Control Board agents running on the double.

Now, we have a museum dedicated to the killers and their friends.

There’s another good reason Rosenthal is an appropriate choice for this hall of fame. His life serves as a reminder, not only of the arc of sports gambling from the notorious to the celebrated, but also of why the Control Board process is so stringent. Rosenthal bought his way into Las Vegas, had the wheels of law-enforcement greased, put his arm around judges and elected officials at all levels. He was a fixer through and through.

If Nevada gambling was going to turn truly legit and the bookmaking business was going to lose its 5 o’clock shadow, then there was no place in it for Frank Norman Rosenthal.

He loved his children and probably had a dog, but he was a bad guy. Even loyal friends who worked for him for many years privately admitted as much.

All that said, here’s to the Sports Gambling Hall of Fame. It’s another great idea coming out of the Circa camp. It also shows the respect Derek Stevens has for tradition in Las Vegas.

If you think I’m leaving the rest of the inductees off the hook, check in next week.