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Skate or Hammer? MLB Historians Split on Shohei Ohtani Gambling Scandal

  • MLB has banned players for life for associating with gambling.
  • The league’s stance has changed as sports betting has become normalized in recent years.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

One of the sports world’s biggest stars is engulfed in a betting scandal, and he plays the sport that has historically been the toughest on players for gambling. After Wednesday’s bombshell reports that Shohei Ohtani had wired millions of dollars to an illegal gambling operation and accused his interpreter of stealing the money without his knowledge, Front Office Sports spoke to several historians, journalists, and experts on baseball’s long history with gambling. 

Gambling scandals have been around nearly as long as professional baseball. The 1919 Black Sox game-fixing scandal shaped the league’s view on betting and led to a stronger stance than other pro leagues, according to Jacob Pomrenke, chair of the Society for American Baseball Research’s Black Sox Scandal Committee.

The Black Sox were found not guilty at a trial but banned from baseball. Game-fixing was not illegal in Illinois in the Black Sox era, while sports gambling is illegal in California today. The baseball historian Bruce Allardice suggested to FOS that if the Black Sox were morally guilty but legally in the clear, Ohtani’s case may be the opposite.

“I suspect the people who want to make sure that Ohtani keeps playing are going to emphasize the fact that there was no [moral wrongdoing], that he innocently broke the law, if indeed he did, and therefore the punishment should be light to nonexistent,” Allardice tells FOS.

But historically, MLB has been hard on players for any association with betting, even if they’re the biggest names in the game.

In 1947, the league suspended the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers (who had just acquired Jackie Robinson), Leo Durocher, for a year for his relationships with gamblers. In 1970, the league suspended Denny McLain, a star Tigers pitcher, for gambling ties. About a decade later, Willie Mays—then, shortly after that, Mickey Mantle—was banned from baseball (but later reinstated) for taking cushy PR jobs with casinos. In 1989, after his playing career was over, 17-time All-Star Pete Rose was forever banned for gambling-related crimes, most notably for betting on his own team.

“There is a lengthy historical precedent of Major League Baseball suspending even big stars for merely consorting with gamblers, hanging out with gamblers,” Keith O’Brien, an author of an upcoming book on Rose, tells FOS.

For Ohtani, though, historical precedence might not matter as much as it did six years ago, before sports betting became legalized throughout the United States. MLB, once entirely averse to gambling, now has partnerships with FanDuel, DraftKings, and BetMGM, a result of gambling’s encroaching presence in the sports world.

While Pomrenke says the legalities around sports betting could change how the league deals with Ohtani, O’Brien has a different take.

“The fact that gambling is now legal in many states and that Major League Baseball has partnerships with legal gambling platforms does not change baseball’s long-standing rules restricting what players and managers can do regarding gambling,” O’Brien says.

The league will not even say it’s opened an investigation into Ohtani. MLB is “monitoring the situation and plans to gather facts,” according to a source familiar with the situation.

“There’s absolutely a scenario here where he doesn’t get punished at all,” Pomrenke tells FOS. “It’s possible that there might be some historical precedence, depending on what we end up finding out.”

If the Dodgers have their way, we won’t end up finding out much. “There’s nothing to say,” Dodgers boss Andrew Friedman said Thursday. “Literally nothing to say.” Team staff was “guarding” Ohtani’s locker and kept him away from the media after Thursday’s game.

“What the Dodgers did [Thursday] just made it exponentially worse,” the longtime baseball commentator and expert Keith Olbermann, whose podcast is covering this topic, tells FOS. “If they think they can make this go away by hermetically sealing off Ohtani, they’re nuts. 

“This is Pete Rose 1989 all over again. March: It’s a nothing story. August: The commissioner will meet the media at 10 a.m. There will be no questions.”

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