For several football seasons I have missed something that annually went hand in hand with autumn afternoons, press releases on the mighty elevens and the AP and UP Top 20—the football bet card. From the first kickoff of the season until the last bowl game, the football bet card was an indispensable piece of equipment for would-be gamblers. I haven't been able to locate any lately, though, and this reflects a remarkable triumph for law and order. Have the nation's police managed to shut off the plus-six, minus-three and, even, 10 bucks for $1 if you pick four out of four correctly? It disturbs me to live through another season without measuring the skills of Utah State vs. Wyoming plus four; Army plus 35 vs. Notre Dame; TCU vs. SMU plus three. I am nostalgic for the days when my world teemed with football cards and my involvement with them was fraught with trauma.
In 1936 when I was a sophomore at the University of Illinois, a senior fraternity brother asked me to help him peddle football cards around the campus. I was often broke and there was a 10% commission, so I grabbed the opportunity with alacrity.
He and I dashed from fraternity to dorm to locker room to barber shop and campus hangout, taking bets from 25¬¨¬®¬¨¢ 'to $1 on four, six, eight, 10, 12, 15 and 20 games.
The payoff was $10 for $1 if the bettor picked four winners out of four games, and graduated to riches beyond contemplation for greater numbers of correct selections. We never worried about our part in the illicit scheme because we were only the salesmen and printed on each card was the legend: "For news information only." We were home free with our commissions because "Chicago" paid off and the disclaimer about information set our minds at ease about trouble with the police.
"Chicago" paid off after Monday verification, and each Tuesday, with our commission heavy in our pockets, we began collecting quarters, halves and dollars for the upcoming week, blissfully unaware that we were breaking nearly every gambling statute in Urbana—not to mention Champaign, Champaign County, the State of Illinois and the entire U.S. as well.
We were as indiscriminate as we were innocent, and we counted among our customers a law professor, the assistant dean of men, an inebriate Spanish instructor, several football players and even a few members of the university police force. We were thrilled with our riches because our spare time was netting us $35 to $40 apiece per week, truly magnificent incomes. Neither of us was able to select winners, but we did so well on our betting business that we didn't even try very hard.
The mechanics of our operation were simple. Before 5 p.m. on Friday, we would hurry to the Western Union office in downtown Champaign and wire all the bets to a Chicago address. "Chicago" stipulated that the time stamp on the telegram must read 5 p.m. or earlier.
Once the money was carefully dispatched, we returned to the Deke house, had dinner and began a delightful football weekend.
On Saturday afternoons, as the scores poured into our ears by radio, we pared our cards quickly and efficiently. Because a loss or a tie eliminated a bettor, we usually had reduced the winners to a meager list in a few hours. By nightfall we had the East, Midwest, Mountain and West Coast results, and the losers were legion. About $60 went to the winners.
One Friday evening, we arrived at the Illinois Central station's Western Union office, purchased a money order for $749.50, wired the bets and prepared to live it up that night. We could afford it. Each of us had realized $37.47 for just a few hours of work. As R. Browning said, "All's right with the world." We had been a few minutes later than usual at the WU office, but we were unconcerned. No biggie.
Our pleasure during the early hours that evening was forever clouded by subsequent events. I returned to the house to discover a message in hand-printed letters telling me and/or my frat brother to call the Western Union office. I called with trepidation.
The message, droned by some sleepy night clerk, was: UNABLE ACCEPT RECEIPTS ARRIVED HERE FIVE-FIFTEEN STOP. GOOD LUCK. Ten words whose meaning was simple: You boys are booking this week's bets.
I tried to sleep. Impossible. Visions of bettors demanding thousands of dollars disrupted any possibility of rest. What if there were 30 winners? Or 40? Or 50? Or 60? My partner slept not a wink. This was normal for him, though, as he was an insomniac.
We discussed several alternatives during that long night. We could go to sea. We could always enlist in the Lincoln Brigade on the Loyalist side in Spain. We might go into the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps). Or we could run—and run and run.
Early Saturday morning my associate called his father as a last resort, hoping he could offer us an alternative. My colleague carefully explained our lapse, and made light of the fact that we were 15 minutes late. His father had a message for us. Good luck was the best he could do.
Breakfast and lunch were tasteless. There was a miserable rain falling in Memorial Stadium, and Southern Cal deepened our gloom by whipping the Illini 24-6. We slogged back to the Deke house to begin the countdown on the termination of our college careers.
Chilled, wet and zombie-like, we went through the motions of checking the cards while listening to the radio, recording the scores germane to our project. We quickly eliminated many broken dreams, but we needed a key Eastern score to determine whether we would rejoin the living or be forced to seek sanctuary in a Tibetan monastery.
The University of Pittsburgh boasted the East's finest team, coached by Jock Sutherland. It was described as a juggernaut and was heavily favored to sweep its schedule.
The previous Saturday, Pitt had beaten mighty Ohio State, and this week the Panthers met Duquesne, a crosstown school that had an enrollment of 1,300. At least nine-tenths of the bettors' cards had picked Pitt to slaughter the Dukes.
At approximately 4 p.m. the local announcer, amid a jumble, to us, of strange-sounding Eastern university scores, intoned: "Duquesne 7, Pittsburgh 0." He hurried on with his interminable list of games and scores without comment.
Shocked and shaking, we flipped through the betting cards with glee, tossing away all with a Pittsburgh selection. After tabulating each card, our glee turned to joy. We had a total of $18 in winners! Our one $10 winner had not wagered on Pitt.
After deducting the cost of the ill-fated telegraphed money order, each of us had a profit of more than $350! We were wealthy. In fact, in those days, we were filthy rich. My wad went toward an exceedingly riotous celebration, and then to practical things—future school expenses, a new suit and a topcoat.
The Sunday Champaign News-Gazette sports pages carried an AP story with a Pittsburgh dateline informing us that George Matsik, a 170-pound substitute junior halfback, had run 72 yards around right end for the Duquesne touchdown and that Boyd Brunbaugh had added the PAT to give the Dukes the 7-0 victory over the most powerful collegiate team in the nation.
I resigned from the football-betting-card sales staff the next day, Oct. 18, 1936. And ever since that weekend I have had a soft spot in my heart for George Matsik, Boyd Brunbaugh and dear, dear old Duquesne.