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Integrity of the game

Baseball faces a moment of truth concerning its stance on gambling

Shohei Ohtani prepares to go to bat during a game at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., on April 25. Associated Press/Photo by Alex Brandon

Integrity of the game
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The Shohei Ohtani saga is just the latest chapter in baseball’s long and sordid history with gambling.

Ever since Kennesaw Mountain Landis, Major League Baseball’s first commissioner, issued lifetime bans to eight Chicago White Sox players for consorting with known gamblers who paid at least some of them to purposefully lose the 1919 World Series, MLB has taken a hardline stance on the subject. It had to shut gambling down. Players and managers are not to bet on professional baseball games—either the ones they’re involved in or other games, the outcomes of which they might be in a position to influence.

Some of the White Sox players involved in the so-called “Black Sox” scandal, such as legendary outfielder “Shoeless Joe” Jackson and third baseman George “Buck” Weaver, maintained their innocence to the end. Jackson, in particular, still has staunch defenders among baseball historians. Though the illiterate Jackson did sign a confession admitting he had accepted money to throw games—he claimed a lawyer tricked him into doing so—he hit the 1919 World Series’ only home run, collected a then-record 12 hits in eight games (the Series went up to nine back then), and played errorless ball in center field.

In Landis’ mind, however, it didn’t matter whether the players he banned took money to throw games or not. Their mere association with gamblers, or certain players’ unwillingness to rat out teammates who did take money, gave the game a black eye. For the game to recover from the Black Sox scandal, Landis needed to make an example of them. That meant they were done in the world of baseball—period. End of discussion.

Fast-forward roughly 70 years and we come to Pete Rose, baseball’s all-time king of hits: The one-time star for the Cincinnati Reds, Philadelphia Phillies, and Montreal Expos collected 4,256 hits in his career, more than any player in major league history. In 1989, he accepted a lifetime ban from baseball for betting on the game. That’s why he remains excluded from the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., despite a stellar 23-year playing career in which he played in six World Series, winning three, and appeared in 17 All-Star games.

To this day, whether Rose deserves to be in the Hall of Fame despite his involvement in gambling remains the subject of intense debate. On one hand, there’s no denying that the hard-charging, ruthless player known as “Charlie Hustle” is one of baseball’s all-time greats, and the sins he committed, he reportedly committed as a manager, not as a player. On the other hand, it’s easy to see why MLB is reluctant to forgive Rose for breaking its supposedly most sacred, ironclad rule. He has repeatedly lied about his betting habits—including whether he bet on the Reds while managing them from 1984 through 1989—and shown little sincere remorse, coming clean only incrementally in a selfish effort to obtain enshrinement in the Hall.

Apparently, baseball has no problem letting its teams profit from gambling so long as players, managers, and other team personnel aren’t directly involved. 

Here’s why I say “supposedly most sacred” in the preceding paragraph: Since 2022, Cincinnati’s home stadium, Great American Ball Park—which maintains a parking garage on Pete Rose Way—has been the home of a sportsbook. The Washington Nationals, Cleveland Guardians, Chicago Cubs, and Arizona Diamondbacks all have sportsbooks in their home ballparks, too.

Apparently, baseball has no problem letting its teams profit from gambling so long as players, managers, and other team personnel aren’t directly involved.

Which brings us to Ohtani. Signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers last offseason after spending six seasons just down Interstate 5 with the Los Angeles Angels in Anaheim, the native of Japan is baseball’s transcendent international superstar, shining at two positions—a big reason why he’s won two American League Most Valuable Player awards. As a pitcher, he won 38 games and lost 19 for an Angels team that never made the playoffs. As a designated hitter, he swatted 171 home runs and drove in 437 runs before joining the Dodgers.

During spring training, national media broke a story indicating that Ohtani’s English-language interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, allegedly embezzled money from Ohtani to cover $4.5 million in gambling debts. After the story broke, however, video cameras trained on the Dodgers’ dugout during a spring training game showed Ohtani being rather chummy with Mizuhara.

Some might think $4.5 million is pocket change to an international superstar who just signed a $700 million, 10-year contract with the Dodgers and makes hundreds of millions more in endorsements. Still, the fact that Ohtani did not seem bothered by his friend’s alleged theft of millions has raised the specter that Mizuhara could be playing the fall guy for the real gambler—Ohtani—and receiving a substantial sum to do it.

If that is indeed the case—and MLB and FBI investigations into Mizuhara’s conduct and the extent of any involvement by Ohtani are ongoing—baseball now finds itself facing a moment of truth. Does MLB rid itself of its most bankable global superstar?

If baseball wishes to stand behind its assertions concerning the integrity of the game, which it so often used to justify keeping the likes of Jackson and Rose out of the Hall of Fame, it pretty much has to—a one- or two-year suspension of Ohtani won’t cut it.

If baseball shows Ohtani leniency—and again, that’s assuming he is guilty and needs leniency—it needs to show Jackson and Rose some mercy, too. While upholding the integrity of the game is certainly important, so is fairness. Major League Baseball must decide: Either they all suffer the same penalty, or Rose and Jackson (who died in 1951) have suffered enough.

Ray Hacke

Ray is a sports correspondent for WORLD who has covered sports professionally for three decades. He is also a licensed attorney who lives in Keizer, Ore., with his wife Pauline and daughter Ava.


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