SI Vault
Robert H. Boyle
October 01, 1956
A rare behind-the-scenes report on the men who set the odds for a nation's bets on spectator sports
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October 01, 1956

The Illegal Whole's Legal Half

A rare behind-the-scenes report on the men who set the odds for a nation's bets on spectator sports

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"O.K. Thanks a lot."


Federal 8-5656 in Minneapolis hung up, but not for long. The call was only one of several hundred that will be made in the next two weeks. With the National League pennant race still undecided, the World Series not far off and football under way, the Minneapolis "clearinghouse," or to use its proper name, Athletic Publications Inc., is entering what promises to be its most hectic season of the year and indeed perhaps ever. With national prosperity at an all-time high, it is readily conceivable that bettors this year will wager well in excess of $30 million, which is an educated estimate of the total amount bet annually by Americans.

As pre-eminent practitioners in one special corner of the giant betting industry, Athletic Publications employs 15 persons, three of them handicappers, and operates year round. Watching over them is the firm's president, Leo Hirschfield, a short, gray-haired gentleman of 60 who enjoys as much prestige in the odds-making field as the president of Harvard enjoys in his.

While much of the firm's success is obviously attributable to Hirschfield, he refuses to take any bows. "I haven't the least idea how to handicap," he says. "I wouldn't know who was the favorite between Notre Dame and Slippery Rock Teachers. I have very efficient and loyal employees without whom I could not possibly operate this business."

Actually, Hirschfield got into the odds-making business more or less accidentally. The son of a doctor, he grew up in Minneapolis, served as a Marine in World War I, attended the University of Minnesota for a spell and got married. In 1928 he moved to New York and worked for a manufacturer of lighting fixtures until Hitler's seizure of Czechoslovakia cut off the firm's supply of glass. Hirschfield, anxious to get back to Minneapolis, heard that the Gorham Press—as Athletic Publications Inc. was then called—was up for sale, and after mulling it over, he bought it in 1940.

Hirschfield changed the firm's name and set about rapidly expanding its services. All the Gorham Press had offered was a weekly football record. Today Athletic Publications Inc. publishes four annual schedules and record books covering baseball, football, college basketball and professional basketball, and two seasonal weeklies, one updating football, the other basketball.

The greatest change wrought, however, was the institution of a daily odds-making service for telephone clients. Hirschfield started it in response to public demand. For a fee, Athletic Publications Inc. furnishes odds on baseball, football (the leading college and National Football League games) and basketball (the leading college and National Basketball Association games). The most detailed of the services is that offered on baseball. It costs $25 a week. Odds are sold on games in both major leagues, the International League, the American Association, the Southern Association and the Texas League.

Exactly how the handicappers compute the odds is a secret of Athletic Publications Inc., but the shrewdest guess is that each handicapper computes his own odds, then everybody gets together to hammer out a compromise for the house. So that the handicappers can keep abreast of sports, the firm subscribes to 59 daily and Sunday newspapers and 97 college newspapers. Hirschfield much prefers the college press to information gathered by campus agents. One of the baser canards currently in circulation about Athletic Publications Inc. is that it employs coaches and students to forward information. Hirschfield denies this, and adds, "We get more rocks thrown at us for no reason whatsoever."

Other allegations have it that Athletic Publications Inc. is the nerve center of a million-dollar gambling empire and that Hirschfield is the secret advisor to a bookmaking ring.

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