History of Sports Betting

Three men in a betting shop
Three men in a betting shop. Image Source/Getty Images

NOTE: Here is a brief excerpt from Sports Betting Basics, my second book, which will be available on Amazon on June 3. The book is aimed towards beginning bettors, so many of you will know the majority of the material covered, but judging from which pages are popular, What is a Money Line? and those type of pages always do well, so there are plenty of newcomers to sports betting on a daily basis.

History of Sports Betting

Determining the origin of sports betting is a difficult task.

In its truest form, sports betting has been around for thousands of years, as people have always wagered on the outcome of an event between two competitors. It was commonly known that many Roman emperors enjoyed gambling and for many years it was only legal to place a bet in Rome at the circus or at the chariot races. Much like modern times, the illegality of gambling didn't stop people from partaking in it, however. Some of the biggest culprits were the emperors themselves, with Augustus being one who is frequently associated with gambling activities.

What we know as modern sports betting is a bit more defined, however, and it takes its roots in the one-time popular event of pedestrianism, which is essentially race-walking. Pedestrianism was extremely popular in early 19th century England and soon went hand-in-hand with gambling. The link with gambling became so widespread that the Amateur Athletic Association was founded in 1880 to help stop race fixing and other devious tactics designed to influence the outcome of events.

While pedestrianism was riding a wave of momentum in Europe, it branched out to other countries in large part due to the related gambling that took place including the United States. But as history has shown us, where there is money, there are also unsavory characters, and soon pedestrianism had the integrity of modern-day professional wrestling.

Fortunately for those who liked to gamble, pedestrianism's decline coincided with the growth of the game of baseball and soon baseball became the choice of bettors. As with pedestrianism competitors, baseball players weren't above throwing games for profit and more than 40 years before the well-known Black Sox Scandal of 1919, the Louisville Grays were found to have thrown games in 1877.

It's important to remember that sports betting was viewed differently in the late 1800s, as Dec. 9, 1894, Washington Post's Baseball Notes carried the following about Chicago Colts manager Cap Anson: "Uncle Anson has already started making wagers on the position the Chicago Colts will have in the race for the National League Pennant next year. He put up $100 a few days ago that his team would finish higher up in the race than the Pittsburgh Pirates." Needless to say, this wouldn't go over well today, but in the late 1800s, the only concern was with throwing games. A manager betting on his team to do better than another one was perfectly acceptable.

Baseball fixing was constantly rumored and it was the 1919 World Series that brought things into the open when the favored White Sox lost to the Cincinnati Reds and eight players including "Shoeless" Joe Jackson were banned for life.

Jackson's involvement with the fix has been greatly debated and those in favor of his reinstatement include politicians such as Trent Lott, John McCain, and Strom Thurmond; along with players such as Ted Williams, who paid for a lawyer out of his own pocket to work on Jackson's reinstatement.

Baseball remained the king of sports betting into the 1920s when other sports started to see a rise in popularity, which naturally led to an increase in wagering during the so-called "Golden Age" of sports. The one problem with betting on games during that time was that games were bet with odds and if a better liked a prohibitive favorite, they could find themselves risking $10 or $20 to win $1. Everything changed with the introduction of the point spread