THE AUTHOR HAS LONG HAD A FASCINATION WITH THE 1951 POINT-SHAVING SCANDAL, AS WELL AS WITH A SHADOWY FIGURE WHO WAS (UNINTENTIONALLY) AT THE CENTER OF IT ALL
WHAT IS STILL the biggest point-shaving scandal in college basketball history broke on Feb. 18, 1951, when crusading New York City district attorney Frank Hogan arrested several members of the City College of New York team. Just 11 months earlier, under coach Nat Holman, the Beavers had won the National Invitation Tournament and the NCAA championship, both at Madison Square Garden. They remain the only team ever to achieve that double.
The news rocked college basketball, but it was of special interest at Kentucky, where coach Adolph Rupp was presiding over a dynasty. The Wildcats had claimed NCAA titles in 1948 and '49, but had been eliminated 89--50 by—you guessed it—CCNY in the quarterfinals of the 1950 NIT tournament, the worst loss of Rupp's career. Hogan's roundup happened a month before the '51 NCAA tournament, which Kentucky would enter ranked No. 1 with the nation's premier player, 7-foot junior center Bill Spivey.
The Lexington media rushed to Rupp to get his reaction to the arrests. Imperious and scornful as ever, the 49-year-old coach snorted, "[The gamblers] couldn't touch my boys with a 10-foot pole."
Well, actually, they had. Three players on the 1948 and '49 title teams—Ralph Beard, Alex Groza and Dale Barnstable—would be arrested on Oct. 20, 1951, for accepting bribes to shave points in an NIT game against Loyola of Chicago at the Garden in 1949. Three more Wildcats, including Spivey, would be implicated as well. In all, 32 players from seven colleges would be arrested for their involvement in fixing a total of 86 games between 1947 and '50.
One of Rupp's friends, a dapper fellow named Ed Curd, provided another connection to the scandal. Curd worked with Rupp in various businesses and charities and was always good for a free meal. (Rupp was notoriously tight.) Curd also attended Wildcats practices and traveled with the team.
Only a month or so after Rupp made his boast, Curd's name came up in testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Organized Crime, chaired by Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee. Asked about his personal gambling, New York City crime boss Frankie Costello testified that he bet on horse racing and basketball "with my little buddy Ed Curd from Lexington, Kentucky."
Understand, please, that Costello was no common hood. He ran one of the city's five crime families, the Lucianos, and was known as the Prime Minister of the Underworld. He was one of the legendary gangsters upon whom Vito Corleone in The Godfather was based.
Had this happened today, the social media world and the 24-hour cable news channels would have gone into overdrive. Think about it: A bookmaker in Lexington had ties to one of the nation's most notorious gangsters and one of its most prominent college basketball coaches—connections made apparent as a betting scandal rocked the sport. Unfortunately, we are left to connect the dots regarding the culpability of Costello and Curd. What we know for sure is that games were fixed by players who received cash from intermediaries connected with organized crime in New York and that point-shaving wouldn't have been possible without ... Ed Curd.
FOR AS long as anybody can remember, Kentuckians have bet on everything, from roosters to horses to games. In the 1930s the mob took over Newport, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, and turned it into a little Las Vegas. There was a plush nightclub named the Beverly Hills outside town—it burned down in 1977, killing 165—and bars and brothels lined Newport's main streets.
In 1951, George Ratterman, best known as a backup quarterback to Johnny Lujack at Notre Dame and to Otto Graham with the Browns, ran for sheriff of Campbell County and pledged to rid Newport of crime. But one night he accepted a drink laced with chloral hydrate by one of his enemies, and passed out. He awoke in a strange bed with a stripper named April Flowers as photographers snapped away. Ratterman was eventually vindicated and elected, and he did, indeed, fulfill his promise to clean up the city.
Some 75 miles south of Newport, Lexington seemed more staid. But behind the picture-postcard horse farms, with their white fences and rolling green pastures, the city also had a seamy side. Any visitor who wanted to get down a bet needed only to talk to the elevator boys at the two downtown hotels, the Phoenix and the Lafayette. There were also several bars, lounges and roadhouses where a gambler could find just about any kind of action.
Born in Lexington in 1904, Curd was a son of Edward Curd Sr., a railroad engineer who died when Ed was two, and his wife, Odie. He went to Lexington High (now Henry Clay High) and recalled in a 2001 interview with the Lexington Herald-Leader that "I was pretty good at math." While at school Curd became fascinated with betting on football and basketball. Among his classmates he developed a reputation for picking winners.
Curd fell in love with the Lexington Trotting Track (now the Red Mile) off South Broadway. One day, after watching a match race, young Curd went up to the owner of the winning horse, W.E.D. Stokes, and offered to buy the horse for $100, or "all I've got in the world," according to a 2001 story in the Herald-Leader. Stokes, who owned the Astoria Hotel in New York City, liked the boy's audacity and began letting him hang around his Patchen Wilkes Farm.
"I was a gate boy," Curd said. "When he would visit [noted thoroughbred breeder] John E. Madden across the road at Hamburg Place, I'd ride in the back of the wagon. My job was to hop out and open and close the farm gates." But he was destined to combine his love for numbers and sports in a unique way.
In the 1920s, Curd was taking bets for a living. By the '40s, he was running one of the biggest bookie operations in the country—$500,000 per year in wagers, or roughly $6.9 million today—and had introduced two innovations which merit him a bust on the Mount Rushmore for gambling: the point spread and the vigorish.
Betting on sports was once a simple matter. If someone wanted to wager on a certain team, he shopped the bookmakers for odds he liked and then put down however much the bookie would allow. With the point spread—an amount added to the underdog's total that would even the odds—Curd found a way to encourage an active market for both teams. (He came up with that number based on betting patterns and his knowledge of the sport.) With the advent of the spread, mobsters soon realized they could rig games by paying key players to make enough mistakes—that is, shave enough points—so that their favored team would fail to cover.
Because Curd was connected to the New York City mob and to Las Vegas casinos, his spread for college basketball and other games became the official "line." Curd also placed a 10% surcharge on all wagers—the vigorish, or the vig—which helped defray big losses and allowed him to clean up if he could get equal action on both sides, a practice that soon became the norm. Besides handling wagers in and around Lexington, Curd was a "layoff man" who would take some of the bets from smaller bookies, from coast to coast.
Curd's public base of operations was the Clover Club above the Mayfair Bar, at 224 East Main Street. It was equipped with five phone lines, two long-distance and three local, and Western Union tickers to get the latest race results and sports scores. There also was a bar to accommodate the gamblers who liked to play cards or roll dice. Government investigators estimated that he handled about $50,000 a day, big money in the 1940s and '50s.
Curd liked to live large. He went to the races in Santa Anita, Calif., with actor George Raft and hung out in Vegas with the gangsters Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel, who largely turned that city into the gambling capital of the world. Curd also liked the action in Florida and Cuba. In a photo taken at Smoky Joe's Café in 1930s Havana, he is sharing a laugh with jockeys Eddie Arcaro, Don Meade and Johnny Gilbert.
What makes that fascinating is that Arcaro was aboard Whirlaway and Citation when they won the Triple Crown in 1941 and '48, respectively, for Lexington's Calumet Farm, which was then the biggest name in the sport. Meade won the 1933 Kentucky Derby on Broker's Tip, owned by Col. E.R. Bradley, who once told a Congressional committee that his job was gambling. Curd once bragged that "every jockey Calumet used had an account with me, and so did many other notable people."
He lived next to the Lexington Country Club in a palatial home that had a secret room beneath the library. To access it, you pushed a hidden button, and a section of the paneled wall slid back to reveal a winding staircase down to a room equipped with a bank of telephones and a bar.
Curd met Costello at the Copacabana in New York City, a nightclub famous for the showgirls, sports celebrities and mobsters who hung out there. Soon, according to investigators, Costello was laundering millions of dollars for the mob through Curd's operation in Lexington. The only time Curd ever asked Costello for a favor, Curd said, was when some Chicago hoodlums robbed the Mayfair in mid-afternoon. After Curd called Costello, the matter was "resolved in my favor," Curd said with a twinkle in his blue eyes.
In those days, gamblers often met players at the summer resorts in the Catskills, where the players worked as recreational directors. Oddly enough, one of the first to warn about the potential evils of gambling was Rupp's college coach, Forrest (Phog) Allen of Kansas, and he even pointed a finger at Curd's operation above the Mayfair Bar.
In a 1945 interview Allen said, "This joint has telephone lines to a number of major cities, and, with a monthly telephone bill of around $2,500, can put calls through to these cities in less time than an Army general. As long as you have places like the one there in Lexington, the threat to our colleges and our college boys will continue."
Curd had an extensive gambling record with the Lexington police. Yet the law didn't bother him much because his list of buddies included Rupp, Kentucky football coach Paul (Bear) Bryant, athletic director Bernie Shively, the chief of police and several prominent Catholics grateful that he put up the money to build Christ the King Church. He greased them all—and it bought him the cover he needed until Costello fingered him during the Kefauver Committee hearings.
Whenever Curd was asked about his role in the point-shaving scandal of 1951, including the Wildcats' NIT game in '49, he invariably claimed that he should be viewed as a hero, not a villain, because it was he who tipped off Shively that some unusual gambling patterns were becoming increasingly noticeable at Kentucky games.
"What happened with basketball," he told the Herald-Leader in 2001, "was that I bet a considerable amount of money on a UK game—and they lost. That night at dinner, a man I knew said ... 'You never had a chance.' I knew then that the fix was in. I started watching through my own operation how the money moved. I could tell by the amount bet, and who and where it came from, which games were shaved. I called Bernie Shively and told him at the very beginning of all of this."
ON MARCH 13, 1951, America was riveted to its new black-and-white TV sets to watch Costello's testimony before the Kefauver Committee. In order to get him to appear, the committee had to agree to not allow TV to show his face. So the cameras focused on his beefy fingers as they twisted a handkerchief or drummed impatiently on a table.
That same day, Spivey and his teammates easily defeated Loyola of Chicago at home in their final game before the postseason. They declined to play in the NIT—Rupp swore he would never take another team to New York City because of the evil influences—but they rolled through the NCAA, beating Louisville, St. John's and Illinois to reach the title game against Kansas State in Minneapolis.
On March 27, Spivey was magnificent in a 68--58 victory over K-State that gave Rupp his third national title in four years. Although bothered by a stomach illness, Spivey had 22 points and 21 rebounds against the Wildcats, cinching the tournament's most valuable player award.
At this point, Kentucky had not yet been implicated in the point-shaving scandal, so Rupp had every reason to think he would win the NCAA title again in '52. Spivey would be joined in his senior season by juniors Cliff Hagan and Frank Ramsey, future members of the Basketball Hall of Fame. Nobody around Lexington was paying much attention to Ed Curd, who would soon find himself in deep trouble with the IRS because of Costello's testimony.
On Aug. 31, the Kefauver Committee issued its final report after interviewing more than 600 witnesses in 14 U.S. cities. It was reality TV before anybody knew what that term meant, captivating the public so completely that nobody complained even when it pushed popular shows like Howdy Doody off the air.
The report didn't lead to any arrests—nor did it link Costello or any mobster to fixed college basketball games—but it presented a fascinating look at crime in America. One section was devoted to Kentucky, but it dealt more with the Newport crime scene than with Lexington and the relationship between Ed Curd and Frankie Costello.
The most tragic figure in the point-shaving scandal was Spivey. At the start of the '51--52 season he was on crutches after knee surgery. He was aware of rumors that Hogan intended to charge him and two of his UK teammates, Jim Line and Walt Hirsch, with point-shaving in the 1949 NIT game against Loyola. Before a home game against UCLA on Dec. 26, Spivey requested that he be taken off the roster until he could clear his name. He would never again play in a Kentucky uniform.
Spivey's attorney was John Y. Brown Sr., father of the future Kentucky Fried Chicken magnate, ABA team owner, governor of Kentucky and husband of Miss America, Phyllis George. The elder Brown argued that Line and Hirsch had told gamblers that they had given money to Spivey, but kept it for themselves. It was a plausible theory, because Spivey was a rather naive kid from rural Georgia.
Of the 32 players who were charged with shaving points, Spivey was the only one to plead not guilty. After he testified before a grand jury, he was charged with seven counts of perjury and brought to New York City for a jury trial in January 1953, which ended with a jury hung 9--3 in his favor. He also passed two lie detector tests. Still, he was never allowed to complete his collegiate career or play in the NBA, a violation of his civil rights.
After the trial, Spivey spent a few seasons barnstorming with the Harlem Globetrotters, and a few more dominating the Eastern League. Finally, in 1960, the Cincinnati Royals offered him a modest contract, which the league rejected. Using a different lawyer this time, Spivey sued the NBA for blackballing him. Even Rupp wrote him a letter of recommendation. But the NBA wouldn't budge, and Spivey eventually settled for $10,000.
Barnstable, Beard and Groza received suspended sentences; they were placed on indefinite probation and barred from sports for three years. (Hirsch and Line were not indicted.) A two-time consensus All-America, Beard was considered the fastest and most competitive guard of his time—the Pete Rose of his sport in more ways than one. Although he admitted to taking $700 from gamblers, Beard denied to his death that he ever did anything to influence the outcome of a game. Never a day went by that he didn't think about why he was punished so severely—he was barred for life from both professional baseball and basketball—and others weren't.
Beard eventually made peace with Rupp, who was so upset by the scandal that he ordered the players' jerseys removed from trophy cases. He wouldn't speak to them for years—a stance that seemed highly hypocritical considering that Saul Streit, the New York judge who sentenced the players, blamed Rupp for creating a climate that made it easy for his players to get to know gamblers, including Curd. In his 63-page, 15,000-word report, Streit found it "particularly astonishing" when several players testified that Rupp had showed the team betting slips that indicated the number of points by which Kentucky was favored.
"They also reported [Rupp] had called Ed Curd, a leading Lexington bookmaker, for the point spread on several of Kentucky's games," Streit wrote. "Furthermore, the players implicated Rupp as having more than a passing acquaintance with Curd, whose bookie establishment was just five blocks from Alumni Gym"—the Wildcats' on-campus home until Memorial Coliseum opened in 1950.
The Wildcats sat out the 1952--53 season, when they again would have been favored to win the NCAA title, not so much because of Streit's statements, but because Walter Byers, the new head of the NCAA, discouraged teams, including the Wildcats' fellow Southeastern Conference members, from scheduling them for a season. It amounted to the first "death penalty."
Curd and his wife, Pauline, whose father owned a restaurant in Montreal, fled to Canada in 1952 to avoid tax-evasion charges. He and his attorney—none other than John Y. Brown Sr.—negotiated a settlement with the government that called for Curd to sell his home, pay a $10,000 fine and $275,000 in back taxes, and spend seven months in a minimum security prison.
If Curd maintained friendships with Rupp and Costello, he was circumspect about it. Never again would he be publicly linked to either. Despite Streit's blistering indictment, Rupp remained the Kentucky coach through the 1971--72 season. He lived long enough to attend the '76 opening of the downtown arena that bears his name, but died a little more than a year later.
Spivey returned to Kentucky after playing as long as he could in the bushes, and took advantage of his name recognition to dabble in business and politics. But he never really got over his feelings of injustice, and he died of natural causes at 66, a broken man, divorced and living alone in Costa Rica.
A NATIVE OF Kentucky, I've been fascinated by this point-shaving scandal for almost as long as I can remember. But other than meeting Rupp, I didn't have any personal contact with it until 1962, when I was both a student at Transylvania University and a reporter for the afternoon Lexington Leader. I went to work at 7 a.m., and one of my jobs was to answer the phone.
Once or twice a week during basketball season, usually at around 7:10, I'd pick up and hear a soft Southern voice saying, "Billy, this is your buddy Ed Curd up here in Canada. Do you have the time to give me a few scores?"
The mystery of the point-shaving scandal intrigued me. Did Rupp really believe his boast about the gamblers not being able to touch his boys with a 10-foot pole? Was he involved? What about the players? How much did they know? Who was the intermediary between the gamblers and the players? Was Spivey as innocent as he claimed?
After I became established as a sportswriter, I tried to learn as much about the story as I could. I hoped to someday write the definitive story of exactly what happened. I interviewed Spivey and the three Kentucky players who pleaded guilty, and all became dear friends. I called Jim Line and Walt Hirsch to see if they would talk about keeping Spivey's money, but both refused to be interviewed.
The last time I saw Curd was in 2000, when we met for lunch at the Campbell House in Lexington. Although he was using a walker due to a recent fall at home, he was as charming and witty as ever. "I was as big as they come," he said, "but I can't borrow no money on it. All I can do now is brag."
I asked him repeatedly if Rupp had bet on games, but the answer always was more or less the same. "Hell, no," he always said. "He was too damned cheap. I didn't ask him many questions about the team, either, but he did let me hang around and take him out to dinner and stuff like that. Adolph liked his bourbon and he loved to talk, and I was a good listener."
When Curd died on May 12, 2002, he was 98 and still mentally sharp. The obits gave him credit for inventing the point spread and talked about his gambling operation over the Mayfair Bar in Lexington. But they didn't connect him to Rupp or mention what Costello said at the Kefauver Committee hearings.
Today his old house next door to the Lexington Country Club is home to Buddy and Judy Cowgill. Amazingly, at least to me, Buddy was my fraternity big brother at college. One day I finally talked him into showing me the secret room beneath the library. He pushed a hidden button and the panel opened, revealing the staircase.
It was like walking into a time capsule. The table that held a bank of phones was still there. It wasn't hard to imagine Ed Curd on a phone, jotting down numbers as he talked to Costello, or some other underworld character, about the night's action in college basketball.
BY THE 1940s, CURD HAD INTRODUCED TWO INNOVATIONS THAT WOULD MERIT HIM A BUST ON THE MOUNT RUSHMORE OF GAMBLING.
GAMBLERS OFTEN MET PLAYERS AT THE SUMMER RESORTS IN THE CATSKILLS, WHERE THE PLAYERS WORKED AS RECREATIONAL DIRECTORS.