What Are the Odds?

The new Horseshoe Casino is doubling down on Cleveland's long, notorious and clandestine gambling history.

The $350 million Horseshoe Casino is a marvel. The flashing neon of 2,100 slot machines dances before me as the shuffle, rattle and roll of the gambling tables beckon. All this color and sound is so unlike the drab downtown.

I collect the irony like a jackpot pouring from one of the machines. At last, Cleveland has confronted its established, distinguished and notoriously illegal gambling heritage.

In a town where skepticism outweighs optimism 3-to-1, some murmur that the casino will fall victim to the city's bad luck. I know better. Cleveland has long had a yen for a bet, in spite of its best efforts to hide it.

For decades, the authorities sought to combat gambling, the newspapers portrayed it as evil and politicians deemed it a sin. Former Sen. George Voinovich demonized casinos from every public office he held, even as cities across America prospered by giving in to the public's temptation for chance and admitted that vice is nice.

The former Higbee department store, with its art deco columns and chandeliers, now sparkles with a new kind of commerce. A lawyer I've known for years — a habitué of casinos — stops to exclaim his delight, though he complains that the minimum $25 bet at the dice tables is a bit steep.

Walking through the casino, I think of all the numbers operators who were tried in the old county courthouse on East 21st Street, their lawlessness everyday news.

One day in the early 1960s, when I was a young reporter, the police raided an East Side house they suspected was holding a numbers drawing. It was a slow news day, so I and several other newsmen responded to the police radio call.

But someone had tipped off the gambling operators, who locked themselves in the attic to burn the numbers slips in a stove.

As the suspects sat on the trap door to keep the police at bay, an officer withdrew an electric drill from his trunk, went upstairs and began to punch holes in the door, causing both cursing and tap dancing. When the trap door was opened, the police rushed to the stove, but all that remained was charred paper that crumbled at the touch. Everyone shrugged. Such was an afternoon in the war against numbers.

Gambling here was so lucrative and pervasive that the Kefauver Committee, investigating organized crime for the U.S. Senate, held hearings here in 1951 and called several prominent Clevelanders to testify to their gaming activities. The syndicate that ran the town's gambling and liquor schemes had even invested its earnings in the first major Las Vegas casino, the Desert Inn.

Despite the attention, gambling flourished locally because the public was hypocritical. Police officers accepted bribes to look the other way. Newspaper editors booked bets from their desks and then edited stories about gambling arrests.

Upscale gambling parlors operated in Cleveland suburbs: the Mounds Club in Lake County, the Harvard Club in Newburgh Heights and the Pettibone Club in Geauga County. All were illegal, served good food and offered first-class entertainment such as Dean Martin and Lena Horne.

One night in 1947, the Mounds Club was held up. Patrons were stripped of all their cash and jewelry. The haul, including cash from the safe, was put at $300,000.

The Harvard Club operated brazenly. Closed by the famed Eliot Ness in a legendary 1936 raid, it reopened a month later down the street.

Maybe the stigma from those days, when Ness hunted organized crime like big game, was one reason the city waited so long to legalize gambling. The concern that the Mob would infiltrate any legitimate casino effort made politicians shy away from the issue.

Some of the old-time gamblers scored and legitimized themselves. Authorities claimed Mickey McBride ran an illegal race wire, but he ended up founding the Cleveland Browns and made them the legend that they once were. McBride was a colorful figure, short and dapper, known for his cab company and generosity. Tommy McGinty ran myriad gambling operations, including the Mounds Club, and was prominent in racetrack circles. He was also named one of Cleveland's best dressed men.

In the black community, the numbers game was a way of life. Participants bet on a number, with the winner determined by a drawing or the day's stock market results.

The Mayfield Road Mob controlled the numbers game by dividing the neighborhoods into districts. The Mob deputized Shondor Birns, oft described as Cleveland's Public Enemy No. 1, as commissioner. For 25 percent of the take, Birns offered insurance that no one would cut into the territory of a numbers runner or harass their game. He would enforce the rules with a drive-by shooting or bomb.

Like their counterparts in the syndicate, some numbers runners became legitimized and rose to prominence. Chief among them was Don King, the flamboyant boxing promoter and publisher of the Call & Post, Cleveland's black weekly newspaper. Birns once blew off King's front porch when he did not buy protection. King had many brushes with the law as well, including a manslaughter conviction for stomping a man to death (he was eventually pardoned).

Since those days, Cleveland has lost more than half of its population, despite pouring millions into downtown to try to regain its vibrancy. The usual political suspects fiddled and fumbled over the casino issue, fearing it would cost them votes. Now, with the arrival of a new convention center and Medical Mart, the timing of the casino's opening may be the city's trump card.

But the ultimate irony is how we've changed, finally confronting the hypocrisy that surrounded gambling.

One long-ago afternoon in the rotunda of that old courthouse, I approached Shondor Birns during a break in a bookie trial and asked for a comment.

"It's all bullshit, kid," he said. "The judge plays the ponies every day. Print that."

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