A quick scan of Pittsburgh’s newspaper archives reveals that Pittsburghers have always been fond of gambling, whether legal or not. Headlines from old issues of The Post-Gazette read like something from Al Capone’s Chicago. “Police Seize Big Gambling Stronghold” emblazoned the front page of the January 20, 1934 issue. “Numbers Rackets Gets Set-Back” headlined the January 26, 1942 edition. The 1942 article details how bookies held an emergency meeting after the city’s papers decided to refrain from publishing daily stock totals, from which they had derived their “daily number.”
Numerous stories review raids on gambling houses throughout the area. The prevalence of such articles and the depth of information in them about how the numbers rackets operated suggest that while attempts were taken to eradicate gambling, many old-time officials may have looked the other way from time to time.
Pittsburgh began as a working-class community, and many have viewed gambling as a harmless pastime and a way to earn a quick buck or a chance to escape the daily stresses of a burgeoning industrial town. After a long, hard day at work, many mill workers went straight to the bars for a beer and a little gambling. Gambling was so commonplace in the past, it’s estimated that Tony Grosso, Western Pennsylvania’s numbers kingpin, at one time employed 5,000 and grossed $30 million a year.
A story is told of Vince, a regular at the Meadows, who if asked about how he was faring, reported always winning at the “ponies.” When a friend accompanied him to the track one day, the friend watched Vince lose $20 on the first race, another $20, and so on until he was down more than a couple hundred dollars. Finally, he hit on one race, winning back less than half. When he and the friend left the track, another regular called, “Hey, Vince, how’d you do today?” Vince cheerily replied to the dismay of his friend: “I won $100!”
For those who like to gamble close to home, Bingo is a sure bet. In the 1920s, Hugh J. Ward developed the game after seeing a forerunner of it played in Canada with beans used as markers. A winner shouted, “Beano!” He brought it to Pittsburgh, running games at carnivals. Over time Beano was corrupted to “Bingo!” In 1933, Mr. Ward finally wrote a book on the rules of Bingo and the rest is history.
Nowadays, Bingo enthusiasts can find a game almost every day of the week at local churches, fire halls, and civic organizations. Most gamblers are a bit superstitious, betting on favorite numbers or using certain methods to ascertain a winner, but Bingo-players are in a league all their own. Many insist on sitting in the same place, surrounding their cards with good-luck trinkets like small stuffed animals, pictures of their pets, and figurines. Serious Bingo players come equipped to play, carrying comfy chair cushions, ink daubers for special games, and magnetized chips and wands that make clearing cards a breeze.
Changing Lives for Better and Worse
With so much money to be made on gambling, the great Commonwealth eventually came to the conclusion that if you can’t beat ’em, it’s best to join ’em. In 1972, the Pennsylvania Lottery debuted with its own version of the numbers game. It offered a 50-cent ticket for a weekly drawing.
In 1980, one of the biggest scandals in Pittsburgh gambling history happened. Local radio and television personality and announcer for the Daily Number broadcast, Nick Perry, along with several others, allegedly hatched what became known as the Triple Six Fix. All of the ping pong balls in the lottery number selection machine were weighted except the balls bearing the numbers 4 and 6. Co-conspirators, prior to the drawing, purchased a quantity of lottery tickets in combinations of 4s and 6s. They also played those numbers with bookies.
On April 24, 1980, the number 666 hit. Unusual betting patterns noticed by both bookies and lottery staff tipped officials off that something nefarious may have happened. A subsequent investigation brought charges against six men, Perry being one of them. Perry, who was convicted and sentenced to prison, maintained his innocence until his death in 2003. Many who knew him and many Pittsburghers with fond memories of Perry remain convinced of his innocence, sparking theories of political corruption and an effort to find a scapegoat able to divert public attention. Either way, the “Triple Six Fix” brought tragedy and human drama to gambling in Pittsburgh in a way no one wants to see repeated.
While gambling can sometimes breed trouble, it can also change lives. Why, if it weren’t for gambling, there might not be a Pittsburgh Steelers. In 1932, Art Rooney, the founder of the team, started the franchise with winnings gained at the races. It is reported Rooney won $2,500, an enormous sum for the time, which enabled him to purchase the NFL entrance fee.
Of course Rooney had to travel to New York to win his jackpot at the Saratoga Race Course. With the opening of The Meadows Racetrack in nearby Washington County in the early 1960s, locals were able to place wagers on harness horse races held in their own backyard.
The Rivers Casino
With the success of the lottery and casino ventures in nearby states, Pennsylvania once again decided to take a chance on gambling. At the beginning of the decade, Harrisburg began to float the idea of legislation that would allow casinos in the state. Eventually, a casino license was granted for southwestern Pennsylvania.
On August 9, 2009, gambling came once again into the spotlight with the new Rivers Casino located on Pittsburgh’s North Shore. The Rivers Casino is another jewel in the strand of entertainment complexes on the north bank that starts with PNC Park, Heinz Field, The Carnegie Science Center and ends with the new casino.
The Rivers Casino is a spectacular complex. While Las Vegas may have glitz and lights, nothing can match the Rivers Casino’s location. Perched on the shore near a bend in the Ohio River, the new casino offers a sweeping view of Point State Park, the city’s skyline, and Mt. Washington.
The Grand View Buffet, Andrew’s Restaurant and Drum Bar have floor-to-ceiling windows that allow guests to relax and enjoy themselves while basking in the glow of the Golden Triangle.
Whether you arrive by boat, bike, bus, car, or limousine, the glass sculptures and distinctive water fountain greeting you at the entrance to the casino signal your arrival at someplace special. With 3,000 slot machines and various other games, plus three fabulous dining and lounge areas, this 24/7 destination is sure to provide guests with round-the-clock fun.
While Pittsburgh has a checkered past with regard to gambling, there’s every hope that the continued development of our great city in the 21st century can bring with it an era of more responsible gambling. The hope is for an era that embraces the glitz, glamour, and safety of resort level attractions while leaving the shadowed past far behind.
By Janice Palko