4 Heartbreaking (or Miraculous) Moments in Gambling History

Getty Images
Getty Images

The NFL saw a great meaningless gambling moment last weekend when Steelers safety Troy Polamalu seemed to scored a touchdown on the final play of Pittsburgh's game against San Diego. While it looked like the lusciously locked DB had successfully nabbed a fumbled lateral and scampered into the end zone, the referee somewhat confusingly allowed, then disallowed the score. The play had no impact on the game's outcome (Pittsburgh still won 11-10), but the gambling repercussions were serious. The Steelers had been 4.5-point favorites heading into the game, and if Polamalu's score counted, anyone who bet on Pittsburgh and laid the points would have won. Instead, they lost their bets, which cost these bettors an estimated $64 million, and that's not to mention those fantasy owners (like this writer) who started the Pittsburgh D and lost a fumble recovery and score from the reversal.

Moments like these aren't so rare, though. Every once in a while, a seemingly meaningless play that has no effect on the outcome of a game will have serious repercussions for the gambling community. Here are a few tales that will make bettors wince.

1. Chris Duhon's Heave

As the clock dwindled on Duke and UConn's 2004 Final Four matchup, Blue Devils fans had to hang their heads. Their underdog squad was going to lose 79-75, thereby ending their title hopes. Worse still, various betting lines on the game were giving the Devils between two and three points, so Duke fans who had bet on the game were going to endure a double punch to the stomach: their team was losing, and so were their wallets. On the final play of the game, though, senior guard Chris Duhon chucked a 38-foot three-pointer off one leg as time expired. The shot banked in to make the score 79-78. It was cold comfort for Duhon and his teammates. However, it was great news for anyone who'd wagered on Duke. Since the underdogs covered the spread on the meaningless play, they all won their bets. The shot swung at least an estimated $30 million to Duke bettors, with some estimates ranging as high as $100 million.

2. The Machine Throws a Wrench at Gamblers

When the Los Angeles Lakers played the San Antonio Spurs in last spring's Western Conference Finals, it seemed pretty obvious that Kobe and company were going to earn their first NBA Finals trip since 2004. At the end of Game 5, the Lakers had all but clinched a four-games-to-one series victory. They had the ball with a 97-92 lead and needed only to run out the clock and get ready for the Finals. Instead of the customary aimless dribbling to wind things down, though, backup guard Sasha "The Machine" Vujacic tossed off a three-pointer as time expired. Final score: 100-92. The bad news for Vegas? The line was Lakers -7.5, which meant that Vujacic's shot covered the spread. CNBC sports business reporter Darren Rovell wrote that given the large amount of worldwide action on the playoff game, the shot may have swung $100 million in bets.

3. Florida-Miami, 2008

This Sunshine State rivalry has never been short on hard feelings, but the animosity between the two traditional powers and their fans peaked following this September's contest. Florida was widely considered one of the best teams in the country, while the Canes looked like they might have another down year. As a result, the spread was big; the Gators were 21-point favorites. The game played out about as expected with Florida laying down a pretty firm drubbing. With about a minute left, the Gators had the ball and a 23-3 lead. Ordinarily, teams would just run out the clock in this situation and enjoy the victory. Not Florida coach Urban Meyer, though. The Gators kept running plays in an attempt to score. Eventually the drive stopped 12 yards short of the goal line, and kicker Jonathan Phillips poked in a 29-yard field goal with 25 seconds left to move the score to 26-3. Hurricanes coaches and fans were upset with what they saw as a classless attempt to run up the score and cover the spread, but Meyer claimed he just wanted to get the young kicker some late-game experience before the meat of the Gators' schedule. Either way, Florida covered the spread on the meaningless kick, which must have made countless Gator bettors happy.

4. Robin Ventura's Grand-Slam Single

Game Five of the 1999 National League Championship Series between the Atlanta Braves and the New York Mets felt like it might never end. The game was tied 2-2 in the top of the 15th inning before Mets reliever Octavio Dotel gave up a run to stake the Braves to a 3-2 lead. In the bottom of the 15th, though, the Mets managed to tie the game at 3-3 when catcher Todd Pratt drew a bases-loaded walk. The next batter, Robin Ventura, clubbed a pitch over the Shea Stadium fence for a walk-off grand slam. The Mets were going to win the game 7-3. Only there was a holdup: when Ventura got between first and second base, his teammates mobbed him in a raucous celebration. He never got to finish his home run trot or even touch second base. Since Ventura only touched first, the official scorer didn't give him a home run and the four RBIs he had coming from the slam. Instead, Ventura got credit for a single and one RBI.

The "grand slam single" was obviously enough to give the Mets the 4-3 win, but it caused a sticky situation in Vegas. The over/under (combined number of runs scored by both teams) on which bettors had wagered was 7.5. If the Mets had gotten all four runs Ventura's slam should have scored, the total number of runs would have been 10, and bettors who took the over would have won. Instead, the 4-3 final score resulted in the under bettors winning. Unfortunately for the sports books, it wasn't immediately clear that the Mets weren't going to get those three extra runs, so NBC posted the score as 7-3 on its broadcast. According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal some casinos started paying out on "over" bets when the 7-3 score was initially posted and didn't stop until NBC announcer Bob Costas told viewers the correct score five minutes or so later. As a result, if you were quick enough, this game did the seemingly impossible: it paid out for both the over and the under.

The Time Baby Ruth Sued Babe Ruth

Allsport/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Allsport/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1920, the Curtiss Candy Company introduced the Baby Ruth candy bar, causing a certain baseball player with a very similar name to take notice. Babe Ruth was having a monstrous year—his 54 home runs in the 1920 season were more than any other team in the American League. If you were going to misappropriate someone’s name for a candy bar, Ruth’s was a logical choice.

Sensing opportunity, the Great Bambino struck back by creating his own Babe Ruth Home Run Bar. Curtiss quickly sued Ruth’s company for trademark infringement. But what happened next was surprising: When the Sultan of Swat accused the company of using his name, Curtiss feigned shock. Its bar was named after “Baby” Ruth Cleveland, daughter of President Grover Cleveland.

For years, this has been the oft-repeated explanation, but the argument makes no sense. Cleveland had been out of office for more than two decades and dead for 12 years when the bar debuted. “Baby” Ruth herself had died of diphtheria in 1904, at just 12 years old. Although the country’s most famous baseball star would seem much more likely to have a namesake candy than a former president's departed child, the courts sided with Curtiss.

When Ruth learned of the verdict, he bellowed, “Well, I ain’t eatin’ your damned candy bar anymore!” Somehow, the Baby Ruth bar survived without his support.

10 Winning Facts about Wheaties

General Mills
General Mills

Famous for its vivid orange boxes featuring star athletes and its classic "breakfast of champions" tagline, Wheaties might be the only cereal that's better known for its packaging than its taste. The whole wheat cereal has been around since the 1920s, becoming an icon not just of the breakfast aisle, but the sports and advertising worlds, too. Here are 10 winning facts about it.

1. IT WAS INVENTED BY ACCIDENT.

The Washburn Crosby Company wasn't initially in the cereal business. At the time, the Minnesota-based company—which became General Mills in 1928—primarily sold flour. But in 1921, the story goes, a dietitian in Minneapolis spilled bran gruel on a hot stove. The bran hardened into crispy, delicious flakes, and a new cereal was born. In 1924, the Washburn Crosby Company began selling a version of the flakes as a boxed cereal it called Washburn's Gold Medal Whole Wheat Flakes. A year later, after a company-wide contest, the company changed the name to Wheaties.

2. ITS JINGLE FEATURED A SINGING UNDERTAKER AND A COURT BAILIFF.

Wheaties sales were slow at first, but the Washburn Crosby Company already had a built-in advertising platform: It owned the Minneapolis radio station WCCO. Starting on December 24, 1926, the station began airing a jingle for the cereal sung by a barbershop quartet called the Wheaties Quartet. The foursome sang "Have You Tried Wheaties" live over the radio every week, earning $15 (about $200 today) per performance. In addition to their weekly singing gig, the men of the Wheaties Quartet all also had day jobs: One was an undertaker, one was a court bailiff, one worked in the grain industry, and one worked in printing. The ad campaign eventually went national, helping boost Wheaties sales across the country and becoming an advertising legend.

3. WHEATIES HAS BEEN TIED TO SPORTS SINCE ALMOST THE BEGINNING.

Carl Lewis signs a Wheaties box with his image on it for a young boy.
Track and field Olympic medalist Carl Lewis
Stephen Chernin, Getty Images

Wheaties has aligned itself with the sports world since its early days. In 1927, Wheaties bought ad space at Minneapolis's Nicollet Park, home to a minor league baseball team called the Millers, and in 1933, the cereal brand started sponsoring the team's game-day radio broadcasts on WCCO. Eventually, Wheaties baseball broadcasts expanded to 95 different radio stations, covering teams all over the country and further cementing its association with the sport. Since then, generations of endorsements from athletes of all stripes have helped sell consumers on the idea that eating Wheaties can make them strong and successful just like their favorite players. The branding association has been so successful that appearing on a Wheaties box has itself become a symbol of athletic achievement.

4. WHEATIES HELPED KICK-START RONALD REAGAN'S ACTING CAREER.

In the 1930s, a young sports broadcaster named Ronald Reagan was working at a radio station in Des Moines, Iowa, narrating Wheaties-sponsored Chicago Cubs and White Sox games. As part of this job, Reagan went to California to visit the Cubs' spring training camp in 1937. While he was there, he also did a screen test at Warner Bros. The studio ended up offering him a seven-year contract, and later that year, he appeared in his first starring role as a radio commentator in Love Is On The Air.

5. ATHLETES' PHOTOS DIDN'T ALWAYS APPEAR ON THE FRONT OF BOXES.

Three Wheaties boxes featuring Michael Phelps
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Although a Wheaties box wouldn't seem complete without an athlete's photo on it today, the cereal didn't always feature athletes front and center. In the early years, the boxes had photos of athletes like baseball legend Lou Gehrig (the first celebrity to be featured, in 1934) on the back or side panels of boxes. Athletes didn't start to appear on the front of the box until 1958, when the cereal featured Olympic pole vaulter Bob Richards.

6. THE FIRST WOMAN ON A WHEATIES BOX WAS A PILOT.

Former Track and Field Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersey stands with a poster of her new Wheaties box after it was unveiled in 2004.
Former Track and Field Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersey stands with a poster of her new Wheaties box after it was unveiled in 2004.
Stephen Chernin, Getty Images

Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton became the first woman to appear on the front of a Wheaties box in 1984, but women did appear elsewhere on the box in the brand's early years. The first was pioneering aviator and stunt pilot Elinor Smith. Smith, whose picture graced the back of the box in 1934, set numerous world aviation records for endurance and altitude in the 1920s and 1930s.

7. IT USED TO HAVE A MASCOT.

Though we now associate Wheaties with athletes rather than an animal mascot, the cereal did have the latter during the 1950s. In an attempt to appeal to children, Wheaties adopted a puppet lion named Champy (short for "Champion") as the brand's mascot. Champy and his puppet friends sang about the benefits of Wheaties in commercials that ran during The Mickey Mouse Club, and kids could order their own Champy hand puppets for 50 cents (less than $5 today) if they mailed in Wheaties box tops.

8. MICHAEL JORDAN IS THE WHEATIES KING.

Of all the athletes who have graced the cover of a Wheaties box, basketball superstar Michael Jordan takes the cake for most appearances. He's been featured on the box 18 times, both alone and with the Chicago Bulls. He also served as a spokesperson for the cereal, appearing in numerous Wheaties commercials in the '80s and '90s.

9. FANS ONCE GOT THE CHANCE TO PICK A WHEATIES STAR.

MMA star Anthony Pettis on the front of a Wheaties box.
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The public hasn't often gotten a chance to weigh in on who will appear on the Wheaties box. But in 2014, Wheaties customers got to decide for the first time which athlete would be featured nationally. Called the Wheaties NEXT Challenge, the contest allowed people to vote for the next Wheaties Champion by logging their workouts on an app platform called MapMyFitness. Every workout of 30 minutes or more counted as one vote. Participants could choose between Paralympic sprinter Blake Leeper, motocross rider Ryan Dungey, mixed-martial-artist Anthony Pettis, lacrosse player Rob Pannell, or soccer player Christen Press. Pettis won, becoming the first MMA fighter to appear on the box in early 2015.

10. THERE WERE SEVERAL SPINOFFS THAT DIDN'T CATCH ON.

Three different Wheaties boxes featuring Tiger Woods sitting together on a table
Tiger Woods's Wheaties covers, 1998
Getty Images

Faced with declining sales, Wheaties introduced several spinoff cereals during the 1990s and early 2000s, including Honey Frosted Wheaties, Crispy Wheaties 'n Raisins, and Wheaties Energy Crunch. None of them sold very well, and they were all discontinued after a few years. The brand kept trying to expand its offerings, though. In 2009, General Mills introduced Wheaties Fuel, a version of the cereal it claimed was more tailored to men's dietary needs. Wheaties Fuel had more vitamin E and—unlike the original—no folic acid, which is commonly associated with women's prenatal supplements. Men didn't love Wheaties Fuel, though, and it was eventually discontinued too. Now, only the original "breakfast of champions" remains.

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