Tim Mara, New York Bookmaker, 1937

Feb 18th 2013 08:30 am |

Tim Mara

Anyone who knows me a little bit knows that I am a big fan of pro football. Unfortunately, my team of choice since birth has been the Philadelphia Eagles. It’s been a tough lifetime with no Super Bowls and a laundry list of letdowns. Like all good Philly fans, I hate the Cowboys with an unreasonable passion. I’m supposed to hate the Giants too but it pains me to admit that my feelings towards the Jersey Giants is more jealousy than hate.

Of course, the Super Bowls are the obvious roots of this jealousy but their history is something that also makes me green with envy. Where the Eagles have been owned by, in my living memory, a degenerate gambler, a cheap egomaniac, and, currently, a rich kid from Boston, the Giants have been a family business since the 1920s.

To add another element to an already impressive history, the founding father of the Giants family legacy, Tim Mara, made much of his early fortune as a bookmaker at New York racetracks. Born into poverty, Mara stepped directly into the highly competitive bookmaking ranks at Belmont Park in 1921 and became one of the most successful bookmakers on the New York racing circuit soon after.

A 1937 article provides details on the career of Tim Mara and offers insight into the simple method he emplyed to make his fortune. Its amazing to think that Mara, who purchased the Giants in the mid-1920s for $500, continued to run a major bookmaking operation while owning an NFL team. Mara’s operation was described in the December 1937 Turf and Sport Digest, towards the end of his bookmaking career.

In the betting ring with Tim Mara, circa 1937

In 1939, New York passed legislation that allowed pari-mutuel betting in the state. A few years later, pari-mutuels became the norm and bookmakers disappeared from the New York racing scene. No matter for Mara, his fortune had been made and he had a solid fall back business in the New York Giants.

Here is how the Turf and Sport described Mara and his simple formula for success in 1937:

‘Hidden Percentage’ is the bookmaker’s real ace in the hole. In the long run, if a bookmaker’s clientele is large enough, it will give him a winning edge. So says Timothy James Mara, one of the most colorful bookmakers of this colorful era of bookmaking.

All the while Tim Mara sits upon his high stool in the clubhouses of the five New York tracks that old ‘hidden percentage’ is working for him. You can’t see the ‘hidden percentage’ working but you surely can see – and hear – Tim…

…Tim Mara is a large man. How he ever escaped the nickname ‘Big Tim’ is one of the passing wonders. He stands a fraction of an inch over six feet and he weighs 205 pounds. Solid, with a square jaw and pink cheeks, he is just a few months past the fifty-year mark.

Atop that high stool he is the very picture of beaming good humor. His big, rosy, happy face is topped by a crop of wavy reddish hair. Contrasting with the nervous secretive taciturnity of most of the clubhouse bookmakers Mara’s joyful mien and robust voice, calling out hearty greetings and poking weak fun at all comers, is refreshing. You like the fellow. He looks as though he’d give you a break…

…Mara, on his stool in the clubhouse, handles between $20,000 and $30,000 on weekdays. On Saturdays and holidays he handles $50,000 or more…

While the article, on the whole, celebrated Mara, it also indicated some trouble in his life. One problem being that pari-mutuel wagering seemed an inevitable change coming to the New York racing scene. A change that would ultimately put an end to his bookmaking business.

Additionally, while Mara handled hundreds of thousands of wagering in a few days at the track, all he could legally own, according to the Turf and Sport, was the “silver in his pockets and two watches.” He wrote a check for $50,000 to the New York Democratic Party that, after months of legal wrangling, came due. Mara, instead of paying as instructed by the courts, declared bankruptcy. While appearing as “affluent as a duPont”, he claimed he was broke. The author of the 1937 article wrote:

His wife and brother own the flourishing Mara Fuel Company he founded. His sons own the New York Giants. As for his bookmaking business, Tim claims that he is just the manager and all checks sent out to winning customers are signed by Walter Kenny, Tim’s cashier.

Some would call that shrewd, others crooked. No matter, by the time Tim Mara died in 1959, his bankruptcy and bookmaking business were not part of his life story. Instead, his New York Times referred to him as the “owner of the Giants” and only briefly mentioned his life at the track, the source of all other success that followed. I guess such an oversight can be forgiven considering that Mara’s $500 (or $2500, depending on the source) investment has turned into an NFL franchise now estimated to be worth over one billion dollars.

SOURCES, NEWS, AND NOTES

Edward James, “Hidden Percentages,” Turf and Sport Digest, December 1937

“Tim Mara, 71, Dies; Owner of Giants,” New York Times, 17 February 1959 [By a total coincidence, I happen to be finishing this article on the anniversary of Mr. Mara’s death.]

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Thanks for reading!

Filed in thoroughbred racing history



One Response to “Tim Mara, New York Bookmaker, 1937”

  1. Don Daniels says:

    Kevin,
    In the old-days, not all bookmakers were the same.

    Most of the tracks held what was called “auction pools”, there were multiple pools, all over town, allowing the wagering fan to shop for odds.

    The “auction pools” worked similar to a house-poker game were the house takes a cut of the pot.

    I’ve some pics of the early “auction pool stands” at a few tracks. They even advertised their services.

    I’m sure it went on at the Thoroughbreds as well, however I don’t have the same documentation.