Snyder, Jimmy (“Jimmy the Greek”)

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Snyder, Jimmy (“Jimmy the Greek”)

(b. 9 September 1919 in Steubenville, Ohio; d. 21 April 1996 in Las Vegas, Nevada), oddsmaker and sportscaster who brought gambling to American television by predicting outcomes on CBS-TV’s NFL Today pregame football show.

Jimmy the Greek was born Demetrios Synodinos, the son of George Synodinos, owner of a grocery store. His mother, Sultania, was killed by his uncle when Jimmy was only ten years old. His uncle was angry, and one afternoon he shot his wife as well as Jimmy’s mother and then killed himself. Soon after his mother’s death, the family moved from Jimmy’s home in Steubenville, Ohio, to Kios, Greece, where Jimmy’s relatives lived and were an influential family. George Synodinos remarried in Kios to Agnes, the woman on the island who seemed to show the greatest interest in his children. In 1932, when Jimmy was thirteen years old, his family returned to Steubenville, where Jimmy would make his first bet at a local candy and cigar store. By tenth grade Jimmy had dropped out of high school and had begun a long career as a gambler.

In the 1930s Steubenville was a great place for a gambler to learn the “ins and outs” of the gambling world. The town had eleven bookmaking establishments, and Jimmy began dealing craps at a nightclub casino, where he was exposed to a gambling education on everything from horses to cards, dice, and sporting games. By age nineteen Jimmy had decided that in order to succeed he should concentrate on one aspect of gambling and learn it well. Jimmy chose team sports. He believed that team sports could be researched so that knowledgeable predictions could be made. Jimmy was winning thousands of dollars in a single night, and his name became known throughout the gambling world.

In 1942, at age nineteen, Jimmy married his first wife, Pauline (“Sunny”) Miles, with whom he had only gone on two dates prior to the wedding. This marriage did not last, and they were divorced two years later. Jimmy lost all of his money in the divorce settlement, although he did get custody of his daughter Victoria. Jimmy was married for a second time in 1952 to Joan Specht. His engagement to Joan came after a much longer courtship and lasted the rest of his life. With Joan, Jimmy had five children, three of whom died of cystic fibrosis at young ages. A son, Anthony, and a daughter, Stephanie, survived him.

In 1956 Jimmy moved to Nevada, where gambling was legal, and he began selling the odds on games to people all over the nation. Soon a federal law was passed that forbade gambling information from being passed across state lines for the purpose of betting. Jimmy the Greek did not let the law stop his business, and after only a few months, he was under federal indictment in Salt Lake City, Utah. The investigation began with several businessmen in Salt Lake City. They then provided Jimmy’s name when asked where they got their odds. In order to regain respect after the arrest, in 1961 Jimmy began writing one column a week in the Las Vegas Sun, presenting his odds on football, baseball, and even political elections. This column made Jimmy a celebrity in Las Vegas. By 1965 Jimmy had formed a public relations firm called Sports Unlimited. His firm landed large accounts, though Jimmy eventually dropped some of them to spend more time with his family. In 1976 Mike Pearl, the producer of CBS-TV’s NFL Today show, hired Jimmy to predict the outcome of games on television. Joining Brent Musburger, Phyllis George, and Irv Cross on the show every Sunday afternoon, Jimmy utilized nineteen people on his payroll to prepare his segment for the program. The ratings for the show soared, and in the next decade Jimmy established himself as leading football analyst.

Unfortunately, on 15 January 1988 Jimmy gave an interview that would ruin his career and change the rest of his life. It was the fifty-ninth birthday of the slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jimmy was at a restaurant in Washington, D.C., spending the weekend covering the NFL championship game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Washington Redskins. A reporter in the restaurant who was doing a story on the progress made by blacks in sports approached Jimmy, who told the interviewer that he thought black athletes were superior to white athletes. He commented that during the American Civil War, “the slave owner would breed his big black with his big woman so that they would have a big black kid, that’s where it all started.” He also told the reporter that a black athlete was better than a white one because “he’s been bred to be that way because of his thigh size and big size.”

CBS fired Jimmy the Greek the day after his comments were made public, without allowing any sort of explanation to be made. Jimmy offered an apology but was ostracized and relegated to obscurity after the incident. He returned to gambling near the end of his life, spending many days at the racetrack. He died of heart failure in Las Vegas on 21 April 1996 and was buried in Steubenville, where he had grown up.

Jimmy the Greek was the most famous oddsmaker in the betting world, the person who first combined gambling with televised sports. He brought a new excitement to the pregame show and made sports betting a form of entertainment.

Jimmy the Greek’s autobiography, Jimmy the Greeks by Himself (1975), includes interesting anecdotes about his life. Ginger Wads-worth collaborated with Jimmy at the end of his life to write Farewell Jimmy the Greek: Wizard of Odds (1996). See also Sports Illustrated, “Goodbye to a Gambler” (29 Apr. 1996), which includes additional information on Jimmy the Greek. Obituaries are in the New York Times, Las Vegas Review-Journal, Las Vegas Sun, and Newsday (all 22 Apr. 1996).

Lauren A. Brodsky