By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
“St. Louis is 7 over Cincy,” Olshan says in a laconic voice. “St. Louis is a go-with team at home.”
“Cincy caught injuries last week,” replies Sippl. “Secondary sucks.”
The unspoken resolution: Bet St. Louis.
“Carolina is 8 at home over the Lions,” says Olshan, looking at the next game. “The Lions are on the road again. Go against.”
“Trying to go three straight years without a win,” Sippl says with a snort.
Then Olshan and Sippl finalize their phone picks for tomorrow’s games, just minutes before multiple lines start ringing in the next room.
Originally, Mort Olshan had no intention of being a handicapper. He knew nothing about gambling and wanted to be a sportscaster. Born in 1926 and raised in Buffalo, New York, he was a sports freak who compulsively clipped articles from local newspapers. He taped the clips into scrapbooks and was so detail-oriented that he became instinctively gifted at picking winners. Catholic in his taste, Mort loved all sports but particularly focused on Buffalo’s big three: football, basketball and boxing.
It was a kind of passion that led Mort — handsome, wavy-haired and able to execute a spot-on imitation of the Duke — to Athletic Publications in Minneapolis, Minnesota, owned by Leo “Wizard of Odds” Hirschfield. Hirschfield invented the point spread, made a fortune selling his lines to bookmakers across the United States and produced magazines that analyzed teams.
In November 1948, freshly discharged from the Marines, Mort, who had read about Hirschfield in Colliers, met the Wizard. “Leo interviewed me, and I think I impressed him with my sports knowledge,” Olshan writes in his unpublished autobiography. “He hired me to be the record keeper, a contributor to his weekly, The Green Sheet, and the person who transmitted lines and odds to bookmakers. I read the sports sections from 40 local papers each day. I look back on that period as a good time in my life.”
Within six years, he had quit Hirschfield, married his wife, Sylvia, had an unsuccessful flirtation with broadcasting, and relocated to Los Angeles, eventually settling in Ladera Heights. Mort worked as a floorman at May Co., made another busted run at broadcasting and tried the fight-management game (it ended after a guy who’d been suspended for taking too many beatings licked his palooka). He wrote a column for a sports rag sponsored by Seven-Up and penned scripts for a post-game show that aired on local television. “Then,” says Sylvia, “he decided to publish a version of what he had been doing with Hirschfield.”
A major difference between Mort’s freshly christened Gold Sheet and Hirschfield’s venerable Green Sheet, however, is that Mort’s mag aimed at bettors rather than bookies. The idea was to take all of the information and stats and interpretations that gamblers either can’t get or can’t grasp and make it available and accessible. It seemed like a perfect formula for success. Partnered with fellow sports fanatic Phil Giordano (the two happened to meet in L.A.), Mort rented an office on La Brea and published the first issue of The Gold Sheet at the start of the 1956 football season.
The first couple of years were a struggle, hindered by the Kefauver-era FBI. “People thought Morty was a bookie,” remembers Sylvia. The FBI tapped his phones, and on the eve of a late-’50s Rosh Hashanah, “investigators came in and accused him of aiding and abetting.” He was ultimately found innocent and permitted to continue publishing.
As the years passed, police pressure lapsed — at least partly because Mort himself stayed away from gambling for fear that it would taint his handicapping skills. He also forbade employees from wagering via office phone lines. But other pressures came to bear. The Gold Sheet’s circulation jumped to 20,000 by the late 1960s, and Mort’s responsibilities multiplied. A terrible delegator, he was the oddsmaker, the writer, the salesman and the CEO of his operation. The fruits of his labor are still visible at Gold Sheet headquarters: black binders, dating back to 1956 and bulging with brittle clippings. “I don’t know how Mort set the type, but I do know that he sweated all the games,” says Chuck Sippl.
Sitting on the edge of his bed in Ladera Heights or in the study of the home he eventually bought in Beverly Hills, Mort spent Sundays living and dying with every play, channel surfing during commercials and huddles. “The games had a profound effect on him,” says Gary Olshan, now sitting at his dad’s big old wooden desk in his cluttered Gold Sheet office, which has been intentionally left unchanged since Mort’s death. “When my dad’s teams did well, he took me to White Front in Ladera Heights and let me buy 10 records at a time — Beatles, Monkees, the Stones. That was a treat.”
On bad days, though, it was a whole other story. “One bowl season,” Gary continues, “he lost a lot of games. We were on vacation, in Hawaii, and I remember him not talking. He dealt with losses by becoming introverted. For the entire vacation, literally, he hardly uttered a word. He was really tied into the success of the business.”