Jimmy Snyder – A Greek Tragedy
“All of you bow! All of you suckers bow!” So bellowed an on-form Muhammad Ali during an interview with David Frost. Speaking in the wake of his upset victory over George Foreman, the erstwhile Cassius Clay was keen to point up the folly of those who didn’t think he still had it in him. “If you wanna know any damn thing about boxing,” Ali continues, “don’t go to no boxing experts in Las Vegas, don’t go to no Jimmy The Greek. Come to Muhammad Ali!”
It’s a measure of how famous Jimmy Snyder was in the mid-1970s that even ‘The Greatest’ was dropping his name. Known to everyone as ‘The Greek’, Snyder had become the most well-known bookmaker in the country on the back of Sunday morning stalwart The NFL Today, the gridiron magazine show on which he predicted that week’s results. Such was his fame that he cameoed in movies – the first Cannonball Run – and advertised shaving foam. Then, just as it seemed he couldn’t lose, Jimmy The Greek went spectacularly bust.
Born Dimetrios Georgdios Synondinos in Stubenville, Ohio, in 1918, the man later known as Jimmy Snyder landed his first job in the betting industry running errands for a local bookie. With a rare knack for reading form, it wasn’t long before the teenage Jimmy was making a pile out of a business that was largely illegal throughout the United States. And when he wasn’t taking bets, he was placing audacious wagers such as the $10,000 he staked on Harry S Truman to win the 1948 Presidential election. Moustachioed Republican Thomas E Dewey might have been the red-hot favourite but Jimmy had read an article that said that women didn’t like to vote for men with facial hair as they felt they couldn’t trust them. When the votes were counted, the White House was Truman’s once again and Jimmy Snyder was $170,000 to the good.
When he lost his fortune on oil and coal ventures, Snyder swapped Subenville for Sin City. Eventually setting up shop in Vegas in 1956, it wasn’t long before The Greek was coining it in via his premium NFL tipping phone line. His entrepreneurship caught the eye of enigmatic business behemoth Howard Hughes who ended up hiring Snyder as a publicity agent. Snyder’s real knack, though, was for publicising himself. So when CBS announced that it’d be revamping its NFL coverage, Jimmy The Greek – the man who’d made a living through the telephone – took the most lucrative call of his career.
As it’s hard for some to imagine a time before the internet, a time before multi-channel TV even, so it’s difficult to describe just how big a phenomenon The NFL Today (above) was in the mid-to-late 1970s. Hosted by Brent Musberger, Phyllis George and former pro Irv Cross, it was as much a part of the American Sunday morning as going to church. And there at its heart was Jimmy The Greek, running down the fixture list the way Joe Public imagined mobsters had been doing since the 1930s.
Although he had gambling convictions to his name, Jimmy Snyder was no one’s idea of a gangster. What he was was someone who, in taking the opportunity CBS gave him to legitimize his livelihood, made sports betting a perfectly respectable thing to do. As Art Manteris, Station Casinos’ Vice-President of Race and Sports Operations, told ESPN, “He took it from backroom whispers to prominent conversation in everyone’s living room on Sunday morning. That was an enormous stride.”
Looking like a cross between Ernest Borgnine and Joe Pesci, Jimmy Snyder was every American’s favourite wise guy, and he knew it. With his knack for marketing, The Greek found himself advertising everything from toiletries to ocean cruises and penning a nationally-syndicated betting column. Life was great and it could have been even greater had he listened to his friends in Vegas and licensed his name to one of the casino chains. That he didn’t do so was strange given his common-sense approach to business. Nous, mind you, was something The Greek seemed to run low on the moment he reached the summit of Mount Celebrity.
Snyder’s problems were largely ego-related. A cantankerous man even before he made it, he was prone to squabble with his NFL Today co-stars and developed such an aversion to Phyllis George that he refused to appear on set with her. Worse still was a bar-room disagreement with Brent Musberger that degenerated into a full-on fistfight.
Then, in 1988 and with his contract up for renewal, Jimmy The Greek was fired by CBS. The reason? These comments a well-oiled Snyder made to a journalist in Washington DC about the superiority of black athletes:
“The black is a better athlete to begin with because he’s been bred to be the better athlete… goes back all the way to the Civil War when during the slave trade … the slave owner would breed his big black to his big woman so that he could have a big black kid.”
And that was pretty much that. Jimmy Snyder was persona non grata. Though he was quick to apologise – he even appeared on TV alongside Civil Rights heavyweight Jessie Jackson – there was no way back for The Greek. All that was left was for him to return to Las Vegas where he spent the last shabby decades of his life scrounging drinks from holidaymakers and telling anyone who’d listen that he used to be Jimmy The Greek.
Since the nature of his comments was so abhorrent, you could be forgiven for thinking the nature of Jimmy Snyder’s decline was less tragic than wholly deserved. As is so often the case, The Greek’s tragedy had nothing to do with his work and everything to do with his home life. Of the five children Jimmy and Joan Snyder brought into the world, three would die from cystic fibrosis. The last to pass, Jamie, did so in his mid-twenties. His sisters Tina and Florence didn’t live to see their mid-teens. “If people ask me what the biggest losses of my career are,” a sober Greek later said, “I immediately tell them it’s my three children.”