When I was a kid in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, there were two reasons why I hated going to church on Sundays:
1.) Our church was boring.
2.) In the fall months, going to church meant missing The NFL Today.
I don’t want to say that I do what I do today because of The NFL Today, but between CBS’ Sunday pregame show, Siskel & Ebert, and Rolling Stone magazine, I became infatuated fairly early in life with the idea that people made a living just knowing stuff. And not just any stuff. This was stuff about sports, movies, music… if there’d been a TV show or a magazine back then dedicated to debating the merits of various kinds of chili, all of my true loves would’ve been covered.
My favorite segment of The NFL Today back then—everybody’s favorite segment, let’s be honest—came towards the end of the show, when Brent Musburger would sit across from Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder in front of a big analog checklist that looked like something borrowed from Classic Concentration, and the two of them would break down the week’s big games. I didn’t know much about gambling back then, and wasn’t watching Jimmy The Greek because I wanted to see where to lay my money. I just liked seeing two guys with some modicum of expertise talking with casual confidence about a sport they enjoyed. And I liked the physical presence of Jimmy The Greek, who even in the “ugly is okay” ‘70s (when some lumpy-looking folks became TV and movie stars) seemed unusually ordinary. Heck, he could’ve been a guy from my church.
But as Fritz Mitchell’s 30 For 30 documentary The Legend Of Jimmy The Greek explains, Snyder wasn’t ordinary at all. He was the best-known oddsmaker in the country well before he became a Sunday morning staple. After getting busted in Vegas for interstate gambling, he started a PR firm and began promoting tournament poker and sports-books beyond the confines of Nevada. He became famous—or infamous, really—for setting the spread in Super Bowl III with the Colts as a 17-point favorite over the Jets. The pick made him the butt of jokes, but it also got his name out. (And what a name!) Then, in his weekly appearances alongside Musburger, the bubbly beauty queen Phyllis George and the affable ex-jock Irv Cross, Snyder helped make the notion of putting money down on a ballgame seem downright wholesome.
The NFL Today increased Snyder’s fame exponentially, as much because of the behind-the-scenes drama as because of the on-screen content. Snyder berated George when the cameras were off, and once had a brawl with Musburger at a bar over his perceived lack of screen time. (The duo joked about it on the air the next week, but their relationship off the set was never what anyone would call “friendly.”) He lost three kids to cystic fibrosis and was very vocal and emotional about the ravages of the disease. He was very public about his squabbles with CBS over his contract, to the extent that he became a pain to his bosses. When he began to lose his insider edge—and when he was caught on video praising the athletic prowess of Aftrican-Americans in unfortunately insensitive terms—CBS cut him loose. He died in Vegas eight years later, practically friendless and destitute.
The Legend Of Jimmy The Greek smartly alternates anecdotes about The NFL Today (the part of Snyder’s life most people know about) with stories of how he grew up Dimetrios Synodinos in Steubenville, Ohio, and how he developed a reputation as a guy who could call games (or presidential elections) that others had misjudged. But Mitchell skirts too cautiously around the gambler’s reputed criminal background, and though Dan Rather describes the Snyder story at the top of the documentary as “a tragedy,” there doesn’t seem to be quite enough to Mitchell’s presentation of the story to give it a “tragic” heft.
It doesn’t help that so much of The Legend Of Jimmy The Greek has been shot in the ESPN house style: footage of still photos (as opposed to the photos themselves), shaky-cam insert shots of inanimate objects, intermittent blurring, starkly lit interviews, etc. I wasn’t that wild either about the reenactments of Snyder, um… walking around. (I didn’t mind the readings from Snyder’s autobiography, though they probably could’ve been handled more smoothly.)
Again though, as with the USFL doc a few weeks ago, the archival material in The Legend Of Jimmy The Greek is so strong that I really enjoyed the documentary despite its flaws. Rather also says at one point that Snyder had the rare gift to “get through the glass” as a television performer, and reach an audience. I know I loved watching him when I was 10-year-old truant from worship. And I know that it was good to see him again.
-A rant: While trying to get an image to put with this review, I found some great publicity stills of The NFL Today, all of which were owned by Sports Illustrated, and thus unable for me to use unless I ponied up some dough. I know there’s a commercial rationale for this, but it still drives me crazy that promotional materials—even three-decade-old promotional materials—aren’t readily available.
-Talking point #1: Was what Snyder said really that racist? I mean, obviously the terminology he used—talking about “breeding” and body parts as though people were animals—was beyond the pale, but Snyder's intentions were mostly positive. I’m of two minds of the issue. In the end, I think he said a non-racist thing in a very racist way. What do you guys think?
-Talking point #2: The documentary keeps pointing out how Snyder popularized sports-betting, but I think his legacy is just as much in the rise of the “expert” on sports pre-game shows. And as much as I enjoyed watching experts in my youth, the elongation of pregame and halftime shows has led to a surfeit of pompous talking heads now, in my opinion. So my next question is: Was the popularity of Snyder a good thing, long-term?
-No new 30 For 30 until December, which is the last one of the year. It’s been a good run so far. Really looking forward to the rest of the series.