The most astonishing part of the whole Jimmy the Greek Snyder episode was not what he said, but what he got paid for what he did. His is an inspiring story of our time, in which somebody, somewhere in the dim past, decided to put an oddsmaker on television and make him a star. And being a star is what Snyder did for a living.
And what a living it turned out to be. According to news reports at the time of his firing, Snyder was being paid $750,000 on a one-year contract from CBS to talk about football. Snyder did not do particularly demanding work for that money, nor did he bring any transcending talent -- or knowledge -- to the airwaves. He showed up in press boxes but he was by no means a journalist. He had parlayed a remarkably limited shtick into mega media bucks.
He was what is known as a media personality.
Media personalities have not been around all that long. In fact, it is a relatively new occupation and is still searching for a good definition. The Labor Department's list of occupations doesn't even include this category, which not only makes it difficult to define exactly what media personalities do, it also makes it impossible to determine their average annual incomes. It's a safe bet, however, that Snyder's annual income of $750,000 was right up there for a media personality.
Snyder played his role well. He was large, and loud, and wore bright clothes. You could not miss him if you tried. He had opinions on everything and delivered them with an energetic self-assuredness that was the envy of every con man (or would-be con man) who had nothing better to do with his weekend afternoons than watch sports on television.
Snyder at the race track was a spectacle unto himself. He would arrive and depart with fanfare befitting someone who had just trained a Triple Crown winner. He would give the odds on a race and tout his favorite with the supreme confidence of a man who had never, ever been wrong. Whether he had any idea of what he was talking about was irrelevant. He was a showman. He exuded self-importance and thrived upon it. You could actually say he made a living off it. You can bet your next mortgage payment that CBS never would have dropped $750,000 a year on a self-effacing oddsmaker who would sit quietly in a race track press box feeding speed figures into a computer and come up with accurate predictions for a horse race. That guy could have picked 10 winners in a row and he'd have been labeled a researcher -- and paid accordingly.
Media personalities must have style. One of the early media personalities in the sports world was Casey Stengel, who was a much-revered figure among sportswriters. He was a a world-class raconteur, albeit at times an incomprehensible one by reliable accounts. But he was much more than a media creation. He was also a first-rate baseball manager.
Snyder was a media creation who started off in Las Vegas, according to his own account, by doing public relations for Howard Hughes' hotels. He, again by his own account, dabbled in oddsmaking to help out his friends. By the early '70s columnist Jack Anderson was quoting his odds on presidential elections and dubbing him the nation's number one oddsmaker. (Who's number two?) Snyder wrote a syndicated newspaper column giving odds on football games and fights. Never mind that bookmaking is illegal, we all know these kinds of columns are just to give the guys at the office a little assist in their friendly bets. The fact that Snyder was a convicted gambler who had been pardoned by President Ford merely added a little authenticity to the creation. Sportswriters quoted his odds, and on dull days in dull towns, they wrote about him. Over the years, he went from being a Vegas hustler into a full-fledged media personality.
He was part of a whole phony, glitzy world where nothing is real, not even work, where fame and notoriety count more than brains and talent, where ignorance is no handicap, where ratings are a measure of value and superficiality is a single layer of facial foundation. Jimmy the Greek was a media creation and CBS was by no means the only media that played a role in this symbiotic relationship. Now everyone is horrified to discover that he isn't very bright, after all.
CBS, however, was the only one paying him $750,000 a year at a time when it is savaging its payroll. No doubt the network fired him because of his unseemly racial remarks. But what a nice excuse he gave them to act on such a heady matter of principle. For a brief moment, the folks who operate in that world could do something real.
And save three-quarters of a million bucks a year.