Celebrating spring, baseball, and old-school sportsmen Gaughan and Exber By John L. Smith, CDC Gaming Reports April 29, 2019 at 8:36 pm Every year about this time I’m transported back to childhood by the smell of fresh-mown grass, the crack of the bat, and the many signs of the start of another baseball season. Big league, minor league, or little league, I can’t pass a ballpark and not sense the thrill of the grass. That sense was only accentuated after making my first visit to the sparkling Las Vegas Ballpark for an Aviators game. It’s a stunning shrine, one not to be missed by occasional fans and diehard denizens alike. Las Vegas Club Those thoughts of spring eventually lead me on a detour from the ballparks of youth to a place that must to many have seemed like an unlikely place to celebrate the national pastime: Mel Exber’s Las Vegas Club. How I adored that smoky old joint. Those familiar with the changing face of Fremont Street will remember it as the baseball-themed casino at No. 18 Fremont. For a kid growing up in shadow of Fremont Street, walking through the Las Vegas Club was like a trip to Cooperstown, if baseball’s Hall of Fame offered dice layouts, blackjack tables, banks of slot machines and that most taboo of all Nevada’s legalized games of chance, legalized sports betting brought to you by cigar-smoking proprietor Mel Exber. If you never met Mel, you missed a real treat. He would never be mistaken for the biggest casino operator in Las Vegas, but Exber will always be one of my favorites. The son of a Brooklyn tailor, Mel played stick ball in the street and started making book about the time most kids are learning their multiplication tables. He lived to be 78 and never stopped enjoying the games of his youth. “When I was a kid,” he once told me, “the game was more important than anything. We never played a game, I don’t care if it was basketball, softball, punch ball or stick ball without making a bet. We bet on everything. This was dog-eat-dog. We pitched pennies, matched coins. Whatever we did, we bet. It was the way it was.” And the way it remained during World War II, where his service in the Army Air Corps introduced him to Las Vegas with $15 burning a hole in his pocket. It was soon gone, but he fell hard for the gambling town at a time most of the action was on Fremont Street. He returned in 1947 and never really left Fremont Street the rest of his life. He was known in some circles as a protege of a protege of “Nick the Greek” Dandolos, but it was his partnership with the late Jackie Gaughan that as one for the books. Gaughan and Exber were the Martin and Lewis of Fremont Street. Jackie gained his bookmaking apprenticeship in Omaha. Together they operated out of the Derby and Saratoga stand-alone books beginning in the early 1950s. With help from J. Kell Houssels Sr., they took over the Las Vegas Club in 1960. Exber and Gaughan went on to own or invest in a string of other casino properties, but the Las Vegas Club would always be Mel’s home field. (Jackie, of course, held court at the El Cortez.) Inside, the walls of the Las Vegas Club was a baseball fan’s delight. The walls were adorned with photographs of ballplayers. There were autographed baseballs and bats, and a restaurant called the Dugout. It was there after the Dodgers moved West that you’d commonly see players mingling with fans and gamblers and the great base-stealer Maury Wills performing his variety act. Mel was regularly seen behind his sports book counter up to his elbows in the odds and the ballgames he loved so much. A remodel of the casino made its facade look ever more like a miniature Ebbets Field, but shifting gambling habits and the general tarnish of downtown turned the Las Vegas Club into something of a relic. Exber died in 2002, and the casino’s fortunes slowly faded. It closed in August 2015. A new generation of downtown casino operators is making its own mark on Fremont Street with Derek Stevens leading a growing parade. He has big plans for the old Las Vegas Club site that include a 44-story hotel tower with 777 rooms and suites, a 125-foot-high video screen and a multi-level casino. The place will be called Circa Las Vegas. You can be certain the new place will bustle with energy and be a lot of fun. It’s also sure to offer a modern sports book complete with all the bells and whistles customers have come to expect. In the spirit of the game, I hope Stevens sets aside a little space in that sports book to acknowledge two of the biggest sports fans to ever do business in Las Vegas, Mel Exber and Jackie Gaughan. Contact John L. Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith.