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THE VISIONARY FRANK "LEFTY" ROSENTHAL

THE MEN WHO MADE LAS VEGAS
by Byron Craft

THE VISIONARY
FRANK "LEFTY" ROSENTHAL

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He became famous for bringing race and sports book betting to Las Vegas. It was an achievement that made him a true visionary in Nevada history. Despite resistance from the traditional casino bosses and the mob, who believed exclusively in terms of table games, Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal had spent decades in and around the sports world and knew that it would be the mother lode of casino betting.

When it came to the legendary oddsmaker, there were only three kinds of people in the world. 1.) Those who didn’t know who Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal was. 2.) Those that were honored to be in the same room with him and… 3.) Those who would whisper nervously when they caught sight of him. It was the reaction Rosenthal expected when he would enter expensive restaurants or the elaborate casinos that he frequented daily. Rosenthal was worthy of the nervous whispers. He was, after all, the man Robert De Niro portrayed in the violent 1995 mobster film, Casino, a film adored by those who remembered, “Vegas back in the day.”

Frank Lawrence Rosenthal was born on June 12, 1929, in where else – Chicago. He grew up on the city’s west side. Frank’s mother was a housewife and his father was a produce wholesaler. The elder Rosenthal had, not only, a knack for mathematics and thoroughbreds, he owned several race horses and shared his passion with his son. Frank Lawrence Rosenthal’s genius for statistics, probability and game theory, which guided him throughout his life, was inherited from and groomed by his father… as the father goes, so goes the son. In the beginning, Frank Rosenthal approached gambling as a science, “You don’t determine what team is going to win but what team offers the best value,” Rosenthal was fond of saying. Beating the odds is of course hard work, and it is achieved only by factoring all that is known about the two opposing teams.


Rosenthal did not continue to learn his trade in school. As a youth, he honed his sports betting skills in the bleachers of Wrigley Field and the race track at Comiskey Park. He would often skip classes to attend sporting events. The backroom bookmakers were his classroom and professional gamblers were his mentors.

The young man from Chicago’s West Side soon earned a reputation for picking the winners in college and professional football and basketball games. It was this skill that attracted the attention of the mob. By the age of 26, Frank Lawrence Rosenthal was working with the Chicago Outfit. Frank ran the biggest illegal bookmaking office in the United States on behalf of the American Mafia. Headquartered in Cicero, Illinois, and concealed under the veil of the Cicero Home Improvement Company, the Outfit along with Frank Rosenthal, purchased “contracts” from sports bribers to fix sporting events. All he offered to these powerful men was one thing: his mathematical ability to pick the best value bets. Socially, Frank never lied to the bosses. He always maintained a professional distance and always kept his mouth shut. While many of his contemporaries either died of unnatural causes or were in prison, it was his code of honor that would propel Rosenthal from Chicago, to Miami, and eventually to Las Vegas.

Frank Rosenthal was a natural when it came to formulating betting lines on sporting events. As the years passed, he gained a reputation as one of the premier handicappers in the country and a top earner for the Outfit’s illegal gambling operations. Rosenthal was on top of his game, but fame and fortune would, in due course, have their price, and by 1960, Frank Rosenthal’s name would appear on a string of lists of known gamblers created by the Chicago Crime Commission. He decided it was time to get out of town. Hoping to keep a lower profile, the following year Frank moved to Miami. Nevertheless, his reputation and known affiliation with organized crime had preceded him, and it wasn’t long before the numbers guru came to the attention of the Senate’s Committee on Gambling and Organized Crime.

At the time, Attorney General Robert Kennedy asked the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations to look into illegal gambling activities. Rosenthal was called to testify before Senator McClellan’s committee. During his appearance, the bookmaker was less than candid. It was then that Frank Rosenthal earned the nickname “Lefty”. At the hearing, he invoked the Fifth Amendment more than fifty times, not even revealing whether or not he was left-handed. A short while later, Lefty was among a large number of bookies arrested as part of an FBI sting. The Miami police then got in on the act and were arresting the 32 year-old on a regular basis. The same police officers who had initially turned a blind eye to Rosenthal’s bookmaking activities were now putting on the heat. Then, matters became even worse for him, when he was indicted for attempting to bribe a college basketball player. Although Rosenthal maintained his innocence, he eventually pleaded, “no contest,” to the charges.

Despite altercations with the law, Lefty persevered, and was still living in Miami when his old buddy, Anthony “Tony the Ant” Spilotro, turned up in 1964. The visit was ill-fated, because the FBI was keeping an eye on Lefty Rosenthal, and the presence of Tony Spilotro, a suspect in multiple murders in Chicago, only increased the gambler’s unwanted visibility and hindered his public life.

Two years later, Lefty had his fill of Miami. He decided to move to a location where people in his line of work were treated with a little more respect. Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal settled on a booming gaming city in the desert… Las Vegas. Shortly after settling in, he acquired shares in the Rose Bowl Sports Book, later relocating to the Strip and the mob-controlled Stardust Casino.

After six years in Vegas, Lefty was working in a relatively unimportant position on the staff of the Stardust Casino when he was placed in control of it, along with three other hotels owned by a company known as the Argent Corporation, a Mafia controlled pension fund for the Teamsters union, which had financed the purchase of the hotel casino. While the Vegas of today is run by corporations, the Vegas of Rosenthal’s era was ruled by the families…mob families such as those of Frank Balistrieri, the mob boss of Milwaukee, and Nick Civella, the boss of Kansas City. They had secured over $127 million in Teamster loans, so that a San Diego real estate developer named Allen Glick could purchase casinos for them. For a while, Glick was in charge of the casinos, but he was doomed from the onset. He never realized that he had to deal with the mob to close the deal. He also never imagined that Rosenthal would be the one to call the shots. Glick was surprised to learn that he had to take orders from one of his employees. Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal told him, “It is about time you become informed of what is going on here and where I am coming from and where you should be. I was placed in this position not for your benefit, but for the benefit of others and I have been instructed not to tolerate any nonsense from you, nor do I have to listen to what you say, because you are not my boss.” Lefty Rosenthal continued berating Glick, “When I say you don’t have a choice, I am not just talking of an administrative basis, but I am talking about one involving health. If you interfere with any of the casino operations or try to undermine anything I want to do here, I represent to you that you will never leave this corporation alive.”

Frank Rosenthal secretly ran the Stardust, Fremont, Marina and Hacienda casinos. He ruled them with an iron fist and made them the most profitable casinos on the Strip through a combination of innovative gaming strategies and stellar customer service. His ability to pick the best bets made him the pioneer of sports gambling. There is no denying Rosenthal’s impact on the city which, when he arrived, was barely interested in sports betting. The casinos did not handle the book, as it was called. Sports books were operated in free-standing buildings away from the casinos. Nevertheless, Mr. Rosenthal created the first sports book that operated within a casino. He established the prototype at the Stardust, with plush seating and a myriad of television screens, bringing a comfort and glamour to the kind of betting that had always been treated as a little bit sleazy. Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal made the Stardust one of the world’s leading centers for sports gambling. Another one of his innovations was to allow female blackjack dealers, which in one year doubled the Stardust’s income. Lefty Rosenthal also discovered and promoted a little known magic act called Siegfried & Roy. In the casinos he managed, whether you were playing nickel slots or dropping thousands on baccarat, Rosenthal’s attractive, highly trained staff would make you feel like royalty.

In addition, Lefty Rosenthal also kept his casinos free of professional cheaters. If caught cheating at a table game, you would be taken in the back and have your hand crushed with a rubber mallet. Act like a slob and put your feet on a gaming table, and you would be thrown headfirst out of a window, not a door. Or God forbid, you made the mistake of insulting Mr. Rosenthal. You would be beaten to near death, all while he looked down at you, calmly smoking his cigarette and sipping his favorite drink, sparkling water.

Rosenthal was a clotheshorse. It was said that his closet contained over 200 pairs of pants. He was a whiz with numbers, especially savant-like in figuring odds, and an obsessively detail-oriented businessman. Frank had an old-fashioned mafia-style sense of doing business, which did not take kindly to being second-guessed or undermined by his own people. His grip on the functions of the casinos was firm and the feedback to his employees was merciless. As a casino boss, Rosenthal was a demanding perfectionist who wouldn’t tolerate anything except the very best in customer service. One time, when Rosenthal was walking through the Stardust and saw a cigarette butt on the casino floor, he picked it up himself and then fired the person who was responsible for cleaning the area.

Lefty Rosenthal was also a notorious egomaniac. During his fourteen-year stay in Sin City, he wrote a gossip column for the Las Vegas Sun and hosted a late-night talk show on local television, where he interviewed celebrities such as Frank Sinatra, Wayne Newton, O. J. Simpson, Muhammad Ali and Minnesota Fats. He also used his airtime to rail against the Nevada gaming commission.

Lefty Rosenthal was moving up to the big time fast, and his future looked extremely bright. But then, something happened that had a major impact on his life, and eventually the lives of several others. He fell in love. 

Geri McGee moved to Las Vegas from California in the late 1950’s. A very attractive woman, she worked as a topless showgirl at the Tropicana and Dunes. Geri also labored as a cocktail waitress and hustler around the casinos. When Lefty met her, it was love at first sight… on his part. He was in a hurry to tie the knot, but Geri had reservations. She wasn’t sure if she was ready to settle down. Her concerns diminished when Lefty placed a sizeable stash of cash and jewelry in a safe deposit box for her to keep if it didn’t work out. They were wed the following year. At first, everything went well for the newlyweds. Geri Rosenthal liked to spend money and her husband made plenty of it. Frank and Geri had two children together, Steven and Stephanie. But then things slowly soured. Lefty was indicted again for bookmaking. Authorities discovered that Rosenthal was secretly running casinos without a Nevada gaming license. A hearing was held to determine his legal ability to obtain one. This was the kind of thing that could jeopardize his eligibility to be licensed as a casino manager. His links to organized crime figures posed a similar threat, since the Nevada Gaming Control Board was likely to deny licensing upon learning of such relationships. As Lefty struggled to keep his nose clean, along came an unwelcome shock when his lifelong pal, the increasingly notorious Chicago gangster Tony “the ant” Spilotro, moved into town. Spilotro helped Frank protect the casinos from scammers and mobsters looking to rob the place. Rosenthal was quickly denied a license because of his unsavory association with organized crime.

The Rosenthal’s turbulent marriage was also marred by infidelities on both sides and ended in 1980. Mrs. Rosenthal’s affair with Tony Spilotro was among the many personal and professional tangles that caused the marriage to end in disaster. Rosenthal attributed the couple’s failure primarily to Geri’s inability to escape her alcohol and drug addictions. After leaving Frank and their two children, Geri died at a motel in Los Angeles at the age of 46 of an apparent drug overdose. Her death was ruled accidental, from a combination of Valium, cocaine, and alcohol.

Subsequently, Lefty Rosenthal continually struggled, in vain, to obtain the license that would have allowed him to run the Stardust and other casinos legally. In turn, the gaming commission kept refusing him because of suspected connections to the mob, which he always denied. He won one ruling in mid-1970, but it was eventually overturned. The final straw was when Tony Spilotro was indicted in a skimming scheme, along with about 14 others, which also sealed Rosenthal’s fate with gaming regulators. They ended up putting both men in Nevada’s black book of persons that excluded them from casinos…FOREVER. When Tony Spilotro was blacklisted, he started the “Hole in the Wall” gang that had a reputation for making holes in walls to rob jewelry stores. His presence brought a lot of unneeded attention to Lefty and the casinos, which wasn’t good for business. Spilotro was brutally murdered along with his brother Michael and buried in a cornfield in Indiana, supposedly by the Chicago mob.

Gamblers usually go on until they run out of luck and money. Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal went on until he was blown up. But he didn’t run out of luck...he didn’t die! Late in the evening of Oct. 4, 1982, Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal should have changed his name to Frank “Lucky” Rosenthal. The talented professional gambler (and gangster when necessary) walked out of Tony Roma’s on East Sahara Avenue with an order of takeout ribs in hand. He had just finished dinner with some fellow handicappers, and was bringing the food home for his two children, when he got into his car and it blew up. Rosenthal survived the assassination attempt. A car bomb that was attached to the gasoline tank was detonated by turning the ignition key. Lucky Lefty endured only because of a manufacturing irregularity that was unique to his particular vehicle, a 1981 Cadillac Eldorado. A metal plate under the driver’s seat, which General Motors had installed on a recall to correct a balancing problem, shielded Rosenthal’s body from most of the explosion’s force. Another luck of the draw was that Lucky Lefty Rosenthal had the driver’s side door opened when he turned the key and he didn’t have his seat belt on. The result was that Frank Rosenthal was blown out of the car and to safety only suffering minor burns.

Although no one was ever charged for this assassination attempt, Milwaukee mob boss Frank Balistrieri was most likely responsible. Balistrieri was known as the “Mad Bomber” to law enforcement officials and was heard, by way of a wiretap, blaming Rosenthal for the legal problems the mob-controlled casinos were suffering. Just weeks before the bombing, Balistrieri told his sons he intended to get “full satisfaction” for Rosenthal’s perceived wrongdoing. Conspiracies have abounded since then, pointing fingers at multiple suspects, including Spilotro either acting on his own or on behalf of the Chicago Outfit, and outlaw bikers who were friends of Rosenthal’s ex-wife, Geri.

The attempt on his life, for which no one was ever prosecuted, ended Frank Rosenthal’s career as one of the most powerful men in Las Vegas. He left Las Vegas a few months later and retired to Laguna Niguel, California. He was persona non grata, unable to work in, or even enter, any Nevada casino because of his alleged ties to organized crime. Rosenthal later moved from Laguna Niguel, to Boca Raton, Florida, and finally, Miami Beach, where he ran a sports betting website and worked as a consultant for several offshore sports betting companies. Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal died of natural causes on October 13, 2008, at the age of 79.

Mr. Rosenthal’s rise and fall in Las Vegas was at the center of Nicholas Pileggi’s 1995 book, “Casino”, and the subsequent film of the same name, directed by Martin Scorsese, though in the movie, the account was somewhat fictionalized. Mr. Rosenthal’s character, played by Robert De Niro, was named Sam “Ace” Rothstein.

Few, if any people, knew more about the world of gambling than Frank Rosenthal. He was a sports handicapper with undeniable credentials and unparalleled endorsements. Rosenthal was once called “the greatest living expert on sports gambling” by Sports Illustrated. He was a fascinating guy to many – a genius with numbers, who didn’t need an adding machine. The majority of his associates didn’t think of him as a gangster, but he was part of a world where that was the means of control. On the other hand, Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal didn’t care for the law either. He would sometimes talk about how much he had to pay cops to leave him alone and then they would arrest him anyway. He thought, if they were bribed, they should stay bribed.


The Men Who Made Las Vegas is a series by Byron Craft 
chronicling the growth of Sin City and the men who made it possible.

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