Churchill Downs sportsbook manager Frank Hall paid Lem Banker a supreme compliment when, in 1986, he said, “Too many customers like him, we close our doors.”
Banker, the architect of a legendary sports-betting career, died Nov. 20, from natural causes at his home in Las Vegas. He was 93.
“The nicest guy,” said Chris Maathuis, KLAS-Channel 8 sports director who hosted an NFL selection segment with Banker for many years. “Honest and charitable, but you didn’t want to cross him or make him look bad. He was a proud man.”
According to Maathuis, Banker’s daughter Blaine and grandson Jonathan knew something was wrong when Lem awoke on Sunday, Nov. 15, and did not inquire about that day’s NFL games or spreads.
Born in the Bronx, New York, on May 4, 1927, Banker roared when Babe Ruth once waved to him from a limousine, but Lem idolized Lou Gehrig. Benjamin, his father, ran a confectionery store in New Jersey in which he also made book. He taught Lem to not bet what he’d like to win but what he could afford to lose, that luck was a residue of hard work.
Banker moved to Las Vegas in 1957. A boxer, he relished being tan and fit. He used the Olympic-sized pool, a set of weights and a heavy bag in his backyard daily. He kept his 6-foot-3 stature ramrod straight.
It is with sadness in my heart that I tell you my dear friend and the last of the old time sports bettors in Las Vegas Lem Banker passed away. The 93 yr old was a true gem RIP Lem pic.twitter.com/WhpmP8FQUa
— Chris Maathuis (@sports8) November 20, 2020
He had quadruple-bypass heart surgery in 2008, but back issues — he underwent a delicate procedure in 2010 — took a terrible toll.
For a sports-betting book, I visited him multiple times two years ago. He was generous with his time but frail, his voice faint. He’d glare at a nearby wheelchair.
“I’m embarrassed,” he said. “I used to walk around like a West Point cadet. I worked out all the time, had a lot of girlfriends … I don’t know what happened.”
He pulled no punches, confirmed by several sources who knew him for decades. Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder once flinched in his presence, soon forking over the money he owed Banker.
His official boxing career ended in the army, in Japan, when he was floored seven times, “but I never lost a street fight.”
Banker’s large ranch home was filled with framed photographs, many of which included him and/or late wife Debbie, of Elvis Presley, Joe DiMaggio, Sonny Liston and other luminaries. He flaunted a photo of a dapper young man, revealing his name and that a blood test proved he’d been the product of Lem’s illicit affair with a New York model.
“A real bright kid,” beamed Banker. “Just graduated from Yale, where he was on full academic scholarship.”
Funeral arrangements are pending. In her dad’s memory, Blaine requested that donations be made to animal welfare organizations.
In encapsulating his career, Banker touched on an industry that had changed so much since 1957 and seemed to refer to a bigger picture.
“I could never do (today) what I did years ago,” he said. “God’s in my corner.”