Before the ubiquitous sports betting pick’em shows, endless podcasts with bold predictions that often failed, and the steady stream of boisterous touts on social media, Hank Goldberg was the sports handicapper.
Nicknamed “Hammering Hank,” Goldberg finished .500 or better on his NFL picks in 15 of 17 seasons as an ESPN handicapper, a feat that any seasoned bettor knows is considerably more difficult than it first appears. With precise spreads from determined bookmakers, a batting average above .500 in consecutive seasons is impressive enough, let alone nearly 17 in a row with the added pressure of delivering the picks in the public spotlight.
On Monday, Goldberg passed away on his 82nd birthday due to complications from chronic kidney disease.
Hammering Hank Goldberg (front left) surrounded by some of the Las Vegas bookmakers and oddsmakers he befriended and earned the respect of over many years in Las Vegas.
Goldberg, a pioneer in sports betting media, passed away today on his 82nd birthday. pic.twitter.com/U10CN1m6Bd
— David Payne Purdum (@DavidPurdum) July 4, 2022
Goldberg joined ESPN2 in 1994, a year after the channel’s launch, and later became a regular on NFL Countdown, where he made his weekly picks. Throughout his distinguished career, he forged close relationships with a number of Las Vegas’ most prominent bookmakers — including Art Manteris, former director of the SuperBook at the Las Vegas Hilton (now Westgate) and a 2019 inductee of the Sports Betting Hall of Fame.
“As a longtime Las Vegas bookmaker, there were few opinions I valued more than Hank’s on the NFL,” Manteris told ESPN on Monday.
Following the Supreme Court’s PASPA decision, Goldberg made several appearances on the ESPN sports betting program, The Daily Wager. He also worked for CBS Sports in his later years.
South Florida connection
Goldberg is inextricably linked with the Miami Dolphins for his decades-long association with the franchise.
After relocating to Miami in 1966, Goldberg broke into the NFL with a position in the Dolphins’ public relations office. Soon after, Goldberg was recruited by Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder to ghostwrite the handicapper’s nationally syndicated column. Snyder, who passed away in 1996, is known most for his time as a gambling contributor to CBS Sports’ pregame show, The NFL Today.
Before Snyder left CBS in 1988, the handicapper got in a well-documented fistfight with Brent Musburger at a Manhattan bar named Peartrees. Goldberg had a ringside view of the skirmish from inside the bar — as did Todd Musburger, Brent’s brother.
“If you talk to people today, they would have had to have that skirmish at Yankee Stadium if everyone who says they were there, were there,” Goldberg said on The Rich Eisen Show in 2020. “I can name the people who were in the place at the time.”
The exchange became so heated that some observers worried that Snyder was close to grabbing a liquor bottle to wield as a weapon. Thankfully, the brief exchange ended without any smashed bottles and with Musburger unhurt.
“I’ll never forget Todd yelling, ‘Go ahead, Jimmy, do it like you used to, when you were a gangster,'” Goldberg recalled, drawing a smirk from Eisen.
Goldberg eventually hailed a taxi for Snyder, ending the dispute, and the broadcasters reconciled days after the incident.
Known for his keen storytelling abilities, Goldberg often appeared on Eisen’s show with colorful tales of legendary figures from the NFL. In the wake of Don Shula’s death in 2020, Goldberg told Eisen of Shula’s affinity for horse racing, as evidenced by the frequent lunches the broadcaster had with the legendary coach at South Florida‘s Gulfstream Park. The two were often joined by former Dolphins quarterback Bob Griese and several others from Shula’s inner circle.
“I did the handicapping, of course,” Goldberg noted. “He was as demanding on me as he was on his players because he didn’t like favorites.”
A love of horse racing
I had the privilege of meeting Goldberg in San Diego three years ago on the afternoon of the Pacific Classic.
Hours before the prestigious race, I was introduced to Goldberg inside the press box at Del Mar Racetrack by former Sports Handle contributor Bob Mann. Upon the introduction, I sent my condolences to Goldberg for the passing of Hall of Fame linebacker Nick Buoniconti. During the 20-some-odd-minute chat, Goldberg could not have been more warm or interesting.
As with several other Dolphins stars of the 1970s, Goldberg became close friends with Buoniconti in his later years. Awed by Buoniconti’s talent, Goldberg immediately launched into a story about how the Washington Redskins based their game plan in Super Bowl VII on running away from Buoniconti.
Imagine that, Goldberg emphasized, a team devising a strategy not to slow a menacing outside pass rusher, but instead a middle linebacker. Goldberg wondered aloud if it marked the only time in Super Bowl history that an offense built a game plan around neutralizing a middle linebacker. The Dolphins defeated the Redskins 14-7 to become the only team in NFL history to finish a season untied and undefeated.
"Dad, why is the hammer next to the Jets when he thinks the Dolphins are going to win?"
"He doesn't think they're going to lose that bad, so he's betting they keep it close."
I cannot be the only person who was introduced to spread by Hank Goldberg on Sunday mornings on ESPN
— John Massey (@JTMassey79) July 5, 2022
Looking back, the anecdote underscores Goldberg’s eye for detail and depth in reporting. I also recall the enthusiasm he had in describing the story, symbolizing the passion he had for his profession. It is a passion that all writers should have for their craft.
Goldberg continued making horse racing picks until his final months. In May, he made his final appearance on ESPN ahead of the Kentucky Derby. Last month, he published his final racing picks, making selections for the Belmont Stakes.
Goldberg earned the nickname “Hammering Hank” for banging a gavel on a desk when he engaged in sports arguments decades ago with his co-hosts on the Miami television station WTVJ, Channel 6. Having both entered and exited the world on July 4, Goldberg is survived by his sister and lone sibling, Liz.