This is an excerpt from Sports Stories, a weekly newsletter written by Eric Nusbaum and illustrated by Adam Villacin. Sports Stories covers the intersections of sports, history, and sports history. It’s free to subscribe, which we recommend you do here. And if you become one of the first 100 paid subscribers to the newsletter, you’ll get a set of postcards featuring Villacin’s art.
It was a perfect story. In 1983, the singer, dancer, and actress Lola Falana was performing at Bally’s in Atlantic City. This was near the height of her fame—back when she was the Queen of Las Vegas, the brightest in a glittering sky of stars, the highest grossing woman on the whole Strip.
Falana was radiant. She could be found on TV, chatting up Johnny Carson or dancing outrageously with various Muppets; her name was fodder for gossip columnists and there were always whispers about the mob and this and that. It was Las Vegas stuff, celebrity stuff. She had become a star in the 1960s, mentored by Sammy Davis Jr. as the Rat Pack gave way to rock n’ roll. It was now the end of the disco era, and Lola Falana was still a star.
During this stint in Atlantic City, Falana somehow found herself at a baccarat table with big money on it. Baccarat is a game that only exists in movie scenes and for people with expensive clothes and long cigarette holders. Baccarat is a game you would not even know the rules to unless you are James Bond or make a living in casinos. Lola Falana wore expensive clothes and she had a decade to her name in Vegas. She belonged.
The legend doesn’t tell us who else was at the table, precisely. But it does tell us this: Falana walked away not with cash or mere material goods like diamonds and pearls. She walked away from the table and out into the Atlantic City night with a minority ownership stake in the New York Mets. (The Mets of course being perhaps the only sports franchise whose equity might conceivably be lost and won in a card game in New Jersey.)
When that groundball skittered through Bill Buckner’s legs in 1986 and the Mets became World Series champions, millions of Americans watched, totally oblivious to the fact that the woman they had seen on stage, in movies, beamed onto their TV sets, was a co-owner of the team. In 1988, the story goes, Falana sold her stake to longtime Mets GM Frank Cashen for a cool $14 million dollars. She disappeared from baseball history. And soon, she was out of the public eye for good.
At least that’s a story that comes up when you punch Lola Falana’s name into a search engine. It’s there in tributes on various websites; it appears in celebrity bios and on Facebook pages. And until very recently, you could find it on Wikipedia too, in a single elegantly constructed sentence. Here it is, a perfect bit of trivia, outlandish, but also in its absurd specificity somehow believable:
“In 1983, Falana was appearing at Bally’s hotel and casino in Atlantic City and, while playing baccarat, won a minority stake in the New York Mets, a stake she held until she sold it in 1988 for 14 million dollars to Frank Cashen.”
This anecdote was supposed to be the subject of this newsletter, and in a sense, it is. But a funny thing happened on the way to telling the story of how Lola Falana won a piece of the Mets. It turns out that maybe she didn’t. Normally, when we come across a Sports Story that is unsubstantiated or otherwise feels thin, we might pivot to something else. But the truth is, we write and draw these every week, and don’t have a ton of time to do them twice. And this one, even if it wasn’t necessarily all the way true, seemed too good to pass up.
You don’t have to be an investigative reporter to understand that Wikipedia is a subjective and imperfect source of information. Students have this lesson beaten into them, so thoroughly in fact that I think a lot of the good stuff about Wikipedia gets lost. Information there is generally well-organized and reasonably sourced. Sometimes you get into the problem of the sources themselves being bad; but anybody who has spent time reading academic histories would tell you that faulty source material isn’t just a wiki problem. If you want to go deep on a subject, Wikipedia is often a good place to start. You can click down to follow the references. And the dry, straightforward nature of the writing often leads to little moments of poetry, and in some cases to little moments like the story of Lola Falana and the New York Mets.
But there was reason to be suspicious right from the start. On Wikipedia, the Falana/Mets story didn’t have one of those little numbers next to it implying a source. It just sat there, unadorned. This could have been a red flag, or it could have just been a simple oversight.
So I started the easy way with a little search engine browsing. Nothing came up at first, which was somewhat surprising. But then again, this was a pretty obscure piece of trivia. So I went deeper: I dug into some newspaper archives. I also looked for books. thought that maybe there would be a Lola Falana memoir or biography out there. But Falana, whose career was railroaded by an MS diagnosis, has been a very private person for decades. There was no memoir.
On the other hand, Frank Cashen, the Mets executive who supposedly bought her out, did publish a book about his career in baseball. Cashen was known to be a literary type, and a little more attuned to the world than the typical baseball executive. But his memoir was a dead end. And it turned out I was not the only person to fall down this particular rabbit hole either. I had been beaten to the punch by the great baseball writer Rob Neyer, who left a disappointed review of Cashen’s book on Goodreads:
“I read this book because Lola Falana’s Wikipedia page says she won a piece of the New York Mets in a baccarat game in Las Vegas, and later made a tidy profit by selling that piece to Frank Cashen.
Alas, Cashen doesn’t mention Falana in this book, nor does he mention any ownership stake in the Mets.”
Thank you Rob, for saving me the time.
This could have been the end of the road. You might think that if a story like this isn’t easily provable on the internet, it probably isn’t provable at all, and it probably didn’t happen. You’d be wrong, though. Just because something is on Wikipedia doesn’t mean it did happen, but just because something isn’t right there in front of you on Google, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. If I’ve learned anything doing historical research, it’s that most of the good shit is under the surface.
Plus, it could be that the story was only half right. Maybe it was another team that Falana won a cut of. Maybe it wasn’t a stake in the team, but a 1969 Mets World Series ring or something. Who knows? There were a million ways a story like this could have evolved over the years.
At the very least it was certainly conceivable that Falana would have been playing high stakes baccarat in Atlantic City in 1983. And newspaper articles from the time quickly proved that she was indeed performing in Atlantic City that year, though not at Bally’s. (She was at The Playboy—a short-lived branding experiment by Hugh Hefner that was sold the following year and renamed The Atlantis, then sold again five years later to one Donald J. Trump.)
Anyway, regardless of where Falana was performing, it’s worth asking: if a celebrity performer won a stake in a pro sports franchise gambling, would that even be covered in newspapers?
I reached out to Howard Megdal, who is both a Mets fan and longtime chronicler of the team’s sordid financial history. Howard had not heard this story—another clue. But he suggested getting in touch with the legendary Mets PR man Jay Horwitz. So that’s what I did. (I have a fair bit of experience reaching out to PR pros about absurd seeming questions.) Specifically, I asked Horwitz if in his time with the Mets he had ever heard about Lola Falana winning a stake in the team in a baccarat game and then selling it to Frank Cashen for $14 million dollars.
Amazingly, he replied.
“Eric: Hope you are well. Sorry never heard of your story. Jay”
The next place I took my search was to Wikipedia itself. I had been trying to avoid this. The back end of Wikipedia is a confusing place full of grievance and pettiness and complicated systems and rules that I have no desire to understand. And yet I waded into the quagmire to learn a few things about Lola Falana’s page:
The information about the Mets was added on November 11, 2014.
At the same time, the Mets owners and executives page was updated by the same user to include Falana.
The Mets executives entry was quickly edited back to its previous state; Falana’s tenure in the company of Fred Wilpon and other illustrious Mets owners was brief, at least on that particular page. But on the Falana page, the fact lived on. I wondered who the editor was who posted this stuff. Unfortunately, and unlike some Wikipedia editors, this person was anonymous, or at least identifiable only by an IP address that I could trace to Syracuse, New York but (with my meager technical skills) no further.
Somebody in Syracuse either had an incredible true story to tell about Lola Falana and the Mets or a very specific kind of evil genius for poetic Wikipedia terrorism. Even now, writing this, I find myself impressed either way.
After all, it has been more than six years since that original entry was made and the story still lived. It lived not just on Wikipedia but in all those places online that copy Wikipedia entries, and all the places that copy the places that copy Wikipedia entries. At what point does a legend get repeated so many times it becomes a fact? One hundred years from now, will that amorphous ownership stake in the Mets be part of the Lola Falana entry in whatever information collection system replaces Wikipedia? When I was deep in the weeds researching a historical book, I often found myself amazed at the way truth could disappear under the weight of repeated citations. A fact gets invented or misconstrued, then repeated and repeated by different people, each relying on the credibility of the person who came before, but none bothering to actually check the primary source documents. It’s like taking an image and photocopying it, then photocopying each successive copy until the original is not just no longer legible but even recognizable.
A hundred years from now, maybe it won’t just be that Lola Falana won a stake in the Mets playing baccarat; by then, it will be that she actually pitched Game 7 of the 1986 World Series. On one hand, I’ve spent much of my career trying to write with empathy and respect and humanity about individuals from the past. I try to never lose sight of just how big a seemingly small life actually is; I try to appreciate each and every person, the forces of history that shape them, and the way those people shape the forces of history. But on the other hand, I’m a person whose job is to tell stories. Stories are powerful and sometimes the lies are better. Does it even matter if Lola Falana really won a piece of the Mets in a baccarat game? The very idea that she might have—that’s a hell of a story.
But enough with the philosophy. I’m more comfortable as a reporter in the field than as an internet sleuth or a philosopher on the nature of truth. Frank Cashen is no longer with us, but Lola Falana is. She’s been out of the limelight for decades, but that didn’t mean she’d be impossible to find. By the time I started making calls on that front, I was already quite certain that Falana never owned a stake in the Mets. But I had also learned that she was a far more fascinating person than I had previously realized. I was grateful for the chance to learn about her life and her work.
David Brokaw, who worked as Falana’s publicist in the 1980s, was quick to respond to a voicemail. He said he was closely involved with Falana’s career for a number of years, and that his father Norman Brokaw had been as well. Falana was diligent, wonderful to work with, and beloved by her fans. But David is also a lifelong baseball fan. And he is quite certain that if Lola Falana had been involved in anything resembling an ownership stake in a big league team in the 1980s, he would have known about it.
This was the end of the journey. The time Lola Falana won a cut of the Mets playing baccarat in Atlantic City and then sold it for $14 million dollars—well, it really is a hell of a story. It’s also just a story.
On January 12, literally hours after this piece was originally sent out to Sports Stories subscribers, a Wikipedia user named Ampersand692 updated the Lola Falana entry and removed the Mets story. Never let haters tell you that journalism can’t have an effect in the real world.
We don’t have the usual list of sources this week, because this was a sports story that didn’t actually happen. But oddly this is not the first time Lola Falana has appeared in this newsletter. Longtime subscribers may remember that in 2019, we told the story of O.J. Simpson’s disastrous first movie, The Klansman, which also starred Lee Marvin, Richard Burton, and yes, Lola Falana.
Also: shoutout to Howard Megdal, Rob Neyer, Amy Schiffman, and Mike Czaplicki for their research help.