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To Las Vegas Club’s Exber, the game was everything

Like an old ballpark after the last of the summer crowd has gone home, the venerable Las Vegas Club is closing its doors. This time it’s for good.

The downtown gambling joint is scheduled to shut down at midnight after 86 years in business to make way for a new idea on Fremont Street. Unlike some of its better known counterparts on the Strip, the Las Vegas Club isn’t expected to draw a crush of sentimental fans pining for one more shot at a jackpot or one more gander at its wonderful collection of sports memorabilia.

In its heyday many years ago, the Las Vegas Club was home to Mel Exber, one of the casino community’s great characters. Mel was not only a skilled bookmaker, but he was also a sports fanatic.

Above all, the Brooklyn native was a baseball fan. Exber kept season tickets to the Los Angeles Dodgers for decades. Through the years he befriended a hall of fame’s worth of ballplayers, Sandy Koufax and Maury Wills among many.

As Chris Epting tells it in “Roadside Baseball: The Locations of America’s Baseball Landmarks,” “After the ’62 season, when Wills and his teammates, including Duke Snider, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, and others rolled into Vegas for some extended R&R, Exber brought them to his club, which ended up becoming a memorabilia shrine for Dodgers fans.”

It was that and more. You could smell the hot dogs and roasted peanuts through the cloud of cigar smoke emanating from the tiny sports book where Mel held court and monitored the action. With its Dugout restaurant and, in later years, Ebbet’s Field facade, the Las Vegas Club was a tribute to Mel’s love of the game.

Back before Las Vegas sports books began to look like mission control at NASA, men of Exber’s calling set the odds and chalked the betting lines. Stand-alone race and sports books eventually moved inside the casinos, and the best were run by hands-on operators who knew their players.

Mel was the son of a Brooklyn tailor who found his first betting action in the streets.

“When I was a kid, the game was more important than anything,” he said in a 1994 interview. “We never played a game, I don’t care whether it was basketball, softball, punchball, stickball, without making a bet. We bet on everything. This was dog-eat-dog. We pitched pennies, matched coins. Whatever we did, we bet. It’s the way it was.”

It’s the way it would always be for Exber, who with partner Jackie Gaughan helped keep the lights burning on Fremont Street through fat and lean times alike.

They say the heart of Fremont Street is changing these days with energetic new operators such as D Las Vegas owner Derek Stevens and redevelopment outside the casino corridor. That’s a good thing.

But, frankly, a piece of my neon heart will always belong to joints like the Las Vegas Club and characters like Mel Exber.

He made a substantial bankroll with his downtown shrine to his love of the game, and he stayed on long after a tougher businessman would have sold to the highest bidder. He liked his golf and loved his family and his Dodgers, but Exber could never stray far from the action as he defined it.

“I’d go nuts if I didn’t have this place to come to,” he said, a cigar smoldering. “It’s the game. It’s a helluva game, and that’s why I do it. I don’t ever want to grow up as far as sports is concerned.”

Exber never did. When he died in May 2002, the synagogue drew plenty of the city’s leading lights. Maury Wills was there, too, along with a grandstand full of oddsmakers and hunch players and characters from a Las Vegas that, come midnight tonight, fades just a little more into the past.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. Reach him at 702 383-0295, or jsmith@reviewjournal.com. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith.

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