It’s hard to believe that crime historian Sean Patrick Griffin used to interview FBI agents at the Brick House Tavern + Tap in Willow Grove. When we arrive for lunch, we’re greeted by a wall of hotties in identical low-cut black tops and cutoff jean shorts. The menu features “Submissive Baked Potato Soup” and “Double D Cup Cakes.” Discreet this place is not. “I used to set up shop in the corner,” says Griffin. Management has apparently changed. “It was quieter then.”
Griffin’s life has gotten noisy. By day, he’s an associate professor of criminal justice at Penn State Abington; by night, he meets with Leonardo DiCaprio’s agent. Griffin’s first book, 2005’s Black Brothers, Inc., a magisterial history of the Black Mafia in Philadelphia, has been optioned by DiCaprio’s production company and may be turned into a movie. Now comes Griffin’s sophomore effort, Gaming the Game, the story of the rise and fall of Jimmy “The Sheep” Battista, a professional sports gambler from Delaware County and a key player in the NBA betting scandal of 2007. If you thought sports betting was about dropping $100 at a time with your friendly neighborhood Mafia bookmaker or in a Vegas casino, Griffin’s book will blow your mind: It reveals a hidden world of almost Goldman Sachs-level sophistication, where shadowy characters like “The Computer” and “The Chinaman” cultivate informants to get inside information on games, deploy teams of savvy computer analysts, and move millions of dollars electronically—all to manipulate global betting lines in their favor. “These guys are the Warren Buffetts of betting, not the day traders,” Griffin says.
What’s interesting about Griffin is how he straddles the line between academic and storyteller, cop and journalist. Born in Northeast Philly to a cop family, he earned a badge before deciding to study the criminal mind in a different context. Black Brothers, Inc. began as his PhD dissertation at Penn State. Right now he’s working on two academic papers on gambling, and he’s also begun research for his third book, about the penny-stock boiler rooms of the ’80s and ’90s, centered on a white-collar huckster with roots in South Jersey.
“I think people like me catch a huge break, because the public seems so preoccupied with New York City,” Griffin says. “Philadelphia’s a large metropolitan area that has a very serious crime problem and has had it for decades. It’s a perfect field to mine data. It’s job security for somebody like me.”