WASHINGTON — Washington. -- It's time to bring back the Numbers Man. Few Americans today know what a Numbers Man is. These were the founding fathers of the legal lotteries that now saturate the land.
For as little as a nickel, numbers men would take your bets on a three-digit number. They would do so on the phone, or by using kids as numbers runners, who went around collecting the bets. Many even used to give credit.
For most of this century, until the 1980s, numbers men were fixtures in urban America. They once were a vital part of the economies of ethnic America. Irish, Italians and Jews had them. African Americans followed in their wake.
In Baltimore, one of the most famous of the numbers men singlehandedly bankrolled many of the most prominent black businesses in the state. Without his help, economic development in Maryland's African American community -- still pretty thin -- would be virtually non-existent.
In Washington, another numbers man became famous, among other reasons, by financing the law school educations of several men who went on to become local and federal judges.
In Atlanta, a numbers man had a scholarship program that educated some of the most locally and nationally famous of its citizens.
These stories could be repeated all over the country. But the numbers men were done in not by the vice or bunco squads in the police departments. They were done in by state lotteries.
Legal gambling in America is now a $434 billion-a-year business. Most of this revenue comes from state lotteries. But state and city governments are poised to launch far more adventurous schemes. New Orleans, Chicago and Hartford are seriously considering elaborate ''family entertainment complex'' casinos. More than 75 Indian tribes are already in the gambling business. Several states have revived riverboat gambling.
Oregon, whose constitution forbids casinos, has discovered an electronic loophole by allowing video poker machines to be placed in bars all over the state.
Government gambling skyrocketed under President Reagan, because state governments, starved for revenue and cowed by anti-tax mania, decided to reach for revenue from those least likely to resist -- the working poor, and the gambling-addicted.
Given the size of the national debt and the current state of American politics, this trend clearly still is a growth industry -- a government-run industry.
And a monopoly industry. New York doesn't permit Virginia to sell lottery tickets there, and within the states' own boundaries, no private competition is tolerated. It's the worst of all worlds -- government in a monopoly business.
A proposition: Since governments obviously have decided that gambling no longer is evil, let the private sector in on it. We ought to allow numbers men (and women) back into the game, with all the creativity that would imply. They just could wind up becoming substantial centers of needed economic activity in devastated inner cities. License them, bond them -- and tax the hell out of them.
Kenneth Walker is a free-lance columnist and independent television producer.