Crazy, With the Papers to Prove It: Stories About the Most Unusual, Eccentric and Outlandish People I've Known in 45 Years as a Sports Journalistby Dan Coughlin
“Fascinating and fun . . . If you love Cleveland sportsin spite of the recordsyou will love this book.” The Morning Journal
Dan Coughlin isn’t crazy, but for 45 years he covered sports in Cleveland, which means he lived life under a full moon. In this book, the award-winning Plain Dealer and WJW-TV reporter/strong>… See more details below
“Fascinating and fun . . . If you love Cleveland sportsin spite of the recordsyou will love this book.” The Morning Journal
Dan Coughlin isn’t crazy, but for 45 years he covered sports in Cleveland, which means he lived life under a full moon. In this book, the award-winning Plain Dealer and WJW-TV reporter reflects on the most unusual, eccentric and outlandish people and events he covered.
“I never met a wacko I didn’t like,” Coughlin says.
Not only did he write about them, they became his lifelong friends, including a degenerate gambler . . . a sportswriter who ripped open beer cans with his teeth . . . an Olympic champion who turned out to be a hermaphrodite . . . a football player who was a compulsive practical joker . . . and dozens of others. Every day was an adventure, but it wasn’t all laughs; some of his boxers went to jail, his softball players got shot, his race car drivers were killed. Luckily, Coughlin kept notes!
Any Cleveland sports fan will enjoy meeting these memorable characters.
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Read an Excerpt
Junior O’Malley: He Died a Thousand Deaths
My first duties at The Plain Dealer in January 1964 were menial but important. Bookies and gamblers depended on me, especially in the winter when Thistledown Racetrack was dark. That’s when horse players turned their attention to out of town tracks such as Aqueduct in New York, Arlington Park in Chicago, Hialeah in Miami, Laurel in Baltimore and the Fairgrounds in New Orleans.
Each afternoon I assembled the race results from all over the country as they rattled out of the Associated Press teletype machine, unfurling from rolls like toilet paper. I pasted them together, rolled them up in plastic vacuum tubes and zoomed them to the composing room to be set in agate type.
A bank of Associated Press printers clattered away in a neat row behind the sports copy desk. There was the Ohio sports wire, the national sports wire, the racing wire and the Western Union printer. They were never turned off. They ran all day and all night. In the morning, teletype copy would be coiled in piles on the floor. The rhythmic clackety-clack of the machines gave the sports department its pulse, even when nobody was there, which was usually the case in mid-afternoon before the copy editors got to work and before the reporters and rewrite men wandered in.
About three o’clock every day a beefy, middle-aged man with The Daily Racing Form poking out of the right pocket of his black cashmere overcoat bustled through the sports department and headed for the race wire, directly under the crudely drawn “No Loitering” sign that hung by a string from the ceiling. He leaned over it, he hugged it, caressing the copy through his hands as it emerged from the teletype machine in starts and stops. He spoke not a word. Then, as abruptly as he had arrived, he hurried away toward the middle of the city room and disappeared up the steps leading to the composing room.
And so began my 30-year adventure with Junior O’Malley, the most degenerate horse player in the Eastern Time zone.
Junior began taking me to Thistledown. The first time he marked my program, telling me what horses to bet. He marked all 10 races and he did not pick a single winner.
“Do you realize how hard that is?” he said. “It’s not easy.”
It turned out that Junior and I were almost related. Our families grew up together in St. Rose’s Parish on Cleveland’s west side. Some people pretend to be worried about inbreeding among the Irish on the west side. We’re like little West Virginia. My cousin Eileen Griffin says we’re one generation away from turning out kids with one eye in the middle of their foreheads. For example, Eileen is my first cousin. She is married to the second cousin of my wife’s mother. I challenge you to diagram that. Get ready to celebrate the first Cyclops born at Fairview General Hospital.
Junior worked as a proofreader at The Plain Dealer, a high-paying union job. As a matter of fact, his grandfather was once president of the Typographical Union in Cleveland. But Junior’s heart was at the racetrack. When Thistledown opened in the spring, he took a leave of absence from the paper and worked as a mutuel clerk at the racetrack for half the pay.
He couldn’t resist a bet. In the 1960s he learned of a crap game in a barn in Medina County. He was out there the next night.
“You had to climb a ladder to the hayloft,” Junior recalled. “But once you got up there, it was pretty plush. They had it fixed up real nice. They cleaned up all the hay. Well, I get in this crap game and I’m going hot and heavy and before long I lost two or three-hundred dollars, everything I had. Leo the Lip, who ran the game, took me aside and gave me back all my money. ‘Get out of here,’ Leo said. ‘The game is rigged.’ Pretty soon he sees me right back at the table, betting just as strong as before. He got me aside again and said, ‘Don’t you understand what I told you? It’s a crooked game.’ I heard him the first time. ‘But it’s the only game in town,’ I said.”
Like most degenerate gamblers, he paraphrased Grantland Rice: “It isn’t whether you win or lose, but if you’re in the game.”
A good crap game, on the level or not, was irresistible, but Junior’s true compulsion was the racetrack. He admits that he once bet on a race he knew was fixed and he picked the loser.
Nevertheless, he enjoyed a reputation as a savvy judge of horseflesh because he occasionally scored big and when he won, everybody won. If he cashed a $900 ticket, he spent a thousand celebrating in the bar that night. An occasional triumph was inevitable because he bet every race every day of his life. He never conceded one. He never said, “This one is impossible to handicap.” What he did say was, “There’s a winner in every race and I’m gonna find it.”
He once said to me, “Let me show you my $12,000 bottle of whisky,” whereupon he held up a bottle of VO, top shelf stuff, but hardly worth $12,000.
“A Christmas present from my bookie,” he said.
Junior once claimed that the only reason he gambled was to give his wife, Didie, a better life.
“It cost me $5,000 to buy her a $700 dining room set,” he said.
Didie worked for 20 years as the secretary to the mutuel director at Thistledown. Here was the difference between them. Didie actually took home her take-home pay.
Junior and Didie had their first date on St. Patrick’s Day, 1939.
“He got drunk,” said Didie.
The next day the police swooped in to arrest Junior on a long-standing assault and battery charge.
“He’s a bad one,” said Didie’s mother.
Four months later they were married.
“It will never last,” said Didie’s mother.
“Let me be the first to offer my condolences,” Junior’s father said to Didie.
It lasted for 44 years. She married Junior for better or worse and she had plenty of both.
Junior’s love affair with horses began with his baptism in 1915 when he was about a month old. His father borrowed the milkman’s horse so that Junior and his mother, Ruby, could ride to St. Rose’s Church in a carriage.
As Junior heard the story years later, the horse was white. The night before the christening Junior’s father and his cronies got drunk and decided that for the first-born child of an Irish family, the horse should be green.
“So they painted the poor devil. They painted him green,” Junior said.
Erasing original sin from the soul of baby James Francis Aloysius O’Malley proved to be much easier than erasing the green paint from the hide of Old Dobbin.
“They used turpentine,” Junior said. “When they hit him with the turpentine, he bolted and raced down Detroit Avenue from West 116th Street to West 110th in thirty-two and two-fifths seconds, still a track record for Detroit Avenue. The Humane Society had my father arrested. Horses have been getting even with me ever since.”
From the day Junior was embraced by Holy Mother Church, his life took on new meaning. He failed to survive the eighth grade at St. Rose’s School, having been expelled by Father O’Connell for reading The Daily Racing Form while his classmates were studying the Baltimore Catechism. Asked about Baltimore, Junior said, “That’s where they run the Preakness.”
“Sister Gilbert caught me reading the Racing Form. She was horrified and took me to the principal, Sister Agnes, who took me right up the chain of command. She took me to Father O’Connell, the pastor. Father O’Connell asked me what the Racing Form was. He had never seen one. So I said, ‘See, Father. Take this horse. He was third at the quarter and fifth at the half . . .’ Just then he hauled off and let me have it, right in the kisser.
“Next in line to see Father O’Connell was your uncle, Frank Coughlin, who was up on another rap,” Junior said to me. “When he saw Father O’Connell whack me, he was terrified. He went running down the hall screaming, ‘It’s a curse to get hit by a priest.’
“Turns out he was right,” Junior continued. “How else can you explain it? Every day I go out there bruised and bloodied and instead of cashing tickets, Father O’Connell unloads on me. It’s my penance.”
Father O’Connell must have been doing something right. He was later promoted to monsignor. Junior, on the other hand, was not promoted to the ninth grade.
Out of school and out of money, Junior followed his passion, a journey that took him to Bainbridge Park, a small racetrack in Geauga County near Cleveland that prospered in the 1920s and ’30s.
“I was 14 years old but I had the run of the place because Tommy McGinty owned a piece of the track and I would drive Mrs. McGinty out there each day. Well, my father was out of work. We had no food in the house. We had no money. It was 1929 and the Depression was ready to start. My father was already depressed when he saw the hungry looks on the faces of my mother, my sister and me. He said that if he had $2 he would go to the racetrack and try to parlay it into enough to buy some food.
“I told him my Aunt Peg had put $7 in a savings account for me at the Cleveland Trust on Detroit Avenue. The money was still there because Tip O’Neill hadn’t robbed the bank yet. After he robbed it we always called it Tip’s bank.
“My father had an old Chevrolet. We got the $7 and drove out to Bainbridge Racetrack. My father knew I was friendly with a lot of the kids who worked in the stables. He told me to go back there and get some information. My friend Danny worked for an owner who had a cheap horse named Erin Go Bragh. He wasn’t much of a horse, but Danny told me that on a heavy track this horse could not lose and the track that day was real heavy.
“We were chiseling up and down, betting to show, and we were down to $5. My father gave me $2 and said bet Erin Go Bragh to place. He wanted to play it safe. He kept thinking of my mother and sister at home waiting for food. I pleaded with him to bet Erin Go Bragh to win. I begged. He relented. Instead of $2, he gave me $4 and I bet it right on Erin Go Bragh’s nose. He was 25 to one.
“The race starts and Erin Go Bragh was last by 20 lengths. They go into the first turn and he’s last by 30 lengths. I started to cry. My father and I started to walk away. Then we heard the track announcer shout, ‘Here comes Erin Go Bragh. Look at that horse run.’
“Well, he wins and pays $52 so we’ve got $104. My father bets another horse and he pays $20. Now we have more money than my father has seen in three months. That night we went out and had a big dinner at the fanciest restaurant on the west side. My father paid off some markers. It brightened his outlook. It changed his life. Six years later my father and Jake Price, who later owned Carry Back, were co-owners of the Artesian Club.”
At age 14 Junior was finished with school but he continued his education at Bainbridge Racetrack.
“I was hanging around the judges’ stand. I heard one judge say, ‘Did you see that jockey throw something into the infield?’ Another judge said, ‘It must have been a battery.’ So they called over Toots Washington, who was the general handyman. ‘Toots, go out and get that battery,’ they told him.”
Batteries were racing’s version of burglar’s tools. They helped a devious jockey steal a purse. These were not your ordinary flashlight batteries. Small but powerful, they could be concealed underneath a rider’s racing silks. When the jockey wanted to get the horse’s attention, he touched him on the neck with the battery and gave him a few volts. Horses are very responsive to electrical shocks. A battery will make an ordinary claimer feel like Seattle Slew.
“Toots must have gone out and taken a look, because he went back in a barn and got a bushel basket,” Junior continued. “Old Toots came back and said, ‘Which one do you want, Judge?’ It was like batteries were growing out there. After each race the jockeys would gallop their horses around the first turn and toss their batteries over the fence into the infield. Batteries were once as common as manure around a racetrack.
“They can’t do that today. They’ve got patrol judges around the track and video tape replays with three cameras. If anything looks suspicious, they look at the replay and call down to search the boy’s tack when he gets off his horse. They’re making it very hard to cheat.”
Junior and Didie had been married only a couple of years when World War II started and Junior found himself in Burma with Merrill’s Marauders fighting the Japanese. He had the usual diseases, such as jungle rot and malaria. He remembers his homecoming when the war was over. He got off the train at the Terminal Tower with his mustering out pay in his pocket. He had about $700.
“That was more money than I had ever seen in my life,” he said. “I felt like a millionaire. But I made one big mistake. I stopped in a bookie joint at 12th and Superior to bet a couple of horses.”
Within four hours he was broke and despondent. At times such as this a man’s religious faith is strongest. His next stop was around the corner at St. John’s Cathedral. At that time Catholic Churches were like bars in New Orleans. There were no locks on the doors. They never closed.
“Help! I want to see a priest,” Junior bellowed as he barged through the front door. That was like shouting “Fire” in a fire station. Priests, monsignori and auxiliary bishops came running.
“I want to take the pledge,” said Junior.
One priest stepped up and took charge. The others slipped away to their prayerful duties.
“You’re a drinking man, are you?” asked the priest.
“Of course,” said Junior. “But that isn’t the problem.”
The priest was puzzled. “What is the problem?”
“Horses,” said Junior. “I’m addicted to them.”
According to Irish Catholic tradition, “The Pledge” is a vow usually associated with abstinence from alcohol. The penalty for breaking such a vow is eternal damnation, an endless dance on hot coals, which is enough to scare the demons out of even the most incorrigible rounder. The priest insisted that Junior’s wife be present for such a serious commitment. And so Junior took the bus home to West Boulevard and Clifton, to the home he had not seen in four years. What a bizarre reunion that must have been. He walked in the front door, kissed his wife hello, grabbed her by the arm and dragged her right back downtown on the bus. In the presence of a priest, in the seat of Roman Catholicism in Cleveland, under the same roof as the archbishop, Junior placed his hand on the Bible and swore he never would bet another horse as long as he lived.
News of Junior’s homecoming spread throughout the city, but so did rumors about the pledge, causing no small amount of anguish to bookmakers and the local racetracks. The word was slower to reach Maryland, however, where a trainer, an old friend of Junior’s, called him with a tip from Pimlico Racetrack.
“It was a sure thing and I needed the money. I called the priest and told him he had to get me off the hook. He had to release me from the pledge,” said Junior.
“No,” said the priest. “It’s not right. You took a vow for life.”
“We’ve got only 45 minutes to post time,” Junior urgently told the priest. “I’ll be right down to see you.”
Junior supplicated himself. He fell to his knees at the same spot where he had taken the pledge one month before. The priest remained adamant.
“If you don’t release me from the pledge, you’ll make a Protestant out of me,” Junior cried. “Besides, I’ll cut you in for a sawbuck.”
The priest recoiled at such blasphemy but relented.
“James, you are released from your pledge, but we are both going to hell,” he said.
“I’m not saying the race was fixed, but the horse won and paid $19. I cut the priest in for $85 for the poor box and made a bundle myself,” said Junior.
The lifetime pledge lasted four weeks. To his dying day, however, Junior believed he was haunted by its echo.
“I ain’t had any luck ever since,” he lamented.
Due to his grandfather’s influence Junior became a printer’s apprenticea printer’s “devil” they were called in the tradebut he spent more time at the track betting horses than setting type at the paper, which led to a full-time job as a mutuel clerk at the track. He was there for all the great moments in Thistledown history. A man once collapsed of a heart attack while standing in line to make a bet. A crowd gathered around him.
“Is he still alive?” someone asked.
“Only in the double,” said a man looking at the daily double tickets in the dead man’s hand.
“We’re a hardy breed,” Junior always said. “We die a thousand deaths before the results are official.”
Mutuel clerks are the business end of horse racing and Junior’s best customer often was himself. He operated like Wall Street in the 1920s. He made bets on margin.
“I would sometimes borrow the track’s money, but I was an honest crook,” Junior insisted. “Back then, they would come around and collect our money after each race. Well, I was $2 short after the first race and $10 short after the second race.”
It would be fine if Junior’s horses won. He could cover his bets with the money he won. No harm, no foul. But if he lost, the track would make up the difference in the mutuel pool and no one was happy.
Mutuel manager Bob Sloan had sent word to the money counting room that he was to be told immediately if Junior was even $2 short. Junior was already over his limit and the third race hadn’t even gone off.
“Now I’m punching tickets on the third race. I had people lined up at my window and I’m ignoring them. I was punching my own tickets,” he said.
Word spread up and down the main line, from window to window, like a California brushfire. The entire plant was in a panic. Alarms sounded, bells rang, sirens went off.
“Word reached Sloan and he came out running. He rushed up just as the race went off. I had punched out $700 in tickets. He said, ‘What horse did you bet?’ I told him number seven. He said, ‘You’re fired.’ And he’s snapping his fingers. ‘C’mon seven.’ Well, number seven wins and Mr. Sloan grabs my tickets and the money in my box and I said, ‘Don’t get your money mixed up with mine.’ As usual, they suspended me for two weeks.”
Junior had the wanderlust sometimes. He and Didie traveled from city to city, working on newspapers located near racetracks. They were called “tramp printers.” He worked at the Cincinnati Enquirer because of its proximity to River Downs and it was there that he became friendly with another horse-loving printer named Robert Chutjian, whose difficult Armenian name baffled Junior. The closest Junior could come was “Shotgun.”
After a successful afternoon at River Downs, Junior and Chutjian partied through the night and into the morning, leaving their winnings and what was left of their last paychecks in an after-hours joint in Covington, Kentucky. Hungry, thirsty and broke, they stumbled into the composing room of the Enquirer in search of a loan. Their timing could not have been worse. Early in the morning there was only a skeleton shift of printers on duty. Furthermore, it was the day before payday. One printer, however, took pity on them. He wrote out a personal check for $20, enough to get them jump-started that day at the Downs.
“Just a minute,” said their benefactor. “You guys look like hell. You haven’t shaved. Your clothes are rumpled. No bank will cash a personal check for you guys. Take this note. Go to the bank around the corner. Give the note to the first teller. He knows me. He’ll cash the check.”
They were there half an hour before the bank opened, pacing conspicuously back and forth on the sidewalk. When the uniformed security guard unlocked the front doors, these two characters rushed in. Chutjian headed directly toward the third teller.
“Hey, Shotgun,” Junior shouted, “give the note to the first teller.”
What happened next, Junior said later, was straight out of the movies.
“You should have seen the place go into action. They thought it was a stickup. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the guard go for his gun. A woman teller fainted. The guy at the first window turned white and stepped on the alarm. I knew we were in trouble.
“It was eventually straightened out, but they never cashed our check and I never gave that bank any more of my business,” said Junior.
They stayed for one season. Like homing pigeons, they always returned to Thistledown.
In the mid-’70s Didie collapsed at the track with a massive heart attack and was rushed to the Cleveland Clinic, where she underwent emergency open heart surgery. It was pledge time again and this time Junior went the distance.
“God,” he said, “here’s the proposition. If Didie pulls through I won’t take a drink or bet a horse for one year.”
When Junior finished talking to God, he turned to me.
“If anybody sees me bet a horse, or hears about me betting a horse for the next year, I hope they break both my arms and both my legs. This time I mean it. I just got a letter from a buddy in the federal pen in Atlanta. He’s got everybody in his cell block praying for her. I don’t know how much it will help, but it won’t hurt.”
Some of his friends suggested loopholes.
“You give us the money and we’ll make the bets for you. It will be like in escrow for you,” said one.
“Nothing doing,” said Junior. “That would be cheating. I thought about making one stipulation, that I’d only bet John Bourk’s horses. He’s coming in for the winter meeting with 30 fresh horses. He should clean up. The horses here are all burned out. But I want everybody to know this time the pledge is for real. If I can do it, it might give every horse player in the country the courage to quit.”
Well, Didie made it and Junior was faithful to his pledge. He did not take a drink and did not bet a horse for a year.
However, he started betting football, baseball and basketball and picked nothing but losers. Asked if he ever bet hockey, he said, “Oh, I don’t know anything about hockey.”
Didie had a sister who was suffering from old age and dementia and the county probate court made Junior and Didie her guardians, which was like throwing open the gate and inviting the fox into the henhouse. Didie’s sister was a wealthy widow with no children who was sitting on several hundred thousand dollars intended to support her for the rest of her lonely days in the nursing home.
“It’s a shame to let that money go to waste,” said Junior.
He rationalized that when her money ran out, the state would continue to care for her in the manner in which she was accustomed, which meant tapioca twice a day and diaper changes in the morning and night. Junior simply speeded up the process. He got his hands on her passbook and for about three years they were high rollers, traveling between Thistledown and Las Vegas. Sure enough, the money was gone long before Didie’s sister was and, exactly as Junior predicted, the nursing home bills went to the state and someone in Columbus paid them. Didie’s sister never missed a meal. The tapioca kept on coming. No harm, no foul.
Well, the inevitable happened a few years later. Didie cashed her last ticket. Junior was devastated. He lost his zest. He didn’t go to the track for at least a week.
He felt better when Thistledown created a new position for him. He was the Goodwill Ambassador. He got a slick green blazer and they built an information booth for him just inside the main entrance, where he explained how to bet the exotic wagers and told people where to find the rest rooms. Most importantly, the modest stipend he received kept him in action at the betting windows.
There were bumps in the road, however. Junior was stuck in a slow line and time was running out to make his bet. The horses were in the starting gate.
“Hey, hurry up,” he snapped rudely.
“Who do you think you are?” growled the man in front of him.
“I am the goodwill ambassador,” he announced.
In the early ’90s life got more complicated. He cashed a big ticket and the state tax man came around with his hand out.
“I lost more than I won that year, so actually I didn’t owe them anything, but they play by different rules. In their last letter they said something about attaching my possessions. They were closing in fast.”
Then the Feds surfaced. Having discovered that Didie was deceased, the Army disability board reduced his monthly pension check and wanted him to return overpayments amounting to $50,000.
“It’s not my fault they overpaid me for eight years. It’s their fault because they never informed me that my wife died,” Junior said.
Everyone was getting a piece of Junior. The Feds got him, the state tax boys got him and even his bookie was getting impatient, so his friends organized a fund-raiser to support his gambling habit. They were not gamblers, but they were drinkers and as drinkers they could understand a man’s needs. The fund-raiser was a legitimate charitable tax deduction because the money was laundered through a Catholic church run by a sympathetic pastor. I won’t get into the specifics. It was one of the lesser known beatitudes: The degenerate gambler will cash in before he cashes out.
Junior’s cancer was diagnosed in 1991 and he was troubled. Who would sing at his funeral? Over the years several persons agreed to sing, including the old Cleveland Press sports columnist Frank Gibbons, who had a lovely Irish tenor voice. But all of them died. Junior was the last man standing.
And so I suggested to him that he sing at his own funeral. Whenever he got drunk on Saturday night at Joe Cavoli’s restaurant on Clifton Avenue on Cleveland’s West Side, he would stumble up to the piano and sing the gambler’s lament, “Ace in the Hole.” What would be more appropriate than Junior singing the song when we wheeled him out of St. Rose’s Church?
I arranged a recording session at the Silver Quill restaurant when the Four Lads, a blockbuster singing group from the 1950s, were performing. Using a simple hand-held tape recorder, Junior’s recording debut came with the Four Lads singing backup on “Ace in the Hole.” I gave the cassette to Junior’s cousin, Dan Berry, the funeral director, to hold for his funeral. Hold for release, you might say.
Another little problem surfaced. The pastor of St. Rose’s, Father James A. Viall, would not permit the tape to be played in his church. “Only liturgical music,” he declared.
Junior, however, had the good sense to die when Father Viall was in Rome advising the Pope. Junior was 78 years old when he finished his race on Nov. 30, 1993, and his funeral Mass was said by another old family friend, none other than a bishopMost Reverend A.J. Quinn.
I asked Bishop Quinn about Junior’s tape. “Don’t tell me too much about it,” said His Excellency.
And so, when we spun his casket around and wheeled him out of St. Rose’s, right down the center aisle, as if he owned the place, Jacqui Bishop hit the “play” button on the tape recorder and held it up to the microphone in the choir loft. Out of the heavens came the voice of James Francis O’Malley Jr. singing, “This town is full of guys who think they’re mighty wise, just because they know a thing or two . . .”
At the end of the song, Junior added a final thought, “I hope there’s a racetrack up here somewhe...
Meet the Author
Dan Coughlin has covered Cleveland sports for more than four decades, as a sportswriter for The Plain Dealer (1964–1982) and on WJW-TV 8 (since 1983). His columns also appeared in the Elyria Chronicle-Telegram, Medina Gazette, Lake County News-Herald, Painesville Telegraph and other newspapers. He was twice named Ohio sportswriter of the year and was honored with an Emmy award. He traveled with the Browns and Indians, and covered some of the biggest college football games of the 20th century, including five major bowl games. He was at ringside for several world championship fights as well as the Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier series. He covered 17 Indianapolis 500s and several auto races in Europe. He lives in Rocky River, Ohio.
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