Monday, November 30, 2015
Al Capone and his Chicago killers may have had deadly aim elsewhere, but out on a golf course they were hit and miss. Some recollections of those sporting days with Scarface
(This article first appeared in the Nov. 6, 1972, issue of Sports Illustrated.)
I was fresh out of the Army and recently married when a fire broke out in the two-story house in Indiana Harbor, where we rented rooms. We had gone to a movie that evening, my wife Rose and I—it was Claudette Colbert in Imitation of Life - and by the time we got back the building was gutted. Most everything we owned had been burned to ashes, maybe a couple of thousand dollars worth of stuff, a tragedy for an ex-staff sergeant earning about $125 a week as a roller in a steel mill. But one of the possessions that hurt me most to lose had no dollar value. It was a faded snapshot of a big, beefy man with a golf club in his right hand and his left hand around the shoulders of a 12-year-old boy. The boy was me. The man was Al Capone. And the scene was Burnham Woods golf course, 18 miles south of Chicago, where I caddied for Al for almost four years.
Earlier that year of the fire—1947—I was among the few mourners at Al's funeral in Chicago where the family moved his body from Miami. He had been out of Alcatraz eight years when he died. I don't suppose his passing grieved many people. Society remembered him as the original Public Enemy No. 1. I didn't have any illusions about that side of him either. But I remembered another side and I mourned him. I wanted him somehow to know I was there because, as a boy, I never had a better friend. Nobody had ever treated me or my family with such kindness.
In 1924, when I was 8, we moved from South Chicago to the little town of Burnham, which then had a population of about 800. The Torrio-Capone gang had been spreading into the suburbs for some time and in and around Burnham they had taken over quite a few breweries and opened half a dozen roadhouses with gambling, girls and booze. The gang had the full cooperation of the mayor, Johnny Patton, a jaunty character whom I never saw without an expensive cigar in his mouth. The newspapers always referred to him as the "Boy Mayor" because he had been operating a saloon of his own since the age of 14. He owned the biggest, fanciest house in Burnham, catercorner from our poor shack on Green Bay Avenue. He also operated the golf course where I caddied for Capone. At the time I went to the same grade school as his kids Jimmy and Frances.
My father was a railroad engineer and my mother hired out by the day as a housekeeper. They earned hardly enough between them to support their big family and all of us kids had to work while still in school. There were three other boys besides me and three girls. My oldest sister, Ida Mae, nicknamed "Babe," was the beauty of the family, with her jet-black hair, violet eyes and trim little figure, and it was Babe who brought Al Capone into our lives.
A city official gave me my first job a few months after we settled in Burnham. He was a man with a good many outside interests. One was a barbershop and I shined shoes there for a dime until he told me he was closing the shop. What he really did was convert it into a speakeasy. He said I could keep the shoeshine stand and the equipment. So I ran home to fetch the handcart I had won for selling subscriptions to the Chicago American, loaded everything onto it, and hauled it over to the Arrowhead Inn, Burnham's biggest, flashiest roadhouse. The chief of police moonlighted there as a bartender. I asked the manager, Frank Hitchcock, to let me set up my stand by the entrance. "Sonny," he said, "this ain't no place for a kid to hang around." I couldn't see why and begged for a chance to make a little extra dough. He finally agreed and I went right to work.
My very first customer was short and pasty-faced with real small feet. For the 10-cent shine he handed me a $1 tip. I learned later he was Johnny Torrio, who still headed the gang, with Capone the second-in-command. The next year he quit the country after a rival mob nearly killed him, leaving Capone the boss. Most of my customers were gangsters, though I didn't recognize any of them as such right away. There were Machine Gun Jack McGurn, an Italian in spite of his name, good-looking in a dark, snaky kind of way, a snappy dresser and smooth dancer—the girls were crazy for him—and Fred (Killer) Burke, who lived right behind our house for a while. A huge bear of a man with thick eyebrows and a bushy mustache, he seemed a friendly sort until you looked at his eyes. They were small and black and mean. Five years later McGurn and Burke took part in the St. Valentine's Day massacre ordered by Capone.
The pride of Burnham was its nine-hole golf course, started in 1924 and finished in 1925. Our house stood directly opposite, and in addition to shining shoes I would sometimes wait in line by the clubhouse with a lot of other kids for a chance to caddie. It meant picking up maybe another dollar or two. My sister Babe, who was then 16, found work there, too, as a waitress in the clubhouse restaurant. One night she came home waving a $10 bill. "Guess who gave it to me?" she said, all wrought up. " Al Capone!" Mom hit the ceiling. "You never go there again, you hear," she said. "You're going to quit that job."
It seems Capone and Johnny Patton had dropped in that afternoon 10 talk business over a cup of coffee. This was Capone's first visit. The idea of waiting on him rattled Babe so much that she spilled steaming coffee all over his white suit. He jumped up, yelling at her, and she almost fainted. But suddenly his whole manner changed. "I'm sorry, kid," he said, smiling and putting his arm around her. "I didn't mean to scare you, but that coffee is pretty hot." He told her he was planning to play golf at Burnham at least twice a week. When he left, he slipped her the $10.
Babe was too excited at the idea of meeting Capone again to pay any attention to Mom. She went straight back to the clubhouse the next day. I was standing in the caddie line when she sent a shaver to me with a message to go to the restaurant where somebody wanted to talk to me. I went there and for the first time saw Capone in the flesh. He was wearing a white silk shirt with his monogram, no tie, gray plus fours and a belt with a diamond buckle, and he was surrounded by his gangsters. There were Burke and McGurn and somebody they called Banjo Eyes because he looked like Eddie Cantor—I never did learn his real name—and a short, fat guy with heavy jowls, Jake Guzik, who from his slob looks I never would have taken for the business brains of the gang, Capone's right-hand man. He had a nickname, Greasy Thumb, that supposedly came from the days when he was a waiter in some Levee dive, such a sloppy waiter that his thumb kept sliding into the food.
"Kid, I need a good caddie," said Capone. "Your sister here tells me you're very good. Think you can carry all those clubs?" He pointed to a golf bag as tall as I was, leaning against the wall. I told him sure I could. "Let's go then," and he marched out to the first tee, followed by the gang. They made up a foursome—Capone and McGurn against Burke and Guzik, with a bet of $500 a hole. Capone teed off first. He fetched the ball a whack that would have sent it clear down the fairway, only he hooked it and it curved way off to the left into a clump of trees. I scrambled around on all fours for about 10 minutes trying to find it, scared to death Al would lose his temper and hit me or maybe shoot me, but all he did was grin, pat me on the head and call me Kid. "It's O.K., Kid," he said. "So we lose a stroke, that's all. Just gimme another ball." And I thought: "He can't be as mean and rough as he's cracked up to be."
A slew of bodyguards followed along the sidelines and after them all the other kids, staring open-mouthed at Al and jealous of me. Was I proud and awed! I could hardly believe it—me, Tim Sullivan, caddying for the Big Fellow. Every now and then he would spot a soda-pop stand just off the course and stop to buy us each a bottle.
He played a terrible game. I don't think he broke 60 for the nine holes. He could drive the ball half a mile, but he always hooked it, and he couldn't putt for beans. Guzik was worse and Burke didn't play much better. Only McGurn shot a pretty fair score, around 40. In addition to the regular $500 a hole, they kept making side bets and Al lost most of them. About $10,000 changed hands that day.
When it was over Al gave me a $20 bill, more money than I'd ever held in my hand before. "All this?" I said, dumfounded. He nodded. "Sure, why not? You earned it." And then he asked me how would I like to be his regular caddie. What
I didn't realize until I was a little older, he also wanted Babe to be his regular girl.
Al came out to Burnham twice a week on the average. I always caddied for him and he always tipped me $20 or more. It made a tremendous difference to the family budget. After a while even Mom, who worried herself sick at first about my associating with gangsters, didn't talk about it any more. Al's game never improved, not even after he took the club pro, Freddie Pelcher, down to Miami with him for the winter so he could get a golf lesson whenever he wanted. He paid him $100 a day, I was told, treated him to all the best whiskey he could drink and invited him along on the parties. I felt so bad about Al losing his ball so often I began cheating for him. I would keep a couple of extra balls in my pants pocket, drop one near the spot where his disappeared, and pretend I'd found it. He caught on pretty quick, but he just laughed and said, "You're O.K., Kid."
One afternoon when Banjo Eyes was playing against Al for big money he spotted me fishing for a ball in my pocket. "The boy's cheating!" he screamed. Al pretended not to believe it. They started arguing and Banjo Eyes called Al a liar. "Nobody can get away with that!" Al yelled, turning red in the face and swelling up like a bullfrog. "On your knees and start praying!" When Banjo Eyes hesitated, Al reached into his golf bag where he stowed his gun during a game. Banjo Eyes dropped to his knees, shaking, and I thought Al would blow his head off. I started crying from fear. I admitted I'd cheated and begged Al not to hurt Banjo Eyes. He calmed down right away, dropped his gun back into his golf bag, slapped Banjo Eyes on the back and said, as if nothing had happened: "Come on, let's finish the game."
Al once shot himself accidentally on the course. I saw him do it. He was lifting his golf bag when the revolver inside went off, shooting him in the foot. Probably one of the clubs jarred the trigger. Hopping around on the other foot, bellowing like a bull, he was a terrible sight. They drove him to the Hammond hospital, but the head doctor wouldn't let him stay more than a day. He was afraid some rival gangster out to-kill Al would shoot up the place. I tried to find out where they'd taken him so I could visit him, but they wouldn't tell anybody. He was back in a week, limping a little, but able to play nine holes. After that the boys double-checked to make sure the safety catch was on before they deposited any gun in a golf bag.
One afternoon Jake Guzik and Banjo Eyes turned up without Al. Jake waddled up to the caddie line and asked: "Where's the kid who caddies for Al?" I was at the end of the line, with about 20 boys ahead of me, but he jerked his thumb at me and told me to follow him. I said I couldn't, it wasn't my turn. His fat jowls shook. "You're caddying for me today, see," he said. "Let's get going." What could I do? I walked past the line, with 20 pairs of eyes burning holes in my back.
That Guzik, he was a lousy loser with a vicious temper. When he took his first swing at the ball and it moved about 10 feet, he kicked a tree. By the 5th hole he'd lost maybe a thousand bucks to Banjo Eyes. He'd been cheating, too. When he had a bad lie and thought nobody would notice, he'd shove the ball with his foot. On the 6th hole he landed in a sand trap. "How do I get out of here?" he asked me. I didn't know much about the game. I told him so, but he figured I was holding out on him for some reason. I had to say something, so I said to try blasting it out with a driver. He got the ball to the top of the trap and it rolled back. He tried three times and every time it rolled back. Then he blew up. He grabbed the driver like a bat and went for me, yelling every dirty name you could think of. I ran zigzagging across the fairway. Luckily, he was too fat and slow to catch me or I think he would have killed me. He stopped finally, out of breath, broke the club across his knees and threw the pieces at me. I stayed close to the clubhouse while he played the last holes with another caddie. When he finished, I got up enough nerve to ask for the money he owed me. He just snarled.
Next day half a dozen of them came, Al included, and I told him what happened. He called Guzik over to him. "What do you mean treating the Kid here like that?" Guzik said—I'll never forget it, of all the dumb alibis!—he said: "The Kid gave me a bum steer." Al moved in closer, scowling. "Why ask a boy? You're a grown man, ain't you? Besides, you never paid him. Pay him now." So Guzik pulled out his wallet and took $1 from it. "I said pay him!" Al shouted in his fat face, and he grabbed the wallet, removed two $10 bills, handed them to me, and threw the wallet at Guzik's feet. Guzik picked it up and waddled away without a word.
They all carried hip flasks and kept swigging as they went along. When they got high, there'd be some pretty wild clowning. They'd play leapfrog, turn somersaults, walk on their hands. There was a crazy game Al called Blind Robin. One guy would stretch out flat on his back, shut his eyes tight, and let the others tee off from his chin. They used a putter and swung slow and careful. Otherwise they would have smashed the guy's face. On the putting greens they'd throw down their pistol holders—clunk—and hold a wrestling match. I kept busy picking up the stuff that dropped out of their pockets—flasks, cigars, bills and change. They made an awful mess of the greens, digging up the grass with their knees and elbows. But there was never a peep out of the management. As soon as they left, the maintenance crew would head for the damaged area with wheelbarrows full of sod.
During a match the drunker they got the more they cheated and the more they caught each other at it. One time when Burke tried to sneak a better lie he and McGurn fought about the bloodiest fight I ever saw in or out of the prize ring. None of the gang tried to stop them. They just made a circle around them, laughing and cheering. A big crowd of golfers gathered, too, but they didn't make a sound. They seemed hypnotized. I got the feeling they were scared that if they said or did anything the gang would turn on them. It lasted about half an hour. Burke knocked McGurn off his feet a couple of times, but he came up quick. He'd been a prizefighter in his younger days and Burke was no match for him. Pretty soon the Killer had blood streaming from his nose, turning his white sport shirt red. One of his eyes closed completely. McGurn knocked him down 10, maybe 12 times, and at last he stayed down. I figured he might be dead. Banjo Eyes threw a pail of water over him. It had no effect. There happened to be a doctor in the crowd who finally brought Burke around. "Don't talk," he warned him. "Some of your teeth are loose, but you'll be all right after you see a dentist." Burke tried getting up by himself, but he couldn't stand. The boys made a stretcher with their hands and carried him to the clubhouse.
Besides Capone and Guzik that one time, the only other gangster I ever caddied for was Burke. When he played golf, the course looked like some farmer had plowed it—divots as big as your hand wherever he had taken a swipe at the ball. He was usually in the company of a peroxide blonde. She didn't play. She just walked along beside him. One time, after they'd emptied his flask, they disappeared behind a bunker. They were gone about 10 minutes and when they came back the blonde's dress had grass stains all over it. I was 10 at the time and I couldn't figure out what they'd been up to.
I learned the facts of life before I was too much older from Al and his boys. One afternoon on the links they kept talking about some kind of party they were going to throw at the clubhouse that night. An orgy, they called it. I'd never heard the word before and I was burning with curiosity. So after supper I went back to the clubhouse. The bouncer at the door laughed fit to bust when I asked to join Al's party. "Better go home and get your diapers changed," he said. I pretended to go but instead sneaked around to the back of the building. I was wearing tennis shoes that gave me enough traction to climb up to the second story where there was a little balcony and a window. I looked through and saw about 20 couples, most of them naked. Not Al, though. He just stood on the sidelines, watching and laughing. I found out then what an orgy was. When I got home, I avoided Mom. I felt too ashamed.
Posted by Deirdre Marie Capone at 2:52 PM