After the publication of an unauthorized biography of Frank Sinatra, Joey Bishop appeared on a television talk show as an apologist. He explained that even though what was printed might be “facts,” the truth was so stretched that it was no longer recognizable. The host asked for an example. Bishop said that the author wrote that Sinatra’s uncle was a bookie and has that down like it was a bad thing. Back in the old neighborhood, bookmaking was considered a profession.
The mark of a profession is specialization and so it was in Jersey City. Numbers (the illegal lottery) runners didn’t work sports or horses — with rare exceptions. My father was one of these Jersey City PG (Pre Gentrification) professionals. (He’d profess with pride the mention of “the three O brothers” in the Kefauver Crime Hearings the way someone from the Back Bay might casually mention both grandmothers being DAR.) As luck would have it, someone quite a few notches up from the regular “quarta straight an’ a dime box an’ I’ll even up with ya on the foist” clientele started stopping by my father’s candy store everyday and playing what were fairly substantial amounts for the time, and paying then and there in cash. One day the Jersey City gentleman asked if he could place a bet on a basketball game. My father was about to say that he didn’t handle sports, but then thought that sending a good customer away was not the best of ideas. Instead he’d just accept the wager and then as a service walk around the corner and hand it over to one of the many other industrious individuals, each with their own niche, that were all over the Downtown Jersey City of the time.
After the novice gambler left, someone hanging out asked, “Big Boy, you’se takin’ sports now?”
“Nah, I’m just gonna han’ it over ta Crazy Charlie. This new guy’s so good like, I didn’ wanna do nothin’ to chase ‘im.”
“Lemme tell you somethin’ abou’ tha’ guy. When it comes to basketball, he’s like uncanny. Whud’evah team he bets on is like cursed an’ they’s jus’ boun’ ta lose. If I’s was you, I would’n even botha throwin’ over the bet.”
“Thanks, but he gave it ta me so I gotta place it.”
Walking to the sports bookie, on a whim my father decided to test his friend’s advice and go instead with the opposing team. As the season wore on with bet after bet, the basketball fan proved indeed to be followed by a dark cloud. With one or two rule-proving exceptions (paid out of pocket), every pick — even those that seemed well thought out — worked only if spun 180 degrees.