Sunday, 14 February 2016

THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE

The massacre as reported by the Chicago Daily News (US Public Domain)

Eighty-seven years ago today, St Valentine’s Day was known for something other than love…

It was a cold, snowy morning at 10:30 AM on February 14, 1929 in Chicago, Illinois, when five members of the North Side Irish Gang, along with their mechanic and a gangster groupie optometrist, congregated inside S-M-C Garage Company located at 2122 North Clark Street.  Based on a phone call received the night before, they were waiting for the arrival of what was believed to be a stolen shipment of beer. Their boss, George “Bugs” Moran, was also expected to be there, but for some reason was late today.

Then, all of a sudden two men dressed as policemen emerged through the side door brandishing 12-guage shotguns. Appearing to be a raid, they demanded that the men inside the garage line up with their backs to them against the north wall. Not that concerned, the seven complied. In seconds, two other men in street clothes came through the door carrying .45-caliber Thompson submachine guns. Then, the two in street clothes started firing rapidly, back and forth across the lineup of gang members. Once they were done their dirty deed, the two policemen stepped through the carnage, firing twice more at two men still moving. It was not a pretty sight when the assassins left: slumped bodies, pieces of flesh and pools of blood everywhere. The only apparent survivor was the mechanic’s Alsatian dog which began to murmur and bark once the assassins departed.

After a short while, a curious female neighbor made her way to the garage. As the dog continued to bark, she peeked inside, shrieked, then ran to call the police. In minutes the police arrived to find one the gang members, Frank Gusenberg, still alive by some miracle, despite absorbing 14 bullet wounds. He died 3 hours later in hospital without identifying his assailants. Irish gang boss Bugs Moran, luckily, had arrived at the garage on time to find a police car parked outside the garage. Fearing a raid, he went to a nearby coffee shop, unbeknown to him what was happening to his cronies inside the garage.

Up to that February 14 morning, gangland murders had been a common occurrence during Chicago’s unlawful Prohibition era. People were getting used to rival gangs killing each other in territorial wars over the lucrative profits in gambling, prostitution, beer, and hard booze. When the gangland killing hit the papers later that day, large front page headlines appeared coast to coast. The public was outraged. None of the other killings were quite as gruesome as this scene. And seven gangsters all at once. Someone had gone way too far.

The prime suspect in the St Valentine’s Day Massacre--the one with the most to gain--was notorious South Side boss Al Capone. Contacted by Chicago newspaper reporters with 24 hours, Bugs Moran said, “Only Capone kills like that.” But Capone had an alibi: He was at his Miami, Florida resort soaking up some sunshine. However,  had he arranged it? He and Moran were mortal enemies trying to expand into each other’s territory.  With Moran’s gang out of the way, Capone was now the undisputed crime czar of Chicago, controlling both the North and South Side.

Days after the grisly murders, newly elected US President Herbert Hoover met with Chicago municipal officials who told Hoover they and the public had had enough of the gang killings as well as the Chicago police corruption and payoffs that were keeping Capone and his henchman in power. And they were tired of Capone telling the press: “I’m a businessman, giving the people what they want.”

Two things evolved from this Washington meeting. The Feds were going to look more closely into Al Capone’s personal finances, as well as the operation of his illegal multi-million dollar bootlegging business. US Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon chose US Attorney George Johnson and IRS agent Frank Wilson to study Capone’s books for possible income tax invasion. Also chosen was prohibition agent Eliot Ness (who had joined the US Treasury Department in 1927 as part of the Bureau of Prohibition) to organize a special unit under the National Prohibition Act (namely the Volstead Act) to physically shut down the Capone’s liquor empire.

Ness had to first find competent, trustworthy agents who were not “on the take” as so many prohibition agents were. He came up with 50 individuals, then narrowed them down to 15, before finally selecting nine of the most above-the-board honest ones. They were quickly tagged by the Chicago press corps as “The Untouchables.” Ness and his boys raided Capone breweries and distilleries throughout Chicago, thanks to a wire-tapping operation of Capone’s phones that kept Ness one step ahead of the mobster.

In the first year of his non-stop duties, Ness had seized or destroyed 19 distilleries and six major breweries worth over $1 million of Capone’s liquor-related property: beer, booze, trucks, and miscellaneous equipment that put a serious dent in Capone’s cash flow. One brewery alone accounted for $200,000 loss in revenue to Capone. Each one of the mob’s breweries had the capacity to make 100 barrels of beer a day that were sold at $55 a barrel. Ness survived several assassination attempts, and at one point was offered $2000 cash up front and another $2000 every week on the job if he would stop “harassing” dear Mr Capone.

 Al Capone in 1930 (US Public Domain)
Ness did his work and the federal lawyers did theirs. By mid-1931, after several grand jury cases, Capone was charged with 22 counts of tax evasion, while he and 68 of his cohorts faced 5,000 counts of violating the Volstead Act. Capone’s lawyers managed to argue their way through the paperwork until October 31, 1931, when Capone’s final sentencing came down. The 5,000 counts against the Volstead Act that Ness and his people risked their lives to achieve were dropped. However, Capone was convicted on five tax evasion charges that did stick after a two-week trail. He was fined $50,000. In addition, he had to pay $7,692 in court costs, and $215,000 plus interest in back taxes. And, oh yeah, more importantly, he was sentenced to 11 years in federal prison. He began his years behind bars the next year after a failed appeal attempt by his lawyers. By the way, it was reported that in 1927 alone, Capone had pocketed as much as $60 million for himself from all his vices of which he didn’t pay any tax on, while his organization profited about $100 million.

All this came about from the St Valentine’s Day Massacre which no one had ever been convicted of doing. Although Capone had the best motive there’s really no absolute proof that Capone or his people killed Bugs Moran’s Irish gang that cold February 14, 1929 morning. Capone took the heat for it, though, and was taken down. The four killers were never identified. Two possible culprits were mob hitmen John Scalise and Albert Anselmi, known as “The Murder Twins” who often worked together on assassination projects. Both were arrested and held by Chicago police, but the charges were quickly dropped due to lack of evidence.

According to a mob informant, the two men were invited by Capone to a banquet in their honor along with another mobster named Joseph Guinta on May 7, 1929. Little did they know, it was a carefully planned trap. Prior to this, Capone suspected that all three were trying to get rid of him. In the middle of the banquet, Capone produced a baseball bat and beat the three to a pulp before his gunmen finished them off for good in a hail of bullets.

The bodies of Guinta, Scalise, and Anselmi were found the next morning on a lonely country road near Hammond, Indiana. A local coroner stated that in all his years at his job he had never seen such mutilated bodies. Their murders weren’t solved either. By 1931, a jury’s final assessment of the St Valentine’s Day Massacre was that the seven unfortunate individuals died “at the hands of a person or persons, unknown.” Case closed.

The S-M-C Garage Company building was demolished in 1967 and is now a parking lot for a nursing home. A Canadian businessman from Vancouver, BC, George Patey, bought the entire brick wall where Bugs Moran’s Irish Gang were lined up and shot, minus six bullet-marked bricks that had been pulled out and paid for by different nostalgia seekers. He had the six-by-ten-foot wall taken apart one brick at a time and numbered in their exact order, 414 bricks in all. He then had them shipped to Canada disguised as building material that he paid only pennies for in duty charges on each brick.

At first, Patey showcased the bricks in shopping malls, museums, and galleries before putting them in storage. In 1971, he put them on display at his Vancouver restaurant, The Banjo Palace, an establishment highlighted in a Roaring Twenties theme. The place closed in 1976, and the bricks went back into storage. Starting in 1999, he began selling them off. He eventually sold about 75, complete with signed authenticity certificates, then placed the rest in storage, again.


Patey died of cardiac failure in 2004, leaving the remaining 331 bricks willed to his niece, who sold them to a mob museum which opened in 2012. Guess what day it opened? St. Valentine’s Day, of course.

Monday, 1 February 2016

ALL THEY WANTED WAS RESPECT

1951 Jim Hendy Hockey Guide
(US Public Domain)
In 1952--the same year Dwight D Eisenhower became president--Cleveland, Ohio had a booming economy. Situated along the south shore of Lake Erie, this vibrant city of 900,000-plus had one of the best locations in the nation for commerce. It was a destination point for Minnesota’s iron ore with easy access to the rest of the Great Lakes, the Ohio River, and the Atlantic Ocean. A railroad hub, it had countless local businesses linked to the manufacturing sector and the nearby Detroit car industry just across the lake.

In addition, Cleveland was an avid, progressive sports town. It had the Indians, major league baseball’s 1948 World Series champions. It had the Browns, National Football League champs in 1950. Both teams were still contenders in 1952 and had integrated their rosters before most others did. Cleveland also had the American Hockey League Barons, a minor league powerhouse since the team’s 1937 AHL inception. From 1937-1952, the Cleveland Barons had made the playoffs 14 times, won five championships, and went as far as the finals on three other occasions before beaten out.

The Barons played in Cleveland Arena, built during the Great Depression in 1937 by Barons owner Al Sutphin who had headed up a group of investors for 1.5 million ($25 million in 2016 dollars), quite an accomplishment considering that the ambitious people used private and not government funds for the construction. One of the largest and most prestigious in North America, Cleveland Arena seated 9,900 and could provide another 2,600 at floor level for such events as boxing, basketball, and track meets. For the next two decades, especially after the war years, the Barons played before standing-room only crowds that exceeded 10,000 customers.
1952 Cleveland Barons program
(US Public Domain)

To keep the talent coming, Sutphin often paid better salaries than the NHL level, and for that reason many players preferred to stay in the minors with the Barons. For the first six years, future Hall of Famer Bill Cook coached them; followed by brother Fred “Bun” Cook, another future Hall of Famer, in 1943-44, who continued on for another 13 years. In 1949, the same year the arena’s mortgage had been paid off, Sutphin sold the team and the arena to a group of Minneapolis investors. The team remained strong on the ice and financially off the ice, thanks to GM Jim Hendy, a writer-executive who some today refer to as the “Godfather of Hockey Stats” if not the “Bill James of Hockey.”  Hendy had been publishing The Hockey Guide since 1933, a stats magazine relished by GMs and coaches throughout the hockey world. In his first year as GM, 1949-50, his Barons reached 100 points, the first AHL team to do so.

Due to the success of the Barons, Hendy came up with a grand idea. In May 1952, following three seasons as GM, backed up by  a 44-19-5 record in the season just completed, Hendy and the Barons management had their sights set on the Big Time: They applied for a National Hockey League franchise as a possible seventh team. At the May 14 NHL governors meeting, chaired by NHL President Clarence Campbell, the board considered the pros and cons of Cleveland’s proposal, knowing that they had to make a final decision within a few weeks, before the 1952-53 schedule could be worked out.

The Barons had a lot things going for them. No doubt, the fan interest was certainly rampant in the city. The team owned their arena, they had as many players under contract as most NHL teams, and they had an advanced farm system in which to draw from. Since 1950, the Barons had sent high-scoring right winger Wally Hergesheimer to the New York Rangers, and two players to the Toronto Maple Leafs, Vezina Trophy goalie Al Rollins and another high scorer, center Tod Sloan, while still keeping many talented, well-paid players on the Baron roster.

Several writers around the continent, especially in Cleveland, expected the Barons to be the seventh NHL club by October. Montreal Gazette sportswriter Dink Carroll went so far as printing a proposed opening day lineup of the Barons: Goal…Johnny Bower. Forwards…Doc Couture, Steve Wochy, Ed Hildebrand, Eddie Olson, Jack Gordon, Bob Bailey, Cal Stearns, Vic Lynn, Glen Sonmor, and Ken Schultz. Defensemen…Phil Samis, Bob Chrystal, Red Williams, Fred Shero, and Ed Reigle. 

1952-53 Parkhurst card of Fred Glover
(Canadian Public Domain)
But, to the disappointment of many, the NHL board of directors turned Hendy’s bid down flat, sighting several reasons. Cleveland Arena did not meet the NHL’s 15,000-seat minimum. The team did not appear to have the sufficient finances to bankroll an NHL team, and did not have 60 percent of the arena’s voting stock in the hands of local residents. Also, the Chicago Black Hawks, at that time, had been the doormat of the league for years, on the verge of filing for bankruptcy or being taken over by the league. The board of directors feared another Chicago fiasco. Last, but not least, Cleveland just did not seem major-league quality, as far as the NHL was concerned. The writing was on the wall: Hendy had come face to face with a well-established, status quo, old boys club. Leafs owner Conn Smythe said at the time: “This is the greatest game in the world and these are the greatest teams. Only a moron would want to change it.”

The next year, near the end of the 1952-53 season, Hendy tried once more to gain NHL acceptance. This time he challenged the previous year Stanley Cup champs, the Detroit Red Wings, to a best-of-five series for the coveted Stanley Cup. He even included gate guarantees at his home arena. Again, the NHL turned Hendy down because they probably had too much to lose. President Campbell said the season was not yet over and the Barons were not in the position to speak for the AHL; and the Stanley Cup was meant for competition between NHL teams only. Campbell, however, did promise Cleveland a crack at any future expansion in the league. But for some unexplained reason that never happened. They weren’t part of the six new teams in 1967-68, or the two teams two years later, or even the next sets of teams well into the 1970s.  

As the 1950’s moved on, the Cleveland Barons won back-to-back AHL championships in 1952-53 and 1953-54, and again in 1956-57. Their best skater was right winger and later playing-coach Fred Glover, a regular with Detroit’s 1951-52 Stanley Cup, who went on to play 16 years with the Barons, scoring at least 20 goals in 13 of those seasons, and a grand total of 522 goals in AHL play. League MVP three out of five years in the early 1960s, he became the “Wayne Gretsky of Cleveland.”

Their best goalie was none other than Johnny Bower, the master of the pokecheck, who won three straight American Hockey League  MVP awards as a Baron before being nabbed in the 1958 Inter-League Draft at age 34 by the Toronto Maple Leafs. There, he went on to help win four Stanley Cups in the 1960s, finally finishing his career at age 45. Minor league and NHL combined, Bower played a total of 1,207 regular-season games, a record no goalie will ever come anywhere close to passing, all but a half-dozen of those games without a mask.

In the Fifties, Hendy won The Hockey News minor league executive of the year twice. In his 11 total seasons at the helm of the club, the Barons won four AHL championships. Not unnoticed by other executives in the game, Hendy was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1968 in the builder category.

By the time the Barons folded in 1972 after 35 seasons of operation, going down in history as the most successful and iconic AHL team, they had won 1,178 games, lost 901, and tied 238 for a winning percentage of .560. They failed to make the playoffs only four times. And let’s not forget their nine championships, a league record until broken in 2008 by a team who has been in the league since 1938: the Hershey Bears.

The Cleveland Barons finally made it to the NHL for the start of the 1976-77 season, but under unflattering circumstances. The financially troubled California Golden Seals moved there and played in the “state of the art” Richfield Coliseum, in Richfield, Ohio, an hour out of Cleveland in the middle of nowhere. Although the team’s home rink seated 18,500, the NHL’s largest venue at that time, the new Barons couldn’t draw flies. They never filled the place even once.

After a second season in Richfield, the Barons merged with another financially strapped team, the Minnesota North Stars, taking up the latter’s name and playing in their rink. In the fall of 1993, the Stars moved to Texas, where they became the Dallas North Stars, where they remain today.