Saturday, June 28, 2014

Cigars, Pool and Sports Betting

            As long as people have played sports there has been sports betting. For many years the corner of SW 4th and Washington was the center of bookmaking in Portland. In the 1880s it was a saloon called the White Elephant. Portland sports fans gathered there to drink and bet on prizefights, baseball games, cockfights and horse races. In the 1890s the saloon closed and Ed Schiller opened a cigar store in its place, with a cigar factory upstairs. Sports fans kept coming and soon Schiller’s was the place to be. When the Portland Nationals began to play baseball out at Vaughn Street Stadium in 1901, the players liked to hang out at Schiller’s smoking and talking with their fans.
Orator and baseball fan Julius Caesar was a regular customer at Schiller's Cigar Store. Photo from Oregonian Historical Archive, Multnomah County Library.

            It was not just the inside dope on the baseball team and the nickel slot-machines that kept the customers coming to Portland’s own “rope factory.”  There was a very colorful cast of characters that were regulars there. Jack Grim, the National’s coach, and “Talkative Jack” Marshal, the team’s secretary were often there. W.C. “Jerry” Powers worked behind the counter, selling cigars, taking bets and keeping the odds and scores updated on a huge blackboard. Julius Caesar, one of Portland’s famous African-American orators, stopped by regularly in his plug hat and bright red vest. If the Nationals were doing well, or someone was buying drinks or cigars, Julius would regale the crowd with a scene from Shakespeare or an ode on the prowess of the Nationals’ players.  If the Nationals were not doing well he was known to shake his head sadly and wander away. Joe Day, Portland’s most famous detective, was another regular customer at Schiller’s. Detective Day, who should go down in history for telling tall tales about his career as much as his actual exploits as a policeman and detective, was not a man to cross. In 1908 he nearly came to blows with C.J. Sweet, a member of the jury which had just convicted Edward Martin of manslaughter, rather than first degree murder, in the controversial Nathan Wolff murder case. Ed Schiller broke it up before anybody got hurt.
            In 1906 the party moved two blocks west to 6th & Washington, when the old building that had started out as Wagner’s General Store, was slated for destruction. Ed Schiller continued to roll and sell cigars and take bets at the new location, but Jerry Powers moved to the basement of the Perkins Hotel, a block away, to his own poolroom. There was a falling out between the two old friends around that time and Schiller’s fortunes began to decline.  Powers, who was starting to become the dominant figure in Portland betting, may have brought some pressure on his old boss after Schiller opened a competing pool room in the basement of his building in 1911. Portland passed its first anti-gambling ordinance in 1851, but the laws were rarely enforced. They were most often enforced when a gambler who made regular payments to the police wanted competition out of the way. The city started enforcing the gambling laws against Ed Schiller in 1913 and it was not long before he retired. Jerry Powers was the dominant bookmaker in Portland after that.
            There is no evidence that Jerry Powers was involved with any illegal activity beyond gambling. He was not a man to back down from a fight, though. In 1896, when Powers worked as a conductor on the Eastside Railway Company’s South Mount Tabor line, he took a bullet in the shoulder protecting his change-belt from armed robbers in the lonely waiting room at the east end of the line.  If you weren’t trying to rob him, Jerry Powers was an affable man, very popular with the regular crowd that hung out at Schiller’s and at Powers’ Poolroom. Powers used a telegraph wire and a telephone to keep scores and odds up to date on his blackboard. He pitched for the Fat Men’s Baseball team when they played charity games and he was known to hustle the occasional game of pool. Powers may have confined his illegal activities to breaking the gambling laws, but not all bookmakers are that scrupulous.
Bobby Evans right before his fall in 1932. Photo from Oregonian Historical Archive, Multnomah County Library.

            Augustine Ardiss was a young immigrant who grew up in poverty in South Portland. Fighting his way up from the streets, Ardiss was booked for his first professional boxing match, under the name Bobby Evans, in 1909. “Fighting Bobby” became his nickname and he got a reputation as a heavy hitter in the lightweight class.  At one memorable bout in Marshfield (as they used to call Coos Bay) in 1911, Evans broke both wrists pummeling his opponent, “Roughhouse” Burns, before throwing in the towel in the fourteenth round. Billy fought his way back from that injury to a shot at the Northwest Lightweight Championship title in 1915 in a match against Seattle’s Billy Farrell in Pendleton, OR. Lawrence Duff, a retired Portland professional wrestler, refereed the brutal fifteen-round battle. He awarded the decision to Farrell and “Fighting Bobby” lost his temper, punching Duff in the jaw. Duff used an old wrestling trick to disable the boxer and Pendleton Police Chief Kearney, who was in the audience, arrested him and quelled the near riot that the punch had started among the rowdy spectators.
            Bobby Evan’s misplaced punch ended his career as a boxer. He returned to Portland in 1917 with a young boxer he had discovered and began his career as a coach and fight promoter.  In 1920 he was appointed matchmaker by the Portland Boxing Commission, giving him his new nickname. “Matchmaker Bobby” Evans began a long career in the public eye in Portland. He would end up in the 1970s as a TV commentator giving his colorful opinion on occasional boxing matches. By then most Portlanders had forgotten about the dark rumors and frequent criminal charges that surrounded one of Portland’s earliest organized crime bosses. Rumors that he was connected to the East Coast mob were frequent. When he was asked about them he would usually laugh and say, “You must have me confused with somebody else.”
Bobby Evans in 1971. Photo from Oregonian Historical Archive, Multnomah County Library.
             Bobby opened a combination cigar store and boxing gym, The Shamrock Athletic Club on SW Second Ave. The police were never able, or willing to, prove the allegations that you could get illegal liquor at the Shamrock, but Bobby faced gambling charges more than once. Police found cards and dice with gambling chips on the table when they raided the place. Prohibition was in full swing by then and the price of booze in Portland was higher than anywhere else on the Pacific Coast. The city government was taking in about $100,000 a month in protection money from the few bootleggers who were allowed to operate. Anyone else who tried to sell liquor, whether backwoods still operators from Molalla or freelance smugglers from Canada, they faced strict enforcement of existing laws. The Portland Police Bureau often raced with Federal agents to grab the liquor first. There was even one near shoot-out between Portland police and Federal prohibition agents. Most of the liquor seized by the Portland police made it into the well-guarded storeroom in the basement of the Central Police Station. The “evidence” often disappeared, either at parties put on by cronies of Mayor George Baker or into the hands of “approved” bootleggers.
            Matchmaker Bobby coached young boxers, most of them immigrant children who participated in programs at South Portland’s Neighborhood House. A project of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), Neighborhood House provided services for immigrant families suffering poverty and trying to assimilate into their new country. The children attended Portland Public Schools and after school programs at Neighborhood House. Evans recruited some of his most important employees from the Neighborhood House boxing team. Young men like Mike DePinto, Abe Wienstein and Jack Minsky boxed for Matchmaker Bobby. They all ended up in careers in organized crime. Abe Weinstein’s family business was junk dealing and he was a natural leader. He opened a second hand store on the eastside and recruited a gang of young burglars to keep it stocked. Mike DePinto and his two brothers Ray and Nick were muscle. They were especially good at coercing young women into prostitution. Jack Minsky was a cab driver and pimp. He was pretty good in a fight too. By 1932 these young men would become the largest and most dangerous criminal gang in the city.
Jerry Powers' death in 1921 came at a very good time for Matchmaker Bobby. Photo from Oregonian Historical Archive, Multnomah County Library.

            They were just getting started in 1921. Matchmaker Bobby, who was accused of fixing at least one fight, intended to control bookmaking in Portland. Jerry Powers was his only serious rival. On the night of October 23, 1921 someone walked into Power’s poolroom and shot Jerry once in the belly. The attacker walked out without taking any money and about an hour later Joe Heil, an immigrant from Austria, was found wandering in a daze with a pistol in his hand. He confessed to shooting the poolroom proprietor, saying he wanted to rob him. He couldn’t explain why he hadn’t taken any money and he didn’t speak very much English. Powers’ died of peritonitis several days after the shooting. The jury convicted Heil of first degree murder, but recommended leniency. He was sentenced to life in prison. Four years later he was pardoned and deported to Austria. There was no evidence that Powers’ death was anything but a robbery gone wrong. Maybe it was just a coincidence that Matchmaker Bobby controlled sports betting in Portland with an iron hand until his downfall in 1932.
Coming soon from the History Press


Blogger Shawn Deny said...

When the Portland Nationals began to play baseball out at Vaughn Street Stadium in 1901, the players liked to hang out at Schiller’s smoking and talking with their fan.

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