The good old days . . . of cat burglars, loose briefcases and Burt Lancaster


November 18, 1990|By BOB MAISEL

Recently, there was a gathering of some of the (let's try to be polite here), shall we say, more mature members of the sports department, some former, some still on the job. In other words, the old guys.

Just about all of them -- gentleman I had traveled with around the country on assignment through the years -- brought back memories of some trouble that they had gotten me into at one time or another.

The occasion was a surprise 60th birthday party for veteran reporter John Stewart. How could a nice, little guy like John get anybody into trouble? Easy.

We were rooming together at the Masters one year at a rather classy motel -- second level, balcony overlooking the swimming pool. For the record, John Stewart sleeps like a rock. Nothing disturbs him. So, one morning, as the first rays of light filtered through the sliding-glass door we had left open during the night, I saw a shadowy figure over by the dresser -- shadowy because I'm lucky to see anything without glasses.

It had to be old John, up and at 'em early, right? A glance at the other bed revealed old John was still out like a light. So, I came up with an original line, something like, "Who's there?"

The shadow bolted out of the regular door, me behind, proving you might not have to be crazy to be a sportswriter, but it helps. Out on the concrete walkway, in pajamas, I made the tidiest shoestring tackle you ever saw. The commotion even woke John, who ran out to help. You know something? It was a woman -- huskier and stronger than either of us, but not both.

We got her back into the room, locked the door, called the desk for help, then relaxed our hold, thinking there was no place for her to go. Wrong. She sprinted through the sliding door and leaped over the balcony. She had gotten up there by piling iron lawn tables on top of each other, knew they were still in place and got away.

Money, wallets and the like were strewn everywhere, but a subsequent inventory showed that we had lost nothing. My ankles, knees and elbows healed nicely in about six weeks, and the pajamas made dandy dust cloths. Don't tell me John Stewart can't get you into trouble.

Ken Nigro? He works for the Baltimore Orioles now, but once covered them for this paper. In 1980, I was going to Lake Placid, N.Y., for the Winter Olympics, and Nigro, taking a rather circuitous route to Miami for spring training, joined me for the first week of coverage.

Not the best organized guy in the world, and always carrying a million papers, he had a briefcase that wouldn't stay shut. It flew open in the middle of BWI Airport, and again in the Albany, N.Y., airport when we were changing planes. Each time, I dutifully helped salvage the piles of papers and notes.

Now, we are in Saranac Lake, walking from the commuter plane to a bus, a cold wind blowing a gale. The briefcase pops open again, and papers go everywhere. Stooping for the debris yet again, I said, "Nigro, you've got to tie that thing."

Here, somebody tapped me on the shoulder, and I looked up at as pretty a young woman as you've ever laid eyes on. She said, "Did you call me?" It was Tai Babilonia, the skater who was favored to win a gold medal with her partner, Randy Gardner.

When I explained the situation and told her I had said that my friend needed to tie his briefcase, she chuckled all the way to the bus. It might have been the last time she laughed at those Olympics, because Gardner was injured in training, and they couldn't compete.

I could write a book on the trouble that the now-retired Cameron Snyder, alias Tuffy, Whale and the Old Goat, got me into during the many years we covered the Colts and pro football together.

Did I tell you about the time, mid-week of a Super Bowl in Miami, when Carroll Rosenbloom came up to Cameron and me and said: "Do me a favor. I'm supposed to meet some friends at the Boom Boom Room tonight, and can't make it. Go there, ask for my table and entertain these people."

When we got there, an attractive couple showed up and introduced themselves. It was Burt Lancaster and his date. A nice, regular sort of guy, Burt. We got along great. Now, Cameron might not be the most sophisticated drinker you ever saw. Sometimes, he would tell the bartender to start at the top of the list and work down. That session would start with an Alexander.

But this time, he started at the bottom, and a Zombie came forth. Lancaster said, "I've never tasted a Zombie. What's it like?" He took a generous swallow, and a little later reached over to do it again. The Whale nailed his hand to the table just short of the glass -- bam -- and said: "Get your own Zombie if you want one. Don't be drinking mine." In other words, you might be a tough guy in the movies, but not when you're after my drink.

Lancaster loved it, enjoyed the evening and wound up inviting us for golf.

Kent Baker, the late Lou Hatter, Chuck Thompson? If we told the truth about each other, we'd probably be in jail. Nah, we weren't that bad. It was just good, clean fun.

All in all, this hasn't been a bad way to make a living. It's better than stealing and has it all over anything work has to offer.

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