A last round for barkeep's friends

February 19, 1994|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,Sun Staff Writer

Tubby's is the kind of joint that people walk past and not into -- and that made its owner, Albert Clayland, very happy.

He operated the bar mainly for a few longtime friends and regular customers, who knew him as Tubby. And for years, he boasted that after his death the house and business would go to those friends -- with ownership decided by the holder of the winning hand in a game of pitch.

Mr. Clayland changed the pitch plan last summer, after a lawyer said it might leave the will open to challenge.

But his friends still stand to inherit Tubby's place. That responsibility came unexpectedly Wednesday, when Mr. Clayland, 81, committed suicide.

Weary of his physical problems and disturbed over a troublesome furnace and water in the bar's basement, he waited until a couple of customers left, then shot himself with a .38 snub-nose revolver.

Earlier that afternoon, John Koch, an old friend and longtime customer, had stopped by to find Mr. Clayland upset about his problems.

"I decided to leave with a couple of other guys, and while we were talking on the street we heard a shot. And we rushed in and saw Tubby sitting in his wheelchair with the gun in his lap, still firmly held in his right hand," said Mr. Koch, a 65-year-old retired policeman.

Mr. Clayland died later at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center.

"When I heard the news, I thought I was going to have a heart attack. I had just visited him that morning. I could hardly talk, I was so upset," said Tom Carney, a retired IRS agent and boyhood friend who handled Mr. Clayland's business affairs.

The inheritors of Tubby's place -- Mr. Carney, Mr. Koch and Sam Scardina, 53, a Southern District policeman -- had looked after their friend. They never wearied of his stories about the women he had conquered and lost, and the old days in South Baltimore.

Because of Mr. Clayland's eye problems, they poured their own drinks and rang up the register. At the end of the day, they put out the lights and locked up the place.

Mr. Clayland held court from a wheelchair, confined there by arthritis, and because of failing eyesight, he was forced to watch an old black-and-white portable TV up close. He played pitch, his favorite card game, with the cards held about 3 inches from his nose.

Because he had been robbed several times, he kept his snub-nosed .38 strapped to his right ankle, which served as a warning to those who questioned his authority or wanted to make trouble.

The facade of Tubby's, at 27 East Cross St., on the south side of the busy Cross Street Market, is typical of South Baltimore -- part Formstone and part brick. The sign that once hung over the doorway is long gone.

But even with the front door locked, Tubby's place seems open.

The lights are on, a deck of cards sits on a table next to a pair of glasses and a pencil. Three empty Miller Lite cans sit on the bar. Two faded and cracked 1940s-era red banquettes, permanently creased from years of use, line one wall. A record player and a stack of big band and jazz records, Mr. Clayland's favorite music, stand on a table.

Across the room, in the half-light, is an empty wheelchair.

"Let's face it, Tubby liked three things in life -- whiskey, gambling and girls -- and he had a passion for gambling," said Mr. Carney. "When we were growing up, Albert probably weighed 230 pounds and could fight like hell. There wasn't anyone he couldn't beat in South Baltimore in those days."

After attending St. Mary's Star of the Sea, he continued his education at Loyola High School and Mount St. Joseph High School. He quit school to work as a lineman for the Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. Later, he worked at the Coast Guard Yard in Curtis Bay and at Bethlehem Steel's Key Highway shipyard as an apprentice electrician.

He took over the saloon in 1950 -- then called Ma Kearn's -- after the death of his mother, Elizabeth Kearns, who had opened the bar in 1933, the day after Prohibition was repealed.

He was briefly married and had a child. But the one woman he truly loved was Betty Bell from Hagerstown.

"Occupying a position of honor, in a gilt frame in the center of the back bar amidst a row of bottles, is a color photograph of the love of his life, the late Betty Bell," writes John Sherwood in "Maryland's Vanishing Lives," to be published by Johns Hopkins University Press. "She died a decade or so ago, but Tubby still gets weepy when he thinks about her and will order 'two birdbaths' (two $1.20 shots of his best whiskey) to console himself."

"In 1963, Albert willed his body to the Medical Board, so that's where he'll go and we'll have a little service for him sometime in the future," said Mr. Carney, who is trying to wrap up Mr. Clayland's affairs.

John Koch tried to put into words the abrupt end of Mr. Clayland and his bar. "It was a place for a couple of old guys to sit around and talk. Where are we going go now that this has happened?"

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