Waverly will miss 'Longshot Phil' Potts

March 07, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

The regulars at Pete's Grill in Waverly always knew when Mr. Phil had arrived.

He hung up his battered gray coat, set his cane against the wall and deposited one or two plastic grocery bags on the floor. The sacks contained some cans of peaches, maybe a roll of paper towels and a jar of Sunsweet prune juice.

Then, at the height of February's treacherous weather, he stopped coming. Word reached Louis and Charmain Sharkey, the restaurant's owners, that their long-time customer had died Feb. 28 of a heart attack at the Baltimore VA Medical Center.

"He was one of our regulars. You could set the clock on his arrival each morning. He'd always say, 'I don't know if I'm going to make it,' but of course he did. We are going to make a dish and name it after him," Louis Sharkey said.

That would be a fitting testament to the 81-year-old life-long bachelor who ate his main meal at Greenmount Avenue restaurants for long periods of his life. His Monday-Saturday routine never varied, with stops at the Gorsuch Avenue Super Fresh, then a walk around the corner to Greenmount Avenue's Rite Aid, Sunny's Surplus, Woolworth's or the Maryland National Bank. Then, of course, flounder or veal in recent years at Pete's Grill, where he always left the waitresses a cash tip and maybe a can of shrimp, a pack of cookies or a couple of chocolate marshmallow eggs.

Fiercely independent, he was hard-headed and a certifiable neighborhood character. On his best days, he looked worse for the wear, his tall, thin frame layered in sweaters that had their sleeves cut off. He wore a winter hat with ear flaps long into April. He always complained of bad feet and legs. Maybe his size 13 shoes cursed him.

Philip Fuller Potts spent his youth in the 300 block of Whitridge Avenue, graduated from St. Ann's Parochial School, had a year at Loyola High School but graduated from City College. He played baseball at City, but his life-long passion was the race track.

"You'll never win at the racing game," Phil loved to lecture, but that did not stop him from indulging heavily in the sport.

He began betting in high school and lost his World War II draft deferment when the call to the $2 window at Delaware Park became just too loud to ignore. He had been working as a fire inspector at the Bethlehem Steel shipyards, but took off for a few weeks to play the horses. His draft board didn't share Phil's enthusiasm for the turf sports. Phil got the last laugh. As the Army sent him from base to base, he just got the chance to visit more race tracks.

Phil blossomed as a racing specialist in the 1950s when he was tending bar at the old Gus Rauh's, 29th Street and Greenmount Avenue.

Phil himself was a tee-totaler and despite his occupation, frowned on alcoholic excess. He'd tersely inform a customer, "You've had enough," and refuse to pour another drop.

Each February he beat Baltimore's weather by heading for the Florida tracks. Many of the bar's regulars marveled at his handicapping stories. He loved to bet on strange longshots and each day mailed a racing program with his pithy comments back to Baltimore. One year he arrived back on a train with 25 cents and a package of cheese crackers. He never looked back and thought it a successful betting trip.

Another time he broke a track record at Bowie for a single $2 bet. The horse, Whisk Through, paid more than $200 because the odds against it were so great. Asked why he had the horse that nobody else wanted, Phil replied, "He looked like a natural to me." He got the name "Longshot Phil," with a subtitle --"world's leading handicapper."

Phil began telling his stories to me in 1978 when his bar closed and he needed a place to move. I had a small vacant room he rented. His said his health was bad but he managed to make it through another 16 years. The staff at Veterans' Medical Center got to know him very well.

He liked to recount a cold Feb. 2, 1961, a day he took the Philadelphia Racing Special, a Pennsylvania Railroad train bound for Bowie that made a stop here.

Its engineer went down the Baltimore-to-Washington mainline at a good clip and failed to reduce his speed when he took a switch and curve. The locomotive and five passenger cars flipped off the tracks. Six people lost their lives and 243 were injured.

Injured, Phil was taken to a Prince George's County hospital. He recuperated from his cuts and made a settlement with the railroad. After a lawyer got a cut, Phil wound up with $2,500.

His observation: "It was my best day at the track."

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