The Bookie's Son In a loving memoir of his father, Sidney Offit pays tribute to the man who shaped his life.

June 18, 1995|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Sun Staff Writer

Sidney Offit hadn't been to Pimlico since 1952, when his old man had money on Blue . . . Blue . . . Blue Man, the Preakness winner that year.

Mr. Offit came back to Baltimore on a muddy, drippy Tuesday. He bought a $1.50 racing program that was Greek to him. "You know I don't know how to read this. I can't believe it. I really can't believe it."

The bookie's son doesn't bet on horses. He writes books for a living. He says that's enough of a gamble.

"Owner . . . Meyerhoff . . . it's probably a Baltimore horse, right? Let's see what the odds are. I didn't realize it was a favorite."

Mr. Offit's father always said never bet against yourself. And look at the trainers, Barney "Buckley" Offit always said.

"OK, we like Tough Broad," the bookie's son says.

He has a hunch Tough Broad will show, but he doesn't bet it. Mr. Offit, a 66-year-old New Yorker, puts $6 across-the-board on Tough Broad in the fifth at Pimlico. It's a conservative bet; some say stupid. You're betting on the horse to win, place and show. Hard to make money that way.

Turf run for the fifth at Pimlico. Photo finish. Tough Broad finishes third. The crumpled man at the window gives Sidney Offit three bucks back. "That was such a non-gambling bet," Mr. Offit says. "I always hedge."

That's all right, sir. You're a writer and today, Father's Day, your book about your bookmaker father arrives in the stores. A few copies of "Memoir of the Bookie's Son" (St. Martin's Press, $18.95) duck behind the great pyramids of books about Kato and Quivers and Co. Everybody has a story to tell and sell.

Sidney Offit wrote a love story about his father.

It's a long shot.


"You begin with incidents, then dramatize them," says Mr. Offit. That's how a son begins to write about his father.

Beginning with the incident in 1934, when 5-year-old Sidney is waiting for his dad to come home. It's 5:30 p.m. The boy sees his father coming up the steps of their Baltimore apartment. Two men in overcoats approach his father. Buckley takes a swing at )) one. "I ain't going no place with nobody!" the boy hears his father say. The boy's eyes fill with tears. "You take me, you take me dead," says his father, rolling on the pavement, grabbing a garbage can lid to beat at the thugs. Sid's parents never discussed the attempted kidnapping.

The boy was left wondering why two goons would want to beat up his father -- the fairest, street-smartest man in Baltimore -- the man who took the family to Orioles double-headers in his four-door Buick. He was a typical dad, mostly. An attempted kidnapping simply didn't fit the life of Buckley Offit.

True, men were always visiting Buckley, men with nicknames such as "Buzz." But they didn't come bringing trouble. They came to place bets with Buckley. And Sidney would grow to understand and accept his father's profession.

Sidney would always be the bookie's son.

"The idea of this book has been haunting me all of my life," Mr. Offit says.

He took 10 years to develop and write his 165-page memoir. The Baltimore native has spent his life writing children's books, sports books and young-adult novels. But he had never written about perhaps the toughest subject: parents. We spend our lives learning about our parents, judging them, then finishing them off in our books, says Russell Baker, syndicated columnist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Growing Up," his Baltimore memoir.

"He's one of the world's great oral storytellers -- an East Coast Garrison Keillor," Mr. Baker says of Mr. Offit. They have been friends since they worked together on the student newspaper at Johns Hopkins University.

As for Sidney's book about his father: "He threw a Valentine on the grave," Mr. Baker says. Another old friend, Kurt Vonnegut, told Sidney to keep his book short. "This is beauty," Mr. Vonnegut wrote of "Memoir," keeping his blurb short.

"Bookie" in the title gets attention, but Mr. Offit's memoir isn't really about bookmaking. "This book is about what makes a good parent," he says. This book is about what kind of father Sidney Offit became.

His son Kenneth says his father -- like his father before him -- gave his children two critical things: confidence and approval. It's difficult to maintain the sense that you are there and supportive, says Ken Offit, father of three girls.

"The book is a reminder of those kinds of priorities," says Ken, a 40-year-old researcher of cancer genetics at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. "My father also hammered into us that self-pity stinks."

Sidney Offit learned that from his father. He remembers his first year at Hopkins when he thought he might flunk out. He was feeling sorry for himself, but he bet on the wrong audience. His father was dumbfounded: What does feeling sorry for yourself get ya? Nothin.

"It was so rational! So bright! You could hate a guy like that," his son says.

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