For 90 years, he's lived by his own rules


SOME OF the friends of Albert Carmine Isella assembled this week at Sabatino's Restaurant in Little Italy to sing him a chorus of "Happy Birthday." The great man turns 90 today. This will come as stunning news to odds makers of all manner, who cannot imagine so many years filled with so much breathless sporting action, and so much hectic pursuit by police.

It's been a 90-year blur of a life, and continues with Al still greeting each new morning with his motor working overtime. We should all have his energy, and his zest for the good time, if not his arrest record.

"Ninety-some arrests," he was saying now, in a booming voice utterly without remorse, "but only had to go to court 54 times." The other cases drifted away when cooler heads realized the puny charges involved.

"Don't worry about a thing," Isella always chirped happily. It became a kind of mantra. He said it to Frank Sinatra, with whom he long ago shared a girlfriend named Ava Gardner, and he said it to Dean Martin, with whom Al shot craps at an after-hours place at Broadway and Thames. He said it to Joe DiMaggio, when the two of them would eat steamed crabs at Bud Paolino's old place. And he said it to Spiro Agnew, over dinner the same day Agnew copped his famous plea and gave up being vice president of the United States.

Isella is the man who has ad-libbed his way between the world of celebrities and street corners. He's the man who taught several generations of East Baltimoreans to play the three-digit street number, back when the state considered this a crime against nature because it hadn't yet learned to cash in on gambling itself. In his glory days, Al made a small fortune booking horse racing bets, and three-digit numbers bets, and also gave away almost all of it.

He has always been the softest touch in town, because he understood what it meant to have nothing. He arrived here 70 years ago, from the coal mines of Pennsylvania where his father headed a miners' union. The old man was, in fact, killed in a cave-in, from which Al himself was dug out and then spent long weeks recovering before heading to Depression-era Baltimore.

He moved in with an aunt on Oldham Street and found a job at Sparrows Point. Al swears the pay rate was 14 1/2 cents an hour. He and a few others began trying to organize a union out of maybe 25,000 people who worked in the mills. The company fought back. Al remembers getting beaten up by Bethlehem Steel police for passing out leaflets, and cars getting fire-bombed. He also remembers it was women who were the backbone of the labor movement, who "had the guts before the men did."

But the Depression bred all kinds of roll-the-dice business endeavors, including the flowering of the street wager. Al became one of its chief impresarios, and then parlayed the action. For a quarter-century after the war, he ran Gussie's Downbeat, a hurricane of a nightclub located underneath a Highlandtown Chinese laundry and frequented by professional ballplayers, neighborhood guys and local bookmakers who would arrive and settle up the day's bets.

Meanwhile, Al played cat-and-mouse with the cops -- including a two-year federal stretch in 1980 for food stamp fraud.

Once, he was arrested with three numbers bets, worth a total of $15, in his pocket. When he got to court, the state's attorney was a woman.

"Hiya, hon," Al greeted her, not particularly concerned that her job was to lock him up.

They got to chatting while waiting for his case to hit the docket, during which time the prosecutor let it be known she was an Orioles fan.

"Listen, hon," said Al, "any time you need Orioles tickets, you just let me know."

He figured: Why not kid around? Who could take such charges seriously?

Another time, in Baltimore County, prosecutors offered Al a deal: Plead guilty to gambling, and we'll recommend a $50 fine. Al didn't like the offer. He was tired of getting dragged into court.

"If you don't take it," he was told, "you could spend Christmas in jail."

"Big deal," Al hollered in the direction of Judge Charles Foos, "so I'll be in jail. So I'll save money on some Christmas gifts."

To which the judge thereupon forgot the $50 offer and sentenced Al to a $500 fine and a year's probation.

All in the course of doing business, and of living a hectic, seat-of-the-pants life. He's palled around with the likes of Mickey Mantle and Henry Aaron, with Gino Marchetti and John Unitas, and with Bob Uecker, too. He's still out there every day, still lunching at Sabatino's where the famous bookmaker salad was named in Al's honor (since he invented it), and still mixing with politicians and with judges, too. They understand the rule book he's always lived by: Make your own guidelines, as long as you don't hurt anybody along the way.

For Al Isella, it's been that way for 90 years now.

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