Baltimore wise guy switches sides

Unitas biography

area canal's history

Books of the Region

October 17, 2004|By James H. Bready | James H. Bready,Special to the Sun

Wised Up: A Mobster's Gritty True Story of Murder and Revenge on the Mean Streets

by Charlie Wilhelm and Joan Jacobson. Pinnacle Books. 352 pages. $6.50 paperback.

How large, in the life of Baltimore, is organized crime? No Mafia here, business and civic leaders comfortably agree; honest and hard-working, the agents of law enforcement. Those nightly deaths in TV newscasts? Just gunfights in the drug-accursed slums.

Which is to say, heads in the sand.

Nine years ago, Charlie Wilhelm gave the FBI a names-and-dollars account of the life he had been leading, as a leader in a local crime syndicate; and three years have passed since articles about him by Joan Jacobson, then a Sun reporter, awoke the public to this network of corruption.

Their account, expanded by Wilhelm and Jacobson into this book, shows just how hollow was the idea of Baltimore purity. The spheres of Wilhelm's "wise guys" extended to the docks and warehouses, to the cinderblock taverns and the strip joints, to the police department and even to City Hall itself.

Wilhelm grew up in Dundalk, the son of a one-time policeman and child-beater; grown, Wilhelm relocated to Hampden. He went to work for the local mob, which numbered about 200 men and boasted a hulking, all-muscle enforcer named Billy Isaacs.

But in mid-life, Wilhelm, a shrewd and energetic man, traded in a life of extortion, grand theft, illegal numbers, drug-selling, and loan-sharking for one within the bounds of the law. He secretly began cooperating with law enforcement against his own syndicate. The highlight was helping send to jail three of his fellow mob pals for a brutal 1978 murder.

Jacobson, a keen-eyed observer, is particularly good at portraying Wilhelm's subsequent fears for his wife and children. They moved to Alabama, but homesickness brought them back. May they live in peace. Isaacs, for one, is due for release in 2011.

Johnny Unitas: America's Quarterback

by Lou Sahadi. Triumph Books. 343 pages. $24.95.

When John Unitas died two years ago -- a walking collection of injuries, but still a Baltimorean and still holder of multiple shining records -- many players agreed that No. 19 had been the game's greatest quarterback. But fame fades and time brings reconsiderations.

Never fear. Lou Sahadi, a Florida-based sports author with 19 previous books, reinforces Unitas' eminence with this biography. The book includes a game-by-game appendix of Unitas' NFL statistics and a Q&A from Sahadi's three-hour interview with the old quarterback. Unitas still had a strong memory, notwithstanding aches and impairments from those 18 autumns.

Sahadi has little to offer about Unitas' eight children and business ventures, but much to say about his Pittsburgh upbringing, his personality, outlook, skills, and, of course, his resourcefulness and command style in the huddle.

School Board Battles: The Christian Right in Local Politics

by Melissa M. Deckman. Georgetown University Press. 224 pages, $39.95 paperback.

Evangelical Christians make up 27 percent of the U.S. population, according to the analysts cited by Melissa M. Deckman, and the movement grows. For her book, Deckman followed the Christian right in two 1990s settings: as it won a majority of school board seats in rural Garrett County, and when, as a minority, it set out to obstruct the board in suburban Fairfax County, Va.

Deckman, a political scientist at Washington College in Chestertown, did on-site research -- attending meetings, reading board minutes, and polling the public.

What happened is not what you might think. In Garrett, educators, backed by an aroused public and local press, induced the board to learn what the education process is all about; whereas in Fairfax, the radical board members managed to mess up important school projects. Garrett did undergo one confrontation: a science teacher admitted to having smoked marijuana, and she apologized. Christian forgiveness? The school board's evangelical majority demanded she be fired. She was.

As the front lines harden in this country's so-called culture wars, School Board Battles is a report from the combat terrain, a model of scrupulous research and clear-voiced writing.

The Chesapeake and Delaware Canal

by Robert Hazel. Rare Harmony Books. 192 pages. $30 oversize.

A large moment in Maryland history was, in 1829, the opening of a canal from Elk River to Delaware Bay. For ship travel, the distance between Baltimore and Philadelphia was shortened by almost 300 miles. Since then, the canal (14 miles long, 27 feet deep) has been widened, deepened, straightened, leveled (i.e., all four of its four locks are gone) and variously bridged.

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