Pigtown's sage `Hunky' is still on the job for ex-politician

April 15, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

THE IMMORTAL George (Hunky) Sauerhoff, founder and President for Life of the Loyal Sons of Pigtown, hoists himself slightly in his bed at the Caton Manor Nursing Home. A couple of old friends have popped into the room. Naturally, this immediately puts Hunky into the political mode.

"DiBlasi," says Hunky, in a high, happy, slightly hoarse voice.

"Hunky," says Joe DiBlasi, the former city councilman out of south Baltimore.

"DiBlasi," Hunky says again, eyes all twinkly, "you gotta run."

"For what?" says a stunned DiBlasi.

"For governor," declares Hunky. "What the heck."

Never mind that DiBlasi's been out of politics for the last decade, since he lost his 1995 bid for City Council president, and never mind that he's now doing nicely as a freelance marketing consultant. The fact is, Hunky's ready to put Joe back in business, as only Hunky knows how to conduct it: the South Baltimore Way.

"There you have it," says DiBlasi, laughing out loud. "Here's your sage politician, from his bed. DiBlasi for governor."

While we ponder the long-shot odds of such a campaign, it's good to see Hunky with some of the old fire in him. He's 73 now, and slowed by a series of strokes, and he's been at Caton Manor, the Wilkens Avenue nursing facility, for more than a year. Time was, this was a hurricane of a man, part of a generation of great Baltimore street characters who lived life to its fullest idiosyncratic possibilities, with a twinkle in the eye and the slight breaking of various laws when the occasion called for it.

Like the time, years ago, when Hunky visited the Florida dog track and placed a significant bet on a dog. As the canines took off, Hunky's was trailing badly. Bye-bye, large bet. But then, somebody - and the Florida cops indicate it was Hunky - threw a cat onto the track, scattering all the dogs and canceling all bets on the race. The cops invited Hunky to leave the state of Florida.

Big deal - he was always a Pigtown guy at heart. Grew up on McHenry Street, a short walk from the little Emery Street rowhouse where Babe Ruth was born. One of 10 kids, sleeping five to a bed. Remembers drinking nickel beers on Friday nights as a kid and feeling like a big shot. Ran errands for spending money and spent it on Fremont Avenue, where the neighborhood kids would get a small bag of sauerkraut and a pickle for 5 cents.

Had a sister who used to shoot dice in the elementary school cafeteria for lunch money. Latched onto an older fellow, Hacky Hoffman, and the two of them, Hunky and Hacky, during Great Depression Christmases, would hustle business people for food and supplies and give them out to the neediest folks around the neighborhood.

In those days, everybody perfected the art of the scrounge - including the political scrounge. Hunky was literally a grass-roots guy. The big shots in the old Stonewall Democratic Club would hire him each election season to pound political signs into front yards - or remove them.

"Remember the first time we met?" DiBlasi says now.

"Oh, do I," Hunky says.

It was 1979, DiBlasi's first campaign for City Council. He was running against some Stonewall guys. DiBlasi shows up at his campaign headquarters one morning, and there's a pile of his signs on the front steps, uprooted from the yards of his campaign supporters.

And, atop the pile of signs, there's a note. It's from Hunky. It explains that this is nothing personal, and it's not intended as an act of vandalism. It's just the way politics is practiced in South Baltimore.

"He was proud of the fact that he'd helped my opponents by taking down my signs," DiBlasi says, laughing at Hunky. "Isn't that right?"

Across the darkened little room, Hunky's face brightens visibly. Yup, he says, it's just the way the game was played. And what did DiBlasi do about it?

"I said, `I gotta meet this guy. We gotta get him on our team.'"

Thereafter, Hunky was a DiBlasi guy. "He was the best," DiBlasi says. "A tireless worker, never put up signs without permission" - nor took anybody else's down.

"They don't make 'em like Hunky any more," DiBlasi said.

His mind went back over the roster of the city's great departed street characters: the racetrack tout Mr. Diz and Balls Maggio who made a living fetching balls out of the Jones Falls; the perennial politician Melvin Perkins who lived at one no-fixed-address after another, and the political types such as Mimi DiPietro and Domenick Leone and Harry (Soft Shoes) McGuirk.

These were guys who came up the hard way, through the Depression and World War II, and developed a personality not by mimicking somebody seen on a television set (which didn't even exist yet) but by living in crowded neighborhoods, and scrounging for the buck, and charging hard when they spotted an opening.

Which gets us back to DiBlasi, as he exits Hunky's room at Caton Manor. What about that run for governor?

"I guess," says DiBlasi, chuckling slightly, "I'll have to discuss it with Hunky."

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