Revisiting the legendary Mr. Diz

WAY BACK WHEN

Back story

April 08, 2006|By FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN | FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN,SUN REPORTER

On the outside of a dusty Sun library picture file is a typed message in capital letters that users can't fail to see: "MR. ROSENFELD REQUESTS THAT HIS REAL NAME NOT BE USED. HE PREFERS MR. DIZ."

The words not be used were underscored several times in red ink for added emphasis.

Mr. Diz -- the amiable balloon seller, parking lot attendant, emcee, semiofficial city greeter, veteran courtroom observer, Baltimore booster and perennial railbird who never met a horse he didn't like or a racetrack he didn't enter -- was back in the news the other day, with the passing of Douglas R. Small, a noted thoroughbred breeder and trainer who died Monday at Strathmore Stud, his Monkton farm.

The story goes that Mr. Diz didn't like having his given name in print for fear he'd be tracked down by creditors. Whether this is apocryphal or not is not important.

What is important is that for a lot of years, Mr. Diz was an amiable and genuine character on the Baltimore scene, and remained so until his death in 1985.

Another story goes that Mr. Diz sat down one day and wrote a list of people he owed money to. It came to 82 pages and topped out at $96,233.43.

"Isn't that amazing," Mr. Diz told a reporter, "that a guy who doesn't have a job can owe so much money to so many people?"

Mr. Diz was born in Baltimore in 1919, and enjoyed telling a yarn that he dropped out of school and ran away with a carnival where he sold cotton candy, guessed weights and was a barker.

"He claimed to have fought in nine campaigns during World War II, including a long stint under bombardment on Anzio Beach. After that, he rarely spent much time indoors," reported The Evening Sun at his death.

He also liked to boast that he had visited 24 states and 22 countries.

"In Baltimore in recent years, however, his range extended roughly from the Fallsway to Hopkins Place with a daily overnight trip to Hampden," the newspaper observed.

Not only was Mr. Diz popular with local reporters, he also enjoyed a similar reputation with the out-of-town press, who caught up with him outside the federal courthouse in Baltimore during the 1976 trial of Gov. Marvin Mandel.

"The solemnity inside the fifth-floor courtroom, with its marble walls and gold curtains, contrasted with the scene on the street outside where Mr. Diz," The Washington Post reported, "an aging pot-bellied Baltimore courthouse fixture announced to the crowd the arrival of each of the defendants and his coterie of lawyers with a shout, a pointing hand, and a sway of the head that sent his yellow baseball cap more askew with each new arrival."

Mr. Diz avoided city courts -- because they dealt with a lower class of defendant, he said -- in favor of the well-argued cases and celebrity defendants he found in federal court.

In addition to being a courtroom regular, he had a 40-year affair with racing -- on and off at times, but mostly on.

"There is no mistaking Diz, an American Gigot except that he talks a lot. His shirt, once white, has long been gray and frayed at the collar. His sweater is shredded. His overcoat, worn nine months of the year, looks like it survived Anzio, as Diz once did. He staged donkey races on the beach for the troops," wrote Gerald Strine, Washington Post racing writer, in 1973.

Nathan Cohen, one of the owners of Pimlico, named a horse after the legendary character, which was trained by Douglas R. Small. By 1968, Mister Diz, the horse, became the best Maryland-bred 2-year-old, and ended his career as a five-time Maryland champion.

"I've always considered Doug Small the quintessential Maryland horseman. He was a gentleman and carried that over into his profession of training thoroughbred racehorses," said Ross Peddicord, a former Evening Sun racing writer and now co-publisher of Maryland Life. "He gave the horse training profession a special elan or a certain cachet that is uniquely Maryland. I'm not sure that's the case elsewhere."

He added: "Mr. Diz was a real human character who used to hang out at the tracks. He sort of dressed like a clown and personified the classic racetrack definition of a tout. The tracks around here used to be populated by unique characters like him, and the Cohens celebrated them by naming horses after them."

"I like the racetracks. I like the people, the stories around the racetrack. Everybody has a story. They're funny, they're musical," Mr. Diz said in an interview with The Evening Sun. "Only trouble with the track, you come home broke. Last time I was at the track, I didn't eat for two days."

Musing on his situation, he told The Washington Post in 1973, "When you're a character in the limelight like I am, everybody loves to see you broke. They see you cash a bet, they eat their hearts out."

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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