Golfer's story adds another chapter to legend of 1958 Colts bet

OTHER VOICES

The Kickoff

January 29, 2007|By DAVE HYDE

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. -- It's an interesting story: There sat Al Besselink, a pro golfer, at the Wilshire Country Club in Los Angeles. Beside him was good friend and NFL quarterback John Brodie. Before them a television aired the overtime of the famous 1958 NFL championship game between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants.

Colts ball. Giants' 8-yard line. History calling.

"They'll kick a field goal and win," Brodie said.

"They ain't kicking a field goal," Besselink said.

First down: Alan Ameche runs for 1 yard.

"Why not just kick a field goal?" Brodie asks.

"I'll tell you why," Besselink says. "[Colts owner] Carroll Rosenbloom, [Canadian financier] Lou Chesler and [Miami businessman] Mike McLaney bet $1 million on the game. I'd get $20,000 of the winnings. But they can't win by a field goal. They need a touchdown."

Second down: Quarterback Johnny Unitas passes to Jim Mutscheller for a 6-yard gain to the 1-yard line.

"What're they doing passing the ball?" Brodie said.

"I told you, they need a touchdown," Besselink said.

Third down: Ameche scores one of the NFL's most famous touchdowns and the Colts win, 23-17.

A few days later, Besselink is in Louisiana to play in golf's New Orleans Open. He receives a call from McLaney to "pick up a package" in New Orleans. He goes to the address, says he's given a bag of money. It's all $100 bills. Besselink estimates there's $300,000 inside. He delivers it to McLaney.

"He gives me $20,000," Besselink says.

Sounds like a good story. Now prove it.

"How do you want me to prove it?" says Besselink, now 83 and living in Miami with a bum shoulder, two artificial knees and facial spots where cancer has been removed. "That's the truth, right there. Every last word."

The man who won three pro golf tournaments and once finished third at the Masters looks at you with his one good eye.

"The three guys who made the bet are all dead or I'd never tell you the story," he says. "They were my good friends. And they had one of the greatest betting stories you've ever heard."

The winning Colts players got $4,718.77 that day. Did their owner score infinitely bigger? And did any Colt know about it, as Besselink's story suggests?

"People said stuff later, but I don't know anything about it," Art Donovan, a star defensive tackle, said from his Baltimore golf course. "No one did at the time."

From his Pennsylvania home, Lou Michaels said: "When I came to the Colts in '64, you'd hear [players] talking about that bet, but not like they knew anything during the game."

The obvious candidates would be Unitas or coach Weeb Ewbank. Both are dead. In the book Interference, author Dan E. Moldea quotes Unitas and Ewbank denying any bet or that Rosenbloom influenced any game decisions.

"I called the plays," Unitas told Moldea. He continues: "Any time there is a field-goal situation, the field-goal team would be sent in from the bench. But they never sent the field-goal team in, so my job was to go for the touchdown."

Ewbank says in the book Johnny U by Tom Callahan that Unitas pulled an audible on the second-down pass. "I almost fainted on that one," Ewbank said.

Ewbank's rationale for a field goal was simple: Although kicker Steve Myhra (now dead) made a 20-yarder to send the game into overtime, he was just 4-for-10 on field-goal attempts that season. He was 48-for-51 on extra points, however, which was roughly the distance a field goal would have been from.

"We had missed one field goal, and we had luckily gotten one to tie the game to put it in overtime," Ewbank said. "We did not have a great place-kicker. I made the decision not to send the field-goal team out there."

But was a bet in play? Rosenbloom, Chesler and McLaney were known to enjoy gambling and knew each other well. McLaney introduced Chesler to Rosenbloom. Chesler, in turn, introduced an old girlfriend to Rosenbloom: Georgia Frontiere. She became Rosenbloom's wife and survivor, and now owns the St. Louis Rams.

In 1958, the three men partnered in an attempt to buy the Cuban hotel and casino Nacional just before Fidel Castro took over the country. By 1960, McLaney was suing Rosenbloom over various business problems and discussing their football betting partnership in a deposition printed in the David Harris book The League.

"On one occasion, for instance, [Rosenbloom] bet as high as $55,000 against his own team," McLaney said in the deposition.

The League passes on the rumor of the 1958 bet. Moldea's Interference quotes bookmakers saying Rosenbloom with possibly Chesler made the bet. A book by Kay Iselin Gilman, Inside the Pressure Cooker, says Rosenbloom made the bet.

Besselink puts down a cup of coffee. He didn't have money like the others. He had a golf swing they all admired, though. And he had a measure of fame, not to mention a joy of gambling.

This wasn't the first time McLaney cut him in on some action. He says this bet was so big, however, that it was spread to several bookmakers.

"No one [bookmaker] could handle $1 million," he says.

The bets were spread out and gave the Giants anywhere from 3 1/2 to five points.

"That's what I was telling Brodie -- they needed a touchdown at the end to cover the points," Besselink says.

Dave Hyde writes for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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