Sunday, June 17, 2018
The Wire

This summer I've started a genealogy project to build a family tree that will hopefully go back at least a couple of centuries. As anyone who has also worked on ancestry research can attest, it's no easy task, but technology has made the research process quite a bit easier.

Building a family tree and filling in the branches is naturally the primary objective, but not the most interesting part. The good stuff lies in discovering personalities and anecdotes that can be attached to a name. If this process was akin to sports announcing, building a family tree is the play-by-play and getting to know the individual leaves on a personal level is the color commentary.

For instance, it's one thing to know that my great grandfather, Thomas Needham, played professional baseball for the Chicago Cubs and Tom_Needhama few other teams. He even made a plate appearance for the Cubs in the 1910 World Series. That's interesting and unusual.

Several years after his baseball career had ended he fell and injured himself while saving a child who had wandered into oncoming traffic. The injury eventually took his life. That's really interesting.

And in the wee hours of his properly spirited Irish wake, with a ball field nearby, some of the mourners thought Tom should take one last trip around the bases. And that's just what he did. Ok, you get the idea. The best supporting factoids for a family tree will not be found in newspaper archives.

Fortunately, my father has a memory and mind like a steel trap and I'm leaning on him to give this family tree plenty of color commentary like the above. More on the subject of steel a little later.

One of the more colorful family characters I've come to learn about so far is a man by the name of Andrew McGraw, or "Uncle Andy". He was really my great uncle, but I remember calling him Uncle Andy, everybody did. In fact, I remember having countless uncles and aunts as a little kid. Seems that any grown adult with some connection to the family, or was just around a lot, was addressed as Uncle or Aunt. Maybe that's not too unusual. And probably not unusual at all with one side of the family being Irish, the other Italian, and everyone living in the same town, or the next town over.

My childhood memories of Uncle Andy are blurry at best and don't amount to much. An old man who spent most of his time in a rocking chair. His personal rocking chair. Well, my father remembers quite a bit more...

Turns out Uncle Andy was a bookmaker, or "bookie", in Steubenville, Ohio, the river town I grew up in. He had a bricks and mortar location too, a betting parlor. It was on the second floor of a bank building, no doubt a very convenient location for customers. An illegal operation of course, but the right people got paid, and that was that, especially in Steubenville at the time. Steubenville wasn't called "Little Chicago" for nothing. Uncle Andy took bets on horse racing and baseball. And there was a lottery-style numbers bet based on the last three digits of that day's stock market exchange volume. But in those days the big action focused on horse racing.

Here's an undated picture of Uncle Andy and some of his cronies at the Kentucky Derby, sometime in the 1930s uncleandy1maybe (but that's just a guess). That's him in the middle with an unbuttoned overcoat. Apparently Uncle Andy made the trek to Churchill Downs in Louisville every year until age took its toll.

Who knows, maybe they watched Gallant Fox or War Admiral launch their historic Triple Crown campaigns that day.

Now, I'm no body language expert, but Uncle Andy appears to occupy the position of highest status in this group. And perhaps you'll agree with my strong suspicion that the imposing gentleman on the far left was in charge of "accounts receivable" for Uncle Andy's enterprise.

You might be wondering how this primitive off-track betting system worked, what with communications technology still in its infancy. Can't get to the track? No problem. The telegraph made the whole elaborate thing possible. If instantaneous race results from a distant location can be known via telegraph, why not bet on the races? And although "horse rooms" no doubt ranged from austere to opulent, the basic idea was to simulate the live racetrack experience for customers, right down to cashiers sitting behind cage windows.

The operation, known as "The Wire", was simple and brilliant. Trackside spotters relayed information such as race results, changing odds, payoffs, etc., via intricate hand signals, to nearby off-track partners. The information was then flashed via telegraph to the horse rooms, which in turn may have served as a hub to distribute the information to auxiliary sites.

Each horse room employed a "track announcer" to imaginatively recreate the race based on the telegraph tape, and horseplayers were swept up in the drama of the action. This was a gigantic, illegal, syndicate-controlled business that flourished in American cities large and small for many decades. It's impossible to know how much money was bet through the race wire. One estimate I read suggested a betting volume seven times that bet legally at the racetrack. Today, when we read statistics that say 90% of handle is wagered off-track, maybe our reaction should be "Sure, but it has always been that way."

Maybe you've seen the 1973 film "The Sting". If so, you pretty much get how the race wire worked. In this movie a fictitious high-end horse betting room was simulated in every minute detail as part of an elaborate con.

I'm sure Uncle Andy went to his grave with plenty of amazing stories. Stories I'll never hear. I wish I was old enough to get to know him while he was still alive. But there's another Steubenville native that people know a lot about. Dimetrios Georgios Synodinos, far better 
thegreekknown as Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder, was an original American life and a pioneer in many ways. If you are somehow unfamilar with him, you can research him on your own. If they awarded a Nobel Prize for street smarts, the Greek would have one.

The Greek fell in with bookmakers at an early age. Uncle Andy was one of his mentors. The Greek also experienced personal tragedy at an early age. In fact, personal tragedy would be a constant companion throughout his life, right up until the very end.

The Greek's fall from grace is well known. Trying to act smarter than he was in areas he knew nothing about, he said some nutty things and it was caught on video. He was labeled a racist. No do-overs. Career done. And, in a few more years, life over.

David Milch, the very cerebral creator of the horse racing drama "Luck" on HBO, said this about gambling: "More and more I think the key thing with gambling is about a desire for a loss of time, or for time not to run in the normal way."

The Greek was a dedicated gambler and horseplayer his entire tragic life. If anyone could wish that time would run in a different way than it does, he would have.

Seven-hundred tons of metal a day
Now sir you tell me the world's changed
Once I made you rich enough
Rich enough to forget my name
   ~ Bruce Springsteen

Steubenville was a booming steel town, the operative word being "was". It's like a lot of towns throughout the Rust Belt, but its plight seems more dramatic, at least to me.

I went back this summer and visited some places that I remember. Spent a little time at the cemetery too as part of my family tree research. There's not much going on in Steubenville now and the once bustling downtown is eerily quiet. There's a nifty little shop that sells collectibles and artifacts from Steubenville's prosperous past.

It's interesting to compare the timelines of the steel industry and the horse racing industry in America. Their heydays and declines run in close parallel. That's actually what I intended to write about here -- you know, cleverly identify common reasons for why these two once giant industries fell to the margins. Failure to innovate, that kind of thing. But I've strayed quite a bit and am not in the mood to do that anymore. I'm in the mood for pizza.

One of the things I remember most about growing up in Steubenville was the food. As a center of industry and opportunity, the city attracted waves of immigrants not unlike its big city neighbor Pittsburgh. The Irish, Italians, Greeks, Poles and others all brought their customs, cuisines, and religions, and it was all good. It's still good. Try the homemade pasta and Italian wedding soup at Scaffidi's and you'll know what I mean.

There's a regional style of pizza (sometimes called Ohio Valley style or Steubenville style) that dominates in and near Steubenville and the northern West Virgina panhandle. It's delicious, but if you're a New York style adherent you'll need an open mind. You'll make a mess if you try to fold it. The most famous and oldest brand in this tradition is DiCarlo's, but there are many others.
Available by the slice or an entire "tray", the crust is thick yet almost cracker-like. The sauce is flavorful and tomatoey. The cheese is piled high. The shape of a slice is a square cut from its parent rectangle. The magic is that the cheese and toppings are not baked but instead allowed to steam when placed on the hot crust, then quickly boxed. While the crusty edge pieces are highly coveted, the inner crustless pieces have their own appeal.

Give this pizza a try the next time you visit Mountaineer Park or are otherwise traveling through the area. I'd be curious to know your reaction.

Meanwhile, I'm off to Saratoga Springs this weekend for the Travers Stakes. I've made this trip every year since 1864. Well, it just feels that way. While there I will make it a point to think about Uncle Andy. I have a better idea for what he dreamt about while dozing in his rocking chair. And I'll think about the Greek and imagine him cruising down Union Avenue with his driver and best friend Mike, a black man from North Carolina. And I'll think, as I do every year, that there's literally no place else I'd rather be at that moment than Saratoga. Uncle Andy and the Greek would understand.