Al Capone and his Chicago killers may have had deadly aim elsewhere, but out on a golf course they were hit and miss. Some recollections of those sporting days with Scarface
(This article first appeared in the Nov. 6, 1972, issue of Sports Illustrated.)
I was fresh out of the Army and recently married when a fire broke out in the two-story house in Indiana Harbor, where we rented rooms. We had gone to a movie that evening, my wife Rose and I—it was Claudette Colbert in Imitation of Life - and by the time we got back the building was gutted. Most everything we owned had been burned to ashes, maybe a couple of thousand dollars worth of stuff, a tragedy for an ex-staff sergeant earning about $125 a week as a roller in a steel mill. But one of the possessions that hurt me most to lose had no dollar value. It was a faded snapshot of a big, beefy man with a golf club in his right hand and his left hand around the shoulders of a 12-year-old boy. The boy was me. The man was Al Capone. And the scene was Burnham Woods golf course, 18 miles south of Chicago, where I caddied for Al for almost four years.
Earlier that year of the fire—1947—I was among the few mourners at Al's funeral in Chicago where the family moved his body from Miami. He had been out of Alcatraz eight years when he died. I don't suppose his passing grieved many people. Society remembered him as the original Public Enemy No. 1. I didn't have any illusions about that side of him either. But I remembered another side and I mourned him. I wanted him somehow to know I was there because, as a boy, I never had a better friend. Nobody had ever treated me or my family with such kindness.
In 1924, when I was 8, we moved from South Chicago to the little town of Burnham, which then had a population of about 800. The Torrio-Capone gang had been spreading into the suburbs for some time and in and around Burnham they had taken over quite a few breweries and opened half a dozen roadhouses with gambling, girls and booze. The gang had the full cooperation of the mayor, Johnny Patton, a jaunty character whom I never saw without an expensive cigar in his mouth. The newspapers always referred to him as the "Boy Mayor" because he had been operating a saloon of his own since the age of 14. He owned the biggest, fanciest house in Burnham, catercorner from our poor shack on Green Bay Avenue. He also operated the golf course where I caddied for Capone. At the time I went to the same grade school as his kids Jimmy and Frances.
My father was a railroad engineer and my mother hired out by the day as a housekeeper. They earned hardly enough between them to support their big family and all of us kids had to work while still in school. There were three other boys besides me and three girls. My oldest sister, Ida Mae, nicknamed "Babe," was the beauty of the family, with her jet-black hair, violet eyes and trim little figure, and it was Babe who brought Al Capone into our lives.
A city official gave me my first job a few months after we settled in Burnham. He was a man with a good many outside interests. One was a barbershop and I shined shoes there for a dime until he told me he was closing the shop. What he really did was convert it into a speakeasy. He said I could keep the shoeshine stand and the equipment. So I ran home to fetch the handcart I had won for selling subscriptions to the Chicago American, loaded everything onto it, and hauled it over to the Arrowhead Inn, Burnham's biggest, flashiest roadhouse. The chief of police moonlighted there as a bartender. I asked the manager, Frank Hitchcock, to let me set up my stand by the entrance. "Sonny," he said, "this ain't no place for a kid to hang around." I couldn't see why and begged for a chance to make a little extra dough. He finally agreed and I went right to work.
My very first customer was short and pasty-faced with real small feet. For the 10-cent shine he handed me a $1 tip. I learned later he was Johnny Torrio, who still headed the gang, with Capone the second-in-command. The next year he quit the country after a rival mob nearly killed him, leaving Capone the boss. Most of my customers were gangsters, though I didn't recognize any of them as such right away. There were Machine Gun Jack McGurn, an Italian in spite of his name, good-looking in a dark, snaky kind of way, a snappy dresser and smooth dancer—the girls were crazy for him—and Fred (Killer) Burke, who lived right behind our house for a while. A huge bear of a man with thick eyebrows and a bushy mustache, he seemed a friendly sort until you looked at his eyes. They were small and black and mean. Five years later McGurn and Burke took part in the St. Valentine's Day massacre ordered by Capone.
The pride of Burnham was its nine-hole golf course, started in 1924 and finished in 1925. Our house stood directly opposite, and in addition to shining shoes I would sometimes wait in line by the clubhouse with a lot of other kids for a chance to caddie. It meant picking up maybe another dollar or two. My sister Babe, who was then 16, found work there, too, as a waitress in the clubhouse restaurant. One night she came home waving a $10 bill. "Guess who gave it to me?" she said, all wrought up. " Al Capone!" Mom hit the ceiling. "You never go there again, you hear," she said. "You're going to quit that job."
It seems Capone and Johnny Patton had dropped in that afternoon 10 talk business over a cup of coffee. This was Capone's first visit. The idea of waiting on him rattled Babe so much that she spilled steaming coffee all over his white suit. He jumped up, yelling at her, and she almost fainted. But suddenly his whole manner changed. "I'm sorry, kid," he said, smiling and putting his arm around her. "I didn't mean to scare you, but that coffee is pretty hot." He told her he was planning to play golf at Burnham at least twice a week. When he left, he slipped her the $10.
Babe was too excited at the idea of meeting Capone again to pay any attention to Mom. She went straight back to the clubhouse the next day. I was standing in the caddie line when she sent a shaver to me with a message to go to the restaurant where somebody wanted to talk to me. I went there and for the first time saw Capone in the flesh. He was wearing a white silk shirt with his monogram, no tie, gray plus fours and a belt with a diamond buckle, and he was surrounded by his gangsters. There were Burke and McGurn and somebody they called Banjo Eyes because he looked like Eddie Cantor—I never did learn his real name—and a short, fat guy with heavy jowls, Jake Guzik, who from his slob looks I never would have taken for the business brains of the gang, Capone's right-hand man. He had a nickname, Greasy Thumb, that supposedly came from the days when he was a waiter in some Levee dive, such a sloppy waiter that his thumb kept sliding into the food.
"Kid, I need a good caddie," said Capone. "Your sister here tells me you're very good. Think you can carry all those clubs?" He pointed to a golf bag as tall as I was, leaning against the wall. I told him sure I could. "Let's go then," and he marched out to the first tee, followed by the gang. They made up a foursome—Capone and McGurn against Burke and Guzik, with a bet of $500 a hole. Capone teed off first. He fetched the ball a whack that would have sent it clear down the fairway, only he hooked it and it curved way off to the left into a clump of trees. I scrambled around on all fours for about 10 minutes trying to find it, scared to death Al would lose his temper and hit me or maybe shoot me, but all he did was grin, pat me on the head and call me Kid. "It's O.K., Kid," he said. "So we lose a stroke, that's all. Just gimme another ball." And I thought: "He can't be as mean and rough as he's cracked up to be."
A slew of bodyguards followed along the sidelines and after them all the other kids, staring open-mouthed at Al and jealous of me. Was I proud and awed! I could hardly believe it—me, Tim Sullivan, caddying for the Big Fellow. Every now and then he would spot a soda-pop stand just off the course and stop to buy us each a bottle.
He played a terrible game. I don't think he broke 60 for the nine holes. He could drive the ball half a mile, but he always hooked it, and he couldn't putt for beans. Guzik was worse and Burke didn't play much better. Only McGurn shot a pretty fair score, around 40. In addition to the regular $500 a hole, they kept making side bets and Al lost most of them. About $10,000 changed hands that day.