Monday, December 27, 2010

The Gambling Pinball Wizard

My one and only trip to New Orleans in March 1970 revealed a little-known form of gambling: pinball machines.  I later discovered it involved an odd convergence of The Mob, a retired NFL football star and a famous district attorney.

I accompanied my parents to New Orleans during a spring break, which they spent with another couple and I spent with my friend Craig Weil, a student at Tulane.  We dined together at some great spots, including Brennan’s and Mosca’s.  Craig took some good-natured heat from his fraternity brothers for ditching his date to a dance at the last minute to hang out with me.

Craig was a gambler at heart.  The New Orleans Buccaneers of the old American Basketball Association (ABA) played their 1969-1970 season at the Tulane Gym, and one night the team was giving away tri-colored ABA basketballs at half-time to drawing winners.  Craig noticed that few people came forward after their names were called, so after a short time and yet another name, he jumped up, yelled “Yes” and ran down the aisle to the court.  The presenter simply tossed him the ball, which turned out to be a cheap imitation.  As he was walking back to his seat, a man offered to buy it for some outrageous price.  After he handed over the money, Craig tossed him the ball and ran out of the arena.  His friends wondered why he wasn’t around for the second half.

Pinball machines equipped for gambling were all the rage in New Orleans.  Craig had won some good money during his college days and was a pinball wizard of sorts.  We spent two nights at Eddie Price’s, a bar and restaurant next to the campus with an array of pinball machines.  These machines did not have flippers.  On the other hand, it was virtually impossible (or maybe totally so) to tilt the machine.  The player jostled the machine in all manners, including picking it up off the floor, to keep the ball in motion.

The former Eddie Price's
Broadway and Zimple, New Orleans

Eddie Price was a Tulane football legend.  He still holds the record for the most career rushing yards, and went on to become a Pro Bowl fullback with the New York Giants.  He led the NFL in rushing during his second season, with 971 yards in 1951, and finished second with 748 yard the following season.  After retiring in 1955, he opened a restaurant and bar at Broadway and Zimple and served as a broadcaster for Tulane football.

Eddie Price (#31) with the 1954 New York Giants
Charley Conerly (#42), Frank Gifford (#16) and Roosevelt Brown (2nd from right)

I saw the gambling aspect in action the second night, after Craig ran up a number of “free” games.  As he finished playing, Price walked by and asked, “Did you win tonight?”  After replying in the affirmative, Price told him he’d see him shortly.  To my surprise, Craig then cleared the machine.  “How will he know how much you won?” I asked.  “It registers in the back,” Craig replied.  We walked over to a door labeled “Darkroom” with a small, rectangular, obviously two-way mirror.  Craig went in, leaving me behind, and returned quickly with a wad of bills.

Subsequent research found, not surprisingly, that the pinball machines had been installed in the 1930s by New York Mob boss Frank Costello and overseen by associate Phil Kastel.  Mobster Carlos Marcello later took over this and other gambling across the New Orleans area.  Shortly after my visit, New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (of Kennedy assassination fame) and three others were indicted on Federal corruption and tax-evasion charges for taking kickbacks from illegal pinball operators.  One can bet that Price was one of them.  The three pleaded guilty but Garrison was acquitted in 1973 in the corruption trial and a year later for the tax-evasion charges.  In my opinion, Oliver Stone shredded whatever sliver of credibility he had after his fabricated version of Garrison in “JFK.”

In 1972, a year after Craig graduated, one of Price’s managers was murdered in a robbery, and Price closed up the restaurant and opened one a few blocks away, most likely without pinball machines.  He died at age 53 in 1979.  His son, Eddie Price III, is currently serving a 5-year, 4-month sentence for corruption and tax evasion stemming from his service as mayor of Mandeville, Louisiana.

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