The hottest spring

A friend who was well aware of my love of Hot Springs and the characters who have called it home through the years sent me a copy of an article that ran in the March 19, 1962, issue of Sports Illustrated.

The story was written by Robert H. Boyle, who lived on the banks of the Hudson River in New York and often wrote about fishing.

Sports Illustrated had published its first issue in August 1954 and become known for quality writing. The cover of the 1962 issue containing the Hot Springs story featured the UCLA basketball team, and the cover price was 25 cents.

The headline read: “The hottest spring in Hot Springs: That’s the forecast for this jumping Arkansas town where gambling is wide open, the track is fast and the fishing is fine.”

Spring remains prime time for tourism in the Spa City — Oaklawn Park is holding its annual Racing Festival of the South next week — but in 1962 the gambling machines were spread across the city rather than being confined to Oaklawn as is now the case.

Boyle wrote of men with nicknames such as Bones Martin, The Dreamer and Amarillo Slim.

“Atlantic City Red, the pool hustler, was there, though he kept denying his identity,” Boyle wrote. “‘You’re the 20th guy who’s confused me with him,’ he said, feigning innocence. His confrere, Daddy Warbucks, was expected there any minute. Tiny, the ‘heavyman,’ or bouncer, at The Vapors, was there, and the Round Man was out shooting at the golf course. Tommy Freeman, ex-welterweight champion of the world, was there, and so was a little geezer of 94, Cap’n Joe Piggott, who said he had been Teddy Roosevelt’s bodyguard. Col. Reed Landis, son of the late Judge Landis, the baseball commissioner, was there, and so was Lon Warneke, who won 192 games for the Cardinals and Cubs. Texas millionaires were there, along with some moonshiners from the Possum Kingdom in the hills nearby. Chicago cloak-and-suiters were there, to say nothing of arthritics from St. Joe, Mo.

“These and many more piled into the little city of 36,000 that snuggles in a valley of the Ouachita Mountains. The most unusual spa in the United States, Hot Springs is also, pound for pound, the greatest sporting town anywhere. Last week marked the middle of the town’s traditional spring season, and by all odds this one shapes up as the hottest in history — unless the FBI interferes. The FBI, you see, was also there. The only people who were leaving were the carnival folk who winter in town; they were outward bound for the Seattle World’s Fair and other midways near and far.

“Hot Springs, sometimes celebrated as the Paris of the Bible Belt, attracts characters and crowds galore because it has something for almost everyone. ‘Free Beer Tomorrow’ flashes a neon sign over one saloon. At times it seems as though the town was dreamed up in a collaboration of W.C. Fields and the Mayo brothers. Besides legal betting on the horses at Oaklawn Park, there’s illegal gambling — craps, roulette, chuck-a-luck, bingo, blackjack, slots, you name it — at the lavish casinos. There’s bathing in the radioactive waters from the hot springs at the Quapaw and other bathhouses along the Row on Central Avenue, bow-and-arrow shooting at Crystal Springs, where the National Archery Association holds its annual championship, superb fishing in the nearby countryside, sailing and skin-diving at lakes Hamilton, Catherine and Ouachita, championship cock fighting not too far away, coon hunting in the mountains and good jazz in the Skyline Lounge, where John Puckett plays the piano, and the Black Orchid, where Charles Porter, piano, and Reggie Cravens, bass, hold forth until 5 a.m.”

Puckett played the piano for diners in the Venetian Room of the Arlington Hotel until shortly before his death in January.

The Reggie Cravens Combo played in the Arlington lobby on a regular basis in later years.

“Hot Springs has lured people since time began,” Boyle wrote in 1962. “Warring Indian tribes used to gather there in holy truce to partake of the waters bubbling from the earth. Legend has it that Ponce de Leon was really looking for these springs when he was chasing after the Fountain of Youth. In 1832, the U.S. Congress recognized the therapeutic value of the water by setting aside four square miles with the 47 springs as a federal preserve. As far as anyone knows, the water has always flowed steadily from its unknown underground source at a rate of almost a million gallons a day, with an average temperature of 143 degrees.

“‘An unutterable, unspeakable, awesome miracle,’ intones Nate Schoenfeld, a local lawyer and bath booster, braced at attention, hat over heart.

“A National Park Service plant cools the water to body temperature and pipes it into the bathhouses, where private concessionaires, operating under strict lease from the government, serve it up to customers by the tubful. The water not only has a favorable effect on arthritis, bursitis and rheumatism, but it’s also most relaxing for the visitor un-afflicted with anything save a hangover or the tensions of modern life. The peak of bliss comes when the attendant pulls the plug after your daily 15-minute soaking. As the water surges down the drain, you are plastered to the sides of the tub like a wet leaf on a curbstone.

“The reputation of the spa built the town of Hot Springs. It was one of the first spring training sites for baseball teams. As early as 1886, the Chicago White Stockings repaired there to ‘boil out the alcoholic microbes’ picked up from winter ‘lushing.’ Boxers came down by droves, from John L. Sullivan and Battling Nelson to Harry Greb and Jersey Joe Walcott.

“In the 1930s and ’40s, Hot Springs was notorious as a sanctuary for gangsters on the lam. Pretty Boy Floyd stayed a spell, and so did the Alvin Karpis gang. They had the freedom of the city; indeed, a phone call from the mayor’s office is reputed to have triggered the Kansas City massacre. The mayor was Leo Patrick McLaughlin, an evil rogue who refused to let the kids in town have a playground. He preferred that they continue to loiter in pool halls. Known as Dixie’s Jimmy Walker, Leo always sported a fresh carnation in his lapel, wore his hat brim up in front and down in back and paraded around town in a carriage drawn by two hackney ponies named Scotch and Soda. His only advice to the gangsters was, ‘Check your irons at the state line.’

“McLaughlin met his downfall in 1946 when a group of GIs, led by Sid McMath, an ex-Marine officer who later became governor of the state, and Nate Schoenfeld, a onetime Syracuse halfback and Harvard Law School graduate, rallied an independent party that defeated the crooked machine. The GIs were reformers but not bluenoses. They closed down the gambling, purging it of Leo’s cronies, but after McMath became governor, it opened up again. The people wanted it that way.”

I grew up 35 miles from Hot Springs. It was my “big city” during the 1960s and 1970s when I was a boy, a seemingly exotic place filled with exotic people. There were the auction houses on Central Avenue, the ethnic restaurants and the places intended for adults only. I was a newspaper junkie (I still am) and was amazed that one could buy a copy of that day’s Chicago Tribune in the Arlington lobby. Large numbers of people from the Chicago area still vacationed in Hot Springs back then.

A half century ago, Winthrop Rockefeller, the state’s new governor, began shutting down the illegal gambling operations. Downtown Hot Springs fell into an era of decline that only recently has begun to abate. But in 1962, downtown was hopping.

Schoenfeld told Boyle: “The best way to govern is to do a hell of a lot of leavin’ alone. The people are the ultimate repository of what the good God has put in them. The gambling is home-owned and operated. There’s no hoodlum element, no oppression, no scum. No one forces himself on anyone else. There is no guy around here with greasy hair and a Mafia smile. The people are capable, clean, decent, friendly. This place reflects the quality, character and charm of all of us. This place has got roots. It’s 24 hours of happiness.”

The three big casinos were the Southern Club, the Belvedere and The Vapors.

Boyle wrote: “All have nightclubs. Jan Garber and his orchestra play regularly for dancing at the Belvedere throughout the season. In addition, there are about half a dozen smaller gambling places. … All the gambling houses in the city pay a local tax, $500 a month for what the law defines simply as ‘a large place’ and $200 a month for ‘a small place.’ When the city fathers passed this law in 1958, they noted, ‘It is not the intention of the City Council to legalize any of the operations, but if same are conducted, taxes shall be paid.’ The tax money goes into the Hot Springs Municipal Auditorium and Civic Improvement Fund, and this year the city clerk expects to collect $80,000. A few years ago the town, led by the local state senator with the wondrous name of Q. Byrum Hurst, tried to get the Legislature to legalize the gambling, but a handful of rural representatives helped beat the bill. By custom and tradition, the governor of Arkansas keeps hands off Hot Springs. The state needs the tourists for its economy.

“A spokesman for the gamblers is Dane Harris, 43, president and general manager of The Vapors, a partner in the Belvedere and an enthusiastic member of the Chamber of Commerce. A boyish-looking six-footer with a crew cut, Harris could pass for a young college professor. ‘Of course this town’s illegal,’ he says, with candor. ‘But it’s been running open for years. People expect it and want it. This is strictly a local operation, has not been anything else and will not be anything else. This is a different type of element. Check the police records for the lack of prostitution and narcotics. Probably our own interest in gambling is more of an interest in it as business than gambling for its own sake. It looked like probably one of the few things that could be big enough to build the town on.’

“The Vapors, which books such acts as Les Paul and Mary Ford, the Andrews Sisters and Jane Russell, has 200 employees, and Harris hesitates to think about what would happen to them and the town, and his partners and himself, if the FBI brought a case against the casinos. ‘We’re fixin’ to build a new auditorium here,’ he says. ‘If there were no funds from the amusement tax, that would not be possible.'”

Boyle described Oaklawn Park this way back in 1962: “Oaklawn itself is a charming little track with a nine-hole golf course in the infield. Golfers played there opening day, but they are usually barred when the races are on for fear a slice will conk a horse. Flanking the old wooden clubhouse are glass-enclosed, steam-heated grandstands. ‘The first in the world,’ says John Cella proudly. Ordinarily Cella is a traditionalist. Instead of using a car to haul the starting gate around, he uses a team of Clydesdales.

“Although Cella has been coming down to Hot Springs for years, he never fails to be delighted by the varieties of life on exhibit in the town. ‘I don’t know of any place like it,’ he says. ‘It has a unique flavor all its own.’ As a case in point, he cites the sermon Father Mac, the assistant pastor at St. John’s, delivered at mass a couple of Sundays ago. From the pulpit, Father Mac said he had been out at the track a few days before and noticed a man who kept staring at him after one race. Finally the man came up to him and said, ‘Father, you cost me $100.’ ‘How could that be?’ asked Father Mac. ‘Well, father,’ the man said, ‘when the horses were parading to the post I saw you blessing the No. 9 horse. I bet him, and he finished last. ‘Son,’ said Father Mac, ‘I wasn’t blessing him — I was giving him the last rites.'”

Boyle also described the country club and the characters who hung out there: “The flavor of the town not only extends to but permeates the Hot Springs Golf and Country Club, where the annual Hot Springs Open is played in May. Only this country club could have a teaching pro like Gib Sellers, a onetime golf hustler known as the Round Man. For years the Round Man hustled with the best, often as a baby-faced kid in partnership with Titanic Thompson, the great con artist. When they traveled through the Midwest together, Thompson liked to set up the suckers for killing by airily pointing toward Sellers, who had only two woods in a dilapidated bag, and say, ‘I’ll just take that kid over there and play you two guys.’

“A Hot Springs native, Sellers practiced hour after hour on the local course, trying to look bad, and he trimmed everyone who came in for a game, even the other hustlers. ‘No hustler ever came in here and went away happy,’ he says with a smile. ‘They all got beat here. There wasn’t a player in the world who could beat me here. I shot that thing anywhere from six to eight under par. My best round was a 62, playing five guys low ball.’

“When not hustling, the Round Man played with the gangsters who used to frequent Hot Springs in battalion strength. ‘They had a truce when they came here,’ he says. ‘They were real gentlemen here.’ The best golfer among them was a gent known as Phil — he used sundry last names — who shot around par. Joe Adonis was in the high 70s, Ralph (Bottles) Capone around 80, Frank Costello between 80 and 82 and Lucky Luciano high man with 95.”

Boyle closed his story by quoting Nate Schoenfeld: “We have bounty. We have many things no one else has. We want to share it with all the world. We invite you.”

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