Best of Breslin: Fat Thomas Broils Them
The legendary reporter shares the story of a mythical figure in the betting world.
After breakfast yesterday morning, Fat Thomas watched the snow whirling out of a mournful sky and decided that he had to take action immediately. “Winter is for poor people,” he said. He was broke for so many winters that the condition appeared permanent.
Then last fall, Fat Thomas suddenly shook the Eastern Seaboard with professional football betting that was so precise that many people felt he was part of a coup. He immediately brushed off poverty as if it were lint and became the sort of spender of which songs are written.
Now, in his living room yesterday morning, he reached for some grass. He had spent most of the night drinking whisky; he clutches bad habits as if he has found treasure. “Only God behaves,” he says. He is terrible at rolling grass: the joint yesterday morning came out the size of a clothespin. As he lives with his Aunt Sis, who would explode if she found him with grass, he had a can of hairspray at his side to battle the smell of grass.
Some housewives, however, are not appalled by his clothespins. Because of his appearances on the daytime soap opera “Ryan’s Hope,” Fat Thomas is recognized by many of the housewives in his home area, Fresh Pond Road in Ridgewood, in Queens. And on several mornings, Fat Thomas passed a few of his large joints around to the women, who giggled, took their first passes at grass, and then strolled into Key Food babbling.
Yesterday morning, Fat Thomas smoked his grass and, after many phone calls, announced that he was going to winter in Florida. “I’ll be back here for the summer,” he said. He had arranged for his friend, trainer A. Fink, to reserve a suite of rooms near the Florida Downs Race Track. Fat Thomas then went upstairs to pack for the 11:00 A.M. flight to Tampa.
He went out into the snow in a light sports jacket and flowered shirt open at the neck. “Rich guys don’t feel the cold,” he said. “Rich guys can walk around a blizzard in a T-shirt and they don’t feel anything. If you’re broke, you got on an overcoat, a jacket, and three sweaters and you’re still shivering.”
In the cab somebody asked him about the Super Bowl. Fat Thomas scowled. He feels the game is too tough to bet. Past that, he has no interest in it. He dislikes Dallas for personal reasons: he once saw Coach Tom Landry on television speaking at a Billy Graham crusade. Similarly, he has disdain for Denver quarterback Craig Morton, whom Fat Thomas once heard earnestly discussing religion. “God does not catch passes!” Fat Thomas yelled at the television with great self-righteousness.
During the past season, however, when Fat Thomas won two major bets on the Patriots on consecutive Sundays, he stood at the bar and said, “I love New England so much I wrote Steve Grogan’s mother for his baby picture.” Steve Grogan is the New England quarterback. “Here, you want to see Steve Grogan’s baby picture?” Fat Thomas then showed everybody a holy picture. People turned away, calling it blasphemy. Fat Thomas held the picture over his head. “Steve Grogan’s baby picture!” he shouted.
It all started last July when, in the course of his travels, Fat Thomas met a guy who worked in a gas station in Brooklyn. “I shouldn’t even be here,” the guy said. “I picked one pro football game every Sunday last year and I won twelve out of fourteen.”
“You’ll never have luck like that again,” Fat Thomas told him.
“Oh, no, it’s not luck,” the gas station guy said. “I’m a genius.”
“He’s tellin’ the truth,” a mechanic said. “I followed him the whole season. I was always cleaned out with cards and I never had enough to bet.”
Fat Thomas began to cultivate the gas station guy. “I got a genius who’ll straighten me out forever,” he said.
The question that should have been asked here was, of course, if the gas station man was such a genius, then why wasn’t he rich from his own selections? But if you were to ask Fat Thomas this, you would be displaying your stupidity. For this is the same as asking why newspaper racing handicappers have to make deadlines every day. And why stock market and financial columnists write at least five times a week.
Besides, the rule always is: When confronted with genius, never inquire as to the man’s personal habits.
And so at noon on September 20, on the first day of the season, the phone rang in Fat Thomas’s house and the gas station guy came on the phone and called out, “It’s Houston. Beat the bookmakers!”
Fat Thomas went out into the streets with borrowed money. He bet $2000, returned home, and went to bed for the afternoon. He would, as in the manner of a presidential candidate, take returns upon awakening. His Aunt Sis sat downstairs in the living room, hands clutching the arms of the chair. Soon, the arms relaxed. On television, Bethea, the Houston end, pulled passes from the sky and destroyed the Jets, twenty to zip.
Fat Thomas won nine games in a row. All over the East people were talking about the streak of the “man from Queens,” as bookmakers called him. At night, Fat Thomas had champagne parties. This was to help conserve his money.
And now, in New York, there were scenes from another era. Fat Thomas at Nickles with a dinner party of six. Fat Thomas at Storyville with a party of ten, drinking champagne and whistling loudly at David Chefsky’s band. And then, in the late hours, at Jimmy Ryan’s and Sweet Basil’s downtown. One night he had so many people with him that two of the people rode in the trunk of the car. They could have hailed cabs, but they were so afraid they might lose Fat Thomas that they dived into the trunk. One week, he called in for the game, and then called in his bets, from a Dutch liner cruising the Caribbean.
A friend in real estate, Charles U. Daly, called him on the phone late one night and begged Mr. Thomas to put his money into something that would keep him from being broke again.
“Is real estate as much fun as hookers?” Fat Thomas said.
On the tenth Sunday, Fat Thomas bet the New York Giants against the Cleveland Browns. “The guy has to be a genius to pick the Giants,” Fat Thomas said. “What a guy this is.” For some reason he decided to stay up and watch the game. Bobby Hammond of the Giants scored on a screen pass. As he went into the end zone, the referees were jumping up and down. Somebody from the Giants named Hicks had committed a foul, clipping, twenty yards away from the play. The Giants collapsed. At 4:00 P.M., a television set came out of a second-floor window in Fat Thomas’s house.
In the playoff game between Oakland and Baltimore, Mr. Thomas had Baltimore and three and a half. The game went into sudden death. The first team to score would win the game.
Oakland had the ball, second down on the Baltimore ten, and obviously was getting ready to kick an easy field goal. Stabler, the quarterback, handed the ball to the fullback, who would dive into the line. Stabler took the ball back, turned, and threw it into the back of the end zone. Casper, an end, grabbed it. Fat Thomas was watching the game in the living room, his own television set being indisposed. His Aunt Sis had to come in and assist him up the stairs. This time he went to bed for real.
Illusions survive catastrophes quite well. On the street, Fat Thomas appeared lame after settling up the Oakland game. But yesterday, boarding his plane for the winter, he said, “What a year. The guy is a genius.”
“Where is he if I want to see him?” I asked him.
“He’s at the gas station every day but Sunday.”
Fat Thomas then boarded the plane for his winter in Florida, which might last as long as two weeks, seeing what Casper, the end, did to him with that catch. But this is something, of course, that you do not bring up at a time like yesterday, when a man left triumphantly for a time in the sun.