Monday, October 17, 2011

THE NINE LIVES OF WILLIE POTATO

At the Atlantis Casino, (1986), in Atlantic City, Willard Francis Potaki, a.k.a., "Willie Potato,"was punished for poor judgement and brought to my shift (nights). My first impressions of him were, that he consistently spoke too loud, reeked of tobacco and came off as dopey. Still, up against everyone else in the casino environment, he was a decent enough fellow.

During his first week, he was overseeing my craps crew when we were severely brutalized, for hours, by a pair of out-of-line low-lifes. In appreciation of our team effort under acutely harsh conditions, the pit boss wrote "comps" for two free drinks for us and our supervisors.

At the bar, I wound up sitting next to Willie. Immediately, he was chain-smoking, as he chased two, double Jack Daniels with two Heinekens (twice the free allotment)...while I was still nursing my first screwdriver.
WILLIE PULLED A 1956 BILLY MARTIN BASEBALL CARD FROM THE BREAST POCKET OF HIS DRESS SHIRT. HE HAD BOUGHT IT AT A SPORTS MEMORABILIA SHOW THAT AFTERNOON. THE PRICE SEEMED EXPENSIVE FOR A CARD THAT WAS BADLY BENT. HE SAID, "IT MUST'VE GOT MESSED-UP IN MY POCKET. BUT THE GUY THREW IN THIS OTHER CARD FOR FREE." I SAID, "HE 'BILL HALL' LOOKS JUST LIKE YOU." WILLIE THOUGHT I WAS CRAZY.




Willie slipped the bartender a bribe, hidden in a matchbook and ordered himself more free drinks. Then...not because he was intoxicated but because he was an anti-Einstein... he mispronounced and used the wrong words while telling me that a female pit boss on day shift recently went to the adjacent casino on her break and won $20,000.00 on a slot machine.


This was a time when Atlantic City casino workers weren't permitted to gamble in town. So when she had to show identification, she confessed her illegal situation. Despite her efforts to circumvent the law, the slot department representative offered her the courtesy of two choices. The first was to accept money and run the high risk of losing both her job and state gaming license or decline the winnings.


To the joy of the casino, she turned down the jackpot and returned to work. Willie then made a stale Polish joke at her expense. I said, "Potaki, isn't your name Polish?" His response was, "No! My people were European!"


I told that story a few days ago. Five friends of mine from that now defunct casino, had what turned out to be, an impromptu meeting of the Thirty-Year Gaming Veterans Club. Once we sat down, it was brought to my attention that Willie was already dead ten years. Then similar to the 1984 movie, "BROADWAY DANNY ROSE," we had a round table discussion about the old days but Willie Potato dominated the conversation.
THE OPENING OF THE MOVIE WAS SET IN THE CARNEGIE DELI WITH COMEDIANS REMINISCING. EVENTUALLY, THEY STICK TO ONE TOPIC, THE WORST THEATRICAL AGENT EVER...BROADWAY DANNY ROSE.

Everyone in our forum agreed that Willie Potato was legendary for "lighting a candle on both ends," and for having an odd fascination with baseball player/manager Billy Martin. However Willie's high octane lifestyle eclipsed his idol and brought about a far too early death. Upon deeper examination, Willie Potato was lucky to have lasted as long as he did.

Willie's downward spiral and ultimate downfall included chain smoking more than two packs of Pall Mall a day, alcoholism, regular use of recreational drugs, a gambling problem and a load of psychological complexes such as; persecution and Napoleonic.

Before understanding the party animal Willie Potato, we must first understand Billy Martin.

Alfred Manuel "Billy" Martin Jr., (of Portuguese and Italian ancestry), was born in Berkeley California on May 16, 1928. Despite being small in stature, his aggressiveness helped him to become a major leaguer with the Yankees, in 1950. During his seven so-so seasons in New York, he was dwarfed by stars, all-stars and future Hall-of Famers. However, he forever etched his way onto the team's all-time icons list, by performing well (.333 batting average), in his 28 World Series games and being named the 1953 World Series MVP.

In 1957, Martin's undoing in New York was his 29th birthday celebration at the Copacabana Night Club. He was already on ownership's version of "double secret probation" due to his excessive drinking and rowdy behavior when teammates, (most notably Hank Bauer, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra...and their wives) became embroiled in a highly publicized brawl.


Some drunkards were hurling racial insults at the headlining entertainer that night, Sammy Davis Jr. When the offensive gentlemen refused Hank Bauer's request to tone it down, the ensuing fight resulted in plenty of embarrassment to the Yankee front office.


THE MAJORITY OF THE PRINCIPALS PRIOR TO THE COPACABANA FIGHT.


The reports I read on the Copa incident agree that Billy Martin had no role in instigating the melee. Nevertheless despite being manager Casey Stengel's, "boy," Martin was scapegoated. He was deemed a bad influence on stars like Mantle and Whitey Ford and was immediately traded to Kansas City.

A Yankee at heart, Martin never achieved much success with other teams. In 1961 he retired with a .257 career batting average and was an all-star once, in 1956. Eventually he became a successful manager. However, whatever coaching greatness he attained was blighted by the same detrimental behavior that scarred his playing career, fighting.
FURTHER EVIDENCE OF HIS DYSFUNCTIONAL MENTALITY, THE HOT BLOODED MEDITERRANEAN ACTED IN COLD BLOOD WHEN HE EXTENDED HIS LEFT, MIDDLE FINGER WHILE POSING FOR THE 1972, TOPPS, #33 BASEBALL CARD.

Martin's polarizing personality resulted in the absurdity of managing the Yankees on five separate occasions, (that means he was also fired five times). I saw my favorite Martin-ism live on TV when he removed Reggie Jackson from a game in mid-inning. Tempers erupted and the face-to-face verbal clash which nearly came to blows is a classic.


During the ceremony when his number (1) was retired Martin said, "I may not have been the greatest New York Yankee to put on the uniform but I am the proudest." That statement also appears on his tombstone.

In a Johnson City New York hospital, on December 25, 1989, Billy Martin died from injuries that occurred in a slow-speed, one-car accident. Despite much speculation, a forensic examination of the tragedy proved that although Martin was drinking, he was the passenger. It was his friend who skidded on ice and crashed outside Martin's home in Port Crane New York.


For some reason, Willie Potato decided to not only emulate Billy Martin's shortcomings but to surpass them.


In 1952, Willie was born in Weehawken New Jersey. He was ashamed of both sides of his Portuguese and Polish ancestry and worked hard to avoid the subject of his lineage.

Willie dropped-out of high school but rose up through the casino ranks and crested as a craps floor supervisor.


Like Billy Martin, Willie was short.
WILLIE WAS 5 FOOT 2. HE WORE MOTORCYCLE BOOTS WITH A LARGE HEEL AND WAS RUMORED TO ALSO USE "LEG LIFTS." DURING OUR ROUND TABLE DISCUSSION WILLIE'S CLOSEST FRIEND, "B," REMINDED US THAT TO "HONOR" HIM, THEY USED TO CALL THE CHILDREN'S URINAL AT WORK, THE "POTAKI."

Willie was forced to compensate and frequently demeaned underlings and undesirable customers. While he took himself serious, most of his colleagues viewed him as a clown or an ass.


The reason he was sent to my shift was because after two burly security guards wrestled an irate patron to the ground, Willie jumped into the fray and got in a few sucker punches after the accused perpetrator was subdued.

Everyone at my table agreed that it was hilarious that Willie misused big words especially when unsuccessfully hitting-on unapproachable women.
IN AN UNCOMPLIMENTARY WAY, WILLIE WAS COMPARED TO COMIC-ACTOR LEO GORCEY, (1917-1969). GORCEY WAS ONE OF THE BUSIEST MEN IN HOLLYWOOD FROM 1937-1956. IN THAT TIME, HE APPEARED IN 69 FILMS AS THE DIMINUTIVE, PUGNACIOUS, MALAPROPISM SPEWING LEADER OF, "THE DEAD END KIDS," "THE EASTSIDE KIDS," AND "THE BOWERY BOYS." HIS PROTOTYPICAL YOUNG PUNK CHARACTER WAS PORTRAYED UNDER SEVERAL DIFFERENT NAMES LIKE; ETHELBERT "MUGGS" McGINNIS AND TERENCE ALOYSIUS "SLIP" MAHONEY.


Willie routinely stood out to all hours. At night, he drank until he passed-out and after a few hours of sleep, used amphetamines to get ready for work.


Another former coworker "W," said that Willie regularly gambled on his breaks. He'd leave his suit jacket at the hotel's front desk, remove his tie and put on a Yankee cap and sunglasses. Then he'd go next door for twenty minutes and play a few hands of blackjack while swilling as much alcohol as he could. To prove his stupidity, despite his high-tech attempt to mask his identity, he risked his livelihood much like the female pit boss that he spoke so condescendingly about.


I could understand why he felt tortured by Polish jokes when he was young. But as an adult, it was obvious that he wasn't bright enough to see that he'd become the personification of that type of humor.

Everyone was laughing when "B" said, "Losing his casino license would have been nothing to a guy like Willie. It's like he had a death wish or something because I think he used up more lives than a cat." "T" cut him off, "Remember his boating accident? He and his neighbor were all drunked-up when they saw bad weather coming fast. The casino skyline seemed so close so they didn't head back. In no time, the wind and waves picked up. The storm made them lose control. Even if Willie was sober, he was still an inexperienced boatsman. They smashed into a buoy, the boat took on water and overturned. The two drunks panicked. If a random fisherman didn't happen by and save their butts, they both would have drown."
STOCK PHOTO. WILLIE'S BOAT, "THE BILLY MARTIN #1," CAPSIZED IN THE BAY, A HALF-MILE OFF BRIGANTINE.


"R" blurted, "In the 90's, he was always broke and sponging money." "A" interrupted and said, "Being broke was why his ex ran him down with their car. It's hard to believe that he only broke his collar bone...because she really tried to kill him." "That's right," "W" said. "Their relationship was so messed-up because they were so co-dependent on each other...that he didn't even file charges. They divorced a year later but that was because she cheated on him." "T" said, "As soon as she moved out west, he became more of a dead-beat loser by never paying that whore any more alimony."

We were were all smiles when "B" reminded us, "The dude survived brain cancer." We had a spontaneous moment of silence. I was imagining him having a golf ball-sized tumor cut out of his head when "T" changed the mood, "Don't forget the gang-bang with Nadine, the pit clerk. Remember, he was with her when the husband burst in the bedroom. Willie led a charmed life because that moron would have murdered him for sure. But Willie only sprained his ankle when he jumped from the second floor balcony."

"T" said, "Don't forget the riot Willie started in the casino softball league. He was pitching batting practice to the other team and a couple of shots came close to hitting him. He always thought everyone was out to get him so he MFed the batter and accused them all of a conspiracy against him. The umpire actually had to break-up the cursing match before it became a free-for-all."

"A," said, "The tension mounted when the other team got under Willie's skin by giggling and pointing at him from their dugout. A few pitches later, Willie took a line drive off his chest. All hell broke-out and I remember Willie on the bottom of the pile getting his head stepped on with spikes."ONE YEAR WHEN THE ONLY SMALL-SIZED TEAM SHIRT CAME IN WITH #20 ON IT, (INSTEAD OF THE BILLY MARTIN INSPIRED #1), WILLIE GOT SO ENRAGED THAT HE CUT-UP THE #19 SHIRT. HE SLOPPILY SEWED A BLANK PIECE OF MATERIAL OVER THE NUMBER AND THEN SEWED A THIRD LAYER WITH THE #1 FROM THE 19 ON TOP.

We all laughed as "R" said, "Once everything calmed down, the umpire said if there's one more problem, he'll declare a double-forfeit. It shouldn't have mattered to us, we always lost. But I'll never forget Willie pitching that game with a bandanna under his Yankee cap with blood oozing through it."

"B" changed the subject, "I think when he lost his job...it killed him." He had been caught smoking pot on the property and was fired. Willie hopped from one part-time dealer job to another. He hated being the low man on the totem pole and got into many arguments...and like Billy Martin, kept getting fired.

"B" continued, "He convinced a bank to lend him some money and bought a small, one-man operation business on the cheap." "A" said, "But he didn't know his ass from a hole in the wall. All he knew was casino work." "B" said, "That's right. He was such a schmuck. He was drunk or high most of the time and couldn't be bothered by his own customers." "R" said, "I heard he used business money to score coke." "B" said, "Yeah. Then he couldn't handle the pressure of creditors in his face every day. Maybe dying from a heart attack was the easy way out."

We all left the table shaking our heads. It was hard to believe that the likes of Billy Martin lasted till 61 and Willie Potato only made it to 49...

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Nice, "WILLIE POTATO," story. I've been collecting baseball cards since I was 7 and never heard of, read or noticed that 1972 Billy Martin giving the middle finger card...great find. --- SBLANK

Anonymous said...

Poor Willie Potato, what a sad life he lived. Must say, I felt pity for the poor guy.

Good casino story!

M of T&M

Anonymous said...

I knew the real Willie from the casinos and later I was a customer in his store. While the story you told was interesting and accurate...I was really amazed that you found such an obscurre baseball card, (Bill Hall) that looks like a twin of the Potato-Man. --- Joe Mac