The authors of this article are under sentence at the State Prison of Southern Michigan. Their manuscript was cleared by prison authorities before it was submitted to SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. No. 85893, who specializes in hustling spectators at sports events, enjoyed trusty status until a recent day when he decided to take an unauthorized leave. He is still on the lam. He may well be the kindly-looking gentleman on your right at next Saturday's football game.
With more people enjoying more leisure than ever before, 1961 was a great year for spectator sports. It was also a great year for me—which made it something less than great for quite a few spectators. I'm a professional thief, and for 20 years I made my living by hustling the sports fan at everything from cock fights to the World Series.
Of course, I could never claim any monopoly on the racket, or even much originality. I was only one among a growing fraternity of thieves who are devoting more and more of their larcenous attentions to a hustle that was old when hoods were heisting chariot whips, golden circlets and stray denarii from the crowd at the Colosseum.
Modern practitioners devote very little time to golden circlets, but we do make a respectable haul in binoculars, cameras, transistor radios (known in the trade as "pocketable portables"), cash, apparel and accessories. FBI estimates put our take at upward of $50 million a year—and this isn't counting the rake-off that goes to our less forthright brethren, the scalpers, touts, con artists and bookies.
October 29, 1962
Contrary to popular opinion, very little of this comes from racetrack patrons. The association of thieves and ponies is largely a myth nurtured by the late Damon Runyon, a well-meaning gentleman who wouldn't have known where to steal an apple. What with track dicks, city cops and other law-enforcing oddments, it's almost worth your parole to go near a horse. Crowd hustlers tend to shy away from anything that has legal betting attached to it. They concentrate on the big, popular sports, like baseball, football, hockey and basketball, though not to the exclusion of participant sports such as bowling and newly popular games, like lacrosse and jai alai, which are attracting a whole shiny new crop of victims.
I was always partial to aquatic events, tennis matches and sports car races. Long ago I came to the obvious conclusion that my success as a thief was going to depend heavily on the affluence of my "'clients," and I discovered that the sportier sports seemed to bring out a better-heeled set. The merchandise not only was in greater quantity and of superior quality but was treated in a more cavalier manner by its owners. Sports car rallies offered one significant advantage. If I had a bad day with the spectators I could turn my attention to the contents of their cars, mostly easy-to-enter convertibles. And if that still didn't net me enough I wasn't above clouting a whole car. That sort of thing is risky, but at least you have something to show for your work. This is to larceny what job insurance is to honesty.
Getting rid of the stuff I heisted was never any problem. What I didn't sell to my friendly fence I pushed right back to the fans at temptingly reduced prices—so reduced sometimes that I suspect my legitimate customers had more larceny in their hearts than I did. I must have pushed back enough hot merchandise over the years to get half of Yankee Stadium busted for receiving stolen goods.
I learned all the angles of the racket years back by serving an apprenticeship with an oldtime hustler named Heini Klein. He was an old man when I knew him, but that didn't keep him from being the slickest thief ever to come down the bleachers. Heini used to hustle in the old country before he came over here around the turn of the century, and what he didn't know about taking' a mark would never get you arrested.
"Work clean," he used to tell me. "'A good thief should look like an honest victim." That's exactly how Heini looked—a little shadow of a man, plain as a cell-block wall, with a touch of arthritis and such an unmitigated look of innocence that strangers felt like kicking him for his apparent simpleness. Sometimes he affected a Malacca cane that he swore he'd clouted from Otto von Bismarck at a yacht race on the Starnberger See. If that really was Bismarck's cane the old boy probably gave it to Heini. Heini was the kind of old gentleman that—well, when people had to go someplace they asked him to watch their kids. Many of his best scores came from people asking him to hold their seats and keep an eye on their things. Heini kept an eye on them all right—all the way to the nearest fence.
Heini's specialties were cameras and binoculars. He'd move in on his mark as polite and Old Worldly as you please, and before you knew it he'd be squinting out at the field through a borrowed pair of Bausch & Lombs or exclaiming naively over a $500 Leica. And the first time a player made a 50-yard run or slammed out a homer, Heini simply evaporated into the crowd.
In later years Heini was forced to dissipate his genius on more sedentary gaffs, like short cons. Even the best hustler has to cut and run at times, and a thief with arthritis just doesn't have much advancement potential.
Heini would have been a great disappointment to those who expect their lawbreakers to come with shifty eyes, 5 o'clock shadows and prison pallors. All of us, in fact, look pretty ordinary, and if you hustle outdoor events you can cultivate a better-than-average suntan. The only guy I knew who really conformed to the Lombrosian ideal was a little creep affectionately known to the light-fingered clan as The Creep, He had a face like an armpit and a personality that only a warden could love. Cops used to dog his heels like flies after a garbage scow—and that was just dandy, because it took heat off the rest of us.
The thinking thief takes pains to avoid looking like a hood. If this means a rag-Ian sweater and tapered slacks at a National Open, then that's what he wears while casing the gallery or shaking down the locker room. If it also means an occasional pair of Bermuda shorts, that's just one of the sacrifices demanded by any profession. Whatever event he's working, though, a good thief learns to get the feel of a crowd: when they're all wrapped up in the game and straining with excitement, and when they're restless, digging for cigarettes and wondering where the rest room is. If the game hasn't got them, you can't make them. But when the action is really hot—man, you can do everything but undress them.
That's what gives a crowd hustler his biggest edge. People at a game aren't thinking about being robbed in the first place. And once the game is moving they don't see anything but the players. Sometimes, when the action is especially good, even the hustlers forget what they're doing. One time I saw a dip put his hand in a mark's pocket and then forget all about it while they both stood there and watched a Norwegian skier named Ansten Samuelstuen make a record jump of 316 feet at Steamboat Springs.
Picking pockets is an art I never had much talent for. It demands a certain coolness and finesse that always seemed to escape me, and the few attempts I made generally resulted in unpleasant little scenes that cost a sorry price in dignity—people yelling "Cutpurse!" and "Stop, thief!" like something out of Dickens. Disgraceful. And what happened to me the last time I tried picking a pocket shouldn't happen to a stool pigeon. I was working a hockey game at Detroit's Olympia Stadium when I spotted a mark carrying his wallet in the pocket of a topcoat slung over one shoulder. This makes for a very soft touch. I got hold of the wallet, all right, and was just easing it out when I became aware of a very unsettling thing. Someone had his hand in my hip pocket! I spun around so fast I peeled my mark right out of his seat, but by the time I got untangled from the topcoat I'd already been made. This was extremely humiliating for a man in my line of work, and itvery nearly ruined my professional reputation.
Crowd hustling, of course, does have a not-so-funny side to it. Purse snatchers, a dangerous breed, like to work sporting events because it's easy for them to get lost. And then there are junkies, working on a crazy mixture of nerve and desperation that easily turns to panic. These guys not only lack the sophistication that marks a true professional, they are inconsiderate of their victims to the point of irresponsibility. It isn't unusual for a purse snatcher to dislocate a woman's arm if she's a bit slow letting go of her bag. And junkies are completely unpredictable. One minute they're warm, friendly fellows who would give you the monkey off their back; then you rub their nerves the wrong way and they're cutting you a new navel. It's cheap hoods like this who get the rest of us pegged as dangerous scoundrels, drunkards and dope fiends. And if it's any consolation to those scarred souls who have run afoul of them, these bums are thoroughly despised in professional circles.
During my active years I probably picked up enough merchandise to open my own branch of Abercrombie & Fitch. About the only thing I never clouted was a real live athlete. But the wildest score I ever made was the time I snatched a set of Bobby Jones specials out of a car at Pebble Beach. I stood in the parking lot and watched a man put them in his trunk. When he went back to the clubhouse I strolled over, raised the lid and picked up the clubs—and that's when the snakes started climbing out of the bag.
So help me, this guy had snakes! He had snakes like other people have mice. Half a dozen or better. I didn't stick around for any silly explanations, and I didn't even try to salvage the clubs. I dropped everything, like a man who's just seen half a dozen snakes coming out of a golf bag, and headed for the 19th hole. As a matter of fact, the whole experience was so upsetting that for a couple of weeks I was seriously thinking of going straight.
Short of stashing serpents in your belongings, it's still easy enough to prevent this sort of thing. Individually, theft losses can be stopped by the simple expedient of not leaving valuables in cars and by keeping an alert eye on those that are being carried. A hustler depends on carelessness and inattention. Take that away from him and he's out of business. Of course, I managed to go out of business without anything being taken away. Fluked off, as we say in prison. A little old lady who thought I "looked like a thief making a getaway" stuck an umbrella between my legs and tripped me down three flights of aisle B at Tiger Stadium. Her silly suspicion was, unfortunately, correct—and I landed right in a cop's lap with a pocketful of evidence.
This misfortune cost me five to 10 years in the state penitentiary, but it doesn't mean permanent retirement and it won't even make a statistical dent in those FBI figures. Crowd hustling is still the easiest and most popular sport of all, and it probably attracts more participants than the competitive events that spawn it.
To the great consolation of many a hard-working thief, this is one racket that just won't be stopped. No one is going to convince a mark that he's a mark—especially when he has his eye on the ball.