The phenoms we know about. But forget them. They were overrated, that's all, and we cannot cry about water finding its own level, at their having to go on to pumping gas or selling mutual funds. After all, they had their day in the sun, even if it was only a hazy day of spring; that is a freebie, one more day in the limelight than the rest of us will get. No, the ones to weep for are those who honestly had it but were denied a lifetime of fame by some sad, unlikely fate. Tony Lema died one way, Harry Agganis and Ernie Davis another. Who knows how good Connie Hawkins might have been? Herb Score could have rewritten all the record books, page after page. But for injuries Pete Reiser and Lew Hoad might have made us forget Cobb and Tilden.
And Tony DeSpirito, the late Tony DeSpirito. Most people don't even know the name anymore. Others had forgotten it until it flashed fuzzily before them, an old tune we danced to at the beach one summer, when the word came the other day that he had died, age 39. His mother found him on a Monday morning on the couch in the little apartment he rented in Riverside, R.I. For reasons nobody understands, he choked to death. That's what the autopsy determined. Probably there were too many parts inside him that were just too busted up or worn down. But only 39, that just doesn't seem fair. Especially after all the spills that nearly killed him with his boots on, all the horses' hooves running over him. He had the last rites twice. And he would come back; he even rode into 1973, but each time there was something else diminished, if never the courage.
What a waste. The late Tony DeSpirito could have been the best there ever was on a horse, the very best. He knew that himself. When he visited his children, who had been too young to see him when he was great, sometimes he would laugh and say, "I'm the king. I am. Nobody could ever do on a horse what your father did." And there was no braggadocio to it. It was almost teasing. He just wanted his children to know, for the record. He would laugh. "The king, Donna. Your father was the king."
Even from an outside hole he could drive a horse out of the gate and put it on the engine, or from off the pace he could finish as well as Garrison or Arcaro or Cordero or any man who ever lived, and in between he rode so straight and beautifully, absolutely classically. The oldtimers say you could have put a glassful of water on the late Tony DeSpirito's back, and he would win by a nose in the last jump and never spill a drop. That is what the oldtimers say.
August 31, 1975
In 1952, when he was 16 years old, he won 390 races, more than anybody ever had before him. Everybody thought he was 17, but he had lied about his age when he quit school and went to the track. He wasn't 17 till Christmas Eve that year. He would have ridden more than 390 winners, but before he got close to the record he would just take off his mounts a day here and there and get in his latest Cadillac, of which (by the best family estimates) he owned 17 in one year's time, and go pick up some tall, big-breasted, grown woman and spend the afternoon with her.
And when people talk about the late Tony DeSpirito that wondrous year, what above all is the first thing they say, the very first thing? It is that he was brought up special from Miami to be on Ed Sullivan after he broke the record. That certifies it, his greatness. From age 17 it was never so good again, and all bad luck. He was just on Ed Sullivan the one time.
Willie Shoemaker is 43 years old. He broke DeSpirito's record the next year, 1953. This year, 1975, Shoemaker is still in perfect shape, body and mind. He has no weight problem and expects to ride another decade or more. Why not? He hits a golf ball straight for better than 200 yards and plays tennis with people like Burt Bacharach. He has had the same agent all his life. His money is in a safe place. He is not just liked and respected but damn near sainted. Not long after Mrs. DeSpirito found her oldest son dead in Riverside, Willie Shoemaker won the Belmont on Avatar; and he is having one of the better seasons of his 26-year career. Willie Shoemaker, like anyone else, does not know why it is that these things happened to him and those things to the late Tony DeSpirito. He says, "Some people go through doors, Tony ran into them." Come to think of it, you can't say it any better than that.
Tony's mother has read about him in the paper so many times that she plays it back. She says, "Tony was just a hard-luck kid." Have you ever before heard a mother say that her son was a "hard-luck kid"? Probably not. But there is nothing much else to say unless you want to talk about the doors.
In the early '50s DeSpirito in the East was considered the equal of Shoemaker in the West. And DeSpirito was said to have more potential because he was stronger. DeSpirito was the one they compared to Arcaro more often; Arcaro himself thought the kid from New England would be his heir. Many people still refer to DeSpirito as "the kid." It is not that it was a nickname; they just say it unconsciously. He is 39 years old, dead in the ground, and he is still the kid. "Oh, you want to talk about the kid." "Lemme tell you about the kid." "I knew the kid some 20-odd years." And so forth.
This is what happens when you scale the top at age 16, and then can't ever outdo it. Athletes get frozen in time. They get attached to a certain year. People say, "Oh, yeah, that was his year." "That was Walt Dropo's year." "That was Dick Kazmaier's year." "Wasn't that Tom Gola's year?" Nobody ever says this about other people. Nobody once ever said that 1776 was Thomas Jefferson's year. Maybe just athletes have years—and very few of them—usually just the kids. Willie Shoemaker never had a year. But 1952 was the late Tony DeSpirito's year, and when we are all dead, the lot of us, when things are even, he will be able to say that he had the one thing very few others had. Maybe that is why nobody ever heard him rail at the misfortunes dealt him. At least he had a year in his hip pocket.
He came out of Lawrence, Mass., a mill town on the Merrimack River, a place out of the textbook chapter on the industrial revolution. For him it was six miles from Rock, which is across in New Hampshire and formally named Rockingham Park. His father is a little man, too. He wanted to be a rider, but never could work it out; he was out of a job at the mills when his boy started riding a great many winners around New England that spring. Mr. DeSpirito spent the balance of 1952 signing papers for the various Cadillacs; all the business with the excise taxes was a real mess, he says.
It is fascinating that everybody but one who knew the kid back then says how mature and precocious he was. For example, Pee Wee Gervais, his valet for most of 1952, says, "Tony really grew up quick. He learned the fast life pretty quick." Bob Aiello, his best friend, says, "Tony was a 16-year-old boy who was a 55-year-old man." Everybody—his parents, his friends, other riders—echoes this feeling. The one person who disagrees completely is his first wife Doris. She shakes her head and laughs that anyone could ever have thought he was grown up. "Listen, Tony was small," she says, "but he was the biggest, bravest man I ever knew. But what did he know? What did we know? We were just a couple of kids. That's all he was, a kid." We think kids are men for doing the things well that would make grown men kids again if they could do them. The late Tony DeSpirito could pick up a tab, take home a broad, trade in a Caddy and switch sticks in the stretch; so much for growing up.
The amazing thing, really, is that it didn't mess him up. It didn't. It cost him plenty of easy money, but it never did go to his handsome head. Aiello, who is now the clerk of scales at Lincoln Downs, says, "Sixteen years old, he could write his own ticket. I'll tell you, it was more than I could have handled. He's making $3,000-$4,000 a week. The toast of the town. Women chasing him. He's taking bows wherever he goes. He's on Ed Sullivan. And always the entourage, the fair-weather friends. Sixteen, he knew all the wheeling and dealing."
That is the occupational hazard (such as it is) of being a great athlete. The ones like Shoemaker, the ones who avoid getting caught up in it, they are the exceptions. The late Tony DeSpirito wasn't anything out of the ordinary, and maybe he was a classic case; it all happened so quickly and ended so fast. And also, he was carved larger than life, a regular folk hero in his part of the world.
New England is a singular place. Everybody thinks of the South as the most distinctive American region, but since air conditioning, the people in Atlanta and Richmond are from Cleveland, and the other way around. There was never any cult about New England. In the South the thinkers wrote about the South, and glamorized it; in New England the thinkers started schools. At the time DeSpirito came to prominence New England was a place unto itself, and it still is. The people prize their own.
The North End of Boston is Italian. There are still dyed-in-the-wool Yankee fans in the North End, this affiliation going back to Joe DiMaggio and Frankie Crosetti, when the Red Sox didn't have any good paisanos. When DeSpirito got hot, the whole North End came in on him, and then the whole city and then New England. It wasn't just the broads, understand. The kid had the whole place at his feet.
You still will have a hard time in Bean-town betting with a bookie if you want to bet more on place or show than win. This goes back to 1952 and the late Tony DeSpirito. He was on so many good horses and riding them so well that he was almost a lock to finish in the money on certain mounts. He had a one-armed agent named Wingie, so called because of his unfortunate dismemberment, who could pick and choose the best stock, and about the only time the kid didn't get the horse that figured was when another trainer could make it exceptionally appealing, laying a bill across Wingie's existing palm. So wagerers were putting fifty, say, on DeSpirito to win, and then backing that up two, three hundred place or show. People were betting the late Tony DeSpirito who had never bet so much as a bingo card at the parish before. The books were getting handled. They couldn't even win when he lost because everybody was saving. That's when they said you could only wager fifty to show if you wagered fifty to win.
The entire New England racing economy went on a DeSpirito standard. The books had to play "the comeback window." This is a term for a corrective device to deal with perverse betting. Say a horse named Irish Mother is entered on St. Paddy's Day at Suffolk. Obviously every Irishman in town is going to get five down with his bookie. Suppose Irish Mother is 20 to 1 at the track, where there isn't so much hunch money corning in. But away from the oval, maybe a quarter, a third of the books' take is on Irish Mother. At 20 to 1 they'll be wiped out if the hunch filly scores. So they have to take a lot of Irish Mother money and run it out to the mutuels, to the comeback window, and bet it on Irish Mother in order to get the odds down. Well, the kid was an Irish Mother all year. Every day the bookies had to feed the comeback window just to stay square.
Playing to his audience, an old racetrack announcer named Babe Ruben-stein stopped calling the horse and would call the boy, instead—and where did you ever hear of that before? Desspereeto, he pronounced it, and it stuck, even though the family says Desspeeritto. People can still remember Babe Rubenstein suddenly shouting, "...and here comes Tony DeSpirito, flying on the outside like the wind!"
Oh, what a time it must have been for a 16-year-old boy.
Having done it all, at 17 he got married. Nelson Eddy sang at the wedding. The bride was the former Doris DeCristoforo, the daughter of the chef at the Latin Quarter, a Boston nightclub. Doris was 18, pretty, stacked, brunette and a virgin. The last was especially important to the kid. "I was a nice girl," Doris says. "That's why he married me." They went to Niagara Falls on their honeymoon because that was the thing to do (it snowed), and Doris got pregnant with Donna right off the bat. And they bought a trailer to go to the tracks in. One day Tony took Doris into a bar and ordered two J&B Scotches, hers tall with soda to cut the taste. "If you're going to be married to me, you've got to learn to drink what I do," he said.
When Doris was home with the babies he would occasionally tie one on, bust up a Caddy, maybe even get arrested for drunken driving, but it wasn't booze that did in the late Tony DeSpirito. Fast living was just his style. "As sharp as he was, he was always the type of boy who only lived for today," Bob Aiello says. "Tony was just a leave-it-or-like-it guy." He drove the big cars like his horses. Once he went out to get some Chinese food. This story sounds too good to be true, but it is. He smashed up his Caddy on the General Edwards Bridge coming back, climbed out of the wreck, hailed a cab and brought Doris the Chinese food while it was still steaming. He came through the front door smiling, actually smiling, holding aloft the food containers he had salvaged from the crash.
He made something like $150,000 the first year and a bunch thereafter before he got hurt. For as long as they were married, good times and bad, Doris says there was never a day he didn't carry $3,000-4,000 in his pocket. And he could be touched. A racetrack scuffler came up to Aiello a few days after DeSpirito died and said the kid had lent him a ten, who did he pay it back to? This fellow wasn't going to short a regular guy like DeSpirito, even dead. The kid never really lost his money. He just dribbled it away, here and there, on this and that. His only real investment venture was a restaurant named Carl's Duck Farm near Boston, which he ran with his father-in-law, the chef. That cost him a bundle. The late Tony DeSpirito would come in some nights and get rid of all the paying customers so he could sit around and drink with his buddies. Most of the money just faded away, and he never regretted a penny of it.
Some of it, of course, went on the ladies. The kid was a doll. His ex-wife says he was 5'3". "Come on, Mom," says Mark, his son, who is 16 now, small and handsome like his father with exactly his mannerisms. "You know he was only 5'2"." She smiles sheepishly. DeSpirito was not hung up on his height. Like Shoemaker, who is even smaller, he was perfectly proportioned, so he looked taller than he was. With his dark good looks he was even called "Brando," and he had the beautifully muscled body of a boxer. So, while there were always women, they didn't hurt his career any more than the drinking. Popular opinion aside, seldom do the ladies do an athlete in. It is not being with a lady that harms athletes. In fact, look at it this way: when an athlete is with a lady he is not out drinking with the boys. It is the chasing of women that is wearing, but the late Tony DeSpirito, like other sports stars, didn't have to do any chasing.
Doris realized early on that he was cheating on her. Hurt and embarrassed, she didn't press it at first. Later, whenever she would question him, he would put on a little-boy look and play innocent. "He'd always tell me he was 'a victim of circumstance,' " Doris says. "It was all the guy's fault he was with, that sort of thing." She pauses and smiles at the memory. "He would actually say, 'victim of circumstance.' He'd say, 'But, Doris, I'm a victim of circumstance.' "
The ladies only ruined his marriage. It was the horrible accidents that destroyed his greatness on the track. He had too much courage—and not enough luck. He took a spill at Lincoln in 1953, and they thought he had injured a disk. He rode 311 winners that year. In 1956 they finally discovered he actually had broken his back in three places. He was almost killed when he was trampled on in the Beldame Stakes at the old Aqueduct in 1955. He came back and was almost killed when his mount broke a leg at Laurel in 1956. He came back again and was almost killed at Rock in 1958. All told, there were nine spills. He came back again and would have been dragged to death at Suffolk in 1960, but another jock, Henry Wajda, who was later killed himself at Rockingham Park, grabbed DeSpirito and held him up, just off the hooves on the first turn.
Over the years the kid lost a kidney and his spleen. He broke ribs and his back and jaw and lacerated his brain. There was so much surgery, so much pain, and a lot of pain-killers that sometimes got confused with the J&B. At 22 he called himself "washed up"; at 25 he said, "The pain, I got to call it quits." Another day he rode once more, vowing to be a jockey for "as long as I can climb on a horse." The new injuries aside, the back always troubled him and, as he got older, the weight as well. He was so muscular that he had no fat to lose. All that went was the greatness. "I can't get out of a horse what I used to," he admitted. He even quit for a year and a half and sold real estate in Florida, but he came back to what the jocks call "the whites," for the color of their work pants.
When Doris left him he went right out and married again, and after he and Ginny had a little boy, that marriage broke up, too. It truly hurt him that the second divorce kept him away from his 2-year-old, little Tony. DeSpirito hadn't had any childhood himself, and he realized for the first tune that he hadn't experienced his first family's growing up, either, because he was always riding or a victim of circumstance. It hit him all the harder when his younger sister Barbara died suddenly last year of a rare blood disease. She was 35.
In hardly more than a year Mr. and Mrs. DeSpirito lost their only daughter and their oldest son, both in their 30s. Mr. DeSpirito, with a bad heart and a bad leg (a horse kicked him in 1959, when he was trying to be a trainer), forces a smile and says, "I always thought I'd be the first one up there, but it turns out they'll be waiting for me."
There is the one boy left, young Barry. His parents are very proud of him. He lives nearby, visits often and, as Mrs. DeSpirito points out, "He's salaried." He wanted to be a jockey himself once, and during one of his retirements Tony acted as his brother's agent. But Barry wasn't that good, and, besides, Tony tried another comeback himself. Barry found his way back to the real world. Tony finally quit again for what was supposed to be the absolute last time in April 1973 and became a $45-a-day placing judge and general factotum around the racing secretary's office at the Rhode Island tracks. "Oh, Mother of God, I kissed the ground when he went on that judging," Mrs. DeSpirito says.
Maybe the late Tony DeSpirito was never scared out there himself, but he terrified the women in his family. They knew he was just a hard-luck kid. Even when he and Doris had bad arguments, when they had fights about his women, she would cry, "Tony, Tony, don't ever leave to ride before you kiss me goodby."
His mother was even more scared. It was good that she didn't know he was planning another comeback. Mrs. DeSpirito went down as low as 72 pounds after Barbara died, and she says that after Tony died, "I'd have gone to the booby hatch" if she hadn't had Barbara's three boys to take care of, to occupy her. When Barbara died and her children came in with them, the DeSpiritos just found a bigger place in the project.
They are tiny people. In the mornings, when the three boys are at school, they sit around the living room and smoke cigarettes and watch the game shows. In the afternoon, when the boys come home, it is livelier around the house, jumping and noisy again, almost exactly as it must have been with their own three kids 25 years ago before Tony quit school and went to Rock.
He was getting ready to start all over again this summer. He had been itchy when he was sitting in high school, and now he was itchy sitting in a puff job where they give you a pair of binoculars, call you an official and you then play second fiddle to a television camera. Of course he wanted to come back. You cannot expect an athlete to swear off performing. Reporters clustered around Shoemaker after his Belmont, but they didn't have all day because he was up in the ninth race, too, some inconsequential allowance route. They asked him why he kept on riding. "I enjoy what I'm doing," he replied, easy enough. "I love it."
A couple of days later, at Lincoln Downs, a jock named Norman Mercier, who has been riding about as long as Shoemaker, although you never once heard of him, came back after winning the first race, $1,500 claiming maidens. Why did DeSpirito keep on trying to ride? "How many people have a job which they really love what they're doing?" Norman Mercier said. "That's why I'm still here. That was what Tony lived for." It is the same with Shoemaker.
All the time, as he worked as an official at the tracks, DeSpirito would get away now and then and go down to the jocks' room to have coffee with the other boys. He was a quiet man, sometimes moody. The other jocks, even the kids who knew little but the legend, always deferred to him and liked him because he never put on airs even though "he had been to the races and back."
In a TV world of superlatives, of greats and alls, dynasties and supers, athletes themselves tend to go the other way, to employ the most prosaic language to indicate the extreme. Thus, in team sports, the greatest compliment an athlete can pay another is to say that he is "a player." At the tracks, making the big time is merely "going to the races." And this in the jocks' room at Lincoln:
"Oh, Tony was a rider," says one.
"Tony was a race rider," says another.
And that is precisely what the late Tony DeSpirito was. Other people, though, always expect athletes to move on to other things. Why? Because we are jealous that they get to keep on playing games? If Willie Shoemaker wants to ride until he's 60, what's it to us? Why shouldn't the kid try to come back? "In Tony's mind there was never any doubt that he was the greatest rider who ever lived," says Bob Aiello. "Never a doubt." So what is making weight and a bad back when you feel that way about the one thing you can do in life? DeSpirito began to jog and bicycle to get fit. He figured to break in at Calder in Miami this summer. He prepared to move out of his apartment, the one he died in. "Well, I guess I'll go back to the whites," he told a couple of friends, and proudly.
DeSpirito had been feeling poorly off and on. He spent a couple of weeks in the hospital last winter. He would run a temperature, and they couldn't figure out why. Also, strong as he always was, there was an irony. "The one thing he couldn't ever do was ride steady, steady, steady, seven/eight/nine races a day like a lot of guys can," says Pee Wee Gervais. But there was no inkling, no premonition of death. If anything, DeSpirito was actually looking ahead for once in his life. He was going back to the whites and he was going to try to get Doris to come back with him, too.
He would always barge into her house as if they were still married, come in, make himself a J&B, use the phone, take over. One of the last times he came by, Doris was up in the bathroom, coloring her hair. That didn't stop him. He got all three kids together, and they went up and talked to her. She knew exactly what he was doing; he was trying to make it all a real family again—the five of them, Doris and Tony, Donna, Rosemarie and Mark. The kids had told her that their father was trying to enlist their support to help get her interested in remarrying him. Doris says he even bought her a big two-pound box of chocolates once, "like a kid on a first date." In the bathroom, as she went on coloring her hair, he suddenly blurted out, "You know, Doris, you did a wonderful job of bringing these kids up." He had never said that before.
But he was going back to the whites, and if he could get his nice girl back, too, why everything would be just like before, when he was so very young, standing on the threshold of being the greatest rider of all time. But of course he was 39 now, fighting weight and all the injuries, the bad back. The kid couldn't come back. Not far, anyway—maybe just a winner every now and then to tease him: And here comes Tony DeSpirito on the outside, flying like the wind! It is also kind that he never knew that Doris could not take him back. Doris was never an athlete. She never had a year. She had a family instead and is salaried, and she has grown up since it snowed in Niagara Falls.