Tuesday, December 25, 2007


One of the most famous (or infamous) con men in history was Chicago native Joseph "Yellow Kid" Weil. As we know, every self-respecting crook or mobster must have a "professional" middle name, and Weil acquired his from the notorious turn of the century Chicago alderman, Bathhouse John Coughlin, who owned the most prestigious brothels in Chicago. At that time there was a popular comic strip called Hogan's Alley and the Yellow Kid. Weil was working with a grifter named Frank Hogan, and Coughlin associated the pair with the comic strip.

Incidentally, Coughlin was an interesting guy himself. He acquired his nickname "Bathhouse" because in his younger days, he worked in a massage parlor as a "rubber" (he gave rubdowns--this is a family blog!). As boss of Chicago's First Ward, along with his shady partner Hinky Dink Kenna, he ran the First Ward Ball, an annual fundraiser, which attracted safecrackers, prostitutes, politicians, businessmen, gamblers and others, until it was shut down in 1909 by a reform mayor. Coughlin was accused by a major newspaper of corruption, and he demanded a retraction, not because he was accused of graft, but because the paper falsely claimed that he was born in Waukegan, Illinois.

Getting back to our main story, Yellow Kid Weil was born in Chicago in 1875 to hard working German immigrants, Mr. and Mrs. Otto Weil who operated a grocery store. An honest living was not for Yellow Kid, and he left school at age 17 to work as a bill collector. He noticed that his co-workers were skimming small sums for themselves, and he started his first racket by threatening to turn them in unless they shared the profits with him.

He moved on to learn the con business, working under a veteran confidence man named Doc Meriweather, selling the public an "elixir" of which the main ingredient was rainwater. Yellow Kid learned his lessons well and soon graduated to bigger and better scams. As far as anyone can tell, the only times he ever earned an honest buck was in the process of developing his big scams. Over the course of his career, he was belived to have earned over $8 million from his scams, which was a lot of money in those days.

Weil's modus operendi was to concoct get rich quick schemes to separate bankers and businessmen from their money. For example, posing as a Dr. James Warrington, he induced an Ohio executive to invest $38,000 in a Wisconsin paper mill by representing that the investment would be pooled with others, including the President of Standard Oil of New Jersey (now Exxon), who was claimed to be Warrington's (Weil's) good friend. To make the scam work, Weil doctored articles from well-known publications and books which hailed his philantropic and business successes around the world. The two men went to Chicago to a Loop brokerage firm where Weil, posing as Warrington "appeared to be well and favorably known there." According to the executive, Weil pulled out stock certificates and obtained $20,000 cash in return. The brokerage firm was actually an elaborate set up. Newspaper reports said Weil represented that "a fortune would be obtained by buying hidden stocks of big corporations at unusually low sums and reselling them to J.P. Morgan and other brokerage houses. It appears that little has changed in the last 100 years.

Weil would set up phony betting parlors and even phony banks, hiring people to pose as "customers" and "executives" to impress gullible investors. The Academy Award movie The Sting with Paul Newman and Robert Redford was based on one of Weil's schemes. In his autobiography, Yellow Kid said that a con man is like a Hollywood producer. He hires drunks to pose as telegraph operators, cons to pose as fellow customers and even cons to serve on the jury of his peers should trouble arise. He then plays the part by renting suites of offices and dressing impeccably. The next day, the whole operation vanishes into thin air.

Other Weil scams included phony oil deals and fixed horse races. In one, he posed as a chemist who discovered how to copy dollar bills. In another, he was Dr. Henri Geuel, a geologist who claimed to be a representative of a big oil company, inducing his hosts to "invest in fuel." He even devised a scheme to establish a cemetery for jockeys in France.

"I never cheated an honest man, only rascals," declared Weil. "They may have been respectable, but they were never any good. They wanted something for nothing. I gave them nothing for something." Or to paraphrase W.C. Fields, "You Can't Cheat an Honest Man".

Weil was a student of human nature who instinctively understood human vices--greed and gullibility--and exploited it. Most of the marks who were scammed by Yellow Kid would have scammed him if they were smart enough to do so.

He once demonstrated a machine that cooked a chicken in 30 seconds. While the investor was distracted, a man under the table switched the uncooked bird for a roasted one. A University of Chicago professor attempted to invest in the machine, but the Yellow Kid, in a rare show of compassion, declined to accept the money, saying it was set up as a joke.

Weil was jailed approximately 41 times in his career, the longest being a 27 month stretch, ending in 1941, in the Atlanta federal pen for mail fraud in connection with the sale of phony oil leases. Weil finally had to retire because every cop in the country knew what he looked like, despite his many disguises.

His autobiography, Con Man: A Master Swindler's Own Story, was originally published in 1948, but has been updated in a new edition, with an afterword written by Nobel laureate Saul Bellow, who had once interviewed him.

On his 100th birthday in 1975, Weil said "I didn't consider anything we did phony, it was imaginary." "The most gullible of all were bankers and lawyers," Weil reminisced, because "they felt so secure in their knowledge that they didn't think anyone would dare sell them a bill of goods."

Weil died broke in a Chicago nursing home in 1976, shortly before his 101st birthday. His longevity was not attributed to "clean living".



Wednesday, December 19, 2007


A classic example of an eponym, a word named after a real person, is the Rube Goldberg machine. A Rube Goldberg machine is an incredibly complex device intended to perform a simple task. The term or expression entered the English language around 1930 to describe Rube Goldberg's illustrations of "absurdly-connected machines" in his eagerly awaited cartoons.

Reuben Lucius "Rube" Goldberg (1883-1970), no relation to movie star Whoopi Goldberg, was a cartoonist and a Pulitzer Prize winner whose work was published in newspapers and magazines from coast to coast. Born and raised in San Francisco, Rube loved drawing as a small child, tracing illustrations from books and magazines. His father discouraged Rube's artistic interests and insisted that he go to college and learn something practical. Goldberg went to the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned an engineering degree. He worked as an engineer in the Water & Sewers Department in San Francisco, where he learned that if you're ambitious, you can't work for government. He was upset by the "lethargy of the city employees" and the requirement of loyalty to corrupt politicians. As Ed Norton of The Honeymooners might have said, "I resemble that remark."

Goldberg preferred drawing anyway, and a few months later got a job in the sports department of a San Francisco newspaper for $8 per week. He kept submitting drawings, especially athletes competing in sporting events, and eventually his works were published. His employers came to realize that his pictures were increasing sales of newspapers.

Goldberg moved to New York and became a regular cartoonist for the New York Evening Mail and the New York Sun, creating characters like Boob McNutt, Lala Palooza and Mike & Ike. His cartoons became nationally syndicated, and by 1922, he was making $100,000 per year. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1948 for a political cartoon warning of the dangers of atomic weapons. Over his 60 year career, he was an often quoted radio and TV personality.

His wacky "inventions" poked fun at the "Machine Age" of the early Twentieth Century by using an extremely complex array of gears, wheels, arms, handles, cups and rods put in motion by balls, canaries, pails, boots, paddles and live animals to perform simple tasks like squeezing an orange for joice, dodging a bill collector or teeing up a golf ball without bending over.

His satire was evident in showing the disparity between the affluent who could afford the real appliances and the poor who would have to use the Rube Goldberg machine to achieve the same result. He spent hours on each drawing, paying great attention to detail. To quote Mr. Goldberg, the machines were a "symbol of man's capacity for exerting maximum effort to achieve minimal results." One could use the same terms to describe the efforts of the U.S. Congress. Certainly the U.S. Tax Code has often been described as Rube Goldberg legislation.

The engineering fraternities at Purdue University hold an annual Rube Goldberg Machine Contest which has grown to become the university's largest media event, surpassing even the sporting events. The winners of that contest have appeared on the Tonight Show and Late Night with David Letterman.

To quote from the contest rule book:

The Rube Goldberg machines you build are different from the machines people are used to seeing. A good Rube Goldberg machine incorporates the everyday machines people are used to seeing and connects them in ways that may seem idiotic or ingenious. It is your mission to construct a machine that uses at least 20 individual steps to complete an assigned task....

The materials you use are the most important components of the machine. See what you have around the house, raid your old toy chest, pick up all those appliances Dad has been meaning to fix, but most importantly, USE THEM. Anything goes when you are building a Rube Goldberg machine. Rube knew no bounds when he created his machines, and you should take the same attitude. Follow the adage, "Nothing is impossible, if you try." Your imagination is your only limit.

The finished machine is to be no more than 5 feet tall, 6 feet wide and 6 feet deep.... The machine has a 9 minute contest time. That means you must be able to run your machine completely through its paces once, reset it completely and run it completely through its paces again, all within 9 minutes. Only two people may touch the machine while it is being reset.

The contest is judged based on the ability of the machine to complete the specified tasks using as many steps as possible without a single failure.

Rube Goldberg machines have been featured in many cartoons such as Tom & Jerry, and also Road Runner where the inventive Wile E. Coyote is constantly devising such contraptions in a futile attempt to catch the Road Runner.

Movies featuring the devices include Back to the Future in which Doc Brown uses one to prepare his breakfast and feed his dog. In Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Pee-Wee Herman (Paul Reubens) uses one to prepare his breakfast. The 1999 movie Simply Irresistible has a device which prepares martinis. In the 1968 movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Dick Van Dyke's character has several Rube Goldberg machines in his house.

Goldberg even wrote a movie, Soup to Nuts (1930)which featured his machines and sculptures. That movies was the film debut of the Three Stooges.

If you're my age and want to program your VCR or DVD, you can take lessons from the Rube Goldberg instruction book.



Monday, December 3, 2007


I've previously written articles about some of the worst sports teams in history, but the 1962 New York Mets have to rank right near the bottom. The only worse team I know of was the infamous Cleveland Spiders of 1899 who lost 134 games and, after a disasterous road trip, cancelled their late season home games because they were afraid to come home.

Several years after the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants abandoned New York City for the West Coast, Major League Baseball decided to expand by creating 2 new teams--the Houston Colt 45's (now the Astros), and the New York Mets.

The two new expansion teams had differing philosophies about how to proceed. The Houston team signed up many young, talented, inexperienced players in the hope of realizing their potential in a few years. (They eventually got to the World Series 43 years later, losing 4 straight to the Chicago White Sox, who had gone 88 years without a championship.) The Mets, on the other hand, decided to sign up faded stars of the Dodgers, Giants and Yankees to appeal to the nostalgic New York fans. They even brought in the legendary, long time Yankee manager Casey Stengel, over 70 years old, to manage the team. The result was good attendance at the games but a simply awful team.

Stengel may have been a fine manager, but ultimately the players on the field had to hit and catch the ball, and unfortunately, this team set records for its ineptitude in those areas. New York columnist Jimmy Breslin summed it up in the title of his 1963 book, Can't Anybody Here Play this Game.

The Mets started out the season by losing the first 9 games before beating the Pittsburgh Pirates 9-1, and then lost 3 more. They ended up the season winning 40 and losing 120 games. They had one tie--with Houston--and another game was rained out, which prompted a victory celebration. Their record against the Dodgers and Pirates was 2 wins and 16 losses against each. The Dodgers beat the Mets 17-8 in one game and 17-3 in another. Those scores might be respectable performances in football, but not in baseball. They did have some notable success against the Chicago Cubs, who also lost over 100 games, winning 9 of 18 games.

Some of their "better" players included their ace pitcher, Roger Craig, the former Brooklyn Dodger, who won 10 games. However he lost 24 games, leading the league in that dubious category. Slugger Frank Thomas hit 34 homers, leading the team. He was no relation to the former Chicago White Sox slugger of the same name of the
1990's and early 2000's although both were slow runners and mediocre fielders who could hit the ball a long way.

Center fielder Richie Ashburn, a former Philadelphia Phillies star (now in the Hall of Fame) was the leading hitter with a .306 average, almost all singles.

Among some of the other characters populating the team was former Dodger pitcher Billy Loes, who once lost a ground ball in the sun. He was quoted, "The Mets is a good thing. They give everybody jobs. Just like the WPA." Loes was cut from the team.

The Mets had 2 pitchers named Bob Miller--one right handed and the other left handed. They were both 6'2", and hopefully their mothers could identify them. The right handed Bob Miller won 1 and lost 12, while the left handed one broke even, winning 2 and losing 2 while posting an awful earned run average of 7.08 runs per game.

The rest of the pitching staff included Al Jackson who pitched 4 shutouts, while winning 8 games, but losing 20. Jay Hook, from Grayslake, Illinois, lost 19; and Craig Anderson won 3 and lost 17, but led the team with 4 saves. They didn't keep records of blown saves at that time.

Popular with the fans as lovable losers, were first baseman Marvelous Marv Throneberry and catcher Choo Choo Coleman who became famous for their incompetence in the field. Throneberry, a former minor league slugger, never quite made it with the New York Yankees, but hit 16 homers for the Mets that year.

Infielder Felix Mantilla, with 20 errors, was known for giving a good head fake at ground balls bouncing past him into the outfield. The colorfully named pitchers Vinegar Bend Mizell (later a Congressman), and Sherman "Roadblock" Jones posted inflated earned run averages over 7 runs per game. "Roadblock" didn't stop the opposing hitters and soon found himself back in the Minor Leagues. To paraphrase the Frank Sinatra song, if you can't make it here, you can't make it anywhere.

The Mets traded with Cleveland for catcher Harry Chiti, giving up a player to be named later. That player turned out to be Harry Chiti himself. In effect, he was traded for himself. That was the story of the Mets' season. They had no players anyone else would want.

Nevertheless, the New York fans embraced the "amazin' Mets" and turned out to the ball park in droves to watch players the average guy could relate to.