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Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal sits at a witness table before the Senate Investigations Subcommittee, Sept. 8, 1961, in Washington during a probe of organized gambling.
Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal sits at a witness table before the Senate Investigations Subcommittee, Sept. 8, 1961, in Washington during a probe of organized gambling.
AP

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Oklahoma-Northwestern in 1959: College football’s infamous cold case comes to life

Northwestern’s improbable victory over Oklahoma 60 years ago remains clouded in controversy. Whispers of a fix, food-poisoning at a famous Chicago club and mob ties persist. An insider now reveals his side of the story.

LAS VEGAS — That’s my guy, says one of the two armed guards at Checkpoint Charlie of Rancho Nevada Estates, this exclusive sprawl of Spanish-style homes and manicured lawns dotted by skinny palm trees.

After being informed of an appointment, my third with Lem Banker, the guard lowers his sunglasses and glares at me. “OK, what’d you do?” After a drama-heightening pause, he grins and taps a button to open the gate as he informs me of his tightness with the landlord of 216 Campbell Drive.

Banker, the legendary sports gambler, has called this place home since 1966, when he built the 3,600-square-foot house. A big swimming pool is out back, where a punching bag hangs from the pergola canopy, a rack of weights nearby. Those were the means to the physical maintenance that Banker always prized.

A short stroll up Campbell and east on Justice Lane stands an orange basketball, split horizontally as an invitation to the U.S. Postal Service, atop a short post — it’s the mailbox of late UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian.

In 1973, he moved in and revolutionized hoops with an uptempo offense and smothering defense, becoming Tark the Shark. The two men crossed paths during walks around the plush neighborhood. They’d exchange few words. “Because of the gambling thing,” Banker told me during my first visit. “May he rest in peace. A great coach . . . great recruiter.”

I called on Banker the first two times to gather information for my recently released book, “Sports Betting for Winners.” It highlights tips and tales from experts and professionals on both sides of an industry that is mushrooming. His chapter is near the front.

The third visit, in mid-October, would be exclusively for the Chicago Sun-Times and Sports Saturday, for exacting confirmation about his comments during those first two meetings. Banker had made stark revelations about Northwestern’s infamous football game against Oklahoma in September 1959, and the drama heightened in each subsequent visit.

Banker circulated among some menacing syndicate figures. He listened closely, speaking only when spoken to, and would use all information to make the smartest decisions with the hundreds of thousands of dollars he would wager on sporting events.

Somehow, in his paramount quest to maintain his character and integrity, he averted getting sucked into the mob’s unforgiving vortex. In seeking the tiniest morsel that could determine the direction of that money, however, his radar was just as keen.

In 1959, Banker was in a prime position to learn perhaps more than he should have about the murky nature of that game between the Sooners and Wildcats, a college football cold case that has lingered for 60 years.

Clarity to that riddle might lay behind that front gate, inside the semicircular drive where the silver Mercedes-Benz E350 — bearing the LEM vanity plates — is situated, up the nearly unnoticeable wooden porch ramp, past the living room, to the left, in which the antiquated video-poker machine invented by William “Si” Redd, a pal known as “King of the Slots” who gifted it to Banker, resides.

Beyond the dining room and left, into the kitchen, where a small television set airs loudly a black-and-white movie from the 1940s. Eight feet in front of it, on the other side of the kitchen table, 92-year-old Lem Banker is wrapped in a blanket, mouth agape, sunken eyes shut.

Sound asleep.

FRANK, JACK . . . JACK, FRANK

Circumstances suggest the intersection of Banker, fellow New Yorker Jack Molinas, a notorious figure in the college hoops fixing scandals of the late 1950s and early ’60s, and Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal would have profound implications on that 1959 game in Evanston.

Born in the Bronx in 1927, Banker was four years younger than the Brooklyn-born Molinas. They shared an affinity for basketball. Molinas starred at Columbia. Banker played briefly for Clair Bee at Long Island University, and the University of Miami was the third and final stop of an itinerant career.

At Miami, Banker quit basketball after the second or third practice. He and fellow ex-GIs rented a home and frequented the dog and horse tracks, and the popular jai-alai fronton at NW 37th Avenue. Banker helmed a handicapping consortium that preyed on local fraternities.

“They’d bet on Miami no matter what the price,” he wrote in his 1986 book, “Lem Banker’s Book of Sports Betting,” admitting, “we took advantage of them.”

Vincent Gigante is shown handcuffed in this Aug. 20, 1957, file photo.
AP

Molinas became enmeshed in the New York underworld, delving into the fixing of games in association with capo Vincent “The Chin” Gigante, mobster Thomas Ebol, and bookmaker Joe Hacken. Banker tried to avoid Molinas and other shadowy figures.

“Luckily,” he wrote about Ruby Stein, “I got on the right side of one of the biggest loan sharks in the city.”

In 1957, Banker began visiting Las Vegas, where gambling — and sports betting — became legal in 1931. He settled here, getting married in 1959.

Banker befriended gambler Rosenthal, who was tight with the Chicago Outfit. When Banker received word that several starters would not play for Memphis State, he had to hustle. The old sawdust-floored, stand-alone Vegas books had not opened yet, so he placed three $10,000 bets with a major bookie visiting from Minnesota. Banker won, but the bookie wouldn’t pay. Banker informed Rosenthal, who told him not to worry.

The $30,000 was in Banker’s account the next morning.

At the Stardust, Rosenthal would become the progenitor of the modern-day theater-style sportsbook. He’d be depicted by Robert De Niro in director Martin Scorsese’s movie “Casino.” Banker told author Brian Tuohy he had done “some business” with Molinas, whom Banker would introduce to Rosenthal, but Banker did not like Molinas.

A writer would call Molinas “a one-man collegiate corruption machine.” The New York Times called him “the Mephistopheles of college sports.” Sports Illustrated wrote that sport had rarely seen “a more poisonous combination of talent and vice.” A villain, wrote Charley Rosen, who based his 2001 book “The Wizard of Odds” on Molinas.

(The most salacious parts of Rosen’s book are interviews that New York Post columnist Milton Gross conducted with Molinas, and his associates, that were gathered for a book that was never published.)

Molinas’ nefarious activities would lead to the arrests of 49 players at 25 colleges in 18 states for tampering with 67 basketball games.

“You couldn’t trust the son of a bitch,” Banker told Tuohy in “The Fix is In,” published in June 2019. “Lefty did because the first time [Molinas] double-crossed him, Lefty had the Chicago mob beat the [expletive] out of him.”

“Yeah,” Banker, having awoken from his nap, tells me about having known Molinas. “A son of a bitch . . . that guy.” Banker frowns and slowly shakes his head. In his book, Banker wrote that he was never involved in any kind of fix, “but I was part of the gambling scene in New York then, and I knew a lot of the characters. [Molinas] was a very aggressive person who had no respect for anyone.”

Molinas would do five years for his fixing schemes. He gravitated west, into pornography. He was killed — maybe in retribution for having a business partner murdered to collect on a lucrative insurance policy — by an assassin’s rifle shot to the back of his head, in the backyard of his Hollywood Hills home in 1975.

Rosenthal was indicted on fixing-related charges several times, but he always beat the rap and never did time. At 79, the Chicago native suffered a fatal heart attack in Miami Beach in 2008.

Banker confirms that he had introduced the two men to each other knowing that they would likely have a mutually beneficial financial relationship.

Tuohy asked Banker if Rosenthal fixed games. “As many as he could,” Banker said. “Every bit of an edge he could get, he’d take. He was a real smart guy.” Banker told me, more than once, “Yeah, Lefty was involved in fixing games.”

COLORLESS, ODORLESS

As chronicled by Rosen, a mystery potion had been developed by a Canadian chemist specifically for the Chicago mob, to keep Molinas in its fold. The nameless liquid was odorless and colorless, designed to raise a victim’s body temperature to 104 degrees, causing diarrhea and nausea for a couple of days. When symptoms dissipated, the victim would be left “too weak and sore to compete effectively in any athletic endeavor for at least a week.”

Molinas had shunned a Brooklyn organized-crime family’s entreaties to have him sell them a rigged game, which became known to the Chicago faction. When the Chicago people obtained the concoction, they delivered a pint of it to Molinas in his apartment on Ocean Parkway, the quid pro quo being that he’d administer it for their financial gain.

Eager to test it, Molinas carefully dripped some into an empty plastic eye-drop bottle. He and an associate took it to Rand’s Bar in Coney Island. Molinas slipped one drop into the drink of an unsuspecting 19-year-old braggart. Halfway into a steak, the kid moaned, “I don’t feel so good.” Holding his stomach, he dashed for the bathroom.

Molinas and Hacken, in league with other Mafiosi, next zapped light heavyweight boxer Harold Johnson for his fight against Julio Mederos on May 6, 1955, in Philadelphia. Johnson routinely sucked on an orange before his bouts, and they arranged to have both halves of an orange injected with a drop of the mystery liquid in his dressing room.

By the second round, Johnson could not locate his own corner. He vomited between rounds, defecated in his shorts after absorbing a hit, finally collapsing. An analysis found no trace of a drug or barbiturate, but Johnson’s trainer and manager were suspended six months for allowing him onto the canvas when he was in no condition to fight. The TKO was changed to No Contest, and Johnson forfeited his $4,133.33 purse.

“Lefty Rosenthal informed him,” Rosen wrote of Molinas, “of a much more ambitious plan — drugging an entire football team. Incredibly, this same drug was used on college football teams for the next four or five years.” Molinas would boast of winning $2,000 a game while the Chicago Outfit routinely netted six figures.

The mob would send underlings and aspiring members to obtain jobs in the kitchens of campuses all over the country, Rosen reported in quoting Molinas, to gain access to football training tables.

“It took at least six months of preparation . . . and the headlines were all the same — ‘Flu Bug Visits USC,’ or Washington, or New Mexico. There was one season Lefty and his crew worked their drug act 15 times. There were vaults full of money made on this particular scam.”

SICKENING END TO ROAD STREAK

Two days before Oklahoma, a dynamo under Bud Wilkinson, played Northwestern on Sept. 26, 1959, the point spread of the Sooners giving six points had been halved, reflecting heavy action on the home team in illegal parlors in and around Chicago. Those bookies removed the game from their menus, but they soon reposted it when their moles could not detect illicit behavior.

The Chez Paree, the famous third-floor nightclub at 610 N. Fairbanks in Chicago.
Sun-Time file

The Sooners had accepted an invitation to dinner, on the Thursday evening before the game, at the Chez Paree, the famous third-floor nightclub at 610 N. Fairbanks that had welcomed Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Sammy Davis Jr. and many other stars of the era, including a regular chorus line of 16 Chez Paree Adorables.

The visitors gathered in a private dining room. Small bowls of fruit cocktail opened a multicourse meal, but many Sooners and an assistant coach could not continue eating, much less hang around for Patrice Wymore, a vaudevillian singer and dancer who would, in four months, appear as Sinatra’s jilted redhead on the silver screen in “Ocean’s 11.”

More than 20 players, many starters, became sick. The cabs of some were diverted from their hotel to Louis Weiss Memorial Hospital. Nine players would have their stomachs pumped, according to various reports. Seven remained overnight for observation. One went into shock and was not released until the morning of the game.

In heavy rain, No. 10 Northwestern belted No. 2 Oklahoma 45-13 before a Dyche Stadium crowd of 55,432 and a national TV audience. The Sooners’ 28-game true road-game winning streak, still a post-WWII record, was halted. It was the worst defeat of Wilkinson’s storied career. More triumphs would vault Wildcats coach Ara Parseghian to the top job at Notre Dame.

Rumor and innuendo about that dinner and that game have made headlines for decades. Look magazine detailed a timeline but failed to provide concrete evidence between tainted food and sinister mob actions.

Northwestern coach Ara Parseghian is carried off the field by players after his team beat Oklahoma on Sept. 26, 1959.
AP

According to the “Oklahoma Football Encyclopedia,” police in Chicago “showed very little interest in the matter.” Evidence was misplaced. Other tests showed negative results for drugs or barbiturates. As if the culprit had been odorless and colorless, even nameless.

On Sept. 11, 2019, Jerry Norman, a lineman on that Oklahoma team, recalled the Chez Paree episode in the Norman Transcript. They were enjoying the fruit cocktail, “and all of a sudden people got up from the table and [went] into the back of the restroom throwing up.”

Tom Cox, a sophomore reserve, would replace Gilmer Lewis, a co-captain and stalwart left tackle. Cox told the Transcript how odd it was that none of his fellow second-teamers became sick. Quarterback Bobby Boyd, fullback Ronnie Hartline, and halfbacks Jim Carpenter and Brewster Hobby were among the affected.

Players from the 1959 team, according to the Norman paper, never believed the Chez Paree dining experience and the Sooners’ poor performance against Northwestern to be mere coincidence. They recalled federal authorities interviewing them the following summer, but charges were never filed.

Rosen documented Rosenthal’s Chez Paree connection, someone who did part-time muscle work for the Mafia. Eight months later, the original Chez Paree, which opened in 1932, closed. Its owners vowed to reopen for the fall of 1960, but it never played host to another singer, dancer or comedian, never served another fruit cocktail.

DOIN’ THE COOKIN’

Banker has informed me that he knows who was behind the Chez Paree shenanigans. A year ago, for my book, Banker told me he was there, that he was in the kitchen and he saw Rosenthal, mysterious liquid in his paws, tampering with food that would be sent to certain Sooners.

Professional sports bettor Lem Banker poses in his backyard in 2009.
Steve Marcus/Las Vegas Sun

After transcribing the interview from my digital recorder, I rang Banker and asked for another meeting, to confirm his statements. He agreed. Upon visiting him 10 days later, he reiterated, verbatim, that he was at the Chez Paree and he had seen Rosenthal in the kitchen.

“The whole [expletive] team got dysentery, diarrhea . . . Lefty was involved in the kitchen,” Banker said.

I said, ‘‘You were there?’’

“Yeah, Lefty was doin’ the cookin’. He made sure . . . a bunch of players were crapping in their pants!”

As my book’s Oct. 29 release neared, I arranged to write an exclusive report, on the details of that ignoble evening at the Chez Paree, for the Sun-Times. A gut feeling provoked me to ring Banker once more.

‘‘Doing something special,’’ I said. ‘‘I would like absolute certainty about some of your previous comments.’’

‘‘Come on over,’’ said the man who writer-broadcaster Larry Merchant once called “an orchid growing wild in a garbage dump.” He added that Banker is “generally considered the most unusually open and honest professional gambler.”

The memory of an event from a year ago can become a tad hazy, less than surefire, for many people. Ten years ago? Six decades ago? It is particularly cruel that a man who boxed in the military right after World War II, who worked out like a fiend — in that pool and with those weights and on that punching bag — in the name of stamina and longevity, is now such a shell of his former self.

A year ago I sat in the same chair, next to a proud Banker, when he admitted that he was embarrassed by his feeble state.

“Used to walk around like a West Point cadet,” he said. “I worked out all the time, had a lot of girlfriends.”

So many friends and associates smoked cigarettes, he said, which so shortened all of their lives. He never smoked, rarely drank. He relished life and aimed to extend it, to squeeze every possible ounce from it that he could, thus the serious workout regimen . . . for this.

Banker has been relegated to a pea-green recliner, wrapped in a blanket, knit cap on his head. Quadruple-bypass heart surgery in 2008 and a surgeon only being able to go so far with a delicate back procedure in 2010 have taken their toll on Banker. When he does walk, with the aid of a burgundy walker, he inches along, back nearly parallel to the ground.

The once tan, strapping brute — “I’d seldom had a suntan before I came to Nevada, but I haven’t been without one since. There’s nothing like looking healthy,” Banker wrote in 1986 — now weighs about 90 pounds.

I tap on his front door. Ring the bell. Ring the bell again. I rap loudly on the door. I stroll off the porch and survey his many rose bushes, glance high at the palms, winds whipping the fronds on an otherwise cloudless, sunny afternoon. I close my eyes, soak in some rays.

A Dominican man opens the door and politely waves me in. Banker also receives the aid of a Costa Rican woman. They lead me inside the foyer, past the dining area and into the kitchen.

The man from the Dominican Republic barks at Banker, startling him awake. After a few seconds, he’s aware. He smiles. His visage is gaunt. I get to the point, about all of the drama and innuendo of that night at the Chez Paree.

“Dingy Halper ran that place,” Banker says of Dave Halper, a Chicago Outfit member who would move to Las Vegas to work at its Riviera property. “Lefty Rosenthal was in the kitchen, the team got diarrhea . . .”

A year ago, he seemed fairly lucid, on both occasions, when he said he had witnessed Rosenthal’s hijinks in that kitchen. Now, at intervals, he gasps slightly and catches his breath. Some sentences are shallow and trail off . . . at other times, his words are crisp and sure.

I raise my voice, to make sure he comprehends every syllable, and inquire slowly if Rosenthal tipped him off to what he might attempt at that nightclub?

“No.”

‘‘Not even a wink?’’

“No.”

‘‘Did you surprise him when you peeked inside that kitchen?’’

Banker looks confused.

‘‘Were you at the Chez Paree?’’

After a few seconds, he says, “No.”

‘‘Did you go to the game?’’

“No.”

‘‘Were you in Chicago that week?’’

“No.”

He sees that I am exasperated.

“I wasn’t there. I wasn’t in the Chez Paree, I just knew what was going on . . . I knew about it by word of mouth. Lefty was involved in fixing games. He respected my handicapping. If I told him I liked an underdog to win straight up, he’d go, ‘I think you’re on the right side.’ He was a good guy.”

Banker mentions long-closed sportsbooks and long-dead bookies, of watching Lou Gehrig play baseball and befriending Joe DiMaggio, that heavyweight fighter Sonny Liston was a close pal, and he points to a framed photograph of Rocky Marciano with his late wife, Debbie, another of his father in his World War I uniform. He’s eager to watch young hoopster Zion Williamson in the NBA.

I rise, thank him for his hospitality. As I step away from the kitchen table, he raises his right hand.

“My 93rd birthday is May 4th. You’re invited to the party or the funeral, whichever comes first.”

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