For John Murges, it was the bet time of his life

Bet on It: The former bookie recounts his past life working with the Chicago mob and how he got out.

SHARE For John Murges, it was the bet time of his life
John Murges

John Murges works his numbers at the South Point sportsbook.

Rob Miech/sun-times

LAS VEGAS — John Murges and I go south on Ashland, turn east on West Fulton. He inspects buildings on the north side of Fulton. He stops at North Laflin, retreats, points to a deep parking lot and a one-story brick edifice.

The warehouse at 1506 West Fulton, now housing a production company, is where he once made book for the boys.

“That’s it,” he says. “Those old bricks. It must have been built in the 1910s, maybe by Capone. We had the right side of the warehouse, all the way back. Two rows of tables, maybe 25 guys, sometimes 35. I was a worker bee.

“My heart’s pounding.”

We’re actually sitting in a booth in the South Point sportsbook as we virtually case his old neighborhood on my laptop. The Chicago native and longtime Florida resident is a professional bettor and Vegas regular.

vegas_2_1506_W_Fulton.jpg

The warehouse at 1506 West Fulton where Murges made book for the Mob.

Google

From 1983 through 1995, he worked at 1506 for the Outfit. Organization. Syndicate. La Cosa Nostra. He dispenses with aliases.

“I’ll refer to them as the Mob, to make things easier,” says Murges, 58. “It was about opportunity. From when I started to when I stopped, business increased exponentially. The Golden Age of sports betting.

“Us or Vegas, your only options.”

He reminisces about the camaraderie, the respected bosses, making his rounds — paying and collecting — in and around Chicago, that loud, dirty warehouse and the Bears’ Super Bowl romp in January 1986.

Younger brother Dean, though, recalls another reality.

“Being scared. For him, for me, everybody. It was some serious stuff. Just scary.”

NOT YOUR DAY

In the 1930s and ‘40s, John Murges’ paternal grandfather ran a State Street market, paying $100 monthly in tribute, for protection, to connected men.

John’s father grew up in Greektown, at Jackson and Halsted, with eight siblings in the same building in which the notorious Tony “The Ant” Spilotro and his five brothers were raised.

vegas_3_Geo_Murges_raised.jpg

John Murge’s father, George, was raised on the top floor of this building at Jackson and Halstead, the same building where Tony Spilotro and his five brothers were raised.

Provided

George J. Murges once belted Tony over the head with a baseball bat for roughing up a sibling. George first mentioned the incident after Tony and brother Michael were found dead in a cornfield in 1986.

“He was always worried about repercussions,” says John.

George became a lawyer, assisting underworld figures on occasion. He and his wife raised John and Dean, and a daughter, in Park Ridge, 12 miles northwest of Greektown.

At age 9 or 10, John began receiving odds tutorials — exactly how Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal first learned about gambling — at Wrigley Field.

“On each pitch, whether it would be a ball or a strike,” says Murges. “It was predominant throughout the ballpark, especially in the bleachers.”

That warehouse is a mile northwest of Greektown. From there, John could walk to UIC, where he’d win a walk-on spot as a side-arm pitcher with the Flames’ baseball team.

Enforcer James LaValley sponsored Murges, who called him Jimmy. As a senior at Maine East High, John met Nick Gio, a freshman who aimed to work for the Mob. Murges would introduce Gio to LaValley.

vegas_5_img0242A.1747.jpg

Enforcer James Lavalley was one Chicago underworld figure John Murges was acquainted with.

Sun-Times file

Gio is serving a life sentence at Leavenworth.

A no-show gig was arranged for Murges at the Cook County Forest Preserve, which employed prominent boss Tony Accardo’s sister Bessie.

“She told me, ‘Honey, there was a time when my brother would tell the Cubs manager, Sorry, fellas, it’s not your day today.’ And they’d lose. True statement,” says Murges. “That’s why I’m very leery about games. I’ve heard the stories.”

He heard about Cincinnati player-manager Pete Rose betting on his Reds, calling a certain bookie from stadium clubhouses when the Reds were in the area.

“Five thousand a game,” says Murges. “We knew about it, but we were quiet guys. You didn’t want people to know what you did for a living, because people really looked down on it.”

John dated the niece of Pat Marcy, a “First Ward Mob superboss,” wrote William F. Roemer Jr. in his 1995 biography of Accardo.

“The political fixer for the Mob,” Murges says of Marcy, who had been born Pasqualino Marciano in Chicago in 1913 and became a gunman in Al Capone’s gang.

vegas_4_img0735A.916.jpg

Chicago underworld figures that John Murges was acquainted with included political fixer Pat Marcy (right).

Sun-Times file

In 1992, Murges attended the Rosemont send-off dinner, at a popular Mob spot, for Joseph Spadavecchio, a gambling boss who the next day would report to prison. “Joe Spa” would die behind bars, at 67, in 1995.

“I approached him and said, ‘My friend, I wish you a speedy return.’ He said, ‘Thanks, John.’ He was part of the old times, when they drove used cars, kept low profiles.”

CHICAGO PREMIUM

The floor of the grimy warehouse was littered with tin buckets since the roof leaked. Dirt and dust were everywhere. Folding metal card tables and chairs passed as furniture. Trucks were sometimes parked inside.

“A boiler room,” says Murges.

Managers gathered the day’s lines from the Angel-Kaplan sports service, run in part by “made” figure Don Angelini, or from Michael “Roxy” Roxborough’s Vegas operation. They’d even lift numbers from the Sun-Times.

“There was always a premium with Chicago teams,” says Murges. “If it was Bears -3.5 in the paper, we’d make it Bears -4.5.”

On weekends, the troops arrived around 9:30 a.m. to work 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. The odds were on chalkboards and early whiteboards, constantly altered by four people.

A few never used an eraser, so the outside of their fists, from the pinkie down to the wrist, was always black from ink.

A line manager peered over shoulders, tallying how much was being bet and on which side. Those numbers were calculated by someone working on a bulky metallic adding machine.

“If they saw so much money coming in on one end,” says Murges, “they’d move the line.”

He started in the summer of 1983. During baseball season, maybe a dozen guys manned the phones. Cubs’ games were in the daytime, until lights were installed at Wrigley Field in 1988, and most bets were made on the Cubs.

For night games, they’d open at 5, field calls for 2½ hours. On getaway Wednesdays or Thursdays, they’d open at 10:30 a.m., take calls for three hours, close and reopen at 5.

A driver for the Gonnella Baking Co. served as John’s personal bookie. Like most Chicagoland independents, that guy paid a street tax, or tribute, to the Mob, maybe $1,000 a week.

Out of respect.

BEARS ROLL

Each worker bee culled his own stable of punters, sticking to a general area to facilitate weekly collecting and paying. Each client used a number for identification. Each bookie went by initials, one of which was incorrect by design.

vegas_7_SUNDAY_SPECIAL.jpg

Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon and kicker Kevin Butler hug on the sidelines during the Bears 46-10 win in Super Bowl XX against the New England Patriots in New Orleans, La., in this Jan. 26, 1986 photo.

AP

Murges was “JT.” He’d have 35 to 40 clients, most of who lived in a swath from Rogers Park to Des Plaines to Barrington. He’d collect on Wednesdays and Thursdays, pay on Thursdays and Fridays.

A few times, he carried $100,000 in cash in his gray late-model Nissan 300 ZX. In a typical week, he’d collect $60,000, pay out $50,000.

The week of Jan. 27, 1986, Murges paid out $150,000. The previous day, Chicago had belted New England 46-10 in Super Bowl XX. Everyone had bet on the Bears, as did Murges — maybe $2,000 — with his Gonnella driver.

Chicago -10 was the common line, but Murges recalls it soaring as high as Chicago -13.5 in the warehouse. Didn’t matter. All 10 TV sets had foil-wrapped antennas, and Murges and colleagues cheered for the Bears.

“My hometown team,” he says. “They were just that good. They were doing the ‘Super Bowl Shuffle’ in November!”

vegas_6_03071_6.3220.jpg

Bears players Stefan Humpries on drums, Dennis Gentry on bass bass guitar and Calvin Thomas on saxophone tape the Chicago Bear “Super Bowl Shuffle” in 1986.

AP

That week, money to pay all the winners arrived in vans.

“Big black bags and briefcases,” says Murges. “They stuffed money in envelopes. On the front were my initials, the customer’s number and the amount, written very small. Rubber bands kept the envelopes together.”

He made about $1,000 a week. End-of-the-year bonuses ranged from $2,500 to $5,000. A colleague, with high-end clients, once received $10,000.

When a customer failed to pay, he was given the usual three penalty percentage points per week. For someone who couldn’t pay $20,000, $600 would buy him an extra week to pay the full debt.

Delinquent patrons were threatened to be referred to enforcers. Murges heard of fingers or hands being broken. Smaller debts were sometimes forgotten, names black-balled throughout the city.

Security would guard the warehouse and chain-link gate, but Murges says they didn’t worry too much since police were on the payroll. Federal agents, however, whom they called “the G” (for government), were another matter. “To pay off the Feds? Almost impossible,” he says. “Those guys were pretty clean.”

A primary concern was out-of-state phone calls.

“There was no caller-identification in the ‘80s, so when the phone rang you didn’t know where it was coming from. We were worried, if we got caught, how many years we’d do in prison.”

LEAVING THE LIFE

Murges was promoted to line manager in 1993, boosting his weekly salary to $4,000. “Huge money,” he says. Two years later, he and his wife had two daughters, and a third was on the way.

His father had always taken family on vacation to Longboat Key, near Sarasota, Florida, and Murges’ wife insisted he not only get out of this business but that they relocate to safer turf.

He nods when I ask if he had considered that lifestyle to be permanent.

“My wife didn’t,” says Murges. “She said, ‘You can’t do this for the rest of your life.’ We moved to Sarasota and left the life. That’s what we called it — The Life.”

Today, the Mob has far fewer tentacles. Sports betting has been legal in Illinois for nearly two years, as it is in 29 other states and Washington, D.C. He says, “It’s developed into this monster.”

Independent Chicago factions still dangle credit as a lure but, according to Murges, they are scant.

If it’s true that 10 years in that occupation equals 30 years in any other job, as Accardo once told Sam Giancana, then John Murges survived a provocative career surrounded by danger.

What you saw and how you lived, Dean Murges tells his older brother, is almost surreal. In that West Fulton warehouse. John talks about that chapter, in candid tones, because it was so long ago and so many of those figures are gone.

And it’s a different world.

“I saw so many guys go down, just for taking sports bets. Now you can make a bet at a kiosk. It was quite the journey. My father’s one wish was that I don’t stain his name. I accomplished his wish, for I never got arrested.

“I got lucky.”

The Latest
Arlington Heights police said the deceased — identified Monday as 33-year-old Jimmie Jackson Franklin of Chicago — unlawfully entered the Arbor Lakes Apartments residence of woman who had obtained an order of protection against him. Franklin allegedly attacked a man, who shot him.
Notes: Manger Craig Counsell gave an injury update on outfielder Cody Bellinger.
The Cubs opened a three-game series against the National League Central-leading Brewers on Monday.
Firefighters responded to a call of a garage fire about 10:22 a.m. Monday in the 600 block of Woodhollow Lane, a spokesperson for the village said. One person was found dead.