Where is John Brisker?
Basketball’s original bad boy was heavily in debt, with rumoured links to a dictator. In 1978, he disappeared.
By: Gare Joyce
He might be resting in peace or pieces. He might have died of natural causes.
He might have been slaughtered and ploughed under with dozens of bodies in a mass grave in Uganda. Or he might still be a hale and hearty 65-year-old, though not John Brisker by name any longer. In fact, if he’s alive, Brisker has spent more time living under
a new name or names than the one he was born with. And though he hasn’t been heard from in three decades, some have long believed that he’s living with
a new handle and a new identity. Sure, a court in the state of Washington declared him legally dead in 1985, but Brisker did a lot of things illegally; he would have been the one to find a way to be alive illegally.
John Brisker was reputed to be the baddest guy in the American Basketball Association, where violence on the court was without precedent and remains without equal all these years later. Yeah, the league helped jump-start the creative playground game thanks to Julius Erving and David Thompson. But Brisker, the league’s undisputed heavyweight champion, and other thugs, reminded you that the ABA’s playground was in the worst possible neighbourhood.
And “thug” is not too strong a word
to describe Brisker. At six-foot-five and 215 lb., he looked as much like a boxer as he did a shooting guard or small forward. It was years before players hit weight rooms in a big way, but Brisker was ripped thanks to nothing more than genetics.
Brisker was kicked off his team at the University of Toledo for assaulting a coach. In perhaps his most infamous episode, he grew annoyed at a teammate during practice, went over to the gym bag he always kept courtside and pulled out a handgun. Brisker’s team in Pittsburgh was originally called the Pipers, but the named changed to the Condors in his second season there, appropriately because, after word of Brisker’s malevolence and predilection for firearms got around, opponents gave him a wide berth to the hoop, one that a bird of prey with an eight-foot wingspan could have navigated unobstructed. He veraged 26 points a game in the ABA and could go off for 40 without a trip to the line, as opponents were afraid that, if fouled, the swingman would come out swinging before heading to the stripe.
Brisker was a badass like a hero out of the blaxploitation films of the era. You could visualize Fred “The Hammer” Williamson playing him in the movie of his life. But a lot of air went out of the legend in 1972 when Brisker jumped to the NBA and signed with the Seattle SuperSonics. “They weren’t scared of him over there,” his former Pittsburgh teammate George Thompson said. Brisker didn’t stick three full seasons in the established league. He was done before his 30th birthday.
A self-styled entrepreneur, Brisker launched restaurants in Seattle and ran up a series of debts—some on the books, others with people who don’t keep books. He was investigated by law enforcement. It’s not clear who posed the most immediate threat: legitimate creditors, racketeers or the feds. Brisker fled the jurisdiction. He was an advocate of black power and believed African-Americans should connect with their ancestral lands. With a bunch of people chasing him, Brisker saw an opportune moment to explore both his roots and business opportunities in Africa. One rumour had him going to Uganda to work for Idi Amin, maybe even as a mercenary.
This much is known: Brisker made it to the continent; Brisker left behind his wife; Brisker left behind at least one other woman who presumed that she had his child; Brisker left behind siblings whose last contact with him was by mail. He had sent them a letter accompanied by a photo of him on horseback with a handwritten caption: “Have money will travel.”
And then, in the spring of 1978, John Brisker fell off the grid. Rumours started to swirl the following year, rumours that Brisker had died, rumours that made it back to Mrs. Brisker. Maybe bad things do happen to bad people, especially the baddest. According to CIA documents obtained by a Freedom of Information request, Mrs. Brisker had her doubts.
Her husband had always played in the shadows, and, to her mind, his death in the shadows was too perfect a symmetry, not to mention too convenient.
Brisker was nowhere to be found.
The only question: Was he pushed or
did he jump?
It was easy to imagine that Brisker could have run afoul of Amin, either among his cohorts or his enemies. In the 1970s, thousands died in Uganda without leaving a trace. When the CIA’s operatives made it to Kampala in late 1978
and ’79, they found that any loosely kept records were long since destroyed. They also found that no one could put Brisker in the same room as Amin.
Mrs. Brisker told authorities that her husband had left the U.S. with a large sum of money. He told people it was a lump sum settlement from the Sonics. His wife told officials that her husband told her he was in “a lot of trouble” and that she should wait “till the heat is off.”
Though no one could find evidence of Brisker travelling to Uganda in the initial rounds of investigation, intelligence officials established that he had passed through Liberia. According to one redacted document filed in the CIA’s Monrovia office, a witness put him in the city in March 1977, accompanied by a woman other than his wife. According to the witness, Brisker said he met the woman in New York. CIA documents indicated that she was the daughter of
a bank employee and had left her own daughter in the care of her family. According to the witness, whose name
is just a black slash on a typewritten document, Brisker had professed his love for her and said his marriage in the U.S. was over. And when the CIA questioned the woman’s family members, they said they never saw nor heard from her after she left with Brisker.
In 1982, a hint arrived that suggested the story of Brisker’s demise might have been the truth. The CIA’s Kampala office wired Washington with a report that officials there had determined that another businessman, Benjamin Lewis Taylor, had sought to make inroads with Amin and had sent for Brisker. At some point after Brisker’s arrival, he and Taylor were accused of “criminal activities” and abducted from their rooms at the Kampala International Hotel. “Allegedly [they were] sent to the state research bureau, never to be seen again,” the report reads. It looked like the case was closed, but the CIA in Kampala couldn’t promise that. “[The Kampala] post has no way to determine whether the story is true, as the legacies [sic] of the Amin era was the disappearance of thousands of people.”
You’d presume that wherever John Brisker went, there was always going to be “a lot of trouble.”
Were the All Blacks poisoned?
By: Arden Zwelling
It was two days before the 1995 Rugby World Cup final in Johannesburg when the New Zealand All Blacks gathered at their hotel for
a spot of lunch. They had their own private dining room and a friendly waitress named “Suzie” ensuring everyone was well fed and had a full glass of water. Even though they had been eating the same mundane hotel food for nearly six weeks, almost the entire team gleefully dug in, fuelling up for the final against South Africa in 48 hours. But six All Blacks had tired of the South African cuisine and simply poked at their plates during lunch before heading down the road to
a Pizza Hut. When the half dozen All Blacks arrived back at their hotel for dinner that evening only half of the 20 teammates who had been at lunch were present. The rest were either at the doctor’s office or locked in their rooms, testing the integrity of the hotel’s lavatorial system. By breakfast the day before the final, only the six All Blacks who had dined on pizza showed up. The rest couldn’t leave their washrooms.
What an unlucky coincidence for the majority of
a team that had romped through its first five games of the World Cup with ease to come down with food poisoning so close to the final. The All Blacks, naturally, were incensed and accused “Suzie” of putting something in their food or water. They may not have been so suspicious if not for the listening devices they had found planted in their rooms earlier in the tournament and the synchronized car alarms that went off outside their hotel the night before the final.
No one has ever definitively determined if the All Blacks were the victims of poisoning, although it is a widely held belief that they were. What we do know is that by game time, several of the team’s key players were still suffering from the illness and in a state that would have kept them off the field if it wasn’t the biggest game of their lives. They all kitted up—many puking excessively on the sidelines during stoppages in play—and lost to the Springboks, 15–12, in extra time. Nelson Mandela presented the Webb Ellis Cup to South African captain Francois Pienaar, a torn nation was united and a decade later, Clint Eastwood made a movie about it. But if not for a mysterious rash of food poisoning, one of rugby’s greatest stories—one of sport’s greatest, too—may have never happened.
How old is Albert Pujols?
By: Arden Zwelling
If you believe Albert Pujols’ birth certificate, it’s been 32 years and 200-some days since the prodigious first baseman came to be in baseball-mad Dominican Republic; he was just 18 when he made a mockery of high school baseball in Missouri, drawing a walk in 63 percent of his plate appearances as a senior; he was 19 when he hit .461 with 22 homers in his only season of college ball; and he was 20 when he hit .314 with 19 homers and a .920 OPS across three minor league levels in his lone pro season below the majors. At every level Pujols challenged the notion of what was possible, and with that came whispers from coaches, scouts and agents that he was just too good to be true. They claim the high school pitchers who walked him repeatedly did so to make a point—they didn’t believe Pujols was really a teenager. The question is especially important now that he’s in the first year of a 10-year, $240-million contract. Now, as his numbers decline for a second straight year after 11 consecutive campaigns of 32 or more homers and an otherworldly career OPS of 1.026, even more people are wondering: Is Pujols’ birth certificate accurate? And if not, how old will he be when his contract expires?
What happened to Big Ed Delahanty on that bridge?
By: Arden Zwelling
We know this much about “Big” Edward James Delahanty: He hit over .300 for 12 consecutive seasons, tallying nearly 2,600 hits. And he lived life like it was a Guy Ritchie movie, drifting between racetracks and casinos, leaving behind a trail of money, diamonds and booze.
We don’t know how, on July 9, 1903, the Hall of Famer’s battered corpse washed up at the landing for the Maid of the Mist on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, missing a leg, his clothes and all of his valuables.
On July 2, the 35-year-old Delahanty vanished from his Detroit hotel room, leaving behind personal belongings and his uniform except for his black Washington baseball cap, size 7 ⅛. That night, he boarded an overnight train from Detroit to
New York and ordered multiple shots of whiskey before causing a disturbance. The train made an emergency stop at a small station in Bridgeburg where he was kicked off.
About 25 minutes later, a night guard at the International Bridge connecting Bridgeburg, Ont., and Buffalo encountered a man walking on the drawbridge. At first, the 61-year-old guard claimed he confronted the unarmed man and tried to physically remove him from the bridge before the man ran off toward the American end of the bridge. The next thing the guard heard was a splash. But after Delahanty’s body washed ashore, the guard changed his story to say the stranger was armed, ran in a different direction and the two never had a physical confrontation.
The only constant was the splash. When the guard was interviewed he wore a black Washington ball cap, size 7 ⅛. He claimed he found it one night on patrol.
The truth behind Delahanty’s death will almost certainly never be revealed. But we asked Mike Sowell, who wrote July 2, 1903: The Mysterious Death of Hall-of-Famer Big Ed Delahanty, for his opinion: “The most likely theory is that there was some kind of a confrontation. I think there was foul play. This guy was wearing flashy clothes and was obviously drunk. Anyone on the tracks would have been able to take advantage of that. I suspect the bridge guard was involved. The only reason to change his story would be [if] he was covering something up.”
What the hell is that Magic Spray?
By: Aaron Hutchins
A soccer player goes down. As he writhes in pain, clutching an ankle, a knee, whatever, his trainer takes out an aerosol can and applies “magic spray.” Seconds later, the star is back up and running as the crowd screams derisively.
A faker. A diver. How else could you explain it?
Turns out it’s not magic at all. The spray contains a topical aerosol anaesthetic skin refrigerant, such as ethyl chloride, which creates an instant—if temporary—cooling effect. The cold decreases the nerve conduction velocity of the A delta and C fibres, the main pain-conducting fibres of the nervous system, and inhibits nociceptive inputs to the spinal cord. “It really is just a distraction to numb the nerve endings,” says Jacob Joachim, the Vancouver Whitecaps’ trainer. “It distracts the brain from interpreting what the pain signal is.” So the spray doesn’t heal anything—it just tricks the player’s nerve endings into thinking it does.
Who boosted Pat Kane’s puck?
By: Ryan Dixon
It was the goal the Chicago Blackhawks and their fans waited nearly 50 years to see—and the hockey world is still looking for the puck. Even the FBI has been unable to turn up the little black disc last seen in the hands of a guy wearing stripes.
With 4:06 left in OT of game six of the 2010 Stanley Cup final, Patrick Kane sneaks a shot past Flyers goalie Michael Leighton. Because it came from such a sharp angle and stayed low enough to avoid jiggling the net,
a huge portion of players and fans don’t initially realize the puck crossed the line: Only Kane reacts as if the game is over.
Confusion envelops Philly’s Wells Fargo Center. Neither a red light nor an outstretched arm from the referee validate Kane’s celebration. The Flyers hope video review will relieve them of having to face the reality that their season is over. The TV audience hears play-by-play man Mike Emrick declare, “What chaos!”
Hawk Skip and Some Jumps
While a few Blackhawks are slightly hesitant, most swarm the exuberant Kane. Chicago hasn’t won the Cup since JFK was president and the explosion of emotion draws eyes away from the Philadelphia net, where a puck some still think might be dropped again soon sits in the bottom-right corner.
In the Mitts of the Madness
Linesman Steve Miller enters the same Flyers net where Kane’s shot landed just moments previously. Thanks to the befuddling circumstances surrounding the video-reviewed goal, it’s entirely possible Miller was unaware he was grabbing a Cup-winning puck when he
initially picked it up.
Miller has seen images of himself nabbing the puck out of the back of the net, but swears he doesn’t recall what he did with it and declined comment for this piece. The NHL stands by him. A brief FBI inquiry turned up nothing beyond the fact that Miller clearly picked up the disc. Chicago got rings, but still wants the rubber.
Who is sports’ ultimate man of mystery?
By: Brett Popplewell
It comes and goes like a flash of lightning:
a punch no one sees, thrown from the champ’s hip. It travels fast, eight inches in four one-hundredths of a second (or so the story goes), until it reaches Sonny Liston’s cheek, catching the former champ off-balance. Liston’s head snaps to the side with the punch and he begins the long fall to the mat.
Two seconds pass before Liston—“the ultimate weapon in unarmed combat”—is on his back, arms stretched over his head. Not even Muhammad Ali, who threw the punch, knows what to make of its result.
“Get up and fight!” Ali yells at the downed warrior. “Nobody will believe this.” Five seconds go by, then Liston rolls onto his stomach. Three more and he’s on his knee, the referee struggling to move Ali to a neutral corner for fear the hysterical champ might kick his adversary in the head. Another two seconds pass but Liston is still not up. He has fallen again, his shoulders back on the mat, ensuring a 10-count. We’re just two minutes in and it’s already over. The unexpected result of a premeditated fix or a one-punch knockout—no one can say for sure, except for Liston. But he’s not going to want to talk about it. Ever.
After the fight, Liston ducks through the ropes and back into the shadowy margins from which he came. A thug from the day he was born, Liston rose from petty thief to armed robber before turning pro as a boxer. “Old Stone Face” they called him, but usually behind his back, or he’d show them his fists, all 15.5 inches of them, which he used to extract money, both in the ring and on the street.
Back at the hotel after the fight, he puts on a pot of coffee, his wife Geraldine crying softly to herself. “I’m glad it’s over,” she says between sobs. But it’s not over. Not yet.
Everyone knows Liston has enemies. Such is the life of the 24th child of an impoverished family. A man who didn’t even know the year he was born, he learned to fight as a child, protecting himself from his father, before taking his fists to the back alleys of St. Louis. In and out of a Missouri jail throughout his youth, he left St. Louis on the recommendation of police, who advised he best get the hell out of their town after he broke a cop’s leg and stripped him of his gun. So he relocated to Las Vegas, started wrapping his fists in tape and leather and began pulverizing the heavyweight division, dropping 34 men, including Floyd Patterson for the championship. Those who watched said he was unstoppable, so strong, so dangerous, so mean. Then he met Ali, twice. In the first fight he retired on his stool in the seventh round. He said his shoulder hurt, but nobody believed him. Then came the rematch and the phantom punch and there was Liston rolling around on the mat.
Five years later, Liston steps into a smoky ring to face Chuck Wepner in Jersey City. He’s older now, more mature, and he’s gone 14-1 since losing to Ali. Nine rounds later, Wepner’s face needs 57 stitches. But Wepner was the betting man’s favourite, and somebody’s got to pay.
Six months later, Liston wakes up in his Vegas home.
He steps outside, grabs a newspaper from his front step and goes back inside. It’s Dec. 30, 1970. Geraldine is in St. Louis visiting her mother for the holidays. Liston’s home alone, readying for another fight. Rumour has it he’s been cruising the Vegas strip, renting out his fists to loan sharks and the mob.
Seven days go by before Geraldine comes home. She steps over a week’s worth of milk bottles and newspapers on the doorstep, goes inside and sees him: nose bloodied, fists clenched. A wooden bench shattered by his body. Morphine and codeine running through his veins. Fresh track marks on his arm. Marijuana, heroin and a loaded .38 nearby. None of it makes sense because everyone knows Liston’s afraid of needles.
Now Liston’s dead. The unexpected result of premeditated murder or a drug overdose—no one can say for sure, not even the coroner, who lists lung congestion and heart failure as the official cause. An epitaph on a simple headstone is all that’s left: “Charles ‘Sonny’ Liston, 1932–1970. A Man.”
Why is there no NFL football in L.A.?
By: Dave Zarum
It’s been nearly 18 years since pro football had
a home in Los Angeles. When the Rams relocated to
St. Louis in 1995 and the Raiders simultaneously fled to Oakland after a series of proposals to build an NFL-calibre stadium in downtown L.A. never materialized (both teams shared the Memorial Coliseum with the college powerhouse USC Trojans), it marked the end of a rich NFL history in the city that saw the likes of Hall of Famers Deacon Jones, Jack Youngblood, Marcus Allen and Eric Dickerson rule the gridiron.
But how is it that today, with so many viable candidates for relocation (cough… Jacksonville… cough), the NFL has yet to return to Los Angeles? The simple answer is… wait for it… money; the same stadium issues that existed in ’95 persist. While the city has reportedly secured $750 million from Farmers Insurance for naming rights—Farmers Field does have a nice ring to it—L.A. would still need to commit upwards of $350 million to stadium development. That’s $350 million the city simply doesn’t have.
The more complicated answer comes down to power and control. NFL commish Roger Goodell and the league office will only allow a team to move to L.A. on their terms. Goodell issued
a memo in June saying as much, dictating the rules by which teams and owners can apply for relocation. Mainly it served as
a message to developers: All negotiations should take place with the league, not individual teams. But here’s the rub: When the Raiders, Rams and Trojans all shared the Coliseum, only USC sold out games on a regular basis. Who’s to say that’ll change?
Why did Barry Sanders really retire?
By: Jordan Heath-Rawlings
On July 27, 1999, the best running back in the NFL—maybe the greatest ever—faxed a 266-word statement to the Wichita Eagle announcing his retirement. The letter hit the newsroom on the eve of Detroit Lions training camp, and by the time it landed on the web and the wires, Barry Sanders was halfway to Europe. There was no press conference, no tearful goodbye and little explanation as to why, at 31 and only 1,458 yards shy of Walter Payton’s all-time rushing record, he was walking away.
It’s a bizarre letter, containing more denials than explanations, more questions than answers. And it served, mostly, to romanticize Sanders’ decision. And while he never truly explained himself beyond saying he was tired, the next decade would offer enough hints—dribs and drabs from the mouth of Sanders, his family, his agents, and the players and reporters who knew him best—to tack on some footnotes to the most baffling statement an athlete has ever faxed to his hometown newspaper.
Who killed Bo Agee?
By: Dave Zarum
On the night of Dec. 15, 2004, 32-year-old Arthur Agee Jr. was on a flight from Birmingham to Chicago, heading home to spend Christmas with his family. As his plane was taking off, Agee’s father, Arthur “Bo” Agee Sr., was just returning to his suburban Berwyn, Ill., home after delivering a sermon at the Upper Room Outreach Ministry, where the 52-year-old had served as a pastor for the previous eight years. At 8:30 p.m.,
Bo went out to the alley behind his home to a garage where he kept and sold various wares—mainly outdated wholesale items. There were also a handful of T-shirts and other merchandise from Hoop Dreams, the acclaimed 1994 documentary that began as the story of Arthur Jr.’s pursuit of his NBA dream, but turned into a intimate and powerful depiction of a family’s struggles to survive in early ’90s Chicago. That’s when neighbours heard two gunshots fired in the alley. One ricocheted off a garage door before lodging itself in a garbage bin. The other struck Bo Agee in his right side, just under his arm. When Arthur Jr.’s plane reached O’Hare airport later that night, his girlfriend was waiting for him at the baggage claim with the news. The two immediately rushed to MacNeal Hospital.
On the way, Arthur received a phone call from his younger brother, Joe. Bo had been pronounced dead at 9:07 p.m. “My dad turned his life over, but he was still human,” Arthur Jr. said in 2006. “A man’s past can really catch up with him.”
When we first met Bo on the screen, he had just finished a seven-month stint in prison for burglary. The strains on his relationship with Arthur Jr. were evident with each awkward interaction. In one scene, Bo briefly joins his son in a basketball game at a local park but leaves shortly after—Arthur Jr. and his friends watch him walk across the park to cop drugs in clear view. However, by the end of the film, shot over the course of four-and-a half years, Bo had been ordained a minister and had seemingly mended fences. “It was always a contentious relationship,” says executive producer Gordon Quinn, “yet at that point Arthur and his dad were getting along well because, in many ways,
Bo became a different person.”
His death was immediately ruled a homicide, presumed to be a random robbery (Bo was known to carry upwards of $200 cash on him, but was found penniless in the alley). Yet, in July 2005, Berwyn police got a tip suggesting it was a paid hit, blowback from a feud dating to Bo’s drug days. They arrested and charged 33-year-old Ronnie Taylor, but he was acquitted in 2010.
Today the crime remains one of the 311 unsolved gun murders in Chicago from 2004 alone—its beleaguered police department solves an average of just 35 percent of homicides. (At jury selection for Taylor’s trial, the judge asked who had experienced murder-by-gun in their family. Every prospective juror answered in the affirmative.)
Whether it was a hit, a robbery or something else altogether, Bo’s death is now just another Chicago cold case.
Where is hockey’s priceless art hidden?
When legendary Canadiens photographer David Bier died, a half century of his work went missing
By: Gare Joyce
Imagine a master artist’s work is lost. It’s not known if it was taken, misplaced or destroyed. Not all
of it, but a significant part of it. Maybe not the greatest or the best-known work. Much of that has survived and is instantly recognizable. Still,
a massive gallery of works of art are
out there somewhere. And it’s not just art’s loss but a nation’s and a game’s.
David Bier’s name is known only to those who check the fine print under old photos in newspapers and magazines. Yet Bier’s work is engraved in our collective memory. By contrast, Maurice “The Rocket” Richard’s name is known far and wide. He was at first a hockey player, then became his era’s defining star, and over the course of half a century evolved into a cultural icon. There’s little surviving film of the Rocket, and what does exist is grainy or washed-out footage that doesn’t make a convincing case for greatness. No, when we think
of Richard, a still image comes to mind: Richard, with the CH of Les Glorieux across his chest, skates churning and,
as the Canadiens’ long-time official photographer Bob Fisher puts it, “eyes looking like they will eat you.”
That image is equally Rocket Richard’s and David Bier’s. Bier was on the other side of the camera lens for all those portraits of Richard and thousands of game-action photos.
Bier began working Canadiens games in the 1940s as a freelancer. He remained a fixture at the Forum for 45 years, capturing tens of thousands of black-and-white and colour stills of 20 Stanley Cup champion teams.
If you’ve seen vintage photos of Richard, Jean Béliveau, Jacques Plante and Montreal’s other Hockey Hall of Famers of those days, you have seen the work of David Bier. And if you come across any of it, you should hold onto it for more than nostalgic reasons. A quality print or negative in excellent condition, an authentic Bier, is worth up to a thousand dollars at auction. Even for fairly mundane team-commissioned headshots, bidding will start somewhere in the neighbourhood of $300. And if you come across any of it, find out where it came from, because much of Bier’s work is missing.
It’s easy to overlook Bier’s role in the creation of the Richard legend, but for those in the trade, it’s impossible to overstate his influence in photojournalism. Bier did more than witness and document hockey history. He lifted it out of its Dark Ages. “Before David worked at the Forum, most of the team’s photography, going right back to the beginning of the NHL, was done by James Rice, who shot Howie Morenz and Georges Vézina and others,” says Fisher, Bier’s protege and friend. “But in those days Rice focused on portraiture and rarely shot action. Bier took it to a new level.”
In fact, Bier took photography to the rafters of the Forum. There he strung lights that were synced to cameras at ice level, giving his work an unprecedented sharpness of game action. “He pioneered the use of strobe lights, which became standard practice in the business,” says Tedd Church, who worked for and studied under Bier before joining the photo staff of the Montreal Gazette.
And Bier wasn’t just an innovator or technical marvel. Today’s shooter can come away with multiple frames per second. Bier’s strobes, once used, took 13 seconds to fire up again. “Today you have a margin for error and a bunch of images [from one sequence] to select from,” Fisher says. “In the ’40s and ’50s, you had one shot at it. You had to have a feel for the game and have a sense of what was going to happen next. And yet somehow he found these images, and you could see the expressions on the faces of everyone on the ice, looking
at the Rocket. You don’t see that with today’s photography. There was a magical quality to them.”
Bier wasn’t limited to hockey—he worked the full range of sports, and his clients included Sports Illustrated and
all the major magazines. He also had a thriving studio and photo-lab business and was even involved on the technical side of motion-picture processing. When Bier’s career wound down in the ’80s, he remained a fixture around the Forum on game days, although he seemed saddened by being a mere spectator. He died about the time the Forum went dark.
Not long after, the questions about his collection of images began. Fifteen years later, there are no clear answers. “We sorted through the most important work, and I think the Canadiens got most of it,” Fisher says. Exactly what percentage of his body of work that represents, Fisher wouldn’t guess.
The Gazette donated a small trove of Bier’s work to the national archive in Ottawa, and the paper has on occasion had to buy back the rights to publish images it owned in the first place.
The most tantalizing rumour is that a vast collection has fallen into the hands of someone who doesn’t realize its value. “Bier was married to a stewardess named Angie, and when they broke up, people fell out of touch with her,” Church says. “Could she have it? It’s a possibility. Somebody we don’t even know about might have it. What happened with his estate, there’s no knowing.”
It’s impossible to estimate what Bier’s entire oeuvre would be worth. Denis Brodeur sold his collection to the Canadiens a few years ago for an estimated $350,000, less than it would have fetched on the open market, a trade-off for finding his work a good home. International agencies have paid upwards of a million dollars for the complete files of the top shooters in the business. Piece by piece, Bier’s life’s work might be in that bracket. There’s no way of knowing, though, simply because there’s no catalogue of it.
Thousands of valuable pieces of hockey history, images of the Rocket, Béliveau, Plante and others, unseen for decades, are out there. The worst prospect, though, is that they’re lost forever.
If not professionally archived, they are deteriorating with every passing year.
If that is the case, it will be like Rocket Richard’s fiery gaze torched hockey’s greatest photo gallery, and a mystery
will become a tragedy.
…And just how would you unload it?
By: Brett Popplewell
Early spring, 1998.
A man walks into a New Jersey sports memorabilia shop, pulls
out a decrepit old Honus Wagner baseball card and says he found it in his grandfather’s closet. The shopkeep knows the Holy Grail when he sees it and forks over $18,000. The man takes the money and bolts, leaving the new owner to admire his find.
It’s not the mystery of Wagner’s smile that makes this card the Mona Lisa of
all sports memorabilia but rather the rarity of the relic itself and its tactile link to baseball’s past. Originally inserted into packages of Sweet Caporal cigarettes in 1909—the year Wagner’s Pittsburgh Pirates beat Ty Cobb and the Detroit Tigers in the World Series—Wagner objected to the cards’ existence and had them pulled from circulation. Just 50 or so authentic T206 series Wagners remain today, and most are kept under lock and key, a result of their having attracted attention from thieves over the years. After all, a mint condition Wagner can fetch upwards of $2.8 million.
So the chances of a man finding one in his grandfather’s closet are slim. And just like the Mona Lisa, which was once stolen from the Louvre, when a T206 goes missing, the world takes note, making it difficult—if not completely impossible—to unload.
Back in 1998, days went by before the FBI came looking for the card. Turns out two chefs at the Official All-Star Café in Times Square had snatched it from a display case in the restaurant. The card, which was owned by Charlie Sheen, was then handed to a middleman who knowingly walked into the memorabilia shop with the old “Hey, I just found this” story. In the end the FBI arrested the chefs, the middleman, and one other accomplice.
And what of the card?
It went back to Sheen but it was sold three years later for $78,144 and again in 2009 for $399,500.
Where do the Yips come from?
"We’ve found out that it happens in multiple sports and that it’s an emotional problem, unrelated to sport, that manifests as a physical thing when you’re under pressure in sport. It is reversible if you catch it early, using so-called less-conscious techniques. Some people try to get those affected to think their way out of it, but it’s not possible."
-Dr. Mark Bawden, sports psychologist
Who is Harry Decker and why is anyone trying to find him?
One obscure 19th-century ballplayer has fuelled a decades-long manhunt by a group of baseball nerds
By: Gare Joyce
Harry Decker sits atop the most-wanted list, no surprise given his rap sheet of convictions for counterfeiting, forgery and bigamy. He’s eluded investigators because of the 15 to 20 aliases he’s used. But he’s considered neither armed nor dangerous. He is, in fact, quite dead. He might even have died of natural causes, though many would have gladly given him a head start on the hereafter.
You’d think a cold case goes into a deep freeze when the wanted man has shuffled off this mortal coil, especially when he has been dead for almost a century. And, truth be told, police interest in Decker’s whereabouts waned sometime before the Great Depression. Yet Harry Decker—a catcher who played 156 games across four seasons with six major league teams in the 19th century—is the obsession of a band of zealots and eccentrics, men who have tried to piece together his life, his death and, above all, his final resting place. He wasn’t the greatest of his time, nothing close to a Hall of Famer, but the simple fact that he played at all is, surprisingly, enough to set off a manhunt.
Think what you will of the Society of American Baseball Research. When SABR is mentioned, the topic of conversation is statistics. For the mathematically inclined, SABR’s impact on baseball is a great thing. For purists, the guys with the spreadsheets are sucking the soul out of the game. But there are romantics in SABR, archivists who care deeply about documenting the game’s history. And a small subset, those chasing Harry Decker, pass hours leafing through death registries, perusing microfilm until their eyesight fades. Who hunt through cemeteries while somewhere a game is being played.
Bill Carle, a senior project engineer for an international tech company, has been SABR’s research committee chairman since 1988. He’s also a two-time champ of the society’s annual trivia contest. But he takes less pride in those victories over kindred spirits than he does in conjuring up the spirits of long-deceased ballplayers.
The box scores of games in the 1800s often listed players by surnames only.
For players who went on to significant careers, just identifying them isn’t terribly difficult. More challenging is determining location and date of birth and their everlasting resting place. And that’s especially true of men whose careers lasted a game or an inning or a single at bat. It’s not that they’re obscure now, but that they were even back then. It’s nearly impossible to figure out who they were, let alone what became of them.
SABR members follow the standards of academic research—but without grant money. It might be the most time-consuming hobby on Earth. “Nobody really makes a living doing this,” Carle says with a sigh. “It’s a lot of Saturdays spent sitting in libraries, looking through microfilm. It’s a tough job, a lot of records kept were less than accurate.”
A player known only as “Loughlin” for 128 years is an example. A lifetime .400 hitter, his average stems from a single game played for Baltimore in 1883. For years it was presumed “Loughlin” was a misprint on the scorecard, and the player had a sound-alike Irish name such as Loughran or Laughlin. But a SABR member rooting through old clippings of the Lowell Morning Times saw a mention of a local boy named P.H. O’Loughlin who was a catcher for the Orioles. In fact, various issues and editions of the paper alternated spelling his name with and without the O’ prefix. Further research turned up a Patrick H. O’Loughlin, who was born in Ireland in 1860 and died in 1927. Mystery solved; 248* to go.
As of last year, the SABR historical committee had confirmed deaths of 8,758 former ballplayers, great and small, and 248* remained outstanding. For those keeping score at home, that’s a life (-and-death) time .985 batting average. The asterisk is because, of those 248,
the names of 45 players from the 1800s were not even hinted at, let alone recorded, or, as with O’Loughlin, misspelled. Factoring that, 99 percent
of known ballplayers are logged into Carle’s database.
Further complicating things is the fact that many bygone figures make modern scofflaw players look like choirboys. Not only did they shy away from authorities, they also often took creative licence with their names and backstories. One of Carle’s best gets was a player named Mike Kelly who pitched in four games with the Phillies in 1926. Some sketchy biographical info existed (born in St. Louis on Nov. 9, 1902, attended a local high school, served in the Marines, played some ball with the military in China and a minor-league team in Bradenton, Fla.). But neither the high school nor Marines had any record of him. A researcher caught mention of a Mike Kelly, former ballplayer, in a Sioux City, Iowa, newspaper. Carle found the Kelly in Sioux City was an itinerant minor-leaguer and criminal (known for the armed robbery of a dairy and a skirted murder rap). “On a whim,” Carle says, he checked the California death index and found a Mike Kelly who died in 1982, and an obit noting he’d been a major leaguer.
It was Peter Morris who placed Kelly in Sioux City and who’s done more work on Harry Decker than anyone. According to SABR’s website, the Toronto-raised Morris is “one of the giants among baseball historians.” His six books track the origins of everything from the pickoff move to groundskeeping. Morris won the first World Scrabble Championship, but he laid down his last tile to dedicate himself to baseball research.
For Morris, Hugh “One Arm” Dailey is the dream get. Despite losing his left hand in a gun accident, Dailey had a six-year career distinguished by a volcanic temper and occasional greatness. His numbers are those of a journeyman, but he struck out 19 batters in one game and once pitched consecutive one-hitters. “One year he led the league with 99 walks,” Morris says. “Back then you drew walks on seven balls.”
Dailey fell off the grid in the ’20s. “You’d think [the loss of his arm] would have made him conspicuous,” Morris says. “I guess not.”
Decker is right behind Dailey on Morris’s list, but is a more intriguing figure. “He was smart, born into a good family, good-looking and more than a little insane,” Morris says.
Decker was seen as an unsavoury character suspected of game-fixing,
and many teams had no interest in him.
At one juncture in the 1880s, he was no longer welcome in the majors and was reduced to playing minor-league ball in Toronto. When he got back to the bigs, Decker became unhinged and his descent into a life of crime gained irreversible momentum.
Carle believes one place might house the answer to the mystery: the U.S. Library of Congress. “The records of the Pinkertons are there, and [the agency] ran him down a few times,” Carle says. “The problem is, who knows what names he was using when they caught up to him?”
Morris concedes Decker might elude the dragnet. “That’s the thing about mysteries,” he says. “Some can be solved, some can’t, and there’s no knowing which ones are dead ends.”
Joe Simenic has given up the chase. Best of luck to Carle, Morris and those still searching, but he’s done. His health isn’t great, his eyesight’s failing and he’s resigned to the vagaries of being 89 years old.
As a schoolboy, Simenic was obsessed with the game. He’d write to The Sporting News, correcting errors in their pages.
He turned from hunting for mistakes to hunting for old-timers in the ’50s, when there were 4,000 ex-ballplayers unaccounted for. He took a clerical job at the Cleveland Plain Dealer that let him spend his lunchtimes at the public library. “I’d go through records and what they could dig up for me,” he says. “I got friendly with a bunch of people in other libraries and I had lots of help from them. Our group had people all across the country.
I also spent a lot of time in graveyards.”
By Carle’s reckoning, Simenic found the resting places of as many as 500 former major leaguers. Asked if there’s one last guy he’d like to get, even with the mention of Harry Decker, Simenic can’t come up with a name. The ones he found, the ones he chased in vain, they’ve all blended together. “You reach a certain age and you can’t remember ’em,” he says. “Then you reach my age and can’t even read ’em.”
The mystery isn’t what became of Harry Decker so much as why anyone cares enough to devote a lifetime to finding long-forgotten ballplayers. Baseball is unlike other sports in that some consider the game a secondary matter. The attitude was best expressed by Lee Allen, a former chief historian to the Hall of Fame. He saw Cooperstown’s distance from a big-league park as a blessing. “Watching baseball interferes with my study of baseball,” he says.
Peter Morris puts a finer point on it.
“I remember when I saw the Baseball Encyclopedia and the thousands of pages of statistics,” he says. “It looks absolutely complete, every player, every season—but then you see an empty space. You’d think what it would be to fill them.”
Harry Decker might be out there. Or he might be one of Morris’s dead ends. But if there’s any hope, someone will sit in a library, leafing through files that haven’t been opened for 70, 80 or 90 years and make calls to the great-great-grandchildren of someone who might have known Decker, maybe not as a ballplayer, but as
a counterfeiter, a forger, a bigamist or a villain of some other sort. Someone is bound to know where Harry Decker is,
but maybe they just don’t know he’s been missing at all.