Arriving in Las Vegas last week, the touring golf professionals—all 21 of them winners of some big tournament during the past year—were fully prepared to drown themselves in a sea of celebrities, and Las Vegas did not disappoint. Walter Winchell was there to pick up a share of the Tournament of Champions swag for the Damon Runyon Fund. Bob Hope showed up; so did Patti Page and Dagmar, and John Daly the TV performer, and Bob Considine the columnist, and Frankie Laine the crooner, and Joe E. Lewis the comedian. And there were quite a lot of other crooners and comedians and almost as many blondes as slot machines.
Despite the nonpareil golfing talent on hand, the fellows who really stole the show were some faceless plungers named F. Hudspeth, C. Anderson, R. Kolod, M. Kleinman. These and a few others, including Bob Hope and Frankie Laine themselves, bid up the largest Calcutta pool on a golf tournament that anyone can remember—$202,500. And around Vegas they have a pretty good memory for such statistics.
The origins of the Calcutta dinner appear to be lost in antiquity. Most men know it as a pleasant pre-tournament get-together, plentifully fortified by schnapps, where everyone takes part in a friendly little pool on the tournament entries. Whoever buys the eventual winner gets the lion's share of the pot, with the owners of the next half dozen or so finishers splitting the remainder. Inevitably, Las Vegas adorned the custom with a miasma of Nevada lettuce, known in other circles as $1,000 bills.
At 8 o'clock on Wednesday night, the 21 competing golfers, resplendent in new white blazers supplied by the promoters, sat down to eat a free steak dinner and watch a full-dress floor show with some 200 high-rollers, newspapermen and show business personalities in the Desert Inn's Painted Desert Room.
But the real business at hand began about 9:30, when a Los Angeles auctioneer and amateur golfer, Milt Wershow, rose to suggest to the golfers: "If you want to go to bed, now's the time." The links stars dutifully filed out, save for Lloyd Mangrum. The audience was next reminded that 10% of the gross Calcutta take would go to the Cancer Fund, an announcement which made Columnist Walter Winchell, seated at the choice table, first mezzanine center, beam with pride.
The auctioning began with little Bob Toski, a 127-pound golfer who got rich in one tournament, George S. May's "World Championship," last year. Bidding started at $5,000, went quickly up to six and seven before it stalled at 10. A gentleman who gave his name as F. Hudspeth paid the check, but throughout most of the auctioning it was understood that the ostensible purchasers were fronting for syndicates who were the real bidders on the players.
DAGMAR AND DIVOTS
Eric Monti, a quiet teaching pro from the rich Hillcrest Country Club in Los Angeles, was next auctioned off and in spite of loud boasts that the movie rich would bid him in heavily out of pure sentiment, Auctioneer Wershow had to threaten to bid in himself to beef up the action. Finally, the Wilshire Country Club's front man, Carl Anderson, got Eric for $7,000.
Terrible-tempered Tommy Bolt hit the auction block next. Auctioneer Ray Bradford boasted, "He has won more tournaments—four—than any other player in here." But the punters were wary. Tommy sold for $8,500, modest for Las Vegas, to a man named Willoughby.
When Bob Hope strode to the stage to take over the ceremonies he put PGA Champion Chick Harbert on the block. A starting bid of $5,000 horrified Hope, who announced, "I'll bid six myself." A man named Al Behrstock outdid Bob, got Harbert for $7,000.
Then out came Dagmar to auction off Lloyd Mangrum. It was obvious Dagmar didn't know golf, only men. As it happened, it was enough, and after a leering start which found Hope characteristically staring down her bosom and remarking, "Looks like somebody took a divot," Dagmar cooed, "I'll get you an eyeglass—and you can see my jewelry much better." She sold Mangrum for $9,500, and as the golfer himself walked dreamily toward the exit Dagmar stared. "If I knew he had a moustache I would have got much more," she told the crowd.
Now John Daly left the Winchell table to take over. Daly, mellifluous and grinning, sold Jerry Barber (Ail-American tourney winner) for $7,000, the minimum price for the night. Daly's (and Winchell's) friend Bob Considine (in Vegas for the atom bomb shot) was next up at the auction stand and managed to peddle Bud Holscher to Carl Anderson for $8,000 after cutting himself in for $100 of the action.
Comedian Joe E. Lewis was summoned to auction off a golfer named Billy Maxwell. Joe E., who paused to snatch a drink from a customer's table and down it, leaned out to the audience to confide: "I don't know anything about golf—I don't even know how to hold a caddy. Last year I bought Chandler Harper in this thing. I thought it was I.W." Between jokes he sold Maxwell to Gil Dye for $8,500.
Walter Winchell arose, a little ill at ease and implacably serious, to auction off: 1) six ringside seats to the Moore-Valdes fight (to Minneapolis' R. E. "Bob" Peters) for $1,000; and 2) Ed Furgol (to Minneapolis' Peters) for $9,000. Peters also bought Minnesota golfer Wally Ulrich for $7,000, which probably saved the unknown Minnesotan from the ignominy of being the low man of the evening.
Golfer Bo Wininger was stalled at parity, $7,000, when Bob Hope bravely bought him for $8,000. Radio announcer Harry Wismer rose to auction off Cary Middlecoff, who opened at $10,000—highest of the night till then—and climbed rapidly to the top price of $16,000 which a Chicago toy manufacturer, Chick Ross, ponied up.
Ulrich was sold next and then Gene Littler was placed on the block. "I will accept a starting bid of $10,000, no less," announced Auctioneer Wershow. "And I will bid $11,000." Littler sold to crooner Frankie Laine for $13,000.
Hope rose to try to pump enthusiasm for a golfer named Pete Cooper, who won the Virginia Beach Open. He brought $7,000 from a buyer named Blankenship whom nobody had ever heard of either.
Mighty Mike Souchak, who won two tournaments in a row this winter and has been playing like a battleship-sized Hogan, brought the second highest opening bid of the night—a hefty $12,000. The bidding closed at $15,000 when Walter C. Marty, ex-director of the Del Mar Race Track and before that of Caliente, bought him.
A PIECE OF THE LOOT
Art Wall Jr., last year's winner, was next up. In 1954 Wall was almost going by default when the Desert Inn owner, Wilbur Clark, bid him in at a measly $3,500, thus winning $49,626. This year Clark had to bid considerably higher—$12,500—to get Wall again.
Sam Snead was the final auction of the night. Although he was pestered by chronic putter trouble during practice, Sam still brought the night's highest opening bid ($15,000) and the night's highest price at $18,000. The $18,000 bidder was found to be too drunk to sign a check and Sam was sold again to a sober millionaire—Morris Kleinman, a partner of Wilbur Clark's in the Desert Inn—for $17,000. Hope was properly scornful of the drunk but delighted when he turned around to see that the first $200,000 Calcutta in history had been brought off.
Like jockeys, Vegas winners are customarily rewarded with 10% of their backers' profits. On Sunday afternoon handsome young Gene Littler dropped a $72,900 putt on the 18th for Frankie Laine and wound up with an 8-under-par 280 for first money of $10,000 plus whatever cut Laine decreed. Sam Snead, highest-priced golfer in the event, staggered to a tie for eleventh. Perhaps big Mike Souchak summed it all up right when he met a friend at the hotel cigar stand just after the auction: "Hey," he said, "I hear some crazy guy paid $15,000 for me in the Calcutta."
KISSING BALL, WINNER GENE LITTLER THINKS OF $10,000 PRIZE AND SHARE OF POT
LAS VEGAS GOLF AND GAMBLING COMBINED WITH CELEBRITIES—THE RESULT: AN HISTORIC POOL