The story behind this week's big story (page 40) on the mysterious and omnipotent concessions empire founded by the late Louie Jacobs of Buffalo, and now run by his sons, began with a tip from a dead jockey and, months and miles later, ended with a voice from beyond the grave.
The jockey had ridden Williamston Kid, a bay colt that figured in the Denny McLain bookmaking scandal exposed by this magazine (SI, Feb. 23, 1970), and then he had vanished. It was rumored that he had been bumped off by the Mafia, but Morton Sharnik found him among the quick on a horse farm in one of the Southern states. Strolling through the paddock one evening, the jockey told Sharnik of some strange goings-on at Hazel Park, a Detroit racetrack. Sharnik made several visits to Detroit, where he fell in with an astute law-enforcement officer who was struck by the tie-in at Hazel Park between the mobsters associated with the track and Emprise, the Jacobs brothers' concessions company.
Shortly thereafter, John Underwood was approached in Miami by a man who had tried to buy the Providence hockey club and at the 11th hour had learned that he needed the approval of the Jacobs brothers. At about the same time, Congressman Sam Steiger (R., Ariz.) made an impassioned—but little noted—speech on the floor of the House linking Emprise with organized crime.
Obviously, Emprise deserved looking into. Underwood and Sharnik undertook an investigation that lasted almost two years and led them to eight states. They talked with informers, sports figures, disgruntled ex-clients of Emprise and law-enforcement people, meeting in such diverse locales as a roadside joint outside of Boston, a motel room in New Orleans, a storefront office in Phoenix, a hamburger stand in Chicopee, Mass., and a saloon and baseball field in Washington. They plowed through thousands of pages of documents and testimony. But the more they read and heard, the deeper the obfuscation became.
At every turn, they ran up against evidence of the scope of the Emprise operations, the arrogance of its power and its abuse of the safeguards of sport. But Emprise was so entrenched and had so complicated its affairs that no one seemed able to unravel them. Indeed, midway through the investigation, frustrated law-enforcement officers began seeking out the SI pair for possible leads.
Throughout their travels, the legend of Louie Jacobs kept cropping up. Finally, Underwood and Sharnik went to Emprise headquarters in Buffalo, where Louie's son Max regaled them with tales of his extraordinary father and eloquently defended the family business.
In the end, no words told the story as well as Louie's celebrated silences. In a studio in a hi-fi store in a Southwestern city, Sharnik was able to hear an old patched tape of Louie doing business. "It was an eerie, moving experience," says Sharnik, "but more than that, for the first time I could really appreciate the mastery of this man. I was listening to an empire builder. You could tell that he knew every detail of every facet of his far-flung business. He needed no theatrics, no tricks of elocution. The other person on the tape, one of his managers, did almost all the talking. Louie's keenness and force came through in the long, embarrassing silences, which were either ended by the manager's nervous additional explanations or by Louie saying, 'Hmmm' or, quietly, 'Then don't tell me about it, do it.' "
Louie's men did it. Lots of it. Maybe too much.