Jack Crabb McClawski, "Crab Claw" as he is called by his many friends, is 109 years old but still tends bar at his family's ancient tavern, Donahue's Dive, tucked in the rolling Appalachian hills of Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania.
He is one of the few survivors of what he calls the Great War, World War I, and he also fought in World War II. His sea-green eyes wrinkle and twinkle when he speaks of being shot by two generations of Krauts and sleeping with two generations of mademoiselles.
But the sea-green eyes turn stormy when he speaks of the Pottsville Maroons, and of the Bidwell family of Arizona via St. Louis via Chicago. The Bidwells he bitterly says betrayed football and after all these decades still carry a grudge against the Pottsville Maroons. "Thieves, nothing but thieves," Crab Claw says of the Bidwells.
The Bidwells, the old man rages sipping a tall mug of Yuengling and knocking back a shot of rye, the vile Bidwells are still blocking Crab Claws beloved Maroons from claiming their rightfully 1925 NFL Championship and for that reason Crab Claw says slamming his mug down hard on the stained, timeworn oak bar, is why they are cursed.
"I know because I was there. I saw every home game the Maroons played in 1925. Hell I drank with those fellas. They'd come in here after a game and let loose. I mean the whiskey flowed and they damn near drank us out of beer. My Grandpappy was still living then, but that Reb bullet he took in the Wilderness, it would kill him within the next year. But Grandpappy was sharp as a tack even at eighty eight, we have good genes they say, and he would spin tales of Gettysburg and chasing General Lee out of the Wilderness and speak of the Molly Maguires and Black Jack Kehoe meeting to whisper of murder and mayhem right in that back room, right over there."
He extended a long knotty hand missing two fingers and pointing to a dark back room.
He saw me looking at his hand. "This? A big Kraut bit it off in the Bulge but I did him one better." Then he laughed, his flowing white hair dancing as he emitted a long and loud crow cackle. "Them Krauts are tough—let's hope they stay quiet because I'm about spent. I don't think I have a hat trick in me."
"But anyway, back to football, yes football. The Great Red Grange sat right in the same seat you are in and drank an ice cold pitcher of beer and rubbed his bruised and battered brain and said he had never been hit as hard as he was by Tony Latone when they played Pottsville in 1925. Not once but twice Red said they knocked him from the game. And Red said, even though Halas was paying him, 500 bucks to barn storm the nation, the Galloping Ghost said it wasn't enough to be hit by the likes of Latone."
"Why George Halas, the Papa Bear, himself stormed into here once looking for Grange who had taken off with three lovely Irish lassies and near missed the train out of Pottsville. Don't think these boys today invented the partying ways, no those were Prohibition Days then, so we had to be careful, but it wasn't called the Roaring Twenties for nothing, yes sir."
"The word supermodel may be a new invention but we had flappers who looked just as fine as that Brazilian girl that pretty boy quarterback is running with. And the flappers loved footballers. Look at that Cowboy player with the curvy, dingy blonde. He gets her and he ain't even any damn good. They love the footballers at least while they are playing. I mean if that Boston boy don't get his leg back his fine behind Brazilian might say bye bye. Nothing new under the sun boy, nothing new."
The old man shuffled behind the empty bar and tapped himself another beer.
"That Latone was a tough son of a gun you see. He worked in the mines and played football. Not like these pampered, perfumed princes showboating about today. No a man could get killed real easy in a coal mine. So when Doc Streigel, the Maroons owner, paid them boyos a hundred bucks a game. A hundred bucks a damn game why they played like their life depended on it. Because it did. A miner made a hundred bucks in a year and might die or be crippled or die slow of the vicious black lung. So football was easy."
"In '25 Old Doc Streigel, he was a real sawbones who bought the for 1500 bucks, big money then, well Old Doc brought in some Army boys who sure could play. Walter French, Jack Ernst, and fast Eddie Doyle. Poor old Eddie ended up getting himself killed in North Africa fighting the Hun in World War II. They say he was the first GI to get killed there but I don't know about that for sure."
The old man pulled a cigar from his pocket and offered me one. I declined, he lighted and blew a big ring.
"Damn lawdogs these days. Can't smoke in the bars and now they are pestering about trying to arrest me for running a damn Super Bowl pool. A pool when this whole country is on the take they pester an old man about a silly pool. You ain't no copper are you?" His eyes narrowed.
I assured him not. His green eyes spat emerald fire.
"Never can be sure. They are always sneaking about. Nothing better to do. As Francis Wolcott once said I am a sinner that does not expect forgiveness. But I am not a government official."
"Anyway Old Sawbones Streigel he wanted to win and win bad so he signed some tough fellows off of the Canton Bulldogs. Big old boys name of Harry Robb, Pete Henry, and Larry Conover. Don't think that big mouthed strange looking dude down in Dallas invented the free agent search. No he just thinks he did. Big mouths are bad enough but Texas big mouths are the worst. And he's incompetent too he should have kept that little, fat fellow with the big hair, at least he could win."
"Anyways them Maroons roared through the 1925 season only losing to The Frankford Yellowjackets, which by the way young fellow are now the Philadelphia Eagles, and they clobbered the Yellowjackets in a late season rematch. Yes they did 49-0 they about made them Yellowjackets bawl. So the Maroons rolled into the Championship Game and whipped the Chicago Cardinals 21-7 in Comisky park. Whipped them raw. That's the very same Cardinals that vagabonded to St Louis then to Arizona always looking to fleece the local tax paying folks for more dough. But fleecing the folks is a way of life in this country. Always has been. You ain't a banker are you boy? I despise bankers with a passion?"
No I am not a banker I assured him and he grunted then mumbled something about the James and Dalton brothers have some damn find ideas about dealing with bankers and continued.
"I took a train to that game in Chicago. Trains were wonderful things yes sir we need them back. I sat in the bar car and got roaring drunk with a Pottsville sportswriter name of John O'Hara. That boy would get mean when he was drunk cursing about Hemingway this and Fitzgerald that and finally taking a swing at me thinking I was Hemingway and he was going knock my teeth down my throat. Well I laid him low in that bar car and when we got back to Pottsville he brought me a bottle of Dutch still whiskey as an apology for his actions. We sat right here and drank it and he turned mean again. And I knocked him out again. Funny for a fella that could not fight a lick he loved to start fights."
The old man finished his rye poured another and pushed me one. Then he knocked back a shot of bitters and began making himself a Limburger cheese, onion, and garlic sandwich for what he termed medicinal purposes.
"At that cold game in Chicago I meant the great Jack Dempsey and shook his strong right hand. What a gentleman the Manassas Mauler man was but his wife was muy loco as my Mexican friends say. And old Scarface, Al Capone, himself rolled like a wild wave into a stadium side bar and bought rounds for everyone while his tough looking boys kept cold eyes on everyone. What a time we had."
He took a big bite of the rancid Limburger. Snorted and offered me a half. I declined sipping my bar.
"But that wasn't it you see. Back then most folks thought college ball was the best football so Doc wanted to prove his team was the best. And hell he wanted to make some dough who doesn't? So he played a game against the famed Four Horsemen team of Notre Dame. Notre Dame was the team then. Not like now with that big clown from Jersey running them down. No The Four Horsemen were famous world wide. The NFL boss, Joe Carr, said don't do its against the rules but then Doc Streiger said Carr called and said okay you go play them boys and you win one for the NFL. "
"And the Maroons played them and they won."
He picked at his strangely fanged teeth with an incredibly long, sharp fingernail, then flung something vile across the room.
"Damn onions. I think my dog pissed on them. Anyway they want out there and they beat the famed Four Horseman down in Philadelphia 9-7. I was at that game too. I sat in a seat with the the Human Windmill, Old Harry Greb , the great boxer from Pittsburgh PA. Old Harry had three of the best looking blondes you ever want to see hanging on him and we hit the town later. Poor Harry all them fights all them blondes and he gets killed by anaesthetise getting his smashed nose fixed. And he won all them fights blind in one eye. You never know whats going to get you. As the songs says you never can tell."
Another old man shuffled in the bar and began banging his hand and growling for a beer.
"Damn it serve yourself McGrath can't you see I'm busy. And don't play the damn jukebox I don't want to hear any of your damn silly Elvis crap. Play some Duke Ellington if you need racket."
Crab Claw leaned close, his breath foul. Duke Ellington's jazz filtered through the small bar.
"I've thrown that old goat out of this bar 467 times over the past 77 years and like a bad ghost he still keeps coming back to haunt me. And he lies all the time. Always name dropping. And always with that hippie Elvis crap. Elvis was on drugs you know that, right?"
"Anyway Carr being a weaselly lawyer type like a lot of commissioners and there ilk are, especially that sneaky Italian fellow in the thousand dollar suits that blocked Maroons championship drive a few years back, this Carr went back on his word and stripped the Maroons of their title for playing amateurs. Like the Four Horsemen were damn amateurs. And Carr being the cowardly sort informed Streigel by telegram that his team was stripped of its title and fined him five hundred bucks. The Cardinals, who they whipped at Comiskey, were given the title. And they say Capone was a crook. Give me a mobster over a politician or a lawyer any day."
"When the Maroons came back a bunch of the boys brought their flappers here and we tore this place up. Hoot Flangan of Buckhannon, a wild eyed Maroon end, sat right there and drank an entire case of bootleg beer and eat twenty eight raw eggs just like that blue eyed fellow did in that jail movie. Then Old Hoot fell right over and we propped him in a corner and the women moved his arms like he was dancing only he was just drooling egg and beer. Then he woke up and started in strong again. Old Hoot sure was a Hoot."
"Handsome Harry Pierpont was here that night too. A friendly fellow always on the move, the Hoosiers ended up frying the poor fellow not long after that. Harry had a quiet fellow with sleepy eyes with him that night who laughed quietly with the ladies. It was Dillinger everyone thought but not being nosey no one asked. We weren't as nosey back then. Not like it is now. A player passes wind and ten grown men are screaming and snickering about it on that idiot ESPN. Back then someone would have shot that Mushberger fellow and thrown him in a deep mine shaft. Just for being a damn, annoying nuisance. Anyway..."
"Well things rolled along as they do and we rolled into the Great Depression. Hell I might live to see another Great Depression if I linger a few more years and we keep going they way we are going. But anyway not much was said until the weasels, the damn Bidwells, bought the Cardinals in 1933. The year FDR ended Prohibition and we got smashed in this bar for four days straight."
"Cheers to FDR wherever you are!" He raised his glass and snarled at his only customer. "McGrath you cheap bastard the next ones on me. But don't think your on my tab all day!"
"So this big mouth Bidwell bunch buys the Cardinals in '33 and begins bragging that they are the champions and they are this and they are all that. Blowhard Bidwells. Didn't win on the damn field but now they are flapping their jaws its mine mine mine. Just like these Baby Boomers, Mine! Mine! Mine! I Want! I Want! I Want! But the Bidwells have money, though they sure hate spending it, and the Maroons they up and moved to Boston town. The mines shut down. The Bidwells got rich and famous and Pottsville went into a decades long spiral."
"You know we were suppose to get the NFL Hall of Fame over in Mauch Chunk. The folks made a deal with Burt Bell the Eagles commissioner and they bought old Jim Thorpe's corpse from his cash poor wife, shipped the cadaver in from Oklahoma. and even changed the name of the town to Jim Thorpe. Well Burt Bell up and died, a massive heart attack in the stands at a Eagles game of all places, and the deal fell through. The Hall went to Canton and the town fathers said all we got was a dead Indian. Poor Thorpe had never been to Chunk when he was alive but he sure is spending a lot of time there while dead."
The old man twirled his cigar chomping on the end. "A Cuban. I love Cuban cigars and Cuban women and Cuban Rum. When that old bandit Castro finally croaks I might just move to Havana."
"You know I meant Thorpe once out west. Nice enough man but such sad, sad eyes. He was broke, as he usually was, trying to get into movies and was talking and drinking with this cranky, old fellow with icy eyes name of Earp. Earp was broke too having had a bad day at the race track and they bummed five bucks from me. Never paid it back either. Ah well so it goes..."
"But enough of that rake Earp, back to the title. We won the damn thing. It was ours. I ran into Red Grange and George Halas one time they were drinking gin with Humphrey Bogart and Helen Menken in the Gramercy Park Hotel bar in New York, i was there to pay Old Man Mara a bundle of money my old man dropped on the Demspey Tunney fight, and they told me Pottsville was the real champs. The true champs. Papa Bear himself told me. Told me that the Bidwell's were full of it. Always were. Then Helen for some reason unknown to us threw a shot glass at Humphrey and hit Halas instead. So we left as the ex Mr and Mrs Bogart ranted and raved at one other."
"And the General of the Armies.General John J.Pershing himself, sat right in your seat, drank a bottle of bath tub gin, complained all night about Pancho Villa and then told me that the Pottsville Maroons were indeed champs. What more does the NFL want?"
Grinning at a distant memory the old man pointed a gnarled finger skyward.
"One time Johnny Blood McNally climbed on the roof of this very bar and screamed for two hours that Pottsville was the champs. And screaming Johnny Blood cursed the Cardinals. And wild old Johnny Blood liked the gypsy women so he knew some strange curses. Johnny Blood there was a character and what a moniker. Johnny Blood he sounded like a gunfighter no wonder he got so many women."
"So the Cardinals did not win. Well hardly at all.They were the laughing stock of sports mostly. Except in 1947 when they beat, you guessed it the Philly Eagles, which makes me worry a bit. yes it does. Is it something with the Eagles? I argued with Concrete Charlie Bednarik about that a few years back when he was in here. And he said don't blame the Birds blame Blood for not having enough mojo. Charlie is an argumentative man when in his cups."
The old man finished his beer and shuffled towards the door warning McGrath not to steal anything when his back was turned.
"So a few years back we had a petition to give Pottsville its due. Give the team back its title. It wouldn't hurt the NFL at all. Hell the NFL is a monster now mightier then some South American countries. What would it hurt them to throw poor Pottsville a bone? But no, not them, even though the Rooney's and that young fellow that owns the Eagles backed the Maroons that lawyer turd weasel Tagliabue and the big mouth Bidwell's blocked us. Yes they did. The Bidwell's are bitter to the very end."
"And now they got that holy rolling quarterback who thanks the good lord for every screen pass. Like the Good Lord doesn't have better things to do then watch his rich ass play a damn game. Ah the whole thing is aggravating. I try to avoid aggravation but it everywhere in this cruel, modern world."
We stepped out into the icy cold. The sun was setting in a bubbling cauldron of angry orange before us highlight-ling the ice circled, glazed ever greens sitting silent watch on the old coal bellied hills.
"Don't know how many sunsets I got left, so I try to enjoy ever one. Here's to the sweet sun and the old orb. my friend the mad moon." He knocked back another rye. "Hell I'm older then most of these trees.That's old boy."
"A full moon tonight, son.' He said and tipped his head back and howled. "Watch this. Johnny Blood taught me a thing or three. That is besides setting me up with May McAvoy, what a dish but I don't kiss and tell. But I did once date Georgie Frontiere, I was frogman once, you see, and she wanted my services. I declined but she found some other squids. "
The old man gliding across the ice and before I could stop him simmered like an ancient snow snake up the side of his ice covered bar.
"Surprise ye young fella! I still got some life in me. Hell I got me a date later. A sweet Hungarian blonde I meant on that internet. But now, now. We take care of business." He shook his three fingered fist at the full moon which was rising magnificently as the sun slowly died amidst puffy white clouds, morphed angry orange by the setting star.
"For Tony Latone! By the name of Blood, Johnny Blood, I curse ye Bidwell's and all your evil football works! I curse ye and condemn ye to five turnovers against the Eagles defense. I curse ye to die a playoff death in your own desert 37-13." Then he threw a hand full of dirt in the frigid air and the wicked wind blew it west.
Suddenly he sprang down and landed hard, but upright, laughing loud in the snow.
"Bet the over boy, bet the over and the Eagles."
"And if not Rooney's boys will have to lick 'em. Now I have to rest boyo these Hungarian women, these mad eyed maygar girls, they are wild and wicked." He said and vanished back in the bar.