Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Portlandia, 1954

Vaughn Street on Opening Day, 1953.  Note fans inside
the fences.  
If the picture existed, it would show me standing just below the circle of dirt describing the pitcher’s mound at Portland’s Vaughn Street Park.  My red t-shirt proclaims ILWU, International Longshore and Warehouse  Union.  I’ve forgotten the number that was on the back of the shirt, but arching over the number, holding up my skinny and slumping shoulders, is the word “Tigers.”  Standing beside me is the Mayor of Portland, a man I now know as Fred Peterson, holding a brand new baseball.

My parents were infrequent photographers and probably never thought to bring a camera, as if they owned one, to the 1954 Little League Jamboree.  In their defense, it was also a confusing year, one where there was not much joyful documentation.  We had moved to the southeast Portland bungalow of my Dad’s half brother, Walt, and it was crowded and inconvenient and not really talked about except for the part that said ‘because that’s what we’re going to do.’  The fact was that we were at Walt’s house and that’s where we were going to be for a while.  So, one Saturday, I went down to a nearby park, found Little League baseball tryouts underway and I became, in a handful of moments, an ILWU Tiger.

A few days before the picture that wasn’t and isn’t, or perhaps it was just after, my brother was crawling around Walt’s upstairs, likely looking for contraband he had stored there in a corner, cigarettes maybe, or perhaps a magazine.  Accompanied by surprised shouts from below, one of his legs blew through the lathe and plaster ceiling of the living room, splattering debris everywhere and taking down a chandelier as well.  Not long after, as soon as school was over, we moved to my grandmother’s house in a little cedar shingle mill town called Vernonia, 40 miles away and a couple of thousand feet up in the Coast Range.  I may have played a couple of games for the Tigers, but I finished the season in Vernonia where it was more peaceful.

Blackburn, left, and Truitt recreating a game in the
KWJJ newsroom
We were familiar with the old Vaughn Street Park and the Beavers were frequently on the radio at our earlier homes in Oregon and always on at my grandma’s.  We once went out to Jantzen Beach and watched the two announcers, Rollie Truitt, a thin, older man, consumptive even, and the young, slightly pudgy Bob Blackburn, perform a baseball game re-creation. Sitting in a gazebo located among several folding chairs in one of the few quiet areas of the amusement park, the announcers would receive simple information about a Beaver away game – “ball one” – and embellish it with sound effects and their own imaginations for the live broadcast:

“Thump.”  “Way inside!  Wow, get back!”  

Vaughn Street was a creature of the industrial past of Portland.  The right field fence was the wall of a steel foundry, Esco, and just 315 feet down the line, ideal for Joe Brovia, a left handed slugger who had four seasons in Portland.  Pitchers were careful around Brovia.  In 1952 he walked 109 times.  When Brovia put one out of the park to right, Truitt would offer a low, excited wheeze “…and it’s ... onto the foundry roof!” 

Brovia is part of a ghostly parade of players who somehow crowd into the photograph every time I think of it.  Eddie Basinski, is one, a second baseman with coke bottle eyeglasses.  He was a wartime player whose bad eyesight kept him out of World War II but somehow he had enough vision to play second base for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1944 and 45 and hit .286 his last year in the major leagues.  He was part of a flashy double play combo for the Beavers with
shortstop Frankie Austin, probably the team’s most accomplished player.  Austin was a great negro league player from Panama and was purchased by the Beavers from the Newark Bears in 1949 along with his black teammate Louis Marquez.  Blacks moved to other teams in twos then, so as not to screw up living arrangements on the road. 

As more and more Pacific Coast League players crowd into the frame, I realize that they are crowding out Mayor Peterson who, in fact, is the star of this version of the photograph’s story.  After my one inning of baseball at magical Vaughn Street and after our move to Vernonia, I never gave another thought to Mayor Peterson.  But recently he came across my mind and I decided to get to know him better and it led me to the fantastic scandal he played a role in, a scandal that consumed both my former town and my present one.

Portland writer Meryl Lipman describes Fred Peterson’s post war Portland as a hard edged town with no excuses, nothing like the Portlandia of today with its debates about leash law ethics and the proper business model for selling kale chips.  

“Portland in 1947 was a dirty town.  A port city crawling with gambling halls, strip joints, seedy bars and brothels, the City of Roses offered every addiction known to man.  Bookies set up shop on 4th and Morrison.  Dealers sold opiates in Chinatown.  On SW 3rd, the legendary Tart’s Row, a romp with a prostitute cost $10.  A sweet-faced, redheaded madame called Little Rusty entertained local cops and Supreme Court justices.  Mafia–controlled abortion rackets brought women streaming in from Seattle and California.  Violence and venereal disease ran so high that sea captains refused sailors liberty time to carouse in Portland.”

In a 1948 report, The Portland City Club found other reasons why vice was so persistent in Portland: 

“Gambling and bootlegging establishments, houses of prostitution and other vice operations have been carried on not only with the knowledge and acquiescence of Portland police but also under a system of police protection.  This protection is provided in consideration of a substantial “pay-off” to some police officers and public officials, the gross amount of which varies from time to time but aggregates, according to witnesses having personal knowledge and experience, to approximately $60,000/month.”

People could look around and see what they considered the normal Portland, the place with all the roses, but its mobsters, prostitutes, strong armed goons and crooked public officials were just below the surface.  Some people didn’t think that Jim Elkins’ morphine habit was the reason he wanted to move to Portland after he got out of prison in Arizona for shooting a dirty cop he was splitting money with.  They thought he was just moving in with his brother to straighten out after prison.  Some people thought that historic preservation was really what motivated stripper Tempest Storm to purchase the Capitol Theater on Morrison Street and fix it up.  Some people thought that Teamster leader Dave Beck’s Western Conference of Teamsters was truly concerned about working conditions in the punch board, pull tab, slot machine, pinball and prostitution industries that caused the Teamsters to muscle in on the mobster Elkins and try to control those assets in Portland.  Some people thought that Mayor Earl Riley kept a safe at city hall for important papers critical to the city's zoning laws.

Mayor Lee
The City Club report created demand for reform and its members sought to find just the right honest man to lead a reform platform.  After a fruitless search, they reached out to an honest woman, a 14 year state legislator from Portland, founder of the city’s first woman law firm and a rookie Portland City Commissioner, Dorothy McCullough Lee.  Lee served with Fred Peterson on the Portland City Commission and they both shared a dislike for the current Mayor, Earl Riley who, it is alleged, kept much of the monthly pay-off receipts in the city hall safe near his office. 

Lee’s platform was simple – enforce the law. After successfully becoming the first woman mayor of Portland, putting away Earl Riley by 85,000 to 22,000 votes, she did.  Sure enough, gambling and other vices in Portland began drying up.  Private clubs like the Multnomah Athletic Club and the Portland Press Club lost their slot machines and a considerable monthly income said to be about $5,000/month each.  The Press Club went broke without the slots.  Vice was drying up.  With nothing to protect, payoffs were down.  Her reform agenda was working, but her zeal for reform was ignoring an economy in transition.  The booming Portland shipyards weren’t on a war footing any more.  And, there was a growing realization that vice helped pay the rent.  One other factor was that she was a woman and easily marginalized.  “Do-Good Dottie” the woman wearing the funny hat, soon faced
1953 Rose Parade with Mayor Peterson on
the left. Truman was grand Marshall.
a recall, survived it, but came up against Fred Peterson and a united front of men who wanted business – not reform -- put back on top of the Portland agenda. Two years before the mayor and I met up at the Vaughn Street pitcher’s mound, Lee was swept from office and replaced by the pharmacist from North East Portland.

The old normal replaced the new normal in Portland and the change came at a time when the old normal was in a position to step up the pace.  One reason was that the Teamsters Union was following the dictum of its leadership  -- organize everything.  And, also, the dictum went, if you made a buck at it, that’s fine too. 

On the heels of Lee’s defeat, two Teamster thugs from Seattle rode into town and set up for action.  One was Joseph McLaughlin, a bookmaker and Teamster hanger-on who had plenty of friends at the Denny Way Teamster headquarters in Seattle.  A second was Thomas Maloney, a heavyset ex-convict who worked at a gambling joint in Seattle run by McLaughlin who had been assigned political work for the Teamsters in Oregon and who, coincidentally, had just handled the successful Multnomah County Prosecuting Attorney campaign of Bill Langley, providing some last minute cash and an endorsement by the union.

The boys from Portland claimed to be extremely close to Frank Brewster, one of the top Teamster officials in the country and president of the Western Conference of Teamsters, an organizational tool that brought many small, relatively independent Teamster unions throughout the west coast into line.  Brewster wanted to succeed his boss, Dave Beck, who had figured out the western conference idea and who everyone knew would soon be gone because of the flood of his enormous legal and tax problems.    

Clyde C. Crosby, yet another ex-con, was the top International Teamster Union official in Oregon and wore several hats.  He was a commissioner of the Exposition and Recreation Commission, the city appointed group that was developing what is now Memorial Stadium and associated convention activities.  Crosby had purchased a lot of property around the site he liked best and was pushing for a decision that would work best for him.  Second, he was close to Fred Peterson and believed that the mayor would fire the police chief James Purcell if Crosby asked him to.  While Purcell was no angel and not much of an impediment to the plotters, they wanted their own cop in the top job. 

James Butler Elkins
The two guys from Seattle and Crosby then approached Jim Elkins, who they met when he sought them out to put pinballs in the Teamster Union Hall.  He controlled most of the vice in Portland though Elkins took great pains to exclude prostitution from his portfolio, something he said he found offensive, though he worked for his brother’s prostitution operation after moving to Portland in the thirties. They told Elkins that Seattle had a bigger idea and said, in essence, that they wanted to help him out by consolidating all the vice under their leadership and “set up the town” and make some real money, as they liked to put it.

Elkins had learned in prison to be a good listener and began cooperating, though he soon just pretended to go along since he had done all the calculations necessary to be fairly confident that he was likely to be the first member of the enterprise to be listed as missing and never found.  So, he started recording their conversations on a small tape recorder at the King Tower Apartments in Portland’s West Hills the boys from Seattle had rented for their use while in town.  Elkins also kept recording even when the District Attorney, William Langley, attended meetings there with Elkins and Maloney.  Apparently, nobody noticed that Elkins never took his suit jacket off.

He also placed listening devices in the apartment that picked up Prosecuting Attorney Langley saying that they had to get rid of Elkins because he was a liar and playing them along as patsies:

"You've got to knock him out of the box," Langley said into the secret microphones.  "It's what I've said all along that you were never going to do any good being with him.  You decide what you want to do.  If you want to keep on doing business with him, that's all right.  Or put him out.  That's all right."

As an ex-con and a criminal since his early teens, Elkins tended to take statements like that literally, especially when they came from a top law enforcement official.

Lambert with the phone, Turner looking over
his shoulder.
Elkins felt he needed to make a dramatic move and he decided to give the tapes to an Oregonian reporter, Wallace Turner, who was contacting Elkins in another matter, also related to vice.  In mid-April of 1956, Turner and his reporting partner Bill Lambert broke a series of stories using the tapes and Elkins’ account that would win a Pulitzer Prize for the paper, lead to 116 indictments against 28 people and result in William Langley’s removal from office and produce a singular embarrassment in the Rose City.

The tapes figured prominently in the indictments and not just for the juicy sound bites.  First, Elkins and an employee, Raymond Clark, were charged and tried for wiretapping for having made the tapes in the first place.  But then Langley and an Oregon Journal reporter were indicted for illegally conspiring with Multnomah County Sheriff Terry Schrunk to put together an illegal raid to acquire and copy the tapes which were stored at Clark’s house. Langley had convinced the Oregon Journal, the morning Oregonian’s afternoon competition, that the tapes were phony, that Elkins doctored them with false statements in an attempt to blackmail Langley.  He said that Elkins had, in fact, visited Langley’s house, pointed a gun at him and demanded money. 

Bill Langley at his trial
The Journal fell hard for Langley’s version of the narrative and allowed Langley to write several pieces in the paper in which Langley spoke directly to the Journal’s readers.  The pieces described not only the Elkins extortion attempt and how the tapes were doctored, but also how he grew up admiring his father and how his dad ran the District Attorney's 30 years previous as an anti-crime crusader.  He explained how his own frantic efforts to establish a vice-squad were thwarted along the way by political enemies and how the Attorney General of Oregon saw Langley as a threat and was using the excuse of the scandal to get rid of a rival.     

And get this.  Is it really possible, in June of 1956, just six weeks after the last of the Turner/Lambert stories and while Langley is center stage at one of the greatest political storms in Oregon’s history, that William Langley finished second in the Oregon Amateur Golf Championship on his home course, the Portland Golf Club?  The Oregonian's obituary of Langley in 1987 says that is true. 

Witnesses at McClellan hearings.  Elkins is in the center.
I believe Clyde Crosby is second from left.
Portland’s sorry scandal moved very quickly to Washington, DC in February of 1957.  The Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or Management Field, was formed at the end of January, 1957 and chaired by Arkansas Senator John McClellan whose chief counsel was Robert F.  Kennedy.  Portland’s mob problems were the first the committee took on. The situation in Portland fit the committee’s agenda for a number of reasons.  Portland showed how deeply the corruption of the Teamsters reached into daily life.  The mob goals in Portland seemed utterly fantastic – buy the mayor, buy the commission, buy the police chief and sheriff, buy the DA, buy the governor, buy the legislature.  They sought to acquire all the community’s institutions of law enforcement and according to many people, they had made a great deal of progress.  Secondly, the committee didn’t have in hand its number one target, Teamster President Dave Beck.  Beck was in Europe on an extended stay to avoid the committee’s many subpoenas.  So, Portland presented a fine opening act, kind of like what the Cubans and the CIA goons provided during the early days of the Watergate Hearings. 

Beck on the left with Hoffa
Beck finally came before the committee later in March and asserted his Fifth Amendment right well over a hundred times when he was asked about loans, other income and benefits from the union.  He retired from the union later in 1957, handing power to Jimmy Hoffa.  In 1959, federal prosecutors decided on a tax evasion charge that was a sure thing and convicted Beck of selling a union-owned Cadillac and keeping the $1,900 dollars he got for it.  He served 30 months. 

Langley was convicted of knowing of and attending places where the laws against gambling were not enforced, paid a $480 fine and was removed from office in April of 1957.  He worked as an attorney and maintained a fine golf game until his death in 1987. 

Fred Peterson didn't get indicted but never threw out another first ball at Vaughn Street Park.  It was torn down in 1956 and the Beavers moved to Multnomah Stadium.  However, Peterson's police chief, Jim Purcell was indicted for malfeasance.

In the Fall of 1956, Peterson was defeated by Terry Schrunk, the Multnomah County Sheriff.  Later, early in 1957, Mayor Schrunk was indicted by the grand jury on a bribery charge that he had take $500 from a Jim Elkins club manager.  A jury trial in September of 1957 cleared Schrunk on a related charge of perjury and four other indictments against him on other charges were subsequently dropped.

 After the events of the 1950s, and another stint in prison, Jim Elkins had a hard time making ends meet in Portland.  He was, at the core, still a criminal and he needed some shadow to work in.  However, in Portland, the flashlight was always on.  He and two associates were hanging out at a Raleigh Hills grocery store one evening and got busted for planning a robbery there.  The charges were later dropped. 

Elkins claimed that Jimmy Hoffa once called his wife and urged her to make a case to her husband that they should leave the country.  Others called the house with the message that they were a minute away and were set to break both arms and both legs.  Elkins said he sat with the shotgun in front of the door more frequently than he would have liked.

So, he moved back to Arizona in 1968 but soon after was killed in a traffic accident, the autopsy revealing a heart attack while he was at the wheel.  Or so said the coroner in Arizona.  There’s a story that some Portland cops went down to find out the truth for themselves after Elkins' sudden cremation and found a second reason for Elkins’ heart attack, a photo showing two bullet holes in his chest.  

No picture has showed up.  Like so many things about Elkins, most evidence was just beyond reach or hidden under the next bush.

Dorothy McCullough Lee was appointed to the US Parole Board in 1953 by President Eisenhower.  Certainly some of her former colleagues must of thought she might be useful to them if convicted, but she moved on to another federal position before anyone of substance in the scandal went down.

She came back to Portland and ended her career running her law firm and lecturing at Portland State and Portland University on the importance of good government.

McClellan Committee Transcripts of Portland Hearings

The Fall of Dave Beck from RFK's Book "The Enemy Within"

Dave Beck: The Most Amazing Thing at the Seattle World's Fair

Read the Oregonian's Pulitzer Prize Winning Coverage

Tempest Storm's Facebook Page


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