In the great Baltimore game of postwar ethnic politics, it was the Jewish kingmaker, Jack Pollack, who helped the Italian-Catholic candidate, Thomas “Tommy the Elder” D’Alesandro Jr., win his first mayoral election.
Shortly thereafter, in the time-honored tradition, Pollack called upon City Hall and wanted something in return. “I got a couple of my guys I want you to put on the city payroll,” he said.
“What do they do?” asked D’Alesandro.
“They don’t do anything,” said Pollack.
“Good,” said D’Alesandro, “we won’t have to break ‘em in.”
Now, more than six decades later, Thomas “Tommy the Younger” D’Alesandro III sat in his North Baltimore home the other day and recalled that story. He’s 89 and frail, but his sense of humor’s acute, and he still laughs so hard, and so delightedly, that it practically turns into tears.
He’s part of a remarkable family heritage. He’s Tommy the Elder’s son and Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s brother, and he was elected mayor himself in 1967, when he won 555 of the city’s polling places. This was considered quite good, since the city only had 555.
Also, he’s a keeper of stories and a cultivator of so many of the marvelous characters who brightened Bawlmer in years gone by.
Hey, Tommy, how about Mimi DiPietro?
Yeah, Mimi, the rotund elementary school dropout who became an eastside City Councilman and tended to astonish people whenever he attempted to employ the English language. “The trouble with the courts,” Mimi would say, “is too much flea bargaining.” (He meant plea bargaining.)
And how about the time Mimi was introduced to Rosalynn Carter when she and President Jimmy Carter came to town? Mimi naturally wanted to show off as a man of sophistication and good taste.
“I’d kiss you on the mouth,” he told the first lady, “but I don’t know who you been with.”
The memory of such revelry and innocence warms the heart. Sitting in his living room a few weeks back, with the TV fixed on cable news, D’Alesandro could escape the latest outrages from Washington by turning to his memories.
Hey, Tommy, what do you remember about Eddie Fenton?
D’Alesandro laughed out loud. Fenton was the radio reporter who never took a note and never missed a deadline. Nothing got in his way when airtime arrived.
Once, when Tommy the Younger held a City Hall news conference, Fenton grew bold as his hourly deadline neared. As D’Alesandro started to address reporters, Fenton grabbed a nearby phone. Then, he grabbed D’Alesandro and held on — and phoned the WCBM Radio newsroom and interviewed the mayor live on the air, while the rest of the press corps sat there with open mouths.
“Yeah, characters,” Tommy the Younger said softly. “Some of the best were the old reporters. How about Charley Eckman?”
Eckman was a basketball coach and referee who gave it all up to broadcast sports. Nobody ever knew what he might say on the air.
Once, he went to the bris of the grandson of the old boxing promoter Eli Hanover. The next morning, at WFBR Radio, Eckman happily announced over the air, “First time I ever saw a clipping without a 15-yard penalty.”
In Tommy the Younger’s time in public life, the town seemed full of such idiosyncratic types. D’Alesandro quit politics after a single term as mayor and spent the ensuing decades practicing law and raising a family with his wife, Margie.
But he took pleasure, sitting in his living room, remembering some of the colorful figures from years ago, like his dad’s best friend, John Pica Sr. As young men, Tommy the Elder and Pica discovered the joys of Lombard Street when it was the epicenter of Baltimore Jewish life.
Enduring friendships grew out of that connection. Years later, when Pica’s daughter Maria got engaged, she nervously told her dad that her fiancé was Protestant.
“You can’t do that,” Pica said. “You gotta marry in the faith. A Catholic or a Jew.”
Sitting there in his living room now, Tommy D’Alesandro III laughed at the memory and then closed his eyes. For a moment, he could see it all, fresh as today.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” published by the Johns Hopkins University Press, is now in paperback.