That was quite a sendoff my friend Fred Rasmussen, obituary writer at The Sun, gave Ruth E. Tropea this week. She was a dancer on The Block who did her last bump-and-grind years ago and died the other day at 100.
But for sheer sentiment, no one will ever match the tribute paid years ago to another legendary figure on The Block named Benny Greenspun.
Tropea, who made her living undressing to music, was known in her heyday as “the Queen of Quiver.” She got 39 paragraphs in The Sun at the time of her departure. Not bad.
But Greenspun, who was known as “John the Baptist” on The Block and wherever else fine, illegal games of chance were played, had a much more substantial tribute paid at his passing several decades back.
And don’t let his nom de Block fool you. Greenspun was Jewish. But as a lady friend of 40 years explained at his passing, “You know your Bible? That’s how he got his name. Because he was always giving handouts if you were down and out.”
He had reason to identify with such underdogs. Professionally, John the Baptist did pretty well. He was a lieutenant to Julius “Lord” Salisbury, the legendary nightclub owner and numbers operator who disappeared from all sight the night before he was to begin serving a 15-year prison term for racketeering.
As Salisbury’s right-hand man, John the Baptist saw lots of money, but had a way of running through it at warp speed. He had thousands of dollars in his pockets and women on each arm who knew marvelous ways to spend it.
“He thought nothing of betting $3,000 or $4,000 on a baseball game,” the late Henny Corcoran, Salisbury’s other lieutenant, once told me. “And that was in the days when money meant something. Or he’d put $1,000 across the board on horse races.”
From this, however, do not imagine a suave Cary Grant figure.
“Actually,” Henny said, “John the Baptist was a little goofy.”
He was arrested three different times for running numbers, back when the state hadn’t yet taken over the game and legalized it. Twice, he listed his home address as a Turkish bath on Fayette Street.
He made some bad bets – and some bad excuses, too. At one point, he was $60,000 or $70,000 in debt, depending on who’s telling the story. The heat was on. He went to Salisbury’s safe and quietly “borrowed” the cash. At the end of the week, Salisbury made inquiries.
Naturally, John the Baptist had an explanation.
“I was walking down Pimlico Road, coming out of the track,” he said. “The money was in my pockets. Then, I don’t know, I must have passed out or gotten hit with a rock. And when I woke up, the money was gone.”
Fortunately, it was only a short time later that Salisbury, too, was gone, fleeing his prison sentence, and never to be seen again.
But a few words about that sentimental tribute denizens of The Block paid John the Baptist at his passing:
The night before he died – of a heart attack, at an undetermined age – he kept score at a high-stakes card game on The Block, at 419 East Baltimore Street.
His friends paid tribute in the most touching manner they knew how. They played that number – 419 – all week.
“I think John would have understood,” Henny Corcoran said at the time. “Anyway, you take your hunches where you find ‘em.”
And 419 wasn’t a bad number, if you laid a combination bet.
On Tuesday of that week, so many decades ago, the street number was 194.
It was John the Baptist’s last big handout.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, most recently “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).