The story goes that John L. Sullivan came into a Boston saloon in 1888, threw a silver dollar on the bar and said: "I can lick any man in the house." When nobody took the offer of the Boston Strong Boy, the heavyweight champion of the world, he bought drinks for the house.
The saloon was always a meeting place for the neighborhood sports going back to the time of George Washington when the short-pants-and-periwig set discussed their horses. The saloonkeeper was the local sports sage, but he is of a diminishing breed.
Among the last of the old-fashioned saloonkeepers is Bernard (Toots) Shor, 73. Word from New York City is that Shor isn't feeling too well these days. "I spend more time in hospitals now than in saloons," he recently told a friend.
For more than 40 years in four saloons, Shor presided over a unique sports cult that drew from athletics, the entertainment world, government - Cabinet members, Supreme Court justices and even Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman, who were Shor's friends.
Shor's life seems to have been a string of anecdotes and one-liners. Through the years he has pictured himself as "an ignorant crumb from Philly good enough to fool the Big Apple (New York)."
But he was not quite the lout he made himself out to be. He attended Drexel Institute in Philadelphia and also was at the Wharton School of Finance there for a year.
Shor was born in Philadephia and early proved to be adept with his fists. A man who carried 250 pounds over his 6-foot-2 frame in his prime, Shor came to New York during the Prohibition days. His mother, who came from Russia, and his father, a German immigrant, had died when he was in his teens. He was raised by two older sisters.
Shor's first big job in New York after working in speakeasies, places where people could buy illegal whiskey during Prohibition, was in Billy LaHiff's restaurant as a combination greeter and bouncer. It was there he began his long love affair with the theater and sports.
LaHiff's niece was Nancy Carroll, a film beauty of the 1930s, and she brought many of her Hollywood friends into her uncle's restaurant. When Lahiff quit the business, Shor opened his own place on 51st Street, a few doors from the elegant 21 club.
Shor never had any problems with the 21. A gregarious man, Shor liked to throw his drinking business to neighboring saloons and that business was considerable; he was among the world champions in demolishing a jug.
There was the time Rocky Marciano came into Shor's fresh from winning the heavyweight championship of the world. Shor unleashed a playful clip on the champ's jaw and the surprised Marciano was set down on his pants.
"Look at me," bellowed Shor, "the new heavyweight champion of the world."
Playwright Robert Sherwood or Sir Alexander Fleming, discoverer of penicillin, would pop in and Shor would shout at the customers, "Stepping up in class, you crum-bums." Shor had two tables in front of his restaurant reserved for the most distinguished people who dropped in, or for his cronies and sports writers.
Sir Alexander preferred anonymity and always sat in the back of the room. He was sitting there with Shor the day that Mel Ott of the New York Giants, a particular hero of Toots', hit his 500th home run. It was standard operating procedure for any of Shor's heroes to make their first social appearance, after a great event, in The Joint. Ott faithfully rushed down from the Polo Grounds to the restaurant.
The news had preceded him. When Shor saw Ott come in, he turned to the famed scientist and said: "Excuse me, Alex, but I have to go up front. Somebody important just arrived."
Shor once saw Hamlet. At the intermission, he was surrounded by people in evening clothes murmuring politely about the play. "I'm going back for the second half." said Shor loudly. "I'm probably the only bum in the joint who don't know how this play comes out."
Shor had an amazing capacity for brandy and soda, his favorite drink. But he obeyed the law. During World War II, there was midnight curfew on all saloons. Some of Shor's clients complained but Toots, ever the patriot, defended the order of his friend, President Roosevelt.
"Any bum who can't get drunk by midnight," Shor said, "just ain't trying."
After Shor sold his 51st Street restaurant in 1959 for $1.5 million, he took a trip to Europe. He reported, on coming home, that the only trouble he had with language was in England. "The British," he pointed out, "talk like a guy in a chimney."
In 1969 baseball held its centennial celebration in conjunction with the All-Star Game in Washington.
President Nixon invited the club owners, managers, other officials and the visiting baseball press to a cocktail reception in the East Room of the White House.
Nixon was chatting with Joe DiMaggio and Stan Musial and expressing his admiration of both when Shor came into the group. He put a headlock on the surprised Nixon and gave the President the French-style greeting with wet kisses on each cheek.
Shor opened another joint, a few blocks from his old one, two years after being out of action. It failed and took most of that $1.5 million. Then came his last place on Eighth Avenue and 33d Street opposite the new madison Square Garden. It was a cloakroom compared to hsi once plush establishments.
Shor had perhaps the country's greatest crying jag whenever a friend passed away - as became increasingly frequent as the years went on. He was inconsolable for days and covered the dregs of his sorrow with boose.
John Charles Daly, the onetime television newsman and quizmaster, another of Shor's intimates, once told about the big man's will. The opening line was: "I, Toots Shor, being of sound mind, have spent it all."