Monday morning after the Redskins-Cowboys game, Morrie Siegel woke up in a sweat. A big sweat. He was having a heart attack.
"The first thing I did," he said, "was sit down, light up a cigarette and consider my options."
Quickly, he realized he had only one option -- he put out the cigarette and called a doctor.
The other day, Siegel, the ex-sportswriter and now consultant to the D.C. Baseball Commission, prowled his room at Sibley Hospital. That, in itself, was a good sign. He was growing restless. He had been there going on two weeks. He wanted out.
Bear in mind Siegel has been hospitalized before -- he had some cracked ribs once. He grew restless that time, too. One night, when it got late, he took a shower, put on his shirt and trousers, his jacket, and called a cab. He sauntered right on out of there and went to Dominique's.
"I had a drink, and that led to two or three and, first thing, it's 3 o'clock in the morning," he said. "So I called a cab and rode back to the hospital. I got there and the place is all locked up. I'm out there, 3:30 in the morning, banging on the door. They won't let me in. 'Wait, I belong in there.' "
When he finally persuaded them to open up, he went back upstairs and climbed into bed. Next day, he got his formal release -- nobody at the hospital said gladly, but he was out of there just the same. He hadn't had a sick day since, until this. "I want outta here," he said.
He can get out, they said at the hospital, if he passes a stress test the next morning.
"A what?" he says.
Siegel hasn't passed a test of any kind since he left Emory University in Atlanta in 1938.
"You just have to do a little walking."
"Hey, nobody ever won the Boston Marathon at 8:30."
"I never did anything at 8:30. I had my heart attack at 6:30, but that wasn't scheduled."
A nurse came by to check his lungs. Another came in to take his temperature. (The thermometer worked really fast, so he didn't have to be quiet long). Yet another nurse brought in some liquid medicine which he tossed right down.
"Gimme the Heineken -- I mean the water," he said.
Ever since Siegel got out of intensive care, he's been in what might be called intensive concern. A stream of visitors pours in and out of his room, the phone is forever ringing. Strangers see his name next to the door and peer in.
Said a hospital staffer to a man and woman passing by, "Are you looking for the famous Mr. Siegel?"
Pete Rozelle called. "He said, what can we send you, and I said, 'A carton of Marlboros.' "
No, he's really going to give up cigarettes. "No choice," he said, "and I'm going to do it, too," and that from a four-to-five-pack-a-day man for the last 40 years. "Think of all the money that cost."
So far, he seems to miss a cigarette when he's telling a story, which he does in a Southern rasp. When he's doing a stand-up routine, he assumes his natural talking stance -- like a gunslinger poised to draw. He always goes for his pocket, and a cigarette. The other day he went for his shirt pocket and pulled out some kind of blinking monitor.
Bill Veeck called, and Jack Kent Cooke came by. Cooke, Siegel figures, may be the only man alive more indomitable than himself. "He sat in that chair there for an hour," said Siegel with a grin. "Finally, I had to tell him if he didn't go I'd have a relapse."
Tommy Jacomo of The Palm stopped in. Siegel told him the really bad news -- the low-fat diet he has to stay on. Jacomo looked at the diet and looked at Siegel and the two just shook their heads.
It's not the drinking, not the smoking, Siegel said, it's the diet that's going to be the hard part.
"I was never a big drinker, just a lot of little ones," he said. "That's a Joe E. Lewis line."
The phone rang.
"Bobby? Bobby Beathard? Hey, Bobby, didja hear the news? You didn't. I'm sorry, Bobby. You're fired."
Siegel roared with laughter.
That conversation ended when Siegel dropped the phone and the two got disconnected.
Siegel took a moment to wade through all the literature he's been given on how to take care of himself. "It's like reading the AAU rules on hopscotch."
But seriously, he said, it all makes sense and he's going to do his best. He was scared by this, and that's no kidding. "Now, I don't want to make this sound like a plug, but I get these nice little messages from the American Heart Association. They don't try to ram it down your mouth, just little reminders. I'm going to make a donation."
And that low-fat diet?
He thumbed through "A Daily Guide for Good Nutrition."
"Let's see here. Not allowed -- nothing from the milk division. Well, that won't bother me.
"I like cheese -- I get shut out almost on cheeses.
"No bleu cheese. That hurts me.
"Hey, but look at this, you can have angel food cake, fruit whip, puddings made with skim milk -- no complaints there.
"And this stuff, what's it called, oatmeal, it's good. And with a little banana . . . "
Siegel never knew much about breakfast. "I ate it if I got in late enough," he said.
A nurse took an electrocardiogram and told him she'd be giving one copy to the doctor and one copy somewhere else, and he said, "Would you send one to the Smithsonian? They say my body's 40 years older than I am."
He's 68 and came to Washington on Sept. 5, 1946. He had been on the Richmond paper before the war, but when he went back afterward "things just weren't the same. My buddies I used to hang around the pool hall with had all got married, domestic stuff, you know, so I got a train to New York. It stopped in Washington, of course, and I saw the paper, where Bob Feller was going for some speed record pitching -- they had made up some contraption to clock it."
He got off the train, and went on to write for The Post and the Daily News and The Evening Star, when he wasn't doing TV or radio, or being a toastmaster or hanging at some restaurant, sipping coffee and telling a story, which he often does, for no reason, in conspiratorial tone and manner, now and then looking over his shoulder. He once said he was a prenatal talker. "I started talking in the seventh month," he said.
"Do you like your job?" he asked a nurse.
She loved it.
"Did you ever consider gambling?"
Maury Povich walked in, and later in the evening Duke Zeibert smuggled in some chicken noodle soup with matzo balls. "If that doesn't make him feel good, nothing will," Zeibert said.
"A guy told me this one," Zeibert went on. "If they put Siegel in the same room with Theismann, Theismann would get up and walk out."
It's 8:30 the next morning, time for the stress test.
Downtown the night before, Siegel cronies had been betting on the machine.
What did they know? Did they really understand how badly he wanted out, how he just had to pass this test?
They took him down in a wheelchair. They brought him back triumphant.
"No trouble at all. They told me, hey, slow down."
So it was that Mo Siegel walked out Friday morning, a free man. He's going to go straight, too. He swears it. And was he happy. And so were all his friends.