Here’s the latest Entry from the Forgotten History of Staten Island by the fictitious Dr. D. I. Kniebocker, Staten Island’s Most Controversial and Greatest Historian!
(This entry by the good doctor has not yet been edited, fact-checked and illustrated. When that work is done, it will be entered on the official FHSI website.)
Staten Island’s Gas House Gang
Of all the pursuits that mankind has been blessed with, no two have Staten Islanders pursued with more vigor than sports and organized crime.
Indeed, it’s hard to top Staten Island when it comes to sports history. For instance, the first tennis matches in America were played on Staten Island, at what is now the nation’s oldest cricket club. It’s true Staten Island hasn’t had a major league baseball team since the original NY Metropolitans (better known as The Mets) disembarked in 1887. Yet, it can lay claim to perhaps the most famous homerun in baseball history (1951’s so-called ‘Shot Heard Round the World’), hit by none other than the ‘Staten Island Scot’ (NY Giants’ slugger), Bobby Thompson. If recent years have been somewhat less groundbreaking, they have not witnessed a dissipation of enthusiasm for local athletics. In contrast to the other 4 Boroughs of New York City, local athletics pose so much interest today on the Island that high school sports are avidly covered in the local daily newspaper, The Staten Island Advance.
Despite the focus on sports, organized crime on the Island is an even more prolific activity. So much so, that in 2011, Frank “Frankie Steel” Pontillo complained to a judge (at a sentencing hearing) that it was impossible to have a decent social life on Staten Island without associating with organized crime. Pontillo demanded that such contact not be misconstrued as straying from the straight and narrow. And he went on to plead: “I didn’t invite the Five Families to gather at the opening of a bar. Staten Island is very small. There’s lots of felons on the island.”
So perhaps it was inevitable that (in the 1930’s) Staten Island’s two favorite pastimes collided, in a remarkable hybrid of sports and organized crime known as “Staten Island’s Gashouse Gang.” Most Islanders assumed that the gang’s name was derived from the nickname of the legendary St. Louis Cardinals team of that era – The famous squad that boasted such luminaries as Dizzy and Daffy Dean, Ducky Medwick, Dazzy Vance, Ripper Collins, Pepper Martin, and Leo (“the Lip”) Durocher. In reality, Ernie “Pretty Baby” Moriarity (one of the leaders of Staten Island’s Gas House Gang) had named the outfit after an organization that his father Ernest “Pretty Boy” Moriarity had belonged to during his youth in Manhattan. This original Gas House Gang operated in the Gas House district (along 3rd Avenue from 11th to 18th Street) during the turn of the 20th Century until a police crackdown led to its remaining members being absorbed by the 5 Points gang in 1910.
Young Ernie was proud of his dad’s colorful past in Manhattan, but he was no mere chip off the old block. A devastating line-drive hitter, with superb bat control, and power to all fields, when he played for Curtis High School in New Brighton, Staten Island – “Pretty Baby” Moriarity assembled a crew of equally talented ball-players with larcenous intent, and developed a unique MO that was never again repeated.
The Staten Island Gas House would stage impromptu baseball games in the streets of Staten Island specifically for the purposes of burglary. Initially, the games were devices that enabled the “Gassers” (as they called themselves) to spend a long enough time in a given neighborhood to “case the joint,” as the gang described it, for a later burglary. But as their skills evolved, the gang used baseball itself as a diversion and actually burgled houses in mid game. The turning point came when Joe “Stinky Butts” Capoletto (so named because of his passion for Clove cigarettes) – and Sanford “Hurricane Sandy” Horowitz joined the squad. Capoletto was infielder whose hitting skills rivaled that of Ernie “Pretty Baby” Moriarity; Horowitz was an, equally talented, hurler.
Although the nickname “Hurricane Sandy” may make Horowitz sound like a power pitcher, just the opposite was true. It was an ironic title. “Hurricane Sandy” had fabulous control over a wide variety of pitches, but threw so slowly that one opposing batsman remarked, “I don’t feel bad about striking out, I’m just relieved that I didn’t die of boredom waiting for one of “Hurricane Sandy’s” pitches to cross the plate.“ The nickname was set in stone after that.
Horowitz’s control was key to the Gassers success, but not for the relatively benign purpose of striking out opposing batters. Depending on how the different sides of (what appeared to be) pickup squads were constructed, Horowitz would groove a pitch to either “Pretty Baby” Moriarity, or “Stinky Butts” Capoletto. Then one, or the other, would drive the ball through a strategically situated window, creating a massive diversion.
Staten Islanders (who within New York City are renowned for their sense of outrage, especially in the face of broken glass) would inevitably react with volcanic fury when a baseball came crashing through the window. Then, while half the gang dealt with the outraged homeowner, and whoever else wanted to put their 2 cents in (i.e. scream their heads off), the rest of the squad would burglarize a nearby home. This process worked like a charm for nearly 3 years, as a “mysterious crime wave” struck Staten Island. And the wave might have continued for much longer, had the Gassers not run into Al (“Eagle Eye” ) Murphy, a local policeman who umpired high school baseball games in his spare time.
As luck would have it, Murphy’s enthusiasm for baseball far exceeded his interest in police work – which probably explains why he never rose above the lowly rank of patrolman. In all probability, had he been called to investigate the crime scene, he might never have broken the case as he did, by inadvertently participating in the crime. But this time, fate grooved one right into the policeman’s sweet spot.
“Eagle Eye” Murphy’s moment of Sherlockian insight came when he interrupted a patrol of Todt Hill to call balls and strikes in what seemed to him to be a local pickup baseball game. Once again, the Gashouse Gang was conducting its usual MO. And once again, a window came crashing down, and a particularly incensed (even for Staten Island) homeowner, Salvatore Ferragamo burst forth. But instead of going into the torrent of verbal abuse that gang members were used to, Ferragamo ran around the block and proceeded to remove a 12 gauge shot-gun from his garage.
Realizing that umpiring an unpermitted baseball game, during his workday, wouldn’t look particularly good in a police report, Murphy had already started in the other direction. But he had gotten less than 2 blocks away, when he ran across half of the Gashouse gang unloading the contents of a house. Broken windows are one thing, but burglary was not something he could overlook; so “Eagle Eye” immediately blew his police whistle (the common method of alerting fellow officers and the general public in those days). As he did so, an even more evocative form of alert took place back at the house with the broken window. Ferragamo began erratically pumping buckshot in a frantic attempt to punish the window-breakers. Before long, a sizable portion of the total police force of Staten Island had appeared at the scene. In short order, the Gassers were taken away in handcuffs.
After a police surgeon removed buckshot from the posteriors of some of the less lucky gang members, the Gassers met with swift justice. But, thanks to outbreak of World War 2, the gang was able to obtain early release by joining the Army. This was the effective end of Staten Island’s Gashouse Gang. Upon receiving honorable discharges, the members went into honest professions, such as: private carting (garbage removal), cement mixing, magazine distribution, and management of pizzerias, nightclubs and casinos. There was one exception, however. Ernie “Pretty Baby” Moriarty, the most talented member of team (at least at baseball), never gave up on either crime, or sport. Once again combining the two, Moriarty finally made his mark on the world outside Staten Island.
While serving 5-8 years for loan sharking and extortion at the Ohio State Reformatory (later used as a location in many movies, including “The Shawshank Redemption”), Ernie Moriarty became the hitting coach on the prison baseball team. When, in 1958, a talented young man named William James (better known as “Gates”) Brown arrived to do (what amounted to a year) sentence for burglary, Moriarty took him under his wing and showed him the science of hitting. Other inmates believed that Moriarty was hoping that Brown would carry out the famous MO from the heyday of the Gassers. But, if that was the plan, it came to naught, because the young man never indulged in criminal activity again. But thanks to Moriarty’s tutelage and his own innate ability, Brown went on to sign with the Detroit Tigers and became the premier pinch hitter in the American League of that era, and, by most accounts, one of the greatest of all time.