All his life, Dave Feldman greeted friend and foe alike by saying, "I'm dyin'," which usually meant he either hadn't picked a winner in weeks or shouldn't have eaten quite so many hot dogs on top of an order of egg rolls.
The salutation--now there's a word that would have upset Feldman's stomach--was part of his charm. He was a racetrack character who moonlighted as Chicago's foremost turf authority for a succession of newspapers that flirted with extinction, and sometimes achieved it. Feldman rolled on, though, convinced that only he, the King of the Turf as we called him, could save his paper of the moment.
And then he met a doctor who told him he really was dying.
The King needed heart surgery. A quadruple bypass, maybe more. It was a lot to compute for someone who specialized in daily doubles. Still, Feldman liked the odds of having this doctor, a big hitter from Cleveland, a certified silver-haired eminence, opening him up. As soon as he said so, the doctor confessed that he wouldn't be doing the cutting. He had a vacation planned. But not to worry, the surgeon taking his place was a whiz kid from Harvard.
"Wait a minute, Doc," Feldman said. "I'm not letting a bug boy operate on me."
Bug boy? Feldman had to explain that it was track parlance for an apprentice jockey.
Once the doctor had nodded thoughtfully and uttered the appropriate "I see," it was back to the reality of the situation. The doctor would be gone for more than a month, and if Feldman postponed the operation until then, if he put it off even a week, he was gambling with his life. Feldman didn't budge. He wanted Arcaro in the saddle. He wanted Shoemaker. And he got him too.
It was the best bet Dave Feldman ever made. He got two more decades of outrageous living after the operation, two more decades to enhance his reputation as the kind of rogue spirit that no image-conscious American newspaper would hire today. It wasn't until Monday that his heart stopped for keeps. By then, he had logged 85 years on the planet and 70 years in newspapers, chasing winners, embracing losers, and defying the odds and propriety every step of the way. When he walked into the Chicago Sun-Times sports department for the first time after his heart operation, he came bearing a huge cake laden with whipped cream. But before anyone could take a bite of it, Feldman had a question to ask:
"Want to see my scar?"
If he hadn't existed, Damon Runyon would have had to invent him. He was straight out of "Guys and Dolls" and "The Lemon-Drop Kid." He wore a white tie with a black shirt, and in winter he earned extra style points by donning a raccoon coat. Maybe you couldn't have expected anything else from someone who, as a kid, had caddied for gangsters who carried a submachine gun in a spare golf bag.
To say Feldman was exotic even by the standards of newspapers 25 years ago is putting it mildly. He talked out of the side of his mouth, and he littered conversations with the horseplayer's eternal lament, "woulda, coulda, shoulda," and the solemn "If I'm lyin', I'm dyin'."
No one ever compared his prose with that of such celebrated horse racing writers as Joe Palmer of the New York Herald Tribune and Bill Nack of Newsday and Sports Illustrated, but it didn't matter. In Chicago, where newspaper wars were a way of life, Feldman's column and race picks were required reading for the people he hailed as his fellow Broken-Down Horseplayers.
The editors he worked for, being practical men, gladly counted themselves in that number. They looked the other way when Feldman was a walking conflict of interest, simultaneously writing, handicapping, owning horses, calling races and serving as president of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Assn.
Nor was a discouraging word spoken when, late one night at the Chicago Daily News, Feldman pushed two desks together outside the managing editor's office so he could climb aboard--with just a towel covering his bare, porcine frame--and receive a massage. It was his reward for having tipped a masseur to a winner.
Only one persistent critic surfaced in the ranks: a prep sportswriter who insisted that he sold more papers than Feldman. Their bickering began at the Daily News and reached surreal heights after the News folded and they were reunited at the Sun-Times.
"I read what you wrote today," the prep sportswriter said at the height of hostilities. "It stunk."
Feldman cackled with surprising glee. "At least you read me," he said. "I never read you."