From Miami to the South Seas

“Here we go. . . .  Here’s your ballgame, folks, as Flutie takes the snap.  He drops straight back . . . has some time, now scrambles away from one hit . . . looks . . . uncorks a deep one to the end zone, Phelan is down there. . . . Oh! He got it!  Did he get it?  He got it!  Touchdown!  Touchdown!  Touchdown!  Touchdown!  Touchdown Boston College!  He did it!  He did it!  Flutie did it!  He got Phelan in the end zone!  Touchdown!  Oh my goodness. . . . What a play!  Flutie to Gerard Phelan! . . . No time on the clock, it’s all over!”

With this call, Dan Davis, longtime Boston College football radio announcer, immortalized the “Hail Flutie” last-second, improbable 47-45 victory of Boston College Eagles over the University of Miami Hurricanes on November 23, 1984.  With Boston College trailing with six seconds on the clock, Boston College quarterback, Doug Flutie, scrambled away from Miami’s defense and launched a Hail Mary pass 63 yards in the air against 30 mph winds.  Miami’s defense allowed Boston College receiver Gerard Phelan to run past them to the end zone where Phelan caught the game winning score.  The Miami defenders later stated that they did not believe that Flutie could throw the football that distance in those conditions.

Improbable?  Perhaps.  But the Miami defenders just witnessed a game with 919 yards of passing offense (Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie – 472 yards; Miami quarterback Bernie Koser – 447 yards).  The game included total offense output of 1,282 yards under hurricane like conditions.  Gerard Phelan alone, who caught the Hail Flutie pass, accounted for 227 receiving yards.  The quarterbacks combined for 84 pass attempts.  No defender should have taken either offense for granted, especially these quarterbacks on that day.  Improbable or not, this college football game between two top-ranked teams playing before a national television audience the day after Thanksgiving, remains a defining moment in both the legend of Boston College football as well as among the most memorable sports moments ever.

Yet, I suggest that the Boston College football program played a much more consequential game decades before on November 28, 1942.  Boston College entered the big game in 1942 against then rival, Holy Cross.  Boston College, then ranked No. 1 in college football and posting a record of 8 wins and 0 losses, remained heavily favored to easily dispose of Holy Cross at Fenway park.  Holy Cross stood as Boston College’s sole obstacle to an invitation to the national championship game in the Sugar Bowl.

This 1942 Boston College squad deserved high praise.  In reaching a record of 8-0, Boston College outscored all adversaries by a combined score of 249-19.  Boston College scored more than 31 points per contest while limiting challengers to fewer than 3 points each game.  Of the eight wins, Boston College shut out five opponents.  After defeating Wake Forest on October 24 by a score of 27-0, the sports section of the Raleigh, North Carolina News & Observer ran the headline: “Baptists Beaten in Boston Battle”.  Great alliteration, but try to get away that headline today!

Preparations were in place for this lead-in game to an invitation to the Sugar Bowl.  After the Holy Cross game, the celebration would continue throughout Boston culminating at the Coconut Grove nightclub.  Coconut Grove, the multi-story Polynesian themed nightclub could accommodate the anticipated crowds of fans as well as the sailors on leave from the Naval fleet docked a few blocks away in Boston Harbor.  The Boston College football team would show up late that evening to the anticipated cheers and adoration of all.  What could possibly go wrong?

Apparently, no one advised Holy Cross of the invincible nature of the 1942 Boston College Eagles.  Holy Cross embarrassed Boston College by a score of 55-12 thereby dashing all national title aspirations.  All celebrations were abruptly cancelled, including the alumni, fans, students and football players gathering at the Coconut Grove.

Not to worry at the Coconut Grove.  19 naval vessels remained at port in Boston Harbor providing ample patronage for the nightclub.  The crowds would even be larger as many enjoyed some time off for the Thanksgiving weekend.  Having lived in Boston for a number of years, I speculate that at least some Boston College fans might still seek to attend the festivities at establishments such as the Coconut Grove even with a Boston College football loss.

Indeed, on Saturday night, November 28, 1942, as many as 1,000 people packed Coconut Grove to enjoy the South Seas ambience.  Coconut Grove offered large dining rooms, dance areas, and cocktail lounges.  Floor shows would begin about 10:30 p.m. to make certain that guests remained well-entertained into the night.

The basement level of the Coconut Grove housed the Melody Lounge.  At about 10:15 p.m., a small fire started in a corner of the Melody Lounge.  Once flames hit the South Seas paper decorations and fake palm trees, fire raced up the walls and across the ceiling covered with additional, flammable decorations.  Heavy black smoke filled the basement with both smoke and flames quickly traveling upstairs to the street level and the main dining room.

As shouts of “Fire!” rang out, electricity at the club was lost.  A witness who survived the fire, Navy Lt. John Edwards, noted: “it seemed that when the lights went out, everybody’s intellect went with them.”  Unfortunately, it appears that Coconut Grove included only two operational exits:  the main revolving door and an inward opening door.  The revolving door became jammed almost instantly overwhelmed by the rush of hundreds of patrons trying to escape.  The second exit did not fare any better with the wall of people pushing to flee through limited space.

With billowing black smoke, many could not even get out of the basement level Melody Lounge.  Smoke filling the main levels added to the chaos in the darkness.  492 people died in the Coconut Grove fire.  The cause of death of most – asphyxiation.  For those trapped in the Melody Lounge, extreme burns caused the most deaths.  Yet, many died due to injuries suffered while trying to escape.  These victims were trampled to death by their fellow patrons.

The occupancy limit at the Coconut Grove nightclub was fewer than the 492 people who lost their lives that evening.  On that fateful night, 1,000 patrons packed in Coconut Grove.  Coconut Grove did have additional doors.  However, to maximize the areas for paying guests, these other doorways were blocked or obscured for club operation.  One door with a “panic” lock designed to release in the event of emergency had been bolted shut.

Fire investigators could not assign a specific cause to the Coconut Grove fire.  Suspicion followed busboy Stanley Tomasewski who was in the area of fire origin to change a decorative light bulb.  Tomasewski admitted to lighting a match to assist with light bulb replacement in a dark corner, but denied starting the fire.  The fire department could not connect Tomasewski’s actions with the fire.

Even greater suspicion followed Coconut Grove club owner Barnett Welansky.  Despite failure to meet fire codes concerning occupancy limits and intentionally blockading exits, no actions were initially taken against Welansky.  Welansky remained close to Boston Mayor Maurice Tobin with this association bringing into question the zeal with which officials “investigated” the fire.  In addition, Welansky, a lawyer, possessed a long-standing relationship with his client Charles Solomon.  Upon his death a few years earlier, Solomon, a known mafia boss, transferred ownership of Coconut Grove to Welansky.  Close ties to top politicians and mob bosses with no real investigation pursued?  Tough to believe.

Nonetheless, removed from these local pressures, the Navy conducted its own, independent investigation determining that fault rested with Welansky in failing to comply with fire codes.  Further, the Navy found that Welansky expanded Coconut Grove without building permits or authorization from City officials.  These expansions failed to meet minimum code requirements and played into the poor safety conditions already in place.

With these public findings by the Navy and corresponding public outrage, the state opened a criminal investigation into Welansky.  A grand jury returned an indictment charging that Welansky failed to comply with building standards and allowed overcrowding.  A trial resulted in the conviction of Welansky on 19 counts of manslaughter.  Charged to serve 15 years, Welanksy spent but months behind bars only to be released for his supposed “failing health”.

The state charged nine others including a Boston firefighter lieutenant, police captain, building inspector and employees of the nightclub.  These officials and employees secured acquittals.

The fire commissioner did propose various measures to improve safety in public buildings designed to enhance the chances of escape in the event of emergency.  Chief among the these recommendations were installation of automated sprinkler systems and use of powered, illuminated EXIT signs.  Those recommendations served as the basis for establishment of new public safety codes adopted by municipalities and states over the next decade.

Doug Flutie’s 63 yard, last-second pass to Gerard Phelan will remain “The Pass” for college football fans.  This 1984 victory over Miami rightfully resides at the zenith of Boston College football lore.  And yet, Boston College’s 55-12 loss to Holy Cross in 1942 proves more impactful.  Absent that 1942 loss, hundreds of additional patrons would have been in attendance at Coconut Grove on that Saturday evening.  Many students and perhaps even the entire football team would have been present at the ill-fated nightclub.  Additional loss of life, while difficult to imagine, surely would have been a reality.

Wooden theater houses existed since the late 1590s, illuminated with open-flame oil lamps.  Movie houses existed since the early 1900s.  Certainly, it should have dawned on someone prior to 1942 that well-placed, illuminated EXIT signs should be mandatory in public settings.  It is of little solace to the families of the 492 who perished in the Coconut Grove tragedy that this loss served as the impetus for part of the modern public safety system.

In Estate Planning, we do consider legacy impacts.  None of my clients will throw a 63 yard Hail Mary pass on national television to salvage a victory in a flash moment establishing their legacy.  Nonetheless, some of these clients encountered the pain of tragedy as did the family members of the 492 Coconut Grove victims.  These clients desire to do something, anything, to seek to prevent their own tragedy being repeated for others.

For these clients, we consider charitable gifting to organizations and institutions to tackle the underlying problems.  We also evaluate establishing longer lasting foundations with educational, research, or action goals to address these issues.  For these clients, seeking solutions to, and prevention of, their own tragedies represents a step on the path forward.  These efforts become their own legacy, just as important and impactful as any football contest.

Doug Flutie won the Heisman Trophy in 1984.  The voting for the Heisman concluded prior to the Boston College vs University of Miami football game.  Even so, this Miracle in Miami cemented Flutie’s legacy.  Years later, Doug Flutie reflected on the Hail Flutie pass.  Flutie opined: “Without the Hail Mary pass, I think I would have been very easily forgotten.  We would have gone to the same bowl game, the Heisman voting was already in, and the direction of my career set.  Everything would have been the same, except that pass put this label on me as ‘it’s never over ’till it’s over’ guy.”

I suspect Flutie may be correct in this self-assessment.  Everyone knows Doug Flutie.  A few can name Gerard Phelan as the trivia answer to who caught The Pass.  No one can readily name other players from the 1984 Boston College football team.  No names from the 1942 Boston College football team immediately come to mind.  No legend or legacy plays capped a comeback against the underdog, Holy Cross.  The Boston College faithful crowds had no reason to gather at the Coconut Grove nightclub on November 28, 1942.  Losing that football game is a legacy for the 1942 Boston College football players worth cheering.

50 Years and 90 Million

Fifty years ago in 1973, over 90 million Americans placed their lives on pause to take in a major event.  Were they recognizing the Paris Peace Accords bringing an end to the participation of the United States in Vietnam?  No.  Were they celebrating or protesting the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade?  Not even close.  Did they gather to figure out how to address OPEC’s 200% increase in the price of oil?  Nah.  Perhaps they joyously cheered on Secretariat becoming the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years?  Nope, but getting closer.

September 20 represents the fifty year anniversary of the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs.  Before 30,472 fans in attendance at the Houston Astrodome and 90 million television viewers, Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs in straight sets (6-4, 6-3, 6-3) in this captivating, cultural exhibition tennis match.

Foremost, consider the viewership of 90 million in 1973.  Those figures rival current Super Bowl numbers.  In 1973, merely 50 million people watched the Super Bowl with the 90 million mark in viewership for the Super Bowl not achieved until the 1990s.  1973 television, quite simply, had not developed into the mega-entertainment medium which we take for granted today.  Across the country, television markets consisted of CBS, NBC and ABC national networks with some local stations in the mix.  Cable television remained an infant.  Many Americans received their news and sports over transistor radios or through newspaper accounts.  The King-Riggs match represented so much more than tennis for America in 1973 America.

1973 witnessed the Equal Rights movement in full swing.  Congress would not pass the Equal Rights Amendment to the United States Constitution with a state-by-state battle then set to determine if the ERA would be adopted.  The Battle of the Sexes tennis match hit at the heart of the cultural hot buttons of the time.

Billie Jean King, then 29 years old already with ten Grand Slam titles under her belt, played the determined underdog, well-focused on the task of defeating Bobby Riggs.  But every good tale needs a villain – enter Bobby Riggs.  Riggs, then 55 years old and well past his prime, had defeated tennis star Margaret Court earlier in 1973.  He viewed this new tennis match with King with disdain.

Leading up to the match, the outspoken Riggs embraced the male chauvinist role with quotes to the Press such as: “she’s a woman and they don’t have the emotional stability.”  Riggs added this gem: “women belong in the bedroom and the kitchen, in that order.”  Riggs channeled his inner P.T. Barnum to drum up interest in the tennis match.

Riggs’ showmanship continued during the match itself.  Riggs entered the tennis court via rickshaw surrounded by statuesque women.  He wore a warm up jacket with “Sugar Daddy” emblazoned across the back.  To show his contempt, Riggs wore the warm up jacket for the first three games of the first set of the match.  However, unlike his match against Margaret Court earlier that year, Riggs clearly appeared out of shape for the battle with King.  Billie Jean King rather easily volleyed shots past Riggs en route to her straight sets victory.

Billie Jean King used this new, larger than life, podium to help create the Women’s Tennis Association.  She threatened to boycott the U.S. Open Tennis Championship unless male and female athletes received equal pay.  The U.S. Open became the first major tennis tournament, and perhaps first major professional athletic championship, to offer equal prize money among the sexes.  King continued as a staunch advocate for equal rights, ultimately retiring in 1984 with 39 Grand Slam titles in singles and doubles championships.

As for Bobby Riggs, he made a lifelong friend in Billie Jean King until his death in 1993.  Many believed that this genuine, respectful friendship confirmed the extreme chauvinism as an act by Riggs leading up to the Battle of the Sexes.  But was there more?

Almost as quickly as the 1973 tennis match concluded, the rumors of Riggs throwing the match began to circulate.  Do not mistake, Billie Jean King outplayed Riggs in every manner possible.  Riggs simply did not appear as himself and completely out of shape for a match of this caliber.  Even before the historic encounter on the court, Riggs was a well-known gambler in Las Vegas.  He placed wagers on all sports, including events in which he participated.  Indeed, given his reputation as a gambler, the London sports parlors refused to offer wagering on the King-Riggs tennis match.

Vegas had no problem offering odds on the big match.  The oddsmakers installed Riggs as a heavy favorite.  The male oddsmakers figured that Riggs was a man battling a woman.  More seriously, Riggs had beaten then tennis number 1, Margaret Court, rather handily but a few months earlier.  Riggs could certainly handle a “lesser” opponent in tennis number 2, Billie Jean King.

The training regimen for Riggs leading up to that September included meeting with reporters and bad-mouthing women in general.  Announcer Howard Cowell quickly commented how Riggs appeared out of shape.  Riggs could not run down shots which he easily had done a few months earlier.  The heavily favored Riggs was in trouble from the first serve.  Who could gain with such an embarrassing loss by Riggs?

Of course, the group who bet heavily on “the girl” with favorable odds could clean up — the Mafia.  The Mob would need Riggs to throw the match.  Motive supposedly existed for Riggs.  Allegedly, Riggs owed the mob $100,000 in gambling debts.  To pay off the debt, Riggs had to beat up on Margaret Court which would drive up interest for a bigger match with Billie Jean King.  Riggs would then lose spectacularly to the underdog King with significant Mafia money bet on the underdog.  Such conspiracies easily come to mind after events have passed and all the pieces nicely fit in place.

Enter Hal Shaw.  Shaw worked as an assistant golf pro at a Tampa, Florida country club frequented by Mafia types.  Naming names, Shaw detailed meetings he witnessed and heard among these esteemed country club members.  Riggs’ $100,000 debt would be forgiven if he could defeat Court and lose to King.  Shaw waited until 2013 when he was on death’s doorstep to reveal these events he witnessed 40 years earlier.

Shaw’s account remains plausible when viewed in a certain light.  Riggs, a professional athlete his entire adult life, understood that preparing for any tennis match against any other professional player – male or female – required training.  In fact, even at age 55, Riggs seriously dedicated himself in preparation for his match with Margaret Court.    Thereafter, for the next four months, Riggs did not train for the over-hyped Battle of the Sexes.  Perhaps Riggs’ ego got the better of him.  However, this same ego did not get in the way in all the decades leading up to this event.  Seems unlikely.

After the Battle of the Sexes, Bobby Riggs spent most of his days tied in some manner to the gambling industry.  He served as a casino greeter and functioned as a resident celebrity at casinos.  The gambling and gaming bug never left him.  These facts in no manner establish or suggest that Riggs intentionally failed to prepare for his tennis match with Billie Jean King.  They do, nonetheless, confirm that Riggs operated comfortably within this Mafia-influenced environment.

Mob-influenced or otherwise, the King-Riggs tennis match in 1973 placed front and center equal rights issues among genders.  King nicely parlayed the event to achieve a degree of equality for the sexes at least in the world of tennis.  Fifty years later, we find the inequality of wages, inequality of opportunities, and inequality of promotions among the  sexes merely a footnote in the history books having achieved complete equality.  Oh.  Wait.  Perhaps we need another tennis match.

Honorable Mention in the Sports World for September 20.

In Baltimore, Maryland, in the final home game in the 1998 baseball season, on September 20, 1998, Cal Ripken, Jr., removes his name from the starting lineup of the Baltimore Orioles.  This step concluded The Streak of 2,632 consecutive baseball games in which Cal Ripken, Jr., started.  Ripken, humbly, always claimed that whether he started remained the Manager’s decision.  As his Manager noted with a healthy sense of history: “Only Cal or God can end the streak.”

In Estate Planning, we rarely address culturally altering events such as the Battle of the Sexes.  We do, nonetheless, address life altering or life changing circumstances.  Those leaving bequests and distributions appreciate that these gifts could alter life trajectories of others and may influence the paths of many others.  Whether through Statements of Intent, Distribution Guidelines, or Guidance to Trustees, messaging may accompany such gifts.

Perhaps we do not have – and do not want – an audience of 90 million.  Our work remains focused on more limited audiences of a few loved ones or charities.  I am OK with that dynamic and the critical differences we can achieve for others.