It was a glorious spring day in 1962 as I sat in the Wilmington Country Club caddyshack, hoping my name would be called soon and I would have a chance to earn ten bucks lugging two heavy golf bags around the South Course. Unfortunately the good players like the Denham brothers, Tom Evans and Dr. Gehret had already teed off. I assumed I had fallen victim again to caddyshack politics. It seemed like Angie the caddymaster had a bias towards the adult caddies (most of whom hailed from Wilmington’s “Little Italy”) for the plum assignments and it looked like today was no different. (Was it possible they were actually the best caddies?) Except that riding the bench with me that day was the premier caddy of them all, Gigi Pantalone. Maybe Gigi had a fight with Angie – he was known to express his opinion and challenge Angie if he was not happy and perhaps Angie had decided to teach him a lesson.
Suddenly Angie was staring down at the motley crew lined up on the bench and barked out his orders, “Gigi….Riley” (four teenagers start to rise off the bench), “No, you other Rileys sit down” (there were about 12 assorted Rileys caddying at WCC). “John Riley, you and Gigi are going with Mr. Weymouth.”I scrambled out of the ‘bull pen’ as we called the caddy holding area to follow Gigi. Mr. Weymouth was George T. Weymouth, one of the most prominent members of the club, but I did not understand what was meant by “we were going with him.”
In the circle at the front of the club, Mr. Weymouth pulled up in a long Mercedes limo. He got out and began to explain to Gigi what was about to happen – I may as well have been another golf bag. He had three guests with him from England and as we drove out of the long club driveway, he told them about Gigi’s service in WWII. The guests asked Gigi about things like his military unit and they all seemed to quickly become fast friends. Of course Gigi was loud and smiling as always and clearly enjoying the recognition.
Just a minute or two north on Route 52 we turned right onto a driveway and a guard came out and waived Mr. Weymouth through. We were now on the property familiar to everyone today as Winterthur. Before I knew it we were out of the limo and standing on the first tee of Henry F. du Pont’s private golf course. I felt like I had entered the twilight zone. I had heard rumors that one of the duPonts had their own golf course, but it was only a rumor.
As we gathered around the first tee, I was looking out across the vastness of the golf course and Winterthur and we were the only humans on the grounds. I have never forgotten Mr. Weymouth’s words as he began to tee up his ball, “Gentleman, I apologize that I could not host you the last time you visited the US, but Henry was using the course that day.” They all roared with laughter.
Back in the 1990s, I attended what I believe was the last of the Wilmington Country Club caddy banquets – this time as a member. Seated at the table was my son Tim, Gigi Pantalone and his son Rocky and Gene DiSabatino, a man I caddied for many times as a boy. Rocky had by this time succeeded his father as the dean of caddies. Just as I had learned some of the trade from Gigi, my son and his buddies were learning from Rocky. And not just about caddying – they were also learning to expand their vocabulary beyond what they were receiving in Catholic school.
As a kid, I was always a bit intimidated by Mr. DiSabitino, the prominent Delaware businessman, but tonight all were relaxed and swapping “caddyshack” stories with Gigi. We reminisced about colorful characters with names like Lurky, Frog, Hey Man and many more.
My guess is that the “caddyshack” at WCC in the 60s had a subculture that few members ever realized existed right under their nose. There was an invisible divide along ethnic and generational lines. At the time, it also appeared to some of us that caddymaster Angie was a less than benevolent dictator that nearly everyone except his unofficial lieutenants complained about behind his back. He enforced an unwritten code of conduct by threatening to send you “down the road” if you stepped out of line. But I must admit it was good training for the gentlemen I would meet immediately after finishing college – they were known as “drill sergeants.”
The second largest ethnic group in the caddyshack was the Irish, consisting mostly of the Rileys, Murphys and a few Lynchs. There were five Murphy brothers and a dozen assorted Rileys caddying at Wilmington in the 60s including three of my brothers and at least eight first cousins and an uncle. Uncle Tom, the former WWII Marine quietly kept us in line, although my cousin Ernie managed to tangle with Angie and others when things did not go his way. Even as a teenager Ernie was one of the top caddyshack gamblers and took his earnings each day and headed off to Delaware Park.
In addition to caddying on Henry F. du Pont’s private golf course I have two other indelible memories from my caddyshack days. The first occurred in August 1963 when the great Arnold Palmer came to WCC to play an exhibition. Few figures in sports history were bigger than Arnie in 1963. As I recall, tickets were $10 and caddies were not being encouraged to attend. As much as I wanted to see the acknowledged “King of Golf,” it was becoming clearer by the day that I would be sitting this one out. Of course I was dreaming that maybe I would be selected to caddy for Arnie – never knowing that Angie had already assigned the job to Frog Rubini.
The day before the big event when all hope seemed lost, James Chandler of Chandler’s Funeral Homes asked me if I would like to see Arnie and handed me a ticket. It was not just the $10 cost that meant so much, but the fact that the invitation to attend came from a member, enabling me to get around the fact that I was caddy. I suspect Angie was not happy and I felt like a trespasser the next day waiting with the members for Arnie to be announced on the practice tee.
Watching Arnold Palmer play that day was all I thought it would be and more – and from that day forward I would always count myself as a member of “Arnie’s Army.” After the round, I fought through a crowd of kids and adults and handed Arnie my ticket which he autographed. I carried that ticket in my wallet for nearly 20 years.
(As a footnote to this story, I was fortunate to be in the company of Mr. Palmer, now age 84, just a few weeks ago, thanks to Delaware’s own Dr. Howdy Giles. The good doctor, who is reputed to have taken more than a million photos of Arnie over the last forty years had promised to take one more with my daughter Carie if we could arrange to be in Bay Hill, Florida on March 7. We were headed down to take in a couple of Phillies games in Clearwater and drove to Orlando for the day for the big event. I have to admit I felt as nervous as when I was a caddy trying to get the “King’s” autograph, but Howdy and Arnie could not have been more gracious. The only thing I could think to say to Arnie was that I saw him in Wilmington in 1963. He said, “I remember that.”)
The other memory burned into my brain was a far less pleasant memory than Arnold Palmer. On Sunday morning, November 24th that same year, my father asked me why I was still at home and not on my way to caddy. Like the rest of the country I was a bit in shock and riveted to the grainy black and white TV screen watching every second of news coverage in the aftermath of President Kennedy’s assassination. I said, “Dad, no one will be playing golf today.” He then gave me that look fathers sometimes give to sons, and I was up and out of the house.
When I got to Wilmington Country Club, it was as quiet as I had ever seen it. While a few golfers had gone out, the caddy/golfer ratio was clearly overweighted with caddies. Knowing my trip out Route 52 was bound to be unproductive, I settled in with the other caddies watching TV as they were preparing to move the assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, from his cell. One of my cousins called me out of the caddyshack and as I began to talk to him, one of the DiTomasso brothers came running out of the building, screaming, “They just shot Oswald… they just shot Oswald!” At that moment it seemed like the world was coming apart at the seams.
A few years later following my freshman year at the University of Delaware, I was lying in bed on a Sunday morning aching after another night on the graveyard shift in the infamous “body shop” at the Newark Chrysler plant. I heard the phone ring and my mother was calling to me that Uncle Tom was on the phone. In addition to caddying to support his nine kids, Uncle Tom drove a tractor trailer for the old Huber Baking Company located in the heart of “Little Italy.” He told me they might have an opening on the bread assembly line at Huber’s and that if interested, I should hustle over there and talk to Jack the foreman. He then added, “Johnny, Jack is Angie the caddymaster’s brother.” I rushed out to catch the 4-1 bus across town and went in to find Jack, worried that somehow the Angie connection was going to be a problem. First question from Jack was, “Heard you caddy at Wilmington – do you know my brother Angie?” I said, “Yes, sir” to which Jack responded, “Good, you have the job if you can start today.” I learned that day that caddyshack politics can work both ways.