It was during a conversation about restaurants, Italian food and his Sicilian roots that Bates Battaglia mentioned his grandfather.
He said the old man's name was Sam and that no, Sam was not in the food service industry like Bates' father, Richard.
The Toronto Maple Leafs forward was speaking softly and politely -- like he always seems to -- as he explained that Sam "took a different" path in life. He said if a reporter wanted to know what that path was, he could punch Sam Battaglia's name into the Internet and find out for himself.
Sam Battaglia embodied the American Dream. He was nobody when he started out, nothing more than a poor uneducated son of Italian immigrants scratching out a living on Chicago's rough-and-tumble west side.
By the time of his death in 1973, everybody in town knew the Battaglia name. Sam had made it. He went out on top. But his American Dream was lived out in a sinister and shadowy otherworld populated with two-bit hoods, killers for hire, politicians on the take, corrupt cops, compromised union bosses and a code of honour that was written in blood.
"Sam Battaglia was the Don of the Chicago mafia," says Jack Walsh, the special agent for the Internal Revenue Service who finally caught up with Battaglia in 1967 and sent him to jail for 15 years. "Battaglia's street name was Teets, and he ran the Chicago Outfit from his farm out west of the city."
Bates Battaglia never met his grandfather. He was born two years after the authorities released the old man from prison so he could die at home, quietly, a victim of cancer.
Bates' parents divorced when he was a little kid. He and his two brothers, Anthony and Sam, would spend the school year -- and hockey season -- in the Chicago area with their mom, Sandra. Once school was out, they headed to Florida where Richard had become a successful restaurateur.
Neither parent told the Battaglia boys much about their grandpa, beyond Richard telling them that his father had been "well-respected. And that he was one of the nicest men, and that that's the way a lot of people knew him." But the kids around Chicago knew otherwise. And they talked, as kids do. It was out on the street playing road hockey where Bates learned that the man he knew as Grandpa was a notorious mobster.
"This is my family," Bates says. "This is who I am, and this is where I came from. And I wouldn't change anything about it.
"I'm proud of who I am, and who my family are."
Sam Battaglia first drew notice in Chicago in 1930 when he committed a stop-the-presses-style crime. At the time, he was a member of the 42 Gang, a wild bunch of juvenile crooks who ran amuck in Al Capone's kingdom of sin, stealing cars, robbing cigar stands and holding up nightclubs in the hopes that the big boss was paying attention.
At the age of 22, Sam Battaglia pulled a gun on the wife of the mayor of Chicago, William Hale Thompson, and asked her to hand over her jewels. He left the scene with US$15,500 worth of shiny trinkets, plus the gun and badge of the woman's police escort. The authorities were unable to positively identify Battaglia as the culprit. But Capone and his cronies were indeed paying attention. In no time, the young gangster nicknamed Teets -- because he had had his front teeth knocked out -- was on his way up the organized-crime ladder.
Bates' father is Sam Battaglia's youngest son. Richard currently resides in Raleigh, N.C., the city to which he moved in 1999 after his boy made it with the Carolina Hurricanes.
Richard understood that young athletes tend to get rich before they get wise, so he encouraged Bates to put his money in to something he could touch, such as real estate. The hockey player, who turns 31 next week, now owns two condominiums, a beach house, a house, a bar and a building in Raleigh's restaurant district that he and his dad plan to transform into an upscale Italian eatery once he stops playing. "We want it to be a place where you're not coming in dressed like a bum," Bates says.
In the meantime, Richard tends to the bar -- Lucky B's -- and shops around for other potential investment opportunities in the Raleigh area. (When Bates is home for the summer, his father cooks dinner four times a week for he and his younger brother, Anthony, a winger with the Columbia (S.C.) Inferno of the East Coast Hockey League.)
Asked how the son of the one-time Don of the Chicago Outfit can be playing chef to his boys instead of running a crew of his own in Chicago and Richard, polite like Bates though more verbose, answers: "How do you know I wasn't? You are asking me something I can't talk about."
Richard will say that whatever he did is in "the past," that he is "not real proud of it," and that he has never been in jail. He is simply Bates' dad now, and happy to be that.
He was a star high school athlete in his own day. Football and baseball were his games. Much like his boys, he only learned of Sam's line of work when the kids in the neighbourhood started talking.
Richard remembers Steve Sullivan, an Irish brat with a big mouth who later became his best friend, making some crack about his father when they were playing baseball as 10 year olds. "I ran over to the dugout and started beating the s--- out of him," Richard says. "That was my dad he was talking about. Steve didn't know that hurt me. He was just a little kid and being a smart ass.
"What really hurt me was that I would see my dad on TV for certain things, and I didn't understand it."
To Richard, Sam was the father who came home every night to have dinner with his family. And on Friday nights, he was the dad who piled through the front door of his house with all his buddies in tow to partake in one of his mother's multi-course feasts. The men would sit around the big round basement table after dinner smoking cigars and talking.
Richard, Steve Sullivan, and the rest of the Oak Park Pony League baseball team made it to the 1960 World Series in Williamsport, Pa.
Richard remembers standing at home plate on a perfect sunny day, looking out to right field and seeing his father -- with a couple buddies in tow -- strolling along the fence line. "I got real excited -- and it kind of gets me now, just thinking about it," Richard says. "And don't you know it, I hit a home run right over their heads." The crime boss threw a big party for all the parents and the players after Oak Park won the championship game. There was lots of food and drinks. Sam paid for the whole thing.
Sam Battaglia had hit the big time, and was a millionaire several times over with a fortune built upon extortion, loan sharking, burglary and the Chicago Outfit's No. 1 moneymaker: gambling.
Battaglia's star in the Outfit's galaxy was approaching its zenith in the early 1960s. Sam (Momo) Giancana, Battaglia's old pal and a fellow graduate of the 42 Gang, was running the whole show. Giancana had brought La Cosa Nostra out of the back rooms of Little Italy and into the national spotlight. He was a friend of Frank Sinatra. He ran around with one of the singing McGuire sisters, and he allegedly held discussions with the CIA about putting a mob hit out on Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
Giancana was jailed in 1965 for refusing to testify before a federal grand jury. In his absence, Battaglia assumed control of the Outfit. By then, the Chicago mafia was a far-reaching and influential empire. "They could produce more money and votes for politicians than any other organization in Chicago or even Illinois," Walsh, the IRS special agent, says. "They had tremendous power. They had master control in Chicago."
Battaglia's command centre was an opulent racehorse farm he owned in Kane County. Every morning his driver, Jackie (the Lackey) Cerone, would pick Sam up at his home in Oak Park and take him out to the property.
Battaglia was an untouchable, and then he made a mistake.
The Outfit, with the help of some crooked people who held influential political offices, was extorting money from building contractors in Northlake, Ill. Rocco Pranno, a.k.a. Jim Martell, was running the operation with Battaglia's blessing. Construction would be halted midstream on a major project under the pretext that an engineering firm needed to review the contractor's plans. The builder was then charged a hefty fee to continue the work, leaving Pranno and his partners to divide the spoils.
It was not long after Battaglia replaced Giancana that the new boss replaced Pranno with Joe Amabile, a.k.a. Joe Shine. Pranno was not happy with the new arrangement. Neither were his associates. One of them started talking to Walsh. The mafia turncoat wound up being the government's star witness in a sensational 11-week trial that resulted in Battaglia's conviction on extortion and conspiracy charges. (The witness is still alive, and Walsh refuses to divulge his identity).
During the court case, the special agent's wife began receiving calls at home. The voice on the phone would describe in detail the clothing Walsh's children wore to school that day. Walsh approached his superiors about it, and a meeting was arranged with the defendant so prosecutors could inform Battaglia of what was happening on the outside. "The old mafia had a code," Walsh says. "This was the only time anyone heard Battaglia speak, except for me when he said he wouldn't talk to me. "But he told them: 'Tell the kid he doesn't have to worry any more. It won't happen again.' "And I never got another call."
Sam Battaglia was arrested 25 times in his life: for burglary, larceny, assault and attempted murder. He was also the prime suspect in seven unsolved homicides.
His grandson, Bates, is a winger of modest talent on a mediocre Toronto Maple Leafs team but a budding property baron/restaurant owner in Raleigh.
Bates' younger brother, Anthony, is still waiting for his NHL dream to come true.
His older brother, Sam, runs a successful chiropractic practice on Chicago's west side -- on the same street where his grandfather got his start. He has an 18-month-old son, also named Sam.
Bates says about the closest he and his brothers have come to a life of crime was a juvenile addiction to Martin Scorsese's mafia film, Goodfellas. "We were so in to that movie," he says. "You see that and the hype and what the [mobsters] get, and it looks like a cool lifestyle at points. "But any one who has actually been in that life, or around it, like my dad, will tell you that you have those guys who you think are your best friends and they will turn on you in a second."
Richard Battaglia likes to talk about the "circle of life," and about how amazing it is that a dirt-poor family from Sicily can come to Chicago to chase the American Dream and, within a few generations, produce two sons who are professional athletes and another who is dedicated to healing. "Listen," Richard says. "I am proud of my dad, and I love him more than anything, and I wish he was alive today to see this. "The old days are gone and past, and I'm gone and past, and this is the new era where the Battaglia boys are going to do a lot of good things. "And that's the way it is."
Thanks to Joe O'Connor
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