Racing loses a gem: ‘Muggins’ Feldman, 89

July 10, 2001 6:20 AM
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   “HOW LONG WERE YOU IN NEW GUINEA?” That was one of Milton “Muggins” Feldman’s favorite greetings. He used it nearly every time he was approached by someone who was confused and seeking his help. They never went away empty, but they always had to hear his New Guinea dialogue.

   Muggins or Muggsy served during World War II. He was a sergeant in the Army and stationed in New Guinea. They were confusing times for a young, Jewish Baltimorian who grew up in a non-Jewish neighborhood. He had to be tough. He had to be scrappy. He earned his nickname.

   Muggins left us recently. In the world of horse racing, where he was a beloved veteran publicist, he was the best of the best. If the 89-year-old sweetheart of a guy were able to describe his life, he would likely say:

   “I went the distance, Chuck, don’t be sad.”

   I first met Muggs in the early 1960s at Delaware Park. Bryan Fields, a legendary racetrack impresario, was famous for his pre-opening press parties at the Stanton, Delaware racetrack. Bryan and Muggs had plenty of connections with the New York working press. All the swells in the business attended. An enormously large tent was pitched on the track grounds ”” just in case it rained. Good booze flowed like water. The food was tops.

   I was a rookie sports writer with the Norristown Times Herald. I wasn’t invited. But, veteran sports editor Red McCarthy was. Red could not attend. I attempted to become his delegate. Upon arriving, I ran smack into Muggins. He had a keen sense of detecting gatecrashers. When I assured him that I was really pinch hitting for Red, he smiled, shook his head in disbelief and said, “Go get a drink!”

   That was the beginning of a long friendship.

   My first job on the racetrack was working as an assistant to Muggs. His beloved wife, Sandy, and I shared the outer office at Bowie Race Course. Another assistant was the famous announcer Morris Toby. He worked out of the press box for Muggins when the New Jersey tracks were closed. And, Muggs’ close friends came calling regularly. They included Eddie McCann, Charlie Radar and a bevy of trainers who came into the office wanting to know if the bar was open. Muggs kept a stash of booze in his private office ”” lower big drawer to the right. It was opened daily after the last race and a parade of turf writers climbed aboard to imbibe with Muggins and wait for the traffic to thin out.

   Eddie McCann was a special friend. He and Muggs grew up together on East Edgar Street. It was located on the East Side of Baltimore in a section known as the Tenth Ward. In the early days, Muggins sold tickets at the racetrack. McCann bet the money. Every time they tapped out, McCann tried to find a better paying job for Muggins. The late Red Smith, the legendary sports writer of the New York Herald Tribune, memorialized Muggs and Eddie in a story named “Moe and Joe.”

   There were times when Muggs’ opened his bar before the races were over. Whenever Don Lillis was in attendance, the bar opened early. He was a Big Rich. Not only did he own Bowie, he also claimed the New York Jets as a prized possession along with Sonny Werblin. They will always be remembered as the founders of football’s Million Dollar Babies when they drafted Joe Namath in 1964 and gave him a three-year contract that paid Joe an unheard of $427,000 a year.

   I knew Mr. Lillis as a dear friend of Muggins. When he came calling at Bowie he arrived in his own private train car. It used to pull right into the parking lot, less than 50 feet away from the publicity office. His first stop ”” without fail ”” was to climb aboard with Muggins in his private office for a little jolt before the races. Did I tell you that he also owned Pabst Blue Ribbon? I’m sure it explained why Muggins always kept a stock of chilled Pabst in his office refrigerator.

   Looking back ”” sadly ”” most of the above are no longer with us. Sandy and Toby are gone. So is Bowie. Eddie,

Charlie and plenty of the others have all left us. And now, Muggins Feldman. His death did not go unnoticed. Turf writers paid tribute.

   “He was a happy-go-lucky guy who was loved by everyone,” said former News America turf writer Charles Lamb (we used to call him Lambie Pie). “In his day, he was an excellent athlete and one of the best amateur basketball players (Young Men’s Hebrew Association) in the city.”

   Dale Austin, former Baltimore Sun racing writer, “Racetrack publicity guys are a special breed. And, Muggs was the best.

   “He was always Sgt. Muggins to me. Like everyone else, I loved him dearly. He was very direct with people and could spot a phony a mile away. If you wanted a pass to the races at any of the many tracks he worked (Bowie, Laurel, Pimlico, Havre de Grace, Freehold, Atlantic City, Garden State and, don’t forget, Sunshine Park.) Muggins was the man. But, you’d better be legit,” said Joe Kelly, retired newspaperman, now historian at Pimlico.

   “Muggins was the wisest, sweetest man I ever knew. I remember him from years ago at Sunshine Park when I first came on the racetrack,” said Eddie McMullen, one of Muggs’ retired aides-de-camp.

   Former SUN turfwriter Bill Boniface could not be reached for a comment, but he certainly would of had one, as he too was a Muggins fan.

   Across the board and across the years I’ve had a number of mentors. None ever lived up to Muggins Feldman. He took me under his wing and made me a better man. With his death, racing lost the last of a dying breed of great tub-thumpers. Scribes from Maine to Spain lost a great source. He always had a good story to help fill the hole.

   I will miss him dearly.

   Shalom.