Sheik Caputo never saw Paris or the Pyramids, but he did make it to New York for the 1956 World Series, and that was as far as he ever wanted to travel. The Series was one of those sustaining events, like outrunning his son when 50 was on the horizon and the kid could fly. It gave him faith even though he was about as spiritual as his old Yankees cap. So when he was barely into his 90s, no one who knew the Sheik was surprised to hear him predict what would be the crowning achievement of his life: “I’m gonna be 100 years old.” Sometimes he said it to impress a pretty girl, sometimes because he was in the mood for a compliment about how good he looked for his age. And he did look good, still sporting impressive biceps and walking with a bounce in his step and a smile spread across a face that wouldn’t have been out of place on a Sicilian fishing boat. When his doctor told him he had the organs of a 37-year-old man, he took it to mean he might live forever. What he didn’t pause to consider was that all his other warranties were expiring. He wouldn’t have been the Sheik if he had.
He was a bootlegger’s son, a railroad machinist, a semipro first baseman, an up-before-dawn jogger, an improve-your-lie golfer, and a spinner of yarns. He coached baseball teams loaded with future professionals and dedicated drunks, and others made up of kids who puked when they took a chew of his Beechnut tobacco. Someone from the old days always seemed to be stopping by the tidy white frame house he called “The Dugout,” in the heart of Salt Lake City. They came to re-live games nobody else remembered, and the Sheik welcomed them to his back porch with pepperoni, cheese and ice-cold Coors. It was an ongoing reunion that provided the heartbeat for many a summer night. On Sundays there was the added attraction of watching the Sheik water his flowers by hand as his Mormon neighbors walked to their evening meeting a couple of blocks away. If they happened to get wet, he’d tell them they had just been baptized, make the sign of the cross and say, “God bless you.”
But the laughter that fueled those days and nights was gone as I drove up to The Dugout in 2013 and saw dirty patches of springtime snow on the lawn. The Sheik was closing in on 97 and living by himself, his solitude broken mostly when his son Kenny and two of his grandsons stopped by. His daughter Linda would fly up from her home in Southern California every month to clean the place, make sure the Sheik was eating right, and check to see if his restless hands had begun any projects that might lead to disaster. Now, a week after her latest visit, warned that he had grown bored and cranky, I walked up the front steps carrying his favorite Dairy Queen lunch of fried halibut, fries, and coleslaw. I knew he would be a little old man when he opened the door, and yet I still wasn’t prepared.
He’d never been a giant physically—5-foot-11 on a good day, 190 lbs. at his heaviest—but now he was hunched and shrunken. There was clutter everywhere, the dining room table buried under mail and and newspapers, so we dragged chairs into the living room and sat with our plates in our laps. The Sheik asked what kind of car I’d rented, the way he always did, and he fussed about the state of his Yankees, lavish with praise for “that Jeter,” highly skeptical of “that A-Rod.” All the while I was thinking of the care facility his children were hoping to find for him, and how this might be the last time I set foot in his house. The first time had been in 1958, when he was Mr. Caputo to me, my friend Kenny’s father, the neighbor on the corner. In the years since, he had become one of my best friends, my guide to life whether he realized it or not, an unlikely mentor before mentors were invented.
Shifting from subject to subject as he picked at his lunch, the Sheik finally settled on the stereo console he had just given his audiophile grandson Joey. It had been a gift from Linda 40-odd years before, and there was a distinct possibility he had never listened to it. Joey had promised to swing by on the day he took possession and help his grandfather get it out of the house, but Joey’s idea of being on time wasn’t the same as the Sheik’s. Ignoring the fact that the console was the size of a Mini Cooper, the Sheik dragged it out of the master bedroom, down the hallway and through the living room. He was halfway onto the front porch when it got wedged in the door, and there it stayed as a chilly wind reminded him that Joey still hadn’t shown up. The Sheik could swear like a drill sergeant, and I’m sure he swore then. But whatever he said turned into an answered prayer when a fetching female grad student who had moved into the duplex across the street saw the fix he was in and came over to help.
“You oughta seen this girl,” the Sheik said. Then he was out of his chair and out the door. “Come on, maybe she’s home.”
It was all I could do to catch up with him as he barreled into the street.
“Sheik,” I said, “watch out for cars.”
“Aw, they’ll stop.”
Moving to Salt Lake City from Los Angeles was every bit as bewildering as it sounds, like falling asleep watching Singin’ in the Rain and waking up in the middle of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. On the drive there in October of ’58, my mother, a Minnesota farm girl raised amid rolling fields of grain and corn, was the first to sound off, dismissing every farm she saw as “scrappy.” But the difference didn’t register on me until we reached Salt Lake and I saw one of its main drags, State Street, torn up for a storm drain project. How far behind the civilized world, I wondered, was this wide spot in the road where my father was taking us? He said nothing, most likely because he was thinking about his new job as a hotel catering manager. In a town full of Mormons, he knew who was atop the list of people he’d have to please.
Still, on our first Sunday night in the house we were renting, even he couldn’t hide his surprise when my mother answered a knock on the front door and found herself staring at three achingly earnest boys about my age wearing short-sleeved white shirts, dark trousers, and ties that had to be clip-ons. They said they wanted to be sure we knew where the ward was. “What’s the ward?” my mother asked. I wonder to this day if the boys had ever been asked that question before. Surely they had never been on the receiving end of a look like the one my mother gave them when they stuttered something about a ward being a place where—my interpretation here—you better worship if you want a guaranteed ticket to heaven. My mother didn’t wait to watch the boys slink away before she closed the door on them.
In that moment, my parents, born and baptized Lutherans, must have realized they would be outsiders for as long as they stayed in Salt Lake. It was my good fortune, on the other hand, to have a junior high school to go to even if its hallways were littered with kids made weird by religion and aspiring felons. I lived in a cocoon of my own invention, a place where I could memorize big league batting averages and treat myself to fantasies about the cute girls at school who looked right through me. I went to a different junior high the next year and high school the year after that, and once my head stopped spinning because of all the moves, I made lifelong friends who were Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Presbyterian as well as Mormon. But my great emancipator, though I didn’t realize it then and he never bothered to give it a thought, was Frank Caputo, AKA the Sheik.
He was what my father never could have been, a rogue in a white T-shirt and the green work pants he called his “Mexican gabardines.” My father, on the other hand, worked in a suit-and-tie world and lavished everyone he met with grace, charm, and a disarming Danish accent. “What a gentleman,” the Sheik said. “He always called me Mr. Caputo.”
But my father left it at that and I got on with finding my own way in life, which was how things were done in those days. There was little of the parental hovering or second-guessing that afflicts kids whose dreams are shaped by sports today. There was just a guy called the Sheik playing pepper with Kenny and me in an era of World Series day games. After the Yankees and the Milwaukee Braves had wrapped up the latest chapter in their battle, we took turns lobbing a ball 10 or 12 feet to the Sheik and he rapped sharp grounders back at us with a bat he said he’d used when he played semipro. “Christ,” he whooped, “I could get out of bed on Christmas morning and hit a line drive.” I’d never seen an adult have quite so much fun, and the Sheik made sure he spread the fun around. He doted on Kenny’s fast hands—“The Duke,” he called him—and when I made a nifty backhand stop, he shouted, “Look at that John handle the glove.”
But once the last grounder had been scooped up, the magic of that afternoon faded until the following spring. The Sheik saw me wandering aimlessly around the neighborhood one afternoon and uttered the words that would change my life as a kid and provide the foundation for our friendship: “Come on, let’s go down to Muni and see who’s playing.” Municipal Park, four blocks away, was big enough to hold three baseball diamonds where everybody from Little Leaguers to the ex-pros and collegians in the Salt Lake Amateur Federation played seven days a week. What the Sheik and I found there was a high school game and one very unhappy coach. I don’t remember why he was unhappy, but I do remember how startled I was when the Sheik hollered at him: “Hell, that ain’t serious.” The coach’s frown grew deeper as he looked our way and said, “The hell it’s not, Sheik.”
It turned out they had both grown up on Salt Lake’s humble west side and played semipro ball against each other in the Utah Industrial League. The coach had made it all the way to a professional’s paycheck in the Class C Pioneer League, where he collided with the limits of his ability. And yet baseball still defined his life. He belonged to the same brotherhood that remembered the Sheik for the last home run he hit out of Salt Lake’s old Derks Field. “This scout from the White Sox come up afterward and wanted to sign me,” the Sheik said. “He couldn’t believe it when I told him I was 38.” Maybe the Sheik was talking because he cherished the memory or maybe he was simply trying to entertain a kid whose loneliness shone like a flare on a starless night. Either way, he would have had to be a mind reader to see the world I imagined as I listened to him, a world full of baseball players and big games at Muni and stories that lived long after the last out had been made. I wanted to be part of that world. I wanted it to consume me, anoint me, give me an identity.
My transformation began in the Sheik’s basement when he hauled out his barber’s shears and cut off all of Kenny’s hair, then all of mine. Decades later, the Sheik still laughed about the reaction his handiwork got from my mother, who apparently wasn’t familiar with the concept of hair growing back. “She chewed my ass out,” he said. Bald as a doorknob, I began playing baseball with a passion I’d never before devoted to it. In L.A. I’d been content to play catch with my dad until I made a Little League team when I was 11. But in Salt Lake, in the summer of 1959, I was a Cops League outfielder in the morning and a Parks League third baseman in the afternoon. When the Sheik’s son and I weren’t in uniform for our teams, we played over-the-line and three flies up and hung around Muni in the evenings to watch amateur powerhouses like Flinco, Ted’s Glass, and the Tooele Red Sox. On a rare evening when there were no games on Muni’s best diamond—the one with a grass infield and concrete dugouts that looked like World War I bunkers—the heavy hitters from Ted’s Glass rolled in to take batting practice. I shagged balls in the outfield and showed off my strong throwing arm every chance I got. “Can you throw strikes?” one of the players asked me. “All day long,” I said, surprising myself with my boldness. He laughed and said, “One more round will do.” So there I was at 14, on the mound at Muni, pitching BP to men who had seemed like remote gods an hour before and wondering what the Sheik would say when I told him.
My parents had bigger news than mine: We were moving again. They had made a down payment on a house on Salt Lake’s prosperous east bench—a short commute to work for my father, a rose garden for my mother, the city’s best high school for me. My first thought was that I was stranded. I didn’t know anyone in my new neighborhood except some guys I played with in Cops League. In time they would become friends, many of them for life. But when I’d just moved in and my mother ordered me not to bounce a ball off the back of the house, I could think of only one response: I jumped on my bike and headed for Muni to resume the life that had been so rudely interrupted.
It was a great idea until I reached the end of the first day and faced a ride home that was all uphill. I was about to start pedaling when the Sheik invited me to stay for dinner. He wasn’t a wealthy man, but he was treating me like family. He even called my mother to make sure it was all right with her. Afterward, as darkness settled on the city and Muni slept, he put my bike in the trunk of his boxy green Mercury and drove me home. It was a scene that was repeated again and again until summer’s end, and never once did the Sheik say he was too busy, too tired, too wrapped up in his own problems. There was a lesson in what he did for me. All I had to do was learn it.
So many people have been good to me when I needed it over the years that I can’t help wondering if I give off a distress signal I’m not aware of. The most surprising of my benefactors was Pete Radulovich, an ornery ex-minor league catcher whose oldest son Steve was one of my best friends and a hitter I still believe could have been a big leaguer. When I was 15, I wasn’t a good enough third baseman to play for a summer team Pete was coaching, but rather than cast me into outer darkness, he summoned the kindness not everybody knew he possessed and said he’d make me a catcher if I wanted to keep coming to practice. You bet I kept coming. Two years later, when I was playing in the state American Legion tournament, a Boston Red Sox scout—cigar, pinky ring, thick the way old ballplayers get—came out of the stands to tell me, “You caught a big league game tonight.” It was all because of Pete.
The next summer, he coached my high school’s Legion team with help from none other than the Sheik. Pete called him Frankie, partly out of affection for an old teammate and partly, I think, because the diminutive let everyone know who was boss. Pete was a hard man, and there weren’t many kids besides Steve and me who embraced his style wholeheartedly. But the Sheik was an instant hit with his good cheer and pet sayings. Someone was always “coming out of chute number three” or learning that what came after 10 was “jack, queen, king.” Even a hitter in the world’s worst slump had to smile when the Sheik told him, “Squat low, take squirrel’s aim and swing parallel.” But all of the Sheik’s good will couldn’t soften the surprise when Pete, without a word of warning I can recall, left the team to go to Oklahoma City, where Steve would have a major operation on the knee that ultimately undid him as a pro prospect.
The Sheik was in charge now, and the team responded by playing as well in the second half of the season as it had dreadfully for Pete in the first half. Every evening we had a game, the Sheik would pick me up from my summer job at the city’s parks department. We talked baseball as we drove, of course, but a lot of the time I just listened to his stories. Some I’d heard before, like the one about how he got his nickname the day he wore knickers to junior high school. And another about living in an apartment above the family grocery store with 10 brothers and sisters and having a father who made Prohibition-era wine by putting his kids to work stomping grapes in the bathtub. “People thought I was wearing purple socks until I was 18,” the Sheik said. And the story always ended with him watching his father get hauled off to jail as his mother, who wasn’t close to five feet tall, swinging a broom at the feds who had crashed through the door and screaming, “Basta! Basta! How I feed my bambini?”
It was the kind of life outsiders might never imagine in Salt Lake, but it was the Sheik’s life, right down to the grape mash that the feds dumped outside the store, where it would rot in the sun, its putrid smell seeping into the Mormon ward across the street. The Sheik threw opponents off-stride by rubbing garlic on his high school football uniform—“Christ, I stunk”—and warmed up for a trip to a cathouse by watching Sally Rand do her fan dance when he traveled to Chicago in 1933 to play in a CYO baseball tournament. When a semipro team he managed played at the Utah State Prison, the inmates in the stands yelled, “Hey, Caputo, what are you doing on the outside when we’re in here?” But the story he most loved to tell was about the train trip he and Kenny took to New York for the ’56 World Series. They bought scalped standing-room tickets to watch the Yankees beat the Brooklyn Dodgers in seven games and never missed an inning. No one had a better view of Don Larsen’s perfect game than they did from behind the home-plate box seats. “Them ushers thought I was in the Mafia,” the Sheik said. They would have had a much different impression, however, if they’d known he and Kenny were staying in a hotel so disreputable that he slept with his pants on and his wallet in his hip pocket lest someone break in and steal it.
It was impossible not to be mesmerized by the Sheik’s stories, which was how I ended up in the middle of one of them. He asked if I wanted to go for a ride one evening, and 20 minutes later we were parking outside a dreary night club that featured bikini-clad go-go girls dancing in cages suspended from the ceiling. “I can’t go in there,” I told the Sheik, knowing too well that I was 18 and looked younger. “Tell ’em you’re with me,” he said. In we went. A bunch of guys from his Union Pacific bowling team were waiting to introduce him to one of the dancers. Wait a minute, I thought, the Sheik’s wife Nellie was at home, the mother of his children, a little skittish maybe and not given to stepping outside but a genuinely sweet woman who always asked about my parents. I said nothing, though, just waited to see what would happen. Soon enough, the go-go girl came down from her cage and made her way to our table. She had a body made for sin but a face out of a horror movie. “She oughta come around at Halloween and scare my kids,” the Sheik whispered. Then he played the ace up his sleeve. “Sorry, gotta get my catcher home,” he said, slapping me on the back. “Big game tomorrow.”
We won that game, and the game after it, and went into the state tournament favored to win it, too. The Sheik went back to being the coach every kid on the roster would bust his hump for. And I went back to listening to him agonize over who our starting pitcher in the opening game should be, the right-hander who had been our ace all season or the left-hander who had thrown a two-hitter his last time out. The right-hander talked the Sheik into giving him the start, and when I drove in two runs with a triple, everything was copacetic until it wasn’t. Late in the game, with two runners on base, I hit what looked like another triple only to see it turned into an out by some kid who probably hadn’t caught anything besides a cold all summer. Then our right fielder—a stubby, big-hearted football player—misjudged a line drive, and our dreams were dead.
Some losses you never forget. This was one of them for me and even more so for the Sheik. I remember how forlorn he looked afterward. He’d opened the trunk of his Merc and he was sitting there staring off into space. Tears welled in his eyes as his daughter, who was still in junior high, patted him on the shoulder and said, “It’s all right, Dad.” But it wasn’t all right and it never would be. Even in his final years, he would tell me, “I shoulda pitched that left-hander.” He had given the team his heart and he never got it back.
On my first real newspaper job, as a general assignment reporter for the Baltimore Evening Sun, I discovered I had a flair for writing about the kind of people whose size 11EEE personalities don’t fit in a 9A society. They ranged from an ancient singing newsboy to a race track tout who was a rabbi’s son to a boxing promoter whose gym sat atop a strip joint. The beautiful thing about Baltimore in those hard-scrabble days was that the city embraced the quirks of its scruffiest, bawdiest citizens. But never was I fazed by even the most outrageous of them, because I had grown up around their spiritual kin in Salt Lake. An unlikely breeding ground for characters, I know, and yet I can still close my eyes and see them all.
Nuts Thompson umpired sandlot baseball games and one night got so blind drunk that he fell out of his car while it was moving and broke a leg. Jack McCarthy, the father of one of my best friends, managed a middleweight contender he’d found in prison and ran a poker game in the back room of a red-light district saloon called the Green Parrot. G. Brown, whose head was so big his high school had to special order a football helmet for him, grew up shaking down kids for candy bars and spent a significant portion of his adulthood asking Herman Franks, the grumpy former manager of the Chicago Cubs, why he wasn’t dead yet. (Both are gone now.) The Mayne brothers gave up football to wrestle professionally and practiced body slams on the postage-stamp dance floor at their favorite bar, the Bird Cage. And then there was the Sheik.
He was raffish, primed to laugh at almost anything, forever pushing to see how much he could get away with. In the mid-1960s he would show up at University of Utah football games with a pint of bourbon in his hip pocket but no ticket. He’d sail through the turnstile without breaking stride, telling anyone who looked like they had the urge to stop him, “The boys are taking me.” But the boys weren’t. I know that for a fact because I was one of them, along with my sawed-off buddy Dave Disorbio and a strange bird with a faraway stare known as Moses. There were others as well, their names now faded from memory, but I’m willing to bet they reached the same conclusion Disorbio, Moses, and I did: It was a hell of a lot more fun to defy convention with the Sheik than it was to sit in the student section and sing the school song.
The Sheik would vanish as soon as he was inside the stadium, leaving the rest of us to convince the ticket takers he must have meant some other boys because we’d never seen him before. It worked every time. We celebrated this minor miracle when we reconvened on the walk at the top of the stadium’s east side, right on the 50-yard line. Not long afterward the ushers would begin telling us to move along and find our seats. We kept them at bay by drifting here and there but never surrendering our territory. That’s where the Sheik was with the booze. Wobbly from drink, someone eventually would decide he was tired of standing and sit on the creaky wooden railing that was supposed to keep people from tumbling down the slope behind it. On the afternoon I have in mind, G. Brown, three hundred pounds if he was an ounce, had joined us, and he and the Sheik were perched on the railing when Moses, no lightweight himself, decided to join them. The next sound anyone heard was the crack of splintering wood. Then the thud of G., Moses and the Sheik hitting the ground. And then the angry voices of ushers and security guards telling us we’d gone too far—we were being kicked out of the stadium
“Says who?” asked the Sheik.
“Don Reddish,” one of the security guards said.
“Who the hell is Don Reddish?” said the Sheik.
I’m not sure how many writerly impulses I’d had before, but I had one then. Here was a slice of life that begged to be committed to print, a cockeyed reminder of the Jimmy Breslin columns I’d read in the New York papers that found their way into the journalism department’s library. So I sat down and banged out the tale of how the Sheik’s Gang had run afoul of a heartless bureaucrat who was both Utah’s swimming coach and assistant athletic director. The campus paper ran the piece and my friends liked it, and I thought that would be the end of it. But a couple of days later, the sports editor of the Salt Lake Tribune wrote a column that made Reddish sound like a cross between Gandhi and Johnny Weissmuller. There was no mention of the Sheik’s Gang, but I knew we lurked in the margins. I also knew this: The bottle the Sheik had in his hip pocket survived the fall. No way the Trib’s sports editor could beat that for a punchline.
Spring 1977: The Sheik was deep in the guts of a steam engine, with nothing more on his mind than playing nine holes after quitting time if the weather held. For 37 years he’d been crawling inside these damned things to clean them—hot, dirty work that left his hands nicked and cut and so greasy it looked like he’d just been fingerprinted. He heard someone in the shop yell “Caputo!” and when he poked his head out, he saw two Union Pacific supervisors holding clipboards and radiating impatience.
“There you are,” one of them said, as if the Sheik had any other place to be at 11:00 on a weekday morning. “Just making sure you know you’re eligible for retirement.”
“I am?” the Sheik said. “When?”
“Right now if you want.”
That may well have been the moment the Sheik first uttered the words that became his golden age mantra: “Every day is a bonus.” Someone else would have to finish cleaning the steam engine because he was on his way out the door. At 62, he was going to begin the next 38 years of his life by getting to Rose Park Golf Course early. A decade later, his kid brother John joined him. John was the Sheik’s creation as an athlete—a Utah legend in football, baseball and softball—but he never stopped squawking every time the Sheik hit a ball in the rough and tossed it back onto the fairway. “I’m out there for fun, and that goddamn John won’t get off my ass,” the Sheik said over and over. “That’s the last time I play with him.” And yet there they’d be a week later, teeing off and getting ready to bitch at each other again.
It was a good life. The Sheik rose at 5:00 a.m. to jog five miles, traveled to California to watch Linda’s boy Brian grow up, waited for the next old friend to stop by The Dugout. When I was a Chicago sports columnist in the late 70s and early 80s, the Sheik fielded phone calls from Herman Franks, a former CYO rival who managed the Cubs (though not very well), complaining that I was using him for a punching bag. “What are you telling me for?” the Sheik said. “Talk to Schulian.” And all the while, the years kept marching on and friends kept dying. “Did you hear about old Pete Radulovich?” he asked. “Seemed like he stopped by just a couple days before I seen his obituary.” Nellie, the Sheik’s wife of 53 years, went slowly. The Sheik cared for her at home as if he were doing penance for all the nights of beer and laughter on the back porch and all the other nights he’d chased the moon. He found a lady friend after Nellie died in 1993, someone he could go dancing with—God, how he loved to dance—and he ended up taking care of her, too, until she moved east to live with her son.
Every day was still a bonus, only less so. The Sheik had multiple operations for carpal tunnel syndrome, but they didn’t prevent his right hand from becoming a claw. “Them fucking doctors,” he said. “Look what they done to my fucking hand.” But every time he came to Linda’s, I knew he’d leave me a voicemail full of good cheer: “This is your old friend the Sheik.” Whether it was Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Linda’s boy’s birthday, I made a point of seeing him, the same as I did when I visited Salt Lake. “That Hollywood’s treating you pretty good, huh?” he’d say in the days when Hollywood was, and we’d pick up the conversation where we’d left it. Our final visits were in the care facility where the Sheik spent the last three years of his life, tethered by his children’s gentle lie that he wasn’t paying a dime for a room with a view of Salt Lake’s imposing Mount Olympus. As promised, he made it to 100, the first Caputo to do so in a family where everyone seemed to live past 90. The big day was August 4, 2015. He celebrated by taking two laps around his Sheikdom on the fourth floor—no wheelchair, no walker, no cane, just an arm around a cute nurse named Heather. She gave him a kiss, and then he climbed into bed. He got out of it again only once before he breathed his last five days later.
I’ve thought about the Sheik a lot since then, about the stories that grew out of his life and the things I heard him say, and I always come away smiling. “You gotta squat low, take squirrel’s aim and swing parallel.” I’m still not entirely sure what he meant by that. I suppose I could tell you he meant nothing at all, but that would deny the power of his beautifully incomprehensible advice to bring him front and center in my mind. Once he is there, I sort through my memories until I arrive at the Thanksgiving when he walked out to my car with me to say goodbye. “You never forgot me,” he said. Forgetting would have been impossible. He was the Sheik, and they only made one of him.