Joe DiMaggio, Frank Sinatra, Jack Dempsey: America’s Greatest Sports Bar, Toots Shor
Author Reid Mitenbuler takes a look at the rise and fall of the legendary New York watering hole Toots Shor.
Toots Shor was perhaps the greatest sports bar of all time. And it was made great by what would probably disqualify it from even being considered a sports bar today: There were no TVs offering distractions, no crowds howling at screens that showed action happening elsewhere. The bar itself was the action.
Located next to Radio City Music Hall in midtown Manhattan, at 51 West 51st Street, the establishment was named after its proprietor, Bernard “Toots” Shor, who served as the sun in a solar system orbited by sports greats: Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Jack Dempsey and a cavalry of other fighters, including one known as The Other Billy Graham.
Opened in 1940, the bar was quickly dubbed “The Temple of Friendship” by its patrons. In a three-part series from 1951, The New Yorker described it as the headquarters “for people who earn their living by contributing in one way or another to the diversion of the masses.” Athletes and sportswriters dominated the hierarchy. Below them were actors, singers, gossip columnists, bookies, and other entertainment types, while at the very bottom were the press agents “who turn a dollar by exploiting small-time night clubs and undistinguished strip-teasers,” the magazine reported.
The glue holding them together was Toots, described in a 1969 New York Times profile as having “managed to compound a list of liabilities—a loud, hoarse voice, a quick temper, and a habit of calling customers ‘crumb bums’—into a mysterious charm that has made him the friend of a large, disparate collection of public figures.”
Old photos of the regulars—including Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, Bob Hope, and Don Ameche—show crowds swimming in a sea of neckties and fedoras. The air was full of cigarette smoke and insults lobbed across the room with a friendly bonhomie, as when Toots told Yogi Berra, “Hey, Yogi, how about takin’ off the mask, so people can see what ya look like?”
The remark detonated an explosion of laughter that filled the room with teeth and hearty backslaps. It was okay for Toots to say that—these were his friends, and he understood the saloonkeeper’s role as lively host and confidant.
Joe DiMaggio, as quiet as Toots was loud, regularly showed up at his door wanting to take walks, just the two of them. Their close bond confused a Times reporter who profiled DiMaggio in 1950 and wrote that the only time DiMaggio didn’t appear at Toots’s bar was when he was in a slump. Instead, he’d stay home and “listen mournfully to programs of semi-classical music on the radio.”
What drew people to the bar? Certainly not the food, a menu of unremarkable standards—steak, baked potato, and shrimp cocktail—that was used primarily as a bulwark against the inevitable tides of booze.
The quality of the cocktails is also unclear, since the bar existed in that magical era when drinks fueled conversation instead of being the topic of it. Maybe the answer doesn’t really matter. What we do know is that Toots liked them enough to regularly enjoy at least a dozen a day, perhaps more.
His drinking preferences evolved through phases like those used to describe the work of great artists—Picasso’s blue period, Monet’s water lily period. Patrons remembered a time when Toots drank a lot of Monnet Brandy and soda, another when he regularly enjoyed a “Bullshot,” which combines vodka with beef bouillon.
But the easygoing atmosphere, like Toots himself, was, of course, a well-orchestrated illusion. In the front of the restaurant he was a master of backslaps and a Robin Hood of free rounds, but in the back he scrutinized pennies and hired two full-time accountants from the firm Horwath & Horwath to keep the books. He liked to play dumb by bragging that “delicatessen” was the only five-syllable word he knew, but reality was that he had attended Wharton before moving to New York to invent himself.
He was born in the spring of 1903 in Philadelphia to Jewish immigrant parents, whose name Schorr was cut down to Shor by a U.S. Immigration agent. The family was close but Toots headed to New York in 1930 after a runaway car killed his mother and his grief-stricken father committed suicide several years later. He started as an underwear salesman but quit to work as a bouncer in clubs during Prohibition, expanding his circle of acquaintances both personal and professional until he opened his own eponymous place a decade later.
His bar had a good run—nearly 20 years of camaraderie and constant mention in the sports pages and gossip columns. But by 1959, the city was changing, as it has a habit of doing.
In 1959, the restaurant site was sold to make way for a 60-story skyscraper. “300 Faithful Cry in Beer for Shor’s,” a Times headline wept. “With a loud gulp of nostalgia, and with the futility of spilled whisky, Toots Shor held his final black-tie party last night.”
But Toots was indomitable, and his place had become an institution. He opened a new one, a block away on 52nd Street. Would it be able to capture the old magic? The grand opening was a little ostentatious, festooned by “an enormous buffet table groaning with refreshments, including mountains of sandwiches about six times the size of those usually found among hors d’oeuvres,” John Bainbridge observed.
The bar soldiered on even as the city’s sports scene, which had always served as its touchstone, changed. The New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers had gone west and Toots was embarrassed to learn that per-capita alcohol consumption in San Francisco was higher than in New York. Madison Square Garden, which had only been a few blocks away, had also moved farther downtown, taking a lot of the action with it.
Toots, a profligate spender whose most famous quote was “I don’t want to be a millionaire, I just want to live like one,” was having tax problems. Decades earlier, his relationship with the government had been better—when his first son was born, former IRS commissioner Joseph Nunan Jr. sent the boy a bottle of brandy with a note, “If you are anything like your father, you will want this instead of milk.” But by now the IRS was a little less cheerful. In April 1971, two years after a millionaire investor bought the 52nd Street location, a sign appeared in front of the bar, “U.S. Government Seizure—This property has been seized for nonpayment of internal revenue taxes.”
Toots promised, “I’ll be open again in three or four weeks,” but it turned out to be 18 months and at yet another new location on 54th Street. Increasingly, Toots’s thoughts turned to his old haunts, which were being replaced by cathedrals of soaring glass and steel. “All he ever talked about was Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle and Charlie Conerly,” one friend remembered in his obituary. “He lived in the past.”
In 1977, Toots died, slipping into the past himself. He just missed getting to see the World Series that year, when his New York Yankees beat the turncoat Dodgers who had abandoned him for the West Coast.
As for his bar, it became a part of the future, in its own way. It became a disco that was given the name, maybe appropriately but maybe not, “New York New York.”