It’s a massive understatement to say that McLaney was a colorful gambler and casino operator with a résumé that could have been crafted by Damon Runyon, including a link to mobster Meyer Lansky and a history of trying to overthrow or even assassinate a certain pesky communist dictator in Cuba, and you have some of the ingredients of the story. In doing research for the piece, McLaney’s name pops up alongside that of President Kennedy, his brother Bobby and his father, Joseph P., Mickey Mantle, Marty Glickman, Avery Brundage, Jim Thorpe and a cast of congressional investigators and subcommittees, just to name a few.
The larger-than-life quality of McLaney’s persona extended to yet another legendary sports figure, former PGA Tour player Al Besselink, who befriended a Who’s Who list of the famous and infamous through the rough-and-tumble early days of the postwar PGA Tour.
“He was my best friend,” the 86-year-old Besselink said in a phone interview. Like his friend, Besselink was inextricably linked to gambling at a time when the glossy veneer of modern times hadn’t been completely applied to the professional golf arena as yet.
“Mike was a flamboyant gentleman and a fabulous human being,” recalled Besselink. He even remembered the Auravision Records that his friend produced, though in keeping with the murky history of the odd collectibles, the details even for Besselink are a bit sketchy.
“Somebody came to Mike with the idea and he put up the money for (printing the Auravision Records),” said Besselink. He didn’t know much more about McLaney’s forway into our zany world of sports collectibles, but he did have a good deal to add about the gambler’s most infamous deed: the $3 million plunked down on the Baltimore Colts to win the 1958 NFL Championship Game.
“I know all about it,” Besselink said when asked about McLaney’s shadowy role in “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” Besselink was in Los Angeles to watch the game on television with another golfing buddy, then 49ers quarterback John Brodie, who not coincidentally was a world-class golfer himself.
“Mike bet $3 million on the game, divided between himself, his friend and partner Louis Chesler (from the resort in the Bahamas) and Rams owner Carroll Rosenbloom.” The trio had given between 31/2 and 51/2 points for the privilege of betting on the favored Colts, and Besselink noted that his friend had given him a piece of the bet for free, amount undisclosed.
Bessie, as he was known, told Brodie that he had a bet on the game, and they watched it head into overtime. Brodie told him he was out of luck, since a tie score would likely mean that the winning team would probably ending up securing the NFL crown via a field goal, which was not enough to cover the spread.
“I told him Baltimore was not going to kick a field goal,” Besselink recalled with a laugh. After the Giants were stopped in the first drive of the overtime, Unitas began the march down the field that helped install the young quarterback into the pantheon of lower-case giants of NFL lore and legend, and seemingly helped propel the National Football League down the road to a prominence that might have been previously unimaginable.
But once the Colts reached the 8-yard line, a field goal seemed to be looming. At second and goal, Unitas elected to pass, completing the heart-stopping toss to end Jim Mutscheller, who was brought down on the 1-yard line.
“Brodie couldn’t believe that pass,” laughed Besselink, who simply recited his line once again that the Colts would not kick a field goal. On third down, Unitas handed it to Ameche, who plunged in for the score, and the rest, as they say, is history.
But not necessarily the history that winds up in traditional NFL tomes. “We won every bet,” is the way Besselink finished the story. Colts coach Weeb Ewbank always claimed that Unitas had called the daring pass play, and further insisted there had been no interference in the play calling from on high.
And it’s not widely part of the historical record, but the following weekend Besselink’s next touring stop was in New Orleans, where he acted as a bagman for McLaney, picking up cash throughout the city for his friend. He met McLaney that weekend on the golf course, handing him a bag containing between $300,000-$400,000.