Every Friday I have lunch with my two old Army buddies — the only two I’ve got — from our years together in the U.S. Army Reserve.
Yesterday, only one of them was on hand, and we got to talking about the old mob days in Kansas City. That was back in the 70s, when the late Nick Civella, the godfather of “The Outfit” in Kansas City, held sway.
He and his boys oversaw a widespread bookmaking operation, and Civella also had a piece of a Las Vegas casino. Periodically — every few weeks, I think — one of his lieutenants would take a plane full of gamblers out to Vegas for the weekend, and the lieutenant would not only return the gamblers but also a briefcase (or maybe just a sack) full of cash, representing Civella’s cut of the casino proceeds.
Civella was also involved in the River Quay, by the City Market, for the two or three years that entertainment district was as popular or more so than Westport. It all went to hell, however, after a guy named Freddie Bonadonna, owner of a River Quay bar called Poor Freddie’s, refused to give mob members a cut of revenue from a city parking lot that he leased. After that, several establishments were burned or blown up, including Poor Freddie’s.
Before the explosions and arsons, the situation was so intense that a fearsome, Civella-linked mobster named William (Willie the Rat) Cammisano and one or more “associates” apparently killed Bonadonna’s father to show Freddie how serious they were about wanting a piece of the parking revenue. Civella reportedly gave Cammisano a wide berth to operate pretty much as he pleased.
Freddie ended up going into the witness protection program and testified against several mob guys, and Civella and his top guys ended up in prison. Civella died in March 1983, two weeks after he was released from prison because he was dying of lung cancer.
Willie the Rat succeeded Civella as crime boss, but the organization faded in the 80s, and mob activity in Kansas City, thankfully, has never been the same.
A lot of people have stories about interactions with Nick Civella, and yesterday I told my Army buddy about mine.
The Royals’ first went to the World Series in 1980, and they played Phillies. The first two games were in Philadelphia, and when the Sunday, Oct. 19, game came around in Kansas City, the Series was tied two games apiece.
I was a general assignment reporter for The Kansas City Times, the morning edition of The Star, and I was one of several reporters stationed at Kauffman Stadium to cover any general-interest stories that might crop up.
From a seat behind the backstop screen, I was relaxing and enjoying the game when another reporter who had checked in with the office — on a pay phone, of course — told me to call the assignment editor because something significant was going on at the ballpark.
I called right away and was told that a state senator named Harry Wiggins — many of you probably remember him — had called the office and had told an editor that Nick Civella and one of his lieutenants were sitting in plaza-level seats that Wiggins initially had tickets for.
Wiggins told the editor he had swapped the plaza (lower) level tickets for seats higher up at the request of a former Kansas City councilman named Sal Capra, who told Wiggins that he wanted to help an aging and ailing friend get lower-level tickets.
Wiggins, who was a prince of a fellow, agreed and gave Capra the tickets, which he presumed Capra was going to give to his friend.
Wiggins also was a first-class glad-hander, and he couldn’t resist the opportunity to go down and introduce himself to Capra’s friend.
But when he got down to the seats, he found them occupied by Civella and Pete Tamburello, one of Civella’s enforcers. Realizing that it wouldn’t look good if it came out later that Nick Civella and Pete Tamburello had sat in his seats at the World Series, Wiggins immediately called the newspaper.
After speaking with Wiggins at the stadium, I and a photographer went down to the concourse behind the area where Wiggins’ original seats were, and we spotted Civella and Tamburello. A Channel 9 anchorman named Scott Feldman had also learned about the situation, and he and a cameraman were also in the area.
It was the bottom of the sixth inning, and the Royals were in the process of scoring two runs in a game they ended up losing 4-3. (They went on to lose the sixth and final game of that World Series two days later in Philadelphia.)
The presence of a couple of reporters and a cameraman and a photographer would create a commotion almost anywhere, and after just a few minutes, an irritated Civella and Tamburello got out of their seats and came back to talk to us. Civella told a bald-faced lie, saying that he not only got the tickets from Wiggins (he got them from Capra) but that Wiggins had delivered the tickets to his house before the game.
(Wiggins’ response to that claim later was, “I don’t even know where he lies. If I did know, I wouldn’t go.”)
During the conversation, Tamburello shoved a camera being held by Channel 9 cameraman Phil French. Civella slapped at a camera that KC Times photographer Bill Batson was holding. In addition, at least one of Civella’s sons and a few other associates — guys who seemingly materialized out of nowhere — began crowding around, hemming us in.
By then, fans in the area were calling for all of us to sit down, and Civella and Tamburello returned to their seats. Batson and I — and I believe Feldman and French — lingered in the area, and pretty soon Civella and Tamburello got up and, as far as I know, left the stadium.
I went to a pay phone and told a rewrite reporter, Mark Fraser, what had transpired.
Fraser wrote it up — spicing it up with plenty of background about Capra, Civella and Tamburello — and, bingo, it ran on the front page on Monday, Oct. 20, next to a photo of Royals’ player Jose Cardenal leaving the batter’s box after striking out in the bottom of the ninth to end the game.
The headline on our story was “Good deed turns sour for Wiggins.”
Many of the principals in that incident are dead, including Civella, Tamburello, Wiggins and Batson, the photographer. Capra is still alive, and so is Mark Fraser, my co-writer on the story. I have no idea where Feldman and French are, or if they are still alive.
It was a bizarre and unforgettable story.
…One other thing about that game and that story: Those tickets for the plaza-level seat down the third base line? Their face value was $20 each! Do you know what a pair of tickets in that section would have gone for in this past World Series? Probably more than $1,000 each.
Now, here’s an image of the first part of the story — the part that appeared on the front page, before the story “jumped” to an inside page.
And here’s the “jump.” (Sorry, but I couldn’t size it large enough so that the words were legible.)
In the photo, Civella is in the center, facing me. Tamburello, I believe, is to my right. Batson, of course, was taking the photo.
And, finally, here is what that front page looked like…