The Dugout cocktail lounge – discernible on the far right of the title picture of this post – once lorded over the corner of Empire Boulevard and Flatbush Avenue like a swaggering street tough.
Aflame in the tawdry glow of its neon sign, the saloon’s front door stood immediately next to the current Prospect Park subway station entrance.
A few paces towards Lincoln Road, with a primitive wheelchair serving as its logo, the “Holmes Ambulance and Oxygen Service” hawked its solemn expertise on the side of the building that now hosts the Drink wine shop in its bottom floor.
Offering dining and entertainment along with libations, the Dugout adopted its sporting mien due to sublime geographical privilege.
If Ebbets Field served as the neighborhood’s Universalist cathedral just up the block, the Dugout could well have been categorized as its Rheingold-soaked rectory.
Before games, Dodger zealots sated their thirst in the tavern’s exhilarating cacophony, rueing losses, bellowing cure-alls, and divesting themselves of sobriety.
Upon the day’s conclusive out, the same spent herds shuffled back down Empire to resume their analysis, either extending the jubilation or diluting the angst.
But as the entire country would soon learn, the seemingly nondescript dive was far more than just another Lucky Strike-choked sanctuary for Flatbush working stiffs and Bum partisans.
Throughout the forties, the Dugout served as the unmarked corporate headquarters of the largest illegal gambling syndicate in New York City – and ultimately sparked a police corruption scandal that decapitated the department’s top echelon and forced a mayoral resignation.
The unlikely commander of this $20 million annual operation was one Harry Gross, a diminutive Jewish fop from Flatbush who enlarged his pudgy stature via dapper stylings and strategic largesse.
At his enterprise’s giddy zenith, Gross was estimated to have dispensed more than $1 million a year in bribes to law enforcement to keep them whistling past the action.
Many of those payoffs – known as “ice” – were made in the Dugout’s lavatory. As knowing regulars looked on, cops of every rank would vanish into the john with a Gross henchman before reappearing with a package in hand and slipping back out onto Flatbush.
“When Harry Gross reigned as bookmaker king of Flatbush, using the Dugout Restaurant, 480 Flatbush Ave., as his main hangout and business headquarters, every plainclothesman in the borough used to visit him there, the Dugout owner today testified,” reads a Nov. 23, 1951 edition of the Brooklyn Eagle.
Others were provided with various tokens of venal appreciation, including television sets, top shelf booze and paid vacations. Lavish galas at Gross’s Atlantic Beach, LI, home were often crowded with police officers who came to know the bookie from Flatbush.
From his favored booth at the Dugout, Gross deployed a platoon of more than 400 worker bees across all five boroughs. They took the bets, they answered the phones, they picked up the bundles, they delivered payouts, and they kept the operation nimble.
But despite this campaign of cash-driven concealment, the operation soon became far too lucrative to keep out of political earshot.
Rumors of the Dugout’s secondary function – and flagrant police corruption – whipped far beyond Flatbush and into the downtown offices of Brooklyn district attorney Miles McDonald.
Sensing an opportunity to cement his reputation, the lawman launched a sting that would ultimately crush Gross’s operation and seize headlines for the better part of two years.
After establishing the Dugout as the center of the syndicate’s nervous system, McDonald had cops set up wiretaps inside the restaurant to capture incriminating dialogue between Gross, his lieutenants, and compromised cops.
Along with Red Barber’s omnipresent monotone, the devices caught damaging helpings of Flatbush-accented jabber for the better part of three years. Gross was memorialized on countless occasions openly discussing his furtive commerce with accomplices and members of law enforcement.
With a mountain range of evidence atop his desk, McDonald finally sprung the trap on September 15, 1950. Early that morning, Chief Investigator William Dahut marched into an opulent suite at the famed Leverich Towers Hotel on Clark Street in Brooklyn Heights.
The entrants came upon Gross is full repose, slumbering soundly in bed. They quickly extracted him from the sheets, announced the charges against him, and escorted him into an awaiting police car.
Confronted with insurmountable evidence, Gross soon agreed to cooperate with McDonald and his office. While netting the kingpin was significant, McDonald’s main concern was the wholesale exposure of the crooked cops and officials who came under the gangster’s corrupting spell.
McDonald didn’t want a pelt – he wanted the herd.
After a trial that monopolized the papers for two years, McDonald’s crusade led to the convictions of 22 officers as well as the resignation or expulsion of 240 more – including commissioner William O’Brien.
Then Mayor William O’Dwyer attempted to duck the wide swing of McDonald’s sickle, but the scandal was too vast for him to survive. He was forced to resign.
As the lynchpin to McDonald’s legacy-making campaign, Gross was afforded leniency at sentencing and received just 8 years behind bars.
But the Flatbush hustler’s fortunes quickly deteriorated after his release in 1958. The Dugout had been shuttered. His once expansive network of cronies and collaborators had been culled into near extinction.
And the year before his release, the Dodgers abruptly abandoned their cantankerous but loyal Brooklyn spouse and moved in with a tanned strumpet out west.
In an peculiar irony, Gross later followed the franchise to Southern California, leaving behind the old neighborhood and settling in Long Beach.
While Gross was never known for violence or volatility during his reign as New York’s gambling czar, it appears that darker impulses were loosed by his prison stint.
The year after his release, Gross was found guilty of manslaughter for beating his wife’s grandfather to death and was again jailed for three years. His collisions with the law became increasingly petty and pathetic as he aged. Gross was cited several times for minor drug sales.
Finally in 1986, at the age of 69, Gross was again pinched for a piddling heroin deal. It would be his last fingerprinting.
Unwilling to endure the the privations of incarceration yet again, the displaced Brooklynite slit his wrists and committed suicide inside his small Long Beach home.
The Dugout and its patrons have slipped all but unnoticed down the back alleys of local lore.
Its facade has now been replaced by a large mural depicting exotic animals in homage to the nearby Brooklyn Zoo.
Considering the noir menagerie that once prowled this stretch of road, the imagery is apt.