Al Baisi, born in 1917, was raised in a predominately Italian section of Norton, a small town near Elkins, West Virginia. Al eventually starred on the Elkins HS football team along with Marshal “Biggy” Goldberg. Back in those days a guy played both ways, defense and offense; a grueling pace as compared to today.
The West Virgina University Mountaineers quickly recruited Al. While at WVU, Al routinely bulldozed any opponents that found themselves in his way, earning the nickname “Tiger”. Al was a guy known to take on all comers. In a game with Michigan State at Morgantown, “Tiger” dashed into the stands mid-play to confront a heckler, the crowd “parting like the Red Sea”, then returning to the field to resume play.
After graduation in 1939, with his sights on professional football, the Chicago Bears, thanks to Bear-star player Joe Stydahar, a UVW Hall-of-Famer, grabbed Al. “The Bears were THE team to play for in those days, so Joe told me don’t do anything til I hear from the Bears” Al said. “George Halas had connections to get things done,” he added.
Al, always to be found at his designated bar stool, was always willing to share his Bears stories, and what stories they were. Al wore #26 for the Monsters of the Midway, earning $175 a game. Al’s all-time favorite memory of playing for the Bears was beating the Washington Redskins 73-0 on December 8, 1940 in the NFL Championship (equivalent of today’s “Super-Bowl”). He recalled how the Redskins called the Bears “crybabies” after they had beaten the Bears two weeks earlier, and how Halas fired up his team to avenge the insult. “On the first drive of the game, after only a few plays, Sid Luckman faked a toss to George McAfee and pitched to Bill Osmanski going the other way. It was a 68 yard touchdown, and that was just the start.” In the third quarter, a worried official asked Coach Halas to please run rather than kick the extra points because they were running out of footballs.
After Chicago Bears Championships in 1940 and 1941, Al, like many other pro athletes, took a break from pro football to join the Army in World War II. As a drill instructor, Al trained an unknown recruit by the name of Ed McCaskey (who later met and married Virginia Halas). The rest is history. In 1942, Al played on the Army All-Star football team, touring the country. He returned to play with the Bears in 1946, when the team secured yet another Championship. Al was on waivers at the end of the season due to injuries and was picked up by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1947. His injuries became insurmountable and after two games, “Tiger” threw in the towel and retired.
After meeting his future wife, Gesella,during Army training, Al settled in her home town, St. Paul, Minnesota. As there existed no pro football in Minnesota at the time, Al became somewhat of a celebrity and was recruited by the fanciest nightclub in the city as a bouncer. In 1949, Al partnered with Larry Lehner and the club became known as Alary’s Club Bar (Al and Larry’s). Alary’s had a floor show in those days that was a watered-down version of today’s exotic dancing, with headliners such as “The Leopard Girl” and “The Girl With the Educated Tassels”. By the early 60′s, Lehner was out of the picture, but Al loyally continued the club’s name as the bar was relocated several times due to urban renewal.
Early in the morning Feb. 25, 1970, an unidentified assailant with a shotgun pulled up next to Al’s car at White Bear and Arlington Avenues and opened fire. Al pulled a pistol from under his car’s seat and returned fire before a second blast blinded him permanently. The gunman was thought to be a disgruntled patron and was never apprehended or charged. Even after the injury, Al continued to hold court at his bar, often with a favorite hunting dog at his side.
Known in St. Paul as “Big Al”, Al was once described in a newspaper profile as “blind, beefy and bellicose,” though he was beloved by regulars at the bar who often had their own nicknames: Charlie the Belgian, Tone the Phone, Window Washing Bob, Jack the Rat, and Brad the Hound Dog. Al was hands-down, one of St. Paul’s most colorful saloon operators.
In more recent times, Alary’s has become a meeting place for sports enthusiasts, off-duty police officers and fire-fighters, attorneys, and city and state workers. The bar is decorated with police and fire memorabilia and of course, Chicago Bears mementos. When Al came in on Sunday nights during football season, the first thing he wanted to know was whether the loyal Bears fans had enjoyed the game. Absent are the floor shows from a bygone era, but right up until his hospitalization in February, 2005, you could always find “Big Al”, cigar in hand, each and every night, closing up the bar.
Al passed on unexpectedly after surgical complications on April 15th at the age of 87. Neither pro football nor this world will see many more Al Baisi’s. For now, we can only appreciate those moments when we can pull up to a barstool and step back in time to what seems like a better place.