Sam De Lucia creamed the guys in the Bronx. He blitzed Brooklyn and whipped Maspit, Long Guyland. He clobbered Peekskill and walloped New-burgh, and he did it all with his pigeons—racing pigeons. Sam De Lucia's birds were so good that he, in his own words, "was leavin' nuthin' for nobody," and so he got kicked out of the Peekskill Racing Pigeon Club, and then he got thrown out of Newburgh when the boys in the racing club there suddenly decided to redraw the membership boundary lines. "This constant winnin' they didn't like," says Sam. To which his wife. Mil, adds, "Once you start winnin' in pigeons, you're the most hated person in the world. Right away they think you're crooked. I never came across a buncha yella bellies like some of those pigeon-fliers! They stink! And I tell 'em."
Nowadays Sam races his birds out of the Mid Hudson Valley Club in Wappingers Falls, N.Y. His birds still win, but the clubhouse is in an old barn on his property. Sam and Mil live on 40 acres of chicken farm. For a dozen years Sam raised white leghorns. He is fascinated by the breeding of birds, be they chickens or pigeons, and for a three-year stretch he had the most 300-egg hens of any chicken farmer in the state. But by profession Sam, who is 55, is a bricklayer. Mil works as a "white angel," a receptionist, in a dormitory at Vassar in nearby Poughkeepsie. "Some angel!" exclaims Sam.
Because of the very nature of pigeon racing, what with the homing instinct of the bird for its individual loft and differences in terrain and wind conditions, the sport has no one man to proclaim as the best in the country. There is, in other words, no Babe Ruth in pigeon racing. Instead, there are any number of small giants scattered across the country, such as Joe Dutko of Trenton, N.J., Charles Heitzman of Jefferson-town, Ky., F. T. Schoefield of Morrisville, Pa., Roy Hatchard of St. Louis, Roland Eastwood of Miami, I. R. Mitchell of Dallas and Sam De Lucia of Wappingers Falls. Both in and out of New York City, Sam has had success year after year. There are some city fliers who disparage Sam—"Where's the competition flyin' against only eight or nine lofts in some peewee club upstate?" asks one Bronx critic scathingly—and there are those who think well of his efforts. "Sam is a wonderful pigeon man," says Ben Watson, president of the International Federation of Homing Pigeon Fanciers, Inc. "Sam De Lucia, well, he really knows when a pigeon is in condition. Now, I wouldn't know Sam De Lucia by sight if I tripped over him, but certain friends I have speak very well of him. He has a vast knowledge of pigeons that many fliers would like to have."
Sam is aware of the criticisms that have come his way; indeed, while attending various pigeon conventions he has often heard them voiced by fliers who wouldn't know him by sight if they tripped over him either. Whenever Sam De Lucia hears Sam De Lucia being criticized at such a gathering, he moves boldly into the conversation where, without introducing himself, he will point out that Sam De Lucia has never, not ever, lost a futurity race since 1934 and that Sam De Lucia has raised some marvelous birds which are in some of the best lofts in the country. Should the critics persist by knocking Sam De Lucia's lack of competition in some peewee club outside of New York City, Sam will point out that Sam De Lucia used to race in New York, and when he did he was leavin' nuthin' for nobody. Why. in 1936, for instance, Sam will point out, Sam De Lucia won the 150-mile and 300-mile united concourses competing against 8,000 birds in each race. Sam is prepared to cite more facts and figures, but at this point his critics usually ask how come he knows so much about Sam De Lucia. "'Cause I am Sam De Lucia!" Sam shouts. And Sam adds. "When I say this, they hang their heads like sheep or something and go away embarrassed. Not that I go around braggin' or anything, but I don't like to hear that I haven't been in competition!"
Sam has upward of 200 racing pigeons in three lofts on his farm, and the birds keep him busy all year round. The racing season for old birds runs from April through July, and the season for young birds lasts from August through October. Throughout the years Sam has stuck mainly with two varieties of pigeons, Sions and Stassarts. These are only two of almost 200 varieties of pigeons that have been developed for homing or fancy strains. Among other homers are Huyskens Van Riels, Bricoux, Pletiniks, Ameels, De Weerds, Bastins and Wegges, all of which were developed in Belgium, the leading pigeon-racing country in the world.
Breeds of fancy birds include satinettes, pouters, rollers, tumblers, tipplers, and kings. Kings are raised and killed at 28 days for squab, while satinettes and pouters are fancy show birds. Tipplers are bred to fly for endurance. Tippler fanciers vie with one another to see who can develop birds that can sustain flight the longest. The world record belongs to one Jack Cockayne of Sheffield, England, who flew three old birds 19 hours and 35 minutes. Tumblers literally tumble in flight, and in the U.S. fanciers have bred "parlor" tumblers that will do their stuff inside a room two feet off the floor. Rollers actually roll in flight. According to The Pigeon, the authoritative study by Wendell M. Levi, a South Carolina fancier, a good roller rolls in unbroken sequence while airborne. However, it is bad form for a roller to "twizzle" by trying to touch its tail feathers with its beak.
Part of a racing-pigeon flier's time is taken up in explaining that his birds, which are coddled and protected in lofts, are not responsible for ornithosis, a virus pneumonia sometimes found in park pigeons. Among fliers, the common park pigeons are often known as "commies," and editorials in the racing-pigeon press are sometimes given over to denouncing the commies that loiter on the ledges of public buildings. Sam De Lucia is second to none in his condemnation of park birds. "Those there common pigeons really do mess things up for other pigeons," he says. "Those common birds are livin' under conditions of starvation and filth, and it's no wonder they can get diseased."
Although carrier pigeons go back to antiquity—the Assyrians are said to have used them in war—the racing of pigeons is a modern development, starting in the early 19th century in Brussels and Antwerp, where stockbrokers sought to get faster news from the London and Paris exchanges. By 1850 pigeon racing was solidly established in Belgium, and Charles Dickens wrote, "The members of the Antwerp Pigeon Training Society were citizens of the middle class of Society, but in Belgium pigeon-training has its attractions even for persons of rank and wealth, many of whom are enthusiastic pigeon fanciers; indeed, pigeon flying is as fashionable an amusement in Belgium as horse-racing in England. Prizes consisting of sums of money as high as sixty thousand francs are frequently won in matches of pigeons, to say nothing of the betting to which those matches give occasion."
The siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War, when pigeons were used to carry messages, gave further impetus to an interest in the birds, and racing spread to Britain and the U.S. In New York, the center of enthusiasm in this country, it also took hold as a sort of polo of the poor. New York City remains the hotbed of racing pigeons, but sociologists have never been able to explain why the sport was and is mainly the interest of working-class people, with a curious admixture of restaurant owners and doctors, almost always Irish, Italian or Jewish. In the city, men with names like Artie, Dinty, Tim, Sal and Sol have sat on rooftops, seemingly for generations, talking pigeons, and for year after year their ranks have been recruited from armies of small boys sneaking up for a look at the lofts.
Sam De Lucia comes from this rich racing-pigeon world. Born in Brooklyn, raised en the Lower East Side of Manhattan, he was the first of five children. His father was a tailor. "My mother, she brought us up right," Sam says. "I'd kiss her feet any day. I never regret the lickin's she gave us. If I came home cry-in' from a fight in the street, my mother would just slap me and then ask questions. And if she thought I was wrong, she'd give me more. I wish there were more parents like her, to tell you the truth. I remember once my sister found a roll of bills in the street. She didn't dare bring it home. That's the sort of family we were. I'll go back to the old days any day. You didn't see kids smokin' reefers and stuff like that."