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The New York office building, from which point orders had gone out to Trecost to attach me to the Memphis Open detail, is nameless. Standing in the lower Manhattan financial district, it is numbered 100 Church Street, and on its 17th floor one steps off the elevator into a world that recalls cuspidors and boiled collars. Here, along walls of institutional green, lie the executive offices of Pinker-ton's, Inc., the nation's leading private detective and security agency, in business since 1850. We shall return to Trecost and Memphis in due time, but for now, that city is but one pin on a map at 100 Church Street.
On the 17th floor of the building, an impression of gravity hangs in the air. Along the wall of the main corridor, photographs of the deceased leaders of the Pinkerton dynasty—Founder Allan Pinkerton, his sons William and Robert and Robert's son Allan II—are arrayed in dark wooden frames, forming a forest of whiskers, great mustaches and muttonchop sideburns. Their eyes gaze down suspiciously upon passersby. Nearby, post-office photos of oldtime desperadoes nabbed by the Pinkertons also garnish the wall, thickening the prevailing flavor of nostalgia for a day when men rode tall in the saddle.
"Good morning, Mr. Brackley," says an executive passing a colleague in the corridor. The two men may have worked years together, but they cannot escape (nor would they want to) the propriety that always has placed the Pinkerton beyond suspicion. "Good morning, Mr. Boyce," says Mr. Brackley.
The atmosphere on the 17th floor is a world away from noisy stadiums and sweaty locker rooms, yet more than $2 million of the firm's $71 million-a-year business comes from policing the sports industry. It comes from baseball and football clubs, college athletic departments, racetracks, golf tournaments and a variety of other enterprises that are interested in protecting their patrons from belligerent drunks, their turnstiles from gate-crashers and their athletes from the temptations of wine, women and fixers. The athlete who genially autographs a nightclub menu for a stranger may wish he hadn't. Little does he suspect that he has just presented a Pinkerton with a piece of documentation to attach to a report fixing the time and place of his curfew infraction. "Do you know what I think?" Babe Ruth once said in jest to a teammate. "I think this goddam little jockey we been partying with all night is really a Pinkerton." And, of course, he was.
The term "private eye" actually derived from a trademark the Pinkertons employed for many years—a drawing of a wide-awake eye, under which were the words, "We Never Sleep." Yet it is a mistake to think of the Pinkertons in terms of the two stereotypes that are popularly attached to private eyes. In the first, they cause gorgeous blondes to swoon. In the second stereotype, they are beefy, vulgar men making their living out of shabby one-room offices, tracking down evidence of adultery. The fact is that, although marital difficulties provide the private-detective industry with its most dependable source of revenue, the Pinkertons will not touch an adultery case. "We just don't like that type of work," says Robert A. Pinkerton II, the fourth-generation head of the company. "It's unpleasant. It's dirty."
Oddly enough, the Pinkertons came to be included in American history texts largely because of exceedingly unpleasant and dirty steel riots at Homestead, Pa. in 1892. Working for the industry barons, the Pinkerton guards were accused of firing wantonly upon strikers and bystanders. Still blanching from that accusation, the Pinkertons to this day will have no part of a labor dispute, and surely it is difficult to imagine Robert Pinkerton II ordering his men to the support of any questionable cause. A wispy, nattily attired man of 62 with straight black patent-leather hair, he possesses a courtly manner that suggests Adolphe Menjou playing a hospitable hotel manager. He is the last of the Pinkerton males, and the fact that he exists at all comes as an agreeable surprise to strangers who meet him. For some reason the general public seems to think that all the men of the Pinkerton dynasty are dead and that the name has been perpetuated as a corporate identity. Gently amused, Robert Pinkerton says: "People say to me, 'Well, if you are Mr. Pinkerton, where are your whiskers?' I had a young friend attending the Lawrenceville School who opened his big mouth in a history class and said he knew Mr. Pinkerton, at which the instructor took strong exception. He accused the boy of boasting about something that could not be true. In order to restore the lad to good standing, I had to write the instructor a letter saying I was alive."
A deskbound executive, Robert Pinkerton makes no pretense of ever having engaged in cloak-and-dagger adventures, but his ancestors enjoyed getting out into the field and grappling with outlaws who preyed upon their clients. His great-grandfather, Allan Pinkerton, a large-nosed Scottish immigrant who started up the agency after quitting his job as a detective on the Chicago police force, personally rode shotgun on stagecoaches. He led the capture of the notorious train robber Frank Reno.
Clear into the 1930s the Pinkertons operated as an unofficial arm of American law-enforcement machinery. District attorneys, not staffed as they are today with batteries of investigators, looked to the Pinkertons to wrap up their murder cases. Times are changed, however; the firm's security service displaced its gumshoes as the profit leader, and the company diversified into the marketing of burglar alarms. In 1965 Pinkerton's National Detective Agency, Inc. became simply Pinkerton's, Inc. Nevertheless, the Pinkertons still take pride in their ability to hard-nose their way through a case until a solution is reached. Post nubila sol—after the clouds, the sun—trumpets the calling card of a Pinkerton agent.
In the world of sports, Pinkertons have been policing horse tracks for three-quarters of a century, but it was baseball's Black Sox scandal of 1919 that put them to work on the sporting scene in earnest. Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the crusty reform commissioner, fastened Pinkertons to the tails of ballplayers, and from that beginning the agency has worked quietly, as though treading barefoot on sand, to spare the sporting world embarrassment. In the Big Ten, a football star is swiftly plucked from his team; the Pinkertons have spotted him consorting with shady characters. In the East, less than an hour before a major fight, a boxing commission withdraws both judges and the referee, acting on an 11th-hour report from the Pinkertons that gamblers have learned which ring officials have been assigned to the fight. Even in so improbable an area as deep-sea fishing, the fine hand of the Pinkertons has done its work.
"Now there was an assignment I was always sorry I didn't take myself," says Robert Pinkerton, bringing up the particulars of what may be termed, "The Case of the Suspect Catch." A catch of a very large billfish had been made by a man at the eastern tip of Long Island. He had entered the catch for recognition as a world record, but there seemed to be some question as to whether all the requirements had been complied with.