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Finding The Perfect Sports Bar
CHRIS BALLARD
February 07, 2005
You can't watch the Super Bowl just anywhere. So SI went in search of the best sports watering holes in the land. The trip took us back to the joints of the past and gave us a glimpse of the bars of the future, with a lot of long, grueling research in between. Hey, somebody's got to do it
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February 07, 2005

Finding The Perfect Sports Bar

You can't watch the Super Bowl just anywhere. So SI went in search of the best sports watering holes in the land. The trip took us back to the joints of the past and gave us a glimpse of the bars of the future, with a lot of long, grueling research in between. Hey, somebody's got to do it

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But New York City was the mecca. In 1965 Yankees utility infielder Phil Linz opened a bar called Mr. Laffs (his nickname) in midtown Manhattan. It became the postgame destination for Knicks and Rangers and all those who basked in their reflected glory. The bar's heyday soon passed, but as it happened, one of the bartenders at Mr. Laffs was a young, exuberant Yankees fan named Joe Healey. His father, a congressman from the Bronx, had taken him to Toots Shor's as a boy, and Joe remembered what it was like to sit starry-eyed amid the players and the beat writers. So in the mid-'70s, together with his friend Jim Costello, he set out to create the same kind of atmosphere at a new bar. They decided to call the place Runyon's, in honor of the legendary sportswriter and author Damon Runyon. On April 1, 1977, they opened the doors on 50th Street and Second Avenue to what many consider to be the greatest sports bar ever.

It was not much to look at, a cramped subterranean establishment, a few steps down from the street. Two green box seats from Yankee Stadium stood like iron sentries on the terrace outside, and inside it was dark and homey.

There were two TVs tuned to games, and patrons certainly watched, but the place was really about conversation. There was, at all times, a Baseball Encyclopedia within easy reach, and nary a night went by that it wasn't consulted to settle an argument. To hit the spot at "high tide," as Healey called it, was like walking in on PTI: The Early Years. In one corner there was the Boston Globe's Bob Ryan arguing with Gene Orza, the lawyer for the baseball players' union, about the DH rule, and over there Mike Lupica, the Daily News columnist, and maybe John Walsh, who would go on to become the creative force behind ESPN, and always Kevin O'Malley, CBS's college hoops honcho, and Newsweek writer Pete Axthelm, a cigar in one hand and a cognac in the other. In the back room you might see Beano Cook and Mike Francesca and Bob Costas, not to mention various future SI staffers. There would also be any number of athletes, from Lawrence Taylor to Doug Flutie. And all of them talking sports. "There was a skill in those days to knowing exactly what the ball and strike count was, answering the trivia question someone had just asked, ordering another drink and getting another cheeseburger," says Lupica. "It was kind of the Runyon's decathlon. If you couldn't do that, you had to go to a wine bar or something."

The crowds came in waves: first the Wall Street guys and the locals, then the writers and the regulars and, eventually, the players and the umpires. This meant you could find yourself, after watching the Yankees or the Mets game, arguing calls with the guys who made them--umps like Bruce Froemming and Richie Garcia, who stayed at a hotel around the corner. "It didn't have an Internet sports geek feel to it; it had more of a literary feel," says Costas, who lived nearby. "It had this combination of memory and shared experience and humor and irony and absurdity. The whole mix was the way reasonable people view sports, as a nice little corner of their lives and a place they can come back to for a shared sense of reassurance, but not a place where sports are the only thing that mattered and you become some kind of crazy zealot."

Like any great bar, it had great bartenders, guys like Richie O'Rourke and John (Shirts) Hughes. Healey loves to tell a story about one of the finest, a caustic Irish chap named Doc Mannion. "On the opening night of the Summer Olympics in 1980, we had three out-of-town guys in three-piece suits sit down right in the middle of the bar. We had the Mets and Yankees on the TVs. One of them says to Doc, 'Hey, mind if we watch the opening ceremonies?'

"Doc took one look at him and said, 'We don't watch parades. Not unless they start putting lines on them.'"

At the center of it all was Healey, a Runyonesque character if ever there was one. Robust and lively, with a thicket of black hair and a relentless smile, he'd greet everyone when they came in, and as the night progressed along with his whiskey consumption, he'd grow increasingly hopeful about the chances of his beloved Yankees.

"Joe was one of these guys who didn't just have an interest and a knowledge in sports but a kid's rooting interest," says Costas. "In its own way it was kind of sweet. It didn't have the angry edge that a lot of modern rooting seems to have."

Runyon's was a place where strangers became friends and, since everybody walked home or took a cab, everyone drank. The ethos of the bar was nicely summed up in a manifesto of sorts, written by then SI writer Dan Jenkins. It was called " Runyon's Stages of Drunkenness," and it read as follows:

1. witty and charming

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