The Little Runner: Before OTB

A man goes through a racing form and checking his numbers/©Welcome2TheBronx

If you grew up in The Bronx or have lived here a long time, chances are that you know someone who was a “bookie” that took bets or a “runner” who was the go between to the bookie from others.

In Spanish, it’s called “la bolita” or “los números”—the little ball or the numbers—and although the illegal gambling went mainstream with the advent of Off Track Betting, aka OTB, the illegal counterpart of it still remains.

For many it was a way to possibly strike it big and make a better life from the winnings.

To others, just a little fun.

Imagine my surprise when I posted an image of someone’s numbers sheet and racing form and a reader shared their mother’s tale of being a runner in 1934!

Ronnie Smith Bromm writes:

It was 1934, in the midst of the Depression, when I committed my first crime. I was 5 years old and Aunt Carrie was my Fagin. Sure, times were hard for everybody, then. Nevertheless, Aunt Carrie and Uncle Gus never lost hope of someday “hitting it big.” Almost daily, Aunt Carrie spent a nickel playing a number in the illegal numbers game that was so popular in the Bronx at that time. The game is legal now and is controlled by the state. The system is conducted in neighborhood betting parlors and is called OTB, or Off Track Betting. The game is played by betting on a three-digit number that is decided by the results of the pay-off amounts of the daily horse racing results at various race tracks. The pay-off amounts are printed in the next day’s newspapers.

In 1934, when the game was still illegal, bettors had to be very inventive to hide their activities from the Vice Squad. They also had to protect their identity and location of the person who booked the bets, known as “bookies.” Aunt Carrie’s “bookie” was the proprietor of the little candy/soda/newspaper store around the corner. His name was Deafy, for obvious reasons.

Her method of skirting the law was to use me as her runner, or carrier, of her bets. She thought she was very clever in using me because who would suspect a little freckle-faced 5-year-old girl of being a numbers “runner”? She would write her number on a small piece of paper, wrap the paper around a nickel, fold and refold it until it was the smallest possible lump, then place the lump in my palm, and fold my fingers over it to form a tiny fist. Then I was given my instructions.

“Skip down to the candy store,” she’d whisper, “and make sure there ain’t any customers hangin’ around outside or inside the store, and when the coast is clear, run in fast, reach up and slide the lump across the marble soda fountain counter to Deafy, then run out of the store as though you lost your candy money somewhere along the way.” If a customer came in before I could place the bet, I would pretend to be deciding which penny candy I wanted by pressing my face against the glass candy case. Then I was to linger there, “deciding,” until the customer left. Oh, how I loved this dangerous game! I was very much aware of the consequences if we were found out. Deafy and Aunt Carrie would go to jail, and I would be sent to an orphanage! If a policeman ever came into the store while I was there to place a bet, I would take the nickel out of the paper, pop the paper in my mouth, chew and swallow it, and buy some candy to chew and swallow on top of the paper. They’d never find the evidence on me! Aunt Carrie didn’t teach me that trick. I learned it by watching all those 1930s gangster movies at the Saturday matinees.

Now, my job as a “runner” was not over by a long shot. At 6 PM that evening, I was sent back to Deafy’s to find out if we’d hit the number. The 7 Star Final edition of the New York Journal-American printed the race results of that day. All the editions of the daily newspapers were laid out on the wooden newsstand outside the store. The Journal-American very conveniently printed the race results on the front page of its final edition, so I only had to lean against the stand, glance at the race results, and memorize the three significant digits in the totals. Then I would run back home and announce the day’s winning number. Aunt Carrie was seldom a winner, but none of us ever got arrested, and I always felt proud of my performance.

July 16, 2003

About Ronnie Smith Bromm:

Ronnie Smith Bromm was born at Fordham Hospital in 1929, and was raised in the Bronx by her aunt and uncle after the death of her mother in 1930. She graduated from Walton High School in 1947, and played softball with the Alpine Girls in the 1940s. Her future husband, Johnny Bromm, was the team coach. In 1973, she umpired an exhibition game at Yankee Stadium between Mickey Mantle’s All Stars and George Plimpton’s All Stars. She currently lives in Rahway, New Jersey.

Ronnie Smith Bromm

Sure enough, we got more comments after posting that image of the man with his racing form on the subway.

Here are just some recollections shared:

“Big Red Lottery!” My grandmother was what you call a “bolitera.” She ran a number joint on 162nd street and Prospect Ave. It was a “candy store” in the front and numbers in the back. Next door, there was a barbershop, two doors down a Botanica and across the street were two bars. She didn’t have to go too far for her clientele. She also had a “card game” every Friday night. Little did I know she would be my influence in getting an Economics degree. Who knew? LOL.—Herbert R.

“The local number runner in my neighborhood made his rounds daily to the ladies: the seniors, the stay at home moms. They made tea and served refreshments. Sometimes they gathered together in small groups in somebody’s living room and had a grand time. I was at a block association meeting one time when he made his appearance. Meeting was adjourned for 15 minutes so folks could take care of business. Out came the refreshments.” —Lisa From The Bronx

What memories do you have about the old numbers’ game? Or any other Bronx memories? Share away!

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Ed García Conde

Ed García Conde is a life-long Bronxite who spends his time documenting the people, places, and things that make the borough a special place in the hopes of dispelling the negative stereotypes associated with The Bronx. His writings are often cited by mainstream media and is often consulted for his expertise on the borough's rich history.