Buffalo in the ’50s: Sharkey Ehrenreich, ‘Buffalo’s Betting Commissioner’

By Steve Cichon

Nominally, he ran Sharkey’s Smoke Shop at Eagle and Washington, and later Bison Toy & Novelty on North Division Street as a small businessman. He later admitted to the State Crime Commission that he’d been using those places as a front to take bets since the early 1940s.

Jack “Sharkey” Ehrenreich (Buffalo News archives)

The toy store made about $3,000 a year. Bookmaking was taking in $4,000 a weekend.

It wasn’t that Jack “Sharkey” Ehrenreich was a bookie that made him such an interesting character in the fabric of Buffalo life in the ’50s and ’60s, it was his grandiose style which made it all so memorable.

When he was accused of having help staying in business from inside the police department, Sharkey told his state questioners that he was good at “out drifting” the police. “When I see the (police) car, I just move onto the next block,” he testified in 1960.

He also testified that day that he was planning on leaving the bookmaking business behind, and that he could easily live on the small amount of money made by his legitimate businesses because after all, he said, “I have no vices. I don’t place bets.”

The last time Sharkey had promised to leave the world of gambling was 1953, when he told an assistant district attorney, “I’m out of the business. I’m planning to move out of town.”

That was partially true in that he did leave his home base of Buffalo for Hamburg. Buffalo News wordsmith Ray Hill called it “the highlight of his betting career,” when, in 1954, Buffalo Raceway banished Sharkey from the track because the book he was running there was putting a sizable dent in the take at the track’s own parimutuel betting windows.

The law caught up with him a few times. In 1947, he was arrested amidst five telephones and baseball betting slips. Charges of taking bets on horses were dropped in 1950. A year later, police assigned a patrolman to stand guard outside Sharkey’s cigar store to make sure recently disappeared trappings of betting — like a giant chalkboard with constantly updated baseball scores and stats — didn’t reappear.

A family man and a good guy around town, Sharkey Ehrenreich was the sort of colorful figure who used to live in everyone’s neighborhood, and added to the variety and vibrancy of life in our city, even if from just on the other side of the law. But just how terrible was the crime he was committing?

In our day and age, instead of a guy like Sharkey — with one eye on ball scores and another for approaching cops — hanging out at a cigar shop or by a corner payphone, these days Buffalonians with a basic yearning for action can now enjoy scratch-offs and Quick Draw, fully legalized and institutionalized by the New York State Lottery.

Just like with Sharkey, all you need is a dollar and a dream.