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Our Rich History: George Ratterman (1926-2007), football star, reform sheriff, led Newport’s cleanup


Part 55 of our series, “Resilience and Renaissance: Newport, Kentucky, 1795-2020.”

By Richard Challis
Special to NKyTribune

Northern Kentucky has its heroes — those people who dramatically changed the culture of the area by their actions.

Long before George Ratterman became the reform sheriff of Campbell County, Kentucky, expelling an entrenched Jewish syndicate and Italian mafia organized crime element in Newport, he was a national sports legend and an icon in the Greater Cincinnati area. Many Newport residents, during the football season, would listen to the local TV and radio affiliate (WCPO) of the National Football League (NFL) Cleveland Browns’ network.

George Ratterman (Photo courtesy Paul A. Tenkotte)

Ratterman was born in 1926 to an affluent Catholic family in Hyde Park, a suburb of Cincinnati. He excelled as a student, and was a multifaceted athlete at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati. He played college football for the University of Notre Dame from 1944 through 1946, primarily as a backup to quarterbacks Johnny Lujack and Frank Dancewicz.

Ratterman was the last of only four students in Notre Dame’s history to earn letters in four different sports, namely football, baseball, basketball and tennis. Legendary coach Frank Leahy called him “The greatest all-around athlete in Notre Dame’s history.” His ability was finally recognized when he led the College All-Stars to a surprise win over the reigning NFL Champion Chicago Bears in 1947.

Ratterman played professional football with the Buffalo Bills of the All-America Football Conference (AAFC) from 1947 to 1949, when the league merged with the NFL. In his first year at the age of 20, Ratterman’s high-risk philosophy was evident in his league-leading 22 touchdown passes and league-high 24 interceptions. This set a professional football rookie record that stood for more than 50 years.

Ratterman continued his career with the New York Yanks of the NFL in 1950. In that year, he led the NFL in TD passes. In 1951, he joined the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League, and he then played with the NFL Cleveland Browns from 1952 through 1956. In 1956, he became the Browns’ starting quarterback succeeding Otto Graham. Ratterman was the first player in the history of football to wear a radio receiver in his helmet, which allowed Cleveland Coach Paul Brown to call plays using a microphone instead of sending in a messenger player for each play. Ratterman was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, October 8, 1956. A leg injury four games into the season, on October 21, 1956, ended his football career.

Ratterman attended five different law schools at night, during the off-season. After ten years, he earned his law degree in 1956 at the Salmon P. Chase Collage of Law in Cincinnati and became licensed to practice law in Ohio and Kentucky. When he retired as an active player with the Cleveland Browns in 1956, he returned to Cincinnati, joined an investment firm and lived in upscale Fort Thomas.

From the early 1900s the reform movements in Newport failed, basically due to the fact that the city’s leading citizens benefited financially from almost one hundred years of vice. Newporters even had their own curious definition of a “Liberal,” that is, one who was in favor of noninterference with vice and gambling from federal and state governments.

The acrimonious relationship between Protestants and Catholics and their parishioners had its roots in the early Greater Cincinnati antebellum period, and culminated in the anti-Catholic, anti-immigration platform of the popular Know-Nothing Party. These lasting effects resulted in Protestant ministerial reformers allowing raids against Catholic bingo parlors, as well as “circus raids” against gambling casinos, which were “forewarned” to close. This duplicity of actions caused resentment in the large and successful Catholic community of Newport.

There had been success with reform movements in neighboring Kenton County, namely the Lookout House in Fort Wright was closed as a concession by the Jewish syndicate to the reformers there. On the other hand, the “reform” movement in Campbell County at the time was totally compromised. The syndicate was able to get its “Enforcer,” Albert “Red” Masterson, to lead the Newport Civic Association (NCA) under the slogan of “Clean Up, Not Close Up.” In actuality, the NCA was merely a pawn of the syndicate.

Under director J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI was not particularly focused on organized crime in the United States at the time, at least not until a raid on mafia bosses in upstate New York in 1957. In fact, Hoover was known to associate with Jewish syndicate and Italian mafia organized crime bosses, generally considering them entrepreneurs and anti-Communists. Of course, by the 1950s, the syndicate and mafia had been entrenched in Newport for decades.

At the suggestion of Kentucky’s Governor Bert T. Combs, a former justice of the state’s highest court, the Committee of 500 was formed in Newport as a separate political action group, though still closely allied with Protestant ministers. They attracted the highest of the Campbell County citizenry, wealthy businessmen like Henry J. Hosea, Claude W. Johnson, Jr., and Edwin J. Hengelbrok, Jr. (one of Ratterman’s brothers-in-law) and prominent lawyers like Henry Cook (the former U. S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Kentucky).

The Committee of 500 members chose Elmer Keitz, a Protestant member, to run as an Independent for Campbell County Sheriff, but he declined the offer. Claude Johnson knew that Catholic participation was needed if the campaign were to be successful. He then offered the position to Ratterman, who was incensed that there were no Catholic members. Anne Ratterman, George’s wife, was against his candidacy, not only because of the dangers from organized crime’s threats against the family or from harassing telephone calls, but because the sheriff’s position only paid $7,000 a year. Their family consisted of eight children. Further, since past Campbell County sheriffs usually retired as wealthy men, there was the stigma of corruption that historically attached itself to the office.

In the past, syndicate and mafia members smeared the reform candidates, and George Ratterman was no exception. On May 9, 1961, while campaigning as a candidate for sheriff of Campbell County, Ratterman was drugged with chloral hydrate, a “Mickey Finn,” sometimes called “knock-out drops,” which the mob often slipped into drinks to incapacitate the victim. Ratterman was put in a bed with stripper, Juanita Hodges (also known as “April Flowers”) in an attempt to blackmail him and force him to quit the race. The plot was uncovered, and publicity from the botched frame-up attempt catapulted him to victory in the sheriff’s race.

Before Ratterman became sheriff, federal agents were involved with prosecutions and indictments on his behalf. US Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy knew of Ratterman’s sports fame. However, it was Kennedy’s and Ratterman’s personal friend, William Geoghegan (a Cincinnati attorney and Deputy to Byron “Wizzard” White, Assistant Attorney General to Attorney General Robert Kennedy), who persuaded Kennedy to prosecute successfully violations of Ratterman’s civil rights. With the help of Attorney General Robert Kennedy and Governor Bert Combs, Ratterman was able to rid Campbell County and particularly Newport of its organized crime element. The Jewish syndicate and Italian mafia moved their Northern Kentucky operations to Las Vegas, Nevada in February 1962.

After his tenure as sheriff of Campbell County, Kentucky, Ratterman ran as a Republican and was an unsuccessful candidate for county judge and United States Congress in the late 1960s. He worked as a commentator on TV and radio broadcasts of AFL and NFL football games for ABC-TV from 1960 to 1964 and for NBC-TV from 1965 to 1973. He was offered and accepted an investment position in Denver, Colorado. In 2007, George Ratterman died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease.

For more information, see:

Richard Challis, “Northern Kentucky, The State’s Stepchild. Origins and Effects of Organized Crime,” The Journal of Kentucky Studies 29 (Sept. 2012): 149-181.

George and Anne Ratterman. Personal Interview with James C. Claypool, July 17, 2001, Centennial, Colorado.

Robin Caraway, Newport: The Sin City Years (Charleston, SC: Arcadia, 2009).

Robert Gioielli, “Newport Reform Groups,” in Paul A. Tenkotte and James C. Claypool, eds., The Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2009): 660-661.
Hank Messick, Razzle Dazzle (Covington, KY: For the Love of Books Publishing, 1995).

Hank Messick, Syndicate Wife: The Story of Ann Drahmann Coppola (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1968).

Richard  Challis,  at age 17, was one of the youngest members of the reform “Committee of 500.” George Ratterman sent him a membership in 1961. In 2012, after a career in advertising and with Comair Airlines, Challis earned a Master’s degree in Public History at Northern Kentucky University (NKU). He and his wife Emily currently live in Erlanger, Kentucky.
   
We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.


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2 Comments

  1. Marv Dunn says:

    Wow, what an informative article! I’m old enough to remember the activities around the late fifties and early sixties. Cincinnati was considered a great convention city in those days; meet at Cincinnati hotel in daytime and party in Newport at night! Finding Ratterman in bed with a hooker was a really big deal. I suppose the clean-up was a good thing but both Cincinnati and Newport have suffered economically since.

  2. Toni Daniels says:

    I can remember my parents, who were friends of the Ratterman family, talking about this era of Campbell County history.

Reply to Toni Daniels Cancel Reply