SI’s Vault unearths legendary E’ville stories of Dog Racing, Poker Rooms & Emery High’s Darnell Robinson

3 mins read

Sports Illustrated’s ‘Vault’ is an archive of articles curated by the editors of the legendary sports magazine that has been in circulation since 1954. Three articles have been republished online recently that touch on stories significant to Emeryville.

It is well documented that Emeryville’s Blue Star Amusement saw the implementation of the first mechanical rabbit that shaped modern greyhound racing, but did you know the sport had an indirect role in taking out the notorious mobster Al Capone? According to newspaper archives, Capone’s involvement in the sport is what exposed the unreported income that ultimately led to him being jailed for tax evasion.

As recently as the 1980’s, Emeryville’s strip of San Pablo Avenue had as many as six card clubs according to a 1985 Vault article. The piece provides a historical recap of the seedier times in our city referencing a 1968 study that termed us “the least prestigious place to live in the Bay Area.” (we’ll get to work on that T-shirt! ;).

A 1994 Vault story also spotlighted Emery High Spartans legend Darnell Robinson who finished his high school career as the leading scorer in California men’s high school basketball history with a total of 3,361 points. Known as “The Tank”, Robinson received an athletic scholarship at the University of Arkansas where he went on to win a National Championship. Robinson was drafted by the Dallas Mavericks and played internationally but never made it to the NBA. “You kind of thought this would be Shaq before there was Shaq,” noted one coach in this more comprehensive SF Gate article.


No harebrained scheme, inventor Owen Smith’s mechanical bunny put greyhound racing on the track, helped the Feds nab Al Capone and is one reason the dogs are America’s best bet

By Robert Cantwell
Originally printed on August 27th, 1973.

During the fourth race at the Bonita Springs dog track in Florida not long ago, a big black greyhound named Happy Marty fell going around the first turn. He got up to race on but reversed directions, passing the grandstand again all alone. In the control tower high above the track the lure operator, John Braham, who had seen such things happen before, speeded up the mechanical rabbit as fast as it would go—about 96 mph—to put it far beyond the reach of the seven other dogs in the race.

Then, when the rabbit was coming off the backstretch, Braham cut the power completely and let it coast as it approached the oncoming dog. The mechanical lure is a big contraption about two feet long, a fleecy, white artificial beast made of spring steel covered with the sort of imitation sheepskin used to make the linings of inexpensive winter coats. It has enormous gleaming ruby-red eyes and costs $35 at the factory. It is not designed to fool dogs into thinking it is a real rabbit; rather it is made to look like a rabbit to people watching in the distant grandstand. Happy Marty took one look at the apparition coming toward him, turned tail and headed back the way he should have run in the first place. “If that dog had wheeled to the outside,” said Braham, “I would have missed him. But he wheeled to the inside, and the arm holding the rabbit hit him right on the butt.”

Read More on SI.com/vault →

The Key Club was once on San Pablo Avenue next to where the Bank Club Bar and Wally’s Cafe Stand (Photo: John Stashik/BayAreaRailFan.com)

If You Play Your Cards Right, You Can Make It Big In Tiny Emeryville

By Roger Dionne
Originally printed on June 3rd, 1985.

Emeryville. A gritty-sounding name for a seedy little city tucked among mud flats between Oakland and Berkeley on the wrong side of San Francisco Bay. Its 3½ square miles are home to 5,000 people; its history has been shaped by political machines and machinations reminiscent of Tammany Hall. Although Emeryville has enjoyed a recent spate of development, a 1968 study termed it “the least prestigious place to live in the Bay Area.”

Emeryville was named after Joseph S. Emery, a gold-rusher who bought 200 acres in the area in 1859 for $8,000″ and parlayed them into a small empire. Its principal distinction is the fact that it has more legal poker rooms (six) than churches (one, the House of Prayer Church). What’s more, a game often played in the Emeryville poker rooms, no-limit draw poker, is one seldom found anywhere else nowadays. In draw poker there’s normally a fixed limit—$2 or $4 or $10—on what a player can bet or raise, but in the toughest of the Emeryville draw-poker games, the only limit on the amount a player can bet or raise is what he has in front of him.

Read More on SI.com/vault →

Emery High’s Darnell Robinson

By Kelli Anderson
Originally printed on April 20, 1994.

By the time he was five months old, Darnell Robinson had already destroyed his first crib. The second one didn’t survive his infancy, either. ”I refused to buy him a third crib,” says Robinson’s mom, Pamela Chaney, who had presciently nicknamed her son Tank shortly after his birth. ”I just gave up and piled pillows around the bed.”With cribs treated like so much kindling at five months, what did basketball opponents have to look forward to 19 years later, when Tank was 6 ft. 11 in. and 260 pounds?

They might consider themselves fortunate that one of Tank’s other family nicknames is the Sugar. Robinson’s impact on Hawgball has been sweet indeed. He arrived in Fayetteville from Oakland last fall as one of the most highly recruited Arkansas freshmen in memory, having set the California prep career scoring record, with 3,361 points. Along with 6 ft. 11 in.classmate Lee Wilson, Robinson has given the Razorbacks an altitudinal look that has changed Hawgball from what used to be a pressing frenzy to something resembling a post-dominated half-court game.

Read More on SI.com/vault →

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Rob Arias

is a third generation Californian and East Bay native who lived in Emeryville from 2003 to 2021. Rob founded The E'ville Eye in 2011 after being robbed at gunpoint and lamenting the lack of local news coverage. Rob's "day job" is as a creative professional.


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