In 1980, an ex-college football quarterback stepped into the Chicago Board of Trade's U.S. Treasury bond pit--and nothing happened.
Intimidated by the shouting and afraid of losing his tiny nest egg, Charles P. DiFrancesca stood around with his hands at his sides. Ten weeks after he started, he'd made only six trades.
Then something clicked, and as William D. Falloon describes in his new book, "Charlie D.," the baby-faced jock started burning up the pit.
For the next 11 years, almost up to the day of his death from cancer at age 39, Charlie D. was the most active trader in the futures industry's busiest market.
He built a $40 million fortune, and became a legend of sorts, but only among fellow traders. He never talked to the press, and his public profile was practically nil when he died in 1991.
Through 240 pages, veteran financial journalist Falloon labors doggedly to convey a sense of this remarkable unknown.
Writing about a person he never met and who died several years earlier puts Falloon at a disadvantage.
The book too often lacks the detail to flesh out its main character, let alone any peripheral figures. It relies too much on glowing testimonials.
Falloon unwisely tries to compensate by inserting himself into the narrative, carping in first-person about the scarcity of information.
The book is at its best when Falloon gets enough facts to round out a revealing anecdote. During a trip to Super Bowl XXII in 1988 with a pair of his former high school football coaches, for instance, Charlie D. comes to life.
DiFrancesca defied some of the worst stereotypes of traders who strike it super-rich: He didn't booze it up, snort drugs, cheat on his wife or selfishly hoard his fortune.
In fact, Charlie D. spread around big bucks with the verve of a kid on an endless shopping spree at FAO Schwarz.
To put it mildly, when he decided to treat his coaches to the trip of a lifetime, money was no object.
DiFrancesca met the wary pair at O'Hare International Airport with a frenzy of high-fives, in spite of his then-ongoing struggle with lymphoma.
On the first-class flight, he walked a fine line between boyish and boorish trying to win a smile from a frosty flight attendant.
Then it was on to a Las Vegas casino, where DiFrancesca, tipping dealers, drivers and cocktail waitresses $100 at a time, casually staked the stunned coaches to $15,000 worth of chips.
After a marathon gambling session, the group moved on to Southern California, where Charlie D. helped an old lady off the plane, pretended to walk off with her purse, then returned it to her stuffed with cash.
By the time the Washington-Denver football game started, the group had bet on everything from interceptions to quarterback sneaks.
Even when the game ended, Charlie D. was still at it, buying a commemorative cap straight off the head of a Super Bowl official.
"Charlie offered the bewildered man $100 for his hat," the book relates. "When the man said no, Charlie offered him $120, $140, $160, $180. As the price rose, the man's wife nudged him in the ribs."
Charlie D. got the hat for $200, plunked it on the head of one coach, then started bidding for the wife's cap.
Is that how they do it in the bond pit?
Other parts of the book are memorable as well. For students of the markets, the text of a presentation Charlie D. gave to neophyte traders is interesting reading.
So, too, is the saga of DiFrancesca's struggle with cancer, which also struck his brother and mother at about the same time. Falloon inconclusively tries to pin their disease on the polluted environment around Waukesha, Wis., where DiFrancesca grew up.
Talk about a trader to the end: As the chemotherapy took a terrible toll, Charlie D. donned protective gear so he could keep his place in the rough-and-tumble pit.
When his doctor gave him bad news in early 1991, DiFrancesca offered her a trade: If she kept him alive until June 1 of that year, he promised to donate another $60,000 to cancer research. He died on May 23. Readers will find themselves wishing he'd lasted more than just another seven days.
"What made him so successful? We will never truly know. But it started with all those intangibles that we refer to simply as guts and heart."
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