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Book Review

In His New Book, Jerry Izenberg Pays Homage to the Golden Era of Heavyweights

Bernard Fernandez

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JERRY IZENBERG’S “Once There Were Giants”: — Anyone who saw the great 2004 biopic about Ray Charles, Ray, might recall what Jamie Foxx, who won the Academy Award as Best Actor for his spot-on portrayal of the R&B legend, said in explaining Charles’ mid-1960s excursion into country music.

“It’s the stories, man,” Foxx, as Charles, said of the title character’s surprisingly effective take on an entirely different American art form than the one which initially had brought him acclaim.

Boxing, perhaps more than any other sport, provides rich and engaging material for those with a keen enough eye to get to the heart of the matter, and the literary skill to express that knowledge in prose that all but leaps off the page of a book or newspaper column. Put into that context, it might be said that Jerry Izenberg’s latest treatise on the fight game, Once There Were Giants: The Golden Age of Heavyweight Boxing, contains as many subtle hints of venerated guitar pickers Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie as of iconic sports writers A.J. Liebling and Paul Gallico. Then again, no comparison of Izenberg to anyone else is valid; like his friend, the late, great Muhammad Ali, the 86-year-old columnist emeritus for the Newark Star-Ledger is an original, a master wordsmith and observer of the human condition who can take familiar source material and wring from it small gems of fresh insight that glisten like diamonds in the noonday sun.

The premise of Izenberg’s 216-page journey into an era of big-man boxing that was and perhaps forever shall be unmatched is as straightforward as a stiff jab to the nose. It begins with an introductory chapter on mob influence that stained prize rings until the late 1950s before moving on to the figurative launch of that golden age, with Sonny Liston’s back-to-back, one-round thumpings of Floyd Patterson, and extending through Evander Holyfield’s disqualification victory over ear-gnawing Mike Tyson. Along the way readers again are treated to the best, and sometimes worst, of Liston, Cassius Clay/Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Larry Holmes, Michael Spinks, Tyson and Holyfield, with nods toward such important contributing characters as Gerry Cooney and Leon Spinks.

It was a 35-year period of sustained heavyweight glory so deep at the top end that the gifted likes of Jerry Quarry, Ron Lyle, Earnie Shavers, Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams and Cooney never held even a sliver of what once was deemed the most prestigious title in all of sport, but has since been severely devalued by the proliferation of sanctioning organizations only concerned with their own self-serving little realms. (Note:  Izenberg mentions Lennox Lewis and Riddick Bowe only in passing, contending that their prime years did not fully intersect with other principal players in the golden age.)

Izenberg pulls no punches in his disdain of the convoluted mess that has made shared championships the norm, complaining ofa tsunami of alphabet-soup commissions, each using an assortment of acronyms (and) making enormous money grabs  that would change boxing forever. Their names were ludicrous: World Boxing Council, World Boxing Association, International Boxing Federation – none of which was global, and none of which was respected as a council, an association, or a federation. More than one of their ersatz titles often carried the suspicion that they had arrived cash-on-delivery because of the private fiefdoms and sanctioning fees those bodies fiercely guarded and collected from each title fight – or, as they might put it at the Wharton School of Finance, the more titles, the more money.”

At this point, you’re probably thinking Once There Were Giants doesn’t really contain anything that a reasonably astute fight fan doesn’t already know. But that isn’t always the case, and even in going over well-trod ground he turns phrases with the nimbleness of the Ali Shuffle.

Consider this tasty tidbit on the evolution of Frazier’s renowned left hook, which caught even me a bit off-guard seeing as how I have covered boxing in Smokin’ Joe’s adopted hometown of Philadelphia for many years and had numerous conversations with the man himself as well as with his children, Marvis Frazier and Jacqui Frazier-Lyde.

“One of my dad’s jobs was to care for the pigs,” Marvis says in relation to his father’s childhood as a field laborer in his birth town of Beaufort, S.C. “They had one that was 300 pounds and Daddy used a stick to get him to move. And the pig turned on him and chased him.”

Joe, who then around 12 years old, ran, tripped over a rock and broke his left arm. There was no money for a doctor. The arm had to heal by itself and could no longer be extended anywhere near as far as the right arm. This may have been the reason Frazier had to work so much harder than most fighters to develop strength in that arm.

It would become his most powerful weapon by far, giving him what had long been known in the gyms of Philly as a Philadelphia left hook – a misnomer in his case because of its genesis. What it was, was a Beaufort-inspired, hell-raising left hook.

It was a leaping left hook from Frazier that floored Ali in the 15th and final round of what arguably is the most significant boxing event of all time, the “Fight of the Century,” which the squatty Philadelphia brawler won on a unanimous decision on March 8, 1971, at Madison Square Garden.

After the fight, Izenberg – and it says much about the respect with which he was held by those he wrote about – was invited to grab a bite with Frazier, which enabled him to bear witness to something other reporters did not get the opportunity to see.

“We went out to eat, and while we stood in front of a deli, three little kids came running up,” Jerry writes. “One of them said, `My daddy says Muhammad Ali was drugged.’

“Anger flashed in Joe Frazier’s eyes. `Go home and tell your daddy he is right. He was drugged. I drug him with a left hook.’”

Of the steady stream of limousines carrying fur-clad, jewelry-festooned men and women that pulled up in front of the Garden for Ali-Frazier I, Izenberg suggests there might have been an ulterior motive other than boxing for the beautiful people to make an appearance.

“Freddie Guinyard, a friend of Joe Louis who ran an after-hours joint in Detroit, noted my puzzlement,” Izenberg writes. “Let me explain,” he said, and he began to point at the cars. “Numbers, Detroit; Girls, L.A.; Drugs, New York City. It’s not what you might think. These people don’t give a s— about Ali. All they care about is he beat The Man (the government), which is something they’ve tried to do all their lives, and that’s cool with them.”

Of his trip to Zaire to cover the Oct. 30, 1974, “Rumble in the Jungle,” won by Ali on a shocking, eighth-round knockout of the seemingly invincible George Foreman, Izenberg finds time not only to cover the action inside the ropes, but to set that bizarre scene before and after in bold strokes.

The trip was historic on the one hand and an ordeal on the other, Jerry admitting to having a “perceived romance” inherent in traveling to “such an exotic locale to write about a sports event that, from the crudest of crumbling stadiums in Kinshasa, would be beamed to the world by what was then the most sophisticated of satellites.”

Of Zaire’s dictatorial president, Mobutu Sese Seko, Izenberg discerned not even the thinnest scintilla of actual grandeur. “The name Mobutu had given himself was President Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Wa Za Banga of Zaire, which translates to `The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake.” (But) even that was incomplete. In addition to his `endurance and inflexible will to win,’ there was also his ability to murder, steal and maintain happy ties with the CIA. He had already been fingered by Amnesty International for the torture of political prisoners and had not hesitated to support episodes of strategic genocide in neighboring Rwanda when it serves his purpose.”

Many years after being taken down by Ali, George Foreman reaffirmed an ancient truth to Izenberg: Styles really do make fights.

“It’s simple,” Foreman said. “Styles dictate every fight. I never had trouble punching down to a shorter man. The uppercuts were the reason. I could fight Joe a hundred times and probably beat him 99. But I could fight Muhammad a hundred times and he’d probably beat me 99. Yet when Joe and Muhammad fought each other, trust me, it would have been life and death a hundred times.”

Just a couple more examples of Izenberg’s ability to cut through the bullspit with grace and clarity:

Of Las  Vegas, the sunless, timeless netherworld that has become the prime landing spot for megafights: “Vegas is a place where nobody knows what time it is because the clickety-click of dice on green felt tables respects no hour. There are no clocks in the casinos and no daylight streaming into the rooms. There is no afternoon, no concept of tonight or tomorrow. A dealer on the lam from Louisiana once told me, `In this joint, it’s like you’re working on a submarine. There is only now.’”

Of Cus D’Amato, who managed Patterson and Tyson as if every waiter was trying to poison their and his food:  He was “a boxing mentor who spoke in parables and wrapped himself in an impenetrable cloak of paranoia.”

Of cackling, electric-haired promoter Don King: “On the battlefield of boxing, victory often goes to the man with the tenacity of a pit bull, the patience of an inch-worm, and the track record of Caligula. And in that time and place, Don King was the unchallenged wearer of the only triple crown.”

It took me only a day and a half to consume Once There Were Giants from cover to cover, but it was time well spent.

Check out more boxing news on video at The Boxing Channel.

Book Review

“12 Rounds in Lo’s Gym” by Todd D. Synder: Book Review by Thomas Hauser

Thomas Hauser

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12 Rounds in Lo’s Gym by Todd D. Snyder (West Virginia University Press) is a memoir about Snyder, his father, Appalachia, and boxing in coal country.

Snyder grew up in Cowen, West Virginia, and paints a grim picture of life there.

“There is only one stoplight in the entire county,” he writes. “And that stoplight isn’t even necessary. Nothing much happens and when something happens that looks like something, everyone talks about it. To be a man, for the younger version of myself, was to dunk basketballs, catch touchdowns, score knockouts, and have sex with beautiful women, all before finding your place in the coal mines.”

The coal mines.

“When economic times get tough,” Snyder recounts, “so do the coal company lawyers. They’d shut down the mine, file bankruptcy, and cheat the workers out of their retirement money.” In 2015, Patriot Coal Corporation unfolded a plan to divert money that had been set aside for health care benefits for 969 retired coal miners to pay bankruptcy lawyers and other costs. “Now you see them, now you don’t,” Snyder writes. “No more health care benefits. Life in Cowen is no fair fight. You work till you die, be it in the early or late rounds of life. Folks know the judges aren’t gonna give them a fair shake when it goes to the scorecards. They know a fixed fight when they see one.”

And there’s one thing more to know about life in Cowen.

“Our heroes are defined by their ability to take punishment, their willingness to grit their teeth through pain. Even Jesus Christ with all his talk of peace, love, and forgiveness would have never made it big in my town if not for that long ring walk to Calvary. He had to prove that he was one tough son-of-a-bitch or nobody in Cowen would have taken him seriously.”

Todd’s father was Mike “Lo” Snyder. The nickname “Lo” came from his penchant as a star running back in high school to run low to the ground to hit holes that the offensive line opened for him and, when need be, open holes on his own.

“You can be a big fish in a small pond in a town like Cowen, West Virginia,” Todd notes. “You can be the prettiest girl in school or the richest kid in town or the toughest guy on the block. That’s what my father was – a big fish in a small trailer park.”

After graduating from Webster County High School, Mike Snyder exchanged his helmet and shoulder pads for a miner’s accessories.

“For years,” Todd continues, “he and my grandfather worked side by side at the Smooth Coal Company. Most young men from Cowen dream of becoming something better than their fathers, but their fathers are what they eventually become. That’s how cyclical poverty works.”

The cycle gnawed at Mike Snyder’s insides.

“My father was the kind of fellow who was always much happier in retrospect,” Todd remembers. “Never quite enjoying the moment itself. By the time he turned thirty-five years old, my father resigned himself to the fact that he’d accomplished all that he was ever going to accomplish. Those touchdowns hadn’t gotten him anywhere but right back to the place where folks had always told him he’d end up.”

“My only fear of death,” Mike Snyder once said, “is that hell might be coal powered. The devil will have a coal mine down there in hell heating things up, and I’ll have to be a damn coal miner the rest of eternity.”

Within that milieu, boxing was an important part of Mike Snyder’s life.

“My father’s childhood dream,” Todd recounts, “was to climb through the ropes at Madison Square Garden to beat the hell out of some poor fellow on national television and score a symbolic victory for the town of Cowen, for all of Appalachia perhaps.”

Several months after starting work at the Smooth Coal Company, Mike took up boxing. He had five amateur fights, winning all of them by knockout. Then marriage and the demands of coal mining ended his sojourn as a fighter. “If the right person would’a come along and paid some attention to me,” he later lamented, “I could’a made something out of this boxing shit.”

In 2000, Mike set up a makeshift boxing ring in a small room in the back of the Classic Curl Beauty Shop (a business run by his wife). It would be a ray of sunshine in an otherwise dreary life, he thought, to teach a few young men how to box. Four years later, the First Baptist Church of Cowen opened a community center and gave Mike the upstairs portion of the building for a gym as a way of enticing young men at risk into the church family. Then, in 2009 when it became clear that young men were coming to the gym to learn to box but not coming to Jesus, the church elders shut the gym down. Thereafter, Mike erected a small training facility in the yard behind his house.

“The second [Baptist church] reincarnation of Lo’s Gym was a big deal in our small town,” Todd recalls. “My father found himself with a gym full of thirty to forty kids a night, mostly teenagers. He’d work each kid three rounds on the hand pads, sometimes doing fifteen or twenty rounds in a row before taking a break. This after working a 4:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. shift in the coal mines each day.”

Mike Snyder had to convince his charges that conditioning and technique were as important as strength and toughness.

He was cautious about sparring.

“A bad sparring match,” Todd explains, “would run a kid off. He’d get whipped and you’d never see him again. My father wasn’t in the business of running kids off or getting them hurt. He mostly viewed the gym as a safe haven for poor and troubled kids. He didn’t care if any of the guys competed. Rarely would he let fighters take part in what trainers call live sparring.”

“One of my father’s biggest flaws as a trainer,” Todd continues, “was that he almost completely focused on the positives, rarely getting on a kid and telling him what he was doing wrong. My father’s formula was to build a kid up, give him as much confidence and self-respect as possible, occasionally nudging him about minor flaws in his technique.”

“Fighters from West Virginia don’t have many hometown heroes,” Todd acknowledges. “West Virginia fight towns have never been fortunate enough to have a working-class champion, at least not in the same way Youngstown, Ohio, celebrates Ray Mancini. Our boys were always in the tune-up fights, the last-minute replacements, the underdogs. A few ol’ boys from the Mountain State had the opportunity to get in the ring with boxing’s elite. Our boys always came out on the wrong end of it. When you turn eighteen years old, you get to chew stuff, buy lottery tickets, and sign up for your first Toughman Contest. But the working-class man-boys from my town always had their carriages turned back into pumpkins. Everyone thinks they can box until they give it a try.”

For the young men training in Lo’s Gym, a “champion” was a fighter who won a minor regional amateur title. Or maybe a local toughman contest.

The three gyms saved Mike Snyder’s life as much as they enhanced the lives of the young men who learned to box there. They gave him purpose. And ultimately, they brought him recognition. As word of “Lo’s Gym:” spread, he was honored by the Jefferson Awards Foundation in a ceremony at the state capital and later invited to attend the national awards ceremony in Washington DC.

The Jefferson awards, Todd explains, were designed “to highlight the accomplishments of ordinary folks who did exceptional things in their communities without expectation of recognition. My father had never been to our nation’s capital. I’m not sure if he had ever been to West Virginia’s state capital. He hadn’t been much of anywhere outside of the Tri-State Boxing Association. My grandmother bought my father a J.C. Penny suit for the award ceremony. It was probably the first suit he’d owned in his life.”

Meanwhile, Todd’s life had taken him away from Appalachia. Writing of his early years, he recalls, “I didn’t fish. I didn’t hunt. No turkey season. No deer camp. No tree stand. I didn’t ride four-wheelers. I didn’t drive a jacked-up Ford truck with a lift kit. I didn’t chew Skoal or score touchdowns. I didn’t fit.”

Thus, the move away from home.

“My decision to ship off to college required a new identity, a new understanding of my own Appalachian manhood. We are born into communities and family work histories that demonstrate a very rigid pathway to becoming men. If we earn college degrees, we become The Other. We’ll never be able to come back home.”

He’s now an associate professor of English at Siena College in Albany, New York, far removed from the coal mines of Appalachia.

Snyder is a good writer. He crafts well-drawn portraits and moving vignettes about the dozens of young men and the occasional woman who filtered in and out of Lo’s gym and became, however briefly, boxers.

“Stereotyped and stigmatized,” he says in summary,” Appalachian folks are easy prey, socioeconomically bullied by privileged society, the by-product of a uniquely Appalachian socioeconomic system, one that lacks access to both economic and educational opportunity. Our stories are tragic and beautiful. In these parables of Lo’s Gym’s, I write the story of Appalachia. This is who we are – fighters. We fight like hell, knowing the other fellow has the advantage.”

12 Rounds in Lo’s Gym is as much about brawling in a boxing ring as boxing. It’s about gym fights, toughman contests, and amateur bouts with a few low-level professional encounters thrown in. And it’s a reminder of what boxing can do to lift up young men and women who have gone through life without much hope or self-esteem and have little else to celebrate in their lives.

Thomas Hauser’s email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His most recent book – A Dangerous Journey: Another Year Inside Boxing – was published this autumn by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.

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Book Review

Roy McHugh’s Monument

Springs Toledo

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A Review of When Pittsburgh Was a Fight Town (2019)

Roy McHugh never met Harry Greb. He was eleven when the Pittsburgh Pandemonium passed away on a rainy day in 1926, and it’s fair to say he just missed him. He was, however, pals with Greb’s pal and sparring partner Cuddy DeMarco, which means he has one degree of separation to my fifteen from the greatest fighter of the last hundred years. As if that wasn’t enough, he also shook the hand of Mike Gibbons, whose hands had been bouncing off Greb’s head just a few years earlier at Forbes Field. McHugh was a child then and still wiping the stars out of his eyes when a package arrived at his door. Inside was a pair of boxing gloves and a handwritten note by Gibbons himself:

Put on these gloves and do your stuff,

Prepare for the days when the roads are rough;

You’ll get a little groggy, but just give life an uppercut.

Those gloves and that note sparked a lifelong passion for fighting and writing. “Some of the other neighborhood kids helped me wear out the boxing gloves,” he told me. His last bout was a “bare-knuckle affair” on a thoroughfare in Alexandria, Louisiana in the summer of 1945. McHugh was stationed there with his company where he served as a machine gun instructor. Did he win? “I thought I was leading on points when the M.P.s broke it up after a minute or so,” he said. “They took both me and the other guy to the city slammer.”

He was already in print by then. His first byline appeared in Iowa’s Coe College Cosmos in the mid-1930s and when the war came, he was on staff at the Cedar Rapids Gazette. In 1947, he was hired by The Pittsburgh Press and spent more hours than anyone else crafting three columns a week for decades. His writing, the work of a perfectionist, is pressed gold. Elegant, economical, and yet rich with little-known facts and wry humor, it appears in a dozen anthologies, among them the 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1985, and 1986 editions of Best Sports Stories.

McHugh’s career opened during the Depression and didn’t close for seventy years give or take. He could write about any subject, though his favorite—the sweet science—was never in question. No boxing writer saw so much for so long or can exceed his talent for transforming a backward glance into living color. And his purpose was plain; he sought to reintroduce his heroes to successive generations, to remind a city increasingly infatuated with ball throwers in black and yellow about the radical individualists whose fists fanned the smoke and whose feats once dominated sports pages.

He tried retirement in 1983. “What are you going to do?” The Press sports editor asked him at the time.

“Nothing,” said McHugh. “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll become the biggest bum on Shiloh Street.”

“Would you consider writing a book—?”

Over the past dozen years, McHugh’s vision deteriorated and his fingers stiffened with arthritis; his typewriter quieted, but was never quite put away. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh’s major dailies did no more than mention Greb’s name a handful of times. They needed reminding. In 2008 a full-page feature discussing Greb alongside Billy Conn appeared in the Post-Gazette. McHugh wrote it. He was 92.

Pittsburgh has since forgotten about Harry Greb. It hardly ever knew him.

Only weeks after he was buried at Calvary Cemetery, a delegation of citizens won the mayor’s support to erect a statue in his memory in Friendship Park, not far from where he was born. It ran into opposition when a few members of city council scoffed at the idea of honoring “a pugilist.” “No proper thinking person would be for it,” griped one of them, “a great majority of the people would be against it.” The plan was forwarded to the art commission, and stalled out.

In August 2018 a petition appeared online to memorialize Greb by renaming the Highland Park Bridge in his honor. The goal was modest—1,000 signatures. It stalled out at 359. Pittsburgh’s population is 301,048. I was downtown in the lobby at the Marriott City Center that summer, leafing through a travel guide book and scoffing aloud about who was not included in either the “Famous Pittsburghers” or “City of Champions” sections. Greb was not mentioned, nor was Conn, Charley Burley, Fritzie Zivic, Teddy Yarosz, or Frank Klaus. The councilman, it seems, was right.

On February 25, 2019 I got a message from Douglas Cavanaugh. “Roy passed today,” it said. He was 103. An introvert averse to accolades, he asked for no ceremony. His ashes are buried at Calvary Cemetery, near Greb and Conn.

Much—too much—was buried with him.

Four months later, he spoke.

When Pittsburgh Was a Fight Town is a 115,000-word monument to those pugilists he idolized during his living years. Much of it was written while he was in his eighties and nineties, which strongly suggests that McHugh had the longest literary prime on record. His mastery is evident immediately, in the preface, where he launches into a treatise of his adopted city’s history as a warm up.

Writing about history is more of a hardship than reading it but McHugh shows us how it’s done. He moves quickly to ward off narcolepsy, brushing aside widely-accepted inaccuracies one after another as if loosening his tie, ushering the reader back to a time when smoke and soot hung heavily in the air and only fools and tourists wore white shirts. “The very atmosphere affected behavior,” he remembers, and taps a spell on his typewriter to conjure up streetlights piercing the gloomy noon, open sewers, and rubbish in vacant lots. And he’s full of surprises. Outsiders complained, he said, not the natives. “They liked the lurid red glow of the steel mills at night. They liked the smoke, because smoke meant jobs.” He speaks with the authority of one who was there, and sets you on a sidewalk or at ringside and lets you eavesdrop on conversations—often one of his own.

You leave these encounters edified. Was Greb really the light puncher of internet boxing forums? Jack Henry, who carried Greb’s spit bucket, said his relative dearth of knockouts is better attributed to sadism. “He’d beat the hell out of guys,” he said. “When they’d start to fall, he’d grab them and hold them up.” Another insider confirmed this. He told McHugh that Greb “never showed mercy to anybody he trained with.”

Did you know that Conn never wore a mouthpiece until Fred Apostoli persuaded him in gruntspeak while socking his jaw during a brutal bout in 1939? Me neither.

Did you know that Burley was offered a shot at Zivic’s welterweight crown? The terms are on page 151, which happens to be what Burley weighed when he stopped a heavyweight in 1942. How did he manage that? McHugh asked him for you. He met the great uncrowned champion when he was a novice filling in for The Press’s regular boxing writer before Burley faced an up-and-comer at the Aragon Gardens. McHugh dismissed Burley as over the hill and then Burley sent the up-and-comer into a slumber in the first round. “I apologized to him,” McHugh admits. “Get me a fight with [middleweight contender Lee] Sala and we’ll be friends,” said Burley. McHugh tried and saw first-hand what the problem was.

If you were watching TCM’s Noir Alley in May, you’ll remember Joan Blondell in Nightmare Alley. McHugh tells us that she wrote letters to Billy Soose “almost every week” after he enlisted in the Navy. If you watched WWF wrestling in the 1970s and 80s, then you’re familiar with Bruno Sammartino. In the 1950s, he was showing promise as a boxer in Pittsburgh and so was hooked up with Whitey Bimstein in New York. “And then one day,” (McHugh again) Sammartino was told to lace ’em up to spar with a scowling hulk fresh out of the clink. Sammartino went five rounds with Sonny Liston at Stillman’s Gym.

Curious about what happened? Buy McHugh’s book. Boxing history buffs be advised, there is much in it you don’t know. Read it and be humbled. I know I was.

The book ends with McHugh in the presence of Muhammad Ali in the early 1960s and in 1980—at the bookends. He stands unblinking in the brilliance, bemused as the twenty-year-old contender introduces himself in his hotel room by rolling out from under a bed; bemused and out of place as he accompanies him on a date to a Louisville bowling alley. We see McHugh looking up when beckoned (“You ready to write?”) and meticulously writing down lyrics.

They all knew when he stopped in town

Cassius Clay was the greatest around…

“Pretty good, ain’t it?” said the poet, eagerly.

(It wasn’t, yet, though McHugh was too polite to tell him so.)

When he met Ali again twenty years later, the ex-champion was at his Deer Lake training camp, 250 miles east of Pittsburgh and sporting an ill-advised mustache during an ill-advised comeback. He was overweight and slurring his words between gulps of grapefruit juice. But he recognized the diligent little man with the pen and pad.

“He never wanted to be the star of his work,” writes Cavanaugh, his friend and the book’s copy editor, “and remained a humble scribe from the beginning of his career until the end of his life.” Even so, McHugh reveals his worth, despite himself, in the early prints of his posthumously-published book. He did it in a most unexpected way. While reading, I noted double commas and rogue colons appearing here and there on the pages. “His original manuscript had absolutely no mistakes,” Cavanaugh told me. “I was mortified to get the report that there are a bunch of typos in there.” It wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t McHugh’s either, not really. “Apparently, Roy went back and tinkered a bit,” Cavanaugh continued, “but I didn’t know it. His eyesight had been so bad at that point that it allowed for typos.” At that point, he was a hundred years old.

When Pittsburgh Was a Fight Town is his monument—a monument that carries names forward, names that must never be allowed to recede beyond reach and recognition, names that now include Roy McHugh.

 

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Available now on Amazon

Original photograph (1984) courtesy of The Pittsburgh Press.

Springs Toledo is the author of Smokestack Lightning: Harry Greb, 1919 (2019).

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Book Review

Robert DeArment’s Book on Bat Masterson Will Delight Boxing History Buffs

Arne K. Lang

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Masterson

One of the best boxing history books that I have ever read has been around since 2005 and I just stumbled on it. You wouldn’t guess from the title but Robert K. DeArment’s “Broadway Bat: Gunfighter in Gotham” is a book that ought to be on the bookshelf of every serious boxing history buff.

DeArment, a World War II veteran, is recognized as one of America’s leading authorities on life in the Old West, in particular the lives of famous lawmen and outlaws. His 1979 book, “Bat Masterson: The Man and the Legend” (University of Oklahoma Press) is considered one of the best books of the genre.

At various times, Bat Masterson was a County Sheriff and U.S. Marshall in several western hot spots, most famously Dodge City, Kansas, where his legend was born. Dodge City back then, circa 1875, was a wild and wooly town where cattlemen brought their herds and then sowed their wild oats like sailors on shore leave. When Bat said “get out of Dodge,” he did it while pointing his trusty six-shooter at the miscreant.

In truth, however, during his days out west Masterson occupied more of his time as a professional gambler than a peace officer. He ran gambling saloons, invested many hours at faro and poker, and backed other professional gamblers. DeArment’s 1979 book debunked many of the myths about Bat Masterson that were set down in magazine articles and in books aimed at young readers.

Bat Masterson’s life had a second act and the second act could not have been more different than the first. He lived the last 19 years of his life in New York City, spending the first four of those years residing with his wife, a former chorus girl, in a Times Square hotel. He hired on as a sports columnist for The New York Morning Telegraph, rose to the position of sports editor, and had the added duty of handling the accounts of racing tipsters who comprised a good portion of the paper’s advertisers.

The Morning Telegraph, the third oldest daily in New York when it folded in 1972, was part Daily Racing Form, part Variety, part Wall Street Journal, and part scandal sheet. Clergymen denounced the paper from their pulpits which, if anything, was a circulation-booster. Several notable journalists (e.g. Heywood Broun, Louella Parsons) earned theirs spurs at the Morning Telegraph but Masterson never left. He died at his desk in 1921 at age 67.

Masterson cranked out three columns a week that eventually appeared under the heading “Masterson’s Views on Timely Topics.” He had the freedom to write whatever struck his fancy but his forte was boxing, a sport with which he was associated before he arrived in New York. He didn’t like baseball or collegiate sports and had no interest in the new sport of auto racing. As for thoroughbred horse racing, he tended to ignore the subject except during his yearly pilgrimages to Saratoga and Hot Springs. He was particularly fond of Hot Springs, a wide-open town in Arkansas until the reformers clamped down on gambling.

This reporter knew the general particulars of Bat Masterson’s days in New York, but had never seen more than a few snippets of columns he had written. With the help of friends in New York, author DeArment was able to access the full catalog of Masterson’s newspaper stories and present a fuller picture of the man. He was a cantankerous SOB, constantly at war with boxing writers from rival papers and with certain members of the boxing establishment. Fight managers in general, he once wrote, were “a low conniving set of unprincipled cheats.”

A common theme in Bat’s writings was a defense of pugilism. Boxers, he argued, were in less danger than jockeys, professional bicyclists, and football players. But boxing in Masterson’s day was rife with fixed fights and Bat took it upon himself to act as something of an ombudsman for the fans. Exposing the underbelly of boxing was his way of defending the sport which, he wrote, was “a most desirable sport enjoyed by all wholesome and virile men.”

One would have thought that Bat would have supported those empowered to reform the sport, but just the opposite. Masterson, notes DeArment, repeatedly directed his ire at “onerous state laws regulating boxing, the politicians who enacted the laws and the commissioners appointed to administer them.”

This was in character as Masterson detested reformers in general. He viewed the self-appointed guardians of public virtue as mischief-makers who created more problems than they solved. In a column about boxing he might digress to take a swipe at the famous evangelist Billy Sunday or at a well-known feminist stumping for the right to vote. After a convention of suffragettes left Saratoga’s United States Hotel, Bat wrote that the hotel had to be thoroughly fumigated.

Masterson thought the fighters of his day were inferior to their antecedents, an opinion that hardened during the White Hope craze. Although Bat was no fan of Jack Johnson the man, he came to Johnson’s defense when Johnson was found guilty of violating the Mann Act, forcefully expressing the very unpopular opinion that Johnson was railroaded. He came down hard on the New York boxing commission when it banned interracial fights in 1913, likely hastening the fast turnabout; the edict was lifted in 1916. But Bat, like many of his fellow scribes, was guilty of using racial and ethnic epithets in his columns.

Masterson refused to join the Sporting Writers’ Association of Greater New York which was probably a good thing as his presence at its get-togethers would have discomfited a lot of the members. Although he didn’t name names, he was forever using his poison pen to barb boxing writers that took money from promoters and managers in return for favorable write-ups, a practice that was rampant in his day.

Masterson bumped into a lot of these writers, or at least writers that he presumed fit the profile, at the 1919 Dempsey-Willard fight in Toledo where promoter Tex Rickard had set up a free bar at the writers’ hotel. “Some of them got drunk as soon as they hit Toledo and remained in that condition until they left it. And all the time they were sending out their maudlin inventions to the papers they represented.”

Masterson bet big on Willard. For all his knowledge of the Sweet Science, he was a terrible handicapper, going back to the days of John L. Sullivan. He allowed his personal opinion of a fighter’s character to cloud his judgment.

Masterson had no need to take money under the table because he was well-heeled thanks to his friend President Theodore Roosevelt who gifted him with a juicy sinecure shortly after Bat moved to New York, a well-paying post as a federal marshal that didn’t require any work; Bat merely showed up on payday to collect his check. And so, when Masterson attacked corruption, he was a man throwing bricks in a glass house. “While he viciously attacked hypocrites and greedy public servants,” says DeArment, “he himself hypocritically held a no-show, grossly overpaid, taxpayer funded, patronage position for more than four years.”

Masterson’s best friend in New York was Damon Runyon who would immortalize him as the Sky Masterson character in “Guys and Dolls.” Runyon took money from boxing promoter Tex Rickard, but Masterson was fond of both and looked the other way. Likewise, he never railed against the racing tipster industry. As has always been true, those that marketed their product most aggressively were running a scam, but their advertising dollars helped keep his paper afloat.

Masterson was working on his next column when he slumped over his typewriter and died. Just before drawing his final breath, he was inspired to make a snarky observation about social inequality: “The rich and the poor get the same amount of ice in this world. The rich get theirs in the summer and the poor get theirs in the winter.” (In actuality, as DeArment notes, this isn’t word-for-word what Masterson wrote; his cerebration — his most famous line — would be edited to make it punchier.)

Masterson’s protégé, Sam Taub, succeeded him as the Morning Telegraph sports editor. Taub went on to achieve fame as a blow-by-blow man on radio, calling an estimated 1700 fights.

In 1982, the Boxing Writers Association of America created the Sam Taub Award to recognize excellence in boxing journalism. Twelve years later, Taub was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Perhaps Bat Masterson will join him there some day.

“Broadway Bat: Gunfighter in Gotham,” was released in 2005 by a publishing house in Hawaii that specialized in Western Americana and reissued in 2013 under a slightly different title  (as shown in the graphic accompanying this story) by the University of Oklahoma Press. The book, copiously footnoted, has 30 pages of illustrations. It’s a fun read and essential reading for serious students of the sweet science.

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