All posts by Len Abram

The Ros Muc Legend

THE MAN WHO WAS NEVER KNOCKED DOWN: The Life of Boxer Sean Mannion.

By Ronan Mac Con Iomaire.

Rowman & Littlefield, June 2018. 240 pages.

Reviewed by Len Abram

Boxing biographies, like boxers in fiction and film, are usually about champions, those who reached the craggy peak of success, a title. This book is about a contender, who missed being champion, by not that much. In the 1980s, although Sean Mannion was a top contender, with many great fights, he never wore the gaudy belts of the WBA or the WBC, arbiters of the sport. For fellow Irishman Ronan Mac Con Iomaire, his biographer, Mannion deserves a second chance for the public to respect the fighter he was, and honor the man he is. The man who was never knocked down is still standing.

Iomaire has already helped produce a documentary about Mannion. In 2017, his “Rocky Ros Muc” was well received by Irish film critics. Mannion’s story begins in the village of Ros Muc in Connemara, western Ireland. Its most notable inhabitants, including Mannion, had to leave to find fame and success. Ireland’s people, it has been said, is its greatest export. The mother of the current mayor of Boston came from the village.

When Sean Mannion climbed through the ropes for every fight, the label on his trunks read “Rosmuc,” for his village of 500. Mannion was once offered thousands of dollars to change the “Rosmuc” to the name of a business or a product, but he refused. He wouldn’t do it for a million, he said. “Rocky Ros Muc” is a reference to the Rocky of the most popular boxing story on film. That Rocky was a thick tongued, Phillie native, who punches his way to glory against all the odds, from lower class to sports aristocracy. The 20 foot square of the ring has its own truth to tell in the sweat and blood of opponents. Pedigree, privilege, and position don’t count a whit once the bell is rung and the fight is on. At its best, the ring is a meritocracy.

In reality, as Iomaire explains, boxing is a big business, where few are fortunate – Sugar Ray Leonard was the first to make $100 million in the sport – and most of the rest, like Mannion, barely make a living. Managers, those who direct the talent and careers of the boxer, make a major difference, the choice of manager a mix of opportunity and luck. Mannion’s best manager, the legendary Angelo Dundee, appreciated his boxers and called each “my guy.” For Dundee, boxers, their well-being, came first. His job was to enhance their physical and psychological health to make them champions.

Dundee finished his career with 15 champions. He considered Mannion as one of his most talented boxers. Dundee noted how tough Mannion was. It was he who remarked that Sean had never been knocked down, the title of Iomaire’s biography. Mannion could take a punch and distribute its force, roll with it, to lessen its impact. Mannion was a natural fighter, and often sparred out of his weight class. Dundee’s regret is that he didn’t manage Mannion when he was 20, instead of 30, nearing retirement.

Iomaire has a convincing example of the other kind of management, where the boxer’s interests do not come first. In the early 1980s, a fight between the highly ranked Tommy Hearns and the unknown Sean Mannion was proposed. Aside from more money, success or even a good showing in the matchup would have elevated Mannion’s career and prospects. NBC commentator Dr. Ferdie Pacheco vetoed the fight because of Mannion’s manager then, Jimmy Connolly.

In June 1981, Connolly had committed Mannion to fight Davey “Boy” Green in London, but Mannion remained stateside for a wedding. Connolly was on the hook for a fighter against Green. He put in Danny Long after Long, just coming off a hard loss against Alex Ramos, had only 10 days of rest. Against Green, Long was beaten in four rounds, and his face, according to Iomaire, looked like someone had taken a baseball bat to it.

Pacheco was furious. Allowing Long only 10 days of rest was abuse, an example of what’s wrong with boxing. To the newspapers, he complained that’s how boxers got killed. Pacheco wouldn’t  allow any fighter managed by Connolly to be on NBC, not because of the boxers, but their manager. So the bout between Mannion and Hearns didn’t happen.  (Pacheco also told Muhammed Ali to retire when Ali’s reflexes slowed, but the champ ignored the advice.) 

Mannion continued his rise in the ranks until he got his chance to fight for the light middleweight crown. On October 19, 1984, in perhaps the most meaningful contest in his career, he went 15 rounds against one of the best of his class, Mike McCallum, whom Tommy Hearns reportedly feared and avoided fighting. A veteran of over 250 fights, a natural warrior like Mannion, McCallum would be his toughest opponent. Mannion, however, was fearless.

Fortune did not smile on the Irishman. Five weeks before the fight, Mannion’s eye was cut by an errant elbow during sparring. The stitches made it impossible for him to spar. The wound had to heal. Mannion trained, hit the bags and pads, and ran the miles, but he lost the sharpness gained through sparring. In the fight, McCallum’s punches reopened the cut and shut Mannion’s right eye. Although he was lucky to last through the 15th , Mannion lost the decision. McCallum went on to defend his title many times after, but never faced Mannion again, his toughest opponent.

The fight at Madison Square Garden, as Iomaire describes it, explains elements of Mannion’s identity, what made the fighter into who he is. South Station ran extra trains to New York to accommodate all the Boston Irish, on their way to attend the fight. Iomaire estimates that 10,000 of the 20,000 in the arena were Mannion fans.

Like the “Rosmuc” stitched onto his trunks, the Gaelic language of Ireland epitomized Mannion’s roots, and perhaps Ireland’s painful history, the poverty, wars, famines, and oppression. Paddy, Mannion’s brother and cornerman at his fights, used to shout at him in Gaelic to lift Mannion’s spirits and remind him who he was. Mannion feared no man, but he was worried that he would bring shame to Ireland and Ros Muc.

That wasn’t the case. When he returned to Ros Muc after his defeat, he was treated as a hero for representing Ireland in a championship bout. Sean Mannion never became champion in any division. He fought until retiring in 1993 at age 36. He worked construction in Boston to make a living. For a while, he trained boxers, but apparently his gym closed, the interest in boxing waning and the interest in property rising, as poorer sections of Boston gentrified.

Iomaire says little about Mannion’s personal life (we learn late he was divorced, remarried, and has a daughter) or his problem with drinking, perhaps those empty calories one reason he struggled to make his weight class. Readers will be fascinated by the episode when Mannion had to lose nine pounds in a day to make the welterweight requirement, or forfeit the fight. Mannion got through that ordeal, as he did through every challenge in the sport of boxing – except winning the title, champion.

Cup of Kindness, a story by Len Abram

 

For auld lang syne, my dear, For auld lang syne,
We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet, For auld lang syne.

– Robert Burns

Andy McGrath dreaded the call from Aunt Florence. In April, newspapers alerted local New Englanders to the first Red Sox game of the season. With the team world champions at last, the story was often above the fold on the sports page. There was little chance that Aunt Flo in Naples, Florida, missed it.

As they aged, his father’s siblings fled Massachusetts like migratory birds. Florida got two, including Aunt Florence, Arizona two more, and Andy’s father, with his mother, went to North Carolina, a retirement community in Asheville. All except Uncle Jack. Ever since a stroke a decade ago, he was in elderly housing outside of Great Barrington in the Berkshires. He was a retired school principal, a widower with two kids settled in Michigan and Nevada. Except for Andy, he was the last of the family in their home state.

Twice a year, fall and spring, Andy’s parents made sure they visited Uncle Jack. In their absence, Flo appointed Andy delegate. Andy complained to his wife about the choice. He was always busy. The drive was long, about six hours round trip, and once there, he had little in common with his uncle. Andy carried a calendar binder, fluttering with post-its like little yellow wings, his cell phone going off into the evening. He had expanded his father’s insurance company and competed against the big guys, as he called them, with personal service.

Success had its price, he often told his family, and the price was time.

Success had its price, he often told his family, and the price was time.
Aunt Flo called twice. “Andrew, call me back. Uncle Jack,” was her message, with unconscious rhyme. He knew her shaky voice, which sometimes rose to a shout to bridge the distance. She was well over 90, the oldest of the family, an exile from snow-belt Worcester. Along with a husband in nursing home nearby, she had kids, retired themselves. For years, she wintered in Florida, escaping frosted windows and glazed sidewalks. Now she stayed year round in Gatorland, as she called it with mild contempt. She missed New England. Its stony soil was part of family history.

“You let me know how he is,” she said when he called. “He don’t sound so great.” She corrected herself. “Since the shock, it’s hard to know.”

“Why is the April visit so important? Opening day for the Red Sox?,” asked Andy.
“Something to do with the war. That’s what he said. We learned never to ask after that.”
“Weren’t you curious about what sets him off?”
“Jack’s had a tendency toward sadness, depression, whatever you call it, since a kid. It’s his nature.” “So no one really knows.”

“He’s private about his life, although kind hearted. He loaned your father the money to start the insurance agency.”

“Really? Dad never told me.”

“In World War II, Jack was in the Army and your Dad, the Navy. Do you know, Jack was supposed to go to Normandy, the invasion, but broke his leg? After the war, all those boys came back restless.

The war took years from them and worse.

The war took years from them and worse.Jack went to college on the GI Bill.

“Your father wanted to go into business right away. Selling insurance was fine after three years on an aircraft carrier. Your father paid him back, no interest of course.”

“We did go up to see Jack this Thanksgiving,” said Andy. “Liz and I took Gerry, our teenager. Turkey at the Red Robin Inn in Stockbridge.”

“How nice. Jack loves kids. Too bad his own and the grandkids live so far.”

“And the last time Dad and Mom went up, in April, “added Andy, “I tagged along. I hadn’t seen Uncle Jack in years.”

“How was he then?”

“He seemed sad. We cheered him up some. Hard to tell because Dad told him about North Carolina. They said goodbye like it was the last time.”

“I wish I was nearer,” said Flo. “Why April and baseball make him sad, like I said, I don’t know. Especially now, World champions. Reason not the need, somebody said.”

Andy looked through his calendar. He complained again to Liz about the long drive. He mentioned the beige bottles of pills on Uncle Jack’s nightstand that seemed to reproduce themselves, there were so many. Liz said, “Andy, there are couple on your dresser too. Honey, you’re afraid of growing old. We all are.”

Andy left on a bright Saturday morning. He listened to radio shows about the economy and gardening on the ride up. With traffic light, he made good time. Spring in the Berkshires, he noted, is fickle: the winds from the mountains, gullies still packed with snow, feel like winter, but the sun warmed the car like a greenhouse. Andy stopped at the senior center gate and signed in for the day. Uncle Jack lived in a complex of one bedroom, assisted living apartments, with ramps up to the front door. Uncle Jack called it assistant living since he depended on a large Haitian woman, Matilde, called Mattie, to look after him a few hours a day. Mattie helped Jack get ready and then left for the day.

Uncle Jack had a new blue walker with hand brakes, a basket, and a seat when he got tired. Jack maneuvered himself into the car, while Andy put the walker in the trunk. Jack spoke carefully, making sure his mouth made the sound his mind commanded. When he walked with a cane, he pulled his left side along to keep up with the rest of his body.

They drove to Stockbridge, through the street made famous by Norman Rockwell paintings, and ate at an American restaurant; the area was full of Asian or continental restaurants for the summer crowds, but this one served one of Uncle Jack’s favorites: franks and beans, brown bread, coleslaw, hot mustard, and beer. Andy cut up his own franks first and exchanged dishes with Jack. They didn’t talk while they ate. Uncle Jack had a hard enough time chewing and swallowing. There was a large TV over the bar with 24-hour news. The diners paid little attention to the catastrophes and politics in the background.

On the way back, Jack handed Andy a list of things he needed. While Jack waited, Andy stopped at the hardware store to get a new shade for the bedroom. He next went to the grocery. Jack liked canned soups, special ones with less salt. Andy added a large bag of popcorn, a half gallon of harlequin ice cream and a large bottle of Coke. He wouldn’t take any money from Jack, who protested.

“I really don’t like it when you pay. Take this,” Jack said, putting a bill in his hand. “You’re good boy, Andy.” “Uncle Jack, you’re the last person on the planet who thinks I’m a boy.”

They laughed. Andy wedged the ice cream into the Jack’s small freezer, poured the Cokes, and opened the popcorn. They watched a baseball game and snacked. The Sox were not playing, so they watched another team, Baltimore.

Around the sixth inning, Andy prepared his exit. He was feeling good. He had cheered the old man up, it seemed, and could report so to Flo and his parents. The sun was setting through the living room window, the rays sliced by the venetian blinds. He was about to look at his watch, say how quick the afternoon had gone, and mention the three hour ride back to Arlington, until Uncle Jack spoke.

“Andy. I appreciate you coming up here. And your family for Thanksgiving. It gets a little lonely out here. I’d be mad as hell at winter if she weren’t so beautiful.”

“Flo always reminds me just in case. She told me about you and Dad in the war.”

“It’s one of the reasons,”said Uncle Jack with a sigh,” I looked forward to seeing you. I’ve been thinking about the war lately, well, more than usual. Something I have to do.”

“Flo said you were hurt in the war.”

“Yes,” said Uncle Jack. “Nothing much. We were training for the invasion. I broke an ankle jumping off the back of a truck in England. In the dark, I didn’t see the drop. May 1944. Maybe saved my life.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because my unit never got off Omaha beach,” Uncle Jack shook his head. “Most were killed or wounded. Do you know about Normandy?”

“I grew up in the 1950s. We had streets named for Normandy, St. Lo, and Pointe du Hoc.” “Were you in the army, Andy?”
“Low score on the draft lottery. No, sir.”
“Have you seen this movie? Saving Ryan?”

“Saving Private Ryan, Uncle Jack? Yes.” said Andy.
“Sorry. Private. Yes. Lots of vets here went to see it. I didn’t. They had nightmares. A few weeks ago, it was on the TV. I stayed up and watched. I couldn’t sleep neither.”

Andy surprised himself with the intrusion: “You mind my asking? The battle was in June. Why is April hard on you?”

Uncle Jack took his time. He pointed to pictures on the living room table. Among the family photos was one of a young Uncle Jack in Stuttgart, Germany, an MP in front of rubble. The date was October 1945. A larger picture showed a dozen soldiers in fatigues, rifles and gear. They looked exhausted. The names were in small white letters under each man. The date was February 1944. Andy had seen the picture before, he realized. He had just not wondered how many were alive after June.

Uncle Jack was up and pointing at this picture. In the center of the soldiers was a tall, lean soldier with long, powerful arms and an assuring smile.

“That’s Earl Royce. The best baseball player I ever saw. I went to grade school with Earl,” said Uncle Jack, joining Andy at the table. “When the family lived near Orient Heights in East Boston. I liked to play ball too, fancied myself a pitcher. Earl of course could play everything.

“Even as kids, we loved to watch him. He practiced hitting until his hands bled. The tips of his fingers were as hard as knobs on a bureau. He ran bases after practice until dark. He had great eyesight too. Something like an eagle’s, they said. He could get a piece of any fast ball. They compared him to the great Ted Williams.

“He played one season with a farm club for the Red Sox, in Pennsylvania. The Class A Scranton Red Sox. He got called up to the Boston Red Sox in June 1943, around when he got his draft notice. I got mine too. I went down to Fenway Park to see that one game. He came up to the third base line to talk between innings. He flied out once, a single and a double, as I remember. Two hits at Fenway Park. First time. He’d made it to the big leagues.

“A few weeks later, we went into the Army and basic training at Fort Devens, up in Ayer. We were on the same Liberty ship to England, where we trained more. By the way, with that eyesight, Earl was a great marksman,” said Uncle Jack, chuckling. “I made money betting on his shooting.

“It’s hard to explain. The closeness of a combat unit.

Except for the enemy, these guys might be the last we’d see or would see us.

Except for the enemy, these guys might be the last we’d see or would see us.We practiced night and day. Earl was used to hard training and took it in stride. I struggled. One exercise, we landed on the English coast. I stepped off the landing craft into a wave and seven foot of water and started going to the bottom. Felt like I swallowed half the North Sea. Earl grabbed my belt and dragged me to shore. Many, many guys drowned.”

“I remember the opening scene of the movie. That happened too,” said Andy.

“I made up my mind that I’d back Earl up the way he looked out for me. And there I was in the barracks on D-Day where they left me, with my crutches and cast. I thought I’d feel relief, but I felt I let my buddies down.”

“What happened to them, the guys and Earl?”

“At Normandy? When the ramp of the Higgins boat dropped on the beach, a German machine gunner on a hill raked the boat; out of 36 men, nine lived, wounded. Eddie Talbot and I were the only ones in that picture to survive the war.

“Andy, I know you got to get going. One more favor: in that closet there, check the top shelf. Cardboard box with ‘Royce, E.’ on the side.”

Andy took the box down with the faded stencil and put it on the coffee table. His finger tips were plastered with dust.

“I stayed in touch with Earl’s folks,” said Uncle Jack.”When they died, they left the carton to me. I’d hate to see this tossed out if something happened to me. I want you and Liz to take it.”

Andy opened the box and peeled away crumpled yellowed newspapers. He took out a sheet of cardboard covered in waxed paper and found a small burlap bag. In it, cracked and flattened was a Rawlings Playmakers Fielder’s glove, 1940.

“Not much padding,” said Andy pushing his hand into the stiff leather. “In fact, none.”

“No webbing between the fingers either,” said Uncle Jack. “Earl oiled this glove every couple of days.”

Stacked below the Rawlings were years of yellowed clippings, covering Royce’s baseball excellence, as high schooler, amateur and professional. From the 1943 Boston Herald, Royce’s parents had circled the praise of a sports writer about Earl’s first appearance as a Boston Red Sox. In the bottom of the carton, Andy also felt a round object.

“What’s this? A baseball?” he asked.

Andy unwrapped an 8-ounce glass jar of Maxwell House instant coffee, with a rusty metal lid. It looked like sawdust inside.

“Earl told me,” said Uncle Jack, sitting down, out of breath. “He scooped a cup of Fenway Park dirt before he left the field. Figured he’d always have that.”

Andy got home late, with the box on the seat beside him. He told Liz about the visit and showed Gerry the glove. Liz sealed the newspaper articles and the baseball glove in plastic bags and repacked the box, which Andy put in the den. He showed Liz the jar of dirt from Fenway.

“This reminds me. Right after the Sox won the World Series,” said Liz, “people visited graves with pennants and hats to celebrate the victory with fans, long gone. And Earl Royce never saw them win it either.”

Andy was back at work the next day and from there called Aunt Flo and his father to let them know about Uncle Jack. His father remembered Earl Royce some, but not Aunt Flo. When Andy called Uncle Jack later that morning, Mattie told him that Jack was still sleeping. All the talking wore him out.

One evening, Andy read through all the Earl Royce clippings, some of them flaking into dust. He decided to copy them all on the office printer before they disintegrated further. Then he put the originals back into the plastic bags and stored the box in the front hall closet. Andy had saddle soap for his winter boots. With a soft cloth, he cleaned and polished Royce’s fielder’s glove until it shone.

Andy got busier at work. He kept his current clients and then added a builder with 25 employees. His company provided all kinds of insurance and services for them, including annuities and even dental. Andy had teamed with a national financial services company, which lent him a web user interface for his customers under the McGrath logo, Personal Service. The extra income would come in handy. Gerry was looking at colleges.

Andy called Uncle Jack every week. One weekend in August, Liz and he took Gerry to look at schools in the western part of the state. They had lunch with Jack at the Red Robin Inn and took Mattie along. They talked about the Red Sox making another bid for the pennant and the cool summer they were having in spite of global warming. Neither mentioned Earl Royce or the box in Andy’s closet.

In September, Liz asked Andy to go with her to their HMO. She had had a second mammogram to confirm what the first discovered, a small mass on her left breast. Liz was a nurse, and worked at an elementary school nearby. She knew not to get too worried about a biopsy. The size of a pea, that’s what the doctor said, more likely a calcification, and not a tumor, but if a tumor, more likely benign. Andy caught himself looking at his wife the way he appraised a car or property. She was hardly ever sick and played tennis with women half her age. She could still fit into her clothes from a decade ago. She quit smoking when she got pregnant with Gerry. It was hard for him to think of her ill – and she wasn’t yet, she reminded him.

She cried when they got the diagnosis. He nearly did too. They contained their fears at home not to spook their son. Andy went with Liz to the surgeon, Dr. Lessing, a tall handsome man with a thatch of white hair. He could have stepped out of a hospital brochure. Dr. Lessing operated on Liz week later, the tumor itself and the nearest lymph nodes. He stopped by the waiting room to tell Andy that the lymph nodes looked good, but Liz needed further therapy. Her prognosis was excellent.

“Statistics,” said Dr. Lessing, shaking Andy’s hand again. ”Radiation improves outcome. We just have to check the margins.”

“What that?” asked Andy.
“We look around the tumor for bad cells. We keep at it until they’re gone.”

Liz had two follow-up surgeries before the margins were clear. She was sore around the incisions and her left arm was swollen, but she went back to work. By November, she was ready for the radiation, 30 treatments, the target area tattooed with plus signs by Dr. Lessing. Andy called Uncle Jack to let him know that his family would not visit this Thanksgiving, but he would drive up to see him, as it turned out, for Veterans Day. Liz insisted that he go and sent Uncle Jack a pie she baked.

After lunch, Andy and Uncle Jack went back to Uncle Jack’s home for coffee and Liz’s apple pie. Andy talked about Liz’s recovery and treatment. Jack’s wife had not done so well with the cancer, but that was many years ago, he explained, where treatment had improved so much. Andy changed the subject back to Earl Royce.

He didn’t realize that his son Gerry would take such interest in Earl Royce, his career and life. Gerry, now 16 and as tall as Andy, had been a Red Sox fan for years and played center field for the Arlington High baseball team. He batted .310 last season. Andy discovered that Gerry had placed Earl Royce’s mitt, in its plastic bag, on his bureau. Somewhere on the Internet, the boy had also found a newspaper picture of Earl Royce in a Scranton Red Sox uniform. Andy gave Uncle Jack a copy.

Uncle Jack remembered more details about Earl Royce. He had a girlfriend, Marie Aubuchon. They were engaged or going to get engaged before Earl went overseas. Jack thought he remembered a ring Earl had given her, a diamond chip lost in its setting. After the war, Marie married a returning vet, a guy in the neighborhood, and had lots of kids. They moved out west later, California maybe. Then he lost touch with her.

“I’ll be back in April, Uncle Jack,” said Andy.
“You thank Liz and Gerry for me. And you are a good boy, Andy.”

On the way back, Andy thought about his father’s generation, Uncle Jack, Earl Royce, and the girl who loved him. He also thought about Liz, about a way to celebrate the end of her treatment. When he got home, he suggested a party, for Christmas or New Year’s. Liz had another idea.

“Paris. Never been there and always wanted to. Paris for New Year’s.” “Paris? What about Christmas? We always have it here,” said Andy.

“We’ll leave the day after Christmas and be back in time for Gerry’s school. It’s just four or five days. Andy, I’ve been through a lot.” Liz stopped, and then she finished her sentence.

“Not as much as some, but a lot. Please make it happen.”

Right there, Andy called their travel agent and left phone mail about a trip for three.

“Thanks,” she said. “Very nice of you not to bring up work, the exchange rate, the long flight, and any other reason not to go. Sometimes,” she smiled at him, “you just have to go.”

“Of course,” he said. He always was amazed of how well she knew him. “And another thing.”
“Yes, Liz?”
“Earl Royce. You and Gerry can visit him in Normandy.”

As usual, Liz packed for them all. Along with books about visiting France, Liz noticed Andy reading about World War II and the Normandy battle and taking notes on an index card. It was cold in Paris, Gerry informed them. He calculated from Centigrade to Fahrenheit for them. He also asked if he could bring his Red Sox World Series Pennant and Earl’s glove for visiting the grave. They could not leave anything like a pennant, said a guide book. It was against cemetery rules.

Andy called Uncle Jack about the trip. He said, “Say hello for me, Andy,” and hung up.

The day after Christmas they left, flying out of Boston. They planned their trip on the plane, while Gerry watched a movie on Andy’s laptop. Their hotel was in Montmartre, with a large down feather bed for them and a cot for Gerry, to sleep off their jet lag. The windows ran from the floor to the ceiling and looked out onto a courtyard with shrubs and white stone chips raked into swirls.

For two days, they walked the city, back and forth across the Seine, and covered every open museum. They ate large breakfasts with the hotel restaurant half empty, so close to Christmas. They enjoyed the solitude of the city on holiday. They snacked during the afternoon, but at night found a bistro or restaurant for a full meal. One night they caught an American movie, Gerry’s choice, with French subtitles. Liz left Andy and Gerry for shopping by herself one evening. She’d shop more while Gerry and Andy went to Normandy.

For December 31, their last full day in France, Andy made reservations for a van with a driver, also their guide, to the Normandy beaches and the American Cemetery at Colleville-Sur-Mer. With any luck, they’d be back to share New Year’s Eve with Liz. The family went to bed earlier, although Andy never slept well away from home and was restless.

He woke with one ring from the hotel operator. It was still dark. He saw a sliver of light under the bathroom door and heard Liz in the shower. She came out in her robe, drying her hair.

“Why are you up? Aren’t you shopping along the Champs-Elysees today? “

“I decided to go with you,” she said. “I can shop at the airport. Besides, the van has room. Let’s wake Gerry. He’s sure to be hungry. Always is.”

The van, with seats for eight, had only five, Andy, Liz and Gerry, along with a couple from Toledo, Ohio, Bert and Adele Pellegrini. The last seat was empty. Gerry sprawled there with his backpack for a pillow. The two couples introduced themselves, as did Henri, the driver and guide.

“Il faut du vent, par grand vent,” said Henri. “Normandy is very windy. It is also raining. Conditions are not good, but we will see much. We’ll be there in about three hours, with a few stops.”

Once they slipped Paris traffic and the sun was up, Andy saw the countryside stretch out, winter brown fields, light industry, power plants, orchards and rivers. Gerry was sleeping. Liz nodded off too, something she did often since her treatment. Andy rolled up his extra sweater and put it under her head. The van stopped in the city Caen and the group visited its war museum, and then continued toward the beaches and the cemetery.

“It looks pretty new around here. I mean newer,” said Gerry from the back.

“Much of Caen was destroyed and rebuilt,” said the guide. “Thousands of civilians killed. The British and Canadians fought the Germans here, but the Americans were held back. The hedges, we will see. ”

The windshield wipers worked hard to keep the view from smearing. The Normandy dairy farms were green even in winter, with black-and-white cattle as large as sheds. They grazed, swishing their tails against the annoying rain. Farmers in rubber boots and slickers drove tractors, making furrows in fields for winter wheat, Andy guessed.

Andy smelled the sea first and tapped Liz on the arm. “We’re here,” he said. He was glad she decided to come.

“The hedgerows and sunken roads you see were not far from the beach,” said the guide.”The Germans took away the farmers for factory work. No one cut the hedges. Some grew to two or three meters thick and even five meters high. They became fortifications for the defenders. In July, after more than a month, the Americans broke out. There are 9,378 at the Cemetery, but three times that died to liberate Normandy.”

The parking lot ahead of them was nearly empty because of the holiday and weather. Henri parked under an apple tree bent back by the wind. He marched the group toward the Cemetery. When they saw the expanse of blue ocean and beige beach, they stopped.

Henri spoke above the wind. “Attendez. No cover for hundreds of meters for the soldiers.”

They turned to follow him down a chipped set of stairs into a German bunker, covered with grass and bushes with shell craters on either side. The wind howled through cement casements. The floor was slick and the walls had decades of graffiti. Andy grabbed a rusted rebar for balance and held Liz’s hand. The Pellegrinis held onto each other. Gerry was moving around the enclosed area taking pictures. The group took turns looking out of the firing slit. Its field of fire was the beach.

“One machine gunner fired 12,000 rounds that day,” said Henri.

Henri walked the group out of the bunker, down the path to the gate for the American Cemetery. He stopped.

“By the evening of June 6,” Henri concluded, “the Americans fought to where you are standing. The people of France gave this land to the American people. Down that path, you will find the office for the Cemetery. Stay as long as you like. But I would like to get back in Paris before New Year’s.“

The Pellegrinis, their second time at the Cemetery, already knew where they were going and left. Andy and Liz walked toward the office. Gerry was up ahead with the camera. On either side of the path were rows and rows of Latin crosses, along with Jewish stars. “I’m getting cold,” said Liz. “Let’s find Earl soon.”

They warmed up in the office. The person behind the desk gave them a map and circled where to find the grave of Private Earl Royce. It was a nice spot, she said, and not too far.

“Are you up for this, Liz? You can stay in the office. We’ll take a picture for you.”

“I’m fine, Andy. My arm gets sore if I walk a lot. You know, I can’t shake this feeling that I am meeting a living person after hearing about him for so long. Strange.”

Gerry walked ahead of them snapping pictures. “Gerry, wait up,” said Andy. “We take a right here. It’s at the edge of the cemetery.”

Gerry hadn’t said much since the bunker.
Andy jogged up to his son. “How are feeling?” asked Andy. “OK. It’s a lot, Dad. All these people.”
“Yes, it’s a lot. You’re right.”

Gerry opened his backpack. He took out Earl’s baseball mitt and slipped his hand into it. He hit the pocket with his fist to open it up. With his other hand, he reached into his backpack for the Red Sox Pennant. Then he shouldered the pack.

Earl’s grave was at the end of a row, close enough to the beach to hear the tide coming in. The three of them stood around the cross.

“He was only 19,” said Liz.

“What do we do next?” asked Gerry.

“Just tell him about the Sox, sweetie,” said Liz.

“It feels weird. He’s not really here, is he?” asked Gerry.

“We don’t know that, for sure,” said Andy. “Something of him is. We know why we are here. I think that’s enough.”

Gerry leaned the pennant against the cross and held the glove up.

“Private Earl Royce, 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Division,” Gerry read off the cross. “This pennant means that your team, the Boston Red Sox, won the World Series. It took a long time. And this here is your glove. I will always keep it and tell folks you were a great player and what you did here. That’s all.”

Liz hugged Gerry. “Nice job, son.” She turned to Andy. “One thing more: we should leave this,” said Liz.

She opened her purse and handed Andy a plastic bag. In it was the jar of dirt Earl Royce collected from Fenway Park.

“What good is it doing in our closet?” Liz asked.

Andy pocketed the bag and gripped the jar. The lid was rusted shut. Andy’s face reddened as he tried to twist off the lid. The light rain did not help his grasp. Liz and Gerry tried too. Andy finally took it back. He knelt on the grass and tapped the lid of the jar lightly on the base of the cross. Then again. The old glass split like a diamond, scattering the dirt. Andy scooped as much as he could in the wind.

“Your hand, Andy,” said Liz.

He nicked his palm on the broken jar and hadn’t noticed. Andy wrapped it in his handkerchief, its white blotched red.

“Dad, you’re wounded,” said Gerry. The three looked at each other, wet and cold, and laughed.

“I hear Earl had a great sense of humor,” said Andy.

Liz got down to help Andy spread the rest of the dirt on the grave. In the rain, the dirt washed away.

Andy got up and took an index card from his jacket pocket. He noticed Gerry standing at attention. He and Liz did too.

“Earl,” said Andy, “your friend Jack McGrath from East Boston says hello. He remembers you to this day. Your parents missed you the rest of their lives. They were always proud of your accomplishments and character. Marie Aubuchon, your girlfriend, after the war, she got married. She had a big family. She named her first son after you.

“You helped win the battle, Earl. Others took this hill. But you and your unit led them to it.

“History and this war stepped in front of your generation, the way the Civil War must have stepped in front of Lincoln’s. It’s not something ordinary people in democracies want – to face dangers for principles.

“There you were – on your way to play baseball, or fix cars, or teach kids, or sell insurance –” “Or get married,” added Liz.

“Yes, get married and watch your kids grow,” said Andy. “The normal things. History interrupted all that and brought you here.

“And you never left. This is what I learned today: Your life stopped so we could go on with ours.

“Thanks, Earl, and to all you others, from us citizens, well done.”

On the ride back to Paris, Henri put the heat and the air conditioner on high to dry their jackets and shoes and warm them up. In the van first aid kit, Liz found Andy peroxide and a band aid for his hand. Andy, Liz and Gerry sat wedged on the back seat. Gerry sat between them with his camera on to show the pictures he had taken that day. Uncle Jack would love to see them, thought Andy. He’d visit his uncle the first weekend after they got back.

The Pellegrinis used their cell phone to wish their family back home a Happy New Year. Andy realized that he had left his own cell back at the hotel. Bert Pellegrini had not noticed that Paris was about six hours ahead of Ohio, where it was mid-afternoon, December 31, but he wished them a good year anyway.

At a rest stop an hour from Paris, Andy bought a bottle of champagne with enough plastic cups for the group, Gerry too. Even Henri, had a little, un peu, s’il vous plait. On the radio, Henri found the BBC playing traditional New Year’s music. Along with the singers and bagpipes, the group joined in with “Auld Lang Syne.” Ahead of them were the lights of Paris. They lifted their plastic cups to toast the newest year.

[Originally published in Final Fenway Fiction, edited by Adam Pachter, 2012, available on Amazon and through other booksellers]

Max Baer and Barney Ross: Jewish Heroes of Boxing

Jeffrey Sussman, Rowman and Littlefield, 2016. 193 pages with photographs.
Reviewed by Len Abram

Jews were a vital part of the ascendancy of boxing. From 1901 to 1939, according to boxing historian Mike Silver, they produced 29 world champions, about 16% of the total. Why did Jews enter boxing in such numbers? Why would sweatshop workers spend a $1 to see a match when they earned perhaps $5 a week?

Jeffrey Sussman’s answers these questions by focusing on two Jewish world champions, Max Baer and Barney Ross. Others have written at greater length about Baer and Ross, their careers and lives. Sussman, however, focuses on the significance of their popularity. Part American history and part family nostalgia, Sussman’s book deals with what Jews did for boxing and what boxing did for Jews.

The two fighters didn’t begin from scratch. They had predecessors, who fought before them and made their achievements if not possible, at least more likely. The great lightweight Benny Leonard, oft quoted for calling boxing a game of chess more than brawn, and Abe Attell , “the Little Hebrew,” were both early Jewish champions. Leonard won the Lightweight championship at age 21 in 1917 and defended it seven times. His success, Sussman says, undermined anti-Semitic stereotypes.    Attell was Featherweight champion from 1906 to 1912, with a reputation of being afraid of no one.

Baer and Ross were unalike in many ways. Baer, of course, was a heavyweight and Ross a world champion in three lighter divisions. Beryl Rosofsky (Barney Ross) came from the Jewish ghetto in New York City, his parents Orthodox Jews, his father a Talmudic scholar. The neighborhood was dangerous; Ross’s father was killed in a robbery. Max Baer grew up in rural California, a farm, his mother a Gentile, and his father a non-practicing Jew. Both fighters wore the star of David on their trunks, but for Baer, it may have been to promote his bout with the German Schmeling, a favorite of the Nazis. Regardless, Baer wore the Jewish symbol for the rest of his career. Like Ross, he accepted his role to represent Jews.

Their boxing styles were also different. Baer was a big heavyweight, over six feet and 220 pounds, whose right hand punch was so powerful that he won over 50 fights by knockout. He was also famous for not training hard, a handsome man, who later became a movie star, more involved in gossipy romances, than in hours at the gym. He relied on that powerful punch to stay competitive. Ross was of medium height, no more than 147 pounds as a welterweight. He was the superior athlete, who trained hard, winning championships in three different divisions. Rather than a slugger, Ross was a “scientific” fighter, following the Benny Leonard model, boxing as a chess game.

Ross was a “scientific” fighter, following the Benny Leonard model, boxing as a chess game.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Jews faced rising anti-Semitism, both here and abroad. Here, Father Charles Coughlin spoke to millions on the radio about Jewish bankers controlling our country. Industrialist Henry Ford, whom Hitler admired, published that a Jewish conspiracy was out to control the world. National hero Charles Lindbergh accused the Jews of pushing America into war with Germany.

When Max Baer stepped into the ring in 1933 to fight Hitler’s favorite boxer, Max Schmeling, the star of David on Baer’s trunks proclaimed that the Jews had a champion. Victorious, Baer became the first Jewish heavyweight champion. Ross’s famous bout with Jimmy McLarnin in 1935 had a similar appeal for Jewish fans: McLarnin was called the “Hebrew Scourge” because he defeated so many Jewish boxers. Ross won the decision. Although neither Schmeling nor McLarnin were anti-Semites, they were painted by social conflicts of the time.

Jews in boxing became “symbols of courage and defiance in age rife with anti-Semitism,” Sussman concludes.

After Baer and Ross retired, Baer went to Hollywood to make movies, one of which was banned in Germany because Baer was Jewish or defeated Shmeling, no one is sure. When World War II began, Baer joined the Army. When war broke out, Ross at age 32 (and plagued with gambling debts) joined the Marines and volunteered for combat.

On Guadalcanal, Ross was badly wounded, yet saved what was left of his platoon against many Japanese attackers. He won the Silver Star, but the narcotics he received for his wounds lead to life-altering addiction.   At the infamous rock bottom addicts often face, Ross put himself into drug treatment. Successful, he later he lectured to youngsters about the dangers of drugs. Ross was a strong supporter of the state of Israel. The star of David, like the one on his trunks, is on the stone marker of his grave.

The sport of boxing is in decline, Sussman admits, certainly far from its golden era. He notes that mob influence tainted the sport, along with exploitive managers and promoters, indifferent to the wellbeing of the boxer. The threat to a boxer’s health from brain damage, pugilistic dementia, also hastened the decline. Today, the professions and trades have more to offer young people than the ring. The sport appears to be more popular in films than in arenas.

Yet, for a time, Jews found champions in boxing to defend and to affirm them until acceptance as valued members, to share and to shape American life.

(This review first appeared in the Jewish Advocate.)

 

 

Rage Management

Southpaw

reviewed by Len Abram

southpaw-week-movies-slider“The decision is unanimous: Prizefighting is the movies’ favorite sport,” writes critic Mark Feeney. Over 50 boxing films have been produced since 2000, four since 2015. The decline of boxing from its golden era, the troubling questions about the safety of the athletes, and the rise of competing mixed martial arts make the popularity all the more surprising. 

Boxing caught the public imagination in a way that team sports have not. Stars like Tom Brady and LeBron James excel because fellow players provide blocking and ball handling to make their superb achievements possible.

Unlike team sports, the boxer, nearly naked, battles alone.

The public admires the dedication of the solitary boxer to train for the fight and the courage to risk brain and body in pursuit of victory. Unlike team sports, the boxer, nearly naked, battles alone. His trainer, his seconds, perhaps a manager, often experts on cuts and bruises at ring side, and with family and friends cheering, all these count.
At the bell, however, and off the stool, he stands by himself. His skills for offense and defense, plans for victory, and training come down to a kind of moment of truth. Can he win or avoid a humiliating defeat? Can he protect himself from injury? After this contest, will he fight another day?
As metaphors go, in boxing movies there can be another opponent in the ring, the boxer himself. Self-knowledge and self-mastery can turn out to be his most fundamental adversaries, as they are in “Southpaw.”

Redemption is prime thematic territory for the boxing movie.

The movie “Southpaw” (2015) opened to mixed reviews and public endorsement. Costing $30 million to produce, the movie grossed over $90 million. It is directed by Antoine Fuqua, written by Kurt Sutter, and stars Jake Gyllenhaal (as Billy Hope) Forest Whitaker (as Tick Wills), Rachel McAdams (as Maureen Hope), and Oona Laurence (as Leila Hope).

Praise came for directing and performances, even for the child actor who plays the fighter’s daughter. The complaints were for the predictability of the boxing movie plot. The “familiarity” of the boxing film genre drives some critics away, says Brian Tallerico, but not viewers looking for “an old fashioned tale of redemption.”

Redemption is prime thematic territory for the boxing movie. The hero suffers the changes of fortune, such as the rags-to-riches and riches-to-rags plots of the films. The Rocky movies played the theme both ways, Rocky on his way up, down, and back up. Very often how the boxer hero handles defeat portrays his true character, the test of resilience.

Writer Kurt Sutter draws on another familiar plot mechanism: the brash self-promotion of a younger opponent wishing for a title shot. The upstart insults the resident champ in public, Billy Hope, demeaning his achievements and embarrassing him in front of his wife. It happens in Rocky III and in “Southpaw” too, with much more tragic results.

Twice in the movie Sutter uses naming to express an idea.

Sutter is well aware that he’s drawing on conventions, for others the clichés, of his genre. A play or a movie expects the audience to play along with the premises of the story and to identify with its hero. Twice in the movie Sutter uses naming to express an idea: his hero will have to exert his will to define himself anew.

The name William or Billy suggests that Billy is a person, who needs to apply his will to shape his fate. His trainer in the story, Tick Wills, another use of the name, teaches Billy that he must first control his own anger.

Billy Hope fights well because he has enough anger, enough rage, to fuel his ferocity in the ring. Billy, however, is not a smart fighter. He gets hit too much. Anger, Wills teaches, tires the fighter quicker and leads to impetuous mistakes. Boxing is intellect over brawn.
Wills quotes the great Benny Leonard: boxing is a chess game. For Hope, it’s a brawl to prove he’s tougher than his opponent. Hence the beating he allows himself to take. His left eye needs protection; he could go blind. So too, Billy has been blind to his behavior, contributing to the mess his life has become.

Wills quotes the great Benny Leonard: boxing is a chess game.

The movie opens with the ritual of the hands, their supervised taping in pristine white gauze and tape, so at odds with how they will be used. When Billy’s wife encourages him before the fight, she begs him to protect himself. By the end of the bout, Billy’s face is splitting blood from cuts like an overripe tomato. He proclaims his victory to the crowd, vaulting high on adrenalin, vaunting like a proud ape. Our sympathies take a while to collect for him.

From foster homes to $10 million a fight is what we learn about Billy. In an mansion outside of New York City, the champion lives with his family, the bonds of affection between Billy, Maureen and Leila their daughter powerfully acted. The reversal, to use Aristotle’s term, takes place at a charity event, where Miguel Escobar, the up-and-coming challenger, insults the champ. This is the moment of truth, as his wife cautions self-control, of which Billy has little. That tragic mistake, which done cannot be undone, is Billy’s, as he will have to admit, under the direction of his mentor, trainer Tick Wills, played by Forest Whitaker. 

From there, Billy goes down for a count of 100. He loses his discipline, abuses drugs and alcohol, contemplates suicide and revenge, even loses his daughter to the state. From a mansion of many rooms to a few hundred square feet dingy apartment. Bleak for sure, but the neighborhood does have a boxing gym run by trainer Tick Wills.

Boxing is not only his way to earn a living and get his daughter back, it’s also his redemption. Wills is the mentor who teaches him the chess board of boxing, in which fighting southpaw will turn out to be a powerful tool. Billy gains self-control and self-knowledge. The judge in child services congratulates Mr. Hope for his turnaround.

In the final bout of the movie, Billy nearly falls back into rage and lose the fight. His mentor Wills and the memory of his beloved wife Maureen, whose name is tattooed on his back, return him to his senses. He is back in charge.

Audiences applaud this boxing movie and the genre in general. In “Southpaw,” Billy Hope and hope triumph over circumstances, given the discipline to train, the humility to learn, and the courage to face the opponent in the ring.

Sting Like A Maccabee: Jews in Boxing



“Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing: A Photographic History”, By Mike Silver, Lyons Press, 2016. 344 pages with 255 photographs.

Reviewed by Len Abram

StarsAs coffee table books go – landscape printing and pictures prominent – this one is double expresso: a photographic history of Jewish boxers through the Golden Age of the sport, as well as a study of the context, from which Jews in boxing emerged, fought, lost and triumphed. Silver is an award-winning expert on boxing. Among his contributions was an exhibit in Philadelphia in 2004, “Sting Like A Maccabee: The Golden Age of the American Jewish Boxer.” This book may be its definitive outcome.

Silver’s scope here is larger than American Jewish boxers. England, the Netherlands, and Italy are also represented. We learn, for example, that the French boxer Victor “Young” Perez died heroically in the Holocaust. We find outstanding boxers among Jews, who were forced to flee the Nazis, all the way to Shanghai, China. Silver also covers Jewish managers, promoters, and writers, who contributed to the sport, including the owner of the famous gym of champions in New York, Stillman’s. With his American fighters, however, Silver’s story is as much about America as about any fighter with the Star of David on his trunks.

Silver’s story is as much about America as about any fighter with the Star of David on his trunks.

“No other sport lends so perfectly to metaphor,” Silver says. ‘Against the ropes’, ‘roll with a punch’, ‘down for the count’, ‘in your corner’, ‘on the ropes’, ‘throw in the towel’ – these clichés are drawn from boxing and perhaps remain more popular than the sport itself. The “Rocky” movie series and most recent pugilistic “The Southpaw” remind us that the theme of the down-and-out (another boxing reference) individual, who can redeem himself through boxing, is still compelling.

In the early decades of the 1900s, boxing was the most popular sport in America. In 1927, Babe Ruth earned $80,000 a season playing baseball, but the heavyweight champion Gene Tunney got around one million. At a time when a man in a sweatshop earned $20 per week for 12 to 14 hours a day, he might overlook his son’s black eye, if the young man had earned $20 for a four round bout.

During the Golden Era of Jewish participation in boxing, from the early 1900s to the late 1930s, upwards of 3,000 Jewish professional boxers were active, or about 7 to 10 percent of the total number.

From 1901 to 1939, Jews produced 29 world champions

From 1901 to 1939, Jews produced 29 world champions about 16% of the total. Silver is thorough with his statistics and little known details. Leach Cross (Dr. Louis Wallach), “the Fighting Dentist,” practiced dentistry during the day and fought at night. He made twice as much fighting. The first use of a mouth guard to protect the teeth came not from him, but from Ted “Kid” Lewis (Gershon Mendoloff) , who had a dentist make one out of rubber. The idea caught on.

Benny Leonard
Benny Leonard

How did Jewish mothers feel about their sons pummeled in the ring? Silver says that Jewish fighters feared their mothers, who opposed the sport, as unbefitting to the gentler Jewish values, of compassion and kindness. When lightweight champion Benny Leonard (Benjamin Leiner) was knocked down in a fight, his mother fainted. Leonard retired undefeated in 1925. A photograph shows the champion holding up his mother’s hand, a sign that she was the final victor.

Boxing is a violent sport, its purpose to inflict harm, its touted achievement to win by a knockout. Silver acknowledges that repeated blows to the head can damage a brain for life.

However, boxing can be an art and science, meaning the application of brain over brawn. Boxers use agility and speed to avoid being hit. They anticipate the moves of opponents and counter. An 18th century fighter, an English Jew named Daniel Mendoza, was so famous that he had an audience with King George III. At medium height and weight, Mendoza took on bigger and heavier opponents (weight classes later determined a fair match). Mendoza used his wits to outbox his competitors.

Silver’s outstanding figure among Jewish boxers is Benny Leonard

Silver’s outstanding figure among Jewish boxers is Benny Leonard champion from 1917 to 1925. The athlete as thinker, Leonard approached boxing as “a game of chess.” Silver reports that the day after a bout, Leonard was back in the gym, reviewing mistakes and successes from the night before. Leonard learned from everyone , including the youngest boxers in the gym.

Like so many others, including the great Barney Ross (Beryl Rosofsky), Leonard was the son of immigrants. He came out of a Jewish ghetto in Manhattan and fought his way to wealth and success. Many American fighters changed names according to the interests of the paying public for Irish, Italian and later for Jewish fighters.

Boxing leveled the playing field beyond the sport, as well. Joe Louis, a black man, became a national hero to both blacks and whites. The celebrated writer Pete Hamill grew up in a New York Irish-American home. As a youngster, he complained to his family about a “kike” boxer. His father corrected his anti-Semitism for good.

“Benny Leonard is a Jew,” he said.

(This article first appeared in the Jewish Advocate and is reprinted here with permission of the author.)

Review: Passing Game: Benny Friedman and the Transformation of Football

Passing Game : Benny Friedman and the transformation of football. Murray Greenberg. New York: PublicAffairs, 2008), 358 pages. $26.95.

Reviewed by Len Abram

Passing Game
Passing Game

In 2005, eighteen years after NFL quarterback Benny Friedman died, coach Bill Walsh welcomed Friedman into the NFL Hall of Fame. In the long overdue induction, Walsh addressed Friedman as if he were in the audience:

“Benny, you were really the catalyst that started the forward pass in professional football … the person who demonstrated and proved to everyone that the forward pass can be effective and, more importantly, … consistently effective.

The forward pass had been around two decades before Benny Friedman took the melon-sized ball of the 1920s and made it into a formidable offensive weapon. Walsh acknowledged Friedman’s achievements: “[You] completed a good percentage of your passes and you got into the end zone …. You circumvented a lot of wear and tear on the players. So, I would say that Benny, you were really the person who changed the face of football.”

Today, Benny Friedman is hardly known as the person who changed the face of football. First-time author Murray Greenberg intends to right that wrong. For football fans, Greenberg also charts the history of the NFL from poor cousin to collegiate football into America’s favorite and richest sport. He also tells a story of American meritocracy, of a Jewish kid from Cleveland, son of Russian immigrants, who experienced national greatness – and a personal tragic end.

American football has always been a rough sport, an inheritance from English rugby. Long before we winced when Tom Brady’s knee snapped, football reveled in brutality, of hardened men with little safety equipment, who hurled their bodies at one another, sometimes with fatal results. In 1905, college football had 18 deaths and 159 serious injuries. President Theodore Roosevelt, who had led men in war and recognized the its value in strengthening bodies and character, intervened and saved football. One new rule promoted the forward pass, which could literally leap over the brutal grind of gaining yardage through contact and collision.

The bias of the game was still against the forward pass (the passer had to be five yards behind the line of scrimmage and an incomplete pass meant losing possession). In addition, the ball was hard to hold, let alone throw. Greenberg shows Friedman as a teenager strengthening the tendons and muscles of his hands and arms. Over time, he developed a method of passing and follow through that was the model for form and accuracy, emulated by quarterbacks since (the book jacket has frames of the passing style).

Benny Friedman
Benny Friedman
Friedman’s conditioning had to be superb.

Friedman’s conditioning had to be superb. High school, college and professional football players were required to play both offense and defense. Now the NFL has more specialists than the Mass General, but in the 1920s Friedman passed, carried, tackled, ran interference, and kicked extra points. Moreover, Friedman and his peers often played the whole game, and Friedman once played three games in one week. Players were lucky to earn $150 to $200 per game, whereas Friedman in his prime earned $750 (and thousands more in annual contracts).

Coaches and competitors marveled at Friedman’s ability to stay cool in the mayhem of the game and fire accurately to his receiver. In the evolution of American football, toughness and bravery are required, but intelligence decides success. To get Friedman onto the New York Giants, the owner of the Giants bought his entire lackluster team. Friedman turned the Giants into winners and money makers, even in the Depression. Sports writers referred to Friedman with 20 touchdown passes (his closest competitor had six) as a phenomenon, an observation that makes questionable his late inclusion in the Hall of Fame.

Friedman brought so much excitement and innovation to the game of football that by 1934 the NFL changed its rules about passing and the football itself. The ball became the sphere of today – easier to hold and especially to pass. Friedman did indeed change the face of football.

Friedman did indeed change the face of football.

Friedman’s many achievements and lasting influence are all the more remarkable given his Jewishness.

According to stereotypes around 1920, Jews could not compete in athletics. Friedman, however, did not consider himself a Jewish athlete, but an athlete who was Jewish. He was neither atypical or typical, just himself. Within a decade, Jews were making their mark in boxing and baseball. Friedman was chosen to be captain of his college team, the Michigan Wolverines. Hundreds of Jews across the country sent the young man telegrams of congratulations, and kids lined up for autographs. He was their hero and representative.

Like many of his generation, Friedman joined the military after Pearl Harbor. In his late 30s, Navy Lieutenant Friedman insisted on a combat tour on board ship during the Battle for Okinawa. After the war, he continued playing semiprofessional ball and coached professional football. Friedman then had another opportunity to be a hero for Jews. Because Abram Sachar wanted Brandeis to be a secular Jewish university, the new president believed a competitive football team would emphasize that point. Sachar pleaded with Friedman be its first – and as it turned out – last coach.

The faculty and student body perhaps never had Sachar’s passion for football and argued against its weak academics and high costs. One of the most outspoken students was radical Abbie Hoffman, whose values and politics were antagonistic to those of Friedman’s generation, and to what football represented. By 1959, Friedman felt betrayed by Sachar and Brandeis. The football program closed down, and eventually Friedman left.

Without much comment, Greenberg lets Friedman’s words and actions speak for themselves. Readers may find Friedman easier to admire than to like. His supreme confidence and his outspoken candor were not always appreciated. He could be petty. He also annoyed the NFL when he complained about its treatment of NFL veterans and when he promoted himself for the Hall of Fame – possible reasons for his late induction.

Friedman, however, is remarkable a long way from the football field. He lived his life on his own terms, even with severe illness. Religion and society cannot endorse his choice of suicide, but we can still admire how Benny Friedman played the game.

(This article originally appeared in the Jewish Advocate. Used here with permission of the author.)


 

 

 

 

My Brother The Boxer by Len Abram

Boxing came into my life when I was seven. In some ways, it never left.
I grew up in a small Massachusetts town with a few hundred Jewish families after World War II. An otherwise tolerant Christian community had a tiny minority, mostly teenagers, who insulted and bullied Jewish kids. After a few beatings, Jewish boys in Milford, including my 15-year-old brother Stanley, nicknamed Sookie, asked the synagogue leadership for help, a gym to learn to defend themselves.

Sookie At Age 14
Sookie At Age 14

The gym went into the basement of the synagogue. The businessmen who funded it knew what happened to millions of defenseless European Jews. The Rabbi of the congregation himself was a survivor, whose wife and children had been murdered. Recently, the state of Israel also fought for its life.

Upstairs in the synagogue were shelves of books and an ark with scrolls promoting loving your neighbor as yourself and praying for peace. These were among eternal truths of unmatched spiritual power. Downstairs, in the world of Everlast, was preparation for battle: stacks of York weights and barbells, benches, gloves, head gear, medicine balls, jump ropes, chin-up bars, mirrors, speed and heavy bags, a canvas-covered ring, and throughout, the smell of sweat on leather.

The boys needed a trainer and got two. A WWII veteran offered to help with physical conditioning. Jake, the vet, had been stationed on a Pacific island, on the supply chain to feed, fuel, clothe and arm MacArthur’s drive toward Japan. When the Navy guys could, they trained. They lifted two canteens dipped in cement at the ends of a broomstick.

With brand new equipment, Jake turned my brother and his friends into athletes. He found a boxing trainer, who taught my brother and his friends what A.J. Liebling has called, the sweet science. Sookie became his most able student.

“They lifted two canteens dipped in cement at the ends of a broomstick.”

In school, my brother wasn’t much of a student, but he trained to box for hours a day, sometimes four, sometimes six to prepare for a fight. He read books by Joe Louis and later Rocky Marciano, but Louis, the Brown Bomber, was his real hero, along with Moses and David Ben-Gurion.

I remember how Sookie came home from his road work, sprinting through the neighborhood. The lines around his mouth were white from exhaustion and nausea. How he held a barbell in his outstretched arm until his shoulder shook, this to strengthen his jab; how he dimpled the heavy bag with his gloved fists; how he turned the speed bag into a blur. He jump-roped and shadow-boxed into something that looked like a dance. The trainer used to slam a medicine ball into his tightened belly. My brother allowed one of my friends to punch him in the stomach with all his might. The slap of his fist was loud. My brother moved with the punch, which had little effect.

“He jump-roped and shadow-boxed into something that looked like a dance.”

As for sparring, my brother was nearly blind without glasses. He had to give them up in the ring. With no contacts available at the time, he watched his opponents’ feet. From their footwork, Sookie knew what they would throw. He’d block and counterpunch. Sookie was a very good counter puncher, for another reason.

My mother disapproved of violence and boxing, although there were plenty of Jewish boxers, some champions. My parents’ ideals were closer to those of the synagogue above the gym than the gym below. Perhaps this was one reason behind my brother’s complaint that he needed to get hit once to get into the fight. Counterpunching fit the defense-turned-offense requirement.

Sookie, Middle, With Sister Helen And Brother Len
Sookie, Middle, With Sister Helen And Brother Len

The purpose of the gym in the synagogue basement was defensive too. The bullying, intimidation and insults toward Jewish kids in the small town disappeared or decreased. The Jewish kids could defend themselves. That was enough to end their victimhood and teach many of us a lifelong lesson on how the world too often works.

My brother’s reputation as a fighter grew. We had a cousin in Revere, picked on because of his small size. One day when he was bullied, he invited the aggressor to wait for his cousin, who was sure to fight him when he next visited. Sookie arrived and the bully challenged him to a fight. In boxing, my brother learned that brawn is not enough. Boxing is a thinking sport, backed up by muscle. The bully tried to brawl. My brother hit him until he quit.

Sookie fought so well that he was encouraged to fight professionally. My father’s friends watched him spar, and offered to support him with cash while he trained and found fights. My parents were completely against that idea. I cannot tell if my brother was disappointed. Perhaps that would have made his beloved sport into a business.

Sookie went into the Army, where he finished his high school education. He went onto college under the GI Bill and studied until he had a master’s. He got married and had kids. He became a guidance counselor at a large regional high school and rode a motorcycle to school, even in winter. He didn’t box anymore, but he always trained. For a while, he led a fencing club at the high school. Students kept visiting him after he retired.

A decade before he died, he invited me to his basement, where he had set of vinyl-covered weights and barbells. We chatted about life while he lifted, sweating through hundreds of reps, as he called them, the stamina builders.

“These require – no other word for it — courage.”

Joan Benoit Samuelson, outstanding marathoner, says that “marathons are a metaphor for life.” Boxing is perhaps an even better metaphor. Like any athlete, the boxer sacrifices to reach the highest level of conditioning and skill. However, it’s the personal risk to the body and the brain, as well as the risk of humiliation in search of success, all within rules of good sportsmanship. These require – no other word for it — courage.

Years later, I wrote a song called “The Boxer’s Creed” with this chorus:
You’re not going down
Say it between rounds
Until your soul hears the sound
You’re not going down.
Fists in the air
Bring it on, Despair,
I am not going down, not going down.