“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
As 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.
“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 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.
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 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.)