September 21, 2006
In the ring, at the front, boxer Barney Ross packed a punch
To many sports fans, Shawn Green remains the only recognizable Jewish professional athlete. Green follows a relatively short but impressive line of Jewish baseball stars, one every generation so it seems, kind of like the Jewish seat on the Supreme Court in the pre-Clinton era. For every Louis Brandeis, there was a Hank Greenberg. For every Felix Frankfurter, there was an Al Rosen.
But boxing, that most primal of all sports, was once rife with Jews. In "Barney Ross," a biography of the eponymous 1930s boxing champion, author Douglas Century cites a stunning statistic -- in the 1920s and 1930s, one-third of all professional fighters were Jewish. Given that Jews accounted then for roughly 3 percent of the nation's population, that figure seems almost incomprehensible.
Yet it is true. What African Americans are to present-day basketball, Jews were to boxing in the period between the two World Wars.
Century, whose two previous books dealt with New York's criminal underworld, is also Jewish. The 41-year-old, Canadian-born author said over the phone from New York that he grew up with "a pride in being Jewish" and heard stories from his uncles about the great Jewish boxers of the Depression era.
When Century was about 12, he said, he got his first pair of boxing gloves. He flailed them about as he watched Muhammad Ali's classic fights with Leon Spinks in Ali's waning days as heavyweight champion.
In "Barney Ross," the third book in Schocken and Nextbook's new Jewish Encounters Series -- after Robert Pinsky's "The Life of David" and Dr. Sherwin B. Nuland's "Maimonides" -- Century writes about classic fights from a much earlier era, the famous bouts pitting Ross against Tony Canzoneri and Jimmy McLarnin. Century devotes parts two and three of his slim, highly readable book to the legendary matches involving this troika of fighters, each representing his own immigrant community: one Jewish, one Italian and one Irish.
Century explained that he chose to write about Ross rather than, say, Benny Leonard, who is considered by most boxing scholars as the greatest Jewish fighter of all time, because Ross transcended boxing and Jewishness.
Ross was not only a boxing champion. He was a Marine war hero at Guadalcanal, volunteering for the service at the relatively advanced age of 33 and winning a Silver Star for holding off a platoon of Japanese soldiers, while his fellow Marines lay dying or incapacitated. He ran guns to Israel and tried to set up a Jewish-American brigade to fight in the Middle East at the time of Israel's War of Independence. He went public with a morphine addiction resulting from his war wounds and later, after overcoming his habit, became the poster boy for recovery from addiction. In short, he was both the most overtly Zionist and the most American of all Jewish athletes of that time.
Century has plumbed library archives and combed the Warren Commission report for fascinating testimony from Ross on the subject of childhood mate, Jack Ruby, who, before becoming infamous for shooting Lee Harvey Oswald, grew up with Ross in the Maxwell Street ghetto in Chicago, where they both ran errands for the mob. Century also spent much time interviewing Ross' late brother, George, another prizefighter, who only recently died.
It is clear that Century loves his subject. That fact came through over the phone when he referred to the boxer almost intimately as "Barney," as if the late fighter were a relative or long-lost friend. It also comes through in the text itself, which contains wonderfully lyrical passages.
When discussing Ross' rope-jumping talents, Century writes that Ross was "doing skipping routines so intricate that the jump rope appeared to become a kind of hissing viper."
He refers to Ross' decision to join the Marines as "some jagged riddle resting in that smoke-filled interregnum between his championship reign and the return to America as a decorated war hero."
Though the book features such lapidary strokes, it also seems to have been rushed to print. A good copy editor should have noticed a number of bad misspellings, including the last names of Clifford Odets and Martin Scorsese. Similarly, a good fact checker should have corrected such errors as Mushy Callahan, the junior welterweight champion, being referred to as a welterweight, or Jackie Fields, the welterweight champion, being hailed as champion of the lightweight division.
These mistakes aside, the book will restore the pride of many Jewish boys, who doubtless have no idea that Jews once presided over the lower weight classes of the sweet science.
On the phone, Century suggested that this might be a Zeitgeist moment for bringing back the Jewish fighters. He said this partly because of all the tough Israeli boxers coming to America. As part of his research for the book, Century trained with several Sephardic Israelis running a boxing gym in Hell's Kitchen. The author, who said he has "delicate hands like a pianist," could not throw a left hook. "They called me an uncoordinated Ashkenaz goof."
In addition to the welcome infusion of Israeli immigrants, Century is comforted knowing that the Marines recently inducted Ross into their sports Hall of Fame and that there is talk of another movie based on Ross' life (the first one, "Monkey on My Back," was released in 1957). Even two recent books written about the Joe Louis-Max Schmeling fights examine the prevalence of Jews as fighters, fight fans and fight managers in the Depression.
Jews may never again dominate a sport like they dominated boxing in this country in the 1920s and 1930s. However, it is important to note that that was the second great era of Jewish fighters, as Century nicely points out in his book. The first occurred in England in the late 1700s and early 1800s, when Daniel Mendoza reigned. And before that, of course, there was Bar Kochba, Judah Maccabee, Samson and the greatest warrior of all, King David.
When it comes to fighting prowess, Jews may have a greater lineage than many of us ever realized.