Ever since James Aloysius Farley became Postmaster General, aspiring politicians have regarded the chairmanship of the New York State Athletic Commission as a gateway to statesmanship. Robert Keaton Christenberry, a New York hotel executive, may have had this idea in mind three years ago when he accepted Governor Thomas E. Dewey's call to purge the hoodlum-infested boxing racket. With a pledge to drive the gangsters out of the sport or lead a movement to repeal the Walker Law, which had legalized prize fights in 1920, Dewey's White Knight took office on September 25, 1951. As Christenberry's fourth year in office gets under way, people are beginning to ask: "When does his cleanup campaign start?"
ALL WORDS AND NO ACTION
The blunt truth is that Chairman Christenberry, in three years, has been a Don Quixote tilting at the wrong windmills. He made a public spectacle of the futility of his highly publicized cleanup campaign last March by accepting a plaque from an organization of boxing managers infiltrated by the very influences he had promised to drive out of boxing. The forces he pledged to exorcise are more firmly entrenched than ever. The Walker Law, instead of being repealed, has been amended to raise Chairman Christenberry's salary, augment his staff and give him broader powers than any other commissioner has ever had in New York—but which he hasn't yet used. His only worthwhile accomplishments have been permitting the Medical Advisory Board, set up before he took office, to function and instituting a system of automatic suspensions for fighters who are knocked out or injured in bouts.
In spite of his obvious failure as a gang-buster, Chairman Christenberry, an old hand at publicizing himself, has been able to use the channels of self-exploitation opened up to him by his boxing post to herald himself as a conquering hero. Long active in the Boy Scout movement, he approached his boxing post with the zeal of an Eagle Scout and the conviction that racketeers could be blasted out of the sport with scareheads mentioning his name. Under Christenberry's predecessors—including Eddie Eagan, a Rhodes scholar and onetime Olympic light heavyweight champion, whose friendly nature and genuine love for boxing prevented him from taking a realistic view of the profession—a hoodlum named Frankie Carbo grew so powerful that soon he and his underworld associates controlled most of the important fighters through front men.
November 15, 1954
When James Norris and his Chicago associate, Art Wirtz, took over Mike Jacobs' 20th Century Sporting Club and organized the International Boxing Club, they inherited Carbo and his friends. Although young Norris has more millions than most people have, he likes to gamble and has a strange preference for the company of characters such as Carbo and Golfbag Sammy Hunt, the Chicago hood. He once wrote a to-whom-it-may-concern letter which was shown to Judge Grady L. Crawford of Miami, extolling the virtues of Eddie Coco, convicted of second-degree murder. Coco, now free on bail pending the outcome of his appeal from a life sentence, is one of the undercover managers Christenberry promised to drive out of boxing.
A series of fatalities in New York rings brought about Eagan's resignation in 1950, and Christenberry came galloping onto the scene, brandishing his broadsword, Excauliflower, and calling on all gangsters to take to their heels. The day after he took office, Christenberry sat at ringside in the Polo Grounds and saw Sandy Saddler and Willie Pep put on one of the foulest brawls ever held in the New York Commission's jurisdiction. Christenberry, seeing his chance to break in with an explosion, revoked Pep's license, suspended Saddler indefinitely and fined Charley Johnston, Saddler's manager, $100 for accusing Dr. Vincent Nardiello, the commission doctor, of trying to influence the decision of Artie Aidala, one of the judges.
After the excitement of his slam-bang debut had died down and he had a chance to look around, it didn't take Christenberry long to find out that his promises couldn't have been fulfilled, even if he had had Sir Galahad supporting him instead of a group of politically appointed assistants, some of whom were spies for the I.B.C. Often, the commission's innermost secrets were telephoned to Madison Square Garden before the private meeting at which they were discussed had been adjourned. The odd part is that Chairman Christenberry, although aware of this situation, did nothing about it.
MORE MONEY, MORE AUTHORITY
At the time, however, Christenberry thought everything would turn out all right if the boxing laws were amended to provide him with enough undercover men to root out the gangsters, with a salaried medical advisor and with authority to revoke the license of anyone convicted of a crime or found associating with a known criminal. In April of 1952 Governor Dewey signed one bill containing all these provisions and another raising the chairman's salary from $7,500 to $12,000 and the pay of the other two commissioners from $25 to $50 for each meeting they attended.
Armed with additional authority, assistants and salary, and encouraged by a vote of confidence from the State Legislature and the press, Christenberry renewed his newspaper war against the boxing trust and the gangsters. In a blistering magazine article titled "My Rugged Education in Boxing," he gave the names and records of some of the big heels in the fight racket. The reaction to this blast was like an ear-splitting echo bouncing back at Battling Bob. The better minds of the sock-and-bust-'em racket held that Christenberry should not have dragged into print the prison records of those named in his article because the men had paid their debt to society and were trying to earn an honest living in boxing—a contradiction in terms if ever there was one.
The I.B.C., now openly hostile to Christenberry, hit back at the crusader where it hurt him most—in the New York State treasury. Promoter Norris announced that he was going to stage most of his important fights out of town. The I.B.C. now had its attacker on the defense, having maneuvered him into the embarrassing position, for a hotel man, of seeming to have driven boxing itself, and the tourist business it attracts, out of New York.
A glad-hander by instinct, Commissioner Christenberry suddenly lost his zeal for gangster-hunting. His public statements began to take on a more moderate tone. After he had been in office for a year, he said: "I've learned this: that everybody connected with boxing is not necessarily a rascal.... I am willing to admit there are many exaggerated ideas about the evil in boxing. They existed not only in my mind but in many others. But when I came into this, I found the field flooded with misconceptions and loose charges. We started tracing them down and found out they didn't add up."
ERCOLE AND CARBO
Shortly after this, the New York State Crime Commission turned its attention to the boxing racket and made public some transcripts of conversations its agents had overheard on tapped wires, which would have started Commissioner Christenberry worrying if by this time he hadn't adopted the policies of the three monkeys. A boxing manager named Anniello Ercole (known in the trade as "Mr. T") fell back on the Fifth Amendment when asked if Frankie Carbo called him his cousin and if Carbo had been instrumental in getting his fighter, Pat Marcune, bouts in Madison Square Garden, as the tapped-wire transcripts indicated. Ercole held a boxing license although he had a record of six arrests and had served time on Blackwell's Island for attempted grand larceny. Mr. Christenberry promptly suspended the license without explaining how the compulsory fingerprint law had failed to trap Ercole at license renewal time. At the same Crime Commission hearing, Carbo himself was called. After admitting his identity, he stared at the wall for 15 solid minutes, refusing to answer a single question.
However, to show his fearlessness and perk up his publicity, Commissioner Christenberry made a bold move at Madison Square Garden on the night of December 19, 1952. After a close fight between Billy Graham and Joey Giardello had been decided in Giardello's favor by a 2-1 vote of the judges, Mr. Christenberry, influenced by the angry reaction of the crowd, ordered the announcer to inform the fans that the decision was not official and would be reviewed by the commission. The chairman and Commissioner Clilan B. Powell adjourned to an anteroom, where Bob changed Judge Joe Agnello's card without his consent or even knowledge, so that instead of giving the fight to Giardello 6-4 the doctored score called the rounds even and gave Graham the edge on points.
The uproar that now went up made the first demonstration seem like hearty approval. The bettors who had backed Giardello and hadn't collected their winnings almost raised the Garden roof, and the bookies who had paid off on Joey and now were called upon to settle also with Graham's backers screamed like martyrs being flayed. The first reaction to Christenberry's unprecedented move was overwhelmingly in his favor, because television fans, many of them not too familiar with boxing's basic law that a decision handed down by officials appointed to judge a fight is irrevocable, thought it was about time someone had the courage to take such action.
Almost without exception, however, boxing writers, while agreeing that the original verdict appeared to be on the sour side, thought Christenberry's remedy was worse, since it broke one of boxing's commandments. This view was confirmed two months later in an 11-page opinion handed down by Justice Bernard Botein of the New York State Supreme Court. The opinion stated in essence that boxing commissioners are not appointed on their ex-pertness in judging prize fights but for their administrative capacity, whereas referees and judges are designated by the commission on the basis of their skill, experience and integrity, and that no facts had been furnished to indicate why the commission chose to override the decision of its acknowledged experts.
In boxing today, more than ever before, the important consideration is that the show must go on—the television show, that is. It is probably closer to the truth to say that the promoter, always with the best undercover advice, decides who is going to fight whom, and the commission—in New York and even more so in any other state—is little more than a collection of rubber stamps.
Commissioner Christenberry is the fanciest rubber stamp of the lot, however. Since being convinced by his own press agent's flowery praise that he has cleaned up boxing, Mr. Christenberry has employed various diversionary tactics to discourage suggestions that the mobsters are now more strongly entrenched than ever. One of Bob's biggest triumphs in this respect was the entente cordiale he brought about between the New York Commission and the congress of windbags known as the National Boxing Association. Down through the years, the New York Commission had treated this group with the contempt it deserved, as its territory had always been a haven for boxers and managers suspended for breaking the rules by the New York Commission. But Commissioner Christenberry saw the opportunity to pull a stroke of diplomacy by bringing the two bodies together.
George Barton, then the newly installed president of the N.B.A., would have been a good man for Christenberry to sit down and have a talk with if he had wanted to find out the real score. Barton, ruggedly honest sports columnist of the Minneapolis Tribune, boxed as a professional in his youth, has been a referee and had served 10 years as chairman of the Minnesota Athletic Commission before taking over the presidency of the N.B.A. He threw up his hands in disgust at the meeting of his executive board in Detroit last May when his efforts to invoke federal aid in driving the criminal element out of boxing were blocked.
PAGING THE FBI
Wearied by the futility of his efforts, Barton said: "I am convinced that I am a chump for making an honest effort to bring about needed boxing reforms. Because of powerful groups like the I.B.C. and the I.B.M.G. controlling boxing, I have about the same chance of putting over my federal control program as I would trying to lick Dempsey, Louis and Marciano in a battle royal. The only man capable of eliminating racketeers from boxing...is J. Edgar Hoover." It is interesting to note that Mr. Barton told the N.B.A. executive committee that his four-point program for federal control of boxing had the approval of Commissioner Christenberry.
Christenberry has been playing footsie with the I.B.C., his original target, ever since Norris lifted his big-bout boycott on New York. After three world's championship bouts had been arranged for Battling Bob's jurisdiction—Rocky Marciano vs. Roland La Starza for the heavyweight title and Bobo Olson vs. Randy Turpin for middleweight honors in New York City, and Kid Gavilan vs. Carmen Basilio for the welterweight crown in Syracuse—business boomed for the State treasury again. Christenberry was seen often in the company of Harry Markson, director of boxing at Madison Square Garden, on whose advice he had come to depend greatly in difficult situations. On at least one occasion he allowed Markson to make changes in a statement he was about to give to the press.
However, Christenberry's most abject surrender was to the International Boxing Guild, often termed a house union of the I.B.C. When the I.B.C. was having trouble with the New York Managers' Guild over the split-up of television royalties two years ago, due to the power wielded by the small-time managers, it was decided to form a new group controlled by managers more amenable to I.B.C.'s interests. By means of the blacklist and agents provocateurs, the old Guild was wrecked in a few months, and the International Boxing Guild emerged. Charley Johnston, Jack Kearns, Bill Daly and Hymie Wallman are among the group of a dozen managers, some of them front men for Frankie Carbo and other behind-the-scenes pilots-without-port-folio, who run the I.B.G. as a faithful handmaiden for the I.B.C. These managers have a virtual monopoly on television shots for their fighters, and there's never any friction between the Guild and Norris. At its annual dinner last March, the I.B.G. called Mr. Christenberry to the dais and awarded him a plaque as the commissioner who had done most for the game.
Bob's plaque lost any trace of luster it might have had recently when rebellion broke out in the I.B.G. ranks. A number of managers, frozen out of a share of the TV spoils by the small group which hogs them for its own fighters, broke away and organized the Metropolitan Boxing Alliance. This group presented charges to the commission that its boxers were being blacklisted and its promoters coerced by the Guild into not booking them.
The Alliance managers also brought their troubles to Manhattan District Attorney Frank Hogan, who started an investigation last week. Hogan, like the complaining managers, wants to find out what becomes of the money the Guild collects as tribute from managers whose boxers work on TV and from promoters other than the I.B.C. whose shows are televised.
The commissioner is amazingly tolerant in viewing a long string of Garden bouts with weird betting angles. When Lulu Perez scored a none-too-convincing knockout over Willie Pep in two rounds after the betting had gone from even money to 4-to-1 on Perez, the commissioner was asked what he thought of the affair.
"Youth, you know, must be served," he said sadly to the Journal-American's Caswell Adams.
SKULDUGGERY AT THE CROSSROADS
Last June, a few days after Commissioner Christenberry had admonished "rumor mongers" for hinting that there had been a series of betting coups based on too-good-to-be-true victories by long shots in the Garden, Bobby Jones, booked to meet Bob's old nemesis, Joey Giardello, reported to the commission that he had been approached by men who tried to bribe him to throw the fight. Christenberry took Jones to District Attorney Frank Hogan's office, where Jones repeated the story. Hogan—warning Christenberry, Harry Markson of the I.B.C, who accompanied him, and Jones and his manager, Bob Melnick, not to mention the matter to a soul—proceeded to set a trap that he hoped would lead to busting the boxing racket wide open.
Two days later, the New York Journal-American broke the story under a screaming banner line—someone who may have been interested in saving the game from exposure had spilled the beans. The Journal-American had been on the street for over two hours when Clarence Henry, a heavyweight managed by Blinky Palermo, a Philadelphia racketeer, walked into the trap, reportedly with a copy of the paper heralding the bribe attempts stuck in his pocket, unread. It was an unbelievably lucky break for the district attorney's office. Henry is now out on bail. If he talks, many carefully guarded secrets about professional boxing may be brought out into the open.
Big Jim Farley rode into eminence on his "no foul" rule. In the pre-Farley era, whenever a boxer was losing an important match, he could drop to the mat, start groaning and claim he had been fouled, and nine times out of 10 the referee would allow his claim. After Max Schmeling won the heavyweight championship by claiming Jack Sharkey had fouled him, Farley thought the time had come for stern action. His "no foul" rule was roundly criticized at first, but it turned out to be the best measure ever adopted for the protection of the fight fans.
Battling Bob Christenberry, his anti-gangster campaign having fizzled, has no such coup to his credit yet, but you have to give him an E for effort. After the recent Kid Gavilan-Johnny Saxton stinker in Philadelphia, headline-conscious Bob got himself plenty of type mileage out of a proposal to switch New York over from the round-and-point system of scoring fights to the straight point method. In the same breath, he demanded that Saxton, the new welterweight champion, who won his title on rounds (if we overlook such items as astigmatism, parochialism and other shortcomings on the part of the officials), defend his tainted bauble in New York against Carmen Basilio.
If Bob goes on to higher things, it will be on the strength of such accomplishments as his new scoring system, his help in introducing safety mats for boxing rings, recodification of the boxing laws, the adoption of eight-ounce gloves, compulsory physical examinations for referees and judges, stricter physicals for boxers, and organizing boxing's first Hall of Fame. Many of Bob's former admirers think he would have done better for himself and boxing if he had stuck to his original program of disorganizing boxing's Hall of Ill Fame.
Last week in New York, Republican Christenberry said he expected to retain his post despite the election of Democrat Averell Harriman to the governorship. A good many friends of boxing, some of them Republicans, hope the chairman is wrong.
JIMMY JEMAIL ASKS:
"WHAT CAN BE DONE TO CLEAN UP BOXING?"
ROBERT CHRISTENBERRY ANSWERS:
"There must be uniformity of rules and action throughout the country. If there can't be more cooperation between various commissions, the better way might be federal control. When a boxer is barred in New York, why should he be welcomed elsewhere? Much more is needed. It can't be told in a paragraph."
FOR FURTHER ANSWERS TO JEMAIL'S QUESTION TURN TO PAGE 34
In Detroit last May, George Barton, Minneapolis Tribune sports columnist and former N.B.A. president, asked a meeting of the executive committee to bar any promoter, matchmaker, manager, trainer, referee or second with a criminal record. Up rose Commissioner Frank Wiener of Pennsylvania to defend racketeer-manager Frank (Blinkyl Palermo (SI, Nov. 1). Barton says now: "Wiener, in taking issue with me, pictured Palermo, a Philadelphia boxing manager with a criminal record, as a fine family man and upstanding citizen."