With sauces of gentle asperity, the New York Boxing Writers' Association last week served up its annual dinner to members and friends and those who came with some reasonable expectation that they might be broiled alive. For dessert there was apple pie and Rocky Graziano.
The dinner is boxing's biggest noncompetitive event, graced by as many champions and other elite as the writers can assemble. All the best managers attend. Among the champions this year was Rocky Marciano, world heavyweight champion, who sat at the head table but, perhaps through inadvertence, was not introduced. Afterward there was comment that such an oversight would have been impossible in the presence of a Dempsey, a Tunney or a Louis (none of whom was there) and that, very likely, the incident might serve as a footnote on the current status of the heavyweight championship.
It was remarked in addition that Jim Norris was not present. Frankie Carbo did not show up either. But the program's seating guide listed a Robin Hood at Table No. 40.
January 24, 1955
The planned feature of the evening was a series of skits in which boxing managers were depicted in prison stripes and boxing commissioners in fright wigs. However, a rank amateur, with a part as yet unwritten, stole the show. Julius Helfand, newly appointed chairman of the state boxing commission and a racket buster of some prestige, was called upon for a few words.
But before Helfand had a chance to open up on his yet undeveloped theme, Jim Farley, who used to be a boxing commission chairman himself once, was introduced. Jim, his fine organ voice vibrating with love for boxing, paid tribute to Mickey Walker, seated on the second dais, and went on from there to advise the new chairman in a fatherly way.
"I get a little bit annoyed," Jim said, addressing himself to Chairman Helfand, "with all this talk about boxing and everything being wrong with it. There's nothing wrong with boxing that can't be handled with a little common sense." Do not, he advised Helfand, talk toe much to these boxing writers "until you know what you're talking about." He then paid tribute to Jimmy Walker. Chairman Helfand sat very still.
When Helfand got up he thanked Jim for his "public advice" and went on to say: "I couldn't go one round with anyone in this room, but I can lick my weight in wildcats when I go up against a crook or a racketeer."
After that, Jacob Javits, Attorney General, picked up the Farley theme about what's wrong with boxing and, like a trumpet responding to the challenge of a bassoon, chucked in a couple of grace notes.
"There is nothing wrong with boxing," he said, "that a little common sense and a little COMMON HONESTY can't cure."
Then Edward P. Mulrooney, a former member of the State Crime Commission who helped found the Police Athletic League as a force against juvenile delinquency and has seen many boxers emerge from it, had a very few words to say, but with overtones. A white-haired, pink-cheeked man who bears his 80 years with grace, Mulrooney turned cryptic.
"There is nothing wrong with boxing," he said, "and there's nothing wrong with boxers. Beyond that I have nothing to say. I have certain reservations."
A few days later Governor Averell Harriman, talking over WCBS Radio, expressed the feeling that boxing "has gotten among the racketeers."
"We are going to clean it out regardless of what happens," he said, "because the sport can't remain unless it's made clean."
Whammo, bammo and clang
A year is a funny sort of a thing if you stand off and think about it. To begin with, "year" is a queer name even for a year. Say it aloud a few times. Of course, in a way, they're all the same, half days, half nights, part May, part November. Eighteen ninety-eight was that way. But take 1955. Or first take threshing machines. They're pretty much alike, too—clatter a lot, and waddle along dribbling wheat into sacks and blowing chaff. But run a threshing machine down a 45° grade and drop old locomotive bells into the hopper. Whammo, bammo and clang! Though the year 1955 is still young, it seems to be developing a personality of its own too.
Miler Wes Santee has contributed to this flavor, this piquancy, by running the Sugar Bowl Mile on a soggy track in 4:14, which would have been slow even in 1932, the year Wes was born. The slow time wasn't really Wes's fault, but it did prey on the mind of a fellow named Charlie Grogan.
Charlie, a man of 39, was sitting at a bar in Riverhead, N.Y. at the time, and after a while he was unable to bear the fact that no American had come close to matching John Landy's 3:58 world record. In a flash, Grogan decided to act. He stripped down to his underwear, taped a bar chit bearing the number four to his shoulder blades and whizzed off down the street doing his best to break four minutes. "That cop," he said later, "never would have caught me if I'd had a tail wind."
The track season had hardly contributed this bracing bit of deviation before a thunderclap roused the somnolent world of baseball. The incomparable Willie Mays, who has been playing winter-league ball in Puerto Rico, lost his temper in the park at San Juan and got into one of the most intricate and highly publicized scuffles in the history of the game. During the course of it he rolled on the ground with none other than his teammate and buddy, N.Y. Giants Pitcher Ruben Gomez. He seemed genuinely abashed and apologetic afterward, but Willie shocked his fans nevertheless—he announced that he was sick of baseball and forthwith flew to New York for a furlough. "I guess you can get tired of anything," said the once joyous outfielder. "I'm tired of playing ball. I wouldn't even play stick ball."
Boating, too, contributed something unusual to the new year's sport scene—an Eskimo named Puppygitwok-Koopuaok. Both Puppygitwok and his 20-foot skin boat were flown all the way from Kotzebue, Alaska to Manhattan by the manufacturers of Mercury Outboard Motors so that Puppygitwok could put-put across New York harbor to the Statue of Liberty and thus celebrate the National Boat Show.
Puppygitwok, a poker-faced fellow with straight black hair and penetrating black eyes, took the big city in stride. He obliged his host by eating some blubber which had been especially flown in too. "How," he was asked, "did it taste?" Said Puppygitwok: "Good." Then he slipped into a loud sport shirt, a flashy necktie and khaki pants and submitted to a press conference. During the process he talked a bit about Eskimo relations with Arctic mice. The relations are good. The mice spend the summer storing small succulent roots known as Eskimo potatoes in little mounds. In the fall the Eskimos walk out on the tundra, open the mounds and steal the roots—not, however, without substituting dried fish to keep the mice alive and thus able to gather more roots during the following year.
When he was asked what aspect of the great city impressed him most he said: "I saw a horse. I had never seen a horse before." What did he do on sighting the beast? "I opened the taxi-cab window and looked at him."
Puppygitwok, however, did not drive his skin boat across the bay to the Statue of Liberty. It snowed on the appointed morning and the harbor police refused to let him go. Puppygitwok did not blink an eye, although the police attitude reflected something like a lack of confidence in Eskimos. Could he have made it, snow notwithstanding? "Yes," said Puppygitwok.
A winter's tale
It snowed in England and Scotland last week and the temperature fell below freezing. Forty-one of 62 scheduled English and Scottish league soccer games were postponed because of "frozen state of the grounds," and three games were halted in mid-play because of the elements. British soccer fans will have their soccer, elements or no elements, and the wholesale cancellations roused them to a state of rather turbulent discontent. This seemed like a reasonable reaction—after all, U.S. football games are sometimes played in driving snow and near-zero temperatures and nobody can deny that U.S. football is rougher ('ere now, none of that) than soccer. But on closer inspection it developed that the fans weren't really dying to sit in the cold and watch soccer (although enough turned out for a game in London to pelt one hapless goalie with snowballs). The discontent stemmed from a subsidiary manifestation of the weather—the Pool Promoters Association canceled all soccer lotteries, and for the first time since 1947 it was absolutely impossible to bet on a game—even on a game which was played. In short, it wasn't the cold, it was the cupidity.
Diplomacy is fine, but as the man said when he threw his sponging brother-in-law out of the house over his wife's doubtful objections, direct action beats legislation every time.
The National Football League has been plagued for several years by the Canadian football leagues' practice of luring American players north of the border with fat checks. It was bad enough having the Canadians capturing the cream of each year's college crop, but when supposedly safe professional veterans were signed off the NFL rosters onto Canadian teams, the American clubs steamed. They blustered, they argued, they sued, all without success. Finally, they fought back. "They want a war?" said NFL Commissioner Bert Bell. "Well, then, let's have war."
The Americans began to raid Canada, recapturing a player here and a player there to offset the players still being lost northward. After the 1954 season the big blows struck. The New York Giants persuaded their former star, Tex Coulter, to return. Then they exploded a bombshell. They signed Alex Webster, an American whose entire pro career had been in Canada and who had developed into one of the best backs in Canadian football. The Chicago Cardinals exploded a bigger bombshell. They signed Sam Etcheverry, Canada's Most Outstanding Player in 1954. Now Canada was hurt and seething. Almost at once the Montreal Alouettes re-signed Etcheverry (an amiable young man who seemed unable to say no to anyone) over the Chicago Cardinal contract, so that Etcheverry was in the position of having jumped two contracts almost simultaneously, thus angering everyone and setting the border, one might say, ablaze.
But Canada, as with many a carefree raider when war is carried into his own back yard, suddenly lost its taste for fighting. Last week the Big Four League sued for peace. This eastern half of the Canadian professional football setup announced a new ruling. From now on, it said, no player under contract or option to play elsewhere in 1955 would be eligible for Big Four play. It recommended that the rule be adopted by the entire Canadian Rugby Union and added that Bert Bell was being contacted directly. If Bell accepted the peace terms—recognition of the Canadian leagues' place in professional football but respect for one another's option clauses—then this latest of professional football wars would be done.
Tennis player Don Budge was recalling the other day some of his memorable matches of the mid-30s when the name of one of his old opponents came up. "He could be dying, flopping on the court, skidding on his elbows, toddling on his last legs and fainting all over the place—but he would keep trying his heart out," said Budge. "It wasn't that his style was confusing. It was just damned aggravating. Here was this little fellow who can hardly look over the net. You would put a shot away, thinking you had the best of him. But when you turned away—plop! The damned ball was back in your court!"
Budge was referring—with perfect accuracy—to a 5-foot 4-inch Georgian who campaigned around the world's tennis centers for over two decades, picking up as he went such nicknames as Mighty Mite, Mighty Atom, Atlanta Mite, Lionhearted, Giant Killer, Possum, Retriever and even Tumble-bug. His real name is Bryan Morel Grant Jr., now an Atlanta insurance broker with the same deadly serious look little Bitsy Grant used to wear when knocking off big boys like Budge (whom he defeated in three of 10 meetings), Ellsworth Vines, Frank Shields, Wilmer Allison, Jack Bromwich and Jack Crawford.
Grant has reason to be serious in 1955. He is starting a new tennis career in the senior division, which is a sort of tennis playground for ambitious buffs who like to keep in the tournament swing after reaching the age of 45. Grant won't be 45 until next Christmas Day, but the USLTA takes a lenient view of minor technicalities and allows prospective seniors to start playing in senior events any time during the year in which their 45th birthday is on the horizon. This is just fine with Bitsy. Nine days after the start of the new year he won his first senior title—in the Dixie tournament at Tampa—with a three-set win over Jack Staton, last year's National Senior Clay Courts Champion.
"I feel," says Grant (who is working on getting his present 142 pounds back down to a trim 130), "that I can take my game more seriously again. For the last few years I've been the oldest man in all the tournaments I've been in. Against a man in his 20s, about all I could do was play for fun and laughs and I got some awful beatings." (Not always, however. In 1952 Bitsy won his 11th Southern championship at the age of 41—just 25 years after winning his first.)
Today Grant is full of fond memories of the old days, and, like other athletes of his age, he may be slightly inclined to belittle the modern stars. "I've seen Tony Trabert play, but not Seixas. Trabert is good, but he isn't in the same league with Budge, Perry or Vines. I've never seen the Australians play—except on television—but they don't look too impressive."
Bitsy has been missing from Forest Hills since 1947, but this September he may be back—in quest of the Senior Championship. "As a matter of fact, I'm not in bad shape right now. My reflexes have slowed down so's I can't play the nets as I used to, and my serve isn't much—but I can still hit 'em hard with my backhand."
The old Bitsy Grant philosophy is still there: "Why knock the cover off the ball? You can win the point if you get the ball back once more than the other fellow. If I get serious again I think I should beat 'em all."
The decision of the Southern Pacific AAU in the Reverend Robert Richards case was worthy of Solomon. Richards, a minister in the Church of the Brethren and the world's greatest pole vaulter, had appeared on This Is Your Life, a television program that appeals for the most part to the surprise-party set, who obtain some sort of eerie gratification from watching an unsuspecting victim—in this case, Richards—thrust into a place of prominence where he had no intention of going and where he might not necessarily want to be. At any rate, there was Richards having his life re-enacted before his eyes. After it was over (but before the show was over) he was rewarded publicly for his pain. Among his rewards were an automobile, a motion-picture camera and a projector. As an added fillip, a $1,000 donation was made to the U.S. Olympic Fund.
Now, an amateur Richards is and an amateur he intends to stay. An athlete who accepts rewards of substantial monetary value for athletic accomplishments is, ipso facto, a professional. The first thing Richards did after the program was ask if his amateur status was endangered by the gifts. If so, he said, thank you very much but take them back. In New York Dan Ferris, the AAU's watchdog of amateurism, said almost frantically that Richards could not keep the car and wired the Southern Pacific AAU to look into the matter.
The Southern Pacific AAU did. With rare discernment they decided that the gifts had been given not to Richards but to his church for the use of its pastor, who happened to be Richards, and that there was therefore nothing to endanger Richards' amateur standing. For Richards to earn gifts for his church was no more professional than for him to earn a $1,000 donation for the Olympic Fund.
The cynics snorted, but others, who have seen amateur college football players driving to practice in glittering new convertibles or who remember the ¬£4,735 wedding gift of Australian tennis fans to Frank Sedgman (which prompted Red Smith to write that Sedgman was, pound for pound, the most amateur tennis player in the world), regarded the AAU's decision on Richards as wise, fair and sensible.
At any rate, Richards was cleared and in his joy sprang 3,000 miles east to Boston and 15 feet 3¾ inches directly aloft, once he reached there, to set a new pole-vaulting record for the 29th Boston K. of C. indoor games.
For dear old Acme
Villanova University had one of its most ineffective football teams (one victory, nine defeats) in 1954. At the same time, it had the most profitable season in its history—thanks to a tie-up with Acme Supermarkets, the Philadelphia food-store chain which bought and gave away tickets to Villanova home games with food purchases of $10 or more (SI, Sept. 27). As a result, there were 95,000 fans in Philadelphia's Municipal Stadium when Villanova lost to Mississippi; 60,000 on hand when Villanova lost to Houston. Happy Villanova has renewed the contracts of its coaches for next season—a sure sign that the heat is off so far as the alumni are concerned.
But the other day a cloud—at present no larger than a No. 2 can of yellow cling peaches—appeared on the horizon. No word of complaint from Acme Supermarkets, mark you, but the trade magazine Supermarket News came right out in print with a candid editorial observation. "The [Acme] promotion might have been even more successful had Villanova possessed a better team."
If Villanova can take a hint, it will do a little dying for dear old Acme come next fall.
That same steady stride
Beats in my dome;
His feet must be geared
To a metronome.
I sure wish he'd skip
Just one big step
And sneak in a—well,
Say a jig step.