In the glare of floodlights focused on a triple ring at Chicago Stadium the great annual Golden Gloves boxing tournament draws to a close. Next Thursday night, this time in just one ring, eight young boxers, finalists of an arm-flailing army of more than 25,000, will receive one of the highest honors in all amateur sport—the designation of national champion of the Golden Gloves. For those eight, who fought their way through countless individual battles to this triumph, the Golden Gloves can mean fame and possible fortune. For many there will be the memory of momentary acclaim, and for a few the actuality of heartbreak. The odds against winning are terrifyingly long, yet there has never been a dearth of entries. The sheer difficulty of achieving a Golden Gloves title imparts to it a special quality akin to baseball's no-hitter, bowling's coveted 300 game, golf's hole-in-one; and the pursuit of the elusive goal brings back new thousands of young hopefuls year by year.
Early last fall, youngsters were already working out in cities, towns and villages from coast to coast, running miles every day to strengthen their legs, feinting and dancing endlessly in front of mirrors to develop style and footwork, punching doggedly at overstuffed mattresses in their cellars or light and heavy bags in neighborhood gymnasiums. Golden Glovers, who, consciously or unconsciously, are the most class-conscious youths in their neighborhoods, take their work in deadly earnest. Most of them are from the lower end of the social scale. They are hungry, as the fight people say. Indeed, they are determined to speed up their social adjustments in jig time with their own fists.
In the Golden Gloves, the kid from Hell's Kitchen in New York, from Chicago's teeming South Side or the quiet wheat fields of Kansas thinks he sees a tailor-made chance for advancement. With every bout he wins, he comes closer to the dream of the big bout in the big arena, where among the strange and coldly calculating faces he may catch the eye of a fight manager or trainer who will take him aside and lead him into the moneyed world of the real big time.
The Golden Gloves rules are strict and stress safety. Doctors examine every fighter before and after each appearance in the ring, and a ringside physician is in constant attendance. Fights are stopped if they become one-sided. There has seldom been a serious injury in a Golden Gloves bout.
Once the entry blank is signed, a Golden Glover is offered the services of a coach. He may be the local physical education instructor in a small town, an old-time pug from the neighborhood or, in the bigger cities, a regular coach from a youth recreation club. Whichever the case, he becomes the fighter's manager and friend, perhaps the first real instructor he has ever had. The coach prescribes the routine, watches carefully over his boy, brings him along and teaches him what he must know on the long Gloves grind. For when a Golden Glover steps into the ring for his initial tournament bout, he must be as ready as that short and concentrated period of training can make him.
That moment comes shortly after Christmas; and for most Golden Glovers the long, hard battle upwards begins in grimy neighborhood arenas. In sweat and fear and hope, the first bouts are fought and won or lost, and by late February the relentless weeding-out process has carried the survivors to regional eliminations. Those who are still unbeaten after that go to Chicago or New York for the final cutdown which will leave eight youngsters in each of the Eastern and Western sections—one for each of the eight weight divisions.
By the time a boy gets to the national finals, he has established himself as a first-rate amateur fighter. Depending upon the number of entries in his weight division, he has had as few as five or as many as a dozen fights along the way. At this climactic stage, the sense of heartbreak in defeat is compounded by a sense of futility at coming so close to amateur boxing's brass ring and missing it on the last grab. For the losers next Thursday night there is scant solace, save the experience they have gained that may help them in next year's Golden Gloves. But the successes of past winners (see below) have inspired others, and over the years the Golden Gloves has snowballed into the biggest personal-contact elimination tournament in all sport.
The idea of a big amateur boxing tournament germinated in Chicago back in the mid-'20s in the face of an Illinois law that prohibited prize fights. The law was first put to the test entirely through accident by a young mission director named Austin Pardue, now Episcopal Bishop of Pittsburgh.
THE CHURCH AND THE LAW
Pardue was disturbed over the lack of facilities for neighborhood recreation. In an effort to keep the boys in his charge off the streets, he organized a boxing tournament without realizing he was breaking the law. He was promptly arrested. In the resulting furor, the Chicago Tribune stepped into the picture. Its co-publisher, the late Capt. Joseph Medill Patterson, thoroughly disliked the antiboxing statute and saw a good opportunity for Tribune promotion. He put the Tribune's lawyers to work, got an injunction to neutralize the law and had his sports-writers round up the best local talent for a widely publicized tournament, directed by the late football great, Walter Eckersall. Staged in the old Ashland Boulevard Auditorium, the show was a smashing success, and soon afterward, the law was repealed.
The boxing tournament idea occurred again to Patterson in 1927 while he was publisher of New York's tabloid Daily News. On St. Valentine's Day, News Sports Editor Paul Gallico, who thought up the name, announced the first annual Golden Gloves boxing tournament, open to all New York residents. He got 200 entries the first day. The Golden Gloves of that year broke all existing records for amateur boxing tournaments, both in entries (1,084) and in attendance (21,594 at the finals alone). The Tribune adopted the Golden Gloves title in 1928 and arranged for its winners to meet New York's in the first Intercity championships. This was the forerunner of today's national championship bouts between Western and Eastern teams.
Since the early '30s the Golden Gloves has been farmed out all over the country to local sponsors as a gigantic newspaper and radio station promotion. Paid admissions, ranging from 50¢ for small town eliminations to $6 for ringsides at the finals, have raised uncounted millions for youth groups the country over.
The men who made the Golden Gloves big were Bill Fritzinger of the News and Arch Ward of the Tribune. Under their supervision, the nation was roughly divided, for the purposes of the tournament, at the Allegheny Mountains. All cities to the east sent their winners to New York for the sectional finals. Those to the west sent theirs to the Chicago elimination.
And it was Ward who internationalized the Golden Gloves 24 years ago. In 1931 he brought the amateur champions of France over to face his Western champions, convinced, like a true Midwesterner, that Midwestern athletes are the best in the world. He was not far wrong: the Americans have beaten the European champions 10 out of 12 times. Some years, Ward puts his Western champions on the road. This year, his troupe will fight English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish national winners in Dublin, Belfast, Glasgow and London early in May.
Ward's Western team this year has been culled from more than 20,000 entrants in 24 states. Thirty-three cities held major eliminations, and many of these served as regional centers for sub-tournaments in dozens of little out-of-the-way places. The Eastern division works the same way, but on a smaller scale—Eastern entries average about 5,000 each year, fighting in 10 regional centers from New England to Florida.
The quality of Golden Gloves performances never has matched the quantity. Desire and determination usually are more prevalent than skill. But wild swinging and awkwardness are overlooked by Golden Gloves fans. Action is the thing.
FROM GOLDEN GLOVES RINGS COME CHAMPIONS
Though never intended as such, the Golden Gloves has become a rich training ground for future professional boxers. More than a dozen Golden Gloves champions have gone on to win world professional titles. At one time, ex-Golden Glovers held seven of the eight world championships. The first was Barney Ross. The most famous was Joe Louis. The most flamboyant was Sugar Ray Robinson. Another was Tony Zale, former middleweight champion. And also in the ranks of those who won the Golden Gloves and, subsequently, pro titles were Gus Lesnevich, Bob Olin, Petey Scalzo, Solly Krieger, Melio Bettina, Phil Terranova, Sal Bartolo, Johnny Saxton and Harold Dade. A number of youngsters who never reached championship status in the Golden Gloves later developed into fine fighters and won world championships—Jimmy Carter, Ezzard Charles, Joey Maxim and Lou Salica. Then there was the husky heavyweight who lost a hairline decision in the Eastern finals of 1948. He hasn't lost since. His name: Rocky Marciano.
1955 GOLDEN GLOVES TITLE FINALISTS
Jose Regores, 112-pound division; 19, a Havana, Cuba bus driver who speaks no English. He fights out of Miami.
Robert St. John, 118-pound division; 17, a New York stock clerk who hopes to make the U.S. Olympic team.
Walter Taylor, 126-pound division; 20, a Washington, D.C. clerk and Olympic hopeful with good right cross.
Thomas Schafer, 135-pound division; 18, a grave digger from Blawnox, Pa. Crowds delight in dubbing him Spook.
James Archer, 147-pound division; 20, a New York longshoreman studying business administration nights.
Rudolph Corney, 160-pound division; 23, a Brooklyn machine operator with an impressive knockout record.
John Horne, 175-pound division; 22, native of Omaha, Neb., now radar repairman for the Air Force in Washington.
Roy Bullock, heavyweight division; 18, weighs 185 pounds. A Freeport, N.Y. truckman's helper. Good left hook.
Tommy Reynolds, 112-pound division; 17, a St. Louis high school boy with four years of boxing experience.
Don Eddington, 118-pound division; 16, another St. Louis high school student. Relies on left jab, right uppercut.
Harry Smith, 126-pound division; 21, a New York truck driver now in Air Force. National 1954 Gloves champion.
Willie Morton, 135-pound division; 21, from Kansas City, now in the Air Force. A Golden Glover since 1951.
Richard Wall, 147-pound division; 19, a sophomore at the University of Oklahoma, from Idabel, Okla.
Jesse Bowdry, 160-pound division; 17, a St. Louis grocery stock boy, considered a good professional prospect.
Eddie Jenkins, 175-pound division; 22, a painter for Chrysler Corp. in Detroit. A would-be real-estate broker.
Eddie Catoe, heavyweight division; 24, a 230-pound Kansas City slugger now an Air Force policeman.