In New York the story began with The Case of the Grounded Welterweight.
In Pennsylvania it began with The Case of the Poisoned Orange.
In California it was The Case of the Suspicious Governor.
New York's Julius Helfand, a racket-busting prosecutor appointed chairman of the state boxing commission by Governor Averell Harriman, feinted and slugged his way through an inquiry into "alleged irregularities in the conduct of boxing." These centered around the enforced idleness of a clean-cut fighter named Vince Martinez, third-ranking welterweight, who has not been able to get a fight since December. Vince's idleness stemmed from a quarrel with his then manager, William (Honest Bill) Daly, treasurer and dominant figure in the powerful International Boxing Guild, a kind of managers' cartel. First result: Helfand suspended the licenses of Daly and his pugnacious associate, Murray (Tex) Pelte, "for acts detrimental to boxing." Both refused to appear for testimony.
May 29, 1955
The New York inquiry began with a look at the Martinez situation but in time was examining the shy friendship between Frankie Carbo, once a leading gunslinger for Murder Inc., and fight managers and promoters, including James D. Norris, president of the International Boxing Club, who is boxing's top dog. Men like Norris who have known Carbo for 20 years or more—during which Carbo drew four homicide raps—looked blank like movie mobsters and pleaded ignorance when asked how Carbo made his living (gambling and fixing fights), where he lived (in New York and Miami), how he could be reached (by leaving a note with the headwaiter in a leading Broadway restaurant). Under oath these boxing leaders testified that when they met Carbo for a casual cup of coffee they never discussed boxing with him. Thus, Jim Norris:
Q. (by Helfand) Do you know Frankie Carbo?
A. (by Norris) Yes.
Q. How long do you know him?
A. Twenty years.
Q. Have you ever discussed the promotion of any fights with Mr. Carbo?
A. No, I haven't.
Q. What is Mr. Carbo's business, to your knowledge?
A. I couldn't answer that.
Q. You don't know?
Q. In 20 years you haven't been able to find out what his business is?
A. I am not a social friend of Mr. Carbo's, Mr. Chairman. I know Mr. Carbo. I talk to him. I have a cup of coffee with him occasionally....
Q. Where do you see him around?
A. You might see him any place.
Q. Where is any place? Where do you usually run into him when you do see him? At a fight?
A. No, I haven't seen Frankie at a fight in many years. I can't really say that I ever saw him at a fight.
Q. Did you see him at the Saxton-Gavilan fight in Philadelphia?
A. He was down there.
Q. You saw him there?
A. Yes, sir.
So far as Norris' testimony went, Carbo, whom he could affectionately call "Frankie," was a friendly figure who turned up "occasionally at the race track, at a ball game, possibly at a restaurant around town, something like that." Norris had "read" for many years, he said, that Carbo had a financial interest in fighters but never had heard it "in the trade," where it is Topic A.
Q. Have you ever discussed with Mr. Carbo fights or fighters?
So Jim Norris joined Hymie (The Mink) Wallman and Willie (The Undertaker) Ketchum, fight managers, in sworn testimony that, while they had known Carbo for many a long year and all were in the boxing business, the subject just never came up when they met for a quiet chat over coffee. (Carbo, who goes on periodic drunks, mostly drinks coffee in between times.) Wallman, a coarse-voiced, swarthy man with a Captain Queeg trick of fingering a tiny pair of golden boxing gloves during moments of tension, had, in fact, known Carbo as far back as the '20s, when Frank was a rising young mobster called Jimmy the Wop.
Wallman had invited the hoodlum to the weddings of his three daughters but, somehow, met Carbo only when he "bunked" into him. ("Bunk" is a New Yorkese word for "bump.") He wouldn't know how to get in touch with Carbo, he said, but every time one of Hymie's daughters was to get married Hymie just happened to "bunk" into the fellow. Naturally, he invited Carbo to the weddings. To strengthen his contention that this was a man of mystery, not given to confiding his home address or telephone number even to friends of 30 years, Hymie summed up his impression of Carbo:
"He wouldn't let his right ear know what his left ear was hearin'."
Ketchum, a mild, bulbous-formed man with a strawberry nose, is licensed as manager of Lightweight Champion Jimmy Carter but reputedly only a front for the real manager, Carbo. Willie had difficulty remembering the name of his bank, in which he keeps a modest checking account and a safe deposit box. He collected his share of purses in cash, he said, because he distrusted promoters, but he had no ready explanation for the fact that the cash never was deposited in the checking account. Nor could Ketchum remember what he reported as his income for 1954. The presumption was that Helfand here was drilling into reports that Ketchum's share of Carter's purses is a pittance, the lion's share going to the lion, Carbo.
Another witness with a poor memory, until jogged by Helfand's surprise production of grand jury minutes, was Angel Lopez, restaurateur and former manager of Kid Gavilan. The night after Gavilan lost his welterweight title to Johnny Saxton in a highly suspicious Philadelphia fight (SI, Nov. 1), Lopez and Gavilan went to a party at New York's Hotel St. Moritz. Carbo was there, Lopez suddenly remembered, and Gavilan was told by Carbo: "Don't worry about a return bout. You'll get it and you'll knock him out." He never did get it, however, even though Frank (Blinky) Palermo, Saxton's manager, had told Gavilan, "I'll do whatever Frankie says."
Thus, Lopez was the only witness who ever had heard of Frankie Carbo talking about boxing.
Norris proved to be singularly uninformed. In a sleek-fitting, striped gray suit, he arrived with Truman Gibson Jr., IBC secretary, who served as his counsel and coached his answers on the corporate structure of the IBC and even the names of its officers.
There was a gasp in the hearing room when Norris testified that he had never heard rumors that Martinez would be unable to get a fight so long as he was on the outs with Daly. Sports pages printed the reports at the time. Next steps by the New York commission, Helfand announced, will await his return from Paris, where he will attend a meeting of the World Committee for Professional Boxing, June 3-5.
Meantime, if Vince Martinez, the Grounded Welterweight, still has no fight, his former manager, Honest Bill Daly, is grounded too. And New York's Commissioner Helfand has shown himself a persistent prosecutor, with a job still just begun.
CASE OF THE POISONED ORANGE
The new Pennsylvania boxing commission—in office only since February when Governor George M. Leader ordered a cleanup—had an even more dramatic case. Its chairman, James H. Crowley, once of Notre Dame's Four Horsemen, and members, Alfred M. Klein, former investigator for the Kefauver Crime Committee, and Paul G. Sullivan, Pittsburgh sports-writer and lawyer, were concerned about a poisoned orange.
Two ring physicians testified that Harold Johnson, a leading light heavy-weight who was a 4-1 favorite over Julio Mederos in their Philadelphia bout, had been drugged in his dressing room before the fight. Presumably the drug had been administered in an orange which Johnson sucked shortly before stumbling through two dazed rounds. When Johnson was unable to come out for the third round, Mederos was given a TKO victory.
The commission charged Johnson's manager of record, Tommy Loughrey, his handlers and Matchmaker Pete Moran with prior knowledge that Johnson was not in condition to enter the ring and with participating in a "sham, fake or collusive boxing match." In addition Moran, matchmaker for Herman (Muggsy) Taylor of the Philadelphia Arena, was charged with being Johnson's undercover manager. Taylor promoted the fight in collaboration with the International Boxing Club (James D. Norris, president) and it was shown on television.
The doping might have gone undiscovered had not a Philadelphia newspaperman, John Webster of the Inquirer, noticed Johnson's slowed reactions when the drug was just beginning to take full effect. Webster turned to John A. Saunders, boxing commission secretary, and asked: "What's wrong with Johnson? He doesn't look right." Saunders passed the word along to Dr. Alfred S. Ayella Jr., ring physician, who was able to make but a cursory, 20-second examination between rounds and found nothing "grossly wrong" at that point. Johnson said he felt "all right" and wanted to continue. The second round began.
"Johnson shook his head," Ayella testified, "and a few seconds later landed four to six punches. Then the boys were in a clinch. They were parted by the referee. Johnson's head went forward without being hit and he fell to the floor. I felt that the bout should be stopped. The bell ended the round and I signaled the referee that the fight was over....
"Johnson by then was entirely different. He was disoriented, confused, irrational. He got up and fell to his knees twice. He was in no condition to leave the ring under his own power and I ordered a stretcher."
Dr. Wilbur H. Strickland, another ring physician, also examined the fighter briefly and then Johnson was taken to Hahnemann Hospital. Urinalysis showed that he had been fed a dose of a barbiturate.
Johnson had weighed in at the commission offices the afternoon of the fight, left the building and was accosted by a stranger standing at the door.
"I don't think I knew the man," Johnson testified, "but he seemed like a nice feller and told me that he had seen most of my fights and even his kids were interested in me."
They chatted for some 20 minutes, with Johnson trying to break away because "he smelled from garlic" but each time the stranger detained him.
"He had an orange in his hand," Johnson related, "and was holding a paper bag. He took an orange out of the bag and said, 'Have an orange, Harold.' I refused, but he persuaded me to take it and I put it in the pocket of my sport jacket and finally went home."
Johnson, in fact, is very fond of oranges and sometimes eats six a day. He ate the stranger's orange that evening in his dressing room. First he rolled it in his hands to soften it.
"I noticed juice coming out of the top of the orange [perhaps where a drug had been injected by hypodermic needle,] so I sucked it and then bit into it. It tasted bitter and I said to Skinny [Davidson, his plump handler], 'This orange tastes bitter...Skinny, this orange tastes just like you—bitter.' "
Actually, parts of the orange were sweet, part bitter. Johnson ate only some of it, then flushed the rest down a toilet. About 15 minutes later he was nauseated, dizzy and suffering from a headache. He told his trainer and manager about the headache.
Toward the end of his testimony Johnson dropped a small bomb. He was asked to look at some pictures and from them identify those who were in his dressing room before the fight. (The dressing room was large enough so that Mederos used one end of it.) He identified Jimmy White, Mederos' manager of record, Baron Cohen and Larry Kent, Mederos' seconds, and then threw the room into confusion when he picked out a photograph of Louis Saccaroma.
Saccaroma is an ex-convict. He has been convicted on narcotics charges and served three years and nine months of a 10-year sentence. Alias Lou Black and Louis Roman, Saccaroma has been arrested in various cities and, according to Philadelphia detectives, is Mederos' co-manager, along with Jake LaMotta. Philadelphia police believe both men are associated with Frankie Carbo in Mederos' management.
Johnson testified he also had seen Saccaroma around training camps in Florida. Saccaroma denied he had been in Philadelphia for the fight.
In trying to determine whether Loughrey is Johnson's true manager or just a front for Matchmaker Moran, the commission touched on financial arrangements. Johnson expressed confidence in Loughrey's honesty but added that they had argued about payments made to sportswriters.
"Some of them," Johnson testified, "got $50 or $100 and I didn't think the fight was big enough for such big payments." The point was not pressed.
Skinny Davidson, however, indicated that Moran might have at least some financial interest in the fighter, though matchmakers are forbidden to use their own boxers on their own cards. Skinny said he complained to Loughrey that he always got his 10% off the top of the purse when he trained other fighters but with Johnson his 10% was arrived at after all expenses were paid.
"That's the same as I get—10%," Loughrey told him, though as manager his share was one third. When asked if Moran got anything, Skinny replied: "I don't think the man would advise Tom [Loughrey] without compensation."
The commission indicated that The Case of the Poisoned Orange was only part of a continuing investigation of all phases of boxing, with emphasis on Philadelphia, City of Brotherly Gloves. Meanwhile, by Governor Leader's order (SI, May 23), boxing is under a 90-day ban in Pennsylvania.
CASE OF THE SUSPICIOUS GOVERNOR
The suspicions of Governor Goodwin J. Knight of California centered not only on boxing but on professional wrestling as well, leading the San Francisco Chronicle to observe with tongue-in-cheek disagreement that "professional wrestling matches are no more fixed than the outcome of gunplay between Dick Tracy and the gangsters."
The governor, who had named two new members to the state athletic commission, charged the new men to report to him on his suspicions:
That Eastern mobsters have muscled into boxing and wrestling.
That fights are fixed and wrestling is faked.
That the International Boxing Club (James D. Norris, president) is dictator of fight policy in California.
That officials at fights are incompetent and assigned through favoritism.
That the California commission itself is hampered by dissension within its own ranks.
Dr. Dan O. Kilroy, one of the new commissioners, said he will investigate concealed ownership of fighters and violations of the commission rule that "no promoter or club shall own in any manner an interest in any fighter." This was like bringing a rifle sight to bear on the operations of Sid Flaherty, manager of Bobo Olson, world middleweight champion. The recent Willie Pep-Gil Cadilli fight in California was announced to television fans as "a Sid Flaherty boxing enterprise and International Boxing Club promotion." Flaherty is Cadilli's manager.
The Chronicle, which bannered the governor's decision on its front page, also commented editorially:
"Governor Knight has called for an investigation of this alleged link-up [between boxing and gangsters], and we support him in his announced desire to get the facts. If boxing has been penetrated by hoodlums and fights 'fixed,' the large boxing public should be told about it and efforts made to put California's house in order."
Like Governors Harriman and Leader, Governor Knight had started something.
THE CAST OF CHARACTERS
James D. Norris, president of IBC, holder of exclusive contracts with most world champions, multimillionaire pal of hoodlums and murderers.
Vince Martinez, third-ranking welterweight who might well be champion soon if only he could get a fight. Won eight fights in 1954, four of them by knockouts.
Frank Carbo, killer so terrifying to the fight mob that some dare not say his name, preferring the descriptive, "the gray-haired guy." Norris named one of his race horses "Mr. Gray," an alias Carbo sometimes uses now. He seldom goes to fights.
William (Honest Bill) Daly, former manager of Martinez, whose troubles with the Martinez family began with a demand that he account for $3,000 in expense money. He never quite did.
Hymie (The Mink) Wallman, a furrier who manages fighters too.
Harold Johnson, a light heavyweight who ate a bitter orange and lost a fight.
Louis Saccaroma, a former dope pusher who hangs around fight camps.
The governors of three great states (see above).