Mention Jersey City to a sports fan and the response will vary with his sensibilities. The right-thinking sort will immediately call up memories of Dempsey's classic battle with Carpentier at Boyles' Thirty Acres. An embittered Brooklyn fan will recall it as a way station on Walter O'Malley's flight to California. But those of us who fancy the grotesque will remember the wonderful brawl between Max Baer and Tony Galento, staged in Jersey City 25 years ago this summer.
Baer and Galento were the two most colorful heavyweights of their time. Of the two, only Baer was as pretty as Cassius Clay, but either could have out-talked him. Galento's "night stick" was his murderous left hook, while Baer had one of the hardest right-hand punches in boxing history. The two men detested each other sincerely and unflaggingly. As the columnist "Bugs" Baer (no relation to Max) wrote at the time, the promoters "turned the clock back and two cuckoos popped out."
Baer, a loud-mouthed Adonis, would have been at home as a modern wrestler. He postured and grimaced through his fights, flexed his enormous shoulder muscles, exchanged insults with the crowd and gestured derisively at his opponent. (One evening, earlier in his career, he had been badly outboxed by Tommy Loughran. As he chased the elusive Loughran around the ring, a fan at ringside kept shouting: "Hit him with your right, Max! Hit him with your right!" Baer, winded from throwing punches that never connected, finally turned on his supporter. "You come up here," he snarled, "and hit him with your right!")
Galento was a stubby, neckless man with a bloated face and a belly as big as Baer's chest (Tony's waist measured 42 inches, Baer's chest 44). He was as loud as Baer, and a good deal meaner, but there was some difference of opinion about his character. "He's the only fighter I ever hated," Baer said of him, while Tony's wife claimed, "He's really a big-hearted slob."
Galento and Baer were signed to fight in Jersey City's Roosevelt Stadium on July 2, 1940. The bout was scheduled, by some supreme optimist, for 15 rounds. Because of aversions to training, each even in his prime was subject to shortness of breath; Max liked women. Tony liked beer. Each had briefly known glory, Max during the 364 days he had held the heavyweight championship of the world. Tony during the second he had stood over Joe Louis after having knocked him down. Each had been knocked out by Louis in four rounds.
Under the circumstances, more talking than training took place in their respective training camps.
Tony's pride was his tavern in Orange, N.J. There he retreated when training became arduous, as it often did, and he would tie on his apron and serve beer to his customers while he told them how he was going to "moider th' bum."
Two nights before the fight, Tony's face was cut in a minor fracas in the saloon. Three stitches were required to close the wound, and there was speculation that the bout might have to be postponed. To squelch a rumor that would have affected the gate receipts, Abe J. Greene, New Jersey's boxing commissioner, examined Galenio's multiscarred face and called the latest notch "an abrasion."
"It is inconsequential and will only spur me to speedier victory," Galento said, according to Greene. Tony may have been misquoted.
Twenty-two thousand people, paying almost $100,000, found their way to Roosevelt Stadium on the night of the fight. Both fighters were just past 30 and near the end of their careers, but the crowd had paid for blood rather than artistry. Galento was an 8-to-5 favorite. Though a head shorter than Baer, he outweighed him, 245 pounds to 221. By style and temperament he was more suited to the Pier 6 tactics the fighters' contempt for each other seemed sure to touch off.
But Baer's contempt was to prove stronger than his habitual dislike of blood and violence. Instead of pulling away from, and therefore directly into the path of Galento's fierce left hooks (as many fans suspected he would), Baer simply ducked under them. Galento's punches sailed harmlessly over his head or around his neck. Max kept sticking his left into Tony's soft face and occasionally bombing it with his right. By the second round blood was leaking from the ready-made incision on Galento's chin.
Galento shortly began to huff and puff. Any ballplayer or golfer will admit that it is a lot more wearing to swing and miss than to connect solidly. Missed punches quickly drained Tony's strength. Halfway through the rest period between rounds Baer stood up and disdainfully ordered his seconds to take his stool and leave the ring. If Galento, gasping on his stool across the ring, was capable of receiving psychological thrusts, this must have hurt.
Galento adopted tactics more to his own taste in the fourth round. Leaving his feet, he hurled himself head first at Baer. Tony's head struck him under the chin, but Baer grimaced more in anger than in pain. It was Galento's last attempt at intimidation. Max went back to swatting him, and the referee informed Tony at the bell that his butting had cost him, technically, a round he had already lost in blood.
Galento, brawling or boasting, had always stimulated the press to flights of bizarre prose. Groggy and bleeding now, he was the source of further inspiration. The next day Hype Igoe was to write in the New York Journal-American: "Blood was shooting all over Tony's pudgy face like the petals of a poinsettia."
Perhaps emboldened, perhaps growing winded himself, Baer slowed his attack to play to the crowd. When one of Galento's infrequent punches knocked his mouthpiece out, Baer stepped back and asked Referee Joe Mangold to pick it up before somebody tripped over it. Once he hammered Galento's head three or four times without a return, then laughed at him. When the two fighters slugged away after the bell had ended the fifth round, they were pried apart by Mangold. Baer turned to the referee and executed a deep apologetic bow, spreading one glove wide like the plume on a musketeer's hat. Galento could only stare at his tormentor angrily.
"Tony's so tired," someone at ringside said, "that he couldn't answer his cash register's bell."
The end came in the seventh round. Baer was puffing heavily now, but the blood ran in streams down Galento's swollen face, blinding and choking him. Baer landed two thunderous rights on his chin, then moved in on his floundering target and threw the hardest punch of the fight. It was a right that landed, just as the bell rang, in the pit of Galento's stomach. Tony said "Oof!" and wobbled to his corner, looking like a man who had just swallowed a small boulder. The doctor followed Tony to the corner and stopped the fight.
A trainer, pointing to Galento's bloody mouth, shouted to newspapermen: "It's a bad cut. This way and that way!"
"I can't breed," mumbled Tony.
Across the ring, a dwarf had appeared out of the crowd and climbed through the ropes. Baer grabbed him, and he and the dwarf fell wrestling to the canvas. Three cuckoos.