Benny Leonard walked briskly past me as I greeted him in the lobby of New York's St. Nicholas Arena. He sort of mumbled, "Hi ya, kid," making it clear that he did not want to continue the conversation. If he stopped, he surely would have drawn a crowd of greeters and possibly a reprimand from the boxing commission, since a referee was not permitted to fraternize with the patrons on a night when he was going to officiate.
It was Friday evening, April 18, 1947, and the undefeated former lightweight champion, now 51, was still involved in boxing. This night he would referee the entire card at the celebrated dance hall that had been converted into a fight arena. On the previous Tuesday evening I had interviewed Leonard on my evening radio sports program.
"I was a mama's boy," he had said. "When I was 15, I began fighting in the local clubs, but I didn't want my folks to know. So I changed my name from Benny Leiner to Benny Leonard, after the famous minstrel man, Eddie Leonard. One night I came home after a fight and my mother was crying. She had found out. My father came in and started shouting at me. 'Viper, tramp,' he yelled. 'Fighting, fighting, fighting—for what?' I took out the five dollars I had earned and handed it to him. He looked at it, smiled and put his arms around me. 'That's all right, Benny,' he said. 'When are you going to fight again...?' "
A little while after encountering him in the lobby, I watched Benny work the card from my ringside press seat. The first fight was between two unknowns with more desire than ability. Benny handled them well, showing better footwork than the boxers, and after four rounds he and the two judges turned in their cards for the decision. This procedure was repeated four times before the main event, a 10-rounder between two very good lightweights, Julio Jimenez and Eddie Giosa.
The feature did not seem to tax Benny, but after the decision was announced, I noticed that he removed his bow tie and opened his collar button. There was no air conditioning and the smoke-filled arena was uncomfortably hot.
"I won the lightweight title in 1917, but previous to that the newspapers had called me the 'uncrowned' champion. The year before I knocked out Freddie Welsh to win the title, I had beaten him badly in a no-decision bout. The rules were different then—the only way you could win the championship was by a knockout. If the champion was standing at the end, he still had the title, no matter how badly he was beaten...."
It was 10:45 p.m. At ringside, Bill Corum, the columnist for the old New York Journal-American who was working as the color man on the network radio broadcast, had taken the microphone from blow-by-blow announcer, Don Dunphy, and was recapping Giosa's unanimous decision over Jimenez. Then he briefly mentioned the wind-up bout getting under way between Mario Ramon, of Mexico City, and Bobby Williams, of New York.
I was sitting a few seats away from Corum, watching as Dunphy gathered his notes and prepared to leave. This night Corum had more listeners than usual. His audience was awaiting the on-the-hour news from Texas City, Texas, where a series of explosions had left thousands dead and injured and had destroyed much of the port city.
In the ring, the fighters were clinching a few feet from Corum's head. I went to say goodnight to my broadcasting colleagues and knelt a little to the left of Corum, waiting for him to finish. Someone grabbed his arm and whispered loudly, "Bill, Bill, Benny's in trouble." "The toughest fight I ever had was with Richie Mitchell in 1921. I almost lost the title then because of Arnold Rothstein, the gambler. Before the fight, Rothstein asked me whether I thought it would be a tough fight. Four years earlier I had knocked out Mitchell in seven rounds, and I told Rothstein this time I thought I could take him in one. That prospect intrigued him, and he said he could get good odds on a first-round knockout and would put $25,000 on it. He said he would give me a piece of the bet for nothing. Well, Arnie was a good friend and I didn't want to disappoint him. I also wanted to pick up some of that money, so I tore into Mitchell at the opening bell. In less than a minute, I had Mitchell down for a nine count. He got up, but I put him down again for another nine count. With a little more than a minute left, I landed a solid left hook and Mitchell crumpled again. He went down as if he could never make it up before the 10 count, but he made it at eight. I knew one more solid punch and it would be over. It came quickly, but I didn't land it. Out of nowhere, Mitchell dug a solid left to my stomach and all the air went out of me. He followed with a right to the chin and I went down. I didn't know where I was; I was in worse shape than Mitchell had been in. They tell me I got up at seven—it must have been out of instinct—and I held on till the end of the round. I finally knocked him out in the sixth. Rothstein came into the dressing room after the fight and told me he could never get the bet down...."
Corum and I looked up at the ring together. Leonard was right above us, collapsed upon the bottom rope; then, in slow motion, he sank to the ring floor. Corum continued broadcasting. He said, "Oh, oh...Benny Leonard has taken a fall."
The saliva trickling from the left side of Leonard's mouth quickly brought a serious tone to Corum's voice. Both fighters dropped their hands to stare at the fallen referee. Leonard was not moving, and he was wheezing. Corum began to ad-lib from his prepared script. "It looks like Benny's fainted," he said. "It's pretty hot here at ringside with all these lights and smoke. He's worked pretty hard tonight, all six bouts."
"Aside from the Mitchell fight, the closest I came to losing was against Lew Tendler in 1922. My big mouth almost lost me the fight to Mitchell, but this time it saved me. In the eighth round Lew hit me on the chin with a tremendous left. I was out on my feet and Lew knew it, but I was able to grab him and clinch. Lew was trying to break loose—and I knew if he did, I was finished. So I said to him, 'Lew, that was a good punch, but now you're gonna get it.' Lew told me later that he was so incensed that I did not go down, and even more furious that I degraded his punching, that he went after me like a wild man. Well, that's the only thing that saved me. I was able to stay away from him the rest of the way and saved my title. The next year I gave him a good licking...."
Leonard's head rolled to the right, and Corum saw his ashen face. "This is worse than I thought, ladies and gentlemen," he said. "Benny's face is very gray—he does not look good at all."
Dr. Vincent Nardiello, the ringside physician, quickly went to see about Leonard, and now Corum began to falter as he said, "Dr. Nardiello has just gone into the ring. Benny's not moving. Nardiello has his little bag with him, and he's trying to revive Benny. He's listening to his heart, now he's feeling his pulse."
The fans who had remained for the Ramon-Williams fight were standing on their seats, watching silently. Millions were still tuned in to Corum. "Nardiello's listening for a heartbeat," he said. "Now he's going to his bag. He's going to give Benny a needle, he's going to give Benny a shot."
"I retired in 1925 as undefeated champion. My mother was so happy. I was 29, practically a millionaire and without a scratch. But in 1929 the stock market wiped me out. I was broke. In 1931, when I was 35 years old, I decided to make a comeback as a welterweight. In one year I had about 20 fights and was still undefeated. It sounds good—14 years without a loss. Then I met Jimmy McLarnin. He was 10 years younger than I was, and he knocked me out in the sixth round. That was it. I retired for good...."
Dr. Nardiello placed the syringe back in his bag. Corum continued to describe the scene: "Dr. Nardiello's still trying to listen for a heartbeat. He's signaling for a stretcher."
Leonard was gently placed on the stretcher and carried from the ring. Corum kept on reporting: "I hope you people at home will forgive me. I don't know what to say, but Benny doesn't look very good. Forgive me if I stumble, but Benny is a very good friend and his face is very gray."
Boxing commission officials quickly held a conference, and the bout between Ramon and Williams was canceled. Their handlers wrapped them in robes and led them from the ring. The house lights were turned on.
The Western Union operators were tapping out their stories and the ringside reporters typed their leads, still unaware that soon they would tear them up to tell their readers of Leonard's last moments. At the microphone Bill Corum said, "They're taking care of Benny in the dressing room. I hope everything will be all right, but I fear it's something serious." He then signed off.
At precisely the same moment in the dressing room, Dr. Nardiello said, "He hasn't taken a breath for over a minute." Then he slowly shook his head. Benny Leonard was dead. Nardiello began to pack his bag, but he couldn't finish. He sat down on a bench and cried.