The eye, the one they said conveyed the devil's gift, is more bloodshot now than evil. Ben Finkle was 80 years old last month, and the accumulation of years—plus the terrible drain of half a century of casting maleficent spells—has forced the man they call Evil Eye from the ranks of professional hexers and dumped him among Florida's semi-retired. Ben Finkle is a boxing legend, a rascal who mixed two parts voodoo with one part fraud and lurched through life unburdened by honest labor.
"Unless you want to count the time I was in the Army in World War Deuce," Finkle wheezed the other day between screams at the TV set in a Miami saloon called the Dade Athletic Pub. "But that wasn't no work because they never could get me to march. They just shipped me to Paris where I put the evil eye to work long distance on Hitler and two weeks later the bum blew his brains away. I should of got a medal. Instead they give me a partial disability for falling off a ladder while trying to fix a basketball net. But that's getting ahead of my story and we'll get to that later. When I talk about my life I like it in chrontimatic order."
Normally he is a gentle soul, but on this particular day Finkle's ancient blood had been brought to a boil by watching Baltimore defeat New England, which eliminated the Miami Dolphins from the NFL playoffs. Finkle has lived here and there but has called Miami home since 1928. And while normally he wouldn't cheer for his grandmother to escape from quicksand, he does admit to a weakness for the Dolphins. "Rooters is amateurs," he says. Still, what he considered Baltimore's fluke victory angered him. Mumbling dark incantations, he jabbed a hard-boiled egg into a glass of gin, popped it into his mouth and chewed furiously.
"Them Baltimores is crooks," he said, spewing bits of wet egg onto a vest he long ago robbed from Al Weill. "That bum quarterback loses the ball on the square, them New Englands grab it—and that lousy zebra with the whistle must be the governor of Virginia."
January 23, 1978
A drunk nearby lifted his head from the bar. "Baltimore is in Maryland."
"I know where it is," Finkle snapped, his eyes glowing fiercely. "I read the Almanac, don't I?"
Among the debris that decorates Finkle's small boardinghouse room are Almanacs dating back to the 1940s. On page 449 of the 1977 World Almanac it tells that in 1874 a 520-foot steel-arch bridge was built across the Mississippi, with one end in St. Louis, where Finkle was born 23 years after the bridge was erected.
His father Hyman, a hardworking Orthodox Jew, managed a small milk store in Kerry Patch, a tough Irish slum. "I was a kosher punk in the trenches full of tough kids with O's in front of their names," says Finkle. "I could fight but I couldn't spell 'ham' until I was 13. Then one day I walked downtown, ate a hot dog and threw up. It wasn't the food; it was a mental thing. The next day I go back for another one and I ain't been home since. My father laid some dough on a rabbi to teach me to read and write Jewish, but he blew the money. I never studied. All I ever read was them Horatio Alger books. I never could figure who I wanted to be: Ragged Dick or Tattered Tom."
Finkle opted for selling newspapers. With a starting capital of a couple of pennies, he purchased two papers from a man in an alley, went into the nearest saloon and sold his papers for a nickel each. Saloons, he recalls, were his best markets; not only could he unload his papers, but he also always managed to mooch a free lunch. "You get stuck with a paper, all you had to do was holler 'ex-tree' and it was sold. You just had to run like hell before the guy started to read. I sold papers all over the country; there ain't a hallway or an alley anywhere I didn't work in. I got the scars to prove it. You could get killed if them circulation goons caught you peddling the wrong sheet. In Chicago I get lucky. A killer named Dion O'Bannion took a liking to me. He was out on parole for murder. The Chicago Examiner got him out 'cause they needed a tough street guy. He put out the word that the corner of State and Van Buren was mine. He stayed my good friend until Al Capone shot him full of holes." Finkle signaled the bartender for a refill of gin.
Once he was 5'8" and pudgy, but time and thrift have wizened him to a bony 135 pounds. His gait, never quick, has slowed even more; his hands keep endless time to private music. Once bright coals in beds of pure white, the eyes have grown weak and watery—tired dependents of thin silver bifocals that rest on an awesome hook of a nose. His is the look of an owl with an eagle's beak, perched on a coatrack.
For social outings, such as funerals and drinking bouts, Finkle lays on his best outfit, one he has been assembling since 1926. It includes a pair of ex-heavyweight champion James J. Braddock's castoff shoes; the Weill vest, which was last cleaned in 1949; and Joe Gould's 1915 Passover suit. The tie was swiped from Joe DiMaggio's locker when someone forgot to guard the door to the Yankee dressing room. The handkerchief was borrowed from Doc Kearns and never returned. When the night is cold, Finkle has two options. Sometimes, underneath all the finery, he wears a pair of pajamas he found in Jack Dempsey's trash can. At other times he wraps himself in a $55 overcoat he swapped one of his fighters for in 1926. "I never could have made no $55 with that fighter," says Finkle. "He stunk. I still got the coat—and the fighter has been dead a long time.
"It takes slick duds like these to dazzle the broads," says Finkle. When it comes to romance, he determined long ago that flight is better than matrimony. "I never needed no wife. I knew the most famous madams in the country. Any time a broad mentioned anything like a wedding I always told her, 'Look, what's the use of getting hitched? I don't want to rob you, and I don't want you to rob me. Let's stay good friends—and have you got a sawbuck I can hold until I get well?' "
Finkle's long career in boxing began almost the same day he began peddling newspapers in St. Louis. He got into a debate with another urchin over territorial rights to a saloon. Finkle settled the dispute with a right hand to the nose. Moments later, when someone laid a big hand on his shoulder, he thought it was the law. It was Brooklyn Tommy Sullivan, a St. Louis fight promoter who had once claimed the featherweight championship of the world. In a betting coup for both sides in 1904, Sullivan had "beaten" Abe Attell, then the champion, on a foul. The plan called for Sullivan to give Attell a rematch. But then Sullivan told Attell to drop dead.
"I figured you as a thief," Attell said. "So here's a piece of paper that says our fight was only an exhibition." Four years later Sullivan went after Attell's title on the square and was knocked out in four rounds. Now he was saying to Finkle, "You want to fight as a pro?"
"What I got to do?" said 13-year-old Finkle.
"Fight for money," said Sullivan.
"I got nothing better to do. Loan me a buck, will you?"
Four days passed, and Finkle, who had yet to see the grime of a gym, found himself fighting a four-round draw at the Future City Athletic Club. He made $10. Two nights later, subbing in the eight-round main event at a downtown smoker, he made $15 fighting a southpaw named Boozeman. "The bum never laid a glove on me," Finkle recalls. "Of course, I was running so much I never hit him neither." That fight, too, was a draw.
It was three days past his 14th birthday that Finkle discovered he didn't want to be a fighter. It happened during his eighth pro fight. Sullivan had him in against an experienced 130-pounder named Jack Rainey. Finkle then weighed 116 pounds.
"Thank God for Harry Sharpe, a great referee who wouldn't do no business for any kind of money," Finkle says. "This Rainey was killing me. By the third round it looked like he was going to take me out. I had to do something. I started to hold and hit; to hit low; to hit with my elbows. Sharpe told me to quit it or I'd be disqualified. While he was still talking, I hit Rainey with a great low blow, almost crippling him for life. Sharpe threw me outta the ring. The next day the papers said I was too tough for Rainey. I made it look like I had a chance. I retired. How could I fight for a guy who'd put me in with all those heavy animals? Even the dumbest guy in the world would of walked away."
Retired as a fighter, Finkle took the next logical step: he became a manager. Still at the age of 14. His first fighter was Patsy Flanagan, who had won his first bout and then lost the next 11. Under Finkle's wing, Flanagan won five straight fights.
"That Irishman didn't like nobody, including me," Finkle says. "I was lining him up for a title shot against Johnny Buff when the commission asked if we had signed any papers. He said no, and the commission tells him to unload me. He did, and the bum never did get no title fight."
From there Finkle began roaming the country, traveling by boxcar, living in hobo jungles, selling papers, managing whatever fighters he could pick up.
"A guy could make a living all kinds of ways," says Finkle, "but I never stole nothing that was nailed down. I had principles. I did more holdover time in city jails than guys did in the big joint. If you didn't belong in a town they'd give you 40 hours just for being there. If you went to Joisy, you were a lead cinch to do small time. I got to say I was in all the best jails. Some I liked better than others.
"You could always make a buck. All you had to do was hit a saloon, sing old Ace in the Hole or some Irish song to those drunks and you'd need help to carry out all the money."
After washing his throat with a taste of gin, Finkle began to sing. He has the voice of a tenor bullfrog with stomach distress.
" 'Sure the shamrocks were growing on Broadway,
" 'Every girl was an Irish colleen,
" 'Sure the town of New York was like the County of Cork,
" 'Because it was only an Irishman's dream.' "
The drunk next to him, his eyes filling with tears, handed Evil Eye a dollar bill. Slipping the money into his pocket. Finkle wagged a finger at the bartender for another gin. "You sing like that," he croaked, "and you always made a payday."
The saloonkeeper had turned off the TV set. It had shown the replay of Baltimore Quarterback Bert Jones' fumble so many times the drunks were starting to get sober.
"Who do them Baltimores play next?" Finkle asked.
"Oakland next week," the bartender said.
"The game on TV?"
A strange sound came from deep in Finkle's throat. "I'll be back. I'll Triple Whammy those bums so much they'll think they're playing the Russian army. I should of zapped them today but I forgot to wash the eye with boric acid this morning. Without a lot of rest and a good bath, the old eye ain't as strong as it used to be."
Hexing football teams is not new to Evil Eye. In 1949, for a free ticket and a side bet of $50, he put his Slobodka Stare on a heavily favored University of Georgia team, bringing havoc and an upset by the Miami Hurricanes. Also, he has hexed a racehorse or two (his evil eye enabled Seabiscuit to upset War Admiral in their famous match race); has been known to hit a crap game or a roulette wheel for a friend, or for a price; and in a fit of anger blasted the Los Angeles Dodgers out of the 1966 World Series against Baltimore. "I had so much evil generating," says Finkle, "I had to let up or them L.A.'s would have been the only team in history to lose a seven-game Series in three games."
But boxing was Finkle's home turf. Finkle figures he has worked more than 200 fights, losing only a handful. "Every once in a while," he says, "they give you a guy who couldn't win with a machine gun. Some of them bums make you work so hard I had to hole up in a dark room for a week recooptin."
Finkle discovered the power of the hex in 1926. He was working in Miami with a fighter named Spike Webb. The opponent was named Joe Knight. It all began rather innocently. "I was just glaring at the bum," Finkle says. "I didn't like nobody we had to fight. All of a sudden Joe Knight turns green, starts to sweat. I ran around the ring and yelled at him, 'You dirty bum, I got the evil eye on you. The hex is going to kill you.' Now the bum really looks sick. Webb, maybe a 100 to 1 shot to win a fix, beats him easy. I figure, Ben, you are a born witch just like mama said. My mama always told me I had dybbuk blood. That's Jewish voodoo. It was like I found a gold mine in my eyeballs."
The word of Finkle's magical powers spread only as slowly as Finkle could spread it. With promotion as much a part of boxing as punching, some of the top managers in the country soon had the evil eye working in their corners. The first was Lew Diamond, better known as The Honest Brakeman because he once worked for the Erie Railroad without ever stealing a boxcar. Before he was done, Finkle worked for Weill, Angelo Dundee, Doc Kearns, Gould, Dumb Dan Morgan and Pete Reilly.
"I put the eye on for so many champions I forget most of them," Finkle says. The names of past greats roll from his tongue easily: Jeffra, Archibald, Ambers, Cochran, Basilio, Marciano, Lesnevich, Foster, Pastrano, Steele, Conn.
As Finkle's fame grew, so did his rewards. His price went from $50 a fight to $300, plus expenses, and all the eyewash he needed. He began to vary his hexes, from the Whammy to the Slobodka Stare to the Zinger, all coming in doubles and triples, depending on the amount of money paid. He became a frequent guest on radio programs such as Ripley's Believe It or Not, and We, the People. Al Capp immortalized Finkle as Evil-Eye Fleegle in Li'l Abner.
"Capp promised me a payday but he must of forgot," Finkle says. "But I never got mad at him. He made me lots of other paydays just from the publicity."
Finkle was at the height of popularity when Uncle Sam beckoned to him in 1942. Despite his age, he insists he was drafted. He was 45 years old and living temporarily in Tampa. "I almost threw the letter away," Finkle says. "At first I thought it was a bad joke. Then I got to figuring, hell, them Army guys eat three times a day. I got to admit that always wasn't my regular routine. Then a guy bets me a fin I can't pass the physical, so I go on down. I win the bet easy. The doc says to me, can you breathe? I tell him I ain't sure but I'll try. He says, fine, you pass. Then he asks me to lead this other guy to where they are swearing everybody in, because the guy don't see too good and might walk into a wall."
After 10 days of training in Miami Beach, Finkle was shipped to Scott Field, Ill. for a year of duty in the athletic department. That's where he fell off the ladder trying to hook up a basketball net. Because of that he now draws a $41 a month disability pension.
"I tried to put in for two broken ankles but they tricked me into walking," Finkle says.
"They moved me around, from Illinois to Scotland to England to France," Finkle says. "I made Pfc., which give me another four bucks a month. But when they offered me sergeant I said no. A sergeant had to work. I was having too much fun. In the Army you could always make a buck."
Finally, more as a joke than anything else, they stationed Finkle on the top floor of a tall hotel in Paris and pointed him toward Germany. Each day Finkle rode the elevator to the top floor and from there he cast his hex toward Berlin. Two weeks after he began, word came that Hitler had killed himself. "If they had thought of that sooner," Finkle says, "I probably could've ended the war in '43. I figured the least I'd get was a Silver Star. I never even got a good-conduct ribbon."
After the war Finkle went back to hexing other people's fighters. As the years passed, he began to turn down job offers, mostly because he no longer wanted to travel.
Even today Finkle still gets offers, mostly from Willie Gilzenberg, an Eastern wrestling promoter, or from Vince McMahon, who runs the wrestling programs at Madison Square Garden. Both are old cronies of Finkle's. "I knew them guys when they didn't have 15 bucks between them," Evil Eye says. "Now when I need something they're right there."
Once in a while Finkle will get a call to work a fight in Tampa, but at 80 even that seems a long way. His best offer lately came from John Scarne, the magician, performing in South Africa. "John met some witch doctors there and they had heard of the Eye," Finkle says. "They wanted to meet the greatest hexer of all time. Expenses and a good payday. But Africa, hell, that's a long way. I don't know if the Eye can make it that far."
That weekend, an hour after Oakland had defeated Baltimore in double overtime, Finkle was making a long-distance call to a friend. Collect.
"This is the Eye," he said happily. "Did you see how I worked over those bums from Baltimore? I played with them and then I give it to them good. I nailed them so much they might have to drop out of the league. Man, I used every gun I had, but it was the Triple Whammy that really burned them. Now if I can just find out where that zebra lives I may do a job on him, too. Hey, can you mail me a sawbuck until I get well?"
Only a dope would say no to an appeal from Ben Finkle.