- Barney Ross, and: Harry Haft: Survivor of Auschwitz, Challenger of Rocky Marciano
Budd Schulberg, the famed novelist and screenwriter who was the son of Paramount Pictures' executive B. P. Schulberg, recalled that although he was raised in Hollywood, his heroes were not actors. He knew such stars as Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, and Fredric March, but the men he most admired had flattened noses and scar-tissued eyes. They were Jewish boxers, men hardened by life in European and American ghettoes, athletes for whom the best answer to an ethnic or religious slur was a punch on the nose. Above all others, he adored the sainted Benny Leonard, whom Jews universally referred to as "The Great Benny Leonard." One Jewish newspaper claimed Leonard was more famous—and perhaps more important—than Einstein. But if Benny was the supreme Jewish boxer, there were many other champions and near-champions to cheer for and support. Early in the century there were Joe Choyinski and Abe Attell; in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s there were Lew Tendler, Jackie "Kid" Berg, Al Singer, Sid Terris, "Battling" Levinsky, Maxie Rosenbloom, Ben Jeby, Jackie Fields, "Newsboy" Brown, Mushy Callahan (Morris Scheer), Abe Simon, Ruby Goldstein, Barney Ross, Sammy Farber, Bob Olin, Allie Stolz, Artie Levine, "Schoolboy" Bernie Friedkin, Yale Okun, and dozens of others. For Schulberg the fighters sent an eloquent message to non-Jewish America: "You may think of us as pushcart peddlers and money grubbers. But we can climb into the ring with you, the best you have to offer, and maybe you can knock us down (as Richie Mitchell floored the Great Benny) but you can't keep us down. We've got the skills and the courage to beat you at your own game. Ready or not, we're moving up."
Schulberg reminds us that there was a time in boxing history when Jews virtually dominated the sport. The title of Allen Bodner's fine book, When Boxing Was a Jewish Sport, is only a mild exaggeration. In the period between the two world wars, Jews not only fought for and won titles, they worked as promoters and managers, trainers and cornermen, referees and equipment manufacturers, and publicists and journalists. This, it should be added, at a time when boxing and baseball were the primary professional sports in America.
Jewish leaders at the time roundly condemned Jewish participation in the sport. As David Margolick observed in his marvelous recent book Beyond the Ring: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink, "The [End Page 208] various strains of American Jewish culture at the time—elite German Jewry; secular, socialist eastern European Yiddishists; the religiously observant—all disdained the sport. They deemed it coarse, uncouth, inappropriate—'goyishe nakhes,' the kind of foolishness Christians enjoyed." But for hundreds of thousands of Jewish fans, "[i]ts appeal was more tribal, and primitive. It was a way to assert their status as bona fide Americans, to express ethnic pride, settle ethnic scores, refute ethnic stereotypes; after all, no one ever cast the Irish and Italians as victims and bookworms, cowards and runts."
Two recent books explore the complex, fascinating relationship between Jews and boxing. In Barney Ross, Douglas Century investigates the career of the one of boxing's most popular champions. At one time or another during the 1930s Ross held the lightweight, junior welterweight, and welterweight championships, engaging in classic fights with Tony Canzoneri, Jimmy McLarnin, Ceferino Garcia, and Henry Armstrong. The match-ups speak volumes about the nature and appeal of boxing. The fights that received the most press and drew the largest gates played on ethnic rivalries. Although most of the fighters were born in the United States, their supporters identified strongly with their ethnic origins. As a result, reporters emphasized this aspect: Jewish Ross versus Italian Canzoneri, Irish McLarnin, Filipino Garcia, or African American Armstrong. And partisan spectators arrived at fight...