DON'T CALL ME BABY FACE
After Pop Foster gave in and answered the phone young McLarnin went to New York — and he went big. The ex-newsboy from Vancouver fought 22 fights in nine years, but he ate lemon pie with a gangster only once
FOR NINE YEARS I went—as the saying goes among old fighters and actors—big in New York. For most of them I went real big in
New York. Between the beginning of 1928 and the end of 1936 I had 22 fights there, most of them big fights, big-money fights and winning fights. I got more than my share of headlines, heard more than my share of cheers and met more than my share of people—many of them fine people.
When you’re going big in New York, myths grow up around you and around your name. In my case they were pleasant, friendly, completely unembarrassing myths, and the only reason I’m taking the trouble to correct them is that some of the people who are reading this may have heard them and may be interested in hearing the truth.
The central myth, from which all the others sprang, is that the entire underworld and half-world of the world’s second largest city spent the best part of those nine years trying to separate me and my manager, Pop Foster, from our money or our honor, or both. If you could believe half the stories they used to tell on 42nd Street and in the lobby of
Madison Square Garden, hardly a day passed but I was urged to sell a fight, buy a gold brick or meet a blonde. As for Pop, he could scarcely turn round without somebody shoving a gun in his ribs and demanding that he go back to the sticks and leave somebody’s mob to look after his fighter—or waving a sackful of thousand-dollar bills under his nose and suggesting that he arrange for me to take a quiet dive in the fifth.
I don’t say things like this couldn’t have happened. There are burglars in any business and I’m afraid the boxing business has always had its full quota. There are—or were in my day—too many gangsters mixed up in boxing and too many gamblers betting too much money on boxing for anyone in his right mind to believe that boxing could be entirely honest.
But I was never asked to throw a fight or offered a bribe, a threat or any other kind of inducement to throw a fight. Neither was Pop.
We were told twice by managers of other fighters that their fighters couldn’t fight me unless I’d agree not to try to knock them out. Once, in our
early days in Oakland before Pop and I had a written contract and all we had to eat was the crabs we could net in San Francisco Bay, one of those strangely prosperous little men who hang around gyms told me that if I’d get rid of Pop he’d see that I got all the steaks and all the fights I could handle.
Another time, after things were going better for us, a “New York manager” wrote and urged me to quit wasting my time in the tall timber and come and get it where the getting was good. Of course, he added, I would have to place myself in the hands of somebody who knew the right people and had the necessary ins—meaning him.
None of these propositions got as far as the discussion stage. To the best of my knowledge they were the only propositions of a dishonest or doubtful nature that were ever put to either Pop or me.
This wasn’t entirely an accident. It was Pop’s theory that nobody ever made a proposition without first finding somebody to listen to it—and Pop was a terrible listener. Even when we were going our biggest in New York, we spent as little time
there as possible. We
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usually trained at Gus Wilson’s camp at Orangeburg, New York, or Madame Biers’ camp at Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, and came into town the afternoon before the fight. We made a practice of staying in the wrong hotels —small, chintzy places populated largely by old ladies and Pomeranians. The night before the fight we’d usually go to a late show, partly to get my mind off the fight and partly to help me sleep a little later than usual the next morning.
The morning after the fight we’d go downtown and pick up our cheque from Tex Rickard or Mike Jacobs or whoever the promoter was and then we’d get out of town again. Sometimes we’d drive to Long Island, where we had a house and some property for a few years. More often we’d fly out to Los Angeles and either stay there until it was time to come back east and start training for the next fight or go on up to Vancouver.
So we weren’t too accessible to strangers—especially suspicious strangers—and all strangers were suspicious to Pop. I was far more guileless than he was, but I only got close once to striking up a genuine acquaintance with a real live gangster. The day after one of my fights I went downtown with my brother Bob, who had been helping me with my training. We weren’t
leaving town until late at night and before I left I wanted a piece of lemon pie. In or out of training, I was always very careful about my diet. According to my theories and Pop’s on food, pastry of any kind has all the healthgiving properties of arsenic. But I’ve got a hopeless weakness for lemon pie and after an earlier fight I’d discovered a restaurant that made the best lemon pie in the world.
Bob and I were sitting alone eating our lemon pie when the owner of the restaurant came up and said he’d like to introduce us to some men sitting at another table. We took our pie over and sat down for a while with Legs Diamond and his bodyguard. Prohibition was still in force and Diamond, who was murdered about a year later, was then undisputed king of the rackets. Bob and I sat around chatting with Diamond and his boys for half an hour or so, mostly about fights and fighters and then we said good-by and went home.
Legs Diamond Is Out
I told Pop where we’d been and what we’d had to eat. He frowned a little when I mentioned the lemon pie but didn’t say anything. Then I told him who we’d been talking to.
I never heard Pop use a swear word until I was past 30. This time it looked close. He didn’t say anything for almost a minute. When he finally spoke his voice was under perfect control.
“Jimmy,” he said. “Don’t ever eat lemon pie with Legs Diamond again.”
“Okay, Pop,” I said.
“Don’t even eat a nice healthy salad with Legs Diamond.”
“I won’t Pop,” I said, and I never did.
Pop and I arrived in New York in February 1928. We might have made it earlier, but Pop was never a man to hurry. In November of the previous year I’d scored an upset knockout over Kid Kaplan in Chicago. When we got back to our hotel room there was a longdistance call from Tex Rickard’s matchmaker, Jess McMahon. McMahon wanted us to come to New York right away.
“Why?” Pop said.
McMahon wasn’t quite ready for a question as silly as that one. I suppose he knew as well as anybody else that every boxer wanted to come to New York and that if there were any questions to be asked there was time to ask them after he got there.
Pop cupped his hand over the telephone and relayed the answer to me. “They’re not sure who they want us to fight. They’ll give us a $5,000 advance to come and talk terms.”
Tough Scrap In Detroit
I sat on the edge of the bed and chewed my fingernails. Less than six weeks ago I’d been fighting in San Diego for not much more than room and board. Five weeks ago I’d been told that if I wanted to fight in Los Angeles or San Francisco I’d virtually have to start from scratch. Two hours ago I’d earned $3,000 for the hardest fight of my life. And now Pop was quibbling about taking $5,000 just to go and say hello to a man.
“Thanks, Mr. McMahon,” Pop said, and hung up.
The phone rang off and on all through the night. When I got up I asked Pop what had happened.
“We’re going to Detroit to fight Billy Wallace,” he said.
Wallace gave me a hard fight, but I beat him. The phone rang quite a bit more that night and the next morning
I asked Pop what was doing. He told me that if I wanted to we could go to New York and fight Sid Terris for 25% of the gate.
Sid Terris was a Jewish boy from the East Side. If there’s anything more loyal or stubborn or magnificently silly than an Irish fight fan, it’s a Jewish fight fan. In New York there are thousands of both and when a Jewish boy who has been doing all right is matched against an Irish boy who has been doing all right, most of them want to be there to see it. Terris was a slick, shifty lightweight and they called him the Ghost of the Ghetto. Although I was born in Belfast and was brought up as a Methodist, Rickard’s press releases described me as the “Dublin Dynamiter” and the “Murderous Mick.”
“The Saints Be Praised”
Terris and I fought on Feb. 24, 1928, and it was a sellout. The net gate of $91,985 was a new record for Madison Square Garden.
It turned out to be the shortest fight of my life. Terris made a couple of leads in the first minute and then I knocked him out with a one-two—a left to the body and a short right to the head. It was all over in 1 minute and 47 seconds.
The Irish carried me out of the ring on their shoulders and as they swept me to the dressing room a rain of friendly wallops beat me black and blue. I don’t mean this in the figurative sense. The bruises showed for more than a week. Just before Pop rescued me at the door to the dressing room a giant of a man gave me a paralyzing smack between the shoulder blades and yelled: “The saints be praised, Jimmy boy!”
“Take it easy,” I yelled back. “There’s nobody up here but us Orangemen.” Maybe it was just as well that he didn’t seem to hear.
After the fight it looked to a lot of people, including myself, as though I couldn’t miss being the next lightweight champion of the world. Pop and I went down to Rickard’s office and picked up a cheque for $19,645.60 and Rickard said he would make me the next lightweight champion of the world. By special invitation I went down to the City Hall to be greeted by the mayor. Jimmy Walker told me it was a great pleasure to shake the hand of the next lightweight champion of the world. For the next three days Rickard and Jim Mullen, who was promoting out of Chicago, tried to outbid each other for the privilege of promoting the match which was to make me the next lightweight champion of the world.
Mullen finally offered me a $50,000 guarantee against Rickard’s $35,000, but Pop and I agreed that in the long run it would do me the most good to win the lightweight championship of the world in New York.
There was just one thing everybody, including me, overlooked in these calculations. That was Sammy Mandell. Mandell had been lightweight champion for two years. Except for one disqualification he’d lost only one fight in nearly five years—that one in Los Angeles on a card on which I was fighting too. Mandell and I had shared a dressing room that night and on one or two other shows in California and we’d become pretty good friends. The night I beat Kid Kaplan in Chicago— a very important fight for me because it started me on a comeback after a lot of people insisted I was washed up— Sammy had sat just behind my corner and rooted his head off for me.
I never took any fight lightly. I knew that Sammy was very fast, very hard to hit, and that he had a very quick and
busy left hand. But I was utterly and absolutely sure that I was going to beat him. I trained harder for him than I’d trained for anybody before, but I almost enjoyed the training this time because I kept telling myself that I was finally going to make it all the way to the top.
We fought in the Polo Grounds on May 21, 1928, before a crowd of 30,000. Sammy made a bum of me. I won’t bore you or torture myself with a blowby-blow account. Just say: McLarnin was short with a left to the body and missed a right to the head and Mandell flicked three lefts to the face and danced away. Say that over and over again, eight times for each round and 15 rounds for the whole fight, and you’ll have the approximate picture I have.
I tried to box him. Pop and I had a more or less hard-and-fast rule, “Box a fighter and fight a boxer,” and according to our rule we shouldn’t have tried to box Mandell. But we both thought I could box better than he could. I couldn’t come close, not that night anyway.
Sammy just kept throwing his left at me—half a flick and half a brush—and moving away from me around me and back in and away again and I couldn’t find him, much less hit him. Around the fifth I abandoned my hopeful plan for doing to him what he was doing to me, and began trying to punch. But the punches I threw were long, desperate ones, not much better than haymakers. He was so far ahead of me and going farther ahead so fast that I felt I had to steady him down quick, with at least one good punch to the head. That didn’t come even close to working.
He didn’t hurt me—not in the way a fighter means when he says he’s been hurt—but by the time it was over my left eye was totally closed, my right eye was nearly closed, my nose was puffed up and bloody and my lips were cut as though a handful of razor blades had been ground into them. According to most of the newspaper score cards he won 11 rounds, I won two and two were
Pop Threw In The Towel
Pop and I were living in a little apartment just off Columbus Circle. After the Mandell fight we didn’t get right out of town. I didn’t even want to get out of that apartment. I couldn’t bear the thought of going back to Los Angeles to face my friends. I couldn’t bear thè thought of going back to Vancouver to face my family and my girl. I couldn’t even bear the thought of going down to the corner for a paper.
This was only my fifth defeat in more than 50 fights. The others had been close and anyway I had gone on and become a better fighter than any of the other three guys who’d beaten me. But going over the Mandell fight in my mind, and talking it over with Pop, I couldn’t find any excuse for telling myself that Sammy Mandell had me licked on the night of May 21,1928, but that maybe on some other night it would be different. No matter how I looked at it, no matter how many excuses I tried to make for myself, the same answer still kept coming up. Sammy Mandell had me licked period.
But I wanted to fight Mandell again. In the next year and a half it got to be an obsession with me. I came out of hiding a month after my first fight with him and knocked out Phil McGraw in one round. I went to Detroit and knocked out Stanislaus Loyaza in four. Then Ray Miller opened a six-stitch cut over my eye in the first round of a scheduled 10-rounder in Detroit. Pop couldn’t get the bleeding stopped and
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he threw in the towel between the sixth and seventh rounds.
I didn’t like losing that one either— the first and only fight in which I wasn’t still around at the finish. But I knew I’d catch up with Miller some time. I won two fights against Joe Glick in New York, one a 10-round decision and one a second-round knockout. Then I met Miller again and beat him on points. I knocked out Sergeant Sammy Baker in one and then, on November 4, 1929, I was back in my corner looking across the ring at Sammy Mandell.
This time we fought in Chicago— Sammy’s home town. He still held the lightweight title, but we weren’t fighting for it. I’d outgrown the lightweight division and came in at 143M pounds to Sammy’s 138, but after what he’d done to me in our first meeting, he was still the betting favorite.
I think of all my fights this one gave me the most satisfaction. It was by no means an easy one, but I made the kind of fight I’d planned and I won. I got on top of him and kept on top, working inside on the body until he began to slow down and then shifting to the head. I did what I should have done the first time. I fought a boxer.
Pop felt as good as I did about the fight. But he wasn’t letting either of us forget that I still didn’t have a championship. “You licked the right fighter at the wrong time, Jimmy,” Pop reminded me sorrowfully.
That wasn’t the first or the last time that I licked the right fighter at the wrong time. A few months before my second fight with Mandell, Jackie Fields had won the welterweight championship from Joe Dundee. This was the same Jackie Fields whose jaw I’d broken in two places and knocked out in the second round away back in our early days in Los Angeles. Mrs. William Randolph Hearst’s New York Milk Fund offered him a $75,000 guarantee to fight me for the title—an almost unheard-of sum for a small man in those days—but he refused.
Title or not, I was still getting good fights. Ruby Goldstein, another promising Jewish boy, came up from the East Side. The people who had called Sid Terris the Ghost of the Ghetto called Ruby the Jewel of the Ghetto and where my fight with Terris had drawn $92,000 my fight with Goldstein drew $106,000. I knocked him out the second round.
No Brass Rings For Me
Sammy Mandell, who was still lightweight champion, wanted a rubber match. I went back to Chicago in March, 1930, and won another 10round decision. The A.P. gave me all rounds.
A month later I licked the right fighter at the wrong time again and dug myself still deeper behind the eight ball in my campaign for the welterweight title. Young Jack Thompson, a California boy I had known in my early days back in Oakland, came to New York and we were matched in the Gardens. In the first round I hit him high on the forehead and broke my right hand. I finished the bout with one hand and won a decision.
I laid off for six months and Pop and went to Alaska and fished for salmon while my hand finished healing. While were out of circulation Thompson fought Fields for the title and won it. wasn’t any more anxious than Fields had been to risk the championship against a man who’d already beaten him.
It was pretty exasperating to sit and watch the merry-go-round whirling
brass ring. There were compensations though. The night of my second bout with Billy Petrolle in the Gardens, Jack Thompson, who held the title then, was fighting a main event across the river in Newark. The next day Pop tossed me a newspaper clipping on the comparative gates. We’d drawn $86,000. Thompson had drawn $2,400.
“Sooner or later one of them champions will get hungry,” Pop predicted. “We can afford to wait.”
I’m.getting a little ahead of myself. By midsummer of 1930 the hand I’d broken against Thompson was feeling fine again. We came back to New York to fight AÍ Singer in Yankee Stadium. Singer had just taken the lightweight title away from Mandell. What’s more he’d done it on a firstround knockout. He’d lost only two of his 58 fights and he’d won 20 of them by knockouts. He was another East Side boy—a better boxer than either Terris or Goldstein and a murderous puncher besides—and so in every restaurant and blind pig from the Battery to the Bronx, the feud of the Cohens and the Kellys flared up again. couldn’t make the lightweight limit any longer so we weren’t fighting for the title.
We fought in Yankee Stadium. The gate was $162,000 of which Singer and each got $33,431.
Singer beat me to a punch early in the first round and his right uppercut buckled my knees. I straightened up and punched him away. It took more than a little doing. Singer was willing to punch with anybody and we stood and chunked away at each other for a solid minute. Finally he backed up, but before the round ended he hit me with another right I felt all the way to the toenails. It was a good round and he
Flip For Singer
He won the second round too, a slower round than the first. In the last minute I hit him hard with a short left the cheekbone. He tucked his chin away down behind his left shoulder and although he looked fresh when he went our corners I knew he was hurt.
I moved on top of him in the third. He backed away from a couple of lefts the body. I hooked to his jaw with a left and he pulled me into a clinch. After we broke I shifted into him with a hard left cross under the ear. The punch knocked him clear across the ring. He landed on his back and rolled over on his face. I watched the count nine. At nine his shoulders were moving, but the rest of him was still flat on the floor.
After my winning fights I always turned a handspring in the ring. The crowd got a kick out of it and so did I. when I saw Referee Jack McAvoy’s hand coming up for the last time, I did flip. I finished it rightside up in middle of the ring and of all the people in the world, who was waiting welcome me? Nobody but AÍ Singer !
Somehow he had pulled himself back his feet in that second between the count of nine and what would have been the count of 10 and out. He was weaving and he was feeble, but there nothing feeble about the roundhouse right I saw coming for my chin. I recovered from the shock in time to duck under it. I hit him with another That one put him on the floor to stay, but I kept my eye on him until they’d carried him to his stool.
I’ve already told about my three fights with Billy Petrolle in the first part of this series. He won the first I won the next two. After the last Petrolle fight I took a year off. I spent most of that year playing golf and
striving without success for a shot at the welterweight title.
In August, 1932, Lou Brouillard, who had won and lost the title in the previous year, outpointed me in a slow 10-rounder. Brouillard was a strong southpaw, the first full southpaw I’d met. I fought a slow, awkward fight. I realized, before Pop told me, that the long layoff had hurt my timing. We agreed that when and if I got a chance to fight for the title the best way to make sure of being ready was to play less golf and do more boxing. So when I was offered a bout against Benny Leonard in October I grabbed it.
Leonard had been lightweight champion from 1917 to 1924. He retired undefeated—one of the best little men in the history of the ring. He was independently wealthy then, but he lost his money in the stock market crash of 1929 and in 1931, at the age of 35 and after a seven-year layoff, he tried to make a comeback. He was bucking the oldest and saddest truism in boxing—the axiom that “They never come back.” Between October, 1931, when he started fighting again, and October, 1932, when he and I met in the Garden, he had 19 bouts and lost only one of them. Some of his opponents didn’t amount to much, but a few were good tough youngsters.
I can never think of my fight with Benny Leonard without also thinking of my fight with AÍ Singer. Benny, who came out of the East Side, too, was the model for and in some cases the adviser to all those East Side boys I’d been fighting. While I was training for Singer, Benny spent several days in my camp at Orangeburg. I knew Benny was scouting me on Singer’s behalf and Benny knew I knew it and we got along fine. I didn’t think he was going to see anything that he hadn’t seen before.
As it happens, he did, or anyway I now think he did. You’ll remember that when I was talking a few paragraphs ago about the Singer fight I said Singer beat me to a punch early in the first round and buckled my knees with a right uppercut. The punch he beat me to was my favorite punch. It was actually meant to be two punches. It started with a feint to draw a lead from the other man. In the same instant I went into a crouch, ducking under his lead, and dug a left to his liver and then came up with a right to the head.
That was the theory of it, and it often worked in practice.
But the first time I tried it against Singer he stepped forward and threw his right about eight inches lower than they usually threw it—and instead of going past it nailed me on the temple, and hard. It was a fine piece of deflection shooting—leading the target, a duck hunter would call it. But nobody could have landed on that particular target in that particular way unless he’d had a careful briefing ahead of time. As a scout old Benny Leonard was still a champ.
As the Chinese say, man catch you once—shame on him; man catch you twice—shame on you. The night I fought Leonard I tried exactly the same punch on him that he’d warned Singer to be ready for. I tried it at exactly the same stage of the first round and he reacted in exactly the same way. As I started to go into my crouch Benny came in low with a right uppercut and nearly tore my head off. I sank right to my knees, although I didn’t take a count.
I put Benny on the deck in the second. He got up too, but we both knew it was only a matter of time. I worked on his body through the next three rounds and then shifted to the head. He still had his punch and he was dangerous, but he was too slow. Every now and then Benny would pull me into a clinch and whisper: “Listen, kid, let’s not have anybody getting hurt around here.” I didn’t say anything. But I was glad when Arthur Donovan threw his arms around Benny just before the end of the sixth and gave the bout to me on a technical knockout.
Just before Christmas in 1932 I knocked out Sammy Fuller in eight. In February, Young Corbett III outpointed Jackie Fields for the welterweight championship. Corbett couldn’t have been any happier about it than I was—especially after he announced that he was willing to defend the title against all comers. That had to mean
Next issue Jimmy McLarnin tells in a fifth and concluding installment how he became welterweight champion of the world in a fght that started long before he stepped into the ring with Corbett. k