The Mob, the Garden and the golden age of boxing

THERE’S a moment in Ken Burns’ outstanding documentary series, ‘Baseball’, when Buck O’Neil, an old coach and manager, muses on the impossible glamour that was Manhattan in the 40s and 50s with a faraway look in the eye.

“That was New York City,” says O’Neil, “...when it was New York City.”

Now The Observer’s Kevin Mitchell has immortalised the period in ‘Jacobs Beach: The Mob, The Garden and The Golden Age Of Boxing’, a must-read for any sports fan.

It’s an era with an unforgettable cast of characters: boxers like Jake La Motta (who said “You know, the way we were brought up and the place we were brought up, staying out of the Mob wasn’t the easiest thing in the world”), writers like Damon Runyon (“The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet”), deal-maker Mike Jacobs (“After the age of 16 I was never broke again”) — and Toots Shor the saloon-keeper, who didn’t say as much but kept them all in scotch.

Behind them all, however, lurk the shadowy figures of the Mob — the Mr Gray of Murder Incorporated, Frankie Carbo, and Frank Costello, real name Francisco Cataglia, whose manicured hands became famous in 50s America when TV cameras focused on them during Senate hearings into corruption in boxing.

Mitchell outlines his reasons for writing the book, though with dramatis personae like those above, the motivation must be a combination of the obvious and the irresistible.

“I was born in 1950 in a family that was pretty well drenched in boxing,” he says, “So there was always an element of glamour to the 50s and New York — the movies, the music, the literature, even the canyons of the buildings themselves in Manhattan — and, of course, the boxing.

“As an era I felt it was distant enough for nostalgia but recent enough that people would remember it.”

He structures the book around the deals — boxing and otherwise — which were struck in Madison Square Garden and environs.

One of the key locations was the stretch of pavement that gives the book its title — Jacobs Beach was the few square feet of concrete outside Mike Jacobs’ ticket office on West 49th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, where deals were struck (Pedants may be offended by the book’s title being Jacobs Beach, rather than Jacobs’ Beach, but Mitchell appeals to them to regard that apostrophe in the fluid way that Jacobs and co. regarded boxers’ contracts).

Incidentally Jacobs, the man who gives the book its title, had strong Irish connections.

“Jacobs’ parents were from eastern Europe but they lived in Dublin for a while,” says Mitchell. “His father decided to try his luck tailoring in New York, and that’s how the family ended up in Hell’s Kitchen.”

Jacobs was a teenage ticket tout before rising to prominence in the boxing world. There he dealt with the men who ran boxing, effectively — the likes of Costello, Gray, and the unforgettably-named Blinky Palermo.

It was a world that required sharp elbows for survival, and Jacobs always had a keen eye for a deal. Consider the arrangement he conjured up with the manager of James Braddock, the heavyweight champion dethroned in 1936 by the Brown Bomber himself, Joe Louis.

If you loved the movie Cinderella Man, though, you may want to look away now... “Joe Gould, Braddock’s manager, is painted in that movie as a rough and tumble but essentially angelic creature,” says Mitchell. “He was far from that, he had strong Mob connections.”

That he did: rather than the avuncular figure with a few roughish edges depicted in the movie, Gould was the man who, on the orders of gangster Dutch Schultz, collected convicted killer Owney Madden when he got out of Sing Sing after a nine-year stretch for murder.

See? You can’t help yourself with this material; you end up writing like you’re filing copy from the payphone in Jack Dempsey’s bar in Times Square. Anyway, back to Mitchell...

“Gould did a deal with Mike Jacobs,” says the author, “Wherein he and Braddock got 10% of the receipts generated by Joe Louis at Madison Square Garden for heavyweight titles fights that Louis contested for the duration of his illustrious — and long — career.

“Nobody’s quite sure how the deal worked, but later in life Braddock admitted that it existed, and it shows that it wasn’t always a case of fixing fights, that getting a ‘piece’ of a boxer was always an attractive proposition.

“Certainly it’s one of the most ingenious ways of getting a piece of a boxer that I’ve heard of.”

That kind of sweetheart deal eventually came to an end. In the 50s Senator Estes Kefauver tried to clean the sport up and subpoenaed mobster Frank Costello to testify at official hearings.

Costello didn’t want to appear on TV, and Kefauver and his colleagues agreed not to show his face — but all of America was electrified when TV cameras screened Costello’s hands live.

“His fingers twitched,” writes Mitchell. “He drummed the table. Spare paper was crumbled and torn. He was bricking it by hand.”

That kind of visible gangsterism is familiar to devotees of ‘On The Waterfront’ and could be regarded almost fondly, but Mitchell points out that its modern-day equivalent is simply harder to identify.

“I suppose one point worth making is that our image of the Mob is fixed in time,” he says. “That that’s the notion of the Mob or of gangsterism in boxing, but it’s changed.

“Gangsterism or organised crime takes many forms, as we all know now, and there’s always an element of society that likes to be ringside at fights, because of the unreconstructed nature of the sport, and that element probably sees a chance to make some illicit money from the sport.

“You may not recognise the figures sitting at ringside as gangsters, but there will be criminal elements who’ll attach themselves to boxing — I think Jake La Motta got it right when he said, there’s money in boxing, and where there’s money there’s the Mob’.

“I ghosted Frank Bruno’s autobiography, and he told me that as a teenager he went to South America to get his eyes fixed, and he was approached there by cocaine dealers who wanted to get involved in his career — this was before his professional career took off.

“Boxing is a fantastic sport, an incredible test of skill and courage, but unfortunately, it’s susceptible to that.”

Leave it to one of the men who gave New York that irresistible sheen in those far-off days to sum it all up. Mitchell quotes one of the greatest of all time when it comes to the dangers boxers face outside the square ring.

“One thing I know,” said Joe Louis long after he retired, when the Mob was leaning on him.

“Your friends can set you up. Your friends can kill you.”

- Jacobs Beach: The Mob, The Garden and The Golden Age of Boxing by Kevin Mitchell, published by Yellow Jersey Press.

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