My first thought was that the world must be coming around again when the President of the United States was asked a 1997 news conference question about the blood sport of boxing. “Horrified,” was his answer after admitting he’d watched the Vincent Van Gogh version of Mike Tyson vs. Evander Holyfield.
Pressed about the need for additional controls, Clinton reacted “I haven’t given one minute’s thought to whether the federal government has a role here.” At moments like this I wonder what my amateur boxing champion father would have said; I’m confident he’d never want to “Be like Mike.”
In an l953 letter to me in the service my mother concluded, “I must go now it’s time for the Friday Night Fights, (on TV I mean).” My Dad had long refused to spend his hard earned money on something as silly as television until he realized that he could sit at home and watch the fights. A stylish Golden Glover himself in the l930s, for many years afterward he went to the Valley Arena in Holyoke as a spectator. He must have taken me along a few of those times. At any rate, I have an early memory of a hat-check-style girl parading between rounds. She held up a big sign proclaiming the number of the upcoming round and, I clearly recall, the name of the local Chrysler-Plymouth-DeSoto dealer.
As a future automotive ad-man, I was more impressed with that subtle sexy pitch than the mayhem on offer in the ring.
My childhood trips to the fights with dad were yet another attempt by him to interest me in the manly art. It’s not that I couldn’t have used some fighting skills around St. Michael’s tough schoolyard but, unfortunately, I was built more like mom than dad. At one point mom was so worried that she hauled skinny me in for medical tests for find out if I was anemic!
Dad, in a popular radio comedian’s pet phrase, was just “regusted.”
Recently, writers like the late Norman Mailer and Pat Buchanan, for two, integrated tales of youthful street-fighting exploits into their public persona, or in the case of Buchanan his ongoing shtick.
Just as Groucho Marx refused to belong to any club that would accept him as a member, I was cautious enough to pass up any so-called sport whose sole object was to beat the other guy’s head in. Time and time again my father strove to make a fighter of his eldest son. His old speed bag hung off a low beam in our cellar where he could make it sing without prompting: rat-a-tat-tat. His skill came from years of practice, coaching, and fighting out of the old Northampton YMCA.
I knew young that he he’d had early boxing success; he even used his ring moniker in his new business: Jim Callahan’s Tire & Battery Service.
A few years ago I reviewed some l930’s Daily Hampshire Gazettes to learn that, “Jack Bradley, the YMCA’s Northampton boxing instructor, will bring four boys to fight in different classes. Among these were Jim Callahan, heavyweight, and Jim Shannon that great left-hand hitter from Florence who is making his last appearance in the amateur ranks.”
Dad respected guys who were “handy with their dukes.” In the depths of the Depression my County Kerry-born dad and other greenhorns found boxing a potential tool for respect in the bigoted, boiling with anti-Irish sentiment, melting pot of early 20th century America.
Calling police vans “Paddy Wagons” nurtured the popular view that dumb Irishmen were only good for drinking and brawling. Optimistically, Dad saw prize fighting as a reachable low rung on the ladder of respectability.
He was booked against “Lucien Lemieux, rotund Springfield boy, better known in sporting circles as Larry Raymond,” who would “mix with Jim Callahan of Northampton in the unlimited class.”
The sports pages are where many young men and women are first introduced into adulthood. On the amateur field of battle, family, money, and connections cannot count for much. Innate talent and strong desire combine to win many a day. It’s possible to make a name for yourself by displaying individual grittiness or teamwork. At first, only loyal parents bother to take real note of your effort, encouraging you to work harder. “Making the papers,” becomes a goal. All athletes read their notices. Proud mothers cut and paste clippings and photos for posterity.
Five hundred people showed up for the fights in Easthampton.
“The next big victory was that of Jim Callahan, who, although out-weighed by 30 pounds by the 2l2-pound Lucien Lemieux, gave the crowd a treat by showing great improvement in his punching and all-round ring work and defeating his big opponent in every round. The terrific rushes of Lemieux swept Callahan across the ring and through the ropes on several occasions, but the wild haymakers were sidestepped or ducked and even Lemieux knew he had taken a beating when the bout ended and Callahan received and deserved a big hand.”
Dad was Golden Gloves champion of Western Massachusetts in l933 and l934. A taste for even more applause may have prompted his foray into politics in the early l950’s. In those “Happy Days” years he parlayed his toughness, energy, big smile and business competence to become a force in Massachusetts politics, a good friend of Senator Jack Kennedy, and one of only two Irish-born mayors in the United States.
In 1952, a year before he was elected mayor, I left Fort Dix, New Jersey with a few air force buddies to eat at a steak joint that my dad recommended in New York City: “Jack Dempsey’s.” Later, I was able to tell dad that Jack was in.
We all have our heroes.