On August 19, 1900, prizefighter Abe Attell – also known as “The Little Hebrew” and “The Little Champ” – won his first fight, knocking out a competitor in a mere two rounds, in San Francisco. Attell went on to win the title of world featherweight champ, a title he held onto continuously between 1906 and 1912 – during which period he defended it a record 21 times.
History also remembers Attell, who was by all accounts an unusually talented and nimble pugilist, for a far less creditable chapter in his life -- for playing a role in fixing the 1919 World Series. A covey of members of the Chicago White Sox became the “Black Sox” when they arranged to lose the baseball championship to the Cincinnati Reds. After his retirement from fighting in 1912, Attell became something between a bodyguard and a right-hand man to gambling kingpin Arnold Rothstein. According to one version, he served as bagman for Rothstein in the Black Sox caper, delivering a cash payoff to the Chicago players who had agreed to throw the series for a fee.
Abraham Washington Attell was apparently born in San Francisco on April 22, 1883. According to writer Eliot Asinof, author of “Eight Men Out,” which for some time after its publication, in 1963, was considered the definitive book on the Black Sox scandal, Attell was born as “Albert Knoehr,” but this has not been corroborated. Also, some sources give his year as birth as 1884, but the earlier date is the one that appeared on his passport.
Attell grew up in a tough immigrant neighborhood where he regularly had to defend himself. When he was 13, his father abandoned the family, and he left school to work.
Selling newspapers outside Mechanics Pavilion, a San Francisco arena for indoor events, he witnessed a boxing championship, and decided on a new career path.
Attell’s first professional fight, it is generally agreed, took place at the San Francisco Athletic Club on August 19, 1900, when he KO’ed an otherwise forgotten boxer called Kid Linnett. Abe’s mother supposedly gave her consent to his fighting only after he promised it would be his “first and last” time in the ring. When he returned home with the $15 purse, however, her feelings changed, and she became a big supporter of her prizefighter son.
That bout was followed by 10 straight victories, all knockouts, before Attell relocated to Denver, Colorado. It was there, on October 28, 1901, that he fought and defeated George Dixon for the then-open featherweight title (at the time, featherweight boxers weighed up to 122 pounds, or 55 kgs).
Losing on purpose?
Records from that era are somewhat contradictory, but after losing and winning back the crown at least once, Attell definitively earned the title again on February 22, 1906, defeating Jimmy Walsh in eight rounds, and held on to it through 21 challenges, until 1912, when Johnny Kilbane replaced him as featherweight champ.
Although Attell’s lifetime record has him losing only 19 times over 171 bouts, there are serious suspicions that even some of those losses were intentional, when the champ bet against himself. So, it is perhaps not surprising that after his retirement, in 1917, Attell hooked up with Arnold Rothstein, who controlled much of the country’s illegal gambling at the time.
Who exactly was behind the 1919 World Series scandal has never been determined – no one, neither ball players nor gamblers, was ever convicted on any related grounds – but there’s no doubt that Attell was involved, at least as a middleman between the athletes and the mastermind of the plot. Attell was conveniently away in Canada when an Illinois grand jury asked to question him, and later, New York authorities refused to extradite him to Chicago after a witness who had originally connected Attell to the conspiracy testified that he was referring to another Abe Attell.
Later in life, the former fighter opened Abe Attell’s Steak and Chop House, in New York, and even appeared on the TV quiz show “The $64,000 Question,” answering questions about prizefighting.
Abe Attell died in Liberty, New York, on February 7, 1970, at the age of 86.