When Jewish Boxers Were Lords of the Ring

Author Mike Silver has done an impressive job in digging up a chapter in American sports that virtually has been forgotten, and shows that the term 'Jewish boxer' is not an oxymoron.

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King Levinsky
King Levinsky. Mike Silver takes us back to the gyms and the tenements and the shops that spawned these fighters.Credit: Courtesy
Gerald Eskenazi
Gerald Eskenazi
Gerald Eskenazi
Gerald Eskenazi

“Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing,” by Mike Silver, Lyons Press, 319 pp., $29.95

Mike Tyson was sitting opposite me in the Las Vegas living room of his promoter, Don King. I casually mentioned that, like Tyson, I was from the East New York/Brownsville section of Brooklyn.

“You’re from East New York!” Tyson exclaimed. “Did you know any of those Jewish gangsters?”

Jewish gangsters held a fascination for the former heavyweight champion after he read about them while having time on his hands in prison. And like Jewish gangsters, the Jewish boxer holds a fascination – not necessarily for non-Jews, but for Jews themselves.

We like to think of ourselves as a cerebral people – hey, there, Albert Einstein. And it’s with a certain type of self-satisfied smirk when we contemplate the term “Jewish boxer,” almost an oxymoron.

Yet, after reading “Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing,” we come away with an entirely different take on the sport and its Jewish participants.

For this, thanks to the author, Mike Silver, who has done a journalist’s (and historian’s) job in digging up a chapter in American sports that virtually has been forgotten. Yes, there not only were Jewish fighters once upon a time in America, but a whole bunch of them – and many were world champions.

Ruby Goldstein
Ruby Goldstein. Another of the Jewish fighters in the era that spanned the decades between the two world wars.Credit: Courtesy

Beyond the numbers, though, Silver delves into why and how so many Jews –166 “outstanding” boxers – were fighters in the era that spanned the decades between the two world wars. For the most part, they came out of the Jewish ghettoes in the great American cities: New York, Chicago, Philadelphia. And most of them were children of immigrants, uneducated and from humble backgrounds, who saw in boxing an “opportunity to make quick money.” (Silver suggests that “social and economic success put an end to the Golden Age of the Jewish boxer.”)

We think of sports in the United States these days as a professional kingdom, and it is: baseball, basketball, football, hockey and, to a lesser extent, soccer. But in the 1920s, a disproportionate number of athletes in America made their living in baseball, and boxing. Football and basketball were the provinces of the colleges, and the ethos of the simon-pure, the amateur athlete, was pervasive.

Consider that from about the 1890s till now, about 2 percent of the United States has been Jewish. But the Tribe produced only 1 percent of all Major League baseball players, and fewer in pro football.

Silver, however, points out that from 1901 until 1939 about one in seven world champion fighters were Jewish. Consistently over that period, Jews made up a double-digit representation of all professional fighters, along with the Irish and Italians. Jews also formed a considerable part of the crowds who attended boxing events.

But let’s forget about the raw numbers for a while. Silver takes us back to the Lower East Side of New York City, to the gyms and the tenements and the shops that spawned these fighters. And with more than 200 photos, we are treated to a succession of flattened noses and cauliflower ears, and evocative names: Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom (nicknamed, says the author, by Damon Runyon), Jewey Smith, Ruby Goldstein (“the Jewel of the Ghetto”), King Levinsky (born Harry Krakow), et al.

Afraid of their moms

Many, however, fought under a nom de ring. They didn’t want their mothers to know they were fighting, so they adopted Irish or Italian names – you know, like Morris Scheer, who became Mushy Callahan, and Albert Rudolph, who became Al McCoy. On the other hand, some non-Jews changed their name to Jewish-sounding monikers to attract a broader audience. And then there was Max Baer, the noted heavyweight of the 1930s who had a Star of David sewn on his trunks. It was an affectation, though, to draw the Jewish crowds. Neither of his parents was Jewish (well, his father was half-Jewish).

Mushy Callahan (Morris Scheer)
Mushy Callahan (Morris Scheer). Fought under a nom de ring.Credit: Courtesy

Of course, what the author does is open a wide tent. Anyone identifying as Jewish is included. That means that boxers with Jewish fathers and gentile mothers get into the book, even though some traditionalists might quarrel with that. Still, the numbers of Jewish fighters are staggering. And significant figures close to boxing, but not wearing gloves, also were significantly Jewish.

They included the most important chronicler and arbiter of boxing: Nat Fleischer. His "Ring" magazine and encyclopedia were the official bibles of the sport. The most noted trainer was Jewish: Ray Arcel. The promoter, and Joe Louis’ manager, Mike Jacobs, well, you know. How about the manufacturer Everlast, which made the gloves and ring equipment, and then of course the most famous gym of all: Stillman’s.

Boxing was so big among Jews in the 1920s that The Forward, the daily Yiddish-language paper, actually ran a weekly boxing column. When Benny Leonard fought Lew Tendler, the Forvertz plastered it over Page 1.

“Stars in the Ring” is also encyclopedic. It not only contains profiles of every Jewish boxer the author could find, but it adds to their story with interesting sidebars: a dissertation on Jews in the Olympics; boxing in Hollywood films that featured Jewish themes; a look at Madison Square Garden through the years.

Silver doesn’t stop there. He lists every main event at the Garden (well, from 1920 to 2014, anyway) that featured at least one Jewish fighter. Are you still listening? There also is a listing of every championship bout, by weight division, in which a Jew fought. (What? You don’t remember the 1932 featherweight bout between Baby Arizmendi – not a Jew – and Newsboy Brown?).

Speaking of newsboys, according to the author they made up a significant number of fighters as Jews came to the sport early in the 20th century. They were sidewalks of New York kids, and in order to protect their street-corner franchise hawking papers, they learned to defend themselves against toughs who would try to infringe on their territory.

Want more info? How about 11 pages of source notes, and a list of the various boxing halls of fame, not to mention an index.

Benny Leonard
Benny Leonard. When he fought fellow Jewish boxer Lew Tendler, the Yiddish Forward plastered it over Page 1.Credit: Courtesy

But it is the solid writing that moves the book along like a fight between well-trained flyweights. Silver has the good sense to quote acclaimed author David Margolick, who wrote the seminal book on the Joe Louis-Max Schmeling title fight: “for the fans, boxing’s appeal was more tribal and primeval. It was a way to assert their status as bona fide Americans. Every Jewish kid ever set upon by street toughs lived vicariously through his Jewish ring heroes.”

That goes a long way in explaining boxing’s appeal to the Jewish fighter and the Jewish fan. And while on the subject of the fan, Silver makes an interesting, if controversial point. Many champions and their promoters did not want to take on black fighters for a simple reason that had nothing to do with prejudice: There weren’t enough black fans, they reasoned, who could afford to go to the fights. And if a champion fought a black opponent, the number of fans who attended would be less than if two white guys were in the ring.

Those of us who made a living as sportswriters had heard about a fellow named Daniel Mendoza, born in a London slum in the 18th century and considered a sort of father of the so-called “sweet science.” He was a bare-knuckle fighter who brought a revolutionary style to the game. He was a tactician. He bobbed and weaved. He even wrote a book. He did some acting. He was a celebrity, really one of the more noted personalities of his day.

Perhaps the next Jewish athlete who became a national figure was the boxer Benny Leonard – almost 200 years later. Here is what a Jewish newspaper in Philadelphia, in the 1940s, wrote about Leonard: “The most famous Jewish person in America during ‘the Roaring Twenties’ was a world champion boxer named Benny Leonard.”

More famous than Einstein? You could argue that, but how many seats did Einstein sell at the Garden?

This is, after all, a boxing book, and its appeal should go beyond the Jewish reader. Yet, there is something to be said for two-bit psychology about why Jews were so enamored of the sport once upon a time: “No other sport lends itself so perfectly to metaphor. Getting knocked down and picking yourself up.”

And for those Jews in an America that was, you didn’t need a ball field, you didn’t need a lot of space to learn to box. In the big cities, in those tenements, you just needed 10 or 15 feet to move around, or you could find your way to the local Educational Alliance and learn to fight.

The history, the drama, the reason – Silver, a boxing historian, has written a definitive study of a fascinating sociological phenomenon. It proves to be a part of Jewish history that has been overshadowed by the number of Nobel Prizes and other honors Jews have garnered. But once upon a time, Jews grabbed a gold medal for fighting.

Gerald Eskenazi generated 8,000 bylines during a 44-year New York Times career, in addition to having written 16 books. He currently lectures on the news media and sports.