Wednesday 30 March 2011

Book Review: Jacobs Beach - The Mob, The Garden and the Golden Age of Boxing

Frankie Carbo, the 'Underworld Czar of Boxing'

The sport of baseball has traditionally been referred to as the national sport of the American nation. Its handsome uniforms, consisting of embroidered caps, buttoned tops and knickerbockers, suggested the spirit of civilized competitiveness. Adapted from English ‘rounders’, it was, and perhaps still is, seen as something of an embodiment of the American way.

“Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America,” wrote Jacques Barzun, “had better learn baseball.” It was with such thinking in mind that in the early 20th Century, the organisers of the sport heeded progressive-era calls urging the separation of sports from betting and the sale of alcohol.

But if baseball projected an idealised vision of how Americans saw themselves, boxing, it can be argued, reflected by large measure some of the unpalatable realities of the ‘American way’.

Boxing, like baseball an English invention, was a truer reflection of the American dedication to martial prowess. Its freewheeling dedication to holding out to the top dollar, an unavoidable component of a laissez faire system, made it synonymous with a kind of freebooting capitalism.

And, as Kevin Mitchell’s book reminds, a large scale plunder of sorts did occur; namely that orchestrated by Mobsters and their cohorts of the talents and financial entitlements of many of the fighters who put their lives on the line each time they stepped into the squared ring.

It is a tale of a colossal shakedown and of exploitation, where the Jeffersonian quote about the “labours of the many and the profits of the few” never rang truer.

Boxing, some continue to argue, was a ‘better run’ sport during the period on which Mitchell focuses, that is, during the 1950s. The Mobsters, they say were ‘men of their word.’

Their grip, facilitated by the International Boxing Club (I.B.C.), an archetypal legally constituted body which served as a Cosa Nostra front, ensured that there were few fractured titles and that the best fighters were matched with the best.

Yet, much of the evidence presented here tends to put the lie to an assertion of a well-run sport. Indeed, it shows how the Mobsters, due in large measure to their machinations, presided over a slow but inexorable decline of what had been a mass entertainment sport into one which was fast losing credibility among many fans, and in the greater scheme of things, was becoming increasingly marginalised.

Central to events was Frankie Carbo, a Mephistophelian-like figure at the heart of intrigues concocted through the edicts of the I.B.C. and the restrictive practices of the not very independent Boxing Managers’ Guild. Carbo schemed; conniving and cheating in equal measure as he enforced Faustian bargains whilst inspiring fear and dread among the boxing fraternity.

And there were the fixes, where highly questionable decisions were made in favour of underdog fighters. Fighters with very good records would suddenly and inexplicably sustain losses.

The pungent whiff of foul play in the wake of certain bouts most memorably those involving Jake LaMotta and Billy Graham caused immeasurable damage to the credibility of the game. LaMotta, the ‘’Raging Bull’ took a dive against the middling Billy Fox in order to secure a future title challenge, while Graham, a popular, highly skilled competitor, was decidedly robbed in a third meeting with Cuban legend, Kid Gavilan.

How did this all come about? And how did it all unravel? The sport itself, largely unregulated and since its earliest times existing on the margins of the law, had always attracted and made accommodations with gangsters, shysters and their ilk. That boxing would eventually be controlled by Mafiosi was something of an inevitability given the course of American history.

Re-constituted by forward-thinking criminals such as Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano who had seen off the ‘Old World’ thinking ancien regime of the ‘Moustache Petes’, and enriched by the vast proceeds of bootlegging garnered during the Prohibition-era, the Mafia were by the middle of the 20th century a force in American society.

They controlled politicians, judges and police chiefs. And with the passing of the controlling torch from Mike Jacobs’ Twentieth Century Sporting Club to the I.B.C., they were well-placed to move in and monopolise the sport.

The I.B.C. entered into agreements with all the world champions from featherweight to heavyweight, guaranteeing that each would fight two title fights per year under the promotional banner of the organisation. Leading contenders were also contracted to fight exclusively for the I.B.C.

Their stranglehold was completed via their control of the sale of radio, television and motion picture rights of the contests and indeed by the interests held by the I.B.C.s head, James Norris in Madison Square Garden and the Chicago Stadium among many notable arenas which provided the venue for most of the matches.

The sport remained largely unchecked and its Mob rulers unchallenged until Senator Estes Kefauver’s crusade, incorporating televised hearings by the United States Senate, a self-penned book and magazine articles, began piling on some much needed pressure.

Although, Mitchell recounts the memorable televised inquisition of the debonair ‘Prime Minister of the Underworld’, Frank Costello, he does not refer to later disclosures that Kefauver’s apparent unabashed zeal at lancing the boil of surrounding criminality may have been tempered by the fact that he was set up and compromised by a Mafia boss who he failed to subpoena to the hearings. Kefauver, it is said was heavily into drink and a womaniser.

Mitchell also refers to the Kennedy administration’s apparent reluctance to tackle the Mobsters in boxing. Robert Kennedy, the US Attorney-General, apparently refused Kefauver’s recommendation that a Federal Boxing Commissioner be placed within the Justice Department, a rebuff that Mitchell implies was grounded in the fact that the Mob had helped to deliver parts of Chicago to his brother during the 1960 presidential elections and that striking at the Mob would impact on the Democratic Party machines connections with local Mob bosses.

But this surely isn’t a watertight rationale given the close attentions that the F.B.I. was giving to Mob lords like Chicago’s Sam Giancana and Carlos Marcello of New Orleans. Perhaps, it is best to conclude that the Kennedy’s did not understand boxing or care too much about it.

In the end, the I.B.C. was dissolved under a court order for breaching anti-trust laws and both Carbo and his Lieutenant, ‘Frankie ‘Blinky’ Parlemo were sent to jail.

It was not a happy ending though, as Mitchell who details the influence of gangsters prior to the Carbo-I.B.C.-era, also refers to the Mob’s successors, focusing on the successor-in-chief, Don King. Along the way, he speaks to old hands Al Certo and Lou Duva, New Jersey boxing men who offer personal insight; although he is punctilious in correcting a few inaccurate recollections.

Mitchell, an accomplished writer who is the chief sports correspondent for The Observer, is quite a sprightly writer who is adept at interweaving the critical social and political currents of the times into a fairly comprehensive narration of how the Mafia almost succeeded in sucking the life out of a sport.

It is true that much of the workings of the I.B.C. and Carbo’s activities had been covered in a number of biographies such as those on Sonny Liston, respectively by Rob Steen and Nick Touches, but whereas the details in those works tended to distract from a more thorough understanding of their biographical subject, Jacobs Beach dedicates itself to the phenomenon of crime in the sport bringing out the stories, not only of icons like Jake La Motta, but also of less-known fighters like Billy Graham and Joe Micelli.

With fighters of the calibre of Sugar Ray Robinson, Rocky Marciano, Carmen Basilio, LaMotta, and Gavilan regularly practising their trade under the glare of television cameras, it is not hard to understand why the 1950s is often referred to as a ‘golden age’ of boxing.

But what this book does is to remind the reader of the rotten underbelly of the sport that so thoroughly corrupted the game and which ultimately left the fight fan cynical and disillusioned.

Alas, a symptom the sport of boxing has yet to shake off.

(C) Adeyinka Makinde (2010)

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