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Original Issue

Opening Bell for the Scribe

A boy of 15 who was already a professional boxing columnist found it hard to settle down to lessons in school books

In 1937 the editor of The Fighter, a monthly boxing magazine published in Vancouver, B.C., wrote asking for a photograph to use beside my column of California news. With a heady feeling of having arrived, I had a picture taken at Walker's Studio in my home town of Taft, a small community in southern California.

In the resulting portrait I looked dismayingly young. My smile was boyish, and my hair—though combed—only reluctantly under control. I had had the good sense to put on a necktie, one of my father's, but I hadn't worn a suit, principally because I didn't have one.

Who would take "Cuffs from California" seriously, I worried, if the writer who confidently named young Archie Moore as the prospect of the month and fearlessly labeled the Maxie Rosen-bloom-Big Boy Bray match a clown act was revealed to look like a schoolboy? With misgiving I sent in the photograph, wishing it made me look older than my age, which was 15.

I had made my debut a month before—early in my junior year in high school—in the first issue of The Fighter, which had been started by David Cavadas, a Canadian pen pal in his 20s. David, whose address was the same as that of a family restaurant advertised in The Fighter, described the magazine as "the voice of boxing, a good, clean boxing magazine for the Pacific coast." He invited me to cover California, apologizing for being unable to offer payment, saying that in the beginning he would lose money and would need all he had saved to keep the magazine going.

The chance to write a boxing column was payment enough. I had followed professional boxing since the eighth grade and, though I'd never seen a match, it sounded more exciting than anything my home town had to offer, far more exciting, too, than law, which was the profession my father was determined I should follow.

Through writing to ask for autographed pictures, I had started corresponding with a number of boxers, past and present. What better sources of information could any columnist ask? Among my friends were Claude Varner, a leading featherweight contender, who told interesting stories about such things as boxing an exhibition with Tod Morgan (a former junior lightweight champion) in a lion's cage in Australia and having an audience with Adolf Hitler when he accompanied Steve Hamas, his stablemate, to Germany for Steve's match with Max Schmeling; Milt Aron, a ranking welterweight (and the only man to knock out Fritzie Zivic), a camera enthusiast who developed and printed pictures, often sending me prints with information in pencil on the back giving the exposure data; and Max Marek, a Chicago heavyweight who had beaten Joe Louis in the amateurs, a highly literate man who described his library as his prize possession.

Though the picture I sent David never appeared—he thanked me but offered no explanation, for which I was grateful—the subject of pictures did come up again. David asked me to round up "mats" for use in printing pictures. The term was new to me. Fortunately, I'd begun a correspondence with a manager from San Francisco named Norm Smiley, who managed a promising lightweight, Newsboy Joe Gavras. I wrote Norm asking if he had any mats, hoping he'd know what I was talking about.

By return mail, Norm sent a rectangular piece of thin, purplish cardboard on one side of which, hemmed in by rolling borders, a pattern of dots appeared. By holding the cardboard to catch side light, I could make Newsboy Joe Gavras emerge, crouching as if to wade in. Norm wrote a short note, sounding slightly skeptical but displaying a willingness to go along if a mat was indeed what I wanted. I enclosed the mat with my next column, in which I predicted Joe Louis would knock out Max Schmeling, if and when they met for a second time.

The picture of Newsboy Joe Gavras appeared on the cover. Immensely proud of my role, I wrote David for extra copies, which I forwarded to Norm. The return letter was effusive. Norm thanked me on behalf of himself and the Newsboy, stating the fine play would undoubtedly help in getting the Newsboy the breaks to which he was entitled. Norm concluded by saying he had spoken to his friend Hyman Levy, who edited The Referee, a weekly boxing magazine published in San Francisco, telling Hyman what a great little writer I was, and Hyman had agreed to run a column by me. Unfortunately, since there was so little money in such publishing ventures, Hyman would be unable to pay, except with a free subscription. However, Norm wrote, the column would give me valuable experience.

I wasted no time writing my first column for The Referee, including in it excerpts from letters from Bat Battalino, a former featherweight champion who said newspaper reports he was broke were exaggerated; Joe Choynski, an exbareknuckle fighter whose first bout with Jim Corbett had been stopped by police (Choynski reported that at 68 he still skipped rope and punched the bag); George Chip, a former middleweight champion, who described each of his 15 fights with Jack (the Giant Killer) Dillon as a tough one; and Max Marek, who glossed over a 10-round decision over Art Oliver to tell me he had just finished Gone with the Wind and recommended I read it.

My father took a dim view of my collumn-writing, since the adviser for the school yearbook had asked me to be assistant editor and I had turned him down, claiming schoolwork didn't leave sufficient time, not mentioning that the job sounded sophomoric now. When summer arrived and school was out my father suggested that we have a talk. The world beyond home, he explained, might be likened to a race in which the prizes would go to those who broke from the blocks quickest, who ran fastest, who tried hardest, In short, to the go-getters. If I were to win, the time to start running was drawing near. My father asked how I would like to work part-time in a law office running errands. It was plain he had already made a deal.

The lawyer in whose office I was to work was a man who wore a suit even in summer, handled cases that involved corporations and had a daughter—known at school as Alice the Goon.

Only after lengthy discussion bordering on argument did I succeed in postponing my start in the race of life. My mother helped, arguing that she needed me at home to take care of the lawn.

As summer wore on, a sense of defeat set in. I wouldn't have admitted it, but my interest in writing boxing columns was dwindling. There was a sameness about it, there wasn't any pay and I was beginning to wonder as I became better acquainted with the subject if professional boxing was as exciting as it had seemed. Perhaps it was only the heat, which often rose over 100° and scarcely dropped at night, or the afternoon wind that made a lonely sound in the cotton-woods, or the approach of school bringing the day closer when I would have to make up my mind whether I was going to be a lawyer.

Early in the summer I had sent an article on how to punch the light bag to a Washington syndicate. I had seen the syndicate's advertisement in a writer's magazine at the library. On the Saturday before school started I found in the mail, along with several magazines, a bulging envelope. Inside I found my article. My spirits fell. There was another sheet of paper in the envelope. I unfolded it apprehensively. The editor wrote they had found my article interesting and would be happy to consider it again if I cared to add a few paragraphs on where punching bags might be purchased, how much one might cost and how a boy might go about setting one up.

My first thought was that with additional words the article would bring more money. As I excitedly reread the letter, other thoughts occurred. If the syndicate bought the article on how to punch a punching bag, maybe they would buy an article on how to box or one on how to wrestle. Maybe they, or someone else, would buy an article on how to build a track field, as my older brother had done in the orchard across the street. Suddenly the mountains rising in the distant heat haze did not look so formidable, and the wind that rustled the leaves of the cottonwoods did not sound lonely.

The problem of my career was settled. I had lots of articles to write—and I have had lots of time to write them.