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The Combers of Jacobs Beach

They hung out on a stretch of sidewalk near Madison Square Garden, waiting for fighters to make them rich

Do you want to go to the Beach today?" My father's question did not send me scurrying for trunks and an inner tube. In our household of nonswimmers, the word "Beach" was always mentally capitalized, for it meant headier stuff than the sea, sand and sun of more commonplace vocabularies. My father, who was a sportswriter, simply was asking me to tag along on one of his professional visits to a stretch of sidewalk on New York's West Side. Here on 49th Street, west of Broadway, with Eighth Avenue and the now-defunct old Madison Square Garden looming up at the end of the block, lay that land of boxing gossip, unflinching hyperbole and broken dreams called Jacobs Beach.

It was an enchanted strand during the late 1930s for a boy just growing old enough to be allowed to watch prizefights in the flesh. On nice days clusters of jowly men with stomachs sticking out to here would stand around in front of the ticket agencies that lined the block. Jacobs Beach took its name from Mike Jacobs, who used to promote fights from his ticket agency on West 49th Street before he moved into the Garden.

Walking along the block, I was likely to see broken-nosed men with broad shoulders and perhaps a piece of tape stuck over a gashed eyebrow. If I had visited one of the small fight clubs the week before, some of those stolid faces might be familiar. The chances always were good to see more celebrated fighters too—Jack Dempsey, Jim Braddock, even Joe Louis—as they walked along the Beach toward the Garden. Dempsey and Braddock, though their reigns had ended, still shared the "Champ" title with Louis in the greetings called after them by idlers on the Beach.

But a boy's education was furthered not by staring at the fighters but by listening to their managers. The talk in those clusters on the sidewalk was lively and incessant.

Mike Jacobs himself seldom was part of these talkathons. Apparently he was much too restless to stand still that long. But on the day of an important fight he could be seen darting back and forth along the Beach, monitoring the pace at which tickets were being snatched up.

Two prominent figures on Jacobs Beach were Eddie Mead, a successful manager, and Eddie Walker, who worked for him. Walker often was pointed out along Broadway as the man who wore Damon Runyon's new shoes to break them in for him. Mead dropped dead on the Beach one afternoon, immediately after being told that Liquid Lunch, a horse he had bet on, had won the first race at Belmont Park, paying $16.10. But until that particular curtain was rung down, these two entertained the mob with their stories.

"Did you see the ring Mead gave me?" Walker asked a gathering one day. On the middle finger of his right hand was a platinum ring set with a diamond.

"Is that the ring you threw at him last month?" another manager asked.

"Yes," Walker said, "and a hat. Remember the hat? He gave me this ring and a $40 hat. One of them hairy hats. But I got sore at him one night and I took off the ring and the hat and threw them at him. He didn't say anything, but he picked them up, and the other night he gave me back the ring.

"After that he tried to pick a fight with me. I think he wanted the ring back. But I wouldn't fight him, because I might not get it back again."

"What became of the hat?" a manager asked.

"Mead is wearing it," Walker said. "But I didn't care about the hat. It didn't fit so good."

Johnny Attell, who had been part of boxing for many years as a fighter, a manager and a matchmaker, always had a story to while away the afternoons on the Beach.

"I learned how to make matches from the best matchmaker we ever had around here," he said. "I mean Lew Raymond. He knew a good match when he saw one and he knew how to deal with managers. One thing he never did was to drive a hard bargain, because he always said if you drove a hard bargain the manager would go back and tell the fighter he was being gypped and the fighter either would try to run out on the match or he would make a bad fight.

"Lots of times I saw Raymond give a manager more than he asked for, just to put him in a good frame of mind and get the best out of his fighter. And when he was being hard pressed for terms he had a trick that almost always worked. He and the manager would get to a point where it looked like there was no fight, and then Lou would unhook his watch chain from his vest and hold it out.

" 'Here,' he'd say, 'take my watch and chain if you want. Take anything I got. But I can't give you that extra 2%.'

"That usually would clinch the deal. But one day after a long tussle with a manager he said to me, 'I will never do business with that guy again because he's no good. Do you know what he did? When I held out my watch and chain he tried to grab them!' "

Attell learned quickly when he was working for Raymond.

"Flyweights were going good around here at the time," he said, "and we matched Ernie Jarvis, an Englishman, with Wee Willie Woods. Just an hour before I start for the fight club they call me and tell me Jarvis is dying. They had him in a doctor's office and Raymond and I rushed over there, and there he is. He is laying out on a table, and he looks as if he is dead. He ain't dead, but he is nearly dead. The doctor says it is acute indigestion. Can you imagine how we felt? It's the night of the fight and we have a good sale and this fellow is dying.

"It seems he ate pickles and milk in the afternoon. Cucumbers, he called them. I ask the doctor if there's any chance of saving his life, and if there is, can he fight that night. The doctor says he don't know.

"I dash over to the club and leave Raymond therewith him. The crowd is coming in very good and I am on the phone telling Raymond how good the sale is because I figure this will make Jarvis feel better. I know he don't want to blow that dough any more than we do. I kept calling up and saying: 'They just sold some more seats.'

"And I can hear Raymond saying, 'Listen, Ernie. They just sold some more seats. The house looks very good.'

"I hang up and don't hear anything for a while. All of a sudden in comes Jarvis with Raymond on one side of him and his second on the other side of him. They're holding him up and it still looks like he's dying.

" 'I'm all right,' he is mumbling.

" 'He's all right,' Raymond is saying. 'We fixed him up. We put a stomach pump on him.'

"And you know, he goes in there and fights—and wins the fight. But can you imagine a guy eating pickles and milk on the day he is fighting?"

Most of the mob on Jacobs Beach seemed to consider the fighters of that day an uninteresting lot. They talked about themselves or the fighters they had managed in the long ago. Before World War I Eddie Harvey had been co-manager with his brother of a great little fighter named Owen Moran. It had been a stormy relationship.

"Owen was a cocky little guy from England," Harvey said. "Mention a fighter to him—any fighter, no matter how big—and he'd say, 'I can lick him. Get me a match with him.'

"If the fighter was an Italian he'd say he never saw an Italian he couldn't lick, or if he was a Negro he'd say he never saw a Negro he couldn't lick, and so on. I was having lunch with him one day just after he'd come over here and he asked me who we'd matched him with.

" 'Tommy O'Toole, one of the best featherweights in the East,' I told him.

"Mind you, Moran was out of Birmingham but his people were Irish. But he says: 'I'll murder him. I never saw an Irishman I couldn't lick.'

"That was too much for me. He had a bottle of ale in front of him, and I reached over and grabbed the bottle and I said, 'Is that so? Well, here's one Irishman you can't lick!'

"I was going to bust him over the head, but my brother grabs me and takes the bottle away and yells, 'What's the matter? Are you crazy?'

"And I say, 'No, but I'm sick of listening to him. I hope O'Toole knocks his brains out!' "

They told the story on the Beach about a struggling manager who had tried to convert "a large marshmallow" into a champion. Through long hours in the gym he patiently taught the young man all the proper moves.

"But the kid did them like a monkey, not knowing why he was doing them," one of the mob recalled. "He was matched with a pretty good puncher this night, and he made all the right moves for a couple of rounds. Then the puncher nailed him right in the mouth. The kid went back on his heels. You could see he didn't know what to do next. There was this second of silence in the fight club, and then somebody hollered from the rear rows: 'Now turn to page eight!' "

Harry Lenny was just such a manager. For years he worked with a young giant named Ray Impellitierre. Lenny would talk for hours about the Imp. There came a time when other members of the mob slipped off the Beach when Lenny came in sight; they were not able to take any more of the Imp. Yet Lenny believed implicitly in the skill of his fighter and in his eventual success. His faith persisted through repeated disasters. One night Lenny left the Garden after having seen the Imp flattened by Bob Pastor. His despondency lasted only until he saw a newspaperman on the Beach.

"What are you going to do now?" the reporter asked him.

"What do you mean?" Lenny asked indignantly. "We're going after the title. Just name one fighter who can lick the Imp!"

The reporter was about to mention the licking he had just seen Impellitierre take in the Garden. Then he thought better of it, shrugged and moved off down the Beach.

But a fighter could claim just so much devotion from his manager. The mob used to kid Joe Gould about the evening he quit on one of his own fighters.

"Joe had a fighter named Nat Pincus," a boxing writer said. "Pincus was fighting at Dexter Park one night and it began to rain. Joe ducked under the ring and stayed there until the end of each round. He'd look out at me and ask me what his fighter was doing and I'd tell him, and then he'd climb up in the ring at the end of the round and bawl the guy out."

"That's right," Gould laughed. "I heard a bang over my head and I said, 'What's that?' And he says, 'Pincus just got knocked down.' A minute later there was another bang and I says, 'What's that?' And he says, 'Pincus is down again.' I am almost tempted to come out from under the ring no matter how hard it is raining, but then I hear another bang and all of a sudden I get wise. It's thunder."

When I walk west along 49th Street nowadays, I miss something other than the lights and the cries from a vanished arena.