Every stand-up TV comedian has used the obit gag, the one where you don't get out of bed until you're sure your name isn't on the newspaper obituary page. With each passing year, I find myself researching that page for a fellow named Abraham Hollandersky. I may have missed Abe, because if he's still alive he'd be pushing the century mark.
It all started with a throw-away line in Nat Fleischer's bible of fistiana, The Ring Boxing Encyclopedia. Fleischer had a section reserved for pugilistic oddities that included facts like the greatest weight difference in a world championship fight—Primo Camera (270) vs. Tommy Loughran (184). Among other gems was an item about Abe the Newsboy. It read:
"Abraham Hollandersky, known as Abe the Newsboy, a world traveler, engaged in 1,309 contests in every part of the globe, and also in 387 wrestling matches between the years 1905 and 1918. Upon retirement, he wrote a book, The Life Story of Abe the Newsboy. Most of his bouts were aboard naval vessels."
At the time I first read The Ring entry, Casey Stengel and the Yankees were driving for an unprecedented fifth straight World Series crown and Charley Dressen was rewriting the rules on grammar in Brooklyn ("The Giants is dead"), but I put those sagas aside to chase Abe the Newsboy, or his ghost. The first thing to do, I decided, was to get a copy of The Life Story of Abe the Newsboy. I turned my request over to an organization called the Seven Bookhunters, "specialists in uncovering hard-to-find items." They eventually found the book: price $6.
The Life Story of Abe the Newsboy had been published by the Abe the Newsboy Publishing Co. My copy carried the imprint NINTH EDITION. Emblazoned in gold on the blue cover was:
Hero of a Thousand Fights
With the U.S. Navy
GOD BLESS AMERICA
The volume consisted of 472 pages of highly individualized prose, some pictures and reproductions of letters, mostly from admirals commending Abe's marvelous cooperation with the Navy. Abe also included an incomplete roster of his bouts, similar to the listings used for the world champs in The Ring Boxing Encyclopedia.
In the preface to the record section, which Abe also wrote, he listed himself as the heavyweight champion of Panama and South America, with a home address: New London, Conn.; born: 1888. The preface further advised:
"Abe the Newsboy is Fistiana's most unique son. During his picturesque career, begun in 1905 and yet unfinished, which is really a collection of records, he has had 387 wrestling matches and has fought 1,309 bouts under every flag of the world. Abe won the world's welterweight wrestling title in 1907, after 4 hours and 18 minutes, and at one time in Panama wrestled for 5 hours and 22 minutes. He fought five champions, among them Jack Ortega, who weighed 220 pounds and from whom he won the heavyweight title of Panama and South America in the 19th round of a scheduled 45-round bout. Today, Abe offers his service gratis to any boxing show held for charity. Below is a list of his opponents that Abe could recall."
The list discloses an interesting sidelight to Abe's amazing career. He picked on no aging opponents. Everyone who entered the ring with him was in the flush of youth. To wit, some samples of those he defeated in 1915: Young Dillon, Young Sam Langford, Young Kid Thomas, Young Gunboat Smith, Young Sailor, Young Gans, Young Gallagher, Young Jones, Young Martin, Young Ketchell, Young Larry, Young Mullin, Young Statton, Young Lolly, Young Ketchell (again), Young Fitzsimmons, Young Murray and Young Chester.
The following year Abe knocked off another aspiring crop. He beat Young Peck, Young Fitjimits (which could have been a sinus-impeded version of Young Fitzsimmons), Young McCoy, Young Manfact, Young McDonald, Young Conway, Young Johnson, Young Conner, Young White and Young O'Brien.
Abe absorbed plenty of punches in his world travels, including solid blows from a kangaroo in Australia, who scored a technical K.O. when he sent Abe sailing from the ring with a well-placed flail of his tail. The Newsboy won at least one contest from an animal, a decision over a muzzled bear in a wrestling match at a flea circus in New York City. This time Abe's opponent wound up outside the ring, a fact that cost Abe money.
The bear made two attempts to scrunch Abe's head into his thorax, irritating him to the point where he lashed out with a stout right to the bear's snout. The bear staggered and eventually floundered out of the ring, where it fell on a $150 bass viol and kicked a few holes in a piano. The bear's owner called a halt to the hostilities to prevent further damage to his valuable animal as well as to the surrounding instruments.
When Abe went to collect his purse, the irate promoter spoke of a couple of hundred dollars worth of damages. Abe finally settled for a dollar a minute, which turned out to be $1 because that was the length of time the bear was in the ring.
A friend of many admirals, Abe had a free ride wherever the U.S. fleet went in those peaceful days and, according to his autobiography, he had standing invitations from several Presidents to drop in at the White House. Andrew Carnegie once slipped him a $5 gold piece for a newspaper he delivered to the billionaire's yacht. Abe repaid this kindness by including Carnegie's picture in his book. When he needed money to underwrite Life Story (the Abe the Newsboy Publishing Co. opened and closed with one volume), the men of the fleet chipped in and presented Abe with a roll large enough to assure him of a friendly reception at printing plants.
Abe also did a stint in the movies, capitalizing on his craggy features for tough-guy bits. The biggest crisis of his film career came when he was cast as a cab driver; he was behind the wheel before the director discovered Abe didn't know how to drive.
Abe got to know the Hollywood and Los Angeles cultural crowd of the '20s and '30s on a semi-social basis, and Damon Runyon, a journalistic and movie-writing titan of the time, was a pal. Abe got Runyon into his book, too, in a somewhat wonderful tribute. He wrote:
"Mr. Runyon has helped me so many times I can't find words to express my feelings of gratitude to him. He is as good a fellow as he is a writer."
Unlike Runyon, Abe Hollandersky wasn't much of a writer, though he did seem to be quite a fellow.