Bitter Orange

<To return to those thrilling days of yesteryear (my adolescence), here is one that appeared online at “The Broad Street Review,” under the title “The Square Jungle.” Its intro was lopped off, and I forget what else happened to it, but it did receive a nice reception.

Bitter Orange
“Did you know Blinky Palermo, the artist, took his name from Blinky Palermo, the gangster?” Bob Liss, the Herodotus of Hoops, asked me.
“Yes,” I said, “though I wouldn’t know a Blinky Palermo if it spat at me from the wall of MOMA. We must have read the same article in the Times.”
“Nope. This woman I’m seeing told me.”
“Did I ever tell you Blinky Palermo once gave my father a ride to my fathers-and-sons athletic awards dinner?”
“Not yet,” he said.

It was November 1955, and I was lettering in 105-pound football. That May, the Manayunk-born light heavyweight, Harold Johnson, who was so skilled and so dangerous he often had to go above his weight class to find opponents, had collapsed, seemingly without being struck hard enough to dent a lemon water ice, in the second round of a fight at the Arena with the Cuban heavyweight, Julio Mederos, a 4:1 underdog. Since Johnson had already collected the scalps of many of Mederos’s betters, including Ezzard Charles, Bob Satterfield, Nino Valdez, and Archie Moore (who, in fairness, it must be said, had four times skinned Johnson), this obliteration raised eyebrows, the most significant of which belonged to Pennsylvania’s first- term Democratic governor George Leader. Though Johnson explained he had been undone by a “bitter” pre-fight orange, handed him by a stranger, (its doping seemingly confirmed by the detection of barbiturates in Johnson’s urine), his license was lifted, and boxing was suspended in the commonwealth for 90 days until its purity could be restored. For this restoration, Leader ordered the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission to investigate the fight, the fruit, and related matters.
The commission’s chairman was Jim Crowley, one of the fabled Four Horsemen of Notre Dame. The Special Deputy Attorney General appointed to assist the investigation was the long-time Democratic leader of South Philadelphia’s 4th ward, my father. In his 20-plus years as an attorney, he had received several other plums from the party he served, but to my 13-year-old eyes, this was the coolest.
These hearings led to the questioning of Frank “Blinky” Palermo. In association with the Murder, Inc. alumnus, Frankie “Mr. Grey” Carbo, Palermo owned, controlled and/or managed a number of prominent pugilists, amassing great influence over who would fight whom, where, in exchange for what consideration, and, occasionally, with what result. He also ran Philadelphia’s largest numbers game, once maintaining its reputation for uncorruptibilty conducting a running gun battle with a welsher who owed him 75-cents. (I am unsure of his connection to either Johnson or Mederos; perhaps his general familiarity with the customs and practices of the industry made him appear someone likely to provide educative information.)
The Friday of my dinner, most likely due to Palermo’s reluctance to provide anything beyond references to the Fifth Amendment, the hearing ran late. My father, who had taken the train to Harrisburg, had no way to make it back in time for the bestowing of my letter. Hearing of his plight, Palermo, who’d arrived by Cadillac, offered my father door-to-door delivery, a courtesy from one sportsman to another. (One may question the ethics of an attorney accepting a favor from a gangster he is investigating, but if one is 13 and the attorney is one’s father, such questions infrequently occur.)
I don’t know what resulted from the hearing. Johnson won the light heavyweight title in 1962, at age 34, only to lose it to Willie Pastrano, another prohibitive underdog, a year later. Mederos returned to Cuba and obscurity. Palermo served 7 1/2 years for his part in some contractual negotiations which included two of his associates kicking the other negotiator nearly to death.. (He died in Philadelphia, at 91, in 1996.) And my father remained a Democratic Party loyalist, who was rewarded with a Common Pleas Court judgeship in 1965.
But before and after that, in commemoration of his service to the commission, he was able to command free tickets to the fights.

I was already a fan. At a time when neither the NBA nor NFL had much TV presence, boxing commanded prime time twice a week: the Wednesday Night Fights (sponsored by Pabst ) and the Friday Night Fights (Gillette). I saw many great brawls (Carter-Arujo, Carter-Collins, and Moore-Durelle are three I am sure of). I subscribed to Sport and S.I. and read Ring and Boxing and Wrestling. Bill Stern’s Favorite Boxing Stories was one of the first paperbacks I purchased. I could name every heavyweight champion in order. I could identify the Toy Bulldog and Wild Bull of the Pampas, the Manassa Mauler, Durable Dane, Fargo Express, Michigan Assassin, Boston Strong Boy, and Boston Tar Baby, Ruby Bob and Gentleman Jim, Jersey Joe, Li’l Artha, Hammering Henry, Slapsie Maxie, Two Ton Tony, the Black Uhlan and the Brown Bomber. I knew Stanley Ketchel was shot to death at 24 and Bummy Davis at 25; that Beau Jack ended up a shoeshine boy, Sam Langford blind and penniless, Joe Louis half-a-million in debt to the IRS, and Jack Johnson an attraction at Hubert’s Dime Museum and Flea Circus.
None of these ends disturbed my dreams. I was a kid and “ends” were far away. They seemed part of the color and the drama of the sport. They were the way of men, and while I was on my way to becoming one, the full consequences of this development had not sunk in. You came out nobly with your shield or borne upon it. The bright lights poetically illuminated the center of the ring, while you returned to the darkness from which you’d come. In boxing, the best man won, no bad bounce to undo him, no teammates to weigh him down.
What could be fairer?

The first live fight I saw was from ringside, courtesy of my father’s connections, at Connie Mack Stadium, June 12, 1958. It was an all-Philadelphia gala. In the main event, the fading, formerly first-ranked welterweight Gil Turner was gifted a draw with the division’s rising star, Garnet “Sugar” Hart. On the undercard, the undefeated lightweight Len Mathews (10-0, with nine K.O.s) knocked the once formidable Henry “Toothpick” Brown into retirement in four. And in a battle of middleweights of whom few others wanted part, George “The Professor” Benton, a future Hall of Fame trainer, blasted Slim Jim Robinson through the ropes, unconscious, at my feet.
Over the next nine years, I saw fights at the Arena, the Blue Horizon, Convention Hall, and Atlantic City Convention Center. I saw Joey Giardello and Kitten Hayward, Bennie Briscoe and Gypsy Joe Harris, Von Clay and Don Warner, Leotis Martin and, after he emigrated from South Carolina, Joe Frazier. (I also once saw Palermo schmoozing in the Samsone Deli with his current tutee, Charles “Sonny” Liston. I did not interrupt the seminar to thank him for my father’s ride.) I read Hemingway and Liebling and, religiously, Jack McKinney in the Daily News. (I learned that Philadelphia fighters were known for (a) their left hooks and (b) shortening their productive years by beating each other up in gyms.) I was, I felt, earning my way into a brotherhood. I liked the chest-pounding suspense of awaiting decisions and the abrupt ends that could fall like guillotine blades before. I liked the smoke and the smell and the sweat flying when the heads snapped back. I liked the wised-up, sharp-suited men and flashy, bored women and imagining how their evenings would conclude. I liked that none of my friends shared my outre passion. I had taken these gifts from my father and layered myself with a distinctive depth.

One fighter whose path interested me, for its intersections of talent and fortune, was the North Philadelphia welterweight Charley Scott. His early results – losing four of his first eight bouts – suggested he pursue other employment. But Scott persevered – at one point winning 14 of 16 – climaxing with a ninth round knockout of Sugar Hart at Convention Hall, in October 1959, in what boxing historian/archivist John DiSanto calls “one of the greatest Philly battles ever.” That win vaulted Scott to the top of the rankings, making him next in line for a shot at Don Jordan’s shaky grip on the championship belt. But two months later, in need of Christmas money, Scott went up to Madison Square Garden on short notice and lost 5-4-1 to Benny “Kid” Paret. Paret got the shot and the title – and was later killed in the ring, defending it against Emile Griffith, whom he had called a “maricon.”
Scott never recovered from his war with Hart. He lost four of his next five. (Hart lost three of four and quit the ring.) Scott embarked on an ill-fated Odyssey that took him through Australia, the Philippines, Boston, Vegas, Paris, Fresno, Honolulu, New Orleans, Oakland. He lost 20 of his last 30, nine of his last 10. He retired in October 1966.

I was then one month into my final year at Penn Law School. It seemed a critical time. It seemed two Baskervillian hounds were clawing for my throat. I feared becoming a lawyer would imprison me within a conformity I dreaded. I hoped to write but feared the effort would expose I had nothing to say. Finally, I applied to VISTA for time to think it out.
I also sought experiences and places outside the classroom and corporate world that fit me. I volunteered in the offices of legal aid and the public defender and, some weekend nights, rode in a patrol car to observe the law at street level. I never caught a violent crime or observed a kicked-in door. Mainly I saw DUIs and domestic beefs.
One April night, two young officers shoved a broad shouldered 30-year-old – he looked 40 – against the booking desk. He smelled of alcohol. He wore a houndstooth cap. The fly on his stained slacks was down. He had a four-inch scar over one eye. The charges were Loitering and Prowling.
He had 62-cents and a billfold stuffed with papers. On a job application, he had penciled, “Have attain some excellence as a boxer.” “Hey, Pete, watch out,” one officer said. “This guy was a fighter.”
Pete laughed. “What’s your name?”
“Charley Scott.”
“Charley Scott?” I said.
He nodded.
I had seen him at Convention Hall the best night of his life. Now I saw him again. Grief and reason pin-wheeled in my head. He left for Detective Division, light on his feet, a fighter’s bounce headed toward the ring.

VISTA sent me to Chicago. A year later, I came to Berkeley and moved in with the girl to whom I am still married. I have seen one live fight since, two ham-and-eggers mauling each other for ten rounds in Oakland. I never read another Ring. I can still name the heavyweight champions but only through Ali/Frazier. My passion for the sport had vanished. I had never recovered from standing this close to its too-frequent consequences and seen them bouncing shabby, thick-tongued, unzipped out the shutting door.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: I relied heavily on http:// phillyboxinghistory. com. for career records, dates, places, and results of fights to check my memory against and to fill in its holes. Any errors are my own.