|PHILLY BOXING HISTORY - December 01, 2016|
One day while driving back from Port Richmond I tuned in to a sports talk radio station where they were having a heated debate on what athlete was the most popular ever in Philadelphia. Bobby Clarke, Doctor J, Richie Ashburn, Wilt, Moses, Ali, Frazier, Babe Ruth and many more were nominated and the arguments offered of why they were number one. I had to laugh because all of these imposing, muscular, talented heroes were “lightweights” compared to the true, undisputed champion named “TWO TON” TONY GALENTO!
How Galento captured the imagination and hearts of Philadelphia is as unlikely a story as one can imagine. On July 28, 1937 the headlines on the back of the Philly Daily News declared BASS, ETTORE KAYOED. The previous night Benny Bass was counted out for the first time in his long career by Henry Armstrong at the Phillies Ball Park and West Philly’s Al Ettore was brutally stopped in the eighth round by Tony Galento at the Velodrome in Nutley, NJ. In a single night Philadelphia promoter Herman Taylor had lost his two best attractions. But Taylor, always one to have an alternate plan, thought that maybe he could make the colorful Galento into a new star in Philadelphia.
Galento and manager, Joe Jacobs’ ornery and belligerent manner had found disfavor with the powerful New York boxing establishment led my Mike Jacobs. Pretty much blackballed in New York, Galento/Joe Jacobs were welcomed with open arms by Taylor and he hurriedly showcased Galento against two feared and dangerous black heavyweights, Lorenzo Pack and Leroy Haynes, both of whom he butchered at Convention Hall that lured 23,000 fans through the turnstiles to watch a new hero in Philadelphia.
Tony Galento went on a sensational KO streak that even Mike Jacobs couldn’t ignore and matched him with top contender Nathan Mann who he stopped in three impressive rounds. Meanwhile Taylor had formed an alliance with Pittsburgh promoter Gus Greenlee, manager of John Henry Lewis, Joe Jacobs and Joe Gould to break the monopoly of Mike Jacobs in promoting the real important heavyweight matches. The first step was to sign Galento to a five year “exclusive” promotional contract and match Galento and Lewis for 15 rounds at Municipal Stadium on July 26, 1938.
Galento by this time had become an anti-hero, snubbing his nose at the boxing establishment, a beer guzzling, profane cigar chomping tough guy proclaiming to the world that he was challenging Joe Louis and that he would “moider da’ bum.” He became a hero to the impoverished, downtrodden victims of the Great Depression, especially in the South Philadelphia Italian colony.
Herman Taylor got the word out (and arranged) that Galento and his team would be arriving by train and had his vassals working down Broad Street to inform those on the route downtown that Galento would be coming. When they arrived at the station, according to John Webster of the Inquirer, “Taylor pushed them into an open car and then the parade started in downtown Philadelphia.” Crowds swarmed out of offices and shops and walked alongside of the motorcade blocking traffic, and “when the caravan moved into the Italian section, men and women rushed from bars, grocery stores and houses. Necks craned from windows. Papers flooded the air. The parade lasted an hour and Philadelphia police conservatively estimated that 100,000 persons had welcomed the fighter.”
Tragically the fight was cancelled. Four days before the match Galento came down with pneumonia and was given a 50-50 chance of surviving by his doctors. It was reported that many candles were lit for Tony’s recovery in the South Philly churches. Herman Taylor, who had predicted the fight would draw a quarter million dollars, had to refund $90,000 in ticket sales.
When Tony recovered Taylor had the task of regaining the momentum they had built up. The fans were so happy to have Tony back in action that they overlooked a couple of less than stellar performances for as Tony said “it took awhile to get over the ‘amonia attack.” He got his chance at Louis in June of ‘39 at Yankee Stadium and Joe stopped Tony in a brutal war (but having to get off the canvas to do it).
When Taylor and Joe Jacobs thought Tony was ready they matched him with the hottest heavyweight of the moment, Lou Nova, for 15 rounds at Municipal Stadium (Sept. 15, 1939). The scenario surrounding this affair bordered on the surreal. The return of Galento to Philadelphia was orchestrated by Taylor but the tumultuous reception by the citizens of the Philadelphia area was unimaginable.
It was apparent that Galento’s appeal was not just to Italians. When he arrived at 7:40 PM at the train station, Lou Jaffe of the Ledger reported “more than 2,000 swarmed the train shed including bands representing Southeast Catholic High School, South Philadelphia Jewish War Veterans’ Post 93, Epiphany Naval Battalion, American Legion Post #27, and the Polish American Club of Philadelphia.” A two hour and twenty minute parade followed. Estimating the crowd from Broad Street Station over a South Philadelphia route of approximately six miles, Police Captain H.J. Kitchenman said “there were more than 200,000 along the line of march… the biggest crowd ever to greet an individual I can remember in this city, other than President Roosevelt.
“A hundred police patrolled the line of march that included 40 vehicles carrying dignitaries of all persuasions. The Galento cohorts aligning the route wore ‘Galento our champion’ caps. Time and again as the procession rolled through ‘Little Italy’ it was forced to halt or go along at a snail’s pace because of the mingling mob, particularly at three lolls where some one handed Tony his first of three man-sized beers.
“Keeping pace with Galento’s machine from the start until his weary little bare feet gave out at Mifflin Street was 9-year old Sam Fucia of Washington Avenue. Joining the marchers at 8th and Fitzwater, Carmella Dengermino, 17 of Mona Street, and Josephine Masselli, 15, of S. Mole Street, clung to Tony’s car and wouldn’t let go until the parade ended at Broad and Locust Streets.”
Tony Galento was now a “sex symbol” to his female fans. And in a scene that would make even a veteran Philadelphia political candidate blush with envy, “during a halt at Broad and Castle, 10-month old Anthony Sprietro of Fernon Street, was handed up to Galento, who caressed the infant for several minutes until his [auto] went into motion again.” The parade finally wound-up around 10 PM.
Arriving at his hotel, Galento continued to beam over the welcome he received. “Maybe I ought to run for Mayor or sumpthin’ when I move to Philly,” laughed Tony. “You know I’m gonna make my home here sometime. How kin a guy lose [this fight] when der’s so many wantin’ to see him win? Yea," repeated the ‘Newark Nightstick’, "how kin a guy lose, especially against a bum who learnt’ how to fight at Collitch?”
The following day the Galento entourage took a train to Baron Dougherty’s nearby Leiperville training camp to finish his preparations for the Nova fight.
The Chester Times reported GALENTO BEGINS LEIPERVILLE DRILL as “thousands greeted him as he stepped off the train.” Eyewitnesses and participants declared that hundreds gathered at St. Anthony’s parish playground in Chester’s “Little Italy” and walked en mass the four miles through the streets of Chester to the Leiperville train station, carrying placards saying “No College guy ain’t gonna whip our Tony,” and “Tony, our Italian Idol who came up from the streets.”
The newsmen converged on Leiperville, where a month previously, Irish-Americans from all over Delaware County turned Leiperville into “Little Dublin” as Billy Conn trained there for his match with Gus Dorazio. Now the little hamlet resembled Napoli and Palermo as Tony confirmed all reports that he sometimes worked out on the speedbag with a stogie clenched in his teeth and cooled off from these sessions by polishing off a half a’ case of beer. An AP cameraman sent out a photo of Galento breaking training while eating ice cream with a group of local kids. It appeared Tony was “Galento ready” for this Nova bum.
As we know Galento bludgeoned Nova into defeat after 14 rounds of brutal combat. As soon as the battle was over tens of thousands swarmed Broad Street to acclaim their conquering hero as his motorcade made its way from the stadium, and celebrated far into the night feeling confident that the next time they would let Tony “fight his fight” and he would beat Joe Louis and win the title.
Grand plans don’t always work out favorably and within months Joe Jacobs died, his last words were reported to be “I knew I shouldn’t have et’ that veal scaloppini.” Tony started to listen more to Mike Jacobs than Herman Taylor and he blew two matches to the Baer brothers and faded from the scene. He never moved to Philly and never did “run for Mayor.” But the suspicion here is that his term would have been very similar to that 35 years later of another paisano, whose proficiency with a nightstick was also feared, the honorable Frank Rizzo, the 93rd mayor of Philadelphia.
I think the facts given here prove that no individual sports star in Philadelphia ever approached the popularity and mania that was showered on Galento in the Quaker City.