NO TALE IN the forlorn annals of boxing ever topped the sorrowful story of Gypsy Joe Harris. For a shimmering blink of an eye in the 1960s, the wildly unorthodox and undisciplined Gypsy surged to the heights of the welterweight division, where he had the ingenuity of a scaled-down Ali. The crowds loved him and he played to them boldly both inside the ring and away from it, where he roamed the bars and pool halls of North Philadelphia sporting a cowboy hat or a Persian lamb collar. Scarcely the type to plan ahead, he never had a bank account, owned a house or held even an insurance policy for his loved ones to bury him.
Even at the apex of his career he lived in the Richard Allen Projects, a far cry from the deluxe accommodations that his fancy plumage seemed to imply. Then in the same stable with a young Joe Frazier, he had not yet fulfilled his full earning potential in the ring when it was discovered in October 1968 that he was blind in one eye. Stripped by the Pennsylvania Athletic Commission of his license to box, he slid steeply into the realm of alcoholism and drugs - chiefly heroin. He later got jobs that included sweeping the city streets. Never again the same jovial Gypsy once his career ended, he died in March 1990 of a heart attack at the age of 44.
They passed the hat to bury him. Relatives chipped in enough to buy him a blue suit, an inexpensive coffin and a $105 plot at Merion Memorial Park in Bala Cynwyd, where they lowered Gypsy into a public grave with two other people who also had died that week. The day was gray and very cold, and his younger sister, Arneta Miller, got back in the car at the end of the ceremony thinking: Joe should have had a better funeral. Workers then came to fill in the hole, but there were not enough funds in the hat to afford a headstone at the site. So for 16 years he has remained there, sadly obscure yet not forgotten.
It was not until John DiSanto began looking for Gypsy Joe that anyone even remembered he did not have a headstone. DiSanto is a boxing fan who runs a Web site honoring the storied history of the sport in Philadelphia, where Gypsy still reigns as a cult figure. DiSanto, 43, never actually had seen Joe in the ring, but became intrigued enough by his sad story that he set out in search of his grave. But that noble quest was not an easy one. Even the staff at the cemetery had trouble locating it initially, and it was not until DiSanto contacted the family itself did they finally find the spot: a piece of barren earth in a sloping corner of the cemetery.
DiSanto would like to arrange for Gypsy to get a headstone. The Mantua, N.J., native recently did just that for the late junior lightweight Tyrone Everett, whose tragic end occurred in 1977 when his girlfriend shot him during a quarrel in South Philadelphia. When DiSanto discovered Everett did not have a headstone at Eden Cemetery in Collingdale, he took it upon himself to contact the Everett family and offered to pay the $1,500 cost of it himself. In the case of Gypsy Joe, he hopes to generate the funds via donations to the Gravestone Program he has launched on PhillyBoxingHistory.com, his Web site. Help also has come from a beef-and-beer fund-raiser held recently in Camden by the family, which has united behind DiSanto in his effort to honor boxers in the same situation as their departed brother.
DiSanto stood at the site in a whipping wind last Sunday. "A lot of fighters have a similar story," he said. "They end up with little or no money, and it becomes difficult for the family to even bury them. And some of them opt not to do the gravestone, especially when there are living people who really need the money. "
Money and Gypsy Joe were only fleeting companions. In the days before the lighter weights commanded high sums, he once said that he never earned more than $12,500 for any bout. Under the stewardship of Yancey Durham, he began his pro career in the fall of 1965 by knocking out Freddie Walker, and 2 years later found himself in Madison Square Garden against welterweight champion Curtis Cokes in a non-title bout. He beat Cokes in a 10-round decision with 500 Philadelphians on hand. The talented Emile Griffith handed him his only defeat in 25 bouts in August 1968. It was during the physical for his bout against Manny Gonzales that October when doctors discovered he was blind in his right eye.
Gypsy Joe had endured that impairment since his youth, when he stole a trick-or-treat bag from another boy in Camden and was struck by him in the eye with a brick. "There was an urgent boom, boom, boom at the door," remembers Tony Molock, who has written a forthcoming book on his older brother, "Gypsy Joe Harris: Son of Philadelphia. " "And Joe came in holding his eye. " But blindness in that eye did not stop him from entering the ring, nor did it prevent the Pennsylvania Athletic Commission from allowing him to box. While Gypsy later would say he memorized the eye chart, which enabled him to pass the physical the commission required before a bout, he always contended it knew of his affliction and allowed him to box because of his popularity until ring politics forced him out. Whatever the true story, Gypsy failed in his appeal to get his license back.
Then-commissioner Zack Clayton asked him at his hearing: "How much longer would you fight if you got your license? "
"Two or 3 years," Gypsy told him.
"And what would you do then? " Clayton asked.
"Be rich," Gypsy replied.
Of the opinion that "we will never know the real answer," DiSanto added: "I find it hard to believe that the people close to him did not know he was blind. But then again, you have to understand that Gypsy was a hustler. So if you were him and had that secret, you had to keep it a secret. " But DiSanto said that while it is understandable that the commission would deny the appeal, he said it was an interesting irony that in an effort to protect Gypsy Joe from being injured in the ring, he was "probably far safer in the ring with one eye than he ever was outside of it. "
Quite true when you consider what happened in the years that followed. He became depressed and even one day walked up on the Ben Franklin Bridge and looked down into a swirling tide. He later said he came close to jumping, but chose not to because he remembered that he could swim, evidently ignoring the probability that the fall would have done the job. He became hooked on heroin, which left him with tracks up and down an arm and across his back. Arneta remembered that as a young girl she asked Joe what they were and in an act of brotherly concern, he grabbed her by the arm and said: "Never let this happen to you. Never let drugs get into your life. " He also once found his then-teenage sister Renee Fisher passed out on the stoop of their house; someone slipped her drugs in the Wild Irish Rose she had been drinking. Joe carried her on his back to the hospital, where they pumped her stomach. He later told her, "You can not live this way. " Said Renee, "And I never drank again. "
Gypsy Joe had gone cold turkey by then. Arneta remembered that in the years that followed he was always "kind of sad and kind of depressed," in part because of the way his boxing career had ended and in part because he could not help his five children. People still stopped on the streets in North Philadelphia and said, 'Hey, are you Gypsy Joe? " Hearing that would always boost his spirits, but by then his body had become depleted. Drug abuse had wrecked his heart, perhaps including the use of diuretics to shave pounds off before bouts; Gypsy had never been fond of training. Small social-security checks helped him get by when he was no longer able to work for the city sanitation department. He was waylaid in his early 40s by four heart attacks, the last of which left him in an unconscious state with tubes running in and out of his body.
By his side were his mother, Helen, and his siblings, who conferred with doctors and decided that Joe would not have wanted to live in that condition. "So we said we would just let nature take its course," said his younger brother, who added that the doctors then removed the breathing tubes and placed him on a morphine drip. Tony remembered that Joe labored to breathe on his own and that he began cheering him on, saying: "Come on. Fight! You are Gypsy Joe! " At one point Joe opened an eye and appeared to look at him. And then he closed it again and died.
In the searing cold last Sunday at Merion Memorial Park, DiSanto joined Arneta, Renee and sister Daa'iyah Waheed at the place where Gypsy Joe is interred. They were bundled in heavy coats. They remembered having been there 16 years before - yes, this was the place - but were uncertain exactly where the spot was. Someone from the cemetery had told them they would place a temporary marker there, but there was none to be found for Joe, only a few scattered signs for others nearby and, off in the horizon, rows of headstones tilting into the wind.
DiSanto is unclear at this point what it will cost to come up with a headstone for Gypsy Joe, but guesses it will be somewhere in the vicinity of $2,000. Nor are the sisters certain what they would like it to say, albeit Daa'iyah is leaning toward using the book title: "Gypsy Joe Harris: Son of Philadelphia. " Whatever they come up with, the sisters are delighted that DiSanto contacted them. As the years passed and they had gone on with their lives, the urgency to place a proper marker at the grave waned.
"This is good of him to do," Arneta said. "And if we can get a fund together, it would be a way to help other boxers in the same situation. "
Renee stood off to the side and said sadly, "Joe was so young when he died. He should still be with us. " Some paper swirled in the wind as she then added with a smile: "He deserves this."