Tuesday, June 9, 2009

South Philly Southpaw

Father’s Day will come and go. Some will spend time with their fathers; others will remember or try to forget. Fathers give the gift of life and, if you are lucky, they give more. If you are really lucky, when they are gone you have something memorable to say or display. Sometimes as children, we don’t appreciate what we have. Often as teenagers, we keep our hearts sealed from our parents. But memory saves us from ourselves. We grow older and our memories become the stories we savor and share.
I’m thinking about a story my dad shared with me not long before he died. He was a professional boxer in the 1930s and ‘40s, long before I knew him. My dad was “Irish Abe,” the South Philly southpaw who boxed his way through larger cities and smaller towns. As the youngest son of Jewish immigrants from Russia who settled into the Irish-Catholic neighborhood of Fifth and Wolf Streets in South Philadelphia, Dad spent Saturdays in synagogue with his father and Sundays in church with his baseball buddies. When he was 12, his father died. Dad’s life became consumed with sports, and trying to make a buck to help his widowed mother. At 15 years old, he established himself as an amateur fighter, won 50 fights and many titles. The local parish priest attended the fights and recognized him. Dad recalled, “The priest jumped into my corner and remained there throughout the three rounds, cheering and yelling for the boy from his parish.”
The following week the promoter of the show presented Dad with a pair of boxing trunks - blue on one side with a white stripe and Star of David. The other side was kelly green with a gold stripe and harp. The Jewish kid, Abie Kauffman became Irish Abe of 5th and Wolf. Then, in his senior year at Central High as a lettered athlete, Dad turned down a baseball scholarship to Penn State and chose instead to go pro as a boxer when he was offered what in Dad’s view was the once-in-a- lifetime opportunity.
Professionally ranked as a lightweight contender, he fought anybody and everybody for twelve years. The promoters matched him in all categories, regardless of weight because he could dance around his opponents, give the audience a show and go the distance. One time though he went too far. Somewhere down south in the 1930’s, two locals grabbed him before the fight and taunted, “I hear you’re a Jew-boy. I ain’t never seen a Jew-boy before. Show us your horns! Come on, Jew-boy show us your horns.” He was matched up with the local favorite and asked for his show, but was told to “throw the fight, fix it for the homeboy and don’t tell or you’ll never get outa here alive, ya stinkin Jew.”
Dad rebuffed, “My name is Abraham. I come to fight!” And that’s how they read it in the morning papers the day after he beat the hell out of the homeboy. He got out of there fast, and never went back.
Irish Abe went north to New York and west to Chicago fighting the likes of Ike Williams and Willie Pep. He believed that Ike Williams might have been the best fighter of all time, since Ike fought and beat Joe Louis and Ray Robinson. Dad didn’t always win or even get the decision, but the promoters liked him because at the last bell, he was usually still standing.
From his chair in the living room 50 years later, Dad welled up with tears when he spoke of the “squared circle.” He said, “There is no question in my mind that a one-on-one situation like boxing can bring out the best in all of us.”
Although Dad was a stoic through the painful challenges of old age – knee and hip replacements, wrist cartilage removal, dependence on a pacemaker and hearing aid, Dad sobbed when he told me this story from his youth. In the end he braved his ultimate opponent, prostate cancer, and lost the fight.
What did I get from my father? I inherited his muscular frame but not his drive. I can approximate his dimpled smile, but I can’t shine it back at him; as I wish I had done more often in my teens. I can display his photos, tell his story and let my heart go the distance.


RozieKay said...

Thank You so much for sharing such a heartfelt story of your dad. Your email was the first one I opened today and had to share it with Michael. We both loved it and will save it amongst our special sentimentals! I know my dad and yours held a very special bond not only due to their Jewish-blood line but their love for boxing.

Hope to see you before this summer is over and share smiles and laughter of old times past, perhaps even make new memories that we can add for years to come.

Love ALways ~ Rozie

adriene crimson said...

I wonder what happened to those special shorts.
great story tracy!

Melanie said...

I love this piece on your dad. I find it coming back to mind quite often.