In Barney Ross, Douglas Century tells the rags-to-riches story of one of the greatest Jewish athletes of all time, a man who in the 1930s pulled off the astonishing feat of holding the world championship in three different weight divisions. Ross packed a number of second acts into his brief but heroic life: man about town, war hero, conqueror of his own morphine habit, gun-runner. How did Beryl Rasofsky, Talmud student in a teeming Chicago ghetto, grow up to become a towering figure for Jews during the Depression and war years? And why, in the decades since, has he been forgotten?
You write about this vast world of Jewish boxers in the 1920s and 1930s, men like Barney Ross coming out of the immigrant neighborhoods of New York and Chicago. Yet in World of Our Fathers—it’s over 700 pages—there’s only one passing reference to boxing. Why?
It is stunning when you think how important boxing was to the Jews of the Lower East Side. Benny Leonard and Lew Tendler, two great fighters, fought at Yankee Stadium in front of 70,000 fans. I’m sure Irving Howe thought this is not a proper representation of the culture. There’s an enduring sense of shame about athletic endeavor, about physicality. It was never embraced by the rabbinic tradition. In the book, I included an illustration from a 1920s Haggadah of the four sons: the wicked son—the Rasha—is depicted as a bare-knuckle boxer, all bulging muscles and clenched fists.
Barney’s Orthodox father, Itchik, represents the centuries-old way of thinking—we’re the scholars, we don’t resort to violence, even in self defense. Itchik survived pogroms, cowering as goons destroyed his synagogue in Brest-Litovsk. His American-born son, Dov-Ber, becomes the opposite, a man who felt Jews had no option but to stand up for themselves. He comes to embody the Zionist ideal of “muscular Judaism.”
As a boxer, Ross actively and publicly embraced his religion. Was that common?
A lot of Jewish fighters were extremely proud of their religion. At one point, even some Italian fighters used Jewish names. Sammy Mandel was actually Italian. I just watched a film of the famous fight between Joe Louis and Maxie Baer. Baer had the biggest possible Star of David on his trunks, yet this guy was a practicing Catholic with only a trace of Jewish ancestry. From our perspective, it’s ballsy to get in the ring with the Star of David. But back then, so many Jewish people would be at these fights, it really was just clever marketing.
Barney after a fight
When I was growing up, Sandy Koufax was pretty much the alpha and omega of Jewish sports. He seemed like an aberration—a Jewish athlete, as if there had never been any before. How do we go from all those boxers in the 1930s to a time when idea that Jews are not athletes is ingrained in the culture?
Barney Ross was the last great Jewish champion. There were scarcely any Jewish boxers of note in the Forties and Fifties. By then, no Jews would let their sons do it. My parents graduated in Chicago in 1947, 48, from high schools that were 70 percent Jewish. I asked my mother, “Did any of the boys box?” No. They played basketball and, to a lesser extent, football. Her kid brother was a lineman on the Roosevelt varsity team.
The socioeconomic conditions had changed drastically in just 10 or 15 years. Jews fought when they lived in cramped, crime- and disease-plagued ghettos. Upward mobility ended the need to scrap your way out of the slum. Boxers almost always come from the lowest economic rung and as Jewish-Americans became more established, better educated, Jewish prizefighting vanished. So we tend to think now, how could it have ever been?
It’s not that complicated. Sport often enforces the most facile and repulsive stereotypes. Great black stars, like Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson, are often thought to be intuitive and “natural” athletes, while guys like Larry Bird are portrayed as more cerebral, harder-working. If you imagine a Jewish professional football player, you can wrap your brain around a “brainy” position, a quarterback like Miami’s Jay Fiedler, but it’s harder to visualize a snarling bad-ass lineman like Lyle Alzado being Jewish. It’s the same reason that Jewish mobsters are portrayed as being the financial geniuses of organized crime and rarely as dimwitted sociopathic killers, like the Lepke Buchalter–Gurrah Shapiro gang in Brownsville.
We’ve kind of been brainwashed here in North America into the sense that Jews are effete and overly intellectual. I was in Israel last year and went to a working-class neighborhood in Tel Aviv called Sh’chunat Hatikvah—literally “the quarter of hope.” It’s real poverty: beggars, junkies, gambling cafes, stray cats, graffiti that says “Mahvet l’malsheneem—Death to the Snitches.” Guys are into loan-sharking, illegal gambling, and everyone’s a kickboxer. The social conditions exist where you can come from such a low rung of society that you want to fight.
It sounds very much like Maxwell Street, the Chicago neighborhood where Barney grew up. Arthur Goldberg, William Paley, and Benny Goodman grew up there, but there were also gangsters and loan sharks.
Yes, Maxwell Street was the Lower East Side of Chicago, a world within a world. Barney’s father and mother had a tiny grocery, they were dirt-poor, with six kids in a crowded flat. Reb Itchik was so observant he’d bring home the tissue paper that wrapped the fresh fruit for the family bathroom, so you wouldn’t break the Shabbat by tearing paper. They were kohanim, and Itchik wanted Barney to become a scholar or Hebrew teacher. Barney is raised with a traditional education. But at the same time, he’s seeing gangland figures like Samuel “Nails” Morton, the de facto protector of Maxwell Street, fending off Polish or Italian hoods.
Barney’s dad forbade him to have anything to do with Jewish hoods, but he was smitten by their flashy clothes, cars, girls. He starts running with a gang, and despite being scrawny and asthmatic, is feared as a street fighter. They called him Beryl the Terrible. Then in December 1923, Reb Itchik is murdered in a holdup. The mother had a breakdown, and the three youngest children were sent off to a Jewish orphanage while Barney and his older brothers fended for themselves. Barney becomes a petty criminal, running craps games, doing errands for Al Capone’s mob. He finally discovers he can make decent money as a “pawnshop fighter,” an amateur boxer pawning off the watches and shoes he’d win in bouts.
And that spawns his career as the Pride of the Ghetto?
Barney wins the welterweight crown from Jimmy McLarnin
Barney made a name for himself in the Golden Gloves competition in 1929. He tears through the lightweight division and wins the world lightweight and junior-welterweight belts from Tony Canzoneri. Then come epic battles when he steps up a division to fight Jimmy “Babyfaced Assassin” McLarnin. McLarnin had decimated a string of Jewish fighters: Ruby Goldstein, Sid Terris, even Benny Leonard. The press dubbed him the “Jew-Beater.” Ross and McLarnin fight in New York for the first time in May 1934, just as there are pro-Nazi rallies in the city. Barney says he feels like he’s fighting for the entire Jewish people. It’s a classic. Fifteen brutal rounds, and Ross beats McLarnin. Within the year, they fought three times, Barney winning two and Jimmy one.
Let’s talk about his war experience. Why, at 34, does he join the Marines?
Most fighters were going into the Coast Guard, where Jack Dempsey had a cadre of boxers doing exhibitions for servicemen. But Barney insists on seeing combat. I was lucky enough to get to know Barney’s surviving brother, George Rasof, who explained that Barney was so depressed after his retirement that he enlisted expecting to die. He was too old for the draft. The Marines wanted him to teach boxing at Camp Pendleton, but he asks to go to the front. He gets shipped to Guadalcanal, a nightmare of warfare and disease.
One night on patrol, though hit by shrapnel, he kills 22 Japanese soldiers. He was lying in a shell crater firing rifles, tossing grenades, and saying the Sh’ma. He also said he was talking to his father. He was awarded the Silver Star, and his heroism is front-page news. But, it was the beginning of his darkest chapter. His wounds and malaria led to morphine addiction.
Later, he’s involved in running guns to the Irgun. How does that unfold?
Barney was an influential supporter of the Bergson Group, sort of the American public-relations arm of the Irgun. Barney allowed Bergson to use his name in fund-raising dinners and ads, and then, as the fighting between Zionists and Arabs intensified in 1948, Ross and a British veteran, Major Samuel Weiser, campaigned to raise an army of Jewish-American G.I.’s. They called it the George Washington Legion, modeled after the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. The U.S. State Department threw up roadblocks: Their effort to go to Palestine failed. But Barney wasn’t going to let red tape get in the way. There were illegal ways to help.
I don’t think there was much nuance to his ideological thinking: right vs. left, Irgun vs. Hagganah. If he understood that Jews were in trouble, if somebody said, “We’re working to establish a Jewish state, we’re going to need some guns,” he wouldn’t hesitate to help.
You contend Ross was in fact a very gentle man. How do you figure?
I initially made the mistake of thinking he must have had a mean streak. But George told me, “Barn only hurt one person in his life—himself.” He had no killer instinct. If he hurt one of his sparring partners, he’d stop to apologize. His trainers would scold him for that. Outside the ring he was a sweetheart. He read his father’s religious books in training camp, loved playing the piano and singing Yiddish songs.
What did you learn from Barney Ross?
When you try to get inside of the head of a dead man, you hear little details that often open up emotional corridors. I kept learning these things that showed me Barney was sensitive, depressive. At the same time, he was this extravagant, big-spending extrovert. George told me Barney would show up in the middle of the night and, though George was married, say, “Yunk, put on your hat and coat.” And they’d walk for hours in the rain, from Independence Boulevard to the Chicago Stadium, and Barney wouldn’t say anything at all. He wanted to be alone with his thoughts, but he also wanted his brother’s company. That detail was like a lightbulb; suddenly I felt I knew Barney Ross: a fighter with a streak of introspection, a guy who would walk for 20 blocks with his kid brother and never utter a word.