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A Life In The Loser’s Dressing Room
A talk with the superb journalist and sports report who was the co-author of MASH and wrote Ernest Hemingway’s favorite fight novel
August/September 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 4
Yes, that’s right. When I was about three years old, I’d go out on the street and say something in German, and the kids would pound on me. This gave me the incentive to do something that would distinguish me from being a punching bag. Later, in the playground across the street from where I lived, they put on boxing tournaments in the summer. They would match us up, 10-year-old kids. We’d fight three one-minute rounds, and they’d put the results of the matches on a bulletin board at the playground. One kid pummeled me pretty good one day, and when my father walked home from the Columbus Avenue station, he came through the playground and saw I had lost. He said, “If you want to get a beating, you can get it at home here! You don’t have to go to the playground for that.”
“they... said, ’how would you like to be our war correspondent?’ I said, ’thank you very much.’”
One day when I was 10 or 11 years old, there was a real fistfight on the playground, an Irish kid named Frank Brophy, who was probably about 13, and an Italian kid, a shoemaker’s son, who was one of these crowding kind of street fighters. Well, Frank Brophy had a lovely left hand, and this was the first time I ever saw anybody do any boxing; he kept sticking this Italian kid in the nose until it was bleeding and somebody stopped the fight. Now this impressed me in later years because I have seen some awfully good fighters, yet Frank Brophy lives high among them. He never became a fighter, but I wish he were around so I could tell him that he’s one of my best. The shoemaker’s kid, Vie Troisi, who was also the one who had punched me around, did go on to become a fighter. Years later, when I was interviewing Sugar Ray Robinson for The Saturday Evening Post, he was talking about his record, and I said, “You and I fought the same guy.” He said, “You were a fighter?” I said, “No, not really. But years ago some kid from the playground beat me up, and you fought him.” Ray said, “I fought him when?” I said, “I don’t know the date, but you fought him at the Eastern Parkway and knocked him out in the first round.” And Robinson said, “Oh, is that so?” Well, that impressed me. When you get as good as he was, you don’t even remember the guys you knocked out.
My affinity with boxing later on was because during the war I saw this comradeship between GIs who were suffering together, and I found that they were not fighting for Mom’s apple pie or their careers or anything else, they were fighting for one another. That so rewarded me because you always hope that there’s an affinity between all people. It was so rewarding to see that come out in war and then to find it—in a minor sense, but it was still the same truth—in the affinity between the fighters I would see at the gym. At the end of a fight you’ll see two boxers hug each other, and that’s the most genuine expression of its kind in sport, because both of them know, subconsciously at least, that in the ring there was the danger of being permanently paralyzed, the danger of being killed. I think there’s a gladness they share at the end, a great relief.
When two fighters fight a hell of a battle, there’s later a liking between them. This was true of Joe Walcott and Rocky Marciano. Marciano took him out in the thirteenth round of their great first championship fight, but Joe also knocked down Rocky in the first round. Rocky had never been down before, and the next day I was interviewing him and I asked him, “What were you thinking when you went down?” He had a wonderful fighter’s remark. He said: “I was thinking, ‘This guy can really punch. This will be one hell of a fight.’”
You started at the Sun as a copy boy and eventually worked up to city reporter, war correspondent, and columnist .
I got out of Middlebury College in 1937, and there were no jobs around. It was September when I got a job as a copy boy. At the time all the copy boys were college graduates, even though college wasn’t as much in the mainstream. And all we did was answer to the call of “Boy!” So you were a boy until you joined the reporting staff. They called me “boy” for two years.
I had to be down there at the paper once a week at two in the morning for what was called “the lobster shift.” I was staying with my parents, and I would take the subway where it is elevated in the north Bronx. It was a local train, elevated most of the way, and I could see these women getting on, and it was pretty obvious from their clothes and their bearing that they were cleaning women, and we would pass through various sections of the Bronx and Manhattan and Fiftysecond Street with the neon lights and all that excitement, and then we would get to the end of the line at City Hall Park, and they would go into their office buildings and I would go up into the Sun Building. So there was something sociological, or whatever you want to call it, about the scene that moved me, appreciation of these women whom obviously I felt sorry for without saying it in the piece I eventually wrote.