1 CORN AND HASH
Queens, New York: June 14, 1934
On the night of June 14, 1934, James J. Braddock walked into the Madison Square Garden Bowl, an enormous outdoor arena in Queens, New York. His pockets were empty. A week earlier he had turned twenty-nine. He was a father of three, a washed-up fighter, and a part-time longshoreman. As feared as his right hand had once been — he was among the most powerful punchers in the light heavyweight division in the late 1920s — he was equally adept at taking a punch. In eighty pro fights, only one opponent had ever knocked him out, and that was a technical knockout. He had never been counted out. Beyond the ring, his toughest opponent had clearly been the Depression — which nearly knocked him out. But here he was, getting back into the fight game after nine months of inactivity. By 1934, Braddock had outgrown the light heavyweight division’s 175-pound weight limit and was fighting as a heavyweight, at about 180 pounds. He was six feet, two inches tall, with a head of thick, curly black hair. Ruggedly handsome, he looked every bit as Irish as his name, and he wore a shamrock on his trunks and was sometimes known as Irish Jim Braddock. He didn’t talk much, but when he did the words were delivered from the side of his mouth in a thick, blue-collar Jersey accent. His smile was always described as crooked. His parents, Joseph and Elizabeth O’Toole Braddock, had been born in England and immigrated to the United States in 1889, but they were both much more Irish than English or American, though there is no evidence that either ever set foot on Irish soil. They were raised in impoverished Irish enclaves in and around Manchester, where the Braddocks and the O’Tooles clung to their Irishness — mostly because the English never let them forget where they came from.
Forty-five years after Joseph Braddock escaped from the poverty and prejudices of northern England and made his way to America, his son James was struggling to clothe and feed his burgeoning family. He owed money to his landlord, the milkman, the gas and electric company, and his manager, to name just a few of his creditors. In the bitter winter of 1933– 1934, he had trudged through the streets of North Bergen, New Jersey, in shoes that were falling apart. Most of the time he was hungry.
Braddock’s decline as a boxer exactly paralleled the nation’s descent into the Depression. After fighting for the light heavyweight championship in the summer of 1929, Braddock met defeat after defeat, first in big arenas, at the hands of top competitors, and then, gradually, at the hands of boxers only a couple of notches above club fighters — tomato cans and ham ’n’ eggers, the dregs of the heavyweight division. He had lost sixteen out of twenty-six fights since the day the market crashed in 1929. Finally, on September 25, 1933, he broke his right hand, his only real weapon, on the jaw of a twenty-year-old heavyweight named Abe Feldman. The hand had been broken twice before, and Braddock thought it was unlikely that it would ever heal properly. If he somehow managed to scrape up enough cash to find a doctor who knew how to set the fracture, it would still take months to mend. By that time, he knew, he would be older and even slower than he already was, which was quite slow. Braddock announced his retirement — but virtually no one noticed.
Braddock was often called plodding. “Slow of foot” doesn’t begin to describe the inadequacy of his speed and footwork. He could punch, he could take a punch, he could even box a little, but James J. Braddock couldn’t move. Nor could he inflict much damage with his left hand.
Incapable of fighting, he sought work on the docks of Hoboken and Weehawken. The man who just five years earlier had come within one punch of winning the world light heavyweight championship was reduced to hauling railroad ties off ships coming from the south and loading them onto flatbed railroad cars. Initially he wasn’t very good at it — not with a lame right hand. But Braddock was strong, and physical labor was something he never shied from. Not when he was training for a fight, and not when he was earning four dollars a day operating a baling hook.
Like tens of millions of Americans who had thrived in the 1920s, Braddock was wiped out by the economic collapse. Much of the money he had earned fighting at famous arenas like Boyle’s Thirty Acres and Madison Square Garden disappeared when the Bank of the United States, in which he had deposited thousands of dollars, failed. He was far from alone. The men standing beside him on the docks in the shapeups, hoping to get picked by the hiring foremen for work, were lawyers and bankers and stockbrokers as well aas laborers. The Depression took nearly everyone down a few pegs — or more. Unlike everyone else on the docks, however, Braddock was unknnnnnowingly building the strength he would need to get himself back in the ring.
Still, the work was irregular. There were days when he would walk the three miles from his apartment in Woodcliff down to the waterfront in Hoboken in vain. He would then turn north and walk another couple of miles to West New York, or farther, to Edgewater. Sometimes there would be work on the docks. Sometimes he would just turn around and head back home. It wasn’t uncommon for him to walk ten or twelve miles in a single day. When there was work to be had, he would keep working until the job was finished. A double shift meant double pay. Fatigue was for sissies.
People who knew Braddock well thought that the nickname that best described him was Plain Jim, coined by John Kieran of the New York Times. Unlike John L. Sullivan and Jack Dempsey, the most popular heavyweight champions of the early days of gloved boxing, Braddock was as far as it was possible to be from a showman. He liked to go to pubs and have a few beers with the friends he had made growing up in West New York. But it concerned him not at all whether his dinner companions found him amusing. Or whether the sportswriters enjoyed his quips. Or whether the fans got a glimpse of his personality. On those rare occasions when he did speak, his words made an impact.
Braddock was teetering on the verge of anonymity as winter turned into spring in 1934. The talents he had displayed in the late 1920s were fading rapidly from the collective memory of the boxing community. When aficionados discussed the men who might challenge Primo Carnera for the heavyweight championship, the name Jim Braddock never entered the conversation. But Braddock remembered. So did his manager, Joe Gould. Perhaps a few of the men he had punished with his big right hand did too. Everyone else, though, thought of James J. Braddock — when they thought of him at all — as a brokendown, washed-up, one-time contender who just didn’t quite have enough talent or power.
Even so, Gould continued to sell Braddock as a worthy opponent long after most promoters had decided he was through in the fight game. Gould spent hours pleading Braddock’s case, insisting that all the fights he had lost were merely the result of a bad right hand. He reminded everyone who would listen that Jim Braddock was still only twenty-eight years old and that he was, after all, the same young man who had broken the great Pete Latzo’s jaw in four places, knocked out the heralded Tuffy Griffiths, and made mincemeat of Jimmy Slattery. He didn’t mention that those events had taken place in the 1920s, half a decade earlier.
Meanwhile, Braddock’s right hand was slowly healing. As he sweated on the docks, stripped to the waist, his strength was returning....