Inside the Ropes
By Arthur Mercante, Phil Guarnieri
McBooks Press, Inc. Copyright © 2006 Arthur Mercante and Phil Guarnieri
All rights reserved.
My father, Ralph Mercante, was a laborer in the shoe factories of Brockton, Massachusetts. He sweated hard and long hours to put bread on the table and a roof over our heads. I remember watching him hunched over the bed laster machine, nails protruding from his lips as he molded leather into finely made shoes. My father took great pride in his work. Throughout his life he never thought of himself as a shoemaker but, rather, as a craftsman of leather.
During my youth there was little money to spare in the Mercante household. We saved whatever we could. Instead of buying things, my father would make them. One day he made me a football. I was beaming ear-to-ear when I showed it to my friend. But when I tossed it to him it bounced off his chest and rolled under a passing trolley car. With one loud burst, my football was a mere memory.
I was devastated and could not bring myself to ask my father to make another. But seeing my forlorn face, my father knew something was wrong.
"What's the matter Arturo?" he asked. "Tell your father."
Reluctantly, I told him about the football.
"Don't be upset, son," he said consolingly. "I'll make you a new one." With the shape and pattern now memorized by his fingertips, he fashioned a football superior to even the original. My father's hands, they were gifted.
Without an education, a man had to live by the strength of his back or the dexterity of his fingers. It was a lesson my father learned very early in life. Born in Campobasso, Italy, a little town just southeast of Rome, my father grew up in a religious, hardworking family. They were very poor so when my father was just fourteen years of age, he set off for America to make his way in the world. He arrived on Ellis Island in the late autumn of 1904, just one year before my mother and her family would also arrive in the United States.
This was a time of great migration to the New World. Immigrants from southern and eastern Europe flooded the shores of the "Land of the Free." They came to find a better life for their families and themselves. They spoke a foreign tongue and were virtually penniless. But they were rich in dreams and wealthy in their willingness to work as hard as they could to make them a reality.
Many years later, in 1997, I was awarded the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, which recognizes the contributions of the individual to America but also acknowledges the influence of one's ancestors toward making this country the great nation it is. As I overlooked the great New York Harbor where my parents first arrived almost a century earlier, I was nearly overcome with emotion. Without their courage and sacrifices, my life here would not have been possible. The medal was awarded to me, but in my heart I consecrated it to the memory of my mother and father.
My father's early years in America are not entirely traceable, for even in the narrow circle of family, living testimony becomes lost and memories are forgotten over time. We do know he first lived on Amsterdam Avenue in New York City and that he apprenticed himself to various shoemakers and learned his trade. In time, he saved enough to open his own shop. Always on the lookout for better opportunities, he learned of a textile city known as Brockton, Massachusetts, a melting pot where Irish, Italians, Jews and a smattering of Scandinavians settled to find gainful employment, mostly in the thriving shoemaking industry there.
My mother's family, the Montaganos, on the other hand, moved to Brockton in 1905, a year after my father arrived on Ellis Island. My mother, Angelina, was the daughter of a migrant farmer from Italy who had settled in Brazil. At the turn of the century, Brockton was made up of large tracts of farmland. Feeling the allure of America, my maternal grandfather picked up his family and left Brazil for the United States, never to look back.
My mother spent her formative years in Brockton. She was a kindly, intelligent woman whose diction in both Italian and English was nearly flawless. By chance, both Mom and Pop ended up working for the Walkover Shoe Company, where my father arranged an introduction and, according to custom, obtained her father's permission to court his daughter. On December 4, 1917, their marriage was solemnized at the local Roman Catholic Church.
The newlyweds continued working at the shoe company, pooling their money and saving what they could for the future. They became very friendly with another young Italian couple, Pierino and Pasqualena Marchegiano, whose firstborn son would become one of boxing history's most celebrated champions under the name Rocky Marciano.
In the years that followed, my mother gave birth to three healthy boys: Ralph, born in 1918; me in 1920; and the youngest, Alfred, in 1926. My mother was thrifty and cooked nourishing meals for us. She was particularly fastidious in making sure all her boys were neat and well dressed, a habit of good grooming that would remain with me all my life. Both my parents gave us a lot of love and instilled in us good moral values and an appreciation of the importance of hard, honest work. What more does any child need, really? Today, I am often asked who my boyhood heroes were. Because the first decade of my life was known as the "Golden Age of Sports" people naturally assume that I will cite Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Red Grange or Johnny Weissmuller, all great idols of that gilded age. I looked up to them all, but my heroes not only lived under the same roof as me, they provided it. No stars in my firmament shined brighter than my mother and father.
During my earliest years, I was severely bowlegged. I got around all right, but my legs bowed outward to such a degree I looked disabled. My mother took me to several doctors, but they all seemed stumped. My mother started feeding me some homemade nutritional brew. The remedy worked, and by the age of six or seven my legs almost miraculously straightened out. Although it was never formerly diagnosed, I figure I must have had rickets. Whatever the cause of the deformity, I'm glad it cleared up before I entered the Golden Gloves or I would have been tagged, God forbid, as "The Bowlegged Bomber."
Brockton was a great sports city that produced a number of high school championship teams, especially in football. It was no mystery then, why I grew up loving to play sports. I was never big, but I was strong and had the quick reflexes and instincts of an athlete. As a youngster I was even able to parlay this athleticism into tap dancing. By the age of ten I could really tap. When my father opened his shoe repair shop, I would not only shine customers' shoes but entertain them as well. While spit shining their shoes, I would go into a whole tap routine, rhythmically snapping the shoe shine cloth as I danced. The men loved it and gave me a five-cent tip. For another nickel, I would grasp the metal sides on the two-step shoe shining stand, tip up into a handstand and remain upright for a full minute.
But it wasn't football, baseball, acrobatics or tap dancing that most engrossed my youthful attentions. My true love was boxing. My uncle, Joe Monte, was a professional in the light heavyweight and, later, heavyweight ranks who was good enough to have fought two champions, Max Schmeling and James J. Braddock, three times! Nearly as formidable was my Uncle Neib Montagano, an ex-marine who had been interested in boxing for years. In me they found an apt and willing pupil. My uncles had me throwing jabs and hooks almost before I could walk. This early exposure to boxing had a tremendous influence on me. I grew up across the road from a farm where boxers like my Uncle Neib trained. The ring was situated in the middle of a pine grove. Most of the boxers training there were heavyweights, and with their sun-tanned physiques and their bulging, well-defined muscles, they seemed to me to be the ultimate gladiators. I was enthralled by their skill, their guts. I could hardly wait to grow up and be just like them.
As a special treat, my uncles would often take me along in Uncle Joe's Model T to the gym in Boston where Uncle Joe trained. There, I would keenly observe the fighters working out. I would hear the rat-a-tat-tat of the light striking-bags, the heavy sandbag's chain clanging with every punch to its midsection and the metronomic beat of leather jump ropes hitting the wooden floor. It was all music to my ears, wonderful enchanting music.
The fighters who trained in that Boston gym were top-shelf performers; a few even became world champions. There was Jack Sharkey, who had fought the great Jack Dempsey and would one day be heavyweight champion himself, and Lou Broulliard, who would win the world's welterweight title. I also vividly recall seeing the unfortunate Ernie Schaaf, a strapping heavyweight contender who would tragically lose his life in a bout with the Italian Goliath, Primo Carnera.
Thanks to these experiences, I really developed the itch to fight — a little too much, in fact. One day when I was about eight years old, my uncles took me to a playground for some exercise and recreation. Among the children playing there was a tough-looking Irish kid who was bullying the other kids around. His belligerence began to get under Uncle Neib's skin, which, admittedly, was a tad thin. Grabbing me by the arm, Neib whispered into my ear, "Arthur, see that kid over there? Why don't you go spar with him." I didn't need to be prodded and neither did the Irish kid when I invited him to square off.
He started flailing away at me with wild punches, all of which I easily blocked or avoided. With my uncles looking on approvingly, I began to counter him with telling punches of my own. Uncles Neib and Joe, obviously delighted that their lessons had paid off so handsomely, cheered me on like a couple of school kids.
The mismatch ended when the boy began bawling loudly and, out of nowhere, his mother appeared, screaming bloody murder and threatening to have my uncles arrested for encouraging children to fight. Neib and Joe scooped me up, and we were off like cat burglars in the night. At a safe distance they put me down and congratulated me on such a good showing. I felt like I was ten feet tall. There was no greater badge of honor than the praise of my uncles.
Unfortunately, by the time I was nine or ten years old, my street fighting became something of a habit, especially after my father relocated the family to Brooklyn. My strong Massachusetts accent got me into a lot of trouble with the boys there. It didn't help that my mother insisted on dressing me in a Buster Brown collar and tie. The local toughs pegged me for a sissy, and I had to fight almost daily to prove them wrong. Soon the word was out: Watch out for that kid who talks funny and dresses funnier — he packs a real wallop.
Mom and Pop were very disturbed about my constant fighting. Pop tried to channel my aggressive instincts into organized activity. One Saturday morning he took me to the Bedford Branch YMCA and asked if there was a boy's program.
Sorry, the man said, it is only set up for men.
The man's name was Howard Anderson, the general manager and a true gentleman. When my father suggested there was a need for a boy's program, Mr. Anderson agreed. As a result, they started a Saturday morning boys' division of which I was the first charter member. The program was soon successful, and within a year they decided to build an annex to the main building. It became known as the Bedford YMCA Boys Branch. Frequenting it was a great experience for me and solidified my growing interest in health and physical education.
Despite his best efforts, my father was not wholly successful in diverting my attention from fighting, not by a long shot. In the 1930s, the nation was mired in the worst depression of its history, and that hungry time proved fertile ground for boxing. Fight clubs sprouted like mushrooms after a heavy summer rain. Boxing was never bigger than it was then, and I longed to be part of the action.
It was always a treat when Uncle Joe took me to the annual Boxing Writers' Dinner in New York City. Seeing so many great fighters gathered in one room — Mickey Walker, Barney Ross, Henry Armstrong, Tony Canzoneri, Jimmy McLarnin and many more — sent chills up and down my spine. The biggest thrill of all, though, was when the newly crowned Heavyweight Champion of the World walked into the room. If you were a sports-minded teenager living in New York back in 1935, you wanted to grow up to be either Lou Gehrig, the great Yankee ballplayer, or Max Baer. I chose Baer.
When you first met Max Baer, he just overwhelmed you with his rugged good looks and overpowering physical appearance. With huge sloping shoulders tapering down to a thirty-one-inch waist, Baer, at six feet three inches and 220 sculpted pounds, looked as if he was picked out of central casting to play the role of Heavyweight Champion. But it was his larger-than-life personality even more than his physique that made him a beloved and colorful character. A laugh a minute, scandalously irreverent, always engaging, Baer remains one of the most magnetic personalities I have ever encountered in sports. Max Baer truly believed it when he said, "What's the use of being alive if you can't have fun?"
Everyone seemed to agree that Baer would be champion as long as he wanted to. In the ring, his chin seemed impervious to leather, and his roundhouse right hand is still regarded by fight historians as one of the hardest punches ever thrown. But a funny thing happened to Baer on his way to boxing immortality. A tall, rugged, unheralded heavyweight named James J. Braddock came off the docks and the welfare rolls to beat the 10 — 1 odds against him and outpoint the champion in Baer's very first title defense. Boxing would not see a bigger upset until James "Buster" Douglas knocked out Mike Tyson fifty-five years later.
Later that same year, Joe Louis, barely twenty-one years old, would destroy Baer in less than four rounds of fighting. Max waved to the crowd as the referee counted him out and said afterwards that anyone who wanted to see the execution of Max Baer would have to pay more than the cost of a ringside seat. After that, he was never again a serious contender. The Clown Prince of Boxing was only fifty when he died of a heart attack. Baer's life, like his boxing career, shone brightly, but all too briefly.
Attending boxing events made me more determined than ever to make a name for myself in the ring. You needed to be eighteen years of age to be able to enter the Gloves. But I was too anxious to wait another two years. At sixteen, two years seemed an eternity. So unbeknownst to my folks, I took my older brother Ralph's ID and got my passport into amateur boxing.
In 1936, I entered the New York Golden Gloves Tournament under the name "Ralph Mercante." The competition was ferocious, but I was trained to a razor's edge. As I look back to those long ago days, I'm astonished how fearlessly I fought and how mean and rough I could be. I just didn't like anyone in the ring with me. I had, as they say today, bad intentions. I also brought along my cheering section: guys from the neighborhood who would come to the fights to root me on. Shouts of "Get him, Art — kill him, Art" filled the arena, which had the officials scratching their heads, since I had been introduced as Ralph.
I scored four straight knockouts before I was outpointed in the quarterfinals by twenty-four-year-old Jerry Fiorello, who not only won the championship but also would make a name for himself in the pros as a real tough club fighter.
Managers were always on the lookout for good prospects, and several of them lobbied me to turn pro. I was flattered; my father was horrified. "Absolutely not, Arturo! Those men, they don't care what happens to you!" he said. "They just want to make money watching you get your brains beat in."
I argued with him, pointing out I had done very well in the Gloves and had come out unharmed. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Inside the Ropes by Arthur Mercante, Phil Guarnieri. Copyright © 2006 Arthur Mercante and Phil Guarnieri. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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