Rocky Marciano: The Rock of His Timesby Russell Sullivan
In this portrait of an American sports legend, Russell Sullivan confirms Rocky Marciano's place as a symbol and cultural icon of his era. As much as he embodied the wholesome, rags-to-riches patriotism of a true American hero, Marciano also reflected the racial and ethnic tensions festering beneath the country's benevolent facade. See more details below
In this portrait of an American sports legend, Russell Sullivan confirms Rocky Marciano's place as a symbol and cultural icon of his era. As much as he embodied the wholesome, rags-to-riches patriotism of a true American hero, Marciano also reflected the racial and ethnic tensions festering beneath the country's benevolent facade.
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The Rock of His Times
By Russell Sullivan
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2005 Russell Sullivan
All rights reserved.
It was St. Patrick's Day in the year 1947, and the good, hard-working people of Holyoke, Massachusetts, had several options for their evening's entertainment.
They could, of course, visit their favorite neighborhood tavern and raise a pint or two to celebrate the traditional Irish holiday. If they were in the mood for a special celebration, they could go to O'Brien's Ballroom at the local chapter of the Knights of Columbus, which was staging a big holiday dance featuring Gordon Corlies and his orchestra, or to the Ancient Order of Hibernians Hall, which was offering Joe O'Leary and his Irish Minstrels plus Irish tenor Tom Quinn. They could always take in a movie—Humoresque starring Joan Crawford and John Garfield was playing at the Victory, while The Man I Love with Ida Lupino and Robert Alda was on the screen at the Strand. Or, if they preferred a quieter evening, they could stay home with the family and listen to the radio, perhaps the Lux Theatre on WMAS or the special half-hour of Irish tunes on WHYN (sponsored by Griffin's Package Store). More cutting-edge home entertainment beckoned if they were lucky enough to be one of the few to own that new invention called television.
Or they could go to the fights. In those days, with television in its infancy, a night of live boxing was a viable option for those who wanted action and thrills. For a few bucks, you could see fighters of all different weight classes—maybe not world champions, but young men willing to give an honest day's effort for an honest day's pay. That very night in Holyoke, promoter Oreal D. Rainault had lined up an attractive fight card for a show at the Valley Arena. The main event promised to be a donnybrook, with a middleweight named Saint Paul set to battle Tee Hubert.
On that St. Patrick's night in Holyoke, 1,200 fans paid their way into the Valley Arena to see Rainault's show. They saw Tee Hubert rely on his left hand to beat Saint Paul. They also saw several good fights on the undercard. The opening bout in particular was a wild one. It was a heavyweight fight featuring one of Holyoke's own, Les Epperson. Those in the know among the Holyoke fight crowd recognized Epperson's potential. He had fought well in the amateurs, and Baron Cohen, the Valley Arena matchmaker, was convinced that he was a good prospect. On this St. Patrick's night in Holyoke, he was fighting for the very first time as a professional.
Not much was known about Epperson's opponent. One thing was sure: He had never appeared in a Holyoke ring. In fact, he, like Epperson, had never fought professionally before. An ex-GI who lived in Brockton, Massachusetts, he had just gotten a job with the Brockton Gas Company and was eagerly anticipating his upcoming minor league baseball tryout down South with the Chicago Cubs. But then his neighbor and friend Allie Colombo told him that he could line up a fight for him in Holyoke. It seems that Allie, who was in the air force at Westover Field in nearby Chicopee, knew this guy at Westover named Dick O'Connor, who in turn knew Rainault the promoter. Was the ex-GI interested in fighting Epperson in Holyoke?
He was. He had done some boxing in the army and could use the extra cash. So he got the day off from the gas company and took a train across the state, arriving in Holyoke in the middle of the afternoon of St. Patrick's Day. After the weigh-in, the fighter and Allie went over to O'Connor's house, where they were treated to the traditional big steak dinner. Then, following a short rest, they headed for the arena.
Once they arrived, they immediately got into a squabble with Rainault the promoter. It seems that O'Connor had promised Allie that his friend would be paid $50 for his efforts. When they arrived at the arena, though, Rainault was offering only $35. Eventually, Allie and his friend agreed to accept the $35—but only if Rainault agreed to pick up the tab for the boxing license needed in order to fight Epperson. Rainault agreed. The fight was on.
Entering the ring that night in Holyoke, Epperson's opponent certainly didn't look much like of a fighter. He was short for a heavyweight, 5'10" or 5'11" tops. Even though his legs looked like tree trunks, he seemed light for a heavyweight, clearly shy of two hundred pounds. And those arms—oh, those arms. They were short and stubby, unfit for jabbing a rival at long range in the style of the reigning heavyweight champion, the great Joe Louis. On initial appearances alone, it didn't look as if this young boy was much of a fighter. At least he might make a good sacrificial lamb for the local boy, Epperson.
And for a while, the local boy did make good, getting the better of the action for the first two rounds as his rival tossed wild haymakers that missed their mark. But then, toward the end of the second, Epperson's opponent landed several good rights on the jaw that seemed to turn the tide. Forty-two seconds into the third round, Epperson was suddenly knocked out. He had been trying to trap his opponent on the ropes, but his opponent saw him coming, wound up, and threw a mighty right uppercut, seemingly from the floor. Epperson never had a chance. He was knocked through the ropes and out of the ring. The fight, exciting while it lasted, was over.
As it turned out, so was Les Epperson's career as a professional boxer. Years later he would say that he would have had a chance against his opponent had they ever fought again, pointing out that he had a decided edge for much of the first two rounds. But Epperson never fought again after that night in Holyoke. The experience was enough to convince him that he did not face a bright future in the ring. He eventually became a lithographer at a stationery firm in Springfield, Massachusetts.
What about Epperson's opponent? Unlike Epperson, great things lay ahead for him in the ring, far greater than sparsely attended fights in small western Massachusetts cities. He had fought Epperson under the name Rocky Mack, not only to protect his amateur standing but also because it was St. Patrick's Day and the name sounded vaguely Irish. His real name, though, was Rocco Marchegiano. In just a few short years the entire world would know him as neither Rocky Mack nor Rocco Marchegiano but as Rocky Marciano, the heavyweight champion of the world.
The Epperson fight, obscure as it was—it would, in fact, remain undiscovered until late in Marciano's career—was nevertheless a vintage Rocky Marciano fight, foreshadowing his later reign as heavyweight champion in many respects. He won. He won by a knockout. He looked raw and wild before winning. There was some underlying dispute involving money. And his opponent was never the same.
Later, this story line would play itself out again and again in big fights against big opponents in front of big crowds in big ballparks with millions watching on closed circuit television or listening on the radio. But that came later. The beginnings were far more humble in nature.
* * *
In the early part of the twentieth century, Brockton, Massachusetts, was known mainly for shoes. A tough, working-class city of about sixty thousand people located about twenty miles south of Boston, Brockton was filled with a mixture of first- and second-generation immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Poland, Sweden, and other faraway lands, all people who came to work in the shoe factories. Rocco Francis Marchegiano was born in Brockton on September 1, 1923. Shortly after the blessed event, legend has it that his parents received a congratulatory card bearing the imprint of a pair of boxing gloves and the caption "Hail to the Champ."
Rocco's parents, both born in Italy, were part of the more than one million other Italians that came to America during the 1910s. His father, Pierino Marchegiano, hailed from Chieti, a small fishing village near the Adriatic. Shortly after his arrival in America, with World War I in full swing, he enlisted and became part of the American Expeditionary Force in Europe. While in combat, Pierino once received a piece of shrapnel in his cheek that knocked out three teeth. "Didn't bother me, though," he would tell reporters after his son became famous years later. "Spit 'em out and kept going. I'm tough, too."
Back in Brockton after the war, Pierino's long-term health suffered due to the gassing he received during a battle in the Argonne. A small, thin, wispy man who stood under 5'8", his weight dropped to 130 pounds after the gassing. He would remain sickly for the rest of his life, so sick that he occasionally was unable to work in the shoe factories upon his return to Brockton after the war. The fact that he worked on a No. 5 bed laster machine in the shoe factories, one of the toughest jobs in the shop, did not make his health battles any easier. A quiet, dignified man, Pierino Marchegiano carried on the best he could.
Luckily for Pierino and the rest of the family, his wife, Pasqualena Marchegiano, was a pillar of strength. She, too, grew up in Italy, in San Bartolomeo near the city of Naples. Her father, Luigi Picciuto, arrived in America in 1914, and Pasqualena and the rest of the family followed several years later. Shortly thereafter, Pasqualena Piccento (sporting the Americanized version of her last name that her family adopted in the new world) married Pierino Marchegiano. They say that opposites attract, and that was certainly true with Pierino and Lena Marchegiano. While he was reserved, she was outgoing. While he was stoic, she was emotional, with big, brown, expressive eyes. While he was sickly, she was robust, weighing nearly two hundred pounds later in life.
Young Rocco was actually Pierino and Lena's second child. The first had died shortly after birth, and doctors told the young couple that they could have no more children. And, for a while, it appeared that young Rocco, too, might not make it, because he caught pneumonia as a toddler and nearly died. Supposedly, Lena promised St. Anthony (or St. Rocco, depending on the account) that she would give up her diamond engagement ring if her young son pulled through. The son, of course, did pull through—and Lena, as promised, gave up her engagement ring. Years later, the legend goes, the son, now a rich and famous athlete, presented his mother with a new diamond ring.
Around the time that young Rocco beat pneumonia, the Marchegianos moved to a house located at 80 Brook Street in the heart of Brockton's Italian district. Pierino, Lena, and young Rocco lived on the second floor of a modest, two-story, white-frame house owned by Lena's father, Luigi. Very quickly the young family's quarters would become cramped with the arrival of five more children after Rocco—three girls (Alice, Connie, and Elizabeth) and two more boys (Louis and Peter).
Rocky Marciano grew up poor. Money was tight in the Marchegiano family. The Great Depression was on, and although Pierino managed to find work the shoe factories didn't pay much. The family had no bathtub, no running hot water, and no central heat. To stay warm in the winter, the Marchegianos would leave their doors open so they could capture some of the rising heat from the two coal stoves on the first floor occupied by Luigi. For additional heat, the resourceful Lena would constantly keep water heating on the kitchen stove.
Space was another problem. The second floor of the Brook Street house was cramped, consisting of only a living room, a kitchen, and two bedrooms. The three Marchegiano girls squeezed into one bedroom. Pierino and Lena slept in the other along with the youngest boy, Peter. Rocco's other brother Louis (nicknamed Sonny) would often sleep downstairs with his grandfather. Rocco himself usually slept in the living room on a mattress next to the window, which he insisted on keeping open even in the winter.
In other respects, Rocco had an idyllic boyhood. "Even during the tough times, we didn't know we were poor," remembers Sonny Marciano. "We always ate well." There was plenty of family around, too. Downstairs was grandfather Luigi, a big, strapping man who had been a blacksmith in the old country. "[E]verything about him was big," Marciano would recall about his grandfather years later. "He played big, he worked big, he gambled big, he drank big, he ate big, he talked in a big voice." Luigi had a small vineyard on the side of the house, and young Rocco played an active role in helping him make wine, often carrying the heavy crates of grapes down into the cellar and operating the heavy-handled contraption that would mash the grapes. He would later fondly remember the Saturday night outdoor wine parties that his grandfather would host for the other old Italian men in the neighborhood. More often than not the events, which featured the Italian bowling game bocce and the card game scopa, would end with alcohol- fueled arguments.
The playground was the center of young Rocco Marchegiano's life. The Marchegiano family home on Brook Street was only fifty yards from the James J. Edgar Playground, where there was always some sort of sandlot baseball or football game going on. When Rocco was a teenager, his family moved from Brook Street to Dover Street on the other side of the playground. The games continued. And Rocco was usually in the middle of them, along with friends such as Izzy Gold, Eugene Sylvester, Nicky Sylvester, Teddy Mason, Connie Cicone, Joe Fidele, Herbie O'Connor, and Allie Colombo. "I always could handle Rocky when he was a kid," his father said. "I spanked him a few times so he remembers that I am boss. He was a good boy and never caused any trouble. He was so crazy about baseball and football, he had no time to join gangs or get into bad company."
By the time he was a teenager, Rocco had become a fine athlete—big, strong, and well-coordinated. His first love was baseball. A stocky catcher with a strong arm and a big bat, Rocco planned on making a career of the game that he loved. In 1937 he began a four-year stint on an American Legion team coached by Brockton car salesman Jack Killory. "Rocky was all right," Killory would recall. "Not a potential big-leaguer, but a good athlete who could hit a ball a mile when he caught hold of it." Father Jeremiah Minnehan, a priest at St. Patrick's Church in Brockton and manager of the CYO team on which Rocco and his pals played, was more glowing in his appraisal of Rocco's diamond skills, calling him "one of the best all- around baseball players I have ever seen," a hard-hitting catcher who could "put that ball down to second base like a bullet." Father Minnehan especially recalled the deciding game of the 1940 Massachusetts CYO championship when his catcher helped St. Patrick's to victory by blocking the plate to prevent the potential winning run from scoring.
The teenaged Rocco Marchegiano was also an accomplished football player. In the fall of 1940, as a sophomore at Brockton High School, he was good enough to start every game for the varsity football team, the defending state champions. It was a disappointing fall for the Red and Black because their twenty-two-game unbeaten streak was snapped and they slumped to 5-4-1. One of the bright spots in the season was the play of the sophomore Marchegiano, who wore number 1 and started every game at center and linebacker. As his coach Charlie Holden would recall, "He was only a sophomore, but he played nearly sixty minutes a game all season. He was a rough, tough, powerful kid of about a hundred and fifty-five pounds who never got tired and never got hurt." The highlight of Rocco's year came on Columbus Day against New Bedford High, when he intercepted a pass and raced sixty-five yards for a touchdown. "I was lucky in that I intercepted the pass over by the sideline and ran straight down the line," Marciano recalled years later. "I needed help, though, and I got it. One guy even blocked out two guys for me. Even at that, however, I didn't score the only touchdown of my career standing up. I was so slow that I was nailed from behind on the one-yard line and fell over the goal line."
Shortly after the conclusion of the 1940 football season, midway through his sophomore year, Rocco Marchegiano suddenly dropped out of school. Several factors played into his decision. The varsity baseball coach at Brockton High laid down a rule prohibiting team members from playing on other baseball teams in the city—and that edict posed a problem for Rocco, who was a fixture on the sandlots and desperately wanted to continue playing for his CYO team. Moreover, Rocco was, at best, a disinterested high school student. "I was never good in school ... I just didn't care for the books," he would later admit. He was clearly struggling with his studies. "And I thought it was too bad," recalled Holden. "He could have studied. He could have made better marks. He was capable of it. ... He was very discouraged at the time because of his low marks and the need for making up and boosting his grades."
Excerpted from Rocky Marciano by Russell Sullivan. Copyright © 2005 Russell Sullivan. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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