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Sweet William The Life of Billy Conn
By Andrew O'Toole University of Illinois Press Copyright © 2008 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.
Chapter One This Is Easy
The double-decked steel and concrete stands of the Polo Grounds reverberated in anticipation; 54,487 fans filled the permanent seats in the grandstand and the temporary wooden chairs, which were laid out in an orderly grid on the New York Giants playing field. Nothing in sports quite equals the excitement present at a heavyweight championship fight. And this fight, which matched the great Joe Louis against challenger Billy Conn, generated interest not seen since the champion battled Max Schmeling three years earlier, in 1938.
Those in attendance came from all walks of life and from every corner of the country, but no area was better represented than Billy's hometown of Pittsburgh. They came en masse from the Smoky City in trainloads: the Ham and Cabbage Special and the Shamrock Special; it was from these well-lubricated revelers that Conn's most boisterous cheers originated as he made his way from the distant dressing room located in the depths of center field to the ring.
Clad in a white bathrobe, Billy bounced up the steps leading to the ring, slipped through the ropes, blessed himself, and bowed to the roaring throng. He was the picture of confidence.
Thirty seconds later, Louis, wearing a blue robe with red trim and a customary towel draped over his head, entered the ring opposite Conn. As each fighter's cornermen placed gloves on the combatant's hands, Lou Nova, the man in line to face the night's winner, was introduced and shook hands with both Louis and Conn before retreating from the ring.
So much was on the line.
The championship, for sure, but there was also Maggie.
Back home on Fifth Avenue, Billy's mother, whom he adoringly called Maggie, lay sick, unable to travel to New York for the fight. She had been bedridden for more than a year. Her health was so fragile that doctor's orders prevented her from even listening to the bout on the radio. In the solitude of her bedroom, Maggie's prayers for Billy were interrupted by her sister Rose, who delivered updates on the fight. Conn often said a man's mother should be his best friend, and Maggie was indeed his.
Though Conn's two sisters were also at home, listening intently to the radio broadcast with their Aunt Rose, the male Conns were all in attendance at the Polo Grounds.
Westinghouse, Billy's father, sat ringside, where eyewitnesses saw him praying, prayers interspersed with instructions to his son.
"Keep movin' Billy ... box, box," and then the verbal commands and pleas to a greater entity fell silent. The elder Conn's lips continued moving, though no sounds came forth.
Billy's brothers, Frank and Jackie, were there with their father. No day in the Conn clan was complete without a skirmish en famille of some sort, and this day, the biggest day the family had ever known, was no different. Billy spent a portion of his afternoon, time he should have spent resting for the bout, harassing Jackie. In short, a seltzer bottle, an open mouth, and a sleeping brother-when he should have been resting for the biggest fight of his life, Billy instead decided to try to suffocate Jackie.
Mary Louise, Billy's girl, was at the Waldorf waiting on pins and needles for word of the bout. She had only been to one of his fights, but Mary Lou had walked out on that. She didn't have the stomach for such a brutal display. The young couple had hoped to be married by now but convincing Mary Louise's father, "Greenfield" Jimmy Smith, to give his blessing had been futile. Smith refused to consent to his daughter marrying a pug; they never amount to anything, of this he was certain. Despite much pleading from the couple, Greenfield Jimmy refused to relent in his opposition to their love.
The passion play was reported in all the papers in the days leading up to the fight. Stories were replete with Smith's numerous threats of physical harm should Billy try to sneak off with Mary Lou. Among other forms of corporal punishment, Greenfield Jimmy threatened to "pin back" Billy's ears. Westinghouse took umbrage at Smith's bullying harangue. He interpreted Smith's words as an affront to the family name, and promptly replied in kind. "He might lick Billy, but I'll be damned if he can lick me," the senior Conn boasted.
Billy tried not to be distracted by the interfamily squabbles, though that proved to be a difficult task. "Now I see I got to lick two guys," he mentioned to a reporter early that afternoon, "Louis and Smitty. I know I can lick Louis, but that Smitty is pretty tough, I think I'll steer clear of him."
He would steer clear of him, but he wasn't going to back down. He was a fighter. Professionally, he guessed he was a boxer. To the more refined, he was a pugilist. But one thing was certain; he sure as hell wasn't no pug.
Maybe he wasn't the smartest guy around. He quit on school early because the nuns had tired of him. His lack of education didn't mean he was dumb, though. No, he wasn't dumb. He knew a thing or two about a thing or two, and one thing he knew, Greenfield Jimmy wasn't going to keep him away from Mary Louise.
First things first, however. There was Joe Louis to contend with before he could spirit his young love away.
Billy came in at 174 pounds, and that was with Mike Jacobs's finger on the scale. Jacobs was the promoter of the show. He controlled the boxing game, and without his blessing, Billy would have never had this shot at the title. Uncle Mike was boxing. Sure there were bigger names. The past had Dempsey and Tunney, and presently nobody could pack them in like Louis, but no man held sway over the game like Jacobs. The normally staid and crotchety Jacobs showed his soft side in the presence of the affable Conn. Uncle Mike had an unabashed affection for Billy. Though Jacobs's fondness was sincere, surely Billy's magnetism as a gate attraction enhanced the promoter's feelings for the fighter. For Mike Jacobs, nothing was as desirable as the almighty dollar-preferably multiple dollars.
Jacobs beefed up Billy's weight in the hope of maintaining interest in the fight. There was a distinct possibility that the public wouldn't consider Conn a serious threat to Louis's throne. The champion was already criticized for the lengthy list of "no-names" he had defeated over the preceding years: Tony Musto, Abe Simon, Clarence Burman, Tony Galento. These no-names became known as Louis's "Bum of the Month Club." Despite possessing a championship himself in the light-heavyweight division, Conn looked like a pushover for Joe. The actual disparity in weight of thirty pounds was significant, and certainly enough to scare away potential patrons who had no desire to see the scrawny Pittsburgher sacrificed at the Polo Grounds purely for their entertainment. This was something Uncle Mike couldn't have. Tilting the truth, in the name of commerce, was simply good business.
The prefight buildup to this match was extraordinary. Not since Louis and Schmeling met three years prior was a championship fight surrounded by such hype. And even then, it was the political overtones of a Black man squaring off against a representative of Nazi Germany that drew most of the commentary. This bout, though not occurring on such a broad world stage, had many attractive qualities, which newsmen cheerfully relayed to their eager readers.
There was, of course, the mostly unspoken role Billy played as the Great White Hope. Though most followers of the sport recognized Louis as a gracious and great champion, in many those beliefs were overwhelmed by an underlying, sometimes deeply concealed, bigotry. Louis had held the heavyweight crown for the better part of four years, which in the eyes of some was four years too long. The time for a white heavyweight champion was long overdue.
To others, Billy's ethnic background held as much appeal as his race. Conn was Irish through and through, and he proudly wore his heritage on his sleeve. Earlier in the day, a great number of Billy's followers could be seen roaming the boulevards of New York decked out in green, with emerald bowlers nestled neatly upon their heads. Still, the allure of this particular championship bout went deeper than ethnicity and race.
In the days leading up to the fight, Conn was swimming in a sea of juxtaposed emotions and, thanks to vigilant newsmen, the whole country was allowed to peep in on Billy's turbulent personal life. Maggie's worsening condition was regularly updated in the papers. While this story line tugged at heart and sentiments of the most hardened, it was the forbidden love affair between the challenger and his young fiancée that swayed even the most cynical. The story was irresistible. Photos of the stunning couple accompanied accounts of their tale, most of which were snapped at the shore. They were pictured prancing through the sands of Ocean City, her, the blonde beauty queen, and him, the gorgeous athletic specimen; together they were the All-American couple.
Indeed, this fight had something for everyone, and seemingly everyone who wasn't at the Polo Grounds had an ear pressed to the radio, anxiously waiting to learn how these story lines would play out.
Louis began the fight on the offensive; Billy started on the run, backpedaling his way through the first round. By the end of the second, it looked as though Conn was well on his way to joining the other bums on Joe's lengthy list. Then, in the third and fourth, Billy got off his bicycle and the fight began in earnest.
The crowd's emotional state and attentiveness steadily increased with each succeeding round. "Feigned amusement; then deep interest," reported the Pittsburgh Press, which gave way to "profound amazement, and finally sheer delirium."
The eighth started slowly. Billy circled to his left, throwing jabs; Louis came in with a right and left to the head and fired several combinations to Conn's body. Billy was cautious, stepping away as Louis continued to be on the offensive. Then, as quick as that, the fight turned on a dime.
Billy lashed out with a right and a left to Joe's head, and followed that one-two with another. A hard right to the jaw, and then another, brought the crowd to their feet. Conn tied Louis up and, as they broke, caught Joe cleanly with a left hook to the jaw. Another right, and Louis pulled Billy to him in a clinch. Conn fought his way out of Joe's hug and delivered a trio of hard blows as the bell brought the round to a close.
Billy strolled back to his corner. "I got him," he told his seconds.
Dancing through his mind were visions of Mary Louise on his arm, the two of them walking along the Jersey shore. The champ and his girl. Passersby would gaze admiringly at the handsome couple. There goes the man who knocked out Joe Louis.
Conn felt so secure in his lead that he began to pop off to Louis, just as he had done during the training period when he kept his mouth running to the press corps. He would take Joe out for sure, Billy claimed, and said so repeatedly in the weeks leading up to the fight: "If that guy thinks I'm going to be his next 'bum of the month,' he either don't know what month it is, or he has been so used to looking at bums that he thinks everybody is one." By the tenth, Joe knew he was in a fight as the champ began to show the effects of Billy's barrage of hooks and jabs. In the twelfth, Billy showed that his punches packed some wallop despite what some of those critics said. He hurt Louis. Conn landed with everything he threw and at the close of the round, Joe was in trouble. In the champion's corner following the twelfth, Jack Blackburn urged his fighter: "Chappie," Blackburn said, "you're losing. You gotta knock him out."
Across the ring, a beaming Conn told his manager, Johnny Ray, that the fight was in the bag.
"This is easy, Moonie," Billy told Ray. "I can take this sonofabitch out this round."
Ray couldn't believe what he was hearing. Their plan had worked to perfection thus far.
"No, no! Billy stick and run. You got the fight won. Stay away. Just stick and run, stick and run ..." The bell, Billy's cue, interrupted Johnny's exhortations.
Conn shot up from his stool, ready to lay claim to his glory. Indeed, the only thing between him and the championship was three rounds ... nine minutes....
There he goes. There goes the man who knocked out Joe Louis.
Chapter Two A Kiss from Heaven
She had the voice of an Irish angel.
Margaret McFarland Conn filled her home with the melodies and songs of the Emerald Isle, singing lullabies from the Old Country to her children.
It's the one place on earth That heaven has kissed With melody, mirth And meadow and mist
She was born to Annie and Peter McFarland in 1900. Both Peter and Annie were native to County Down, and though Margaret's birthplace was the small English seaport town of Milan, Cumberland, she was Irish through and through. She immigrated to America in 1914 with her parents and five siblings via third-class steerage. They settled in the industrial Pittsburgh neighborhood of East Liberty.
William Conn was born a hardscrabble fella in Pittsburgh. Like Margaret, William's people hailed from Ireland; the Conn family came from a small village outside Belfast. A Protestant, Joseph Conn converted to Catholicism when he married Jane McNeely. The Conns came to America and initially resided in Cincinnati before establishing a home in Pittsburgh. A fightin' Mick was Joseph, and he also was known to tip back a pint occasionally, two avocations he passed on to his son. "Did he like to drink?" William liked to say of his daddy, setting himself up for his own well-worn punch line. "Was the Pope Catholic?"
Indeed, the Pope was of the Catholic faith, and it was true-the Conns could drink and fight with the best of them.
Margaret was a handsome lass; tall, blue eyed, raven haired, and buxom. She would carry with her a hint of her native brogue for her whole life. Though barely sixteen years old when she met William Conn, Margaret was smitten by William's understated good looks, and was won over by his sure Irish charm. Atop Conn's head was a neat head of dark hair, a wisp of a mustache lay above his lip, and his eyes, when unprovoked, twinkled with a hint of mischief.
Following a brief courtship, Margaret and William were wed at their parish, Sacred Heart, and their firstborn arrived on October 17, 1917. The child was christened William David Conn. Billy, as he came to be known, was soon followed by two brothers, Frank and Jackie, and two sisters, Mary Jane and Peggy Ann. Though she loved all her children with equal fervor, Margaret felt a special bond with her firstborn, and he with her. When he was old enough to talk, Billy began calling his mother "Maggie," a term of endearment that would continue until Margaret's death.
The young family made their home in a tenement row house on Shakespeare Avenue, which ran directly behind Penn Avenue in East Liberty. The Conn home sat at the end of the row house, a modest two-story dwelling with three bedrooms. Though theirs was a household of limited means, Margaret wanted her children to always be dressed nicely, and made certain they were well scrubbed. No one would ever say the Conn kids looked like ragamuffins. She was a devout Catholic and tried, with modest success, to impress her faith upon her boys. While Margaret was trying to instill in her children the importance of studying hard, maintaining a neat appearance, and, above all, abiding by the Holy Spirit, William set a different agenda for his sons. Nothing was more vital to a growing boy than learning the art of self-defense and understanding how to implement such teaching on the street. From the moment a boy is first cut loose from his mother's apron strings, he'll find his courage tested. William engendered in his sons the tenet that, should a Conn's toughness be brought into question, then they were to stand and fight. Not only were they to fight, but by God, they better win. No one gets the better of a Conn.
And so it was that Billy, Frank, and Jackie learned the fine art of street fighting from one of the town's premier scrappers. They would say, about the boys anyway, that they had a bit of "Wild Bill" Conn in them. For William, learning the art of self-defense was a rite of passage. If he was to leave his boys with nothing else, William was determined that his sons know how to handle themselves.
For a time, Conn walked the beat as an East Liberty cop, and then he caught on as a steamfitter at Westinghouse in East Pittsburgh. When hours were short at the plant, Conn worked as a bouncer at a local bar. It was William's employment at Westinghouse that inspired Billy to bestow a nickname upon his father. From here on out, he wouldn't be "dad," or "pop," or any such nonsense. Instead, William was simply "Westinghouse."
Excerpted from Sweet William by Andrew O'Toole Copyright © 2008 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
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