JACOBS BEACH: The Mob, The Garden & The Golden Age of Boxing by Kevin Mitchel
The cold and calculating Mike Jacobs isn’t exactly the subject of Kevin Mitchell’s punchy, acerbic Jacobs Beach: The Mob, The Garden & The Golden Age of Boxing so much as a planet around which a rogues’ gallery of scumbags and fucked-over fighters nervously rotate and tilt.
In the wake of Prohibition, the mob sought new revenue through boxing. Fighters - many of whom barely spoke English - were easily-manipulated. Managers - by turns strong-armed and coddled - were easily intimidated. And ambitions, venal promoters (take Jacobs, for instance), proved to be lucrative partners. Spanning roughly half a century, Mitchell’s narrative is at its most maddeningly-captivating while wending through the mob’s initial affiliation with the sport during the 1930s on the heels of the tormented reign and amoral handling of Joe Louis in the forties. Then the fifties: the most egregious decade of mob-fixes under the watchful eye of government investigations into organized crime and finally, the abatement of old-school mob-control and subsequent rise of subtle - but no-less abusive - means of “ownership” in the sixties. The result is a cogent narrative (particularly while covering these four decades), parsing and contextualizing a litany of cultural giants and silent partners who came to rake in more cash through signatures on binding contracts than they could ever hope for had they stuck to six-shooters and Tommy guns. (Of course, the occasional flash of a pistol didn’t hurt).
While Tex Rickard was conjuring innovative promotional feats in the years before presiding over the million-dollar Dempsey-gates of the Roaring Twenties, the teenage Jacobs (a “Fagin of the streets,” as Mitchell delightfully characterizes him), was outside scalping tickets. Of those bright-eyed and budding years, Jacobs recalled with characteristic, surly candor, “I was never broke again.”
Tex Rickard: big shoes to fill.
He met Rickard in 1906 at the latter’s production of the Joe Gans-Battling Nelson bout. By his early twenties, he was palling with the illustrious promoter and, when the latter died in 1926, effortlessly stepped into the great man’s shoes. Hastily insinuating himself into Madison Square Garden - “The Hub of Boxing” - he soon planted his flag as the most powerful figure in the game, taking full control of the dominant New York promotion franchise in 1937 . Budd Schulberg wrote that, over the following fifteen years , “[Jacobs] staged 61 champion bouts …[and] more than five million people… pushed at least $20 million through Mike’s ticket windows.” On the heels of boxing’s most innovative showman, Jacobs was at the right place at exactly the right time. But unlike Rickard, the phlegmatic Jacobs eschewed the spotlight. Which isn’t to say he didn’t bring to the game a few innovations of his own.
In the novel The Harder They Fall, Schulberg characterized his fictional gangster Nick Benko (an avuncular mash-up of the considerably less-pleasant Jacobs and the the considerably more-vicious Owney “The Killer” Madden), as having clawed his way to the top “by dint of conscientious avoidance of physical work, a nose for easy money and constant application of the principal Do Unto Others As You Would Not Have Them Do Unto You.” Mitchell’s own tale of corruption is something akin to a catalog of Benkos who, when they’re not duping their own fighters, squabble among themselves as to how they can. As to who gets the biggest cut of the pie, the fictional Nick Benko also possesses feats of astounding computative administration, namely an uncanny expertise when it came to “such mathematical problems as how to cut a pie into five quarters.”
Fresh from Sing-Sing, Madden was among the first prominent criminals to seize on boxing’s earning potential in the early thirties. A member of Hell’s Kitchen’s marauding “Gopher gang,” Madden rose to prominence through clout gained during his bootlegging days and his cohort Joe Gould (Jim Braddock’s tough-minded, well-connected manager). The usual spate of questions surrounding that motley string of 1930s heavyweights are given vast coverage. To wit: what really went down between Gould and Madden when Braddock took the title from Baer? Had they made some prior arrangement with The Larumping Lothario? (Doubtful, and the history seems to only grow murkier.) What we do know are the ways in which Jacobs profited from their fights, chronicled in a slow-build starring the usual suspects. There was Schmeling (according to Mitchell, not the anti-Reich saint he’s been made out to be). There was Carnera (forever Ambling, more Madden’s puppet than Jacobs’s). Of course there was Baer (the only fighter to have ostensibly spurred Madden’s advances), and Braddock ( the guy who supposedly rejected the mob while remaining wholly aware of his manager’s friendship with The Killer). Finally, there was Joe Louis, whom Jacobs shrewdly threw at Braddock at the cusp of the Bomber’s eleven-year domination of the division, so securing himself a neat sum of Joe’s future earnings. (He did this to dozens of other fighters, but Louis was the major cash machine that revivified the million-dollar gates). Even more than Il Gigante Buono Carnera - a caricature unto himself - it is Louis who emerges here as the archetypal exploited fighter.
Owney Madden and his ace in the hole, Primo Carnera
, “ll Gigante Buono
(“The Gentle Giant,” as the Italians referred to him.)
Madden split town in 1935 as Carnera lay in the hospital with several busted ribs after losing the title to Baer with drawn-out ingnominy. The Italian had been an easy payday, but he was all used-up. Upon Madden’s departure, the torch was passed to - or seized by - Frankie Carbo. Like Madden, Carbo was a prominent member of Murder, Inc., a “commission” founded by Jewish New York mobsters Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegal in the early twenties that boasted such sweethearts as Madden and fixer Blinky Palermo. Upon his attempt to muscle in on a piece of Jacobs and The Garden, Carbo found that he didn’t have to. Jacobs knew what motivated fighters, and this was good business. Sure, the boys skimmed some cream off the top of his own earnings, but Jacobs’s cash box was still overflowing from the bouts they helped secure and arrangements for future profit-percentages off fights - notably the Brown Bomber’s.
Mitchell pinpoints the fifties as the apex of the mob’s stranglehold as Jacobs relinquished full control of The Garden to Carbo for $100,000, which was paid with Garden funds. Bolstered by the newly-incorporated International Boxing Club’s holding of several heavyweight contracts (including Louis), the decade saw more dubious fight results and blatant fixes than the thirties and forties combined. Between 1949 and 1955, the IBC promoted an astounding 47 of the 51 championship bouts under Carbo.
Frankie Carbo: “I think Frankie was a swell guy. He was friendly, just that he was with the mafia. That’s all. I didn’t bother them, they didn’t bother me. That’s all.”
In 1950, Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver commenced his televised investigations (“the Kefauver Hearings”) into organized crime (aka “the Syndicate” - a thin but oddly effective euphemism that lent an air of corporate legitimacy to the mob). The popularity of film’s like Michael Curtiz’s Kid Galahad (1937), Robert Rosin’s Body and Soul (1947), and Robert Wise’s The Set-up (1949) had already confirmed public appetite for the gangsters who consumed more ink in the dailies than a top heavyweight. Millions sat glued to their newfangled televisions amid the Hearings, where the fate of the IBC lay splayed under Kefauver’s Sword of Damocles. Per a 1954 ruling, the string snapped when the IBC was dissolved for its monopoly on boxing. The same year, Carbo was arrested and agreed to testify with was one caveat: his face was not to be filmed. A rapt public watched the gangster’s hands on their screens (which was all Carbo would allow), as his mouth evaded questions and his fingers barely moved.
“This Kefauver guy, he’s really breaking balls, ain’t he?”
-Unknown gangster. (Shown, Kefauver as the Anti-Mob Crusader, Time Magazine, March 12th, 1951
Mitchell seizes on Jake LaMotta as the fulcrum upon which the Hearings - as related to boxing - pivoted. And he’s right: thirteen years after the Bull’s transparent dive to Billy Fox, here he was on everyone’s TV, confessing to what everyone already knew was bad acting for his shot at the title.
Mitchell calls Kefauver “the first reality television star,” but the Hearings weren’t the only big hit on the TV. In 1946, the first televised bout (Louis-Conn 2), hit the small screen. An advertiser’s wet dream, Gillette began airing their Friday Night Fights in 1950 - the confined ring proved easy to shoot (satisfying fans at home), while the networks garnered stalwart sponsors like Pabst Blue Ribbon that kept ad revenue flowing in. But televised fights were also a liability - a lot of fans were happy to watch the fight from home and save on the cost of a ticket, which in turn meant smaller gates. It was a decade that Michell asserts changed the experience of boxing (presumably as the experience of attending fights was largely supplanted by television’s single, flat-angle presentation).
The last third of Jacobs Beach touches on a surplus of figures that couldn’t be shoehorned into the otherwise fluid chronicle. Besides, it was the seventies, and as the Italian mafia carved its insular niche like a wall around an Etruscan city, they largely eschewed boxing for other, more lucrative interests (though Liston, controlled from prison by Carbo, is indeed touched upon). Mitchell offers a lengthy, thought-provoking passage on Don King, who, having skulked around the fringes of the IBC since the fifties, was already scheming new ways controlling fighters. Times had changed, and he couldn’t have secured mega-bouts like the Rumble in the Jungle in the seventies or screwed guys like Tyson in the nineties without an arsenal of legal protection that manipulated laws with flagrant opacity. With old-school strong-arming a thing of the past, Mitchell is surprisingly gracious toward the “reptilian motherfucker” (vide Tyson), who gained the respect of the white establishment with the axiom, “Propaganda is a lethal weapon, man.” “He was no saint,” Mitchell writes, “Far from it. But in boxing, he didn’t have to be.” If Jacobs Beach were a film, this would surely serve as the tagline.
“He was no saint… Far from it. But in boxing, he didn’t have to be.”
Mitchell offers a final image that envisions a gathering at Toots Shore’s. But as to prominence of place, it’s not not Jacobs, Carbo, Madden, or Louis that are depicted as “[standing] in the middle of the bar.” That honor falls to LaMotta, standing there in the same joint where Frank Sinatra (in discussion with Pete Hamill as to who the very worst person in the world was), referred to the fighter as “lower than whale shit.” Jake’s place in the spotlight is the reader’s cue that - second only to Jacob and Carbo - the Bull is at the heart of Mitchell’s narrative, his testimony during the Hearings serving as poignant metaphor for the clusterfuck that unfolded over the past two decades. Of all the boxers to be publicly grilled, it was this dense lowlife that helped bury the man who got him his shot at Cerdan. Secure in that the statute of limitations had passed, he sang like a bird. But when LaMotta’s the go-to guy for the truth, is it any mystery how facts can be lost with history? Thank goodness for television.
Jake LaMotta at the Hearings, fessin’ up to dumping the Fox fight.
If Jacobs Beach doesn’t offer up new revelations, it’s not for lack of knowledge so much as the prudence born of the understanding that nobody knows exactly what was going on behind the IBC under Jacobs and Carbo. yet Mitchell lays out the information in episodic chapters like scattered notes on index cards carefully put in order to create something like a composite map-cum-timeline. The facts (as such), are imparted with obvious giddiness cloaked in smooth and hard-nosed prose. Spanning, slipping, and soaring stealthily from one corrupt decade to the next, Jacobs Beach is easily the most thorough, replete true-crime-boxing read to date. With considered insights that shine through the grime of the milieu, Mitchel’s swift pacing and old-school reportage-style prose make Jacobs Beach essential reading for fans of mid-twentieth century boxing and the mob-curious alike.