Monday, May 16, 2011

Barney Ross: A Hero Of The People

Great Legends of Sport

The religious man prizes learning above everything else. Let the atheists be the fighters, the trumpeniks, the murderers—we are the scholars.
Barney Ross, recalling his father's words

A champ's got the right to choose the way he goes out.
Barney Ross, after his grueling fight with Henry Armstrong, May 31, 1938

Barney Ross [1909-1967]: The five-foot-seven Ross would become a world boxing champion in three weight classes, never having been knocked out, retiring after ten years in the ring with an impressive record of 72-4-3 (22 by KO) in 79 fights.  
Photo Credit & Source: Wikipedia

One day can change a lifetime. That was certainly true for Barney Ross, a kohen, destined to become a Talmudic scholar and Hebrew teacher, following in his family's distinguished history and lineage  Kohanim are the priestly class in Judaism, descendants of Aaron, the brother of Moses. They hold the highest office in Judaism, and it comes with a full set of honors, privileges and responsibilities.

That plan all changed for Ross on the morning of December 13, 1923, ten days short of his fourteenth birthday. Ross was dressing that morning, putting on his ROTC uniform for morning drills at the high school he attended. He heard a gunshot and then a scream in Yiddish, gonivim (thieves), coming from across the road. Rushing across the road, Ross found his father, Isidore "Itzhik" Rasofsky, 60, lying on the ground, his white apron blood-soaked.

Itzhik Rasofsky had been shot by two thugs in a robbery gone bad at the family grocery store, across the street from where the family lived on South Jefferson, in Chicago's Maxwell Street ghetto. It was a tough neighborhood full of tenements and teeming with tough desperate people of all nationalities. Itzhik Rasofsky survived for thirty-two hours before dying from his wounds. His murderers were never caught and tried for the crime.

That murder, that injustice, that act of outrage and senseless violence put things in motion that would eventually make Barney Ross’ life read like a Hollywood movie script. His mother, Sarah, suffered a nervous breakdown, moving to Connecticut to recuperate. The family split up, with he and his older brother placed with relatives, and his three younger sibling placed in an orphanage, the Marks Nathan Jewish Orphanage. Another brother was married, his wife pregnant, and living in a small apartment.

He would change his last name from Rasofsky to Ross so as not to shame his family. He would run errands for Al Capone, the noted Chicago gangster. He would make friends with Jack Ruby, the man convicted of killing Lee Harvey Oswald, who assassinated President John F. Kennedy.  The five-foot-seven Ross would become a world boxing champion in three weight classes, never having been knocked out, retiring after ten years in the ring with an impressive record of 72-4-3 (22 by KO) in 79 fights.  

Ross would become a symbol of Jewish pride at a time of increasing and lingering anti-Jewish sentiment in the United States. Ross earned the title, “Pride of the Ghetto.”

He would reunite his family ten years after his father's murder. After hanging up the gloves, he would become a war hero during the Second World War, receiving a Silver Star, for his heroics at Guadalcanal.  He would become a life-long friend with the famous Father Frederic Gehring, the wartime chaplain, for whom he played on request “My Yiddishe Momme” in front of  battle-hardened marines. Not a dry eye in the house.

He would kick a drug habit brought on by the use of morphine, and later cocaine, as a pain killer for his war-time injuries. He would speak to kids about the dangers of drug addiction. He would die of cancer before age sixty. I told you it reads like a Hollywood script, except that it’s not performed in a Hollywood sound studio, but real life in a Jewish ghetto in Chicago. Before long, Ross would become an inspiration to both Jews and non-Jews.

The Early Years

Barney Ross was born Beryl David Rasofsky, the third son of Isidore and Sarah (nee Epstein) Rasofsky on December 23, 1909, in New York's Lower East Side. (Two children had died in infancy, a not uncommon occurrence among the poor.) He was also known as Dov-Ber, a double-barreled name that means bear in both Hebrew and Yiddish.

The family suffered a hardscrabble existence in New York, and before Dov-Ber was two years old, the family moved to Chicago, trading one ghetto for another. In this case, Chicago's Maxwell Street, where Sarah's uncle had a small grocery store in the heart of the Jewish ghetto, on Jefferson Street. There, the family arrived by train in 1911. Soon, three more children were born, and the family of eight lived in a two-room apartment. The parents spent many long hours working at the store.

The Maxwell Street ghetto was an overcrowded slum, near the railroad tracks and a mile southwest from downtown Chicago.This is what Jane Addams, the noted social reformer and future Noble peace laureate (1931), wrote about the neighborhood  a year before the family moved there, in 1910:
The streets are inexpressibly dirty, the number of schools inadequate, sanitary legislation unenforced, the street lighting bad, the paving miserable, and altogether lacking in the alleys and smaller streets, and the stables foul beyond description. Hundreds of houses are unconnected with the street sewer. The older and richer inhabitants seem anxious to move away as rapidly as they could afford it.
If you understand the history of working-class immigrants during the twentieth century, you are better prepared to understand why the boy who grew up in a tenement in the Maxwell Street ghetto, at 1310 South Jefferson, in Chicago's Near West Side first became a street brawler before becoming a professional fighter.

Boxing With A Purpose

After his father's murder, and the resultant split up of his family, Ross wanted to earn enough money to buy a house, with the aim of reuniting his family. So, at first he became a street brawler and petty criminal before turning to boxing as his exit ticket out of the ghetto. In some capacity, Al Capone, the famous gangster, might have helped the young Ross turn legit. As a boxer, Ross found a way to direct his anger, Bert Randolph Sugar, boxing historian, wrote in The New York Times:
The 19-year-old Rasofsky-Ross won the Chicago and Intercity Golden Gloves championships in 1929 and turned pro that same year, just as the Roaring Twenties came to a screeching halt, soon to be replaced by bread lines and Bonus Army camps. Fighting to exorcise "the bitterness and hatred inside me" that resulted from the murder of his father in a grocery store holdup, Ross embodied the hopes and dreams of his Jewish followers, who were also battling with bitterness against the forces trying to keep them imprisoned in their ghettos.
Barney Ross was the first boxer to hold three world titles at the same time: World Lightweight and Junior Welterweight Champion (1933-1935);  and World Welterweight Champion (1934 and 1935-1938). He was one of the few fighters to never have been knocked out in his career. That is telling. (His full boxing record can be found here.)

Ross stood five foot seven and weighed, depending in which weight class he was fighting, between 131 pounds and 147 pounds. Almost ten years after his father's murder and four years after turning pro, Ross would earn enough money from his first championship title bout with Tony Canzoneri (March 26, 1933) in Chicago to re-unite his family after it was split up in the aftermath of his father's murder. He was twenty-three.

Barney Ross married Pearl Siegel, a New Yorker and daughter of a women's-clothing manufacturer, at Chicago's Congress Hotel on December 5, 1937. After a European honeymoon, they settled in New York, briefly, before returning to Chicago. Ross, unused to domestic life, was restless. The marriage was in trouble, and the couple were separated in  early 1942, and divorced soon after. He then married Cathy Howlett, a Hollywood dancer, and their marriage lasted until his death. She had one daughter, Noreen, from a previous marriage, but they had no children together.

His last fight against Henry Armstrong on May 31, 1938, in front of 35,000 spectators at Madison Square Garden Bowl. Ross lost by a decision after 15 rounds.  In that fight, Ross was on the receiving end of brutal punishment, where he refused to quit, despite calls from his own corner to throw in the towel.

As he left the ring the sportswriter Grantland Rice shouted out from the press box "Why didn't you quit? Did you want to get killed?"  A proud former titleholder answered: "A champ's got the right to choose the way he goes out."

The Full Picture

He opened a nights spot after retirement, Barney Ross Cocktail Lounge at 5 North Clark St, which fitted his people personality.  His brother, Ben, ran the business while Barney would act as a celebrity, glad-handing and taking care of the press. Yet, after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, Ross enlisted in the U.S. Marines, despite, at 32, being beyond draft age. Although he was assigned to work as a boxing instructor, he requested that he be sent into combat. He was sent to Guadalcanal Island, on which one of the most brutal, U.S. military engagements ever took place against the Japanese.

As J-Grit, the Internet Index of Tough Jews, puts it:
One night he and three comrades were out on patrol and were attacked by Japanese troops. His three fellow soldiers were wounded and Ross shepherded them into a crater hole where he protected them throughout the night. During this long, bloody night, he fired off over 200 rounds at the enemy and when the bullets ran out he hurled 22 grenades at enemy machine gun positions. He was credited with killing roughly 20 of the enemy, in this overnight period. By the morning, two of his colleagues had died and he was able to carry the sole survivor to safety. For these exploits he received the Silver Star, Purple Heart, and a Presidential Citation. 
The man that Ross carried was 230 pounds, almost double Ross' weight. He was soon promoted to corporal, and left the military with a an honorable discharge on  April 11, 1944. He also left with a drug habit, brought on by the use of morphine as a pain-killer. "When his habit began to cost him $500 per week and his wife left him [temporarily], Ross sought admission to a federal drug treatment facility," said the Jewish Virtual Library. "While few gave him much chance of breaking the habit, Ross went 'cold turkey' and, after much agony from withdrawal, emerged 120 days later having kicked the habit."

Ross then toured high schools speaking about the dangers of drug addiction. He also worked tirelessly for the merging State of Israel and her defense, even seeking donations from his underworld connections to buy and smuggle weapons into Israel. Truly, when taking the measure of a man, it's always good to see what he has accomplished in his lifetime, and what good he has done.

Although Ross might have done some things that he might have later regretted, one must put all the facts together. His father was murdered by thugs, his mother suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of the senseless tragedy, and Ross had family unity in mind. He used whatever skills he had in his disposal to achieve such aims:
In his autobiography, No Man Stands Alone, Ross recounted that a rabbi once told him that, since he was a Jew in the public eye, he would have to lead an exemplary life. Barney Ross did not let his rabbi — or his people down. But of all the things Ross achieved in his life and all the obstacles he overcame, the one that meant the most to him was having earned enough money in the first Canzoneri fight to reunite his mother with her three youngest children who had been placed in an orphanage. 
In my books, such already makes—and I will use his Jewish name given at birth—Beryl David Rasofsky, Dov-Ber, son of a rabbi and Talmudic scholar, a hero. That is on top of his heroics in the ring, and during the Second World War. Barney Ross was inducted into the Ring Boxing Hall of Fame in 1956 and the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.

Barney Ross died of cancer at the Colitz's Gold Coast apartment in Chicago on  January 17, 1967. He was fifty-seven. Ross was buried at the Jewish Rosemont Cemetery in Chicago. In addition to the traditional kaddish prayers of the rabbis, his friend, Father Frederic Gehring, said “Our Father.”

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