Saturday, December 19, 2009
Jimmy (Baby Face) McLarnin, world welterweight champion boxer (1907-2004)
By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
November 29, 2004
Jimmy McLarnin, a slip of a boy, endured beatings while defending his newsboy turf at the Vancouver dockyards, a prized spot to sell the Daily Province. He learned to take a punch at the waterfront. After his father bought boxing gloves, he learned how to throw one.
Young Jimmy soon fell under the tutelage of a stevedore whose harsh experiences in the ring and on the battlefield failed to extinguish a generosity rare among his kind in the boxing fraternity. Charles (Pop) Foster was a trainer and manager who offered tactical advice in the ring and strategic wisdom in selecting fighters outside it.
Mr. Foster saw in the skinny kid the possibilities of a world-class fighter, a proposal so unlikely as to be laughable. Yet he proved to beright: Mr. McLarnin went on to twice hold the world welterweight title.
Handsome as a choirboy, Mr. McLarnin was called Baby Face. For years, tough men tried to rearrange his features while attempting to knock his block off. Some defeated him, and one even knocked him out, yet he marked his 85th birthday with nary a scar on his face. Long after he had hung up his gloves, he was only three pounds over his fighting weight. He invited a guest to squeeze his bicep, struck an ancient pugilistic pose, pantomimed the telling blows from his championship bouts by dancing across his kitchen floor.
In his day, Mr. McLarnin's name was as famous as those friends with whom he hobnobbed from Broadway to Hollywood. He taught Babe Ruth to box over drinks at Dinty Moore's and ate a slice of lemon pie with the gangster Legs Diamond. The boxer starred in newsreels and magazines, golfing with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, squiring Jean Harlow and Barbara Stanwyck. Away from the cameras, he politely turned down Mae West's entreaty to come up and see her some time. After all, he was carrying a torch for a girl back home.
Newspapermen loved him, for he fit every Irish stereotype except that of the drunkard. Reporters who sometimes scripted an athlete's clever comments had no need to do so with Mr. McLarnin, whose wit befit the primitive appeal of his sport.
“The only time he touched me,” he once said of an opponent, “was when we shook hands in the ring at the start of the fight.”
Unlike many in his racket, Mr. McLarnin left the fight game with his money and his wits. His sole tragedy was to outlive his beloved wife. Later, he often wept over her absence.
James McLarnin was born near Belfast, Northern Ireland, the fifth child of what would be an even dozen. The young family emigrated to Canada three years later, settling on a wheat farm near Mortlach, Sask. The wet miseries of an Irish winter were paradise compared to the Prairie cold, so the McLarnins moved to Vancouver where they lived in a modest house at 662 Union St. in the rough-and-tumble Strathcona neighbourhood.
Samuel McLarnin, a butcher by trade, opened a second-hand furniture store, while his son contributed to the family's keep by hawking newspapers. One day, the father was watching the son kick a soccer ball when he was approached by Pop Foster, a longshoreman with a bum leg. As recounted in 1950 by Ralph Allen in a memorable profile for Maclean's, Mr. Foster admired Jimmy's running. He said to Sam McLarnin: “I could make a boxer of that boy.”
“What kind of a boxer?” the father asked.
“The only kind that's worth making. A champion.”
“A champion of what?”
“A champion of the world.”
One of the odder boxing partnerships was born in that moment. Few would be as successful. None would be as lasting. A veteran wounded three times in the Boer War and once during the Great War, Mr. Foster's youth had been spent as a booth fighter on the carnival circuit in Britain. His act was to fight all comers — any man, any weight. A challenger earned a pound for every round they lasted, an attractive prize in the Victorian era. A pound-a-round fighter like Mr. Foster only survived by dispatching opponents quickly, otherwise he might end a long day poor, hungry and beaten.
Young Jimmy McLarnin possessed a crushing right, honed on the chins of other newsboys. Mr. Foster, a gruff Yorkshireman, knew a one-punch fighter had limited prospects, so during training sessions he tethered his pupil's stronger hand behind his back. Tutorials in southpaw fisticuffs were followed by lessons in footwork. Sawdust was sprinkled across the floor of the basement of his father's store so the young fighter could learn to glide like a dancer.
In time, a crunching right hand would be Mr. McLarnin's greeting card in the ring, a corkscrew left hook his way of bidding adieu.
He established himself as a comer by winning two of three bouts against Fidel LaBarba, a Los Angeles high-school student recently returned from the Olympic Games in Paris with the gold medal in the flyweight division. The third fight was a draw.
In 1926, his fortunes soured when he lost three of five fights. Declared washed up at 19, the boxer abandoned the West Coast for Chicago, where he faced the fierce Louis (Kid) Kaplan. The first punch broke Mr. McLarnin's jaw. After submitting to three rounds of beating, he returned to his corner where Pop Foster had some advice. “Jimmy,” he said, “why don't you try hitting him?”
Mr. Kaplan was floored in the eighth round. The win earned Mr. McLarnin his first shot at a title. He faced slick Sammy Mandell at the Polo Grounds in New York, but the champion proved elusive, thwarting the challenger with deft left jabs. The 15-round fight ended with a unanimous decision, the verdict visible on Mr. McLarnin's face, as his left eye was swollen shut and blood streamed from his nose. He was, read one account, “a sorry sight.” Five years passed before he got another shot.
In New York, Mr. McLarnin became the hero of one of the city's ethnic clans and the nemesis of another. Reporters called Mr. McLarnin the Irish Lullaby, the Baby-Faced Assassin, the Beltin' Celt and the Murderous Mick. The sportswriter Paul Gallico called him “hell's own cherub.”
In boxing's unsubtle marketing, fortunes were to be made pitting an Irish Republican (even if he had been raised a Methodist) against sons of the synagogue.
So, Mr. McLarnin fought a procession of Jewish boxers, knocking out Sid (Ghost of the Ghetto) Terris in one round, Ruby (Jewel of the Ghetto) Goldstein in two, Al (Battling Bronco of the Bronx) Singer in three, and the great Benny Leonard in six.
Those fights earned Mr. McLarnin nicknames he always hated: Hebrew Scourge and Jew Beater. “The Irish wanted to see me beat the Jews and the Jewish fans wanted to see me beaten,” he once told me. “That's how it was.”
A chance for redemption from his earlier title defeat came in Los Angeles on May 29, 1933, when he faced welterweight champ Young Corbett III, an Italian-born southpaw born Raffaele Giordano. Mr. McLarnin needed just 2 minutes, 37 seconds for a knockout.
“It all happened so fast I didn't have time to pray,” said Sam McLarnin, who was at ringside to see his son fight for the first time.
After 14 tough years, Pop Foster's ridiculous promise had come true — Jimmy McLarnin was world champion. In Vancouver, the manager of a movie house halted a screening to announce the news; the newspaper young Jimmy had hawked ran banner headlines; trolley-car drivers rang their bells.
His next three fights, all with the title in the balance, occurred against Barney Ross. These were vicious affairs between two ferocious fighters. They began the showdown as rivals, ended it as legends.
Mr. McLarnin lost the title in a split decision on May 28, 1934, won it back again on another split decision on Sept. 17, lost it for good in a unanimous decision on May 28, 1935.
Their ultimate battle, before 40,000 fans at baseball's Polo Grounds, under the eye of referee Jack Dempsey, turned into brutal slugfest by the eighth round. Ross, his left hand broken, absorbed a series of left hooks to the head before retaliating with an onslaught of rights. Exhausted, the pair abandoned all pretence of artistry to simply unload whatever punches they had left. The decision earned a cascade of boos. Spectators debated the merit of the verdict, but none doubted they had witnessed boxing history.
That summer, after a long courtship, Mr. McLarnin married Lillian Cupit, a Vancouver teacher.
Mr. McLarnin fought only three more times, ending his career with a decisive pounding of Lou Ambers on Nov. 20, 1936. He retired with a record of 63 wins, 11 losses, three draws. Only once did he not finish a fight on his feet.
Mr. McLarnin did well in life's neutral corner. After winning an estimated $500,000 (U.S.), he was able to resist the lure of hefty purses for a comeback. He golfed, dabbled with investments and attended the Cauliflower Alley Club in Los Angeles with other retired boxers and wrestlers.
“I never met a fighter I didn't like,” Mr. McLarnin said. “Thing is, they were always trying to knock my ears off.”
When Pop Foster died in 1956, Mr. McLarnin and his wife received two-thirds of an estate estimated at $200,000 (U.S.) in cash and bonds. Most of the remainder went to the four McLarnin children.
Following the death of his wife in 1985, Mr. McLarnin moved to eastern Washington state, where three of his four children live. In recent years, he receded into a dementia that made him it difficult for him to speak. He accompanied his daughter on day trips and always enjoyed a slice of his favourite pie on his birthday, yet ate only the pecan filling. Whatever the fog of his memory, he remembered a fighter does not eat fatty pie crust.
Jimmy McLarnin was born on Dec. 19, 1907, in Magherageery, Ireland. He died on Oct. 28, 2004, in Richland, Wash. He was 96. He leaves daughters Ellen, Jean, Nancy; son Jim and two sisters. He was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, Calif., between the graves of his wife and his manager.