Boxing and wrestling have a way of becoming terribly important during hard economic times. I remember good tickets for the Braddock-Louis fight at Soldier Field, in the midst of the Depression, going for a hundred dollars. Thanks to my mother’s job at the Illinois Athletic Commission, l could get into wrestling shows at the Rainbow Gardens almost every week. l would occasionally go to the boxing matches at the Marigold Gardens and at the Amphitheatre, but that was farther away and my mother worried that I might get lost or hurt. Despite her restrictions, l managed to see a lot of great fights.
Every Christmas my mother would pile up big shopping bags full of gifts of liquor and candy she’d got in return for boxing tickets that the promoters would give her. I would meet her at the EI train every night for two or three weeks in a row to help her carry them. People love access, and they love to be able to tell their friends thy got their tickets from someone on the inside, even if the tickets aren’t any better than the ones you can buy at the box office. My mother, as secretary of the Athletic Commission, had access to what was a very exciting world for many people. And yet as the Depression ended, and then we went on into World War ll, she seemed to come home with fewer gifts every year.
I couldn’t identify with much of Jewish culture as a boy, but I certainly identified with the Jewish athletes of the time. Hank Greenberg was my man on the Tigers, and Sid Luckman and Solly Sherman played football for the Chicago Bears. There were a number of Jewish boxers, all of whom belied the stereotype of the meek Jew.
I rooted for Max Baer, Slapsie Maxie Rosenbaum, Barney Ross, Davy Day and Benny Leonard. I remember the year three different Jewish all-American college football players went pro: Marshall Goldberg, Sid Luckman and Solly Sherman. But for a long time none of them could hold a candle to Roughie Silverstein, who was personally embroiled in hand-to-hand combat against Nazism at the Rainbow Arena.
Being Bertha’s kid, I had almost free run of the place. Once I was even allowed to fill in for the state ticket inspector, whose official job was to stand at the gate and make sure people had proper tickets so that the state of Illinois would get its ticket tax money. Of course, this was Chicago. The inspector’s real job was to let some people in and keep others out according to a complicated system of debts and favors. For doing nothing that night, I got to take home a large shopping bag full of liquor and Hershey chocolate bars sent to the inspector by appreciative wrestling fans. I could tell the gifts far exceeded the value of the tickets.
Fritz von Shott was tall, massive German wrestler. Once a year there would be an elimination tournament, and the semifinals would always end with Fritz beating Bert Ruby, a Hungarian Jew, by two out of three falls. Fritz would then provoke the crowd to a frenzy with some strutting and a Nazi salute or two. The promoters played this thing as close to a riot as they could. A lot of Germans would show up to root for Fritz, and everyone was at least as passionately involved with the antics as I was. The factions in the crowd would reliably generate a few freelance fights of their own.
Then Fritz and Roughy Silverstein, a Jewish boy from the west side who was the reigning state champ, would fight for the championship, and in Chicago, Roughy would always win. Very little has changed in wrestling since then, except that the show has gotten if anything more grotesque; the general aim was always to pit a good guy against a bad guy. To the Jews in the crowd, Roughy — shorter and even broader of beam than Fritz — represented us against all the bad people who were persecuting Jews in the world, so it was very important to see him uphold our honor.
Lou Gordon was a Chicago cop who moonlighted as a referee at wrestling matches and college football games. He got twenty-five dollars a match, and that was how he was getting through the Depression. He had been an all-American football player for the University of Illinois, but he’d broken a leg after one season with the Bears. Lou’s political connections (he was married to Congressman Adolph Sabath’s niece) had got him in at the Athletic Commission, where my mother was secretary, and they got to be friends. Lou became for a while a kind of surrogate father to me. He often saw me home from wrestling matches as a favor to my mother.
Late one night, after Roughy had vanquished Fritz and the place was winding down from its fever, Lou told me to wait for him upstairs by the dressing rooms. I knew my way around the arena, but this was the first time I’d been allowed upstairs.
The moment I walked into the dressing room hallway I knew there was something funny about this. There was no separation between the athletes’ quarters, and there was no sign of the violent antagonism that had been evident in the ring. Roughy and Fritz, in their street clothes, came out of the dressing room arm in arm. They stopped. Lou introduced me to them. We chatted a little, or at least they did. My mouth hung open. Then they excused themselves: they were driving to Milwaukee for the next fight, and they had to get on the road. I couldn’t believe it. I was silent, traumatized, on the train ride home with Lou, and soon after that I lost all interest in wrestling.