Commentary

Baseball stadiums once played host to major boxing events

New York Yankees-Boston Red Sox melees weren't the only fights that used to take place in stadiums. Don Stradley reminds us that many great boxing events were hosted in ballparks.

Originally Published: March 31, 2008
By Don Stradley | Special to ESPN.com

Sugar Ray RobinsonAP PhotoGo get 'im, slugger: Ray Robinson, left, seen here with Jackie Robinson, engaged in several fights at Yankee Stadium.
When the New York Yankees move to the other side of 161st Street and settle into their new stadium, their old home will be left with its chin up, gallantly awaiting the wrecking ball. Baseball fans will scurry to the site to take one last look at the old place, but fans of the sweet science should note that Yankee Stadium also had a tremendous boxing legacy.

Yankee Stadium was where a couple of guys named Ezzard Charles and Archie Moore sliced Rocky Marciano's nose in half and knocked him down; he survived and pounded both guys into the canvas. It was where 38,781 customers paid to see Willie Pep-Sandy Saddler III, only to be disappointed when Pep quit on his stool.

[+] EnlargeTed Williams and Rocky Marciano
Getty ImagesMarciano, seen here with Ted Williams, had a knack for swinging for the fences.
Yankee Stadium was a place where great fighters showed they were human, as Sugar Ray Robinson did when he collapsed in the heat against Joey Maxim. And it was where a regular Joe could achieve greatness, as Carmen Basilio did when he beat Robinson.

It's been three decades since an American boxing promoter considered a summer date at a major league ballpark, but once upon a time in America, from Fenway Park in Boston to Candlestick Park in San Francisco, the bleacher bums heard not only "Play Ball!" but also "Come out fighting."

There was a juicy irony in seeing fighters in such a pastoral setting. Baseball was the all-American game, marketed primarily as family entertainment. Boxing, however, was for creatures of the night. The rhythm of boxing wouldn't support a song like "Take me out to the ballgame." For approximately 60 years, though, like unruly tenants enjoying a summer sublet, fighters occasionally left their smoky arenas and basked in the nation's ballparks.

Joe Louis won the heavyweight championship from James Braddock at Chicago's Comiskey Park, but Yankee Stadium was his own personal fight club. This was where Louis lost to Max Schmeling, then avenged himself two years later in a bout that attracted the attention of the world. America wanted to show its muscle to Nazi Germany, so Adolf Hitler's favorite fighter was brought to the House That Ruth Built and beaten until he screamed.

[+] EnlargeYankee Stadium
AP PhotoIn 1946, 65,000 people showed up at Yankee Stadium to see Louis retain his title against Conn.
America got its first close look at Louis in 1934 when, at age 21, he came to Yankee Stadium to whip Primo Carnera. Yankee Stadium was also where Louis, balding and brittle at age 36, suffered a poignant defeat to a much younger Ezzard Charles.

In all, Louis posted a Yankee Stadium record of 10-2, with nine knockouts. Louis might be the only non-Yankee who deserved a plaque in Monument Park. Ruth's house? On some nights, the house undoubtedly belonged to Louis.

When Yankee owners Tillinghast L'Hommedieu Huston and Jacob Ruppert splurged for the $2.5 million stadium in 1922, they had boxing in mind. With second base the logical spot for a ring, a 15-foot vault was installed directly under the ground; it was wired so members of press row could telegraph stories to their editors. During the next 38 summers, the stadium hosted 48 nights of boxing, including 30 championship fights, the first of which was the 1923 lightweight bout between champion Benny Leonard and challenger Lew Tendler.

The Polo Grounds, once described by Red Smith as "the sweltering funnel," was nearly as popular as Yankee Stadium for boxing. It was the site of two of history's most memorable heavyweight scuffles.

Few fights at Yankee Stadium ever quite matched the 1923 Polo Grounds classic between Jack Dempsey and Luis Firpo, the one that saw Firpo swing for the fences and knock Dempsey into the laps of shocked newspapermen. The Polo Grounds hosted another classic in 1941, the same summer that saw the Giants struggle to a fifth-place finish in the National League, when Louis came from far behind to stop Billy Conn in the 13th.

[+] EnlargeJack Dempsey and Luis Angel Firpo
Hulton Archive/Getty ImagesFirpo, left, sent Dempsey through the ropes at the Polo Grounds in New York City in 1923.
Louis also fought at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. The home of the Washington Senators hosted nearly 180 boxing events.

"I saw my first fight at Griffith Stadium," said boxing historian Bert Randolph Sugar. "It was Joe Louis versus Buddy Bear. Louis fell out of the ring. I said to my grandfather, 'Somebody was pushed out of the ring.' I was only 5. It looked like a push to me."

In 1960, when a 52-year-old wrecking ball specialist named Mike Catusco demolished Ebbets Field, he was not only ruining the dilapidated home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, he was crushing a venue that had hosted nearly 90 fight cards. Ironically, New York writer Pete Hamill said it was the destruction of Ebbets Field that turned many Brooklynites from baseball fans to boxing enthusiasts.

"It was a traumatic thing if you came from Brooklyn," Hamill said during a recent lecture at NYU. "The flag came down, they pounded Ebbets Field to rubble, and so we shifted our affections to something else."

By the time Floyd Patterson fought Sonny Liston at Comiskey Park in 1962, closed-circuit television was becoming the standard way to view major fights. Stadium venues weren't necessary when you could telecast boxing to theaters around the world.

The final boxing event at Yankee Stadium was Muhammad Ali-Ken Norton III in September 1976.

Having fought four times at the Houston Astrodome, Ali seemed like the one 1970s fighter who could rekindle stadium boxing. Unfortunately, Ali was past his prime, and the Bronx had changed, too. The event was a financial bust.

The reason was that fight night coincided with a New York City police protest. As 1,000 cops demonstrated in the streets, hoodlum gangs ran amok. The chaos kept customers away from the ticket windows; fans who had purchased tickets in advance stayed home instead of risking their lives in a visit to the inflamed Bronx.

"That was a terrible night," Sugar told ESPN.com. "There were riots in the stands. People were jumping the barriers, trampling each other. Ali's manager, Herbert Muhammad, had his wallet stolen. Someone picked his pocket. He said, 'Don't they know they are stealing from God?'"

Herbert Muhammad, welcome to the Bronx Zoo.

That was a terrible night … There were riots in the stands. People were jumping the barriers, trampling each other. Ali's manager, Herbert Muhammad, had his wallet stolen. Someone picked his pocket. He said, 'Don't they know they are stealing from God?'

-- Bert Sugar, on the upheaval in the Bronx after Ali-Norton III coincided with a New York City police protest

Excepting the occasional brawl between the Yankees and the Red Sox, there would be no more fights at Yankee Stadium. Or any ballpark. The stadium era was over, but it had been outstanding while it lasted, especially at the corner of River Avenue and East 161st Street.

Yankee Stadium had been the only place big enough to contain the ferocity of Tony Zale-Rocky Graziano I. Gene Tunney won his final fight there, as did Marciano. Ali and Louis should have taken their final bows there, but they didn't.

Yankee Stadium was where a shell-shocked Floyd Patterson, after being kayoed by Sweden's Ingemar Johansson, noticed Hollywood star John Wayne glowering at ringside. Patterson felt ashamed. "This famous American hero had come to watch me fight, and I was losing the title to another country," Patterson said. "It was the most embarrassing moment of my life."

Jack Sharkey wasn't so fortunate at Yankee Stadium, either. It was there that Dempsey hit Sharkey somewhere south of the Bronx; when Sharkey turned to referee Jack O'Sullivan to complain, Dempsey knocked him out with a left hook.

In 1930, Sharkey fought Schmeling in the same ring for the vacant heavyweight title. This time, Sharkey landed low. To the surprise of Sharkey and the 79,000 in attendance, he was disqualified. Sharkey returned to Yankee Stadium in 1936 for his final bout; he was belted out in three by Louis.

But Sharkey was also involved in one of Yankee Stadium's truly fine moments, one that occurred on the magical night of May 21, 1927. As Sharkey stood in his corner before a bout with Jim Maloney, ring announcer Joe Humphreys asked the crowd of 30,000 to participate in a moment of prayer for a man named Charles Lindbergh.

Lucky Lindy had left New York the previous morning in his gray two-seater, "The Spirit of St Louis," attempting the first nonstop solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean. As the customers thought of Lindbergh in the lonely twilight, the stadium was blanketed by a warm, beautiful silence. One writer commented, "It was so quiet you could hear a flask drop."

Sharkey stopped Maloney in five. Lindbergh made history by landing safely in Paris. He was assisted, in some small way, by the good thoughts of a crowd gathered at Yankee Stadium for a prizefight.

Don Stradley is a regular contributor to The Ring.