December 11, 2016
“How many people know who Benny Leonard was?” Mike Silver asks the crowd gathered at the Jewish Museum of Maryland. “Benny Leonard was the most famous Jewish person in America in the 1920s. Not Albert Einstein. Not Justice Louis Brandeis.”
Leonard, explains Silver, author of Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing, fought his way out of Manhattan’s East Side ghetto to become one of the great boxers of all time during the Roaring ’20s, holding the lightweight title for nearly seven years. “He quit to take care of his sick mother. How Jewish is that?”
In his book, Silver chronicles 29 Jewish world champion boxers and more than 160 contenders from the 1890s-1950s, including a half-dozen Baltimore brawlers—welterweights Jacob “Jack” Portney and Benny Goldstein, flyweight Benny Schwartz, middleweight Sylvan Bass, and lightweights Charley Gomer and Isadore “Izzy” Rainess. Silver also gives a shout-out to legendary trainer Heine Blaustein. “Baltimore was a great fight town,” Silver says.
It wasn’t unusual in those days, Silver continues, for Jewish boxers to change their name. Not because of anti-Semitism, but family (read: mother’s) disapproval of the sport. Leonard was really Leiner, for example. Often, Jewish fighters switched ethnic identities altogether, killing two birds with one stone by trying to appeal to the sport’s huge Irish fan base.
“My uncle was Baltimore welterweight Patsy Lewis—that’s pretty Irish. His real name was Julius Rosenbloom,” volunteers Jerry Russ, 81, who went to the fights with his father at the old Baltimore Coliseum. Carlin’s Park was another popular venue.
At a time when boxing and baseball were the country’s biggest draws, fighting wasn’t just a means to make money for working-class immigrants—a four-round bout could pull in the same pay as a week in a sweatshop—it was also a means of assimilation and pride for Jews.
“Einstein, brilliant scientist, but who understands the theory of relativity? Brandeis, brilliant justice, but how many people read Supreme Court decisions?” Silver asks. “A punch in the nose? That, everybody understands.”