Quick, name a current Jewish boxer? Coming up short? Well, times have changed since the 1920s when, arguably, the most famous Jewish American was world lightweight champion Benny Leonard (nee Leiner), a product of New York’s Lower East Side.
If this seems surprising, it shouldn’t. Boxing has always offered opportunities for young men (and more recently, women) from poor or working-class backgrounds to rise above their stations. In the ’20s and ’30s, that meant members of recently arrived immigrant groups, particularly Italians and Jews.
At a time when boxing rivaled baseball in popularity, “Jewish boxers comprised the single largest ethnic group among title contenders” across all weight classes, says New York-based boxing historian Mike Silver, author of “Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing” (Lyons Press).
Youth growing up in tough immigrant neighborhoods rooted for and admired their Jewish champions. In Baltimore, as elsewhere, boxing was part of the culture. Thousands of fans regularly flocked to see the fights at Carlin’s Park in Lower Park Heights, the epicenter of Jewish Baltimore at that time.
Jewish boxers displayed their ethnicity with pride. Baltimore flyweight Eddie Leonard was one of many who fought with a Star of David emblazoned on his shorts. He lost only four bouts during his 105-fight professional boxing career from 1923 to 1928. And Leonard was far from the only local Jewish standout, as Jews played a major role in Baltimore’s boxing scene between the world wars.
Russian-born newsboy Jacob “Jack” Portney learned to fight to protect himself from bigger newsboys who wanted to take over his turf. He turned pro at age 16, and when his mother found out, she reportedly “chased him with a broom.”
But when Portney’s father died suddenly of a heart attack, the young welterweight fought to feed the family. Known as “the Baltimore Buzz Saw” because of his relentless style, he posted 150 wins and 15 losses from 1926 to 1938. Though ranked third nationally, he never got a chance at the title — because of discrimination against southpaws, he claimed. After retiring, he started a billiards supply company that became Jack Portney’s Sporting Goods.
Abraham Sobel, son of an East Baltimore immigrant baker, had a penchant for daring athletic feats. He once climbed the steeple of St. Leo’s Church in Little Italy on a dare, and liked to swim from Pratt Street to Federal Hill, retrieving watermelons and cantaloupes that fell from produce boats (the owners would pay him a nickel). As a 5-foot-4, 95-pound amateur boxer, his fighting style was “fast and shifty.” After recording 18 wins, 1 loss and a draw in the 1920s, he had a 47-year career as a master plumber.
As a young parking attendant at Pimlico Race Course, Isadore “Izzy” Rainess was discovered by a jockey’s agent impressed by his prowess in fights with other attendants. A popular local star with a style that earned him the nickname “Wildcat,” the 5-7, 145-pound brawler won 26 out of 28 pro fights starting in 1932, with two draws and no defeats.
Leon Luckman entered the ring at age 14, taking the name “Izzy Caplan” (after two nationally known Jewish boxers) because he didn’t want his parents to know he was a boxer. The scrappy flyweight held the local record for most amateur championships and won his first 10 fights after turning pro in 1933. He later became a fight promoter and the owner of a Highlandtown bar.
Other Jewish Baltimore brawlers of the era included Sylvan Bass, Nate Carp, Benny Goldstein, Charlie Gomer, Tommy Herman, Sid Lampe, Benjamin Lipsitz (aka Frankie Rice), Benny Schwartz, Richard Tucker and Herman Weiner.
Meanwhile, Harry “Heinie” Blaustein was considered Baltimore’s finest trainer, guiding several boxers (Vince and Joe Dundee, and Harry Jeffra) to world titles. A “masterful corner man,” he was known for the portable apothecary he kept at ringside to tend to his wounded fighters.
“I don’t tell nobody what I use,” he once said. “Everyone asks me, but it’s special preparations my nephew, the pharmacist, prepares for me.”
Deborah R. Weiner is co-author of “On Middle Ground: A History of the Jews of Baltimore,” published this spring by the Johns Hopkins University Press and available on Amazon.