Murderers’ Row: In Search of Boxing’s Greatest Outcasts, by Springs Toledo (Tora Book Publishing, 312 pp., $29.99)
Every sport has its obscure characters and alternative histories, but when it comes to boxing, these narrative backstreets run in parallel with the main road, usually unseen. This is in part because boxing itself is a kind of alternative history, a sport long since legalized but never quite regarded as “legitimate.” It has never had a unified governing authority, and in keeping with its terminal disposition to chaos, it has at least two halls of fame. Its injustices set it apart from mainstream sports, which, whatever their troubles, do not routinely violate fair play. The New England Patriots might sneak a look at video footage or deflate some footballs, but they can’t design their own season schedule or handpick their opponent in the Super Bowl.
In boxing, such things happen regularly, even today, but such abuses were worst during the era of Jim Crow, which coincided with the sport’s golden days—especially the years between 1920 and 1950, after which, historian and essayist Springs Toledo writes, “television ratings became a false arbiter of talent.” In his new book, Murderers’ Row, Toledo digs deep within the mines of history, alternative and otherwise, and excavates the stories of some of boxing’s most accomplished but least celebrated characters—all black, and none ever permitted to fight for a championship: Charley Burley, Cocoa Kid, Lloyd Marshall, Jack Chase, Aaron “Little Tiger” Wade, Bert Lytell, Eddie Booker, and Holman Williams. Laboring at boxing’s middle weights—ranging from 135 pounds up to 175—where the sport’s greatest practitioners have always been found, they were dubbed Murderers’ Row, in an echo of the New York Yankees’ Babe Ruth-era batting order. From the mid-1930s to the early 1950s, their excellence was matched only by the determination of even the sport’s top champions—Sugar Ray Robinson, Tony Zale, Henry Armstrong, and Barney Ross, among others—to avoid facing them. Robinson is generally regarded as the finest boxer ever to lace on a glove, but Burley offered to take him on for free. Wade did him one better, whipping Sugar Ray in a street fight.
Robinson and some other dodging champions were themselves black, but they saw little business sense in fighting black challengers of the caliber of Burley et al. when easier pickings were available elsewhere. One black champion who neither ducked them nor forgot them was Archie Moore, an honorary member of the club who fought them all and managed the feat they didn’t: he got his chance and became a champion. In later years, Moore did his best to ensure that his toughest foes were remembered.
Picking up this torch, Toledo fashions himself a private investigator “inspired by the memories of Archie Moore and hired by ghosts,” and his writing pulses with the questing passion of the P.I. and the gritty ambience of noirish fiction. “Punches bounced off Bert like tennis balls off a bus”; “Booker had the kind of chin found in a quarry”; a jabbing fighter snatched away his opponent’s plan for rest “like a pillow from a sibling.”
Toledo organizes his chapters as life stories, each with a distinct personal trajectory but sharing broader themes that resonate beyond boxing: absent fathers, broken homes, isolation, and America’s long racial shadows. He tosses out evocative historical scraps—about the Ku Klux Klan’s reign of terror in Texas in the 1920s, about Calvin Coolidge’s unheralded efforts on behalf of blacks, and about the black diaspora to San Francisco between the early 1940s and the early 1950s, when the city’s black population increased nearly 800 percent—in part because of the departure, via internment, of Japanese-Americans. Murderers’ Row’s characters emerge out of these vivid details.
And, of course, there is the fighting. Holman Williams was, by Joe Louis’s estimation, “a beautiful boxer” whom even Louis would stop to watch in the gym. Why? “To pick up ideas,” the Brown Bomber replied. One promoter declared Lloyd Marshall “the greatest fighter he’d ever seen.” Others regarded Burley, a fighter with a style, Toledo says, “as complex as tax law,” as the best fighter there ever was, Robinson included. Meeting with Burley decades later, Moore greeted him as “champ”—a boxing honorific roughly equivalent to “Mr. President.”
With no championships to fight for, Murderers’ Row wound up fighting one another, over and over again, hoping that the next win might earn them the chance they deserved. It never happened. Their lives after boxing took winding paths: some settled into family life, while others fell into booze and poverty or dementia. Aaron Wade, after a long struggle with the bottle, found God and devoted his life to working with the poor. “I’m not what I’m supposed to be as a Christian and not even what I’d like to be,” he said, “but thank God I’m not what I used to be.” Toledo uncovers the old fighters’ paths through steadfast research—not just old newspapers but census records, letters, military-discharge papers, and personal interviews arranged after phone calls to surprised relations. (“I never knew him as a boxer,” says Vanessa Marshall of her father, Lloyd.)
Those who see boxing as a brutish activity with no redeeming value ought to try reading one of these portraits. Without saying so explicitly, Toledo makes clear that the fight game, so often associated with death, has been just as often a giver of life. His coda for Jack Chase, for whom boxing paved a way out of the penitentiary, exemplifies this outlook:
Boxing rescued him; of that there can be no doubt. It offered an alternate route to the dead end that seemed to be preordained for him, a dead end that he was careening toward until the day an anonymous trainer at a state reformatory taught him how to catch a jab instead of a case. After that, his definitions began to change. He became something special. Like those other black men exalted and condemned by their remarkable skills, he was never granted a world title shot and never got rich, but boxing gave him something better. It gave him something to reach for, something to live for.
. . . Somewhere along the alternate route he chose decades earlier, somewhere between a fatherless boy’s rage and a great fighter’s singular glory, he learned how to care.
It would be hard to imagine a more eloquent or loving tribute to forgotten masters, whatever their craft, than Murderers’ Row.
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