More than 21,000 would stuff the old Chicago Stadium, all equally shrouded in a cloud of cigar smoke. Parents, high society, South Side boosters, gangsters. You name it. Frankie Carbo might be ringside, scouting, hoping to identify the next Primo Carnera. Blinky Palermo was certainly there, representing the Outfit. The finals of the Chicago Golden Gloves, an institution that provided send-offs to everyone from Barney Ross to Cassius Clay (and Joe Louis in between), was simply the place to be, although maybe not if you had unfinished business with the mob. � Of course, this was before TV, before the avalanche of pro sports that diluted our attention. It was 1923 when the tournament began, unofficially and illegally. Back then, boxing was banned in Chicago because of widespread corruption, and that first tournament was allowed only because of a court injunction. Still, when the Chicago Tribune decided to sponsor the event, there were 424 entries, producing a civic phenomenon that would endure for decades.
It was, at its peak, the most important boxing event in the country. Never mind that the New York Daily News jumped into the fray and hosted the first official Golden Gloves tournament in 1927. When you think Golden Gloves, you think Chicago. You think Joey Maxim, and Ezzard Charles, and Tony Zale. And Louis, who came down from Detroit to fight. And later, coming up from Louisville, Clay.
By the '30s, when the tournament settled into Chicago Stadium (and by which time the mob had turned Chicago into America's fight town), the Golden Gloves was the championship conduit. Any fighter with any aspirations had to pass through the competition, it seemed, and with upwards of 800 entries a year it was truly grueling. Of course, the Tribune's relentless coverage provided a nice send-off too.
The tournament proved a popular enough idea that other cities and states institutionalized it, and it became a national testing ground for boxing's youth. There is hardly a name in the sport that did not come out of a Golden Gloves tournament. Sugar Ray Leonard, Mike Tyson, Tommy Hearns. Still, it was the Chicago event that seemed special.
It was the newspaper connection, mostly. The Tribune's sports editor, Arch Ward, thumped the tournament mightily, creating a tradition that was quaint yet vibrant. The coverage made stars out of fighters like Joe Louis, yes, but some unlikely kids as well. Anybody reading a sports section in the '50s surely followed the O'Shea brothers, three apprentice plasterers who regularly reached the nationals. Brian and Rory went on to have fine pro careers in the '60s, while Tom, now 65, decided to become an English teacher in Chicago's inner city and coach boxing on the side.
"In those days, when you were watching the Chicago Golden Gloves champion, you were likely watching the national champ as well," Tom says. "And if you were a national Golden Gloves champ, you were die best."
It has been a while since the Chicago Golden Gloves was must-see boxing. Now the event is held in St. Andrews gym, near Wrigley Field, and while tradition alone mandates attention (the 2,200-seat gym will be standing room only for the finals next week), it can never be what it was.
These days, anyway, it seems as much fantasy camp as pro incubator. Nobody need be particularly qualified, or even committed, to perform in the Golden Gloves; a fighter must pass a cursory physical exam, and that's about it. There are even novice categories to encourage entry. This does not guarantee an especially competitive forum, but boy, is it ever democratic.
Genuine prospects are muddled in the same 275-boxer mix as convicted felons, bond traders, lawyers and off-season concessionaires. Indeed, it's this potpourri of pugilism that provides much of the tournament's current fascination. Just last week an antique rug dealer named Haig Klujian was conducting his annual assault on the sport, climbing through the ropes for his third Golden Gloves.
Klujian, 27, said he had been "stunned" when his first bout two years ago was halted in 30 seconds (on account of he might have gotten killed). Last year's result was only a little more encouraging, in that he was allowed the full three rounds in defeat.