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There is no athlete in the world who dominates his sport with the supremacy that Jimmy Jacobs of Los Angeles and New York enjoys in four-wall handball. Handball is a demanding sport that requires endurance, speed, power and dexterity, all of which the muscular Jacobs, who stands 5 feet 9 and weighs 175 pounds, has in abundance. In handball, which has more than five million devotees in the U.S., Jacobs is generally hailed as the finest player of all time. Indeed, there are those who say Jacobs is the best athlete, regardless of sport, in the country. So far, Jacobs has won six U.S. Handball Association singles championships and has shared in four USHA doubles titles. With Marty Decatur, a fellow player from the 92nd Street YMHA in New York, he forms the strongest doubles team ever seen. They are unbeatable. In four years of competition they not only have never lost a match, they have never lost a game. Even by himself, Jacobs is a great doubles player. Two and a half years ago, for instance, he played alone against Ruby and Carl Obert, two nationally ranked players, and whipped them in a 31-point game, taking only one serve to their two. But playing alone in a doubles game is nothing new for Jacobs. In the 1960 USHA doubles final he and his partner, Dick Weisman, had lost the first game and were losing the second 15-3, when Jacobs had Weisman stand in the rear of the court. Jacobs then won the second game and, with Weisman's help, the third.
In Jacobs' younger days—he is now 35—he also competed in other sports. As a teen-ager he played football, baseball and basketball. He was a good enough basketball player to be invited to an Olympic tryout. He ran the 100-yard dash in 9.8, and he was a skeet shot of championship caliber. Then and now his physical and mental abilities are such that professional athletes who know Jacobs well claim he could be a superstar in any sport. Jim Bouton, the Yankee pitcher, flatly says that Jacobs is the best athlete he has ever seen and adds, in moments of exultation, that if Jacobs played big-league ball "he would hit .500." In calmer moments Bouton merely says that Jacobs would be "the last of the .400 hitters." Cus D'Amato, the fight manager and a man ordinarily given to a squinty-eyed view of athletes, says that he has met only two men who had the aura of a champion that Jacobs has. Those men were Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson. And Bob Waterfield, the old quarterback who is known to reporters as the Sphinx and the Great Stone Face because he ordinarily never says anything, becomes a gushing chatterbox when it comes to Jacobs, his onetime handball partner. "Jimmy is by far the most coordinated athlete I've ever seen," says Waterfield. "I don't see how anyone could be better. I've never seen an athlete like him. He is so coordinated it is impossible to tell whether he is left- or right-handed. He could be the best athlete in the world."
Away from handball, Jacobs has achieved a certain amount of standing as a collector of comic books and fight films. He has the largest collections of their kind in the world, and both have fitted into his sporting endeavors. As a youngster, Jacobs got added inspiration in sports by pretending that he was Dick Grayson, alias Robin, the Boy Wonder, combater of crime with Bruce Wayne, millionaire Gotham City playboy, secretly Batman. Today in partnership with Bill Cayton, owner of an advertising agency and a New York TV producer, Jacobs has put out any number of films of famous fights. Their latest offering, Knockout, is a brisk compilation of the most savage bouts available on film. As a writer, editor and producer of this and similar fight films, Jacobs earns an impressive annual income. He is in fight films not for the money, however, but because he is simply nuts about boxing. He watches films of old fights by the hour, and he can practically recite the punches thrown in any title bout. While barroom habitu�s might wrangle forever in argument over who was the greatest heavyweight champion, Jacobs declares for Joe Louis, and he has the films to prove it.
When Norman Mailer, the contentious novelist, first met Jacobs they got into an argument about boxing. Jacobs drubbed him so that Mailer was moved to include an account of their debate in his book, The Presidential Papers, where he confessed that Jacobs "ran me all over the court." In turn, Strength and Health, the physical culture journal, was so taken with Jacobs' build that it ran a long feature on his muscles and how they got that way.
Jacobs is busy every day, practicing handball or editing film. He leaves absolutely nothing to chance. During political campaigns he writes down the promises of every candidate, and when a politician comes up for reelection Jacobs consults his notes to see how the man has done. Friends and followers beseech Jacobs for advice on all sorts of matters, and his conversations with D'Amato, with whom he shares an apartment in New York, sometimes run very deep. "We discuss my favorite subject, fear," says D'Amato. Jacobs' interest in fear and the role it plays in winning or losing is one of the subjects he covers when giving clinics for the U.S. Handball Association. When Jacobs talks about handball he has overtones of Freud and Von Clausewitz. His listeners lap it up.
Generally, Jacobs is not the sobersides young man this would suggest. He is, in fact, a practical joker of some attainment. When he was living regularly in Los Angeles, his apartment was around the corner from a memory school. He found out the name of the director, and one day he dropped into the school, where he greeted the director with the excited cry, "George, how are you!" Flustered and embarrassed at being unable to remember Jacobs, the director fumbled for a reply. "George!" Jacobs exclaimed. "You've forgotten!" Then he left.
Once, when Jacobs took a boat to England in search of rare fight films, he signed up for lessons with a steward in the ship's three-wall handball court. He made no mention of his handball experience, and every morning at 10 he presented himself for an hour's instruction. Each day Jacobs permitted his game to improve, and after the last lesson the steward told him, "You're by far the best student I've ever had. For the first time I really feel like a teacher."
As a boy, Jacobs lived largely in his imagination. Born in St. Louis, he moved to Los Angeles with his parents when he was 5. Shortly afterward his parents were divorced, and he was raised by his mother. Always intense, he became the tetherball champion of his grade school. Until the age of 15 he was under the spell of comic books. He bought and devoured hundreds of them, and among his heroes were The Atom, Aquaman, Batman and Robin, of course, Black Hawk, Black-X, Blue Beetle, Boy Commandoes, Captain America, Captain Marvel and on and on through the alphabet. Jacobs was so exhilarated by his heroes that he began acquiring as many as 10 copies of every issue that dealt with their adventures. He read and thumbed one copy and put the other nine aside in glassine envelopes to protect their mint condition. When Jacobs went into the Army he had subscriptions to a couple dozen comic books, but he still asked his mother to buy additional copies at newsstands. The subscription copies came creased in the mail. To the permanent astonishment of his mother, Jacobs keeps an apartment in Los Angeles that is stacked with comic books, but she does not know that he also rents a storage room in a warehouse to hold the bulk of the collection. On a recent visit to L.A., Jacobs spent an afternoon sifting through his comic books, recalling where and under what circumstances he had bought certain memorable issues. Off the top of his head, Jacobs has no difficulty remembering, for instance, that Batman first appeared in issue No. 27 of Detective Comics and that Robin happened along in issue No. 38. He is an avid reader of the 80 Pg. Giant Batman issued now, but he despises the television version of Batman. "It's a comedy," he says. "It's something to laugh at, and that hurts me."
The fine points of Batman's and Robin's adventures are so engraved on Jacobs' mind that he was outraged when their initial meeting was redrawn for an issue 15 years later. Instead of meeting with a circus ladder in the background, as was the case in the original episode, Batman and Robin were portrayed in a room. Jacobs was so vexed by this tampering with history that he told other Batman fans to disregard this blatant fraud, and he wrote an angry letter to the publisher.
"You see," Jacobs says, "I always pretended that I was Robin, the Boy Wonder. Superman I admired, but Batman and Robin were human, and everything athletic that Robin did, I tried to do. He threw a boomerang. I learned how to throw a boomerang. Robin was an excellent tumbler, and so I would run off diving boards to practice double flips. Robin knew jujitsu, so I took lessons. In one issue Robin swam underwater for two minutes. I didn't know if a kid could swim underwater for a minute. So I tried. I learned first that when you swim underwater you use up oxygen. So then I learned how to hold my breath underwater. Before long I could swim underwater for two minutes. I didn't want to admit that Robin could do something I couldn't do. I always envisioned myself as Robin, the Boy Wonder, or else as Dick Grayson, who had to keep himself under wraps. When I did something extraordinary in athletics I would think to myself, 'Well, I took off the wraps just to show what I could do.'