Even in that other time, then a soft summer afternoon, it seemed to be winter, the tableau so much like the gray etching of a tenement in a snowfall. Now, two years later, a Saturday afternoon, winter, dark falling on the soiled sunlight—nothing had changed. Not even the visual fragments: the eyes of the pawnbroker squinting at an old pinstripe suit; the black half-painted poolroom windows where raised cue tips wiggle and droop just above the paint line; and, finally, Willie Reddish, his porpoise body heaving and snoozing in the gym's big ripped chair, to the lullaby of a light bag.
Now it was an untroubled, dreamless sleep, but it never used to be. For a long time Willie used to sleep with one eye on the gym door, a hand on his wallet and a line like "I ain't got no money" poised on his lips. The eye waited for a boy who rarely came. The hand was there not because Willie feared robbery, but because whenever the boy was in the vicinity Willie and his money were soon parted. The line was always ready for the women who would rouse him, squeaking, "He said for you to give me some money. You got money!" These problems are gone now. Willie does not manage Gypsy Joe Harris anymore. Nobody manages Gypsy anymore.
Nobody, it seems, could ever have managed Gypsy, could have tempered his passions or checked his long slide toward a leftover life—so far from the one that promised so much just a short time ago. Frolicsome and singular whether he was in a ring or chalking a cue, Gypsy's rise was one of bonfire brilliance. At 22, embraced by those faddists who pursue the public mood, he was a major force in boxing, a box-office power and the sudden salvation of the sport in Philadelphia. At 24 Gypsy is just another name in boxing's long litany of failure, his own victim and a broken pawn in a callous gambit shrouded in mystery—a mystery daily mirrored by the face in the gym window on Columbia Avenue.
The gym, run by the police, is where Gypsy began fighting, where one night he was found banging wildly at the door, an ice cream melting in his hand and a pack of hunters not far behind. He stood there now, 12 years since it all began, looking out of the window, the glass misted by a fine rain. Outside, the faces floated by, faces of men wearing hats tipped for Saturday night love, of old women with hair set for Sunday morning church. He turned his eyes from the window and his head to the side. In the yellow light the profile—shaved head, corpselike expression, slack jaw and bent nose—was a haunting sculpture. He pointed to his right eye. It was like a dead agate.
"It's been like this for a long time," he said. "I've been blind in my right eye ever since Halloween of 1957 when some kid hit me in the eye with a brick. It was like this when I went for the prefight exams. The color was bad. I never had any trouble passin' physicals. If you memorize the third and fourth lines of the chart, you're all right. All the time I was fightin' I wasn't afraid of the ring or the bad eye or the good one or anything. Just afraid that someone, somehow would say somethin' about the blind eye and they'd pick up my license. It happened. In one second I was dead." The words—if true—are a powerful indictment of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission.
The commission contests Gypsy's statement. "If you watch a doctor giving an eye test," says Commissioner Frank Wildman, "you know it's too tough to fake. Sure, I suppose it can be done, but how does one know what line is going to be called? We'd never heard anything about his blindness—total, semi, partial or anything—until after his license was suspended." The relationship between Wildman and Gypsy was often strained but it was not vengeful or vicious. "I've never been associated with a nicer kid," says Wildman, "but he was always a headache. Gypsy lives in another world. It's hard to uncover the truth with him." Wildman's view gets some corroboration from Yank Durham, who co-managed Gypsy along with Reddish, and Al Massey, a lightweight who lingered in Gypsy's shadow.
"No way," says Durham, "for him to be blind and still be so slick in avoidin' punches." Massey is less succinct. "Any man with a bright sense," he says, "knows he could not get away from punches the way Gypsy did if he were blind in one eye. The only time he got hit was when he wanted to get hit." Why would he say it if it were not true? "Well now," says Massey slyly, "if he say he was blind in one eye and not gettin' hit and doin' his stuff and lookin' pretty, the people begin to think, 'Damn! What if that cat had two eyes?' "
An incident on a mink farm in Pennsylvania not long ago adds credibility to Gypsy's claim. It happened in July of 1967 while he was visiting a close friend and benefactor named Bernard Pollack, a boxing dilettante, psychologist and wealthy mink rancher and furrier. Pollack, like Gypsy, has a shaved head and no sight in his right eye either; he lost the sight while sparring with one of his fighters. The fear of losing the vision in his remaining eye oppresses him constantly. He wears a dark-smoked lens over his bad eye and looks anxiously at the light with his good one. His head cocked toward the light, he says, "It was like this. Gypsy was up at my training camp one week, and it was 6:30 and we had just finished dinner and were walking around the countryside. For some reason we were discussing relative vision and how important it is. Gypsy offered that his vision was superb, and then he stopped suddenly and pointed to a tree a little less than 100 yards away and said, 'There's a caterpillar crawlin' on that limb out there.' I told him he was crazy, but he insisted and took us directly to the tree, the branch and the caterpillar. It was a fantastic display of animal acuity. Then, after a long moment, he said quietly, 'I'm blind in my right eye too. I'm just like you, Mr. Pollack. Since the age I was 11.' "
No one will ever be certain when Gypsy lost the sight in his eye; pick through the gelatinous structure of boxing, and you emerge, hopefully, with only an approximation of the truth, an educated evaluation or merely suspicion. But there is no question that the commission knew there was at least impairment in Gypsy's eye, beginning with his very first examination. If it did not know, then it did not perform even the perfunctory task of looking at its own medical reports.
If, indeed, the commission did inspect the routine findings after each examination, why was Gypsy never told of his condition or warned that in view of it he must train conscientiously—for his own protection—if he wished to continue fighting? History has dolorously proved that commissions are ineffectual, but one forever hopes they will learn to fulfill their principal function, which is to protect the public and the health of the fighters—not the orchestrating of back-room subterfuge, not the wearing of bland smiles or the mouthing of endless inanities.