Along the way Brenner passed a figure jogging in the opposite direction, a diminished man of perhaps 60, wearing Bermuda shorts and carrying a briefcase that swung to and fro as he ran. The matchmaker slowed to a walk, breathing heavily. "Reminds me... Central Park...where fighters do...roadwork. There's a colored fellow...runs six miles every morning...with a cigar in his mouth."
Brenner was born in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn, the son of a Jewish immigrant from Poland who worked as a leather cutter and designer. Because of his name, Teddy has sometimes been mistaken for Irish, and to this day he receives mail at the Garden addressed to Terry Brennan, the ex-Notre Dame football coach. Unhappy with a couple of Garden bouts, a writer in The Village Voice
recently charged that the choice of fighters was governed by the "dark side of Teddy's Celtic heart."
As a youth Brenner played at just about every sport but boxing, including punchball, stickball and craps, all of which had the virtue on Borough Park's congested turf of requiring limited playing fields. A standout basketball player at James Madison High School, he became friendly with the boxers at Brooklyn's Crystal Gym while hanging around the pool hall in front. But his interest in the world of prizefighting was really kindled by Irving Cohen, a boxing instructor at the Bensonhurst YMHA whom Brenner encountered while playing basketball there in the evenings.
Before long Teddy was accompanying the older man to the fights. "And let me tell you something," Brenner recalls. "You had some choice. Monday night you had St. Nicholas Arena, Tuesday night the Park Arena in the Bronx, Wednesday your choice of three clubs, including the Hippodrome, where Billy Rose produced Jumbo." Brenner glided through the week. "Friday nights," he said with a touch of reverence, "you had the Garden."
On weekends in those days Brenner frequented Stillman's Gym in Manhattan, and he would have spent weekdays there except that he had taken a job after his high school graduation as a shipping clerk and salesman for a Manhattan shirt house. Among the fight crowd at Still-man's, Teddy sometimes was called—literally—the walking encyclopedia, because he learned—and recited—the records of all the fighters. Brenner has always, so far as he can recall, had a retentive memory, and he used it to advantage among the Stillman regulars.
"Somebody would bet me a dollar they could stump me on a fighter," he says. "They'd say. 'In such and such a year Tony Canzoneri fought B.P.' And I'd tell them it was Billy Petrolle in 1932. and I'd pocket the dollar."
The youthful Brenner struck some old-timers as a brash upstart, and there was no doubt that he had a lot to learn. One day Irving Cohen entered the gym with a young zoot-suiter whose hair was combed back in a ducktail. "Get rid of him." Brenner advised his friend. "He doesn't know whether to fight or get a haircut." The man was Rocky Graziano, and Cohen became his manager.
Because of his knowledge of the fighters, promoters had occasionally solicited Brenner's suggestions on matches as far back as those early days at Stillman's. Now, following the war (Brenner was a Seabee for three years), Irving Cohen was matchmaker for a small club in New Brunswick, N.J. but wanted to devote more time to managing Graziano. He turned his New Brunswick chores over to Brenner. "Teddy could match the fighters so evenly that if you had six fights, five would end in draws," recalls Cohen, now retired and living in Hollywood, Fla. Brenner's talent soon brought him other matchmaking jobs, including two separate stints at Manhattan's 3,500-seat St. Nicholas Arena. Because St. Nick's was run by Madison Square Garden, Brenner on each occasion automatically became assistant matchmaker at the Garden, but both tours were terminated by spats with his Garden bosses.
Nowhere was Brenner's uncommon eye for boxing talent displayed to better advantage than on the televised boxing shows of the 1950s. Given the tight requirements of TV scheduling, it was particularly important on such shows to avoid mismatches that would result in quick knockouts. As the matchmaker for Brooklyn's Eastern Parkway Arena, where the Monday night fights were telecast (first by the Du Mont network and later by ABC), Brenner not only avoided mismatches but used Eastern as a showcase for such up-and-coming fighters as Bobo Olson, Gene Fullmer, Walter Cartier and Floyd Patterson. But Eastern Parkway never became known as the "cradle of stars" or anything like that. Instead, an almost uninterrupted string of victories by underdogs gave it the nickname "The House of Upsets."
After ABC dropped its show at Eastern Parkway in 1955, Brenner returned to St. Nick's, where Du Mont was now telecasting its Monday night fights. St. Nick's was no longer affiliated with the Garden, and Brenner this time was promoter as well as matchmaker, with his own money at stake. And so in 1959, when the Garden matchmaking job fell vacant and Harry Markson approached him about the job, Brenner was more than ready to pull up stakes at St. Nick's.