Do you want to go to the Beach today?" My father's question did not send me scurrying for trunks and an inner tube. In our household of nonswimmers, the word "Beach" was always mentally capitalized, for it meant headier stuff than the sea, sand and sun of more commonplace vocabularies. My father, who was a sportswriter, simply was asking me to tag along on one of his professional visits to a stretch of sidewalk on New York's West Side. Here on 49th Street, west of Broadway, with Eighth Avenue and the now-defunct old Madison Square Garden looming up at the end of the block, lay that land of boxing gossip, unflinching hyperbole and broken dreams called Jacobs Beach.
It was an enchanted strand during the late 1930s for a boy just growing old enough to be allowed to watch prizefights in the flesh. On nice days clusters of jowly men with stomachs sticking out to here would stand around in front of the ticket agencies that lined the block. Jacobs Beach took its name from Mike Jacobs, who used to promote fights from his ticket agency on West 49th Street before he moved into the Garden.
Walking along the block, I was likely to see broken-nosed men with broad shoulders and perhaps a piece of tape stuck over a gashed eyebrow. If I had visited one of the small fight clubs the week before, some of those stolid faces might be familiar. The chances always were good to see more celebrated fighters too—Jack Dempsey, Jim Braddock, even Joe Louis—as they walked along the Beach toward the Garden. Dempsey and Braddock, though their reigns had ended, still shared the "Champ" title with Louis in the greetings called after them by idlers on the Beach.
But a boy's education was furthered not by staring at the fighters but by listening to their managers. The talk in those clusters on the sidewalk was lively and incessant.
Mike Jacobs himself seldom was part of these talkathons. Apparently he was much too restless to stand still that long. But on the day of an important fight he could be seen darting back and forth along the Beach, monitoring the pace at which tickets were being snatched up.
Two prominent figures on Jacobs Beach were Eddie Mead, a successful manager, and Eddie Walker, who worked for him. Walker often was pointed out along Broadway as the man who wore Damon Runyon's new shoes to break them in for him. Mead dropped dead on the Beach one afternoon, immediately after being told that Liquid Lunch, a horse he had bet on, had won the first race at Belmont Park, paying $16.10. But until that particular curtain was rung down, these two entertained the mob with their stories.
"Did you see the ring Mead gave me?" Walker asked a gathering one day. On the middle finger of his right hand was a platinum ring set with a diamond.
"Is that the ring you threw at him last month?" another manager asked.
"Yes," Walker said, "and a hat. Remember the hat? He gave me this ring and a $40 hat. One of them hairy hats. But I got sore at him one night and I took off the ring and the hat and threw them at him. He didn't say anything, but he picked them up, and the other night he gave me back the ring.
"After that he tried to pick a fight with me. I think he wanted the ring back. But I wouldn't fight him, because I might not get it back again."