More than 40 years have passed since Joe Brown quit boxing. He limps these days with a troublesome hip, and a detached retina causes his right eye to stare vacantly. Yet muscles and memories remain, and when he talks of boxing, frequently in the four-letter idiom of the ring, the limp vanishes and he dances gracefully about, throwing left and right lists that still look awesome. At moments like this the clay on his hands and clothes no longer seems a byproduct of his occupation, but rather suggests a subtle metamorphosis, as if Brown were another sculptured athlete posturing grandly like the quiescent gray-green figures that surround him.
His studio, appropriately enough, is a converted gymnasium; its inhabitants—gymnasts and boxers, football players and swimmers—are his creations. Long ago he made the transition from flesh and blood to clay as a medium for his powerful hands. Today, at 64, Joe Brown is perhaps the country's best-known sculptor of athletes.
Now a full professor at Princeton, Brown is at work on his most ambitious project, four 15�-foot sculptures of baseball and football players for Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. "These things are damned big, you know," he says gleefully. "I mean the feet are 36 inches long. They haven't got feet; they've got yards." The Brobdingnagian athletes are the result of a Philadelphia ordinance demanding that approximately 1% of the cost of any public building must go toward esthetic adornment. Thus, for Veterans Stadium, a project whose cost ballooned from $25 million to $45 million during construction, the city set aside $290,000 for beautification, $200,000 of which was earmarked for sculpture.
The stadium's executive building committee hired Brown in August 1970. For nearly two years after that the Philadelphia Art Commission, which favored abstract art, stalled final approval of Brown's sketches. Perhaps the Ivy League professor would become discouraged. He did not. "They didn't count on two things," says Brown. "In the first place, I'm too cheap to let a job like this get away, and in the second place, I never walk away from a fight."
Brown's language is not as figurative as one might imagine. If at times he seems purely the sculptor ("Boxing is a branch of the humanities in which you deal very fundamentally with your fellowman"), the boxer is never far beneath the surface. "Sculpture should do something for people," Brown says. "Art isn't done by a few people for a few people. It shouldn't die in museums. A minority with nebulous credentials tries to tell us what is significant. They are what I call the High Priests of Significance. Bull. No one's going to tell me where I itch."
Joe Brown was born in 1909 in South Philadelphia not far from where Veterans Stadium now stands, and at the age of four moved with his family to the Devil's Pocket, a rough slum where he quickly learned the so-called manly arts. In his first week Brown found himself hounded by two older boys. His mother came to the rescue. "Jew," screamed one of his assailants in fleeing. "That's right, and I'm proud of it," Brown yelled back. His mother, an illiterate Russian, saw nothing noble in his stand. "You're a Jew all right," she said, "but you had nothing to do with it. Don't be proud or ashamed of it. When you do something good, be proud of it. When you do something bad, be ashamed."
Eventually, a brother, nine years older, turned professional boxer. Harry (Kid) Brown was a smart fighter who defeated some titleholders in an 18-year career. Joe remembers him bringing home "a couple of thousand dollars" from a fight, more than his father, a tailor, could earn in years, and he remembers walking through town with Harry on a warm Sunday afternoon with everyone from the well-to-do to paperboys acknowledging his brother. "Hey, Harry." "How's it going, Harry?" "Great fight, Harry." To the impressionable youngster it became a dream: "a million dollars and a million friends." By the time he graduated from grammar school Joe Brown had decided to be a world champion.
He grew to be a strong athlete and went to Temple on a football scholarship. He stayed with football only two years. As a sophomore he became captain of the boxing team. One day while working out in a local gym, he sparred with a lefthander who, not long before, had won the AAU heavyweight championship. Brown had never fought a southpaw and, partially out of fear, put everything he had into a hard right that floored the champion. A promoter, Phil Glassman, took notice. Brown agreed to turn professional the following summer when the prospect of easy money turned his head.
He fought in Atlantic City under an assumed name to hide the truth from his parents, won $75 with a knockout and the following week won twice more. In his fourth bout—for $300—he walked into a pucker punch that burst a blood vessel, swelling both eyes and giving his secret away to his family. They were disappointed, particularly Harry, whose winnings had given the family financial stability ("I had to do it; you don't"), but they didn't interfere.
That fight taught Brown something about the sport. He read in newspapers about how much courage he had shown in hanging on to win. He knew he had been hurt and frightened after the sucker punch but had gone on because of the feeling that he could not let the crowd down. And who were those people anyway? They weren't his friends, yet in a sense he had sold them his courage for $300. He began to wonder. If he ever needed courage in the future, would he be able to buy it for $300?