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Once I built a railroad, I made it run, made it race against time.
Once I built a railroad, now it's done. Brother, can you spare a dime? --E.Y. Harburg
In 1932 the song Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? became a No. 1 hit for two crooners, Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallee, by capturing the despair of millions of Americans in the early years of the Depression. The song's message was universally understood in the U.S., where families in soup lines had replaced flappers as the dominant cultural image. By the mid-'30s the song could have been the national anthem. � It floated through the air when James J. Braddock, fresh from the relief rolls, climbed through the ropes at the Madison Square Garden Bowl in New York City on June 13, 1935, to fight Max Baer for the heavyweight championship of the world. At odds of at least 10 to 1, Braddock was the biggest underdog in heavyweight title bout history. But when the ring announcer, Al Frazin, introduced him--"The challenger, from Jersey City, New Jersey, weighing in at 191 3/4 pounds, James J. Braddock!"--millions of Americans cheered for him, not because he was particularly exciting to watch, but because he personified their own struggles. Like so many of them, he had been humbled by forces beyond his control, and the decline in his personal fortunes had mirrored the national collapse. Just before the crash of 1929, Braddock had been one of the best young fighters in the world. Everything was within his grasp. And then, when the crash hit, he tumbled from contender to tomato can to longshoreman to welfare recipient. "His time was the Great Depression, and he was a man of his time," Red Smith wrote.
At that time, only a boxer could have had the impact Braddock had, because in his era, boxing was the country's most popular sport and boxers were the most popular athletes. The heavyweight champion wasn't just the best-paid athlete in the world; he was, with the possible exception of a few world leaders, the most famous person on the planet. And to a man, the monarchs of press row considered Jim Braddock's impossible comeback the richest story they ever covered. "I don't want to sound trite," Damon Runyon wrote, "but believe an old plot-maker, truth in Braddock's case is much stranger than fiction."
Neither Runyon nor any of his contemporaries, however, was paying much attention when Braddock's comeback started.
On the night of June 14, 1934, Braddock walked into the Madison Square Garden Bowl, an enormous outdoor arena in Queens. His pockets were empty. A week earlier he had turned 29. He was a father of three, a washed-up fighter and a part-time longshoreman. As feared as his right hand had once been--he was among the most powerful punchers in the light heavyweight division in the late 1920s--he was equally adept at taking a punch. In 80 pro fights he had never been counted out. Outside the ring, his toughest opponent had clearly been the Depression. But here he was, getting back into the fight game after nine months of inactivity.
He had outgrown the light heavyweight 175-pound limit and was fighting as a heavyweight at about 180 pounds. He was 6'2", with a head of thick, curly black hair. Ruggedly handsome, he looked every bit as Irish as his name, and he wore a shamrock on his trunks. Forty-five years after his parents, Joseph and Elizabeth Braddock, had immigrated to America to escape the poverty and prejudice suffered by the Irish in northern England, Jim was struggling to clothe and feed his family. He owed money to his landlord, the milkman, the gas and electric company and his manager, to name just a few of his creditors. In the bitter winter of 1933--34, he trudged through the streets in shoes that were falling apart. Most of the time he was hungry.
Braddock's decline as a boxer had exactly paralleled the nation's descent into the Depression. After fighting for the light heavyweight championship in the summer of 1929, losing to Tommy Loughran in a closely contested 15 rounds, Braddock had met defeat after defeat, first in big arenas at the hands of top competitors and then, gradually, at the hands of boxers only a couple of notches above club fighters--ham 'n' eggers. Since the day the stock market crashed, he had lost 16 of 26 fights. On Sept. 25, 1933, he broke his right hand on the jaw of a 20-year-old heavyweight named Abe Feldman. The hand had been broken twice before, and now Braddock thought it unlikely that it would ever heal properly. He announced his retirement. Virtually no one noticed.
He sought work on the docks of Hoboken and Weehawken, N.J. The man who just five years earlier had come within one punch of winning a world championship was reduced to hauling railroad ties off ships and loading them onto railroad cars. Initially he wasn't very good at it--not with a bum hand. But he was strong, and physical labor was something he never shied from. Not when he was training for a fight, and not when he was earning $4 a day on the docks. Much of the money he had earned fighting disappeared when the Bank of the United States, in which he had deposited thousands of dollars, failed. He was far from alone. The men standing beside him on the docks hoping to get picked by the hiring foremen were lawyers and bankers and stockbrokers as well as laborers. The Depression took nearly everyone down a few pegs, or more. The work was irregular--there were days when Braddock would walk the three miles from his apartment to the waterfront in vain. He would then turn north and walk another couple of miles to West New York, N.J., or farther, to Edgewater. Sometimes there would be work on the docks there. If there wasn't, he would just turn around and head back home. It wasn't uncommon for him to walk 12 miles a day. When there was work to be had, he would keep working until the job was finished. A double shift meant double pay.
Braddock was teetering on the edge of anonymity as winter turned into spring in 1934. The talents he had displayed in the late '20s were fading rapidly from collective memory. When aficionados discussed the men who might challenge Primo Carnera for the heavyweight title, the name Jim Braddock never entered the conversation. Even so, his manager, Joe Gould, continued to sell Braddock as a worthy opponent. Gould spent hours pleading Braddock's case, insisting that all the fights he had lost were merely the result of his bad right hand. He reminded everyone who would listen that Braddock was still only 28 years old and that he was, after all, the same young man who had broken the great Pete Latzo's jaw in four places, knocked out the heralded Gerald (Tuffy) Griffith and made mincemeat of Jimmy Slattery. He didn't mention that those events had taken place half a decade earlier.