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Frank Deford
June 17, 1985
This is the story of Billy Conn, who won the girl he loved but lost the best fight ever
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June 17, 1985

The Boxer And The Blonde

This is the story of Billy Conn, who won the girl he loved but lost the best fight ever

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Greenfield Jimmy played in the bigs as late as '22, but by then the 18th Amendment was the law of the land, and he was discovering that his playing baseball was getting in the way of a more lucrative new career, which was providing alcoholic beverages to those who desired them, notwithstanding their legal unavailability. Sometimes, as decades later he confided to his grandchildren, he would even carry the hooch about in the big trunks that held the team's uniforms and equipment.

Back in Pittsburgh, where he hailed from—the Greenfield section, as you might imagine—Greenfield Jimmy Smith became a man of substance and power. He consorted with everybody, priests and pugs and politicians alike. He ran some speakeasies and, ultimately, The Bachelor's Club, which was the classiest joint in town—a "city club," so-called, as opposed to the numerous neighborhood clubs, which would let in anybody with a couple of bucks annual dues and the particularly correct European heritage. But The Bachelor's Club was a plush place, and some of Pittsburgh's finest made a great deal of walking-around money by overlooking its existence. Even after repeal, The Bachelor's Club offered games of chance for those so inclined. It helped that, like so much of the Steel City constabulary, Greenfield Jimmy Smith was Irish.

The Bachelor's Club was located in the East Liberty section of Pittsburgh—or 'Sliberty, as it's pronounced in the slurred argot of the community. In a city of neighborhoods, before automobiles begat suburbs, 'Sliberty was known as a very busy place; people came to shop there. For action, though, it was probably not the match of Oakland, a couple of miles away. Most neighborhoods in Pittsburgh were parochial, with a single ethnic legacy, but Oakland had more of a mix and stronger outside influences as well, inasmuch as it embraced the University of Pittsburgh and Forbes Field (where the Pirates played), and the Duquesne Gardens, which has got to be the only boxing arena that was ever set right across the street from a cathedral, which, in this particular case, was St. Paul's.

The Gardens was an old converted carbarn—which, once upon a time, was a place where streetcars were kept when they were sleeping. Pittsburgh was strictly a streetcar town. That was how everybody got to the steel mills. Only in Pittsburgh, nobody ever said "carbarn." They said "coreborn." In Pittsburgh, even now, they don't know how to correctly pronounce any of the vowels and several of the consonants. Even more than the a's, they mess up the o's. A cawledge, for example, is what Pitt is; a dawler is legal tender; and, at that time, the most popular bawxer at the Duquesne Gardens was a skinny Irish contender from 'Sliberty named Billy Cawn, which, despite the way everybody said it, was, curiously, spelled Conn.

Greenfield Jimmy took a real liking to the kid. They had a lot in common. Somebody asked Conn once if he had learned to fight in the streets; no, he replied, it was a long time before he got to the streets from the alleys. Early in '39, after 50 fights around Pittsburgh and West Virginia and two in San Francisco, Conn finally got a shot in New York. "Uncle" Mike Jacobs, the promoter, brought him to Gotham in order to get beat up by a popular Italian fighter, a bellhop out of San Francisco named Freddie Apostoli. Only it was Conn who beat Apostoli in 10, and then, in a rematch a month later, with 19,000 fans packed to the rafters of the old Madison Square Garden on Eighth Avenue, he beat Apostoli in a 15-round bloodbath. As much as possible, then, the idea was to match the ethnic groups, so after Conn had beat the Italian twice. Uncle Mike sent him up against a Jew named Solly Krieger. And when the Irisher beat Krieger in 12, he was signed to fight Melio Bettina for the world light-heavyweight title the following July.

Suddenly, Conn was the hottest thing in the ring. "Matinee-idol looks," they all said, curly-haired, quick with a quip, full of fun, free, white and (almost) 21. Money was burning a hole in his pocket, and the dames were chasing him. Right at the time, he took up with an older woman, a divorcée, and remember, this was back in the days when divorcée meant Look Out. He left her for a couple of days and came to Greenfield Jimmy's summer place down the Jersey shore in a Cadillac driven by a chauffeur.

Billy Conn was the cat's meow, and Smith was anxious for his wife and kids to meet him, too. Greenfield Jimmy wasn't just a provider, you understand, but also a great family man. and, they said, he never missed Mass. He thought it was really swell when Billy volunteered to take Mary Louise, his little daughter, out to dinner that evening. She was only 15, and for her to be able to go over to Somers Point and have a meal out with Sweet William, the Flower of the Monongahela, would sure be something she could tell the other girls back at Our Lady of Mercy Academy.

How would Greenfield Jimmy ever know that before the evening was over, Billy Conn would turn to the pretty little 15-year-old kid and say right out, "I'm going to marry you."

Mary Louise managed to stammer back, "You're crazy." She remembered what her father had advised her—that all prizefighters were punchy—only it surprised her that one so young and good-looking could be that way. Only, of course, he wasn't punchy. He had just fallen for the kid doll like a ton of bricks.

So now you see: It is Billy Conn who is the boxer in the club cellar and Mary Louise who is the blonde. By the time Greenfield Jimmy Smith (who prided himself on knowing everything) found out what was going on right under his nose, it was too late.

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