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"Yeah, they're right. I was nuts. But it beats working in those mills."
The immigrants shipped in from Europe to work in the mills mostly stayed with their own—the Galway Irish on the North Side, the Italians in the Bloomfield section, the Poles and Balkans on the South Side, the Irish in 'Sliberty, the Germans on Troy Hill. Harry Greb was German, but his mother was Irish, which mattered at the gate. Promoters liked Irishers. A good little lightweight named Harry Pitler, Jewish boy, brother of Jake Pitler, who would play for the Pirates and later become a Brooklyn Dodger coach, took the Irish handle of Johnny Ray to fight under. Jawnie Ray, one of Erin's own.
Everybody fought some in Pittsburgh. It was a regular activity, like dancing or drinking. It wasn't just that the men were tough and the skies were mean; it was also a way of representing your parish or your people. It wasn't just that Mr. Art Rooney, promoter, or Mr. Jake Mintz, matchmaker, would pit an Irishman against a Jew or a Pole vs. an Italian, or bring in a colored boy the white crowds could root against at Duquesne Gardens. No, it was every mother's son scuffling, on the streets or at the bar rail. It was a way of life. It was also cheap entertainment.
Greenfield Jimmy Smith, as we know, enjoyed fighting all his life. So did Billy Conn Sr., Westinghouse. Nearing 50, he was arrested and fined a five-spot for street fighting only a few weeks before his son fought for the heavyweight title. Just for kicks, Westinghouse used to fight Billy all the time. When Westinghouse came to New York to watch his boy in the ring one time, Billy told the press, "My old man is a fighting mick. Give him a day or two here, and he'll find some guys to slug it out with."
Billy fought even more with his younger brother Jackie, who was an absolutely terrific street fighter. One time Jimmy Cannon wrote that "if the ring in Madison Square Garden were made of cobblestones," it would be Jackie Conn, not Billy, who would be the champion of the world. A night or so after Cannon's tribute appeared in the paper, Jackie came strolling into Toots Shor's. He was dressed to the nines, as usual. Jackie fancied himself a fashion plate, and he regularly rifled his brother's wardrobe. So Jackie took a prominent seat at the bar, and he was sitting there, accepting compliments and what have you from the other patrons, when a stranger came over to him and asked if he were Jackie Conn, the street-fighting champion of the world.
Jackie puffed up and replied that indeed he was, whereupon the stranger coldcocked him, sending Jackie clattering to the floor of Toots Shor's Saloon. "Now I'm the champion," the guy said.
Still, everybody says that Joey Diven was the best street fighter who ever lived. There are stories that he would, for amusement, take on and beat up the entire Pitt football team. Joey is a decade younger than Billy, in his 50s now, working as an assistant to the Allegheny County commissioner. He is a big, red-faced Irishman. That's unusual because most ace street fighters are little guys. Does Billy Martin come to mind? Big guys grow up figuring nobody will challenge them, so they don't learn how to fight. Big guys break up fights. Little guys are the ones who learn to fight because they figure they had better. Billy always told his three sons, "Don't fight on the streets, because you'll only find out who's good when it's too late."
But Joey Diven was good and big. So first the other Irish pretenders in the neighborhood—the champion of this street or that bar—would come by to find him at the Oakland Cafe, where he loafed, and when he was done beating all those comers, the champs from the other neighborhoods would come over and insult him, so as to get into an interethnic fight.
Insults were automatic. People routinely referred to one another, face-to-face, with the racial epithets we find so offensive today. For fighting, it was the dagos and the Polacks, the micks and the jigs, and so forth. Sticks and stones. Before a fight with Gus Dorazio, when Dorazio was carrying on at the weigh-in about what color trunks he would wear, Conn cut the argument short by snapping, "Listen, dago, all you're going to need is a catcher's mitt and a chest protector." It was late in Conn's career before he took to using a mouthpiece, because, like his hero Greb, he got a kick out of insulting the people he fought.