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Ever since James Aloysius Farley became Postmaster General, aspiring politicians have regarded the chairmanship of the New York State Athletic Commission as a gateway to statesmanship. Robert Keaton Christenberry, a New York hotel executive, may have had this idea in mind three years ago when he accepted Governor Thomas E. Dewey's call to purge the hoodlum-infested boxing racket. With a pledge to drive the gangsters out of the sport or lead a movement to repeal the Walker Law, which had legalized prize fights in 1920, Dewey's White Knight took office on September 25, 1951. As Christenberry's fourth year in office gets under way, people are beginning to ask: "When does his cleanup campaign start?"
ALL WORDS AND NO ACTION
The blunt truth is that Chairman Christenberry, in three years, has been a Don Quixote tilting at the wrong windmills. He made a public spectacle of the futility of his highly publicized cleanup campaign last March by accepting a plaque from an organization of boxing managers infiltrated by the very influences he had promised to drive out of boxing. The forces he pledged to exorcise are more firmly entrenched than ever. The Walker Law, instead of being repealed, has been amended to raise Chairman Christenberry's salary, augment his staff and give him broader powers than any other commissioner has ever had in New York?but which he hasn't yet used. His only worthwhile accomplishments have been permitting the Medical Advisory Board, set up before he took office, to function and instituting a system of automatic suspensions for fighters who are knocked out or injured in bouts.
In spite of his obvious failure as a gang-buster, Chairman Christenberry, an old hand at publicizing himself, has been able to use the channels of self-exploitation opened up to him by his boxing post to herald himself as a conquering hero. Long active in the Boy Scout movement, he approached his boxing post with the zeal of an Eagle Scout and the conviction that racketeers could be blasted out of the sport with scareheads mentioning his name. Under Christenberry's predecessors?including Eddie Eagan, a Rhodes scholar and onetime Olympic light heavyweight champion, whose friendly nature and genuine love for boxing prevented him from taking a realistic view of the profession?a hoodlum named Frankie Carbo grew so powerful that soon he and his underworld associates controlled most of the important fighters through front men.
When James Norris and his Chicago associate, Art Wirtz, took over Mike Jacobs' 20th Century Sporting Club and organized the International Boxing Club, they inherited Carbo and his friends. Although young Norris has more millions than most people have, he likes to gamble and has a strange preference for the company of characters such as Carbo and Golfbag Sammy Hunt, the Chicago hood. He once wrote a to-whom-it-may-concern letter which was shown to Judge Grady L. Crawford of Miami, extolling the virtues of Eddie Coco, convicted of second-degree murder. Coco, now free on bail pending the outcome of his appeal from a life sentence, is one of the undercover managers Christenberry promised to drive out of boxing.
A series of fatalities in New York rings brought about Eagan's resignation in 1950, and Christenberry came galloping onto the scene, brandishing his broadsword, Excauliflower, and calling on all gangsters to take to their heels. The day after he took office, Christenberry sat at ringside in the Polo Grounds and saw Sandy Saddler and Willie Pep put on one of the foulest brawls ever held in the New York Commission's jurisdiction. Christenberry, seeing his chance to break in with an explosion, revoked Pep's license, suspended Saddler indefinitely and fined Charley Johnston, Saddler's manager, $100 for accusing Dr. Vincent Nardiello, the commission doctor, of trying to influence the decision of Artie Aidala, one of the judges.
After the excitement of his slam-bang debut had died down and he had a chance to look around, it didn't take Christenberry long to find out that his promises couldn't have been fulfilled, even if he had had Sir Galahad supporting him instead of a group of politically appointed assistants, some of whom were spies for the I.B.C. Often, the commission's innermost secrets were telephoned to Madison Square Garden before the private meeting at which they were discussed had been adjourned. The odd part is that Chairman Christenberry, although aware of this situation, did nothing about it.
MORE MONEY, MORE AUTHORITY
At the time, however, Christenberry thought everything would turn out all right if the boxing laws were amended to provide him with enough undercover men to root out the gangsters, with a salaried medical advisor and with authority to revoke the license of anyone convicted of a crime or found associating with a known criminal. In April of 1952 Governor Dewey signed one bill containing all these provisions and another raising the chairman's salary from $7,500 to $12,000 and the pay of the other two commissioners from $25 to $50 for each meeting they attended.
Armed with additional authority, assistants and salary, and encouraged by a vote of confidence from the State Legislature and the press, Christenberry renewed his newspaper war against the boxing trust and the gangsters. In a blistering magazine article titled "My Rugged Education in Boxing," he gave the names and records of some of the big heels in the fight racket. The reaction to this blast was like an ear-splitting echo bouncing back at Battling Bob. The better minds of the sock-and-bust-'em racket held that Christenberry should not have dragged into print the prison records of those named in his article because the men had paid their debt to society and were trying to earn an honest living in boxing?a contradiction in terms if ever there was one.