In the glare of floodlights focused on a triple ring at Chicago Stadium the great annual Golden Gloves boxing tournament draws to a close. Next Thursday night, this time in just one ring, eight young boxers, finalists of an arm-flailing army of more than 25,000, will receive one of the highest honors in all amateur sport—the designation of national champion of the Golden Gloves. For those eight, who fought their way through countless individual battles to this triumph, the Golden Gloves can mean fame and possible fortune. For many there will be the memory of momentary acclaim, and for a few the actuality of heartbreak. The odds against winning are terrifyingly long, yet there has never been a dearth of entries. The sheer difficulty of achieving a Golden Gloves title imparts to it a special quality akin to baseball's no-hitter, bowling's coveted 300 game, golf's hole-in-one; and the pursuit of the elusive goal brings back new thousands of young hopefuls year by year.
Early last fall, youngsters were already working out in cities, towns and villages from coast to coast, running miles every day to strengthen their legs, feinting and dancing endlessly in front of mirrors to develop style and footwork, punching doggedly at overstuffed mattresses in their cellars or light and heavy bags in neighborhood gymnasiums. Golden Glovers, who, consciously or unconsciously, are the most class-conscious youths in their neighborhoods, take their work in deadly earnest. Most of them are from the lower end of the social scale. They are hungry, as the fight people say. Indeed, they are determined to speed up their social adjustments in jig time with their own fists.
In the Golden Gloves, the kid from Hell's Kitchen in New York, from Chicago's teeming South Side or the quiet wheat fields of Kansas thinks he sees a tailor-made chance for advancement. With every bout he wins, he comes closer to the dream of the big bout in the big arena, where among the strange and coldly calculating faces he may catch the eye of a fight manager or trainer who will take him aside and lead him into the moneyed world of the real big time.
The Golden Gloves rules are strict and stress safety. Doctors examine every fighter before and after each appearance in the ring, and a ringside physician is in constant attendance. Fights are stopped if they become one-sided. There has seldom been a serious injury in a Golden Gloves bout.
Once the entry blank is signed, a Golden Glover is offered the services of a coach. He may be the local physical education instructor in a small town, an old-time pug from the neighborhood or, in the bigger cities, a regular coach from a youth recreation club. Whichever the case, he becomes the fighter's manager and friend, perhaps the first real instructor he has ever had. The coach prescribes the routine, watches carefully over his boy, brings him along and teaches him what he must know on the long Gloves grind. For when a Golden Glover steps into the ring for his initial tournament bout, he must be as ready as that short and concentrated period of training can make him.
That moment comes shortly after Christmas; and for most Golden Glovers the long, hard battle upwards begins in grimy neighborhood arenas. In sweat and fear and hope, the first bouts are fought and won or lost, and by late February the relentless weeding-out process has carried the survivors to regional eliminations. Those who are still unbeaten after that go to Chicago or New York for the final cutdown which will leave eight youngsters in each of the Eastern and Western sections—one for each of the eight weight divisions.
By the time a boy gets to the national finals, he has established himself as a first-rate amateur fighter. Depending upon the number of entries in his weight division, he has had as few as five or as many as a dozen fights along the way. At this climactic stage, the sense of heartbreak in defeat is compounded by a sense of futility at coming so close to amateur boxing's brass ring and missing it on the last grab. For the losers next Thursday night there is scant solace, save the experience they have gained that may help them in next year's Golden Gloves. But the successes of past winners (see below) have inspired others, and over the years the Golden Gloves has snowballed into the biggest personal-contact elimination tournament in all sport.
The idea of a big amateur boxing tournament germinated in Chicago back in the mid-'20s in the face of an Illinois law that prohibited prize fights. The law was first put to the test entirely through accident by a young mission director named Austin Pardue, now Episcopal Bishop of Pittsburgh.
THE CHURCH AND THE LAW
Pardue was disturbed over the lack of facilities for neighborhood recreation. In an effort to keep the boys in his charge off the streets, he organized a boxing tournament without realizing he was breaking the law. He was promptly arrested. In the resulting furor, the Chicago Tribune stepped into the picture. Its co-publisher, the late Capt. Joseph Medill Patterson, thoroughly disliked the antiboxing statute and saw a good opportunity for Tribune promotion. He put the Tribune's lawyers to work, got an injunction to neutralize the law and had his sports-writers round up the best local talent for a widely publicized tournament, directed by the late football great, Walter Eckersall. Staged in the old Ashland Boulevard Auditorium, the show was a smashing success, and soon afterward, the law was repealed.