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The Kimball Chronicles: BWAA Awards, De-Mystified

BY George Kimball ON June 21, 2009
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Vince Lombardi never won a Vince Lombardi Trophy, so I guess you’d have to say the Boxing Writers Association of America went one-up in 1995, when A.J. Liebling was named the winner of an A.J. Liebling Award.

Liebling, Nat Fleischer, and Barney Nagler were all boxing writers, and Sam Taub was a boxing broadcaster, which makes them somewhat unique among the names attached to the various awards the BWAA dispenses at its annual banquet, but as one might have anticipated in a process that has evolved over 85 years, others sometimes seem to defy rhyme and reason.  At the 2009 edition of the awards dinner, held earlier this month at the Capitale on the Bowery, there were 14 recipients of awards named for ten different people (and this doesn’t even count the Barneys, which by definition have multiple categories), and this much I’ll flat-out guarantee you: Among an active membership of nearly 150, there aren’t ten boxing writers in the country who could tell you who they all are, much less how they got their names attached to the hardware handed out that night.

Edward J. Neil, for whom the ‘Fighter of the Year’ award is named, wasn’t a boxer but a newspaperman. Al Buck, at least as far as we know, never managed a boxer, John F.X. Condon never trained one, and Harry Markson was never in a Fight of the Year.

The etiology of the BWAA Awards is sort of a patchwork quilt of names. Some of these honor deceased members, while the provenance of others reflects the organization’s New York-dominated origins, a throwback to an era when Madison Square Garden exerted a disproportionate influence on the sport, often with the connivance of influential politicians of the age.  More recently-contrived honors seem to have been cooked up on the spur of the moment, sometimes without much deliberation or reflection.

Some thought it ungrateful that I referred to a couple of these ambiguities in my remarks at the June 12 Capitale dinner. In introducing Trainer of the Year Freddie Roach, for instance, I mentioned that some BWAA awards “are named for crooked politicians and boxing officials of dubious character,” and in accepting the Bill Crawford Award “for courage,” I noted that both co-winner Genaro Hernandez and I found it somewhat embarrassing to be compared to a Medal of Honor recipient.  Neither point was disrespectful in intent; they were made merely to note the disparate contexts underlying some of these honors.

Edward J. Neil was an AP sportswriter and early BWAA member who had already been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize when he was killed in action on January 2, 1938 while serving as a war correspondent covering the Spanish Civil War. An award honoring his name was immediately established and presented that year. Although it has evolved into the Fighter of the Year Award (Manny Pacquiao won it for the second time this year) the first Neil Trophy was awarded to Jack Dempsey, who hadn’t fought in a dozen years. Six years later the winner of the Neil Trophy was James J. Walker.

In terms of longevity, the award named for Walker ranks second only to the Neil Trophy. Established in 1940, it is supposed to be for “Long and Meritorious Service” to boxing, although the service of its namesake was neither long nor particularly meritorious.

Credited with bringing boxing back to New York in a legalized state, Walker served as mayor of New York from 1925-1932, presiding over prohibition-era corruption through two scandal-filled administrations, the second of which was interrupted when he had to lam it out of town one step ahead of a grand jury.  Walker’s online biography notes that “facing pressure from Governor [and president-in-waiting] Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Walker resigned from office on September 1, 1932, and promptly left for Europe until the danger of criminal prosecution appeared remote.”

Although it is the coveted prize with which we honor our own, the BWAA didn’t establish the Nat Fleischer Award for Excellence in Boxing Journalism until 1972, the year of Fleischer’s death, when longtime president Barney Nagler became the first recipient.

An historical figure of undeniable importance, Fleischer might not have been a wordsmith on a par with Joe Liebling (or for that matter, of Barney Nagler), but his influence over the sport was profound. He had founded The Ring magazine in 1922, and in that role served as the sport’s conscience for half a century. Fleischer is also credited with establishing The Ring’s ratings in 1925. While these appeared under the magazine’s aegis, they were initially formulated by Tex Rickard, the promoter of boxing for Madison Square Garden. After a few years it was recognized that having a promoter involved with what purported to be unbiased ratings might appear to be a conflict of interest and Fleischer severed the relationship in 1929, leaving the “Bible of Boxing” to operate without influence from a promoter for nearly 80 years.

Unlike the other awards, which are voted on by the membership at large, the Fleischer is determined by a vote of living previous recipients.  Nagler, the initial winner, was followed by Dave Anderson (one of three Fleischer winners to also win a Pulitzer Prize) in 1973. The third year AP boxing scribes Jack Hand and Murray Rose shared the Fleischer. I’ve always wondered: Does this mean Dave voted for one and Barney for the other?)

A bridge between the BWAA’s origins and its present, Nagler served three terms as BWAA president between 1959 and 1989, and often served as its conscience as well. His 1964 book James A. Norris and the Decline of Boxing fairly eviscerated the longtime relationship between the Mob and the sport (and the Garden in particular), and, it should be noted, Barney didn’t exactly spare the feelings of several figures for whom BWAA awards are named.

Nagler was further honored in this century with the establishment of “The Barneys,” which annually honor the best boxing writing in several categories, chosen after a blind reading by an independent panel of rotating judges. The Barneys could as easily be known as “The Bernies,” since the project was created and brought to fruition by former BWAA president Bernard Fernadez, who has tirelessly nurtured the contest for nearly a decade.

Although Al Buck’s end came in circumstances slightly less heroic than Eddie Neil’s, the decision to name the Manager of the Year award for a departed comrade was a nice touch, or so it seemed in 1967.  The BWAA’s president from 1942-47, Buck covered boxing for both the New York Post and for The Ring. His name comes up as a training camp traveling companion in a couple of Liebling’s pieces in The Sweet Science, but my favorite Al Buck story is one exhumed by Vic Ziegel several years ago in describing the essential function of Mushky Jackson (real name: Morris Ladisky), a jack-of-all-trades utility player at the Garden Boxing Department:

“One night, the Garden was a heavyweight short for a four-round fight and Mushky was sent on a scouting mission. ‘He was a man who could provide such services,’ remembers Barney Nagler, the splendid columnist for The Racing Form. Mushky’s first stop was the Brass Rail Restaurant at Seventh Ave. and 49th St. He was walking past the doorman when he realized the uniform seemed to be just the size he needed.”

Later that night, after he had filed his story, Al Buck accompanied Mushky to the Brass Rail, where the boxing press was convening. As the doorman opened the cab door, Buck glanced at him and said “Don’t I know you from somewhere?”

“A remarkable bit of recall,” wrote Ziegel of Buck, “since the doorman was counted out just a few seconds after the referee’s instructions.”

Gil Clancy, Angelo Dundee, and Yank Durham won the first three Buck Awards, but this was an era in which a boxer’s manager was usually also his trainer and chief second in the corner. By the late 80s those roles had evolved considerably and it was decided to spin off a separate award for Trainer of the Year.

Initially this was named for Condon, a longtime Garden functionary whose roles over the years progressed from public address announcer to head of the publicity department to vice president and, eventually, president of MSG Boxing. Georgie Benton, who trained several champions but managed none, won the first two Condon Awards, and Eddie Futch won the next two. Eventually the decision was made to add his name to what is now called the Futch-Condon Award.

Since Eddie Futch had won two Manager of the Year awards even before his back-to-back wins as Trainer of the Year, it seemed appropriate to add his name to the trophy, and his widow, Eva Futch, joined me in presenting the Futch-Condon Award to Freddie Roach at the Capitale.

It was the third time in five years that Freddie had won the award, and I noted only half-whimsically that night that if the present trend continues we might eventually have to add his name to the trophy alongside Eddie’s.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful,” I asked at that night’s dinner, “if at some time in the distant future Floyd Senior actually was elected Trainer of the Year and had to come to New York to receive the Eddie Futch-Freddie Roach Award?”

The prestige of the Futch-Condon Award seems to grow with each year, and while you might not describe the Buck Award as a casualty of that process, the modern-day definition of a manager bears scant resemblance to the role played by the likes of Joe Gould and Knobby Walsh. In the past five years, the Buck Award has twice gone to self-managed boxers (Bernard Hopkins in 2004 and Joe Calzaghe this year). On another occasion, in 2006, the BWAA membership decided there was no candidate worthy of the Al Buck Award.

An award for “Honesty and Integrity” in boxing might seem an oxymoron of the first order, but the BWAA established one 22 years ago, and has been periodically handing out the James A. Farley Award ever since. There have actually been two New York State Athletic Commission chairmen of that name, father and son, but creating the award seemed particularly curious in 1977, since less than a year earlier the Farley name had been associated with most significant scandal to visit boxing over the second half of the 20th century.

Better known as FDR’s Postmaster General (the Post Office across the street from today’s Garden also bears his name), the first James Farley was a well-entrenched Tammany politician who served as Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and was appointed by Gov. Al Smith to head up the NYSAC, which he oversaw from 1925-1933.

His son and namesake followed in his footsteps as commission chairman in the mid-1970s. In 1976 Farley fils lent out the family name to, and agreed to supervise Don King’s so-called US Boxing Championships, a crooked exercise involving kickbacks, falsified ratings, and fixed fights that eventually brought down The Ring magazine, several ABC executives, and a handful of previously respected sportswriters. Farley, who had ostensibly been brought on board to “certify the integrity” of the scheme, was found to have accepted kickbacks in the form of expense money from King, and was forced to resign in disgrace by then-Gov. Hugh Carey.

Harry Markson was the recipient of the inaugural Farley Award. The scholarly Markson, the uncle of novelist David Markson, had been a Garden fixture since 1948. With Congress beginning to take interest in the profound influence the Mob was exerting on the sport, IBC kingpin James Norris personally installed Markson as Director of Boxing, with the explanation “There’s got to be somebody around here with clean hands.”

That might explain how Harry Markson’s name came to on the first Farley Award, but how and why the BWAA decided to name its Fight of the Year Award for him isn’t quite as clear. Markson had died in 1998. Four years later the organization decided to honor Micky Ward and Arturo Gatti, and has been handing out Markson Awards ever since.

Having already honored excellence in journalism for a decade, the BWAA created a category for broadcasters in 1982, and named the award for Sam Taub, a pioneer announcer. Don Dunphy was the first recipient of the Sam Taub Award, although it seems that Sam Taub could just as easily have been the first recipient of the Don Dunphy Award.

Established in 1996, the Marvin Kohn Good Guy Award is self-evidentiary, and honors another longtime fixture from the Garden’s Boxing Department.  The first two honorees were LeRoy Neiman and Don Dunphy. That the third was George Foreman would probably have surprised BWAA old-timers whose introduction to Big George had come in his first incarnation as heavyweight champion more than a quarter-century earlier. In his comeback phase Foreman became one of the sport’s more beloved figures, but if you’d asked them back in 1973, Dick Young and Red Smith would probably have told you Marvin Kohn had a better chance of being named Fighter of the Year than George Foreman did of ever being honored as a “good guy” by boxing writers.

Although the Fleischer Award is by definition for “Excellence in Boxing Journalism,” it has come to honor a lifetime body of work by a still-active fight scribe.  Two decades on it occurred to the membership that the process virtually ignored the artistry of many of their more distinguished predecessors.

The decision to name the award after A.J. Liebling, the greatest boxing writer ever to put pen to paper, was an easy one, and the first class of Liebling winners, in 1995, comprised half a dozen names, including that of Liebling himself, Budd Schulberg, and W.C. Heinz.

Its initial definition described the Liebling Award as, simply, “for Outstanding Boxing Writing,” but in subsequent years the focus seemed to wander. Although there were many deserving winners, Liebling Awards were handed out to newspaper editors, a photographer, a cartoonist, and in some cases the Liebling became sort of a de facto makeup call, a consolation prize for those who might have been considered for the Fleischer but who were clearly never going to muster enough votes to win one.

Edwin Pope and William Nack had won Lieblings in 2004, but the category lay dormant until this year, when new BWAA president Jack Hirsch, determined to restore the award to its original aspirations, appointed a committee consisting of five Fleischer winners -- myself, John Schulian, Dave Anderson, Bernard Fernandez, and Ed Schuyler -- to select the latest group of honorees. The three men we came up with – Leonard Gardner, Larry Merchant, and the late John Lardner – represent the most formidable trio of winners since Liebling-Schulberg-Heinz in ’95, and some of the near-misses eliminated in our democratic process promise an equally impressive selection of winners next year.

In what turned out to be a nice touch, Pete Hamill, who edited the just-published edition of Liebling’s The Sweet Science and Other Writings, presented this year’s awards to Gardner, Merchant, and John Lardner’s daughter Susan.

The most recently established BWAA award is only four years old, but already has a history of controversy. Following the death of longtime Sports Illustrated boxing writer Pat Putnam, it was decided to honor his name with the creation of the Pat Putnam Award for Perseverance. Kassim Ouma was the first recipient in 2005, and Muhammad Ali the second a year later. Anthony and Lamont Peterson had already been selected to win the Putnam award for 2007 when the crap hit the fan.

Having read a column by Bernard Fernandez describing Putnam’s exploits as a Korean War Marine and ex-POW, a couple named Charles and Mary Schantag, who operate one of those fly-by-night Swift Boat organizations out of their living room in Missouri, contacted the then-BWAA president with information that Fernandez’ account was (in Bernard’s own words) “totally bogus,” and that Putnam had never been either a Marine or a POW.

Acting in what still seems to have been indecent haste, the BWAA stripped Putnam’s name from the 2007 award given the Peterson Twins. 

There is no disputing that Pat repeated his fanciful account in barroom conversations, but, as I wrote at the time, “he never attempted to make them part of his official resume.  They were never a consideration in helping get him a job. They weren’t included in his official biographies at the Miami Herald, at Sports Illustrated, or at TheSweetScience.com, for which he wrote following his retirement from SI. He never publicly represented himself as either a veteran or a POW. He never attempted to join groups representing either.  He never applied for veterans’ benefits, he didn’t ask to be buried with military honors, and he certainly didn’t ask the BWAA to label him a war hero or to name an award after him.

“In short,” I concluded, “if Putnam is going to be posthumously convicted of anything, it should be of slinging bullshit in a bar. If that were a hanging offense, we’d all be in trouble.”

The point being that Putnam, one of the more distinguished boxing writers of his generation, was brought into disrepute not because of anything he wrote, but by what others had, without checking their facts, represented as factual. And in many cases these were the same journalists who couldn’t wait to strip his name from the award.

In what must by any standard be described as a massive overreaction, the Putnam Award for Perseverance was renamed the Bill Crawford Award for Courage. It is now named for a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, and – whether to appease the Swift Boat folks or to cover their embarrassment over their own slipshod journalistic practices – the BWAA also enacted a bylaw requiring that the Crawford Award also be presented by a former Medal of Honor winner.

I was frankly uncomfortable about this at the time, and even more so this spring when it was announced that Genaro Hernandez and I would share this year’s Crawford Award, and that it would be presented by a MofH recipient.

After all, Bill Crawford and Captain Thomas J. Hudner Jr, who presented the awards at the Capitale, had come by their honors by consciously risking their own lives. While Genaro and I had both been diagnosed with cancer, we had no choice in the matter.  It struck me not only as inappropriate, but downright disrespectful, to compare our status with that of bona fide war heroes, and when Genaro and I discussed it before the dinner, he agreed.

“All we can do is the best we can to live from one day to the next,” said Hernandez.

So in my speech that night, after a nod to Pat Putnam, I noted that discomfort, pointing out that while “Courage” was represented by Capt. Hudner (and by Bill Crawford), the original definition of the award –“perseverance” – might have been more appropriately applied to me and Hernandez.

“Perseverance is just another word for stubbornness,” I said. “And Genaro and I are certainly stubborn.”

For better or for worse, that’s what I said that night, anyway, and if someone misinterpreted it, then they may not have been paying attention. It seemed clear enough to me that Captain Hudner understood the point I was making.

That was all predicated on the official description of “The Bill Crawford Award for Courage,” by the way. It wasn’t until we got home and unpacked the trophy from its box that my daughter pointed out that the engraving on the bowl didn’t say “courage,” but “perseverance.”

And I’m not giving it back.

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