In a scene that so far has failed to fade, Evil Eye Finkle was screaming savage incantations at the TV set in a Miami saloon called the Dade Athletic Club, causing several patrons to shift to more secure positions on the far side of the circular bar. To the enraged old man’s right, a barrel-shaped bartender with a face like shattered pottery wore the blank look of a sentinel suddenly struck deaf.
By nature a gentle soul, on this particular day Finkle’s ancient Divyuk blood had been brought to a boil as he watched the Baltimore Colts defeat New England, thereby eliminating the Miami Dolphins from the 1978 NFL playoffs. By then a Miamian for the last 50 years, Finkle normally would not root for his mother to escape quicksand, but he admitted to a weakness for the Dolphins. “Rooters is amateurs,” he voiced often, a conviction reversed by what he considered a fluke victory by the Colts.
“Them Baltimores is crooks,” said the creator of the Slobodian Stare, jabbing a hard-boiled egg into a shot glass of Beefeater gin before stuffing the mess into his mouth. “Crooks,” he snarled again, spewing bits of wet egg onto a vest he had long ago stolen from Al Weill. “The bum quarterback loses the ball on the square. The New Englands fall on it—-and that lousy zebra with the whistle must be the governor of Virginia.”
A drunk sitting nearby lifted his head from the bar and said, “Baltimore is in Maryland.”
“I know where it is,” Finkle snapped, drilling the drunk with the eye that had put the hex on folks like Jack Dempsey, Willie Pep and Floyd Patterson. “I read the Almanac, don’t I?”
That was the last time I saw Ben. He was 80, his once pudgy body had been trimmed by time and thrift to a bony 135 pounds, and the right eye, the one they said conveyed the Devil’s gift, was more bloodshot than demonic. His gait was measured; he never went anywhere in a hurry, unless it was toward or away from a score. “You save the track shoes for after a robbery,” was another of his favorites. His hands, once slender and strong, kept endless time to private music. Once circular blue-green ice cubes in beds of pure white, the eyes had grown weak and watery, tired dependents of thin silver bifocals resting on an awesome hook of a nose. His was the look of an owl with an eagle’s beak perched on an unsteady coat rack.
The accumulation of the years—plus the terrible drain of a half-century of casting maleficent spells—had forced the legendary character known simply as The Eye from the ranks of professional hexsters and dumped him unceremoniously among the South Florida pipe and slippers set. Finkle was a mystic; a boxing legend who once shuffled across the pages of Damon Runyon; a rascal who mixed two parts voodoo with one part fraud while lurching through life unencumbered by honest labor.
We would meet at the Chris Dundee-promoted fights in Miami Beach, and it became something of a ritual that I would buy him coffee and a sandwich inside the arena, and a coffee for myself. Then I would hand him the cigar I had bought on the way over from The Miami Herald. I can’t remember him ever saying thank you, not that it was required. Perhaps he thought I was paying dues for his delightful stories; if so, he was undercharging.
As his life wound down, Finkle took up residence in a large and untidy room in a boarding house not far from the Dade Athletic Club, austere quarters that soon became awash in the jetsam and flotsam stolen or salvaged by The Eye on his uncharted sail through the rougher waters of life. His prized possessions, along with 59 pairs of shoes, some of which fit him, were a set of thumb-worn Almanacs dating back to the 1940s. On page 449 of the 1977 World Almanac it tells that in 1874 a 520-feet steel-arched bridge was built across the Mississippi River, with one end resting in St. Louis, where one Benjamin David Finkle was born 23 years after the bridge was completed.
‘I sold that bridge to a drunk one night in a Kerry Patch saloon,” said The Eye. “Got two dollars for it. Two or three hours later, the drunk got run over trying to stop cars going on the bridge to collect tolls. I think he lived.”
His father, Hymie, a hard-working Orthodox Jew, managed a milk store in Kerry Patch, a tough-as-a-cob Irish slum. “I was a kosher punk in the trenches full of kids with O’s and Mc’s in front of their names,” said Finkle. “I could fight before I could walk but I didn’t learn how to spell “ham” until I was 13. Then one day I walked downtown, ate a hot dog, and threw up. It wasn’t the food; it was a mental thing. My father had given some rabbi a lot of dough to teach me how to speak and read Jewish, but he blew the money. All I ever read was those Horatio Algier books. I never could figure out if I wanted to be Ragged Dick or Tattered Tom. The next day I went back downtown, ate another hot dog, kept it down, and never went home.”
Finkle chose selling newspapers over the security of a stern home life. With a starting capital of two pennies, he bought two papers from a man in an alley, went into a nearby saloon, and sold each for a nickel. “Plus I ate the free lunch,” he said. Whenever he got stuck with several unsold papers, he would holler “extra,” and they would be snapped up immediately. “You just had to run like hell before the guy started to read,” he said.
His storied career in the sweet science began several days after he began peddling newspapers. Finkle and another urchin became embroiled in a discussion over the circulation rights to a saloon, a territorial debate The Eye settled with a right hand to the nose. A moment later, when a large hand fell on his right shoulder, Finkle though it was the law. The hand belonged to Brooklyn Tommy Sullivan, who once laid claim to the featherweight championship of the world. In a fix arranged by both sides in 1904, Abe Attell, then the champion, lost by agreement to Sullivan on a foul. The back end of the nefarious scheme called for Sullivan to give Attell an immediate rematch.
“Get lost,” Sullivan told Attell after he claimed the title.
“I figured you for a thief,” said Attell, applying what Pierce Egan described as the double-cross, “so here is a slip of paper that says our fight was only an exhibition. Now you get lost.”
Four years later, Sullivan went after Attell’s title on the square and was knocked out in the fourth round. Now he was out in the street saying to Finkle, “You wanna fight as a pro?”
“What I gotta do,” said the tough newsboy.
“Fight for money,” said Sullivan.
Finkle shrugged. “I got nothing better to do. Loan me a buck, will ya?”
Four days later, Finkle, who had never been near a gym, made $10 fighting a four-round draw at the Future City Athletic Club. Two nights later, Sullivan moved him in as a substitute in an eight-round main event in a downtown smoker against an opponent named No First Name Boozeman. He was paid $15, and, said Finkle, “the bum never laid a glove on me. Of course, I was running so much I never hit him, either.” It went on his record as another draw.
In his eighth pro fight, just three days past his 14th birthday, Sullivan matched his 116-pound tiger against Jack Rainey, an experienced 130-pound adult male with prison tattoos. Early in the fight, Finkle decided it was time for him to find another line of work.
“Thank God for Harry Sharpe, a great referee who wouldn’t do no business for no kind of money,” wheezed the old guy. “This Rainey was killing me. By the third round it looked like he was gonna take me out. I had to do something desperate.”
Finkle began to hold and hit; to hit low; to rabbit punch; to hit with his elbows. Sharpe ordered him to stop or he would be disqualified. While the referee was talking, Finkle used the ceasefire to drill Rainey with a low blow, nearly crippling the poor fellow for life. Sharpe threw Finkle out of the ring. The next day the papers said the Jewish newsboy was too tough for Rainey.
Never one to miss an opportunity, Finkle retired, claiming the referees were protecting his opponents. Three days later he talked a bantamweight named Patsy Flanagan into letting him be his manager. Flanagan had a dismal record: he had won his debut, and then lost his next 11. With the 14-year-old runaway handling his career, Flanagan won his next five.
“That lousy Irishman didn’t like nobody, including me,” said Finkle. “I was lining him up for a title shot against Johnny Buff when the commission asked if we had signed any papers. I told them: what are you nuts; I don’t sign nothing. So the commission tells him to unload me, which he is all too happy to do. The bum never did get a title shot.”
Disgusted, Finkle traded St. Louis for the life of a road bum, traveling by boxcar, living in hobo jungles, selling papers, singing in saloons, managing whatever fighters he could find, if for no more than one fight. He went a lifetime without ever answering a want ad.
“A guy on the bum can make a living all kinds of ways,” said Finkle, “but I never stole nothin’ that was nailed down. I had principles. I did more collective holdover time in city jails than most cons did in the Big Joint. If they found you did not belong in a town, they’d give you 40 hours for just being there. If you made a mistake and wound up in Joisy, you were a lead pipe cinch to do small time. I was in all the best jails; some I liked better than others.”
At desperate moments, those times when his empty wallet matched his empty stomach, The Eye would find the nearest saloon and sing. His favorite was Ace in the Hole, unless he was in an Irish bar, when Mother Macree and Danny Boy leaped to the top of his chart. “You sing an Irish song to them drunks and you needed four guys to help you get the money out of the bar.”
Finkle discovered the power of the hex in 1926. He was working in Miami with a boxer named Spike Webb. The opponent was Joe Knight. It was the most innocent of beginnings. “I was just glaring at the bum,” said Finkle. “I never did like nobody we had to fight. That guy Knight had been watching me give him the eye, and all of a sudden he turns green. Sweat started pouring off him. I ran around to his side of the ring and screamed: ‘you dirty bum, I got the evil eye on you. The hex is gonna kill you.’ Now the bum really looks sick. My guy is about a hundred to one shot to win if it is a fixed fight, maybe, but he beats this Knight bum easy. I figure, Benny, you are a born witch just like mama said. My mama always told me I had dybbuk blood. That’s Jewish voodoo. It was like I found a goldmine in my eyeballs.”
The power of Finkle’s evil eye spread as quickly as Finkle could get it spread. With promotion as much a part of boxing as punching, some of the country’s top managers soon had The Eye working out of their corner. The first to use him was a Lew Diamond, known as The Honest Brakeman because he once worked two years for the Erie Railroad and never stole a boxcar. Before he was done, he worked for such as Doc Kearns, Angelo Dundee, Swifty Morgan, Honest Bill Daly, Lew Diamond, Joe Gould, Dumb Dan Morgan and Pete Reilly.
“I never believe in that hex nonsense,” Daly told me, “but that did not matter. A lot of guys that fought my guys believed it, and that did matter. I saw some pretty tough guys wilt under Benny’s unblinking stare, and they lost because they began to believe that they could not win, not with that nut staring at them. I loved old Benny, even if he did steal two pairs of my shoes once.”
Finkle was not much for social events, but on occasion, probably because he smelled a score, he would don his best outfit, one that he had been assembling since 1926. The main pieces were Joe Gould’s 1915 Passover suit; the vest he stole from Weill, which had been last cleaned in 1949; either a pair of former heavyweight champion James J. Braddock’s castoff shoes or one of the pairs he had lifted from Daly’s apartment; a tie that was swiped from Joe DiMaggio’s locker one day when they forgot to guard the door to the Yankee dressing room; and a handkerchief he borrowed from Doc Kearns and forgot to return. When the night is cold, Finkle had two options: underneath all the finery, he could wear a pair of pajamas he found in Jack Dempsey’s trash can, or he could wrap himself in a $55 overcoat he got in trade for one of his boxers in 1926.
“I never could have made no $55 with that fighter,” Finkle said the last time I saw him. “He stunk out the joint. I still got the coat and he’s been dead a long time.”
As Finkle’s fame expanded, so grew his rewards. His price rose from $50 for a fight to $300 plus expenses, including eyewash. He began to vary his hexes, from the Whammy to the Slobodian Stare to the Zinger, all coming in doubles and triples, depending upon the amount of silver that crossed his leathered palm. He was a frequent guest on radio programs such as Ripley’s Believe It Or Not and We The People. Cartoonist Al Capp immortalized Finkle as Evil Eye Fleegle in the comic strip Li’l Abner. Dan Parker, a highly respected New York sports columnist, called Finkle the No. 1 hex man in the world.
“I put the eye on for so many champions, I forgot most of them,” sighed The Eye. The names of the past greats that he had worked for rolled easily the ever-present cigar in his mouth: Joey Archibald, Lew Ambers, Tiger Jack Fox, Ignacius Pasquale Guiffi (OK, Harry Jeffra), Red Cochran, Carmen Basilio, Rocky Marciano, Gus Lesnevich. Floyd Patterson, Bob Foster, Ray Robinson, Willie Pastrano, Freddie Steele, Billy Conn. And more.
“So many fights, so many years,” said the withered wizard of boxing black arts. “In 1938, Joe Jacobs asked me to work for Schmeling in his second fight with Louis. I told him, ‘what the hell kind of a guy do you think I am? I don’t work for no Nazi against one of us. I liked Jacobs, but he made me mad. The night of the fight I went to Yankee Stadium and put the eye on that Nazi for nothing. Had him down twice in the first round before they stopped it. Later, Louis heard what I had done and wanted to give me some money, but I told him to nix that kind of talk. I don’t buy and sell my patriotism.”
Finkle was at the height of his popularity in 1942 when Uncle Sam tested his patriotism further with a draft notice. He was 45 years old and thought it was a bad joke. “I almost threw the letter away,” he said. “Then I got to figuring that if it was legit, them Army guys eat three times a day, which I have to admit was not my regular routine. Then a guy offers to bet me a fin I can’t pass the physical. ‘You’re on,’ I tells him. I go down and win the bet easy. The doc says can you breathe? I tell him I ain’t sure but I will try. He says fine, you pass. I ain’t even breathed yet. Then he asked me to lead this other guy over to where they are swearing everybody in, because the guy don’t see too well and the doc is afraid he might walk into a wall.”
His first duty was in the athletic department at Scott Field, where he fell off a ladder trying to hook up a basketball net. For that, he drew $41 a month disability for the rest of his life. “I tried to put in for two broken ankles,” Finkle said, “but the bums tricked me into walking.”
They sent him overseas, as a Pfc., which raised his pay $4 a month. First landing in Scotland, he was moved to England, and then to France, where they tried to make him a sergeant. He told them to forget it. “Them sergeants had to work,” he said. “It would have got in the way of me making a few bucks. I had a few things going on the side.”
Finally, more as a joke, they stationed The Eye on the top floor of the tallest hotel in Paris and pointed him toward Germany. “Hitler is that way,” his company commander told him. “See what you can do.” Each day, Finkle rode the elevator to the top floor, set up in a window looking east, and ran through his arsenal of hexes, all of them aimed at Hitler. Two weeks after he began, word came that The Fuehrer had killed himself.
“With me working on him it was just a matter of time,” said Finkle. “If they had thought of it sooner, I probably could have ended the war in 1943. I figured at least I’d get a Silver Star. I never even got one of them good-conduct ribbons.”
The last time I spoke to The Eye was by telephone. He called me collect from Miami. He had been offered a job working with John Scarne, the magician, in South Africa. “John met some witch doctors there and they had heard of The Eye,” he said. “They want to meet the greatest hexer of all time. Expenses and a good payday. But Africa, hell, that is a long way. I don’t know if The Eye can make it that far. Hey, can you mail me a sawbuck until I get well?”