America was embroiled in war all over the world in 1944. Americans were lucky to still find full-color magazine covers on their newsstands in consideration of war shortages. The Ring magazine – the “Bible of boxing” – was one of them, not only serving civilian interests but also with great impact toward the war effort. On the front cover of the August issue, in magnificent color, there stood the singular form of a new world champion and inscribed, “Sal Bartolo, Maritime Service, holder of the NBA Featherweight Championship.”
Sal Bartolo had to be the biggest little battler in the world. In a sizzling 15-rounder at Boston Garden on March 10, 1944 which took place before almost 13,000 wartime fans, he outpunched the tough New York competitor Phil Terranova to gain the world title as sanctioned by the National Boxing Association. Ticketed to this moment of joy for Sal is that he became the only professional in American boxing history to win a world crown while a member of the U.S. uniformed services. He returned a hero to his U.S. Maritime Service base at Hoffman Island and was greeted by the immortal Benny Leonard, his topkick at the gigantic facility whose sage advice Sal must have heeded.
The road to the title was not without obstacles for Sal Bartolo. He entered the highly competitive amateur field of his day at 17, fought frequently and won fourteen different titles over a three-year period. He was going on 20 when he turned pro. From the start he kept a busy schedule, winning most of his schooling bouts but dropping decisions to the more experienced.
It was 1940 and the war was approaching. There seemed to be an urgency for Sal Bartolo. He accelerated the pace and was trading gloves with the best featherweights in the world. He was reaching his peak in 1943 and in April 9 of that year he was facing Willie Pep, the incumbent champ, in a non-title bout. In a tough battle he lost to Willie on a split decision. He was now high in the world rankings and the fistic chiefs saw fit to squeeze him in for a shot at the great Pep's crown. The date was June 8, 1943 at Braves Field with 14,000 onlookers interested in the all-New England match. Bartolo stayed for the whole 15 rounds but this was one of Pep's most brilliant nights as he retained his title. Bartolo continued on the road designed to give him another chance. He won nine straight fights and then came the day against the NBA champ, Terranova.
Fifty-five days after capturing the crown from Terranova, the new NBA champ was back in the Boston Garden defending his proud title against the man he took it from. In a great but close 15-round duel, Sal emerged with the decision and kept his title for another day.
Just before 1944 was out, on December 15, Sal picked up a Christmas bonus by pounding out a 15-round victory over “Whistlin” Willie Roache, a rugged and willing challenger. Roache was made to order for Sal, who looked the true champion in making his second successful defense of the NBA title in Boston.
Sal had eleven more engagements of the over-the-weight variety which took him into the middle of 1946. The global war was over and Jack “Spider” Armstrong, the former Canadian sailor, was in position to challenge for the NBA crown. On May 3, 1946, again in Boston, 7614 fans watched a determined Sal Bartolo decimate the Toronto veteran and put the finisher on him in round six.
A long-standing dispute, unifying the featherweight title's ownership, was now ready to be settled. The pairing of Sal Bartolo, with recognition as the NBA titlist, and Willie Pep, considered king elsewhere in the world, was scheduled for June 7, 1946 at Madison Square Garden. The “Will o' the Wisp” from Hartford started in a cautious manner, showing respect for Bartolo, but later turned on the juice and stopped the Bostonian at 2:41 of the 12th round.
Sal was hospitalized with a broken jaw after the Garden battle, which marked the end of a ten-year boxing trail. However, 2½ years later there was another call to action for the former champ. He won a couple of 10-rounders in his home state and then packed up his gear for good. Bartolo's career record reads 74-18-5 in 97 fights.
(Excerpt from Hank Kaplan’s book in progress on Italian-American fighters.)