Douglas Century’s Barney Ross, due to hit bookstores in February, and the latest biography in the Schocken/Nextbook â€œJewish Encountersâ€? series, is a beautifully written retelling of a hall of fame boxer’s incredible life story.
There hasn’t been a biography of Barney Ross’s life in over 40 years. His autobiography, a memoir called No Man Stands Alone, which was published in 1957 and turned into a film called â€œMonkey on My Backâ€? the same year, has long been out of print, so Century’s Barney Ross is a welcome addition to the canon.
Ross was born on Dec. 23, 1909 to hardscrabble beginnings in Chicago’s Maxwell Street ghetto. The son of Eastern European immigrants, at the age of 17 Barnet (â€œBarneyâ€?) Rasofsky watched as his father was gunned down during a botched holdup. His mother collapsed with a nervous breakdown and the family fell apart. As Barney’s younger brothers and sister were carted off to an orphanage, he vowed to make enough money to reunite his family â€“ and fists were his weapon of choice.
Rasofsky became a street tough, petty thief, gambler and numbers runner; he was even Al Capone’s messenger boy. Into this colorful milieu of gangsters, conmen, bookies and bunko artists, Barnet Rasofsky took up boxing and turned pro at the age of 19. He called himself Barney Ross so his mother wouldn’t know he was fighting.
With the legendary trainer Ray Arcel in his corner, Ross would go on to become the world’s lightweight, junior welterweight and welterweight champion. He had a celebrated trio of bouts in the 1930s bouts with Jimmy “The Babyfaced Assassin” McLarnin (“As the fighters made their entrances,â€? writes Conquest, â€œpearl-grey fedoras bobbed expectantly and wisps of cigar smoke swirled into the night sky”). His last fight was in 1938 against the amazing Henry â€œHomicide Hankâ€? Armstrong.
Barney Ross retired with a record of 72-4-2 (22).
In 1941, after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor drew America into WW II, Ross, at the age of 32, joined the Marines. Assigned to serve as a boxing instructor, Ross asked for combat duty and was shipped to Guadalcanal, where he earned a Silver Star for his heroism under fire. Surrounded by a superior Japanese force, all of his comrades were wounded, but Ross continued fighting through the night, firing more than 400 rifle rounds at the enemy, and in the morning, bleeding from wounds of his own, he carried his one surviving comrade to safety.
It was during his convalescence that Ross developed an addiction to morphine, a drug he was administered to help him deal with the pain. Once his addiction became public knowledge, the inevitable downward spiral commenced. His family life disintegrated. The former champion and war hero was disgraced. Ross went into rehab for detox, made it through rigors of withdrawl and kicked the habit. Ross’s success at getting clean led to him to actively campaign against drug abuse.
Barney Ross was one of the first professional athletes to use his celebrity in support of his religious and political beliefs. He championed the creation of the Jewish state, allying himself with militant Zionists, acting as a front in the U.S. for the Irgun, Menachem Begin’s radical underground organization. Ross also ran guns into Palestine.
Diagnosed with cancer of the throat and jaw in 1966, Barney Ross died on January 18, 1967 at the age of 57.
Douglas Century’s Barney Ross will be available February 7.