A smart guy once said that drinking is the “black lung disease” of the newspaper business. It certainly seemed that way in those days when I was starting out on what, in retrospect, can only generously be described as a “career.” I learned the drinking part of “newspapering,” long before I mastered the “five Ws and an H in the lead graph” part of the business. I logged a generous amount of time in saloons and my rationalization was that saloons were where you were most likely to run into your next story. It was where I met Irish Bob Murphy.
Today, bars like the “Pilot House” are referred to as “dive bars,” primarily by people who drink their multicolored drinks with their pinkie extended from their stemmed glass. At the time of this tale, saloons such as the Pilot House were more the rule than the exception. This particular establishment was located across 36th Street from Miami International Airport in a section of the city known, in a bit of Chamber of Commerce overstatement, as Miami Springs. The Pilot House was the drinking base for Eastern Airlines and a number of other around the clock workers, including a fair amount of cops. The bar's primary attraction was the 21 hours it was open, 7am-3am, 7 days a week, which was extended to 24 hours for those who knew where the back door was and who were recognized by the guy behind that door.
This particular morning, I had just gotten off the “graveyard shift” at the paper and I was, at least to anyone who asked, in the Pilot House looking for material. A guy came in the door, a guy, who when you looked at him, you thought “big.” He wasn't particularly tall or even muscular, but “big” was the word to describe him. He sat a couple of stools away and ordered a “shot of Bushmills, beer back.” I remember this because that was the drink combination in front of me. I pointed that out and we got to talking. After a short time, I told him he looked like a fighter and he conceded he had done some fighting in his time and also had been a boxer. I laughed at the line and that was when he told me he was Irish Bob Murphy.
At that point in his life, Murphy was still on the south side of forty and not only would you cast him as a fighter in a movie, his “look” suggested a line you often hear in Texas: “rode hard and put away wet.” Fueled by youthful impetuousness, along with the Bushmill and beer, I jumped headlong into a soliloquy on what I knew about Murphy's career in the ring. I told him I remembered seeing him on the “Friday Night Fights” on NBC against Harry “Kid” Matthews in Madison Square Garden. “Yeah, I remember that one like it was yesterday,” Murphy replied, “I thought for sure I had blown my chance at the title when I lost. Joey Maxim, the champ, had promised to take on the winner. I came back into the Garden a short time later (two weeks) and knocked out a tough guy from Philly, Dan Bucceroni. I went on a winning streak after that including a TKO over Jake LaMotta in Yankee Stadium. Those wins, along with the fact that Maxim wanted no part of Matthews, got me a title shot later that year.” Murphy was a big favorite against Maxim, but the champion, one of the cleverest boxers the light heavyweight division has ever seen, easily outpointed the challenger, back in the Garden. “I couldn't have caught up with Maxim if we had been in a phone booth. I'm sure that's exactly what happened with Maxim and Sugar Ray, Robinson chasing him in that heat.”
I asked Murphy if Matthews was the toughest fighter he was ever in with. “Nah,” Murphy said, “LaMotta was like hitting a telephone pole.” Murphy recalled, “I was so glad when Jake didn't come out of his corner (for the eighth round). My arms felt like forty pound weights. He (LaMotta) was a lot like Marciano, he just kept coming at you, throwing from all angles and hitting you everywhere, and when he hit you he hurt you.” LaMotta later beat Murphy over ten rounds in a fight that, if you're lucky, you might catch on “ESPN Classic” which shows it periodically.
I made the assumption that LaMotta was, therefore, the hardest puncher that Murphy ever faced. He quickly contradicted me, “Not by a long shot. I fought a guy in Detroit, named Clarence Henry, tall, skinny heavyweight who caught me with a right hand and I wasn't “straight” for about an hour and a half. And that was at a time when I was knocking out everybody I stepped in with. But, Clarence Henry, he could really punch.”
We'd been talking and drinking for about an hour at this point and I figured I was well on my way to a good human interest piece and a byline, which would go a long way towards justifying another day in the Pilot House. Murphy got a bit reflective, noting that his main regret about his career in the ring was that he didn't stop and “smell the roses” when he was “near the top.” He recalled, “You really think it's going to last forever, the big cities, the nice hotels, the great meals, the women, everybody looking to get close to you, to do something for you. Then, one day, you look around and you're fighting in someplace like Waterbury, Connecticut and the hotel is a dump and instead of the Garden or Yankee Stadium, it's some auditorium in front of a couple of thousand people. And then you're on a losing streak and everybody wants a chance to beat Irish Bob Murphy. And after that…..” Irish Bob Murphy, once one of the best light heavyweight fighters, looked around the Pilot House and there was nothing more to say and you heard the cars going past on 36th Street, and noticed that the morning sun was coming into the place in dusty streaks.
Murphy signaled the bartender, who was bent over the paper, probably trying to pick some winners for that afternoon at Hialeah, and said, “Give me and my friend here one more.” The Bushmill had kicked by then and I allowed as how those streaks of sunlight reminded me of patterns I had seen in some boxing gyms. Murphy snorted into his drink and said he had “never been big on training, particularly the roadwork” and sunlight patterns weren't high up on his memory of gyms. We finished the “one more” and had another and then Murphy got up to leave, vaguely referring to “some people I have to meet.” Not too long after that I saw a headline come across on a wire service that “Irish Bob Murphy, former fighter” had died. He never did make forty.
I did the human interest piece for the paper. I left out the part about the Pilot House and the “Bushmill and the beer back.” I thought it was a worthwhile article and made for interesting reading. Of course, in those days, I thought every word I typed was worthwhile and made for interesting reading. The copy editor disagreed, making the point that Murphy wasn't a “local angle” and “nobody's interested in another stumblebum fighter story.” The editor was right about the local angle, but Irish Bob Murphy was never a “stumblebum fighter,” not in Madison Square Garden, not in Yankee Stadium, and not that morning in the Pilot House with a kid writer.