Literary Notes: “The Leather Pushers” by H.C. Witwer

BOOK REVIEW BY THOMAS HAUSER — Eight years ago, my good friend Dave Wolf died. Dave was known to boxing fans as the manager of Ray Mancini and Donny Lalonde. Basketball fans knew him as the author of Foul: The Connie Hawkins Story, one of the best books ever written about the city game. Soon after Dave’s death, his daughter and brother invited me to his apartment and told me to take as many books about boxing from Dave’s collection as I’d like. Otherwise, they’d be sold for pennies on the dollar to The Strand.

Many of the rooms in my apartment are lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. I have 4,500 books arranged by subject matter and author. Almost five hundred of them are about boxing. I took forty-or-so of Dave’s books and added them to my collection. Since then, I’ve read some for pleasure and others for reference purposes. Recently, I took Dave’s copy of The Leather Pushers by H.C. Witwer off the shelf.

Witwer was born in 1890 and died of liver failure at the much-too-young age of 39. He wrote novels, short stories, and film shorts. The Leather Pushers was published in 1920. Putting that date in perspective, Jack Dempsey had been heavyweight champion of the world for one year. Rocky Marciano had yet to be born.

Dave told me once that The Leather Pushers was among his favorite books when he was a teenager. Reading it last week, I understood why. The story is told in the first person by an unnamed narrator, a likable rogue who manages a young heavyweight prospect named Kane Halliday a/k/a Kid Roberts. It’s pulp fiction with a plot and ring action that are melodramatic to the point of being unbelievable. But Witwer had a wonderful way with words and conveyed the essence of boxing in a manner that encouraged the reader to suspend disbelief.

The Leather Pushers loses some of its luster in the second half but is still an entertaining read. Boxing is referenced as “the manly art of aggravated assault.” After a hard first round, a fighter comes out of his corner for round two “as fresh as a daisy but not as good looking.” A conniving fight manager named Dummy Carney “could dive into a haystack and emerge with ten dollars worth of needles.”

A boxer’s ring assault is likened to “a billion tons of coal going down a tin chute into an empty cellar.” A left to the pit of a fighter’s stomach doubles him up “like a match stick in its last glow.” A manager tells his fighter, “I don’t blame you for wanting to make money. There’s a certain time in our lives when all of us get that feeling, usually during the first seventy-five years.”

Witwer’s narrator observes that boxing is “a game which packs more tricks than Houdini ever seen.” Talking about one of his fighters, he acknowledges, “Sending Bearcat Reed into a ring with this rough Loughlin person was like entering an armless wonder in a bowling tourney. If Loughlin was trying, my battler wouldn’t have a chance if they let him climb through the ropes with an ax in each hand. But for a guarantee of a thousand fish, I would let Bearcat Reed box five starving lions and a couple of irritated wildcats in the middle of the jungle.”

He also notes, “The nearest I ever been to college was the time I went up to New Haven to go behind Young Evans when he fought K.O. Hines. I passed Yale on the way to the clubhouse.”

Recounting a walk down the aisle to the ring for a fight, Witwer’s narrator recalls, “They had a rule against smoking; and the smoke on that trip to the battleground was so thick, we got all the sensations of a fireman. The yell which went up from them lunatics all around us was one continuous roar in which it was impossible to pick out any words. Nothing but plain sound, that’s all. This here demonstration wasn’t [for either fighter]. It was caused by the same thing which makes lions in the zoo bellow when the keepers start in with the meat.”

And there are grim moments: “McCabe fell with a crash, his face hitting first. He was still there at ‘ten.’ He was still there half an hour later when the crowd had milled out of the clubhouse. He was still there two hours after that when another kind of boxer – the undertaker – come to take him and his broken neck away. It was an unfortunate accident, pure and simple. The same kind of an accident as sunrise is.”

And there are thoughts that are as true today as when Witwer wrote them a century ago:

*         “Oughta be able and can do is different in boxing.”

*         “It’s a real treat to watch the master ring artist at work. He can do with a pair of four-ounce gloves what the average guy might accomplish with a baseball bat and an ax.”

*         “Ring records all the way down from the time Battlin’ David knocked out One Round Goliath is studded with the names of gluttons for punishment. Their favorite punch is delivered with some part of their battered face to the point of the other guy’s glove, and they seldom if ever miss. They’ll always be in demand because the difference between the modern prize-fight fan and the cuckoos which used to sit around Nero and holler for the gladiators to quit stalling and knife each other has stopped at the matter of dress.”

*         “No matter how nifty he is with his hands, a fighter without absolute confidence in his ability to weather whatever unexpected hurricane of smashing wallops he may run into is a fighter with no good reason for remaining in a tough game. The faint-hearted bird is no good when he’s hurt. The real fighter is no good till he’s hurt. The clever but weak-spirited boxer is usually a world beater among the tramps and a tramp among the world beaters. But confidence is a heady drink. Too much is as dangerous to success as too little. You want to dilute it a bit with a little respect for the other guy’s chances. Allow leeway for the unreckoned break, the bolt from the blue, the chance that you might slip on the banana peel Fate or be flattened by the thunderbolt Chance.

*         “There’s probably no other competition in the world, sporting or otherwise, which draws a human gathering as miscellaneous and interesting as a prize-fight crowd. While waiting for the gladiators to enter the bull pen the next time you go to a mill, sit back and look around at the customers. You’ll find every trade, art, gift, science, business, profession, sex, and color represented. Bankers and bricklayers, doctors and dock hands, millionaires and mechanics, accountants and actors, jostle, kid, and argue each other purple in the face over the merits of their respective favorites.”

*         “Pan the fight game all you want. Call it brutal, disgusting, crooked, sordid, anything you please. But don’t say you can’t get a kick out of it.”

As a writer, I love the idea that, a hundred years from now, someone might come across a book I wrote and spend a day with it. If they do, I hope they enjoy it. Meanwhile, thank you, H.C Witwer; and thank you, Dave.

Check out more boxing news on video at The Boxing Channel.

 

Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauser@rcn.com. His most recent book – A Hard World: An Inside Look at Another Year in Boxing – was published recently by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.