Springs Toledo’s “Murderers’ Row” a Poignant Tale of Triumph and Tragedy

The best, most enthralling books, be they fiction or non-fiction, of necessity must engage readers in at least one of two ways. One is the subject matter, which ideally is compelling enough to create enough interest to make someone want to continue to turn pages from the first to the last. The other – and it’s an area to which I attach much importance – is the manner in which the story is told by the author, whose degree of literary skill can either elevate his or her efforts to high art or relegate it to just another mundane jumble of facts or meandering journey of individual imagination. The power and beauty of the printed word is such that the how is, or should be, just as significant as the what.

Unfortunately, excellence of plot and presentation are not always mutually inclusive. When I received a review copy of Springs Toledo’s third boxing-themed book, Murderers’ Row, my expectation that it would make for terrific reading was already set to high, and why not? Any fight fan who has enthusiastically consumed either or both of Springs’ first two books, The Gods of War and In the Cheap Seats, as well as his periodic contributions to thesweetscience.com, is well aware of the Boston native’s penchant for exhaustive research as well as for finding just the right words to evoke imagery as elegantly as did a John Keats sonnet. Springs’ paeans to pugilism are what my favorite mystery writer, James Lee Burke, are to his preferred genre, which is high praise indeed to both artistes of the English language.

Murderers’ Row is an homage to the careers of eight highly gifted African-American boxers who had the misfortune of having come along too soon. Their respective primes, in the 1930s and 1940s, should have been recognized and rewarded far more than they were, but, to one degree or another, they were too good for their own good. All were routinely avoided by champions and top contenders alike, both white and black, because of the threat they posed to elite members of the fight game’s inner circle. Even worse, their dreams and aspirations were stymied by virulent racism and shady conspirators during a turbulent time when the American Dream was only partially achievable by persons of color.

In the segment on Bert Lytell (birth name: Calvin Coolidge Lytle), Toledo strongly suggests that the Texas-born and New York-based southpaw was forced to retire at 27, while still at the top of his form, because of his adamant refusal to take the occasional dive for the benefit of boxing-affiliated mobsters, the most notorious being Frankie Carbo. Of Carbo, Toledo writes that “He was given the go-ahead to make millions by treating the boxing ring as if it were a prostitute with him as pimp.”

Lytell, a natural middleweight who sometimes was obliged to give away 10 or more pounds to get paydays against good light heavyweights, was never one to meekly yield to authority. When he served as a teenaged messman with the Navy during World War II, he so often found himself in trouble he was given a dishonorable discharge after only two years of service, was not recommended for reenlistment and denied government benefits. But, to his way of thinking, being treated as a lackey by white Southern officers or Carbo’s big-city hoodlums was equally objectionable.

“Navy brass used less Brylcreem than wise guys but they gave orders too and what they got from Bert was defiance,” Toledo noted. “Many of his choices were bad ones, though he would insist on his right to make them, consequences be damned … It’s likely he was blackballed by the mobbed-up managers’ guild. The guild would punish a stubborn fighter until he got connected and did what he was told. Bert didn’t know what he was up against. He didn’t see the strings on the pinkie rings, didn’t see how much control they had over what opportunities he would get and what opportunities he would not get. He thought he could shake them off.”

I found the tale of Bert Lytell especially interesting, maybe because I wasn’t quite as familiar with his background as I was with most of the other seven profiled members of Murderers’ Row, or maybe because of another eloquent and poignant take by our man Springs, who wrote that “Of the four middleweight kings who reigned during Bert’s rampage – (Jake) LaMotta, (Marcel) Cerdan, (Tony) Zale and (Rocky) Graziano – not one of them would have been any more than even money to beat him. It was a tragic irony, really. There he was fighting out of perhaps the greatest gym (Stillman’s) in boxing history, with well-connected managers and a crowd-pleasing style and it made no difference. He was bitter coffee no one wanted to drink: too black, too strong, and as it turned out, too honest.”

A ninth-grade dropout, Lytell (71-23-7, 24 KOs) is one of three members of Murderers’ Row whose surviving family members have been denied even delayed acknowledgment, through posthumous induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, of their forebear’s remarkable accomplishments in the hardest and often cruelest sport; the others are Aaron “Little Tiger” Wade (60-16-6, 31 KOs) and Jack Chase (81-24-12, 36 KOs). Eddie Booker (66-5-8, 32 KOs) was enshrined just this year, following Charley Burley (84-11-2, 50 KOs) in 1992, Holman Williams (145-30-11, 35 KOs) in 2008 and Lloyd Marshall (64-25-4, 32 KOs) and Cocoa Kid (177-56-11, 48 KOs), each in 2012. Each of those records includes more than a few losses that can be chalked up to “business” (going along to get along by throwing bouts) or what Toledo decried as “inexplicable losses to hometown darlings.” Many of those defeats, however, came from internecine rivalries as the ducked and dodged had nowhere to turn but to themselves: Row members fought one another an almost incomprehensible 62 times, with Williams and Cocoa Kid squaring off in 13 furiously contested bouts.

Even more astounding is the fact that none of the profiled members of Murderer’s Row ever got the chance to fight for a world title. That’s probably the reason why the great Archie Moore, a 1990 charter inductee into the IBHOF, is not included as the ninth member of the Row. Although the “Ole Mongoose” shared the ring 18 times with the Gang of Eight from 1941 to ’50, and took his share of lumps for having done so, he finally broke through by dethroning light heavyweight champ Joey Maxim on a 15-round unanimous decision on Dec. 17, 1952, thus separating himself from their company. All it took for Moore to reach the promised land was 17 years and 170 fights. “Fate bought him a bus ticket out of Murderers’ Row and escorted him into the company of kings,” Toledo wrote.

So, with Moore having risen to another level the others never managed to get a shot at, much less secure, who was the best of the rest? The popular choice is Burley, who has been touted as the “greatest uncrowned champion since Sam Langford.”

Like Lytell, Burley was not disposed to go into the tank for strategic purposes. For a story that appeared in Sports Illustrated, the longtime Pittsburgh resident said “I was offered, but I wouldn’t take no dives. I was told I could fight (Sugar Ray) Robinson three times, but I had to lose the first. I wouldn’t do it. I never took no money, and that’s the God’s truth. It wasn’t my style. I think it paid off to a certain extent. You have a better feeling about yourself.”

But maintaining a good feeling about himself wasn’t enough to prevent Marshall from taking a payoff to give less than his best every now and then. He had a family to support and, well, it didn’t take a genius to know the score after Marshall was paid $5,000 for his 10-round, unanimous decision over future middleweight champion Jake LaMotta while the “Bronx Bull” (who steadfastly declined the winner’s entreaties for a rematch) came away with $25,312.80.

“He couldn’t get fights because he was so good,” Cleveland promoter Larry Atkins said of Marshall in 1993. “So he had to lose fights deliberately. He told me he did it because he had to make a living.”

Some of those forever confined to short-money or no-money hell on Murderer’s Row lived long enough to see black fighters become headliners and millionaires, which had to amaze them, but not nearly as much as would have been the case had they known that Floyd Mayweather Jr. would receive $250 million (according to Forbes) for a single fight, against Manny Pacquiao, and could boost his career earnings to $1 billion if the more optimistic pay-per-view projections are met for his curious matchup with mixed martial arts star Conor McGregor.

Writes Toledo in his introduction to a book destined to become a classic: “Murderers’ Row has long been a place of secrets. Myths, mystery and misinformation litter the miles separating us from them. Consider me something of a private investigator inspired by the memories of Archie Moore and hired by ghosts.

“Hear that: Those are footsteps, coming to meet us, out of the darkness. And we’ve got miles to go.”

Murderers’ Row is available at Amazon and Amazon UK. Autographed copies are available at www.SpringsToledo.com

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