The 1934 Chicago Golden Gloves Team on the way to New York. Tony Zale, 19, is in the back row, second from left. Aaron Wade, 17, and heretofore unidentified, stands in the middle row at far left.
Four years after roving gangs terrorized Chicago’s South Side during the Race Riots of 1919, the publisher of the Chicago Tribune began a campaign to legalize boxing in Illinois. He sought to prove that the sport was not only all-American, but that it could curb juvenile delinquency. As a direct result of his efforts, the state’s ban was lifted in 1925. “We then saw our way clear to establishing a huge tourney that would do untold good in keeping youngsters off the street,” said the Tribune sports editor, “—channeling their energies into a recreational sport that would keep them out of trouble.”
The first Chicago Golden Gloves Tournament was held in 1928. There were no African American entries that year, but everyone knew that would change. In 1932, the tournament was expanded to include teams from surrounding cities. Peoria was among them.
Jack Beaty pulled his REO to the curb at 142 Green Street in Peoria and honked the horn. To the Wade boys inside, that honk marked the beginning of another great adventure. They kissed Willie Mae goodbye and spilled outside with bags stuffed with shirts, socks, and boxing gear. They climbed into a crowded back seat, an integrated back seat, and Beaty peeled off to wherever a boxing competition was being held.
Inevitably a voice from the back seat would chirp, “Where we goin’?” Inevitably came the reply: “What’s the difference?”
Affectionately called “Trick Hip” and “Short House,” Beaty was a World War I veteran who devoted forty years of his life to Peoria’s wayward boys. He gave them boxing; and so gave them its gifts: an outlet for aggression, discipline and structure, a sense of purpose, a chance for glory, a place to go. He was, said one of his fighters, “like a second father to us all.”
In those days, amateur boxers could earn merchandise checks for between $7 and $25, win or lose. It’s hard to imagine Willie Mae objecting to that, and there’s nothing quite like a sharp coat and snap-brim hat to encourage a poor boy to want more.
In 1933, middleweight Bruce and lightweight Aaron Wade were part of the Peoria Elks Boxing Team. Beaty was the manager with trainers nicknamed “Wimpy” and “Bat” assisting him. Bruce was good, but Aaron was special—short and wiry with arms so long he looked like he could tie his shoes standing up. It was estimated that he had 600 amateur bouts, maybe more. “In those years,” a teammate recalled, “we rarely trained—we didn’t have time. Oftentimes we’d make two or three ring appearances in a week.”
In early 1934, Aaron competed in Chicago’s “Tournament of Champions” and made it to the semi-finals. Meanwhile, sports editor Arch Ward was touting Ray Wosniak, a light heavyweight from Chicago’s North Side who was crashing through opponents like a berserker. Ward said Wosniak was “a mortal cinch” to win the tournament. A member of the Peoria team recalled watching a large, tan-skinned teenager from the Detroit team into the ring to face Wosniak. Known as “Poker-Face Joe,” he looked bored as he shuffled out from the corner. Wosniak let fly a left hook—“and,” said the witness “woke up in the dressing room.” Joe Louis Barrow had countered that hook with a perfectly-timed uppercut, then returned to his corner like a man in his slippers returning to bed after a midnight snack. After Aaron won his semi-final match, Joe stopped another opponent cold with a right hand that travelled six inches or less.
In March, the Chicago team boarded a train due east for the Seventh Annual Intercity Golden Gloves Tournament. Aaron Wade was among thirty-two chosen from a field of 14,000 to compete under the lights at Madison Square Garden. Future light heavyweight champion Gus Lesnevich competed as a middleweight. He wore the blue and gold trim of the New York team and took the closest decision in the finals. Wearing white and blue with Aaron on the Chicago team was future champion and Hall of Famer Tony Zale, then 19. A middleweight who volunteered to fight as a light heavyweight after Joe Louis injured his hand, Zale managed to floor his larger opponent in the first round, but lost a decision.
Aaron, two years younger than Zale, was one of only three African Americans on the Chicago side. He and them would have had to contend with racist slurs, which is one thing on a city block and quite another in an arena filled with 20,000. He shut his ears to it and made it to the finals. As he stood alone in the spotlight with a sweater thrown around his shoulders, the ring announcer hollered his name, record, occupation (“shoe shine boy”), and hometown into a microphone. A drum roll followed. Aaron probably thought it was his heart rattling out of his chest. He was up against a two-time lightweight champion of New York who had scored four knockouts in the Manhattan preliminaries.
Aaron lost “by inches” according to the Chicago Tribune.
What he gained was immeasurable.
“We are certain that the Golden Gloves tournaments are the greatest levelers in sports,” said the editors of the Tribune. To the sons of black migrants during the Depression era, it was a gift that kept on giving. The editors knew their secret. They knew that even novices had the essential ingredient of natural fighters coded in the scars of fathers who were not there, in stories told and retold by mothers and grandmothers, in rocks thrown when invisible lines were crossed. What was a bloody nose compared to the soul-searing pain of the black experience in America?
They wanted to fight. They wanted that chance denied their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents. So they took those first shy steps into boys’ clubs and boxing gyms and soon filled the amateur ranks in an around the receiving stations of the Great Migration—Chicago, St. Louis, and New York.
To Aaron Wade, the arena spotlight was no different than the morning sunlight glancing off his mother’s leavin’ train. It meant he was going somewhere. He was Peoria’s first black Golden Gloves champion; he saw his name in print in local newspapers. When white people stopped him on the street to shake his hand, he could look them square in the eye like an equal —like more than an equal.
He might have noticed older folks a little ways off, watching, and smiling to themselves.
Photo: Chicago Amateur Boxing by Sean Curtain and J.J. Johnston, pp 16-17.
Undated article by Kenneth Jones Chuck in Burrough’s Scrapbook, courtesy of Peoria Public Library; Come out Fighting by Chuck Burroughs (1977), p. 7; Joe Louis: My Life by Joe Louis with Edna and Art Rust, Jr. p. 24 (1978); Chicago Daily Tribune 3/29/34; New York Times 3/28, 29/1934; “Negroes in the Golden Gloves” by Arch Ward, undated reprint in Ebony magazine.
Special thanks to Elaine Sokolowski, recently retired from Peoria Public Library.
Springs Toledo can be contacted at email@example.com.