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The Longshoreman's Son
John Tunney always liked a good fight-from afar. From the days of his boyhood in Ireland's County Mayo, where he grew up idolizing John L. Sullivan, the bare-knuckled and blustering heavyweight champion from Boston, to the years after he arrived in New York, where he came to worship another American-born Irish boxer, James J. Corbett, whose victory over Sullivan with padded gloves ushered in a new era in boxing, Tunney's favorite diversion was watching, reading about, or talking about boxing bouts. This was especially true if a bout involved Irish boxers, which in that era many, if indeed not most, did.
After emigrating to the United States around 1880 (although he claimed to have made a stopover years before as a boy sailor aboard a windjammer), Tunney reveled in observing two men go at it in the ring at "smokers," which abounded in New York from the 1880s until shortly after World War I. Usually staged in smoke-filled Knights of Columbus halls capable of seating several hundred patrons and in large basements of other fraternal organizations, smokers were designed to circumvent New York state laws against professional boxing, which at the time was held in disrepute in the United States and most of the world, except for England. Generally held on Friday and Saturday nights, smokers tended to attract a rowdy crowd of men, a large percentage of them Irish and Italian immigrants, most of whom placed bets with one another. Often raucous, the spectators at times produced fights as good as if not better than the ones in the ring. The police virtually never interfered and, indeed, promoters often hired off-duty officers to try to prevent the frequent disorders that erupted during bouts and that usually stemmed from excessive drinking.
As a stevedore on the Hudson River docks in the western part of Greenwich Village, known later as the West Village, Tunney also was accustomed to seeing but personally avoiding the fierce, bloody brawls between longshoremen competing for jobs at daily shape-ups, which determined who would load and unload freighters on a given day. Then there were the impromptu fights that broke out occasionally in the saloons that abounded in the neighborhood to which he and his family had moved in 1897. But even watching those fracases had little impact on Tunney, jaded at having seen so many of them, particularly on the docks, which were as mob-controlled around the turn of the twentieth century as they were a half a century later. The same was true of the bloodletting that ensued from street fights involving Greenwich Village toughs, including members of the Hudson Dusters or Gophers, two of the more prominent of the notorious gangs of New York, which had maintained an intimidating influence on businessmen and residents on the lower West Side of Manhattan since the middle of the nineteenth century.
But Tunney abhorred violence when it involved any of his three sons, particularly James Joseph, the oldest, a spindly youngster who often returned home from school bloodied after having been accosted and beaten by one or more neighborhood bullies. In a poor neighborhood populated primarily by Irish immigrants of limited means, such as the one in which the Tunney family lived, flexing one's muscles, even in prepubescence, was, if not a way out, then possibily a way up.
James Joseph Tunney was no match for older and heavier youths who set upon him, either individually or in groups, if for no other reason than that he had refrained from gang activities and had attracted attention because of his athleticism, primarily in basketball, distance running, and swimming. That young Tunney was slight of build and usually loaded down with school and library books made him an even more vulnerable target for neighborhood toughs, as did his disinclination to fight back.
Aware of what was happening to his oldest son, whom he called "Skinny," John Tunney decided on James's tenth birthday to give him a pair of inexpensive boxing gloves he had spotted in a Greenwich Village department store. He did so not because he wanted James Joseph to follow in the footsteps of John Tunney's heroes of the past, but so that the boy could learn how to defend himself against neighborhood hoodlums. Much as he liked boxing, John Tunney, like his wife, Mary, wanted his eldest son to become a priest, a common desire on the part of immigrant Irish parents of the era.
The sight of the gloves entranced the boy, who had already become fascinated with boxing through the cartoons and columns on boxing in the New York Evening World by Robert Edgren. Infatuated with the gift, young Tunney, aided by his father, put on the twelve-ounce gloves (far heavier than the eight- and six-ounce gloves used by both amateur and professional boxers) and began sparring playfully with his younger brothers, John, seven, and Tom, six. By that time, James Joseph had become known as "Gene" to family members and friends-a name bestowed on him by his youngest of four sisters, Agnes, who, in struggling to say James, kept saying something that sounded much more like Gene.
John Tunney's own fascination with boxing was easy to understand. He had boxed, bare-fisted, as a teenager in Kiltimagh in County Mayo and, while weighing around 160 pounds, he had filled in occasionally and with no particular distinction as a substitute boxer at Knights of Columbus smokers in Manhattan. Also, Irish boxers, both those from the Old Country and those born in the United States, dominated the sport in the latter part of the nineteenth century and during the first two decades of the twentieth. With not much else to lift their spirits while toiling at what for the most part were menial, low- paying jobs, Irish immigrants like Tunney could take pride in Irish fighters like Sullivan-"The Boston Strong Boy," as he was called; Corbett, to a far lesser degree than Sullivan, from whom he had won the heavyweight title, to the chagrin of most Irish boxing fans; the freckle-faced, skinny-legged Bob Fitszimmons, who took away Corbett's title after having won the world middleweight title and later captured the light heavyweight championship; and the great middleweight champion Jack Dempsey from County Kildare. Reflecting the Irish dominance of boxing at the time, Irish-American boxers held five of the seven weight division championships in 1890.
Intrigued now by a sport to which he had previously given scant notice, young Gene Tunney soon began boxing with friends and older boys in the gymnasium at the Villagers Athletic Club, a hotbed of sports activity in the West Village. Remarkably quick for a boy in his early teens, Tunney even impressed Willie Green, a veteran professional lightweight fighter from Greenwich Village who often worked out at both places and eventually taught young Tunney the rudiments of boxing and occasionally sparred with him, to young Tunney's delight. With a newly instilled confidence in his ability not only to defend himself but also to retaliate, Tunney began to respond to older street-gang attackers with his fists, though only when his defensive tactics proved insufficient. Before long, the attacks on the scrawny Tunney began to abate as his reputation as a skilled boxer spread among the neighborhood's thugs. Whenever either of his brothers was threatened or set upon by young toughs older and bigger, Tunney approached the neighborhood hoodlums and warned them to leave his siblings alone or face the consequences. For his newfound boxing skills and the concomitant confidence they had instilled in him, Tunney would forever be indebted to Willie Green.
Though longshoremen historically have been better paid than other blue-collar workers, John Tunney brought home only fifteen dollars a week, the equivalent today of about three hundred dollars hardly enough for a family of nine, even in the early 1900s. But despite the impecunious circumstances of almost all of its residents-most of whom usually shared a water closet with several other families-the neighborhood in which the Tunneys lived was hardly a slum. After living in an apartment on West 52nd Street, where Gene Tunney was born on May 25, 1897, the family moved to Perry Street in Greenwich Village five months later. Several years after that the Tunneys relocated to another tenement, two blocks north on Bank Street close by the Hudson River docks where John Tunney worked and where the Tunneys' neighbors included John Dos Passos, who wrote much of his novel Manhattan Transfer there, and Willa Cather, whose novel One of Ours won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923.
New York was a city of just under two million when Tunney was born. It practically doubled in population a year later, though, in 1898, when all five boroughs, along with a part of Westchester County, were consolidated into one city, with Brooklyn-up until 1898 the country's third largest city with a population of slightly more than a million- the major addition. If the city was growing geographically, it also was growing vertically. As the nineteenth century came to an end, the tallest structure was the thirty-story Park Row Building just to the east of City Hall in lower Manhattan, whose one thousand offices became available for occupancy when it opened in 1899.
Like most Irish immigrant parents in the West Village, John and Mary Tunney were both religious and strict. In the cramped quarters of the Tunney household, grace was said before all meals, and each of the six children was required to kneel at their bedsides and recite the Lord's Prayer and the Hail Mary before going to sleep. Sundays, the family went to church together at St. Veronica's, which-like many Catholic churches of the era-had been built through the largesse of its relatively poor parishioners and street fairs between 1890, when the lower church was built, and 1903, when the upper church opened its doors to what by then had become an astonishingly large congregation of about six thousand, mostly all of them Irish. The parochial school associated with St. Veronica's, like other parochial schools at the time, was both free and very strict. "I would estimate that at least three mornings a week the good brothers [at St. Veronica's School] would rap me on the knuckles for being late to school after my work at the butcher shop," Gene Tunney was to say years later. Such corporal punishment was not unusual in Catholic parochial schools right into the 1960s, but far worse in the early part of the twentieth century when the behavior of some of the Christian Brothers and Sisters of Charity (who also taught at St. Veronica's) bordered on the sadistic.
"It was not uncommon for a Brother or a Sister to whack you across the hands or the back of your legs with a yardstick," Harold Blake, a graduate of St. Veronica's grammar school and a longtime parishioner and volunteer at the church school, recalled in 2004. "If you happened to tell your mother and father about getting whacked when you got home from school, they usually would say, 'You probably deserved it.' And sometimes the parents would then whack you, too, which discouraged a kid from telling them in the first place. You have to understand that the Irish parents years ago had a great deal of respect for the Brothers and Sisters who taught, and felt they could do no wrong, and so they never complained to school authorities. But that's how it was in the parochial schools."
During that era, the docks along the Hudson in the West Village thrived and stevedores tended to live as close to the docks as they could, mainly because their primary mode of transportation at the turn of the century was their legs, since the opening of the New York subway system was still four years away. In all three tenement buildings in which the Tunneys lived, John Tunney was never more than two blocks from the waterfront.
For a city boy growing up so close to the Hudson, there was much to do. From the nearby piers, Gene Tunney and his friends could look out on a seemingly endless parade of ocean liners, freighters, and tankers, along with trans-river ferries, side-wheel excursion steamers, lighters, railroad car floats in tow, barges, and occasionally a United States Navy squadron or even an entire fleet.
In the summer, though, the Hudson had a more adventurous allure for Tunney and his more daring friends. On hot nights, they would dive off the docks at the foot of West Tenth Street into the Hudson to swim. And when an ocean liner was berthed at a nearby pier, they were inclined to get even more daring. Aware of which steamship lines tended to be lax about security, the boys, almost all of them the sons of Irish immigrants, managed to get aboard some passenger ships and then find their way to the bridge. From there, about one hundred feet above the Hudson, one teenager after another would leap into the murky water below, often blessing themselves first, and then swim or dog-paddle back to the pier. Once, Tunney recalled some years later, he did what was known as a "soldier's dive," wherein one puts his hands at his sides and then dives into the water, headfirst. The dive could have killed or paralyzed young Tunney, he realized after, and he never tried the daredevil stunt again.
By the time he was eleven, Tunney, despite his frail-looking stature, had established himself as one of the best athletes at St. Veronica's School, excelling at basketball, baseball, swimming, and running, and good enough at the quintessentially New York City game of handball to hold his own with the Christian Brothers who taught at the school. Young Tunney's evident penchant for learning and the inordinate time he spent in the school library, much of it poring over books on Greek and Roman history, cast him as something of a prig to many of his classmates, who, like Tunney, were from poor families, and who, unlike Tunney, found school boring. "There was an inclination to poke fun at Gene's scholarly demeanor," Dr. Fred Van Vliet, a neighborhood physician, once recalled. "He was an inveterate reader as far back as I knew him, and my library had a sort of fascination for him as a boy, and I guess he must have browsed through every book in my possession."
Even some of young Tunney's closest friends tried to take advantage of his passive nature. "Some of us kids were pretty active and keen for boxing," Gene Boyle, a classmate at St. Veronica's School, later said, "and Gene was such a simple-looking chap at the time that we proceeded to go to work on him. But it wasn't long before we realized our mistake."
Indeed, Tunney's sports teammates, along with some of the budding toughs among the student body, found it hard to reconcile his passion for reading and his thespian activities at the school with his athleticism. Always eager to take part in theatrical productions, by the age of thirteen young Tunney was able to recite the soliloquies of such Shakespearean characters as Antonio, Portia, and Shylock and had played Antonio in The Merchant of Venice as an eighth-grader. This did not particularly impress most of his neighborhood friends, but it helped elevate his own self-esteem and delighted his teachers and his parents, whose education in County Mayo had been sparse, to say the least.
From the Hardcover edition.