Professor Tony Cucchiara, chief archivist at Brooklyn College Library, was on the trail of what he had been assured was the largest and most extensive boxing collection in the world. “When I saw it, I was stunned,” he said. The collection filled the entire two-car garage and overflowed into two rooms of boxing historian Hank Kaplan’s home in Kendall, Florida. The professor knew he had found the boxing world’s holy grail.
Three years later, Hank Kaplan’s boxing collection found a home at the Brooklyn College Library and Cucchiara was carrying on the work that Kaplan started a half-century ago. On March 12, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) recognized the collection as a national treasure and awarded the professor a $315,000 grant to preserve the materials and make them available for public use and research.
Valued at nearly $3 million, the collection contains records of virtually every bout since the 1880s and includes such icons of boxing’s glory days as Muhammad Ali’s punching bag and GOAT (Taschen), a 75-pound book, packed with 3,000 images of Ali. At present the 2,600 books, 500,000 photos, clippings, and assorted artwork and scrapbooks that make up the Kaplan collection are squeezed into two 10-feet-high storage rooms on the fifth floor of Brooklyn College Library, where it is as of yet inaccessible to all but a select few researchers.
“Hank poured his soul into boxing. His passion for the sport and its preservation was beyond belief,” says Professor Cucchiara. “The NEH award will secure for the collection the future that Hank wanted.”
Behind the prestigious award lies the story of a friendship between two boxing aficionados, whose common passion for the “sweet science” still animates Hank Kaplan’s legacy. Born in Brooklyn and orphaned at an early age, Kaplan became interested in boxing after suffering a bloody nose as a child at a summer camp. He had his only professional boxing fight as an adolescent in the early 1940s, and won. After a stint with the U.S. Coast Guard, he worked as a scientist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention until his retirement at 55. In his spare time, he chronicled the lives of boxers in the Wide World of Boxing Digest, a publication he founded, and amassed the collection through his many friendships with boxers and sportswriters.
One of his friends, writer David Margolick (Beyond Glory), told Kaplan about the professor, whose interest in the sport was more than just professional. In his off-hours, the professor is a boxer, who works out at Gleason’s Gym in DUMBO, Brooklyn, with the trainer who got the actress Hilary Swank in shape for her role in Million Dollar Baby.
So the pugilist professor set out to visit the boxing historian in Florida, and the two hit if off. In December 2007, the professor was surprised to get a call from Kaplan’s daughter, Barbara Kaplan-Haar, who informed him that her father was sick and was leaving the collection to Brooklyn College. “Dad told us, what good is knowledge if you keep it to yourself?” said Kaplan-Haar. Two weeks later, Kaplan died at 88.
In March 2008, some 2,000 cartons were removed from Kaplan’s home in Florida. Since their arrival at Brooklyn College’s Archives and Special Collections Division, Professor Cucchiara says that he and his team, Assistant Archivist Marianne LaBatto and Conservator Slava Polischuk, have begun the process of sorting and recording the materials with the aid of a $50,000 seed grant from Barry Feirstein, Chair of the Brooklyn College Foundation.
The NEH grant will let them hire more staff to process the materials, meaning that each item will be coated with Mylar-encapsulating polyester and housed in acid-free containers. Once the conservation phase is completed, they will be cataloged and digitized, creating a library website for research by 2012. The professor will be raising additional funds to endow an archival position to oversee and expand the collection.
In spite of being closed to the public, the boxing collection has become a magnet for archives of other collectors, including Jack Barrett, the Madison Square matchmaker, and Freddie Brown, Rocky Marciano’s trainer and cutman. It has also drawn interest from researchers around the world. Recent visitors include an Oxford historian, who is writing a cultural history of boxing from the ancients to the present. Author and journalist George Kimball (Four Kings) has sifted through the archives, as has filmmaker Joy-Ann Reid, whose PBS documentary about Miami boxers, The Fight Years, will be released later this year.
The professor hopes the recognition will turn Brooklyn College into a center of boxing history, but he isn’t in a hurry to impose his wishes on the collection. Rather, he would let researchers discover for themselves what it reveals about the young men—black, white, Hispanic—for whom boxing promised deliverance from racism and poverty and offered a chance at the American dream.
“Some people would want to turn up their noses at a boxing collection,” said Professor Cucchiara. “But the story of America is in this archive. Boxing is more than a sport. It’s a lens through which to look at American cultural history.”