It almost doesn’t seem possible but June 18th was the 79th anniversary of one of the greatest heavyweight championship fights in boxing history. Less than six months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the curly headed, good looking former light heavyweight champion of the world, Billy Conn, squared off against the then invincible Joe Louis in what most who witnessed it would call “the greatest fight they ever saw.”
But more about that later.
Years after his career had ended, I had seen Louis on TV, sitting ringside at the fights in Las Vegas. He was usually brought to his seat in a wheelchair. He’d be introduced prior to the main event and would nod his head at the applause for a man who was certainly a sports legend. Then one night in 1981, he was suddenly gone.
It was sometime around then that I got an idea. I wanted to contact former athletes and take the autograph sessions usually held at card shows directly to them. We’d agree to a fee, I’d pack my 8×10’s and for a few hours I’d sit as they signed and hopefully spun some yarns about their time in the sun. Many were getting older and were reluctant to travel.
I’d take a snapshot or two during the signing session both to hang on my wall as a keepsake but also so that when I sold the autographed items potential buyers would know I was actually there. Over the course of the next 15 years, I became an American Airlines Platinum member, logging over 60,000 miles a year and completing close to 200 private autograph signings. This is the story of one of my most memorable visits.
The home phone number for the former light heavyweight champion of the world was still listed in the Pittsburgh phone directory in 1990. Mary Louise Conn answered. Billy Conn and his wife were both well known in the city.
She was the daughter of former major league baseball player Jimmy Smith, a/k/a “Greenfield Jimmy” who played in the major leagues from 1914-1922. Mary Louise was pleasant to speak to and was genuinely surprised someone would be willing to pay her husband to sign autographs. Although a local legend, Billy was now over 70 years old and largely forgotten by the sports world except for one BIG fight.
I had heard the story told what seemed like a million times when I was growing up. I’d even seen old films of it and now just writing about it, the event seems surreal; more like a Hollywood script than something that actually happened in real life. But Hollywood couldn’t touch it because the events that led to it simply do not lend themselves well to an adaptation of a true story, one which goes something like this…
Louis-Conn and What Almost Was
A popular blue color Irish kid from Pittsburgh decides to become a professional boxer and steps into the ring in 1934 and loses his first pro fight. A month later he knocks out Johnny Lewis in three rounds and proceeds to build a record including 47 wins over former or future world champions Fritzie Zivic, Solly Krieger and Fred Apostoli along the way. Then on July 30, 1939 in New York City, he beats Melio Bettina to become the world light heavyweight champion, and in 1940 Ring Magazine names him Fighter of the Year.
Surely no boxer’s star was shining brighter than Billy Conn’s in 1940, except for Joe Louis.
The sports world is clamoring for a fight between the popular new champ and the Brown Bomber, but behind the scenes, Billy Conn’s life is falling to pieces. His childhood sweetheart Mary Louise has been shipped away to Philadelphia by her father, who despises Conn. His beloved mother is dying of cancer at the age of 40. Enter promoter Mike Jacobs who signs Conn and Louis to fight for the heavyweight championship. Never one to miss out on an easy buck, Jacobs and the rest of the sports world take little notice that Louis, who has defended his title for a decade against any and all comers, outweighs Conn by almost 30 pounds. After the weigh- in for the June 18, 1941 match at the Polo Grounds, Jacobs is rumored to have said “this is homicide.”
From the opening bell, Conn used a quick jab and superior footwork to outbox Louis and was winning nearly every round. Louis stalked Conn, attempting to land his lethal right hand. In the 12th round, Conn shook Louis with vicious combinations and the champ appeared ready to fall at any moment. Coming into the 13th round with a secure lead, Conn decided he’d finish what he’d almost accomplished in the prior round and instead of boxing Louis as he had done so successfully throughout the fight stood toe to toe in an attempt to knock him out. Joe had one opportunity to win that night and he took it by landing that big right hand, Conn fell not as if he had been knocked out but as if he had been shot.
Perhaps never in the history of sports had the tide turned so abruptly or so dramatically as it did that night. Years later, after both men had quit the ring, Conn jokingly asked Louis why he didn’t let him hold the title until the rematch and Louis told him “You had it for 12 rounds and you couldn’t keep it.”
Billy Conn’s mother died shortly after the fight and days later he married Mary Louise against the wishes of her father.
The much anticipated rematch came in 1946 and was the first nationally televised heavyweight championship bout. The event was anticlimactic. Unlike the first fight Conn was never able to gain an edge and in the eighth round Louis knocked him out. Although he would fight two more bouts after the Louis rematch, Conn’s career was over and he retired to his home in Pittsburgh.
The Boxer and The Blonde
As I drove through the western Pennsylvania hillsides I was amazed at how green it was. Farming communities dotted the landscape. I had always thought of Pennsylvania in terms of the parts of Philadelphia and Easton that I knew. Colorless. Dismal.
The drive to Pittsburgh from Newark was a joy. I had brought my father along. It was only fitting as Conn was one of the heroes of HIS youth and he had been one of the first to tell me of the indelible impression the first Louis vs Conn fight had made on him as it did for so many others of his generation.
We arrived at Billy Conn’s house in what’s known as the Squirrel Hill district of Pittsburgh around noon. The neighborhood and everything about it was impressive, Large brick houses built the way they used to build them 100 years ago shared the avenue with massive shade trees. Members of the wealthy Mellon banking family still lived in that neighborhood. Not bad for the son of a steam fitter in a steel mill town who by his own admission, “never worked a day in my life.” His father Billy Conn Sr. toiled for 40 years at Westinghouse. His son wanted none of that so he became a prizefighter.
Things are different now than they were in 1941. Like so many other American cities Pittsburgh has changed. Many of the steel mills have closed. The Pittsburgh Graduate School of Business stands where baseball’s Forbes Field once stood and a portion of North Craig St. in the Oakland neighborhood of the city is named Billy Conn Boulevard.
On that day when I arrived at his home, the man who in 1941 WAS Pittsburgh was still there. He had never left his hometown or his childhood sweetheart Mary Louise. It was she who greeted my father and I at the door that day with an engaging personality and still beautiful smile. It was easy to see how Billy had fallen in love with her on their first date. She was only 15 years old then and he told her “I’m going to marry you.”
She had told him he was crazy.
Billy was seated at the large dining table near the entrance and stood to greet us with a smile. We shook hands and I remember to this day his huge hands and the strength of his grip. He was tall and lean now close to 70 years old and probably not more than 20 pounds over his prime fighting weight of 169 pounds. I was certain that he could still clobber any man half his age. I would soon find out he had recently done exactly that.
Mary offered my father and I coffee and we sat and chatted for a while. She asked if I had heard about Billy’s latest tussle. I hadn’t and she smiled. “Tell him Billy,” she said. He smiled back and said “You tell it better.”
A few months prior they were seated at the counter next to the cash register at their neighborhood deli, It was winter time and a young man approached the owner who ran the deli and demanded he empty the till and give him the cash. The owner resisted and was hit. Conn reached over with one of his giant paws and grabbed the man’s jacket with one hand and pummeled him with the other. Unable to unleash himself from Billy’s vice-like grip, the robber pulled free from his jacket leaving it behind and ran away. Conn still holding the jacket handed it to the deli owner who in checking the pockets found the man’s name and address. The would-be thief was promptly apprehended.
By the time she had finished telling me the story, we were all laughing. I asked him why he stepped in.
“The guy that owns the deli is my friend, and I didn’t want my friend to get hurt,” he said. Mary whispered “he was protecting me.” To be around the both of them it was immediately clear they were infatuated with each other. The late Frank Deford once wrote a Sports Illustrated story about them entitled “The Boxer and the Blonde.” It was obvious they were still very much in love.
We talked about boxing for a while, but the sport in which he became famous didn’t seem to interest Billy Conn that much unless the subject was Harry Greb, his boyhood hero. Generally regarded as one of the greatest middleweight champions in history, Greb had checked into an Atlantic City, New Jersey clinic in 1926 for surgery to repair damage to his nose and respiratory tract from his ring career and several car accidents. He died on the operating table. Billy told me “he’s buried just down the street.” In fact I was to learn later that when Conn’s mother died in 1941 Billy bought the closest available plot to where Harry Greb is buried in Calvary Cemetery as her final resting place.
It was inevitable, but I asked him about the first Joe Louis fight. It’s the one everyone remembers; the one that I was sure he’d been asked about a million times, Like Joe Namath and his Super Bowl guaranteed win against the Colts, it’s the thing strangers meeting him for the first time always asked about. He told me his corner saw what he was trying to do late in the fight. They told him not to try and slug it out with Louis, but of course he didn’t listen. I asked him if he talked to Louis when they were in the clinch or heading back to their corners. He thought for a second, a bit surprised it seemed, as maybe this was a question that he had never been asked. He said he remembered telling Louis several times “Joe, you’re in a fight tonight.” Otherwise, he told me if Louis had said anything at all during the fight he didn’t remember it. I asked him if he was sick of always being asked about THAT fight and he said simply “yes.”
I changed the subject to baseball. When he found out I was friends of baseball Hall of Famer Bill Terry, and had often visited him at his home in Jacksonville, Florida, he perked up. Bill Terry hated John McGraw and the feeling was mutual. Terry had told me that when both he and McGraw were with the Giants, in the evening Terry would walk with his wife near Central Park after dinner and John and Mrs McGraw would do the same they would often cross paths and both wives would greet each other and Terry would say hello to Mrs. McGraw and John McGraw would say hello to Mrs. Terry but neither of the men spoke to each other. Billy Conn liked that story because his father-in-law was close personal friends with McGraw. Conn and Greenfield Jimmie had feuded for years, even once coming to blows in which Conn broke his hand hitting his father-in-law in the head. He seemed pleased that Bill Terry despised McGraw.
I remarked how impressive their house was and Mary told me they had bought it for cash with the money that Billy made in the first Joe Louis fight and had lived there ever since. He joked that he had many fights in that house but Mary Louise had won every one of them “by decision.” As he signed the boxing gloves and 8×10 photos I had brought along , his wife told me he still received autograph requests in the mail on average of several times a week and always replies, flattered that he would still be remembered over four decades after his last professional bout.
After we had finished the signing she suggested that Billy show us his memorabilia collection and to give us “The Tour” as she called it. We went downstairs to the large basement area where the walls were lined with photos, the largest being an artist’s rendering of Harry Greb. Among the others were pictures of Billy taken in action or at weigh-ins for his various bouts and photos of him posed with celebrities and presidents.
Mary Louise excused herself to make lunch and Billy would point out the different opponents by name. We came to a photo of Conn posed with former President Richard Nixon. I asked him what was he like. “Big sports fan,” he recalled simply. He then leaned toward me and lowered his voice to a whisper. “Nixon told me that he was hoping I would have beat that %#8&#@% Joe Louis.” I asked Billy if Nixon actually used those words and Billy nodded. I was astonished.
We continued along the wall with Billy pointing to the photos and saying a word or two about each one until…well he stopped and appeared frightened and even confused as if he could not remember where he was or who I was. He called for his wife. She returned and finished “the tour” with us picking up where Billy had left off. On our way back upstairs she explained that sometimes he “forgets” and was then in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease but that the episodes usually don’t last long. It was clear she was his “anchor” and once he saw her he was himself again.
We finished lunch and said our goodbyes. It had been a wonderful meeting. Billy Conn and I posed for one last photo outside the front door of his house and I was on my way back to the airport in Newark and the flight home. I wrote them a thank you note and received a large manila envelope shortly after postmarked from Pittsburgh. Inside was a photo of Mary Louise and Billy, taken in 1941 right after they were married. I doubt that a more attractive couple ever existed. Mary Louise had signed “To Jim, It was our pleasure meeting you” and both had autographed it for me. It was a nice touch.
On May 29, 1993 I was watching the evening news and learned that Billy Conn had died. They played the clips from the famous Joe Louis fight and told the story briefly of the kid from Pittsburgh who ALMOST became the heavyweight champion of the world. Mary Louise lived another 24 years, full of life until the end at age 94.
In the classic Marlon Brando film On the Waterfront there’s the famous scene shot in the back of a cab with the line, “I could have been a contender.” Rod Steiger, playing “Marlon Brando’s brother, reflects on the early promise of Brando’s character Terry with the words, “You could have been another Billy Conn.”
I realized the impossibility of it. There could not have been nor would there ever be “another Billy Conn.”