Before glory, Braddock was down to his last dime

Editor's note: On June 13, 1935, James J. Braddock completed one of the most unlikely comebacks in sports history: He defeated Max Baer for the world heavyweight title little more than a year after being an unemployable boxer, a fighter with one good hand and six cents to his name. ESPN anchor and national correspondent Jeremy Schaap's book "Cinderella Man" chronicles Braddock's life and explains how he became a folk hero for a nation in desperate need of one. ESPN.com excerpts a chapter from the book that reveals just how tough times were for Braddock and a nation in the grip of an economic depression. It also sets the scene for Braddock's eventual renaissance.

Chapter 10: On the Waterfront
Weehawken and Hoboken:
Winter 1933–1934

For more than a month after the Feldman fight, Braddock sat at home [in New Jersey] with his right hand in a cast. The dirty white plaster reminded him constantly of that night in Mount Vernon [N.Y.] when his career seemed to have ended in ignominy. Mae had just given birth to their daughter, Rose Marie, but Braddock could find little joy in her arrival. Another mouth to feed, and the winter was coming soon. For the first time in his life, Jim Braddock was bad company.

"After the fight, I tried to comfort him," Mae Braddock would later say, "but it was no use. His heart was broken. Despite the fact that he knew he couldn't have done better; despite the fact that he had actually gone ahead fighting, standing the agonies of that stabbing hand, when any other man would have quit, meant nothing to him. He was morose for weeks."

Even though Braddock knew he had displayed uncommon courage by continuing to fight after breaking his hand, he was despondent. His honor meant a great deal to him, yet retaining it was no solace in the face of the harsh realities of his situation. He was perilously close to the poorhouse. When the cast came off, Braddock started looking for work.

* * * * *

With no high school diploma and no skills outside the ring, he had limited options. Some friends worked down on the docks in Weehawken and Hoboken, and he thought they might help him find some paydays. They did. But the work was sporadic. And without a car or any money for public transportation, Braddock had to walk the three miles from his home in Woodcliff to the waterfront, uncertain if there would be work. Exhausted physically and emotionally, he would walk in the early morning darkness to 69th Street in Guttenberg, to the long set of stairs that led to the docks of Weehawken and Hoboken, and descend to the place where the railroad tracks nearly met the deep-water port. He would ask if there was any work. When the answer was yes, he would spend the day unloading railroad ties from the enormous ships that brought them up from the steel mills in the South. Laboring shoulder to shoulder with hardened stevedores and others who were down and nearly out, Braddock never suggested, in words or deeds, that he was too good for such work. If the other guys insisted, he would tell them about some of his fights. But he didn't like talking, and he especially didn't like talking about himself.

Braddock's status as a former contender did not shield him from the grim facts of working on the docks. Like everyone else, he was subjected to the elements and the casual cruelty of the foremen, who tended to treat the dock wallopers, as they were sometimes called, like cattle. The work was hard, and made even harder by the knowledge that the wages were miserably low because the economics of the place were skewed by kickbacks and no-show jobs. Dissent was not an option. Mobbed up and lawless, the International Longshoremen's Association, the union that controlled the docks, was notoriously corrupt. It was not uncommon for those who made waves to disappear beneath them. Braddock often worked within a few hundred yards of the Fifth Street Pier in Hoboken, where the big ships of the Holland-America line docked and where his father was a night watchman.

* * * * *

Tourists and immigrants made their way down the gangways of the Statendam, Veendam, and Volendam. He would watch them and wonder just how bad things had to be in Europe for them to want to come to America. Hoboken, though, was relatively quiet compared to Weehawken, where hundreds of men were beginning a new public works project. Eventually the Lincoln Tunnel would link Weehawken and West 39th Street in midtown Manhattan. It was in the shadow of the bulldozers and cranes that Braddock quietly labored.

With his bum right hand, he had to do all the heavy lifting with his left. Sometimes he operated a hand truck, again without benefit of his right hand. He would work until the ships were unloaded. There was no overtime, just an expectation that he would work until he was done. Then he would get four dollars – and sometimes he would have to kick some of that back to the hiring boss. Even during the Depression, there was work on the docks – the constant flow of commerce was never interrupted. Most of the men there were comfortable with manual labor, and Braddock fit right in. He developed a reputation as someone who was willing, indeed eager, to do his share and more. He never looked for an easy way out; he never let the guy on the other end of the load take the brunt of it. He never expected to be treated any differently from anyone else merely because he was Jim Braddock, former contender for the light heavyweight title.

When the day's work had been completed, Braddock would sometimes treat himself to a nickel beer at one of the pubs frequented by seafaring men and longshoremen for a century. He celebrated the end of Prohibition on Dec. 5, 1933, with two beers. Usually, though, he was too exhausted and depressed for camaraderie. He would simply walk home – another three miles – and climb into bed with Mae.

Those were the good days, when there was work in Weehawken or Hoboken. On the days when the answer was "No, champ," he would climb the stairs back up to 69th Street, then turn north for the docks of West New York, walking another two miles.

* * * * *

Sometimes there would be work there. Usually there wasn't. If no work was to be found anywhere on the docks or in the railroad yards, he would trudge back to North Bergen, looking for something to do. He would offer to clean basements, sweep floors, shovel snow. He was a familiar and sad sight in his faded green sweater, threadbare pants, and battered shoes.

Once in a while he would tend bar at the North Bergen Social and Athletic Club, serving the same men who for years had crossed the river to Manhattan to watch him fight. They were the men he had grown up with, who had proudly watched his rise as a fighter; now he was pouring drafts for them. Each day it seemed he was further humbled. As the new year dawned, Gould delivered some encouraging news. He had managed to locate an opponent – a good opponent, the big German Walter Neusel. On Dec. 30, 1933, Neusel defeated Ray Impellittiere at Madison Square Garden.

To secure Impellittiere as an opponent, Neusel had guaranteed him $5,000. When the gate receipts were tallied, the total purse for the main event was $5,025. After his managers' and trainers' fees were deducted, Neusel received $3.19 for his 10-round effort. Hoping to make more against Braddock, he agreed to fight him on Jan. 21. But the New York boxing commission would not sanction the fight. With the Feldman fight still fresh in their memories, the commissioners did to Braddock what they had done in 1930 when he was scheduled to fight Max Baer. They were genuinely concerned that he might get seriously hurt, though he had never been seriously hurt in the ring.

With the fight off, the Braddocks lived on bread and potatoes. Potato stew and potato hash were the staples of their table. For several months they couldn't pay the rent. Finally, they were forced to move from their cramped apartment to an even smaller basement apartment in the same building, which they could barely afford. The milk bill went unpaid; so did the gas and electric bill.

* * * * *

Braddock knew he was jinxed when the winter of his misery developed in February into the coldest winter on record in the Northeast. Lake Ontario froze for the first time since 1874. Ice a foot thick formed in Long Island Sound. John D. Rockefeller, who was ill, employed three shifts of firemen to keep his mansion in Tarrytown, N.Y., at 72 degrees Fahrenheit. After one bitingly cold day on the docks – temperatures in north Jersey in February dipped to minus 10 degrees, at the time the coldest temperature ever recorded in the state – Braddock walked home to his apartment, opened the door, and said, "Mae, what's going on? Why are the lights off?"

"Jim, they shut off the electricity," she said.

Braddock cursed the electric company and himself. At least the apartment still had heat, but he knew that it soon would be turned off too, and then his family might die.

He spent the night considering what his options might be. There was only one.

In the morning he walked from his apartment to the ferry in West New York. He had exactly one dime in his pocket. The fare to cross to Manhattan was four cents. With six cents left, he crossed the Hudson, walked more than a mile to Madison Square Garden, and tried to find Joe Gould. Gould's friends at the Garden were kind enough to accept his mail and take his messages. By this time, Gould was working as a door-to-door salesman, hawking gadgets and radios. Every day, though, he would check in at the Garden to see who was looking for him. Usually it was no one. His old friend Francis Albertanti, the Garden's publicist, made sure that he was kept in the loop and made to feel as if he still mattered, which in fact he didn't. When Albertanti saw Braddock walk through his office door – gaunter than ever, his eyes made moist by the cold and his hat literally in his hands – he told him that Joe was out but would be in soon. Albertanti had known Braddock since 1928 and had profiled him for the Ring [magazine]. He tried to make conversation but avoided asking how things were going, because he knew how things were going.

* * * * *

Still, he could see in Braddock's face a desperation that he had never seen there before. He wanted to tell Braddock not to worry, but he knew that he
had every reason to worry.

Finally Gould walked through the door.

"Jim, what are you doing here?" he said. "Is everything all right?"

"Joe, I know you're broke, but I don't know where else to go," Braddock said. "I need $35. Rose Marie needs milk and we need the heat."

"Wait right here," Gould said.

He scurried away, leaving Braddock to his thoughts. Here he was, it occurred to him, back at the Garden, where he had once fought for the championship. For years he had hoped to return to this building to fight in another main event. Now he was back, pleading for what amounted to little more than chump change.

"Here's thirty-five dollars. Pay your bills. I'll get you more when I can," Gould said.

"I'll pay you back soon."

"I know."

Gould had borrowed the money from Jimmy Johnston, who never expected to see it again. Braddock walked back to 42nd Street and west to the river, handed the ferryman four cents, and crossed back to New Jersey. On his way home he stopped to pay the milkman and the utility company. When he got back to the apartment, he paid the rent.

Within days he was broke again, and now he had nowhere to turn. In those days, Lud Shabazian would see him occasionally on the streets of Union City and North Bergen. He noticed, he later wrote, how the well-wishers of Braddock's youth now crossed to the other side of the street when they saw him coming.

As Joe E. Lewis would later say, a friend in need is a pest. The guilt and the anxiety he was feeling turned Braddock into an insomniac. Most nights, at about 2 a.m., he climbed from his sleepless bed, got dressed, went out into the cold, and walked for miles.

* * * * *

Mae feared that he might kill himself. On the rare occasions when sleep came, he tossed and turned, mumbling to Mae. He would say the same things over and over.

"Mae, please believe me," he would say, "I'm doing everything I can. I'm so sorry, darling. I'm sorry, so sorry."

Finally Braddock made the most difficult decision he had ever made. With nowhere else to turn, he decided to apply for relief from the county. Today millionaires unashamedly accept benefits from the state when they are unemployed. Millions of people of lesser means survive because of the welfare programs that were conceived during the Depression. That a man might be embarrassed to apply for money from the government is almost laughably anachronistic. But in 1933, Jim Braddock applied for relief only when all his other options had been exhausted – only when he was desperate. He was too ashamed to tell his parents.

"Darling, I can't stand this any longer," he said to Mae. "It just tears my heart into little bits to see you and the babies suffering for want of food and clothing. I'm going over to the relief bureau and see if they can't make us a loan until I can get something to do."

Braddock went to see his old friend Harry Buesser, the promoter turned politician who had made the assault charge against Captain Bachman go away. As one of the commissioners of the township of North Bergen, Buesser oversaw the municipal relief office, which happened to employ the brothers Joe and Jimmy Kelly. Joe Kelly had worked for Lud Shabazian in the sports department of the Hudson Dispatch; Jimmy Kelly was in charge of case No. 2796, Braddock's case. Eventually questions would be raised about the legitimacy of Braddock's application and the decision to grant him relief. But in early 1934, when Jim Braddock was just another young man down on his luck, no one seemed to pay much attention. If people had been paying attention, they would almost certainly have come to the conclusion that despite the appearance of impropriety, Braddock was a worthy candidate for relief.

* * * * *

When Jim and Mae were on relief, receiving $24 a month for 10 months, they reached a point when they could no longer care for their children. For a brief time the children were sent to live with their grandparents, who were also barely surviving. All this time Braddock was trudging to and from the docks. Sometimes, when there were no ships to unload, he worked as a furniture mover. He also worked in a coal yard. The one constant was the manual nature of his labor, except when he was tending bar. On the docks he operated a tie hook, which he had to attach to each railroad tie with a swift punching motion. Once it was attached, he would lift the tie and haul
it to a flatbed railroad car. When Braddock first used a tie hook, he tried using his right hand, but the pain was too great. For no other reason than the fact that he had no choice, he made himself ambidextrous; for a while, actually, he was unidextrous, using only his left hand.

Finally, by April, when the weather broke, Braddock's right hand had healed. Soon he was feeling stronger than he had ever felt. But he was still on the docks, staring across the Hudson at the Manhattan skyline. The Garden, where he had once starred, could almost be discerned. Never, though, had it felt farther away.

ESPN anchor and national correspondent Jeremy Schaap is a host of "Outside The Lines" and "SportsCentury." "Cinderella Man" by Jeremy Schaap. Copyright (c) 2005 by Jeremy Schaap. Excerpted and reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.