Caddying and shining shoes weren't my only jobs. For a while I hung around one of Al's Burnham breweries, which produced about a thousand gallons a day. At first I just ran errands like fetching delicatessen sandwiches for the foreman. A lot of times the conveyor belt that carried those big five-gallon cans to and from the trucks went too fast for the regular workers and they needed an extra hand to take some of the overload. So they'd yell and I'd come running and pitch in. I never got any wages, but on payday the men would pass the hat and I'd collect maybe $5. The place fascinated me. The men never drank water, just that needle beer and by the end of the day most of them would be pie-eyed. They were specially nice to me after Al, who used to drop in once a week, let them know I caddied for him. They kept Dad supplied with all the beer he could drink.
The Burnham Elementary School was a big, red-brick building, four
stories high, with a well-equipped gym—Johnny Patton saw to that.
Al worried a lot about his overweight and he started playing
volleyball a couple of times a week to shed a few pounds, he and a
bunch of his bodyguards. It was some sight.
Meanwhile, I'd taken up boxing—or rather Al pushed me into it.
It happened when I was 16. There was this big lout of a classmate,
Howard Reed, a head taller than me, who hated my guts for some reason
and was always picking on me, tripping me in the corridors, twisting
my arms, sadistic little tricks like that. I was scared of him at
first. Then I realized I had to stand and fight back or he'd really
hurt me someday. So next time he laid his hands on me I just waded
into him, swinging. I was too mad to be scared. I didn't even feel
the blows. I just hit out and damned if all of a sudden he didn't go
down like an empty sack. He never bothered me again.
That victory got me interested in boxing and I started working out
regular. I was a middleweight. I had a fair left jab, not the hardest
punch in the world, you understand, but fast, and I was light and
quick on my feet. I fought in a school tournament that Al came to
watch. And who do you suppose came with him? Bat Nelson—Oscar
Matthew Battling Nelson, the Durable Dane, one of the finest
lightweight champions. He'd retired about 15 years before. Ad Wolgast
had pounded him to a pulp in a fight that lasted 40 rounds.
"Battling" was no nickname, by the way. His old man had
been so sure he'd grow up to be a prize ring champ that he christened
him that back in Copenhagen where he was born. Bat lived in nearby
Hegewisch, and I'd seen him around many times but never talked to
him. He hadn't been doing too badly in retirement. He owned some
apartment buildings and a training gym.
I met a lot of boxing greats through Al and Battling Nelson—Young
Stribling, Jack Sharkey, Jack Johnson. They knew them all. Al threw a
party whenever one of them came to Chicago. One night Bat took me to
the McVickers Theater to shake hands with the idol of my youth—Jack
Dempsey. The old Manassa Mauler had been out of the fight game some
three years. He was touring the vaudeville circuit in an act his
manager, Jack Kearns, had helped him work up. It was built around his
famous last fight with Gene Tunney at Soldier Field in 1927. The long
count—remember? Jack knocked Gene down in the seventh, but the
referee didn't start counting for seven seconds. That gave Gene an
extra breathing spell and he lasted the round. He came back in the
eighth and ninth to hammer Jack so hard they gave Tunney the
decision. Well, at the climax of this vaudeville skit Jack is sitting
in a roadster in a gas station while the rube attendant fills 'er up.
"That's it," says the rube, "15 gallons." Jack
disagrees. "Wrong count," he says. "Well," says
the rube, "ain't the first time you got a wrong count." And
the audience breaks up. Bat took me backstage afterward and
introduced me to the great man. "I think he's gonna make a good
fighter someday," he says, and Jack gives me a big grin and a
slap on the back.
Al arranged fights for me in some of the smaller clubs around
Chicago. I did all right—22 wins altogether, 19 by KOs. There
wasn't any money to speak of. It was smalltime stuff. I think Al just
got a kick out of managing his own boy. Anyhow my heart was not in it
and I gave it up. In 1929 Al went to jail in Philadelphia on a
concealed-weapon rap. Most of us who knew the score figured he'd
framed himself so his enemies couldn't get at him. It was soon after
the St. Valentine's Day massacre and the Bugs Moran mob was out to
kill him on sight. Al's mistake was his timing. I guess he thought
the judge would pass a light sentence. But he handed him a full year.
Babe and I wrote to him often while he was away, but he never
answered. I ran into him in Burnham again a few days after he got
out. He looked worn and tired. All he could talk about was how the
government was trying to destroy him. But by the fall of the year,
that is, 1930, he had pulled himself together. The golf bug bit him
again and he was out on the course a lot.
It was a terrible year for most of us. The Depression had set in
deep. My old man, along with a lot of other heads of families, was
laid off without an hour's notice. Small businesses closed down,
hundreds of them. Families doubled up to save rent. In Burnham there
were exactly three people outside of city hall with steady jobs—the
mailman, the milkman and a schoolteacher, and the schoolteacher only
got paid every three or four, months. Mom got work as a scrubwoman at
the school. And now when Al and the boys came around for volleyball
he'd slip her $10 and apologize for dirtying up the floor she'd just
been washing. I hung on to my shoeshine stand for dear life.
The breadlines. The soup kitchens—Al ran his own in Chicago.
Beggars coming around to your back door for a crust of bread. Food
was cheap enough, but nobody had money to buy it. The corner
drugstores sold cigarettes two for a penny. Who could afford a full
pack? There was always a long line in front of the roll-your-own
cigarette machine. If you rolled them thin enough, you could get 50
cigarettes out of a 10-cent package. We practically lived on the
three-day-old bread Dad brought home from a bakery. A gunnysack full
cost 25-cents and we kids would rummage through it, hoping to find a
sweet roll or two.
Christmas 1930. I'll remember it as long as I live. None of the
kids expected any presents. But maybe a chicken dinner. We still had
a few hens scratching around the backyard. Then the miracle happened.
We were gathered around the Christmas tree—such as it was, just
bare branches—when there comes a loud knocking on the front door.
Dad opens up and it's Santa Claus, whiskers, red suit and a big bag
on his back. I yelled "Al!" and threw myself at him. He
clapped his hands and six of his boys came in, each lugging a box of
groceries that could have fed the whole neighborhood. They helped Mom
stack them neatly on the pantry shelves. There were expensive gifts
for everybody—a watch set in diamonds for Babe, slipover sweaters
for my brothers Edward, Sam, Don, and me. Don got a wind-up train and
a whole set of tracks. My sister Kathy got the most beautiful doll I
ever saw, with a whole wardrobe. And the turkey with all the fixings.
I never tasted anything so good in my life.
About two years later Al was on his way to Atlanta, and two years
after that, to the Rock. I never again saw him alive.
Mount Olivet Cemetery lay under a thick carpet of snow when they
buried Al. My wife and I were there, standing on the edge of the
small crowd. Jake Guzik was the only one of the old bunch I
recognized. Babe wasn't there. She'd married a roadhouse manager and
left the area. Though I'd never seen a picture of her, I knew the
tall, beautiful, blonde woman at the graveside must be Mrs. Capone.
As I say, my feeling was I wanted Al to know his old golf caddie
was there, mourning him.