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The Jim O'Hara Story:

Boxing, Dignity & StReet Smarts

ROUND 13 

THE BUSINESSMAN 


Minnesota’s Scott LeDoux battled world heavyweight champion Larry Holmes for the title in July 1980 in Bloomington, Minnesota. LeDoux didn’t win, but he gained the continued gratitude of his many fans for the excitement of a world heavyweight championship fight. 


The 6,491 spectators in attendance paid $253,000, the standing Minnesota record gate, which is about $995,338 in 2015 dollars. With the revenue from TV broadcasts, LeDoux had a big payday if not the title. 


Jim was involved as Executive Secretary to the Boxing Board. Don King was the promoter.

Five years earlier, in September 1975 at the state fairgrounds, LeDoux put up his dukes against New York’s Brian O’Melia. LeDoux won a 10-round unanimous decision. Here Jim was the promoter. For this show he called LeDoux the French Bomber, rather than the Fighting Frenchman, because he called O’Melia the Fighting Irishman.

 

Jim’s named his promotional business the All State Boxing Club. During this time promoter Bob Arum, who worked with Muhammad Ali, named his firm Top Rank. A graduate of Harvard Law School, Arum discovered how much money could be made in boxing (from the millions of viewers paying to watch closed-circuit telecasts) when he investigated tax fraud for the U.S. Justice Department. (George Kimball, Four Kings: Leonard, Hagler, Hearns, Duran, and the Last Great Era of Boxing, Chapter 2 (McBooks Press, Inc. 2008), Kindle Edition.)


Neither Don King nor Bob Arum promoted The Fight, the historic Ali-Frazier contest that went 15 rounds in March 1971. Through closed-circuit broadcasting, The Fight was watched by 300,000,000 (that’s eight zeros!) at arenas and theaters around the world. This match would crown the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. Both Ali and Frazier were undefeated, and both had widely-recognized claims to the title.


Frazier won a unanimous decision. Madison Square Garden saw a record night for the live gate. The 20,455 spectators paid $1,352,951, which is about $7,406,797 in 2015 dollars. The fighters received a then record $2,500,000 each or about $13,685,485 each in 2015 dollars. (Phil Pepe, Come Out Smokin’ Joe Frazier: The Champ Nobody Knew, Chapter entitled The Fight (Division Books 2012), Kindle Edition.)


They say Marvelous Marvin Hagler’s take-home pay for his professional debut in May 1973 was $40. Imagine that. (George Kimball, supra, Chapter 1.) If you figure a conservative four percent annual inflation rate, Hagler’s take-home pay in 2015 dollars might be about $202. (All estimates of current dollars by this writer are based on a four percent annual inflation rate. If you think that rate isn’t conservative, figure in the annual increase in the cost of medical insurance among other items.)


In 1975 Jim paid Scott LeDoux $800 for fighting O’Melia or about $3,743 in 2015 dollars. If his manager received a third, LeDoux’s take-home pay in 2015 dollars might have been about $2,495.


Jim learned he couldn’t rely on boxing as his sole source of income. He tried over the winter of 1947-1948, traveling as far as San Francisco. When it didn’t work out, lesson learned, he sold his brand new Chevy coupe that had brought him there and for which he had confidently paid cash at age 21. The proceeds kept him afloat, and once back in St. Paul in the spring of 1948 he promised Kitty (whom he married later that year) he’d find and keep a full-time day job in addition to boxing.


Thus in terms of supporting himself and his family, his first priority became a full-time job separate from the ups and downs of boxing. A lucrative boxing career depends on so many variables beyond anyone’s control, and he never bet the farm on it. On the other hand, he believed he had some control over a day job in terms of getting there bright and early and applying himself. There he could show initiative and maybe catch a break without having to slip deadly blows or cover for poor attendance at a show. With another job in addition to boxing, he had a back-up plan and a level of independence.


Scott LeDoux had worked day jobs in addition to boxing. An article in 1982 reported:


Boxing hasn’t been the easiest to Scott LeDoux. Now he has made several successful investments with his winnings, but during his struggling years he has worked as a long-distance truck driver, bartender, bouncer, private investigator, salesman, and many other small jobs to make a living.


(Terry Marsh, Ex-Golden Glover, Scott LeDoux, Upper Midwest Golden Gloves Year Book, 47, March 19, 1982.)


Jim worked just about every day of the year, less on Saturdays, and a couple hours on Sunday. He didn’t force himself to work. He worked naturally, resting and pacing himself as needed. He said he loved to work “when I don’t have to.” He liked staying ahead of the power curve. “Prepared is my middle name,” he said. He didn’t seem to need vacations. Upon quitting drinking for good in 1971, one of his disciplines was early to bed, early to rise. “An hour of sleep before midnight,” he advised, “is worth two after midnight.”


Intense hunger and poverty were no strangers to him as a child, and so he learned young to find work wherever he could. A poor city boy, he never learned to fish or hunt. But his childhood wasn’t all work. At Lake Phalen on St. Paul’s East Side he learned to be graceful in water. He could waterski barefoot, and he could dive into a pool with hardly a splash, a skill he maintained throughout his life.


You know he was happy as a boy to find work downtown peddling newspapers, sweeping floors, shoveling snow, running errands, and shining shoes. Here he learned street smarts, including from older fellows such as Vic Tedesco of St. Paul’s Little Italy neighborhood. (Vic Tedesco and Trudi Hahn, I Always Sang For My Father (Or Anyone Who Would Listen) 21-23 and 171 (Syren Book Company 2006).)


Jim’s family was poorer than a church mouse compared to Tedesco’s but both boys were budding entrepreneurs, always on the lookout for opportunities to earn money for their mothers.


Part of street smarts is being able to anticipate and sidestep the hustle. Another aspect of street smarts is the ability to beat a guy at his own game. For the St. Paul street kid growing up in the 1930s a ready Academy of Street Smarts, you might say, was the pool hall. The famous artist LeRoy Neiman, whom Jim knew as a fellow St. Paul street kid, recalled the city was sometimes referred to as “St. Pool” for its hundreds of pool halls. In his autobiography Neiman paints the scene:


Many of my first lessons in the philosophy of beating someone at their own game were learned in the billiard parlors. I was mesmerized by slick-shooting snooker sharks plying their effortless elbow-craft in shady downtown joints, surrounded by wised-up sharpies betting on corner-pocket outcomes in their pungent street argot. Many of these wagering denizens of pool halls preferred betting on the outcome of a numbered ball more than anything else, if only for the chance to outsmart someone.


Their body language while engaged in this activity was a sight to behold. I avidly studied their mannerisms — it was better than any life-drawing class. I can still go back to when I was a kid, invisible to the ferociously focused adults, watching with awe as a player, wreathed in a cloud of cigar smoke and anticipation, is circling the table, visor-shaded eyes never leaving the line of play, leaning over the table to invisibly influence the ball through mental radar, leaning nonchalantly back, and then with cool aplomb making his move. In the blink of an eye and the flash of a cue stick, he’s pocketed the yellow-striped 9-ball! Deftly circling the table again like a bird of prey, he addresses the cue ball…. Time is suspended, all street talk is hushed. With almost supernatural sleight of hand he sinks the ball with a nearly impossible banked shot as onlookers nod and peel off rolls of bills to pay off their debts. I soaked this stuff up like crazy. I could rerun these melodramas of clinking balls in my mind at will, and sketched it all years later from memory.


(LeRoy Neiman, All Told: My Art and Life Among Athletes, Playboys, Bunnies and Provocateurs, Chapter 1 (Lyons Press 2012), Kindle Edition.)


There was the pool hall named Harkins Recreation, also known as St. Paul Recreation, in the Hamm Building downtown on St. Peter Street. When Jim wasn’t learning to sidestep schemes at Harkins, you might’ve found him learning to sidestep blows at the famous Mike Gibbons Rose Room Gym, down the hall in the same building. See Round 6, entitled The Boxer.


A decision Jim regretted later in life was skipping high school. At the time he thought all an education should be good for is to learn how to make a living. On this score he believed he had all the learning he needed. His Uncle John Hoban, born John O’Hara, hadn’t gone beyond the fifth grade and was able to support his family and have money left over to help his sister, Jim’s mother.


Uncle John, adopted by the Hobans as a boy, was now the Credit Manager at American Linen. Both he and Jim had natural intelligence with a particular gift for numbers. When playing cards they knew, as the game developed, what cards they had and hadn’t seen, while doing the math and carrying on a conversation.


In lieu of high school Jim worked full-time at Swift’s Packing House in South St. Paul. With money from this job he was able to help his mother and become one of the first in the family to own a car. In 1940 or so he bought a Willys, pronounced in the neighborhood Will-eez. Later in 1943, during the time he and Kitty were getting to know each other, he drove a beer truck full-time for Pabst Blue Ribbon and lived at the downtown St. Paul YMCA.


When he and Kitty married in November 1948, he was between day jobs. Earlier that year he had returned from San Francisco, where he had spent the better part of the winter of 1947-1948 boxing. He and another fighter had driven there in Jim’s brand new Chevy coupe.


Before marriage Jim’s most recent day job was as an iron worker. After marriage he soon became a milkman, a job that was more to his liking because his feet were closer to the ground and he kept in shape running up and down tenement stairs. At the time it was common to have a milkman deliver an array of dairy products to your door five or six mornings a week.


From his milkman job he graduated, while maintaining his boxing career, to Hamm’s Brewery in St. Paul where he drove a delivery truck and, importantly, learned how to make wholesale sales. He stayed in shape hauling cases of beer up and down and in and out of places.


At Hamm’s Brewery Jim got to know Paul Wild, who helped on the delivery truck while going to school. They became friends for life. A 1954 graduate of the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry, Dr. Wild could move with lightning speed. His turf was frozen water, on which he skated past defenders and shot pucks into nets. His stories included the 1948 Olympics. The venue was St. Moritz, Switzerland, the first Olympics after World War II, known as the V Olympic Winter Games.


Two rival United States hockey teams had arrived in St. Moritz, each claiming to be the legitimate U.S. Olympic team. The dispute was over amateurism. Dr. Wild was on the amateur team backed by the U.S. Olympic Committee. The other team was composed of professionals backed, ironically, by the international Amateur Hockey Association. Without blowing the whole hockey tournament, how could this in-your-hockey-face controversy be resolved?


Back in 1948 no U.S. Olympic hockey player won. Dr. Wild’s team represented the U.S. in the opening ceremony parade but wasn’t allowed on the ice. The other team, the pros, represented the U.S. in exhibition play only and wasn’t allowed in the opening ceremony parade. Both teams were disqualified from medaling. Canada won Gold, with Czechoslovakia Silver and Switzerland Bronze.


Jim’s retirement from boxing in 1953 didn’t set the family back too bad because he still had his job at Hamm’s brewery. But years later he found himself unemployed when a strike was called and he and the other drivers refused to cross the picket line.


For some time he’d been a regular at Jerry’s Produce Co., which was then on 10th and Jackson Streets in downtown St. Paul. He liked to hang out there with his brother Ed, who was a buddy of the owner, Jerry Hurley. Jim gladly accepted the offer in the second half of the 1950s when Jerry suggested that Jim, with his wholesale sales experience, help Jerry expand from retail to wholesale.


For the rest of his life Jim worked with Jerry, and they grew the company into a major wholesaler of pizza and spaghetti supplies as well as fruits and vegetables.


They developed so many Italian restaurant accounts that Jerry became known as the Mozzarella King. The company expanded into supplying Italian restaurants in the mid-1960s. Tad Vezner, writing for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, explained how Jerry Hurley, an Irishman, got a foothold in an Italian market: “Some in the business told him an Irishman would never make it – but Hurley had become best friends with Jim O’Hara, head of the Minnesota Boxing Commission, who started soliciting for him.” (Tad Vezner, Jerry Hurley: A Life of Hard Work Made Him St. Paul’s “Mozzarella King,” St. Paul Pioneer Press, July 29, 2010.)


Prior to joining Jerry’s Produce, Jim's work clothes had been a Hamm’s Brewery uniform. Now he wore a coat and tie, and he developed the routine of admiring his attire in the living-room mirror in order to get a rise out of Kitty. “You look like Doctor Quack,” she responded like clockwork. Then they laughed together. They had many such routines.


Work at Jerry’s Produce wasn’t all fancy clothes. He wore them in the afternoons when he called on prospective accounts but not in the mornings.


In the mornings he drove the company truck since he and Jerry couldn’t afford to hire anyone to make the deliveries.


In the produce business Jim handled many a large sack of potatoes. So he could say with authority on more than one level that a knock-out punch well delivered makes you drop like a sack of potatoes – straight to the floor. Boxing essayist A.J. Liebling put it this way after Rocky Marciano knocked out Jersey Joe Walcott in 1952: “Walcott … flowed down like flour out of a chute. He didn’t seem to have a bone in his body.” Liebling wrote these words in the essay entitled Big Fellows Again: New Champ in the book Sports Illustrated ranked, in 2002, the number one sports book of all time: The Sweet Science (The Viking Press 1956).


In the first Marciano-Walcott fight, it had looked like Walcott was going to get the win. But then The Rock connected with an equalizer in the 13th when both men were popping right leads to the head. A 12-inch burst before impact, The Rock’s right got to Walcott’s chin first.


Marciano is ranked number 14 on the Bert Sugar list of the top 100 fighters of all time. Jersey Joe Walcott is ranked number 79 out of the top 100. (Bert Randolph Sugar, Boxing’s Greatest Fighters, 43 and 267 (The Lyons Press 2006).) For his essays on boxing, A.J. Liebling was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1992. Liebling believed television would put boxing into a coma. See his comments quoted below.


The second Marciano-Walcott fight, which took place in 1953, was a non-event. The Rock won by knockout in the first round that otherwise had little action.


At Jerry’s Produce Jim worked long days, and Jerry worked longer. Jim worked six and a half days in a week, and Jerry worked a complete seven. Jim continued to stay involved in boxing, whereas Jerry’s sole focus was the produce business. Eventually Jerry lost nearly all his eyesight, and he responded by working even harder each day for the rest of his life.


Because Jim’s devotion to boxing in one capacity or another didn’t allow him to focus solely on the produce business, he determined early that the honorable thing to do was to tell Jerry not to worry about who owns what. For the rest of his life Jim refused to dilute the ownership of the company founder, the one and only Jerry Hurley – the blind, Irish, always-there-for-you working machine. They became like brothers. Jim said of Jerry: “When he hurts, I hurt.”


Jerry Hurley had always been a determined, hard-working individual. With his eyes beginning to fail, he left his St. Paul home in 1934, at the age of 12, stowing away in a train headed west. He decided to see what he could before his eyesight was gone. He supported himself through the Great Depression, sending money home to his parents, brother, and seven sisters. It was in Washington State that he learned to buy produce from the farmers and sell it on the road. He eventually returned to St. Paul to settle down and, in 1949, opened shop in downtown St. Paul. (Tad Vezner, supra.)


Both Jerry and Jim had a gift with figures and excellent memories. They didn’t use computers as we know them. Their computers were between their ears. Jim got to where he liked to run everything like a business, sticking to a budget and making every decision with a dispassionate cost-benefit analysis.


The hardest part in business can be collecting the bill. For years this writer prepared the invoices for Jim’s accounts, and there were few collection problems. If there was a problem, Jim told the customer: “I was there for you. Now I need you to be here for me.” (A tax lawyer, this writer is still a pencil pusher.)


As a child Jim had come face to face with hunger, while Kitty’s grandmother made sure Kitty never went to bed hungry. Food wasn’t an issue in the home that Kitty and Jim made for their four children, where a great meal in or a great meal out was a regular deal.


Visiting Jim’s accounts was only natural. The JR Ranch in Hudson, Wisconsin was always memorable, what with rodeos every year. Then there was promoter Jack Raleigh’s the River’s Edge in Somerset, Wisconsin, which included inner-tube floats down the Apple River. Fine dining was enjoyed in St. Paul at Mancini’s steakhouse on West 7th and at The Coachman on the corner of Dale and Maryland and at Mangini’s on the East Side. In Stillwater the White Pine Inn was classy, and the same goes for the Venetian Inn in Little Canada.


Then there was great pizza and more at Carboni’s, Cossetta’s, the Green Mill, Davanni’s, and Yarusso’s. With nine locations in the Twin Cities at its peak, Clark’s Submarines also was a family favorite. Subway could learn a thing or two from Clark’s in its day.


Drawing on his business in fruits and vegetables, Jim had a good metaphor for knowing your limitations. “You can’t get 10 pounds in a five-pound bag,” he said often.


For a time he tried his hand at his own beer distribution company, Oak Grove Brewing Co., and he also pursued an idea to sell “moonburgers” when all the news was about the Apollo missions to the moon.


He worked as a boxing promoter and found out how financially risky that endeavor can be.


In business as in the ring, he won more than he lost. Although he never forgot the poverty he experienced as a kid, he never became greedy. “Let it go,” he said of sums due but not forthcoming. “What can you do?” he asked when things didn’t pan out. Then he answered his own question: “Not a darn thing.”


For those who were interested, he advised how to try to become a champ in the ring and how to try to avoid becoming a chump out of the ring. He was able to make some successful real estate investments over the years. In terms of investing in marketable securities, he was very conservative. His cracker-barrel investment policy consisted of six words: “I like to sleep at night.”


Three years before the stock market crashed in 1929, Ernest Hemingway wrote the fictional short story Fifty Grand. It’s about an Irish-American welterweight named Jack Brennan. A clever boxer, Brennan’s attempting to train for a title defense against an up-and-comer with a terrific punch. But the champ’s too exhausted because he can’t sleep. His trainer and friend Jerry Doyle, who’s also the narrator, asks:


“What do you think about, Jack, when you can’t sleep?” I said.


“Oh, I worry,” Jack says. “I worry about property I got up in the Bronx, I worry about property I got in Florida. I worry about the kids. I worry about the wife. Sometimes I think about fights. I think about … Ted Lewis and I get sore. I got some stocks and I worry about them.


(Ernest Hemingway, Men Without Women, 71 (Collier Books, First Scribner Classic/Collier Edition 1986), which includes the short story Fifty Grand.)


They say Hemingway was none too happy with St. Paul native F. Scott Fitzgerald over the published version of the story. Hemingway had asked Fitzgerald for advice on the work, and Fitzgerald had persuaded him to eliminate the first three pages, including material on one of Jim’s favorites, lightweight world champion Benny Leonard. They say Hemingway, a boxing fan, always regretted making that edit.


Bert Sugar ranked Benny Leonard number six on the list of the top 100 fighters of all time. (Bert Randolph Sugar, supra, at 17.) Leonard made a comeback because he, like Jack Dempsey, lost all his dough in the 1929 crash. You laugh so you don’t cry. “All I lost was $240,000,” they say Groucho Marx quipped. “I would have lost more, but that was all the money I had.”


If you figure a conservative four percent annual inflation rate, $240,000 in 1929 might be about $6,649,637 in 2015 dollars.


Fame and fortune weren’t big motivators for Jim. He appreciated recognition and making a dollar as much as the next guy as long as he wasn’t gaining at another’s expense. If he liked you he’d rather that music be made about you. Yet his lines in business included “Sometimes you need to toot your own horn because nobody’s going to toot it for you” and “It’s not bragging if it’s true.”


His goal was to trade value for value. If fruits and vegetables and pizza supplies were his stock in trade for Jerry’s Produce, judgment was what he offered in boxing. He commented that if he made it to the top in anything, he enjoyed striving with its inevitable setbacks (three steps forward, two steps backward) far more than the top itself.


He joked with friends who came from money that “it must have been nice to have had a million-dollar head start.” Of those who made serious money young, he said “the only way they have to go is down.”


In terms of preferring the struggle to the top rather than the top itself, Jack Dempsey put it this way:


I have had to come up through a very hard school where I was fighting not to win but for my existence. *** It’s much easier, you know, and more fun fighting your way up the hill than it is standing on top and defending it. Being champion isn’t as great as it seemed before I was champion. I have more money and softer living, but there are more worries and troubles and cares than I ever dreamed of before. The glory and even the money don’t mean as much as they did in the days when you belonged only to yourself — not to the public.


(Roger Kahn, A Flame of Pure Fire: Jack Dempsey And The Roaring ’20s, Chapter 10 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 1999), Kindle Edition.)


Jim cared deeply about family and friends and especially the underprivileged who he believed he had the opportunity to help in boxing. He was generous with his time and money where he thought he could make a positive difference.


If someone predicted financial success like it was already in the bank, he was known to use street lingo. “Yeah,” said he. “You’re going to shit too.” You were left to ponder what the heck he meant.


His street lingo could be more pregnant with meaning than conventional words. Sure he meant don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched. But he meant more. His street lingo was a natural part of his persona. If he saw you with a pocketknife he called it a shiv. “What’re you doing with that shiv?”


He didn’t need to set an alarm clock before he went to bed. A news junkie, he preferred to keep talk radio on all night. Each morning he got up like clockwork and drove to Jerry’s Produce and then out into the field.


He favored sport coats over suits. One time he brought home a Chihuahua puppy and hid it inside his sport coat pocket to surprise everyone.


His ties were clip on. His shirt pocket was never without a pen and rarely without a checklist for follow-up. He wore a diamond ring, and his cars were American-made sport coupes. One indulgence he enjoyed was to buy himself a new car on a regular basis. He drove Chevrolet Impalas, Chevrolet Monte Carlos, Ford Thunderbirds, Ford Granadas, and the like.


He smoked cigars, and he always kept his revolver safe.


He loved all sports, none more than boxing. He and Kitty enjoyed attending the Super Bowl until instant replay and other features made the sofa in the family den the best seat for the game.


Recalling when Minnesota didn’t have the Vikings or the Twins, he believed boxing started to fade in Minnesota in the 1960s as the Vikings and Twins grew in popularity. He remembered when boxing was so big in Minnesota that fans lined up at the local gyms to get a look at the legends, such as Glen and Del Flanagan.


Back in 1956 A.J. Liebling wrote that boxing flat out took it on the chin from television:


The immediate crisis in the United States … has been caused by the popularization of a ridiculous gadget called television. This is utilized in the sale of beer and razor blades. The clients of the television companies, by putting on a free boxing show almost every night of the week, have knocked out of business the hundreds of small-city and neighborhood boxing clubs where youngsters had a chance to learn their trade and journeymen to mature their skills. Consequently the number of good new prospects diminishes with every year, and the peddlers’ public is already being asked to believe that a boy with perhaps ten or fifteen fights behind him is a topnotch performer. Neither advertising agencies nor brewers, and least of all the networks, give a hoot if they push the Sweet Science back into a period of genre painting. When it is in a coma they will find some other way to peddle their peanuts.


(A.J. Liebling, The Sweet Science, Introduction (North Point Press 2011, originally published in 1956 by The Viking Press), Kindle Edition.)


Throughout his life Jim’s priority remained his family, including his 11 brothers and sisters and their children as well as his folks. There was so much going on at times that instead of answering the home telephone with a greeting, Jim answered with the question: “What’s wrong now?”


He and his youngest sister Joanie survived the rest of their brothers and sisters. They buried not only their parents but also 10 siblings, with their mother’s and brother Mike’s deaths being the hardest.


At one time or another Jim worked in every capacity of boxing. His volunteer work was particularly notable with the St. Paul Golden Gloves program. Both Jim and Jerry are gone now. They enjoyed working each day of their lives, and they left the world a better place than they found it.


Copyright 2012-2015 by Steven T. O’Hara. All rights reserved.