Wednesday, October 21, 2015

"Bummy Davis vs. Murder, Inc." by Ron Ross (2003)

If any book is a gift in and of itself, and a good book a treasure; then it follows that a good book given as a gift is an even greater treasure. And, so it is with this book; which I received as a Chanukah gift from Glen Slater, a friend who lives in my old neighborhood off Kings Highway in Brooklyn. He also happens to be related to Albert “Bummy” Davis, the subject of this colorful biography.

Albert Davidoff was born in Brownsville in 1920. He arrived at the dawn of Prohibition, and he would live and die at odds with the world of that misguided public policy which spawned the era of Organized Crime, which still stands as a testament to the wisdom of social engineering by the government.

But this story is more than just about politics and gangsters. It is the story of a soulful man living in a world devoid of a soul of its own, and how he came to deal with the hand that life had dealt him. In his case that hand took the form of a devastating left hook.

Author Ron Ross brings life to the character of the man who bore the name “Bummy”. Born as Albert Davidoff to a Jewish family in the East New York section of Brooklyn known as Brownsville, he was a typical kid for the times in which he lived. Surrounded by colorful characters and friends he grows up in a world where making a living was of paramount importance. His father worked at running his candy store, selling newspapers and sodas for 12 hours a day. Each member of the family had their own tasks to perform which brought in the money to feed them all.

Al was a bit different than his brothers; especially Willie, who hung out with the faster crowd and sported pin stripe suits. He also had a reputation for strong arming the local pushcart peddlers and store owners for protection money. In a time and place inhabited by the likes of Lucky Luciano and Abe Reles, this was actually considered a living.

As Al grows up he realizes that he has a talent for fighting and begins to fight in the amateur bouts at the AAU. But he soon comes to realize that in Brownsville everything is up for grabs. Even some of the fights are “fixed” so that the “smart” bettors; the ones who are connected; will always win the big money. Fighters could be marginalized so that they would never fulfill their full potential, while making big money for the “handlers.”

“Bummy’s” big break came in 1939 when he defeated former lightweight champion Tony Canzoneri in 3 rounds. He was finally on his way to the big time. By the close of 1939 he would go on to defeat Tippy Larkin, dispatching him with a mighty left hook in the fifth round. That left hook was his trademark, and enabled him to amass the impressive record of 66 wins and 47 knockouts, with only 10 losses and 4 draws. He is still considered one of the greatest punchers of all time for his weight and class.

His career was marred by his utter distaste for the corruption that went along with the sport of boxing, as well as his own quick temper. His penchant for anger caused him to lose a bout with Lightweight Champion Lou Ambers in 1940. Also that year, he fought Fritzie Zivic, who knocked “Bummy” down in the first round, and continued to harass him in the 2nd round, gouging his eye with a thumb. 
Al went slightly ballistic in response, peppering his opponent with no fewer than 10 “foul” blows, causing him to be disqualified in New York for life. (This suspension was later lifted.)

Along with a terrific account of Al Davis’ life and the fight game, Mr. Ross has also given us a history of “Murder, Inc.”-  the place where the mob went when they needed to have someone “rubbed out.” Abe Reles and the Half Moon Hotel were like local legends to me growing up just about 1 mile or so from Coney Island. The savagery with which they went about their work dwarfs even some of today’s more lurid crimes.

This book reads like a film noir classic; and also boasts a complete record of Al Davidoff’s fights as well as a pretty cool Yiddish glossary to help those who may not be from Brooklyn navigate the dialougue more easily.

In the end Al “Bummy” Davis goes down most unexpectedly. While I was expecting the hail of bullets which ended his life, I expected them to come from a different source. If it’s of any consolation, I think Al Davis was equally surprised.

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