Benny, Pinkey and the Night Chicago Died

By Pete Ehrmann on May 30, 2014
Benny, Pinkey and the Night Chicago Died
Leonard vs. Mitchell, on May 29, 1923, was the prizefight that killed boxing in Illinois.

After Pinkey lost a newspaper decision to welterweight champion Jack Britton, Britton told reporters, “That boy should be world’s champion some day…”

Ninety-one years ago today — Memorial Day, 1923 — the biggest story in sports wasn’t the annual car race that caused the death of a spectator at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It was the prizefight the day before that killed boxing in Illinois.

The bout between lightweight champion Benny Leonard and junior welterweight champion Pinkey Mitchell in Chicago was a stinker until it ended suddenly in the 10th round. It was the riot in the ring afterwards that did the damage.

The fuse leading to that explosion was lit almost two years earlier, on January 14, 1921, as Pinkey and Billy Mitchell carried their brother Richie back to his corner at Madison Square Garden.

“Get Leonard for me, Bill,” pleaded Pinkey Mitchell. “I’ll show him.”

Richie Mitchell had almost showed Benny Leonard himself, rising up from three knockdowns and dumping the lightweight champion for a nine count in the first round of their famous world title fight. But Benny survived and five rounds later doled out the beating that made it necessary for Pinkey and Billy Mitchell to tote their inert brother to his stool.

Billy was the eldest brother and manager of Milwaukee’s “Fighting Mitchells.” Twenty-year-old Pinkey had impressed at the Garden just a week earlier by fighting Willie Jackson to a 15-round draw.

A month before that, after Pinkey lost a newspaper decision to welterweight champion Jack Britton, Britton told reporters, “That boy should be world’s champion some day.”

When the mood was on him, “the junior Mitchell,” as Pinkey was designated in the press, was as impressive as the four-year-older Richie, who had beaten Ad Wolgast, Freddie Welsh, Johnny Kilbane and plenty other big name fighters enroute to the Garden and his epic turn in boxing’s spotlight.

After Richie took Leonard to the brink he had no bigger fan than the champion he almost deposed.

“You can talk about your Rocky Kansases, Lew Tendlers, Willie Jacksons, Joe Wellings, Johnny Dundees,” Leonard said in 1928, “but, boy, always remember to put the name of Richie Mitchell first when listing the great lightweights of my time.”

As for Pinkey, said Benny, “I never did like him.”

That started on January 2, 1922, when just hours before they were to step into the ring at the Milwaukee Auditorium for a 10-round non-title fight for which Leonard was to get $12,500 (today’s equivalent: $168,388) Pinkey complained of bursitis in his left shoulder and the fight was cancelled.

Asked to stick around and fight Pinkey a week later, Leonard grabbed his $1,200 default check and left town in a snit.

“What assurance have I that Pinkey will not be stricken again?” he said. “Besides, I am tired of the game. Just such incidents disgust me with my profession.”

Benny needed that 12.5 payday. Though perhaps boxing’s premier champion since he’d taken the lightweight title from Willie Ritchie in 1917, Leonard was tap city. “I’ve been foolish with my money,” he confessed after beating Ever Hammer in his seventh fight of 1922. “I played Wall Street. I owned race horses.”

After the Hammer fight that August he hit the lucrative vaudeville circuit full time and didn’t fight again until he and Pinkey got it on nine months later.

Pinkey Mitchell became a champion in late 1922 without lacing up a glove. His coronation as the first junior welterweight titlist was orchestrated by The Boxing Blade, a weekly magazine published in Minneapolis. From May to October 15 that year boxing fans were invited to cast 200 votes for the inaugural140-pound champion for the cost of a $2 one-year subscription, or 100 votes for a half-year $1 subscription.

When the 700,000-plus votes were tallied, Pinkey topped the field with 100,800 and got the championship belt.

Purists sneered it was a “mail-order title,” but after several successful defenses by Mitchell the fledgling National Boxing Association recognized him as junior welterweight champion.

The contract for the Mitchell-Leonard fight in Chicago on May 29, 1923 called for a weight of 139 pounds; so while Benny’s lightweight title wouldn’t be at stake he could claim the 140-pound title if he won the 10-round no-decision fight by knockout or on a foul.

But the real object was to have a high-class, high profile bout that would put the sport’s best foot forward and grease the way for the legalization of boxing in Illinois. It had been illegal there since the fixed fight between Terry McGovern and Joe Gans in 1900. There had been fights in Windy City since then, but in February pressure from the Chicago Law & Order League forced authorities to slam down the lid on boxing.

Now the idea was to show what an upstanding sport it could be by replicating the high-toned, humanitarian trappings of the Richie Mitchell-Benny Leonard promotion in 1921. Socialite Anne Morgan fronted that one to raise money to help France rebuild after World War I, and for the first time boxing donned a tuxedo and high society respectability.

The Pinky-Benny fight — whose proceeds would go to the West Side Boys’ Club for a new gym — was similarly glam. Members of the Armour, Swift and Cudahy meatpacking families whose fortunes were made at the nearby Stockyards occupied the $15 ringside seats at Dexter Park Pavilion (later the Chicago Amphitheater), and among the 8,000 spectators were loads of patrician dames in their go-to-cotillion clothes.

To observe the legalities, before the main event got underway promoter Jim Mullen was formally arrested in the ring for violating the anti-prize fight law whose days seemed numbered because that very morning the state House of Representatives voted 81-53 for a bill to legalize boxing in Illinois and sent it to the state Senate for likely passage a day or two hence.

It never got there. Three more years would pass before boxing was again allowed in Illinois.

After nine rounds in which neither Mitchell nor Leonard did much but feint, dance around and clinch, in the 10th round Benny floored Mitchell with a right hand and then appeared to hit him when he was down or just starting to get up.

“We win by a foul!” cried Billy Mitchell. But with only five seconds before the final bell Referee Davy Miller ruled it a technical knockout for Leonard, and Richie Mitchell objected by punching Miller in the face.

“Like a flash, the hemped enclosure was dotted with humanity,” wrote The Milwaukee Journal’s Sam Levy in the next day’s edition. “True blue loyalists of the Mitchell boys leaped into the ring… The Miller faction did likewise. Policemen with swinging clubs followed. But this did not serve to halt the free for all… A half-hour passed and still the battling factions remained in the ring.”

Many of the society matrons fainted, and so must’ve officials of the West Side Boys Club when after the bills were paid all they got from the $25,000 in gate receipts was $25.

A May 31 Milwaukee Sentinel story reporting that thanks to the riot and controversy the Illinois boxing bill was dead alluded to rumors “that somebody cleaned up big on the Leonard-Mitchell bout. Thousands of dollars were bet that Mitchell would not last 10 rounds.”

Pinkey maintained that referee Miller was in on the deal.

“We were in a clinch. Miller grabbed my left arm and broke me loose. He started to turn me away and as he did he permitted Leonard to step around behind and hit me on the chin. I did not have a chance to protect myself, my chin being wide open for the right hand punch that put me down.”

One of the many mysteries about the fight is why Davy Miller was referee in the first place. Davy and his brothers Hershie and Max were well-known Chicago gangsters, and on top of that Davy had a grudge against the Mitchells going back to August 9, 1919, when Richie fought Sailor Friedman in Benton Harbor, Michigan. Miller was Friedman’s manager then, and when the Sailor was knocked down at the end of the sixth round Miller tackled Mitchell in the ring and a riot commenced. Friedman was disqualified and he and Miller were barred from state rings for a year.

The death of boxing in Illinois was the biggest repercussion of the Pinkey-Benny fight, but maybe not the only one.

On October 11, 1923, Sailor Friedman was supposed to fight Pinkey for the junior welterweight championship at the Milwaukee Auditorium. But the night before, as the Sailor took a late stroll on a deserted downtown street, he was forced into a car at gunpoint and then punched, kicked and pistol-whipped and his unconscious body dumped in a gutter. No one was ever arrested.

“It is said that other Chicago boxers have been fighting shy of Milwaukee since,” noted the Associated Press on January 22, 1924. That was the day after Davy Miller was gut shot outside a Chicago theater. According to authorities, “the shooting was traceable to the Leonard-Mitchell fight.”

“Leave this one to me,” the critically wounded Davy told the cops when they asked who did it. The would-be assassin was rival gangster Dion O’Bannion, who was himself gunned down on November 10. The Millers all had alibis.

Pinkey Mitchell continued to be recognized as 140-pound champion despite his KO by Leonard because at the official weigh-in on the day of the fight Benny refused to get on the scale. Newspaper accounts say he went at least 145.

What Leonard thought about Mitchell’s championship was evinced at his victory party when a boy under the impression that Benny was now a double champion asked him, “What are you going to do with the junior welterweight title?”

With a smile and a bow Benny told the youngster, “I hereby present it to you.”

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  1. Magoon 07:33pm, 05/30/2014

    It was Angelo Genna who ordered the hit on O’Banion, something about a breach of etiquette, carried out by Frankie Yale, John Scalise and Albert Anselmi.

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