Diamond Dukes: Baseball’s Legendary Scrappers

By Mike Casey on October 5, 2011
Diamond Dukes: Baseball’s Legendary Scrappers
“I have been in a lot of fights," said Billy Martin, "on ball fields from Idaho Falls to Boston.”

Billy Martin loved a scrap and had a winning record in diamond duking, but he didn’t regret opting for a baseball career over boxing…

Rocky Marciano could not retire. Not him of all people. Not boxing’s inconic flag bearer of the American dream. It was the wrong time and Rocky’s presence was needed. This was the opinion and fervent hope of New York Yankees baseball ace, Billy Martin, as he sat down in the early spring of 1956 for a chat with his old pal, Dan Daniel.

Billy and Dan were kindred spirits and one can just imagine a lively old chin-wag between the two. Both men loved boxing, baseball and New York. Daniel was one of the great baseball writers of his generation, but it was in his long standing capacity as associate editor of The Ring magazine that he was interviewing Billy about some of the legendary boys of summer who enjoyed spicing up things with a good old fight.

Billy loved a scrap himself and had a winning record in diamond duking, but he didn’t regret opting for a baseball career over boxing. Here is what he said: “Looking the American professional boxing situation over and seeing myself in the infield of the Yankees, I certainly am glad that I made my decision in favor of the diamond.

“There must be something basically wrong in boxing, and it does not lie in boxing itself. It’s a wonderful sport and, if run the right way, is terrific entertainment. I like Marciano very much as a man and I admire him tremendously as a fighter. He is a high type of athlete, one of the best we’ve ever had in the heavyweight division. In fact I would say that the class has been very lucky for personalities.

“Boxing would suffer greatly if Rocky were to retire and leave the title open to competition between Archie Moore, Floyd Patterson, Hurricane Jackson and the rest of the field. Marciano is especially popular among us ball players because, like me, he had to make a decision. Baseball or boxing? Maybe if he hadn’t hurt his arm, he would be catching for the Cubs or some other major club.

“We see Rocky at ball games a lot, and I know that when he is in training he watches baseball television. Good luck to him, whether he goes on fighting or retires.”

If Billy Martin sounded impassioned, he had good reason to be. All the way over in Los Angeles, there was a murky backdrop to Martin’s conversation with Dan Daniel. Boxing was still blessed with fabulous fighters, fabulous fights and great trainers, but the sunny skies were increasingly being threatened by grey clouds and mighty claps of thunder in the form of a series of investigations into the sport’s deep rooted corruption.

Four years down the road, there would be the famous Kefauver federal investigation into boxing, in which the likes of Jake LaMotta would reluctantly play leading roles. Currently it was the state of boxing in California that was under the microscope as two brothers went to war against each other.

Former middleweight champion Al McCoy, one of the few men to beat Harry Greb twice, hadn’t spoken to his younger brother Babe in years. A 300-pound, cigar chomping colossus, Babe McCoy was the matchmaker for the Olympic Auditorium and now facing charges that included the fixing of fights.

Sixty-two-year-old Al left no doubt as to which side he was pitching for and proved that he was still capable of making a dramatic entrance. “There’s going to be a hanging,” he announced, “and I brought the rope.” Specifically, he was out to hang brother Babe.

Everyone suspected of anything was in the dock, but it was the testimony of journeymen fighters that stole the show for all the wrong and distasteful reasons. Things bordered on the pitiful as Babe McCoy’s alleged dancing bears were called upon to tell their stories.

Watson Jones, describing himself as “just McCoy’s little colored boy,” was moved to tears as he explained his specialist talent. “A real good artist like myself can make it look so good, you can’t possibly tell.”

He was right, of course. Losing cleverly has been a dark art of sportsmen across the board for centuries. In his last four outings, Watson Jones had lost cleverly to Zora Folley, Harry Matthews, Pat McMurtry and Jimmy Bivins. Jones would most likely have lost those fights anyway, but the art was in the timing and the way he did it.

There was an almost comical interlude when it was revealed that Tommy Campbell, who had been instructed to “make it look good until the fourth round” nearly scared the life out of himself by decking “Golden Boy” Art Aragon in the second. Fortunately Art got up and Tommy dutifully went out in the fourth stanza. Some months later, Carlos Chavez took no chances and exited against Aragon in the first round.

Roasted

On and on it all went, with nothing much being done at the end of it all. Babe McCoy got roasted but he didn’t get hanged. He knew the right people. No wonder Billy Martin wanted to lighten the mood in his natter with Dan Daniel back in New York. The talk turned to Billy’s extracurricular scraps on and off the diamond. Martin was some character, who insisted that he was just a quiet guy who preferred to avoid such rough-and-tumble distractions. One can imagine Daniel almost falling off his chair at hearing that gem.

“I came very near being a professional boxer,” said Billy. “The section in which I was brought up, in Berkeley, California, was not what you might call the best part of town. You had to fight or be stepped on. I never was very heavy, I weigh only about 164 right now, and I’ll be 28 on May 16, which certainly means I have attained full growth physically and, I hope, mentally too.

“The bigger kids figured me for a patsy and I was in plenty of fights. I never ran away and in time got to be a pretty fair lad with the fists. I fought in amateur ranks and I fought in the streets. I was 17, weighing 140 when I got into my biggest battle. There was a guy around Berkeley who figured he was very good. He had won the Golden Gloves in the welterweight class and he was quite a bully. He picked on a pal of mine and I told him off.”

Alas, the bully didn’t relent and Martin suggested they resolve their differences the proper way by getting in the ring and lacing on the gloves. The two men fought in the gymnasium at St. Marys College in Maraga, and Billy knocked his opponent out in the second round. According to Billy, a couple of professional boxing managers in the area got to hear about his fighting ability and offered him attractive terms.

But Martin’s heart was always in baseball and his mind was made up when the great Casey Stengel gave Billy his big chance with Oakland. But the scrapping spirit always remained in Martin’s blood, quiet and unassuming fellow that he was. So why not mix the two?

“The fans pay to see a hard contest,” Billy reasoned, “and expect you to go all out. I try to do this without picking a scrap. But there are times when you can’t help yourself. A good scrap always brings out the fans the next day and helps the gate. But players are not interested in the box office angle. Not to the extent of picking quarrels just to give the customers an added thrill.”

Nevertheless, Martin was proud of his scrapping record. “I have been in a lot of fights, not of my own choosing, on ball fields from Idaho Falls to Boston. But two of them stand out in my memory, one with Jim Piersall of the Red Sox, in Boston, and the other with Clint Courtney in St Louis.”

Billy’s duel with Piersall at Fenway Park was a one-on-one affair after Jim allegedly starting picking on Billy. Following an old tradition, the two men went under the stands and Martin quickly ended matters with an uppercut. By contrast, the set-to with Clint Courtney developed into one of those “anyone’s invited” affairs where members of both teams piled into the fray. In Billy’s words, it was a “gorgeous scrap.” Since it was nigh impossible to tell who won, American League president William Harridge fined Martin, Courtney and a handful of Yankees for good measure.

Long Tradition

Billy Martin and his scrapping “pals” were honoring a long and rich tradition. Indeed, there is a strong case for saying that Billy’s iillustrious predecessors took their fighting far more seriously. White Sox first baseman Art Shires, before being ordered to terminate his dual career, racked up four pro fights and drew a crowd of 18,000 at the Boston Garden when he knocked out Boston Braves catcher Al Spohrer.

Generally, however, baseball fights were kept to the diamond, the stands or anywhere else where two guys could go at each other. Casey Stengel and Ed Appleton certainly went at each other one Sunday when the old Brooklyn Dodgers went to Coney Island for a sabbatical break. Not feeling greatly religious or charitable, Casey and Ed began one of the longest fights on record as they bashed each other around on Coney and finally concluded matters outside their quarters on Washington Street. Stengel was the winner but nearly lost an ear for his troubles.

Ty Cobb, of whom it might be said treated everyone with equal contempt, nearly killed umpire Billy Evans under the stands in Washington and also administered a brutal beating to Charley Herzog.

However, when all is said and done, perhaps it has been for the best that the boys of summer have generally kept their differences out of the boxing ring. Back in the day, shortly before his landmark move from the Red Sox to the Yankees, Babe Ruth got it into his head that he might just have it in him to be another Jack Dempsey. Babe’s horrified business manager, Christy Walsh, moved quickly to quosh the Bambino’s fanciful notions by setting up a sparring session with heavyweight contender, Gunboat Smith.

One clouting hook from the Gunboat was all it took to remind Babe that he loved the game of baseball immensely.

Mike Casey (c)

Mike Casey is a freelance journalist, artist and boxing historian and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO).

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  1. marc maturo 08:20am, 05/18/2012

    What wonderful pieces, videos and beautifully evocative prose. I just wonder years from now will anyone have the same reverential respect for the sport and, more importantly, the guys in the racket as we do. Here are some truly “tough cookies” in baseball: Jerry Koosman, Eddie Matthews, Joe Adcock, Hank Bauer, Frank Robinson, Warren Spahn ... just to name a few. As for the ring, the name of Alexis Arguello just came up in conversation. What a gentleman, and what a sad end. Keep punching everyone.

  2. mikecasey 08:52am, 10/06/2011

    My pleasure, Dave - best wishes.

  3. Dave Wilcox 08:45am, 10/06/2011

    Wow, great stuff, Mike thank you.

  4. mikecasey 05:09am, 10/06/2011

    Nicely put, Ted!

  5. The Thresher 05:01am, 10/06/2011

    Clint Courtney, “The Toy Bulldog,” gave Martin all he could handle, but was not quite as dirty a fighter as Martin.

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