Jackie Fields: Two-Time Welterweight Champion

By Norman Marcus on August 6, 2012
Jackie Fields: Two-Time Welterweight Champion
The kid had guts and determination, and George Blake taught him the basics of the ring.

The infamous Doc Kearns, who also managed Jack Dempsey, described Fields as the “Best all around battler the United States ever produced…”

“My mother beat the shit out of me for being a fighter. You know how Jewish mothers are.”—Jackie Fields

Young Jacob Finkelstein took the name Jackie Fields from the Fields Department Store in Chicago and grew up on Maxwell Street on the city’s West Side. This section of the city produced some amazing fighters in the ‘20s and ‘30s, guys like Barney Ross and Kingfish Levinsky. Fields knew many of these men. But they were not all boxers, far from it. They were just other kids in the neighborhood. I’m gonna run some names by you, so you get an idea of what an interesting place this was in the early decades of the 20th century. Bandleader Benny Goodman was the son of a tailor on Maxwell Street, as was Admiral Hyman Rickover. Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg’s father was a fruit peddler. Actor Paul Muni’s dad owned the neighborhood theater. Even William Paley, President and Chairman of CBS, emerged from Maxwell Street. There must have been something in the water!

In 1921 Jackie and his family moved to Los Angeles because of his father’s health issues. He was a butcher who suffered from TB and needed a warmer climate. The Windy City on Lake Michigan offered little comfort to a sick man with bad lungs.

When they arrived in California Jackie was just fourteen years old. His dad bought a restaurant in Ocean Park, but it would always lose money. Jackie didn’t like school, so like many kids in those days he dropped out of Lincoln High and looked around for a way of helping out his family. A neighborhood friend, Irv Glazer, was working his way through Stanford University by boxing professionally. He hooked Jackie up with trainer George Blake at the Los Angeles Athletic Club. Blake had taught Barney Ross how to fight when they both lived on Maxwell Street back in Chicago. Jackie had a lot of natural ability. He came in five days a week to work out and learn from his mentor. Blake liked what he saw in the young man. The kid had guts and determination, and Blake taught him the basics of the ring.

It wasn’t long before Fields got his first fight against Fidel LaBarba, who at the time was the Pacific Coast Flyweight Champion. George was hesitant about putting Fields in with someone who really knew how to box. Since it was just a three-rounder for some local banker’s dinner in exchange for twenty dollars, Blake took a chance with the kid. No surprise, Jackie lost the decision. George however was impressed by the boy’s courage. “Mr. Blake, I know I can lick him, but I wasn’t in shape. I want to fight him again.” George shook his head and said that it wasn’t necessary, his boy did fine. (Fields had fifty-three more fights as an amateur, losing only three.) He came in the next day to pick up his twenty dollars worth of merchandise. As an amateur he wasn’t allowed to receive cash, but instead of a watch, camera or trophy, he took it in groceries for the family.

Jackie grew much bigger in the next couple of years. He was no longer a boy and now had the body of a grown man. He had to move up and fight as a featherweight. His amateur winning steak impressed Avery Brundage, the head of the U.S. Olympic Committee. Jackie was picked to go to Paris as part of the U.S. boxing team. He won the gold medal that year, 1924, as Olympic Featherweight Champion. He was only sixteen years old.

When Jackie got home he switched managers. He left George Blake and signed with Gig Rooney. No hard feelings, Blake was just too busy with other “name” fighters at the time.

Jackie Fields turned pro in 1925 and went 6-1 that year with a loss to 22-1-2 Jimmy McLarnin. Jackie had eleven fights in 1926; twelve fights in 1927, including a win over 45-4-4 Sammy Mandell; and fourteen fights in 1928, including the first of three fights with Young Jack Thompson, who he defeated at the State Armory in San Francisco.

Jackie was a boxer who had the unique ability to box an opponent or slug it out. He was a smart fighter who knew how to use the ring to his advantage. Fields was a tough opponent but didn’t have a heavy punch. He was quick, skilled and had a lot of staying power in a fight. One of his later managers, the infamous Doc Kearns, who also managed Jack Dempsey, said of him, “Best all around battler the United States ever produced.”

Jackie had wanted to fight his old newspaper buddy Mushy Callahan—they both delivered newspapers before their boxing careers took off—for his NBA Light Welterweight title. Mr. Rooney even offered Mushy $25,000 to put up that anemic title, but Mushy wouldn’t do it. Jackie was very aggravated about it. He had fought Mushy a couple of times in the gym and felt that he had his number.

So instead he fought a rematch Young Jack Thompson on March 25, 1929 at the Coliseum in Chicago for the vacant NBA World Welterweight Title. Fields won that fight by a UD10 going away. He was now the welterweight champion of the world but things were not yet completely settled. Joe Dundee, aka Pal Joey, had the New York State version of the title. So the two gents had to meet in the ring to settle things and determine exactly who the true champion was.

After fighting and winning three tune-ups, Fields met Dundee at the State Fairgrounds Arena in Detroit on July 25, 1929. The bout only lasted two rounds. In the first, Dundee was knocked down twice by Fields. In the second round the slaughter continued, with Dundee hitting the canvas three more times. Joe got up and Fields knocked him down again. The New York State Champion crawled to the ropes, pulled himself up, and then deliberately punched Jackie—in the groin! The next thing Fields knew, he was in his dressing room and the undisputed champion by DQ. Why the deliberate punch to the groin by Dundee? He wanted to save his side bet of $50,000 on himself to win. You see all bets are off in case of a foul, even a deliberate foul. Or as Jackie poetically called it: “That bum and his buddies had bet money on the fight.”

After a three-month rest, Fields returned to active duty. He had ten fights in the next five and half months, including bouts against Vince Dundee (57-6-11), Gorilla Jones (36-6-2), Young Corbett III (83-8-21), and Tommy Freeman (77-10-14), which set up a third fight with Young Jack Thompson. 

Fields-Thompson III was on May 9, 1930. In a hard fought contest, Jackie lost his crown by decision over fifteen rounds. He was disgusted by his performance and impulsively decided to retire.

A few weeks later Jackie bumped into Doc Kearns who told him he could get him another shot at Thompson and the welterweight title. Jackie came out of retirement. In the meantime, Thompson had already lost the title to French Canadian Lou Brouillard. If anyone could straighten this mess out it was Kearns. Look what he had done for Dempsey’s early career. (He also later managed Mickey Walker, Joey Maxim and Archie Moore.) They signed a “no cut” contract. All the purses Jackie won in his first year with Kearns would belong exclusively to the fighter. “I want nothing,” Doc told him. “I want you to win the title back. After I win the title back for you than we will be partners.” The sportswriters had already written Fields obituary by describing him as “all washed up.” He wanted to prove them wrong. Jackie Fields wasn’t an old man. He was only twenty-three years old at the time!

Jackie had ten fights between September 1930 and January 8, 1932, when he met Brouillard at Chicago Stadium. The French Canadian was a southpaw with a 64-7-1 record. Fields was 63-6-2 at the time. Brouillard could jab and hit with either hand. One had to watch both Lou’s hands real close. Jackie knocked him down in round eight on the way to a unanimous ten-round decision. Jackie Fields was welterweight champion again.

Jackie fought a few non-title bouts after that, to pick up some easy money. On the way home from a bout in Louisville, he was involved in a bad car accident in Hammond, Indiana. He lost the sight of his right eye (a detached retina) on a country road, but he and Kearns managed to keep it under wraps.

Jackie had ten non-title fights in what remained of 1932, but his best years were behind him. He agreed to defend his title against Young Corbett III at the Seal’s Stadium, San Francisco, on February 22, 1933. Corbett, originally from Italy but fighting out of Fresno, was another southpaw and Kearns and Fields had their work cut out for them. Jackie had lost on points to Corbett two years earlier in a close fight that saw the champ coming on strong at the end. But referee Jim Griffen was the sole judge in that bout and he had given it to Corbett, to the astonishment of Field’s corner. The San Francisco fans loved it. It didn’t matter much then because there was no title at stake, it was an over the weight fight, and Fields still got his $40,000 purse.

This time the NBA welterweight crown was at stake.

Toby Erwin was supposed to referee the fight. He was the same guy that let Max Baer kill Frankie Campbell in Frisco a few years back. Doc Kearns would have none of Irwin. He had him replaced by Jack Kennedy. Doc knew Jack and trusted him to give his man a square deal. There were no judges. It was up to the referee again.

The majority of sportswriters sitting ringside thought Jackie had won the fight. Both boxers stood in the center of the ring while Kennedy worked his scorecard. He then grasped each boxer’s glove and raised the hand of the winner—Corbett! The crowd was in shock. Kennedy had scored it 6-3-1 for the obvious loser. 

Later in Field’s dressing room Kennedy confessed, “I made a mistake.” He had raised the hand of the wrong boxer! Doc Kearns was so enraged that he jumped on Kennedy right there and beat the hell out of him! The title was gone, “spilt milk” as they said back in the day. Jackie fought one more time, outpointing Young Peter Jackson at the Olympic Auditorium over 10 rounds. This time retired for good with a record of 74-9-2-1 NC, with 31 of those wins coming by knockout.

Jackie Fields had a second career as an assistant unit manager at 20th Century Fox and a film editor the MGM Studios in Hollywood. He sold jukeboxes for the Wurlitzer Company and was a liquor distributor for J&B Scotch. In 1939, Hollywood made a little-known feature film about his life called “The Crowd Roars.” In the 1950s Fields bought a large share of the Tropicana in Las Vegas, Nevada. He also served as Vice Chairman of the Nevada State Athletic Commission for many years.

The kid from Maxwell Street again wound up a winner.

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  1. jerry schneider 06:18pm, 01/27/2014

    My mom’s sister was married to Jackie Fields father.

  2. the thresher 02:33pm, 08/07/2012

    jim crue has the beat

  3. the thresher 02:32pm, 08/07/2012

    Very fine piece of writing, Norm

  4. Kid Hersh 01:06pm, 08/07/2012

    Good read, nice writing

  5. McGrain 06:49am, 08/07/2012

    Enjoyed the read.  He sure did get thrashed by Corbett.  Unfair that this seems to be the only surviving film?

  6. mikecasey 01:22am, 08/07/2012

    Now here’s a guy, Norm, who rarely comes up when people talk about the great welterweights. But he was certainly a great welterweight with a great record. We need to be reminded of guys like Jackie Fields!

  7. Neil Leifert 05:24am, 08/06/2012

    Another fascinating article, Norm.  I was never much of a boxing fan, but your passion for the sport and its rich history has turned me into one.  I especially like the way you tie in to the culture.  Few remember that at one time in America, there were great Jewish fighters.

  8. JimmyD 05:10am, 08/06/2012

    There were some tough American Jews back in the day. Great article Mr. Marcus. In the 50’s he bought a share of the Trop in Vegas, I’m sure that worked out well. Great life story.

  9. jim Crue 04:53am, 08/06/2012

    Great article. I hope young boxing fans are reading this stuff so they will realize how skilled and active fighters used to be, compared to today’s posers.

  10. Mike Silver 07:58pm, 08/05/2012

    What an amazing record. Thank you for rejuvenating the memory of one of boxing’s best welterweight champions.

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