Little Uncle Abe Attell

By Jeffrey Sussman on July 13, 2014
Little Uncle Abe Attell
When he went professional, his mother cried her eyes out. Then Abe started winning.

He told me that he grew up in an Irish neighborhood, where he was called a Christ killer on Good Fridays. He learned to fight to defend himself…

I didn’t know who Abe Attell was until I saw a movie entitled Eight Men Out, which was about how Arnold Rothstein fixed the 1919 World Series with the help of the little boxer.

One of my uncles, a retired businessman, is the son of a long-dead gambler, who had controlled much of the gambling in New York during the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s. One night while eating dinner at an Italian restaurant on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, I asked my uncle what he knew of Abe.

“Uncle Abe was a great friend of my dad, and I got to know him when I was growing up. He had a six-year reign as World Featherweight Champion from 1906 to 1912. He was known as the Little Champ, but boy was he a tough guy. He stood about 5’4” but he was an intimidating little guy. According to my dad, Abe would stand up to guys well over six feet.”

“How did get he get started in the fight game?” I asked as I sipped from my glass of Cabernet.

“Well, he told me that he grew up in an Irish neighborhood, where he was called a Christ killer on Good Fridays. He learned to fight to defend himself. Then he began selling papers on a street corner in San Francisco. There, too, he had to use his fists to protect his turf from other kids who wanted to knock him off that corner. He told me that when he went professional, his mother cried her eyes out. Then he started winning. He told his mom to bet on him every time he fought. For six years, she made a lot of money and became one of Abe’s biggest fans. She was always at ringside, cheering him on. If someone cheered his opponent, she would hit the guy’s head with a folded newspaper. She would yell, ‘Don’t you say anything bad about my boy.’”

“And what’s the story about him and Arnold Rothstein?”

“He didn’t talk about it, but I asked my dad. He told me that Abe became Rothstein’s muscle for intimidating the Chicago White Sox players into throwing the World Series. The players were paid off, but not all of them. Just the key players. You know, he was indicted for fixing the game. At trial, this guy showed a lot chutzpah: he convinced the jurors that he was the wrong Abe Attell. It was another guy with the same name, and jury bought it. Amazing!

“Did he leave the world of boxing?”

“No. During the 1920s and ‘30s, he managed a fighter named Marty Goldman, who fought in two divisions: welterweight and lightweight. Goldman was Brooklyn guy and a pretty good fighter; he had a lot of wins by knockouts. I heard that Goldman was owned by Damon Runyon and was popular with two of the writer’s friends, the columnists Ed Sullivan and Walter Winchell. I used to see him fight in the Garden and at Yankee Stadium. With the columnists cheering him in print, he was a pretty big draw. Everybody connected with him made out very well.”

“Is he still alive?”

“No. He died in 1987. I went to the funeral.”

“What about Attell? When did he die?”

“I think it was around 1970 or 71. He was in his eighties at the time. He also drew a nice crowd.”

“An interesting character,” I said.

My uncle pulled out his wallet to pay the check.

“Put your money away,” I said. “Your reminiscence was easily worth the price of dinner. He smiled at me and put his wallet back in his pants pocket.

Jeffrey Sussman is the author of ten books and has a marketing/PR company, www.powerpublicity.com.

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  1. beaujack 05:19am, 07/14/2014

    Ah, the name Abe Attell brings up memories when we in my family would watch the early tv bouts on our 12” screen and quite often we would see Abe Attell in the audience on his feet throwing punches vigorously as if
    he was back in his glorious heyday. He looked at that time, like an older edition of Eddie Arcaro, the great jockey, nose and all…A tough S.O.B…

  2. Mike Silver 10:50pm, 07/13/2014

    Great story. In 1960, at the Garden, I attended the Benny Kid Paret vs. Federico Thompson title fight. I was a new fan and did not know all the legends yet, but an older fan nudged me and motioned toward an elderly gentleman with a huge nose slowly walking up the aisle. “That’s Abe Attell” , he said. To this day I marvel that I actually saw this legend in person.

  3. Clarence George 05:10pm, 07/13/2014

    A couple of historical footnotes, if I may be so bold:  First, Sullivan and Winchell loathed each other.  I think they even got into a fist fight once…fodder for our own George Thomas Clark.  Second, I live a couple of minutes away from the Park Central, formerly the Park Sheraton, where Rothstein was mortally wounded in 1928.  It’s also where Albert Anastasia got hit in 1957, sitting in a barber’s chair at Grasso’s, which is now a Starbucks.  A Starbucks!  God save us.

  4. peter 04:54pm, 07/13/2014

    Reading this, I felt like I was at the Arthur Avenue restauraunt, sitting down at the table next to Jeffrey Sussman and his uncle,  eavesdropping on their personal conversation. Wonderful story!

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