The Memory Bank: Part Seven

By Ted Sares on May 25, 2012
The Memory Bank: Part Seven
He was just twenty-seven years old when he died. His final record was 24-7-1 (22 KOs).

How much drama and tragedy could be squeezed into the short time period between February 1948 and October 1949 for Enrico Bertola?

When “The Hawk” comes in off the lake in Chicago, people hurry indoors. Some head for the bars, others for home—anywhere to escape the bite of an intense Chicago wind that can freeze your eyelashes faster than you can say “Windy City.” The late Chicago-born singer Lou Rawls called it “rough and tumble.”

On that kind of wintry February night in 1948, I was safely ensconced in the warm confines of the Chicago Coliseum on Wabash, between 16th and 17th Streets. My dad had taken me to watch recent Italian import Enrico Bertola duke it out with Jimmy Bell. The Coliseum was a big step up from the Rainbow Arena and Marigold Gardens. This was a big event for Chicago Italians. Bertola was born in Carrara, Italy, and most of his fights had been fought in Rome. In fact, this was his first fight in the States, but it might as well have been in Italy since the excited crowd was about 95 percent paisano and was there for the kill.

You could feel it in the air. My dad, who was not Italian (though my mother was), even got caught up in it. Fighters like Graziano, LaMotta, Pep, Lenny Mancini, Castellani, Fusari, Janiro, and Cesario were heroes in nearly every first generation Italian household in the country. When Tony Zale beat Graziano, it was akin to a national day of mourning.

This was the essence of Chicago-style ethnicity. Fights at the Marigold Gardens and Rainbow Arena were great, but a fight at the Coliseum, with a capacity of six thousand, was something special—and so were our seats.

Bertola was 24-4-1 coming in; Bell was 24-17-3 at the time. Bertola had been KO’d by Freddie Mills and split two with Duilio Spagnolo. Bell had fought tough guys Joe Baksi and mean and dirty Lee Oma, but had not beaten many. He was a gatekeeper; any fighter who could get by him was ready to move up.

The smell of foamy Meister Brau, juicy Italian beef, and roasted peppers with olive oil seeping through brown paper bags was thick in the smoke-filled air—and so was the smell of anticipation. Bertola did not disappoint. He dispatched the hapless Bell by KO in the fifth round, and the crowd went berserk. Scally caps were thrown into the air. But my dad and I were not as thrilled. In fact, he said something to the effect that Bertola had been slow and plodding.

Two months later, Bertola went on to fight and KO limited James Roberts at the Coliseum. Then, two months after that, he beat two more American fighters within the same week, this time at Marigold Gardens. He knocked out Orlando Ott in one and garnered a UD over tough Art Swiden (who had been KO’d in one by Bob “Rapid Robert” Satterfield just a month earlier).

Enrico Bertola had won four fights in short order—all in Chicago. He had become something of a hero in the Chicago Italian community of which I was a member, but I had my doubts. Even as an eleven-year-old, I could distinguish between great and average, and Bertola was not great. In retrospect, he was a good club fighter.

He then beat well-traveled Eddie Cameron in Newark by UD in eight. This set him up for a fight with the potentially great Bob Foxworth (18-3 coming in) in August 1948 at the Marigold Gardens Outdoor Arena in the “friendly” confines of Chicago, or so Bertola thought. Foxworth, a great prospect and KO artist, had previously dispatched the aforementioned Satterfield in one. Foxworth was another Chicago favorite, and one of my dad’s as well. He could pop with the best of them, and when we heard he was scheduled to fight the slow Bertola (29-4-1 by then), we sensed something special might happen. We were not disappointed.

Foxworth exposed Bertola by a brutal KO in the second round. The Italian crowd was in shock, but knowledgeable boxing fans were busy collecting their winnings. Foxworth would TKO Leonard Morrow a month later, but sadly, a detached retina brought his sensational career to a premature ending. As for Bertola, he would win his next four fights, including a KO over Gerolamo Giusto, his third over the limited Italian, but then he took another bad whipping, this time from Chicagoan Richard Hagan, losing by KO in eight. However, in 1949 and in an amazing turn of events, he beat rough and tough Phil Muscato (56-16 at the time) in Buffalo in what clearly was his career best.

This solid win positioned Bertola for a fateful fight on October 4, 1949, with Lee Oma (58-26-3 coming in), also in Buffalo. Oma, whose real name was Frank Czjewski, ironically was born in Chicago His career would be marked by controversy, but that’s another story for another day. Suffice it to say that Oma was a close version of Tony Galento.

After losing a bruising ten-rounder by UD in which Betola absorbed ever-increasing punishment, he was taken to a hospital and died after a brain operation the next day. He was just twenty-seven years old. His final record was 24-7-1 (22 KOs). His shocking death was deeply mourned in both Chicago and Italy. It would be the first of many chilling ring fatalities that I experienced either indirectly or close up.

The tragic story of Enrico Bertola was no big deal in the wider scheme of things, except that it was a very big deal to me. It was my first experience with a ring death, albeit indirectly. It was both scary and indelible. But the most profound thing for me was to see how much drama and tragedy could be squeezed into the short time period between February 1948 and October 1949 for Enrico Bertola.

In just twenty months, a highly touted boxer fought thirteen times, winning ten and losing three. In just twenty months, an ethnic favorite went from local hero to being killed in the ring. While I am almost ashamed to admit it, it was that kind of real life drama and irony that continued to anchor me to boxing and energized my craving for more.

The Memory Bank: Part One
The Memory Bank: Part Two
The Memory Bank: Part Three
The Memory Bank: Part Four
The Memory Bank: Part Five
The Memory Bank: Part Six
The Memory Bank: Part Seven

Visit the author’s website at www.tedsares.com

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  1. Mike Silver 09:31pm, 05/28/2012

    Ted, from people I know who saw Oma fight he was a very clever boxer. He was lazy and never lived up to full potential. Bertoli sounds like a catcher without much experience-and 13 fights in 20 months plus KO’d several times—sounds like he was an accident waiting to happen. A misused and mismanaged fighter. A boxing tragedy.

  2. TEX HASSLER 07:12pm, 05/26/2012

    Boxing is a sport that can take a man’s life in an instant. There are many stories like the one Mr. Sares put in writing here. Most young boxers are fearless and think death is far from them but death is possibly only one punch away!

  3. pugknows 07:59pm, 05/25/2012

    Wow, This one really brought back the Chicago memories. I used to go to Marigold Gardens to see Argentina Rocca wrestle. Lou Thesz was also popular back then.

  4. The Thresher 02:16pm, 05/25/2012

    Bill, I will be 75 on August 1. You’re are invited to the party which will be at the Mount Washington Omni Hotel about an hour north of Conway.

    Irish, I still wear a scally hat as can be seen on my site at www.tedsares.com

    And yes, I did work John L’s corner.

  5. The Thresher 01:53pm, 05/25/2012

    Ha. Believe it or not, I used to go to the first Uno’s Pizza in Chicago. Didn’t much like it either. Damn deep dish crap would never sell. Liked thin crust pizza better. My dad was a great boxing and wrestling fan. Also liked football and baseball. He always went to my HS football games in the ‘50s and those are still fond memories.

  6. mikecasey 01:48pm, 05/25/2012

    A little known fact is that Ted managed John L Sullivan.

  7. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo 01:44pm, 05/25/2012

    Ted Sares-Looks to me like your dad kindled the flame of your lifelong love/hate relationship with pugilism. “Scally caps”...heck yea! Guess what…and believe it or not…those were the days when the majority of the paisanos in that crowd had yet to taste their first slice of pizza. Back at the house Teresina may have been making pasta noodles from scratch but she most likely wasn’t kneading pizza dough and there sure as hell wasn’t a pizzeria on every corner in ‘48. Thanx, the memories from your bank are 24 carat gold!

  8. dollarbond 12:32pm, 05/25/2012

    Good God, Ted.  How old are you?

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