Long before Budd Schulberg made his name as a boxing writer, he was a devoted fan of the sport.
On June 8, the author of “On the Waterfront” and “What Makes Sammy Run?” will be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame & Museum in Canastota, N.Y. During a recent phone conversation with the Forward, Schulberg recalled how his love of the sport was cultivated a lifetime ago by his father, B.P. Schulberg, the legendary 1920s Paramount Pictures producer and executive.
“My father was an enthusiastic fight fan. He went twice a week, and started taking me when I was 10,” said Schulberg, who is now approaching 90. “Because of my father’s eminence, I met a lot of boxers and became good friends with them.
“One reason my family was so involved in boxing was that Adolph Zukor, the founder of Famous Players, which became Paramount, came over as an immigrant and didn’t have a dime. He gravitated toward boxing. He was paid a dollar a round when he was a few years off the boat. In the early days of Paramount, all the company heads went to the fights. Boxing had been a part of their survival at the beginning, and it became a part of their recreational life. My father passed this on to me.”
During Schulberg’s childhood, when Jews were largely barred from the corridors of upscale America, the sport was as much an outlet for ambitious young Jews as the movie industry itself. The boxing world, he said, had less overt antisemitism than did other sports: “One reason was that many of the fight managers were Jewish. Mike Jacobs, the premier boxing promoter, was Jewish.”
Schulberg added that the prowess of the Jewish boxer also was “a repudiation of the stereotype of Jews being afraid to fight back.”
It is not surprising, then, that young Schulberg had empathy for Jewish boxers, many of whom wore Stars of David on their trunks. “They were outstanding in every division,” he recalled. “Back then, there was Jackie Fields, a welterweight champion and a great fighter. A fighter by the name of Mushy Callahan — whose real name was Morris Scheer — he was a junior welterweight champion. There was a little flyweight called Newsboy Brown. Also the lightweight champion Maxie Rosenbloom and Max Baer, the heavyweight champ — one of his grandparents was Jewish.”
“Even Callahan wore the six-pointed star, because he was proud of being Jewish,” Schulberg continued. “The irony was that his son became Father Callahan, a priest.”
Of all the Jewish boxers of the time, Benny Leonard and Barney Ross were arguably the most outstanding. Schulberg included a chapter, titled “The Great Benny Leonard,” in “Sparring With Hemingway,” his 1995 collection of boxing reportage. He noted, “My father and this whole group coming up out of the Lower East Side identified with Benny Leonard as a symbol of hope, in the same way that young blacks did with Muhammad Ali.
“Barney Ross was one of the greatest Jewish boxers,” he added, “but in L.A., my hometown, the heroes were Jackie Fields and Mushy Callahan. Mushy was a friend of the family. When he won [his] championship, he gave me his gloves. I hung them on the wall behind my bed; they were an important symbol for me. I was about 12 or 13 at the time.”
Schulberg’s experiences as a young fan continued to inform his work as an adult. “When I cover boxing, I try to do so objectively,” he said. “But that seed that was planted in my childhood of rooting for Jewish boxers never really has gone, even though we don’t have much to root for today.”
Despite his princely Hollywood youth, Schulberg’s Jewishness separated him from the mainstream. “I’ve had a very strong underdog feeling all my life,” he explained. “Some of that is related to the experiences I had as a young Jew, but not in Hollywood, where the community was largely Jewish. I felt an outsider when I came out east to prep school at Deerfield, and to some extent at Dartmouth. My freshman year, I had a gentile friend as a roommate. The fraternities came to woo him, but ignored me.”
Schulberg attempted to reflect this underdog standing in “What Makes Sammy Run?”, his 1941 novel about Sammy Glick, a quintessential Hollywood hustler.
Because of the character’s “outsider status,” Schulberg noted, “Sammy has very consciously broken with the Jewish tradition. He feels estranged from his culture. I’ve not reflected on this in my other books, but it’s always been on my mind, even if it’s not there specifically on the page.”
More often, Schulberg has written about boxing, and he employed his insider knowledge while fashioning his Oscar-winning screenplay for “On the Waterfront,” the 1954 movie classic. His hero, Terry Malloy, is an ex-pugilist who “could’ve been a contender,” but instead took a dive. While his opponent got a “title shot — outdoors in the ballpark,” Terry settled for “a one-way ticket to Palookaville.”
Schulberg’s career has not been without controversy. Early on, he briefly joined the Communist Party. To this day, he is reviled in certain circles for naming names while testifying in 1951 before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
His Boxing Hall of Fame honor, however, has aroused no such controversy; his inside knowledge of the sport is unquestioned. Schulberg was not exaggerating when he declared, “Boxing is a sport and a world that I know about. I suffer along with the Mets and I watch football games and track-and-field meets, but boxing is the sport that I know from the inside.”
Rob Edelman’s latest book is “Matthau: A Life” (Taylor), which he co-authored with his wife, Audrey Kupferberg. He most recently appeared in these pages on February 14 with a profile of John Garfield.