LEGENDARY TEX O'ROURKE DEAD AT 77; MORE PRAISE FOR REMNICK


HEARING VOICES FROM THE PAST (Ring Magazine, November 1961) By Jersey Jones A voice may be stilled, but ofttimes its memories linger on . . . especially if it belonged to a Pete Prunty or a Harry Balogh. It was something of a grim coincidence that Prunty and Balogh, two of the best known sports announcers ever produced in New York, should have passed on within a few brief weeks of each other recently. Prunty had lived to a mellowed 94; Balogh had just reached the biblical allotment of three score years and then. The current generation of sports addicts would not know of Pete Prunty -- he had been in retirement for a quarter-century or more -- but oldtimers have pleasant recollections of the urbane, affable gentleman who was so well liked during his busy career as a public barker. Well educated, and never at a loss for the proper words to use, Prunty didn't confine his announcing talents to boxing. His early training as a choir singer gave his trilling tenor delivery a pleasant musical quality. Constantly sought for other major sports events, Peter was frequently seen, and heard, at athletic meets, automobile races, wrestling matches and six-day bike grinds. Prunty was a product of an era that preceded the public address system, or "lou speaker," when the main requisite of an announcer was a strong voice, capable of reaching the outermost regions of the arena or the stadium in which he was working. A natural target for hecklers, he also had to be quick at repartee, and something of a student of mob psychology, with the ability to keep a potentially unruly crowd under control. Prunty flourished in a period when an announcer was something more than just that. He often was an attraction in himself, and an important part of any sports enterprise, particularly boxing. Unlike Prunty, whose English was flawless, the usual announcer didn't have to be a grammatical purist. Generally, he wasn't, but he spoke the language of the crowds and his gift for mispronunciation was considered part of his quaint "charm." Joe Humphreys, for a notable case, realized his limitations and didn't go in for elaborate gestures or speeches. What he had to say was brief and to the point. Born and bred in New York's teeming East Side, Joe's schooling had been limited and words beyond two syllables often posted a problem for him, but his plain language was all the more effective because of its simplicity. Humphreys had certain set lines for introductions of fighters. Inevitably one would be the "game and aggressive West Sider." Another was certain to be a "pugilistic product" of somewhere. A visitor was almost always the "idol" of his home town. In a title match, the champion never failed to meet "the worthy challenger." Joe did develop one little distinctive feature in his announcing. If, in giving out a fighter's weight, there was a half-pound involved, Joe would bellow "and a hawf." In time, he didn't bother to announce the fraction. He would slice the air with his right arm and that would be the signal for the galleryites to chorus "and a hawf!" We recall Humphreys spending most of one afternoon practicing the Spanish pronunciation of "Luis Angel Firpo" to use that night when he introduced the burly Argentine for his bout with Bill Brennan in old Madison Square Garden. Painstakingly, Joe rehearsed "Loo-ees . . . Ong-hail . . . Feer-po" until he was satisfied he had it right. All his conscientious efforts went for naught, however, when he clambered into the ring for the pre-fight presentations. When he got to Firpo, Humphreys boomed out in his purest East Sidese: "Loo-ee Ain-jell Foi-po!" Beginning with the late '90s and spanning across three decades, New York came up with one of the most colorful collections of announcers the rugged industry probably has ever produced in one generation. Prunty and Humphreys were two of that crowd. Before he turned to managing fighters, Charley Harvey was announcer at most of the major New York clubs. When he left, Johnny Dunn replaced him. The "Human Brass Band," they called Dunn, because of the strange noises that issued from his lusty larynx. Chuck Oldis was Brooklyn's top announcer, and he officiated in baseball as well as boxing. Some years ago Jack Skelly, a top featherweight in his youth, and later a sports writer in Yonkers, published a book of reminiscences, devoting considerable space to the announcing profession during the early years of prizefighting in the United States. In Skelly's time, the promoter usually was his own barker. In fact, he often was a one-man organization, an ex-fighter who knew what had to be done and did it himself. He looked after the pairing of the fighters, the construction of the ring, the seating, if any, and handling of the customers. He did just about everything but the actual fighting -- and often enough he had to do that with the fans. Wrote Skelly: "Uncle Bill Tovee was the first announcer I remember. He was a retired English bare-knuckle warrior, who had come to America and settled down on Clove Road in Brooklyn. Uncle Bill made a living by giving boxing lessons and he started out some good knuckle-dusters. Clove Road has long since been lost in a maze of modern buildings, but in those days it was a rural highway and Tovee's gymnasium was an old shed with one side open to the air. "Many fine fighters were developed at Tovee's, and Uncle Bill's fame spread rapidly. Soon he was master of ceremonies at virtually all the important fights held in the eastern part of the United States. He loved especially the announcing part of the work and was not without wit. Tovee announced at my first fight, and his chatter ran something like this: "'A little h'order 'ere, gents; a little h'order, please. We're goin' to 'ave a bloomin' pretty set-to 'ere, as pretty a one as you h'ever did see. Battlin' 'Arry 'Owes of H'Ingland an' Jack Skelly of H'America, gents. A little h'order, me boys, as h'its goin' to be a 'ot 'un, bless yer, me coves.' "Tovee was a merry old fellow and very popular. He lived a cheerful, contented life, and was 81 when he died. "Later came Pop Whittaker. He had a voice like a locomotive whistle and he liked to talk. Sometimes it would take him twenty minutes to introduce the fighters and the spectators would almost mob him. Whittaker, who had only one arm, officiated at nearly all of John L. Sullivan's early fights in original Madison Square Garden. "Two other former fighters who became popular announcers about that time were Steve O'Donnell and Fred Burns. Burns was the first announcer at the Coney island club, and one of the bouts at which he officiated was the one in which Jim Jeffries knocked out Jim Corbett." During the era of the Frawley law, which governed boxing in New York from 1911 to 1917, it was no uncommon thing for promoters in the neighborhood clubs to do their own barking. It was too expensive for them o hire a Prunty or a Humphreys. One of the most entertaining was Jim Buckley, who operated the little upstairs Sharkey Athletic Club on Amsterdam Avenue, around the corner from where the St. Nicholas Arena still functions. Buckley was a serious-minded sort and couldn't stand criticism. Realizing his sensitive nature, the New York sports writers took fiendish delight in ruffling his feeling. In reporting fight results at the Sharkey, they'd manage to slip in a line or two finding fault with some little thing at the club, and at the next show Buckley would be certain to answer them in person from the ring. When Jim read in one of the papers that his club was a hangout for "questionable characters," he really exploded. At the following show he roared from the ring. "Everybody watch your valuables. We have pickpockets and newspapermen present!" It was in 1936, when Humphreys died at the age of 65 that Harry Balogh moved into the big time scene. Harry had acquired something of a reputation for himself as an announcer at fight cards in the armories and neighborhood clubs. A fastidious dresser, Balogh "elevated" the profession by his immaculate appearance in the ring. Until Harry's advent, announcers did their jobs in their street clothes, but Harry added what he called "class" and "dignity" to the profession by his elegant sartorial displays. Along with his slicked dark hair and black bowtie, he sported a dinner jacket for his Madison Square Garden assignments and a white tuxedo for outdoor jobs in the baseball parks. Unfortunately, Balogh encouraged a tendency to overplay his role. He became entirely too long-winded and repetitious, and his listeners were often annoyed, rather than entertained, by his tactics. Redundancy ran rampant with him, and he refused to limit even the simplest announcement to a brief twenty or thirty words if he could stretch it out to a hundred. He frequently perpetrated such specimens of "Balogh-ney" as "May the better participant emerge victorious," and it was the usual thing for him to inaugurate the evening's festivities with a load of language that ran something like this: "Ladies and gentlemen, a very good evening to you, and may I take this opportunity to wish each and every one of you a thoroughly enjoyable evening. At this time, I beg leave to trespass on your time and good nature to the extent of asking your forbearance while I make a few announcements requested by the management. Silence, please. Quiet, please. I crave your indulgence for just a moment." Balogh once introduced a fighter as "a former native of New York." There was the time he beseeched his audience to "applaud a good ovation," and another occasion when he exhorted the crowd to "display no prejudism." Then there was the time he leaned over the ropes, looked down at a gal reporter in the working press section, and tossed this bit of intended flattery at her: "You look positively famishing tonight." TEX O'ROURKE PASSES AT AGE 77 (Ring Magazine, July, 1963) By Billy Williams One of the most flamboyant personalities of this century reached the end of a long, adventurous trail when "Tex" O'Rourke, 77, died following an operation in a New York hospital. O'Rourke's career read like something out of the vivid, fanciful imagination of a Hollywood script writer. He had been a Texas Ranger, a soldier of fortune, a boxer, a writer, a painter, a sports promoter, a radio commentator and a master of ceremonies at prominent social functions. Nobody, aside from O'Rourke himself, knew what his given name was but, being a Texan, it was inevitable that he would be known as "Tex." He was the son of a United States marshal and a circus equestrienne. Born and reared in the little town of Ysleta, Texas, he received very little normal schooling, but he had some very good tutors in Wesley Hardin, a noted gunslinger and bandit, and Bob Fitzsimmons, one of boxing's all-time greats. Hardin taught O'Rourke how to shoot a six-gun, and Fitz gave him some valuable lessons in fist-tossing. As a boy, O'Rourke was "adopted" by a troop of Texas Rangers. In quest of further excitement, he ambled along to Central America and teamed up with other soldiers of fortune in fighting for any revolution that came along. Returning home, he became a boxer, managed by the fabulous Bat Masterson. A husky lad, standing 6 feet, 2 inches and scaling close to 200 pounds, O'Rourke was making fine progress as a heavyweight until an eye injury forced him to hang up the gloves. A keen student of boxing, O'Rourke became a member of Jess Willard's advisory council when the Kansas giant was training for his title-winning fracas with Jack Johnson in Havana in 1915. Continuing his interest in boxing, O'Rourke was credited with having drafted the bill which then State Senator Jimmy Walker -- later Mayor of New York City -- had enacted into the law which restored professional glove-tossing to the Empire State in 1920. While the bill was pending, O'Rourke helped to organize the International Sporting Club of New York, patterned after the plush National Sporting Club in London, but after he had arranged for the Battling Levinsky-Georges Carpentier light-heavyweight title bout in Jersey City, one of O'Rourke's colleagues scooted off with the club's treasury, and another Tex, Rickard, took over the promotion. O'Rourke was one of the founds of the National (now World) Boxing Association, and served as its first secretary. Tex had much to do with organizing the noted "Circus Saints and Sinners Club" of New York, whose membership embraces many top names in the business, political and entertainment fields. O'Rourke became vice president and toastmaster at its regular banquets, and his main assignment as m.c. was to "spoof" celebrities. Tex was a past master of the art. At one of the last dinners at which he presided, O'Rourke observed that he had been sure President Kennedy was the sort who'd never make a mistake. "But I underestimated him," Tex added. Along with his many other accomplishments, Tex learned how to play a circus calliope, became a clever cartoonist, an articulate lecturer and a superb chef in all sorts of foreign dishes. For a while during the 1930s, he was part owner and manager of the now-defunct Coliseum and Starlight Park in the Bronx, and he also served as president of the Adventurers Club in New York. With a keen sense of humor, O'Rourke enlivened his toastmastering assignments with plenty of bon mots. One of his best known was about the time a fighter was floored and as he started to rise his manager yelled across the ring at him: "Take it easy; don't get up until eight." The fighter blinked back at him and mumbled: "Okay. What time is it now?" Quite a guy, Tex O'Rourke. As George Gobel would have it, "They don't hardly make them like that no mor." HOW ALI BECAME CHAMPION OF HYPE (Sunday Times, South Africa, Feb. 7, 1999) By Ray Hartley (reviewing KING OF THE WORLD, Random House, by David Remnick) Most retrospectives on the boxing life of Muhammad Ali concentrate on his big-money clashes with George Foreman, Joe Frazier and Ken Norton, the men he beat to claim the title "The Greatest" in the '70s.Most recently there was the dramatic television documentary When we were Kings, about the "Rumble in the Jungle" between Ali and Foreman in the then Zaire in October 1974. That encounter was immortalised in Norman Mailer's classic documentary novel The Fight, which was as much about the fight as it was about Ali's efforts to tap into the Africanisation politics of the then Zairean dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. These, along with the more recent Thomas Hauser biography and Ali's autobiography, The Greatest, have all regarded the '70s contests as the defining bouts of Ali's career. Remnick's book takes a refreshingly new angle. It is an account of how Ali came to be, in a phrase from the book's subtitle, "an American hero" despite his conversion to a radical Islamic sect and his refusal to participate in the Vietnam War. To do this, Remnick goes back to Ali's early career, when he faced his toughest physical challenge in the form of Sonny Liston, the bludgeoning, brutal bad man of boxing, who was believed by bookies and his Mob handlers to be indestructible. Ali's strategy was revolutionary, changing the face of boxing and introducing a new dimension to professional sport in general. He worked on "out-psyching" Liston. He already had a reputation as a loudmouth -- the Louisville Lip -- with his habit of composing poetry denigrating his opponents and praising his own prowess. But against Liston, who was every bit as fearsome a creature as Mike Tyson in the opinion of many, Ali took pre-fight hype to a new level. He sensed that the things that made Liston physically strong -- his stays in jail, his activities as a Mob hatchet man and his aggression -- betrayed a psychological weakness. Ali confused Liston by arriving unannounced at his training camp and holding an impromptu press conference at which he called Liston "a big ugly bear". At the weigh-in, Ali erupted in a hysterical verbal assault. The sum total of this barrage -- at a time when such pre-fight hype was not common -- was to confuse the slow-thinking Liston, lulling him into believing Ali was running scared. The rest, as they say, is history. Ali's triumph over Liston represented not only the world's greatest boxing upset, but the birth of the phenomenon of the borderless sporting cult figure. Although he would not earn the respect of the Establishment for another decade, Ali became the most recognisable face in the world and its first truly global sporting figure. Remnick's fascination with Ali's rise to the position of King of the World is engrossing for its description of Ali's boxing tactics or, some would say, antics. But he also describes how the world of boxing writers viewed Ali through the lens of racial and religious prejudice, in some cases continuing to use the name Cassius Clay long after Ali had adopted his new persona. Remnick brings the reader into the circle of writers who surrounded the fighters, including Mailer, James Baldwin and The New York Times's observant Robert Lipsyte. There is, however, about Remnick's work the same suspension of disbelief that overcame Mailer, autobiography shadow writer Richard Durham and the makers of television documentaries on the fighter. Even when Remnick reflects morbidly on the place of boxing in modern society, how it is "fading away", he does so with a passion for its golden era, talking about how the gyms where Ali and his generation sparred have been shut down. "Boxing," writes Remnick, "is becoming the anachronistic entertainment of gambling towns, on a par with Wayne Newton and Siegfried and Roy." As a sport designed to stun the brain, he writes, boxing has come to represent utter lack of opportunity rather than opportunity itself. Afterthoughts notwithstanding, Remnick's book is ultimately a tribute to the sport of kings.