immy Slattery – Tons of Talent, Short on Will
By Angelo Prospero Jr.
As a youngster, I often heard my dad expounding the abilities of Jimmy Slattery, Buffalo’s outstanding light heavyweight of the 1920’s. Many times my dad told how he would journey to Buffalo from our hometown of Batavia, by car or thumb, to see the Irish idol do battle with greats of the era.
Slats wasn’t even 20 years old when he matched gloves with Harry Greb, Young Stribling, Jack Delaney and others of the Golden age of Boxing.
However, like a meteor which flashes brilliantly across the sky only to flicker out and disintegrate, so would the career of Jimmy Slattery. He had everything – movie star looks, natural boxing brilliance, poise – everything but the will to stay away from booze and this passion cost him everything and eventually killed him.
The life of Jimmy Slattery contained many phases, some beautiful; some unpleasant; some heartwarming; some heartbreaking. As Whittier once said: “For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: it could have been.” This could very well be the epithet of Jimmy Slattery.
It all started in the colorful First Ward of Buffalo’s South Side. This area was described by Willis Wilber so poignantly in the now defunct Buffalo Times. “A maze of crooked streets, railway tracks, viaducts and ramshackle buildings. Glimmering yellow lights flashing dully through the fogs that sweep up from the harbor.”
This was the First Ward; the First Ward of Buffalo Mayor Jimmy Griffin, of famed author Roger Dooley, of educator John Demarlee, of family man John Donovan. It was the home of Jimmy “Slats,” to whom the populace adored and idolized as no other hero. The pubs would be crowded and streets jumping when he won.
Veteran reporter Cy Kritzer of the Buffalo Evening News told me at a boxing dinner how the fistic career of Jimmy Slattery began. The skinny 15-year-old bought a box of candy for his beloved mother on Valentine’s Day. On his way home, a 210-pound bully snatched the box away from him and taunted him. As a crowd gathered, Slats beat the bully to a pulp and made him beg for money. Later crowds would gather around the Slattery house as Jimmy Would put on the gloves with all comers. It was there that his unbelievably smooth and unique ring style would develop.
My dad, who saw Slattery fight dozens of times, described him like this: “He was the handsomest of men with black hair slicked back, gliding like a dancer around a ballroom; his hands down at his side and then striking out like a cobra; his head moved ever so slightly to dodge punches. He was beautiful to watch.”
Out of the ring, it was to be a different story, “like sitting on an active volcano,” claimed his manager Red Carr.
When he turned pro in 1923 at age 17, Slats won 36 straight fights to become the toast of Buffalo. He also became a big spender who hit all the gin joints and speakeasies usually with a beautiful damsel on his arm. Training became a chore and the strict regimen of camp dwindled to almost nothing. He went from a bar into the ring against Joe Eagan and lost his first fight.
Carr did manage to get him into serious training for a bout with the great Young Stribling, winner of 92 out of 94 fights. Slats was at his best that night and dazzled Stribling with nifty footwork, stinging counters and superb defense. He won the decision easily and New York writers watching the contest, amazed at his skills, called him the “will of the wisp.”
In June of 1924 Jimmy Slattery made his New York debut, defeating Joe Lynch, and then shocked the boxing world by defeating the outstanding light heavyweight Jack Delaney. Fighting 15 times in four months, Jimmy won them all including KOs of his only conqueror (Eagan) and fellow Buffalonian Frankie Schoell (the only KO suffered by Schoell, who fought six world champions).
Then it was back to the bright lights and the thousands he made were quickly dissipated. Soon a match was made with Dave Shade in New York City. Insiders say Slattery went into the ring drunk. To his fans’ surprise and disappointment, he was KO’d in round three.
Instead of learning a lesson, he partied more than ever. However, he did manage a 15-round decision over Maxie Rosenbloom to win the light heavy title.
He lost it a few months later to Tommy Loughran in one of the most scientific matches ever put on by two master craftsmen. Loughran says Slattery was the best he ever fought. When Loughran went after the heavies and relinquished his title, Slattery beat Rosenbloom again to regain the title and defended successfully in a sensational battle against fellow Buffalonian Lou Scozza. Floored in Round 13, Slattery rallied brilliantly the last two rounds to win the decision.
But that was the last hurrah. He lost the title to Rosenbloom three months later and was washed up at age 27. In 1931 he retired.
The 1930’s and 1940’s were not kind to Jimmy Slattery. The $400,000 he made in the ring was gone. He continued to burn the candle at both ends, drinking more than ever. His name continued in the headlines in one distasteful affair after another – bar room fights, drunk driving, court proceedings and divorce. He lost his home and family.
Some say Slattery lived such a fast pace because he feared dying young of tuberculosis as his father and younger brother had. Ironically he himself contracted the disease in 1943. Friends staged a benefit in 1946 and raised $10,000 to send him to Arizona where he could possibly regain his health. Two years later he returned to Buffalo, the money gone. Slats returned to the same haunts and bars. He was given a job as a laborer, tending flowers in the city parks.
On August 29, 1960 he collapsed in a bar in South Buffalo. Revived, he went home to his $10-a-week room, only to die the next morning. His ordeal was over at age 56. Only a handful attended the funeral.
Jimmy Slattery, idol of thousands, remained in an unmarked grave for sixteen years. Finally in 1976, members of Ring 44 in Buffalo secured a headstone. Led by president Jimmy Harkins, Monsignor Franklin Kelleher, Joe Gimbrone and Joe Muscato, they held a ceremony blessing the stone. Slattery’s manager Red Carr was there. So was his wife, his son, his grandchildren, ring opponents and many fans. They didn’t forget Slats.
Much has been written about the human frailties of Jimmy Slattery. I prefer to remember him as a handsome, boyish-looking boxing genius who bought a home for his mother; who outfitted a new altar for his church; who bought books for the library of an elementary school.
After all, he was my dad’s idol.