Just how big a sport was boxing in Amsterdam during the first half of the 20th Century? It wasn’t uncommon for boxing cards put together by local promoters like Jimmy Pepe or Jo Jo Zeno or Shorty Persico to draw over a thousand Rug City fight fans to boxing rings set up in the backyard of Lanzi’s Restaurant on Bridge Street, the Junior High gym, or at Sanford (Now Veterans Field) Park. In fact, over 2,300 people showed up at Lanzi’s place one September evening in 1938 to watch what many consider to be the greatest fight ever staged in the history of Amsterdam but more about that later. And where did the promoters mentioned above find all this local pugilistic talent? Believe it or not, Amsterdam taxpayers helped produce them. How? Every summer, the city’s Recreation Department sponsored boxing as an activity as part of its neighborhood playgrounds program. Pictured here is a playground boxing card that appeared in the local newspaper back in the late 1930’s. Now here’s my choices for the Top Ten Boxers in Amsterdam, NY history. (A note about the ring records cited in the accounts of the fighters below. They may or may not be exact. I found several inconsistencies in the reporting of those won-loss-draw numbers through the years.)
1. Buddy Benoit (aka Buddy O’Dell): This guy was such a good fighter that after he graduated from Amsterdam’s Wilbur Lynch High School, Michigan State gave him a scholarship to fight for the Spartans. He did that for two years and then in 1940, after an amateur and collegiate career that included 120 fights he turned professional. He used his Mom’s maiden name as his pro-boxing moniker and as middleweight Buddy O’Dell he fought 76 professional fights during the next seven years and won 67 of them with one draw. This guy fought the very best middleweights in the World during his era and more than held his own. On April 21, 1942 for example, Benoit lost a 10-round split decision to the great, Jake LaMotta. Ten months later, LaMotta was becoming the first fighter ever to defeat Sugar Ray Robinson. Benoit then served in the Navy during WWII and after being discharged, resumed his boxing career and his education, taking law courses. He finally hung his gloves up for good in 1947 and started his own collection agency in Los Angeles.
2. Matt Perfetti Recorder sports editor, Jack Minnoch took to calling this Amsterdam South Side-born featherweight “the Little Man with the Big Wallop.” Perfetti fought 60 times as a pro finishing his career with a 42-5-13 record. He was 24-0-3 when he faced Crocetti on the evening of September 15,1938 at Lanzi’s backyard boxing arena on Bridge Street. He beat his East End opponent in a 6-round decision that Crocetti’s backers said was closer than the judges had it scored. Minnoch estimated the crowd size that night at 2,300. Several boxing luminaries attended from out-of-town including Madison Square Garden ring announcer Harry Balogh, who announced the fight. Perfetti was first managed by Shorty Persico as an amateur and then Marty Fuller as a pro. After the Crocetti fight, Perfetti went on to win six more bouts before facing top featherweight Allie Stolz at Madison Square Garden. Stolz, who fought for the world lightweight title later on, won the ten-rounder in a close and controversial decision. Perfetti retired from the ring in 1942, finishing with a professional record of 42-13-5. He died in 2002 at the age of 83.
3. Sam Crocetti : This East End featherweight started fighting as an amateur in 1930. He turned pro in 1935 after capturing the 1934 Amateur Sports Federation bantamweight title held in Rochester, NY, which required him to win four fights in two nights. He then won his first 11 bouts as a pro and was then paired against Jackie Wilson, who was the 4th-ranked featherweight contender in the world. The fight was stopped in the eighth round by referee Jack Dempsey when Wilson split Crocetti’s lip open for the Amsterdamian’s first pro loss. Often referred to as “Battling Sam Crocetti” by the late Recorder Sports Editor, Jack Minnoch, Crocetti and the number two fighter on this top ten list were the participants in what many local boxing fans considered to be the most famous fight in Amsterdam’s history, which took place at Lanzi’s Arena on September 14, 1938. Crocetti lost that epic bout in a six-round decision. No Amsterdam fighter faced any stiffer competition in their career than the title contenders this guy battled before retiring from the ring in 1941, telling Minnoch at the time that “It was all right” while it lasted.” Crocetti died in 2002 at the age of 83.
4. Sailor Barron: William F. Barron was one of the most popular Rug City natives to ever lace up a pair of gloves. Incredibly, he did that 533 times in the 1930s and ’40’s, Fighting as an amateur in all but one of those bouts, Barron got his nickname from his two-tour service with the Navy, both before and during WWII. In his second hitch during the war, he served on a ship whose crew included boxers Willie Pep and Joey Archibald, both one-time world title-holders. His own pugilistic career included three straight Adirondack District Golden Gloves titles as a welterweight and a fourth as a featherweight. Sailor was known for his punching power. Recorder Sports editor Jack Minnoch once described his fists as “blocks of wood”. He had an exceptionally long 15-year career in the ring but an unfortunately short life. After marrying Amsterdam native Joan Litwa, Barron moved to Schenectady in 1940, where he became the popular bartender and wine steward at the Van Curler Hotel. While working a shift there in 1960, he suffered a fatal heart attack. He was just fifty-years old.
5. Alphonse “Measles” Raco: Those who followed his career closely claimed this Rug City welterweight never fought a bad fight. Raco’s career record certainly bears that out. He won 101 of 102 amateur fights and 13 more as a pro. He retired from the ring after breaking some ribs in a 1936 fight against Willie Pal in Albany, NY but then mounted a comeback two years later. Measles was a disciple of good conditioning and the training regimen he followed at Amsterdam’s YMCA set the standard for all the pugilists who succeeded him. He also ran the city recreation department’s summer playground boxing program for many years and was one of this area’s most respected ring referees as well. He later became the long-time proprietor of the Pink & Rock Grill on Amsterdam’s East Main Street.
6. Freddie Baia: Following his older brother “Dunk” into the ring, Freddie Baia started boxing as a youngster during summers at the Fifth Ward playground. By the time he was sixteen, he had joined the amateur ranks and over the course of the next decade he won over 100 fights, including Adirondack District Golden Gloves titles as a lightweight, welterweight and middleweight. Baia turned pro in 1946, but fought under the ring name “Eddie Lee” probably to protect his amateur status. According to a Recorder article from December of that same year, Freddie went undefeated in his first 17 professional fights. The Recorder sports editor was Jack Minnoch, a former boxer himself, who observed that Baia liked to hold his left hand straight out, right in the face of his opponents. He used this tactic to anger and frustrate the fighters he faced and when it worked, they would often angrily respond by doing something careless. That’s when Baia would club them with his powerful right hand, which according to “Minnoch” was swung with “all the force of a drop hammer”. Baia retired from the ring at the end of 1947.
7. Carl Palombo
The son of an Amsterdam West End shoe repair shop proprietor, “Carl the Cobbler” fought 200 times as an amateur and won 166 of those bouts. He captured two Albany Diamond Belt titles and the US Eastern Division Diamond Belt as well before entering service during WWII. It was while fighting the Nazi’s that he earned his greatest fame in the ring. While stationed in North Africa, he won the Allied featherweight championship in Algiers and was undefeated in 40 straight fights while in uniform. A respected AP sportswriter covering boxing in the armed services back then predicted Palombo would be a leading contender for the world featherweight title when the war ended. Unfortunately for this talented Rug City native, it did not end soon enough. He was hit in the lower body by shrapnel during the Allied invasion of France causing a leg wound that would never heal and which in the late 1950’s cost him the leg. He eventually married and moved out to California where he became a graphic artist. Carl has since passed away, but I still see his beautiful and ageless younger sister Mary Greco all around Amsterdam.
8. Mickey DaBiere: Known as Mickey DeBerry in his younger days, he started boxing at the age of 22 in 1933. During the next 19 years he fought as a welterweight and middleweight a total of 69 times as an amateur and 39 more times as a pro. He lost only 4 of those bouts. One of those losses was to Buffalo’s Henry Brim, who would later battle the great Sugar Ray Robinson to a no-decision. Mickey and fellow Amsterdam boxer Measles Raco both signed on with Albany matchmaker Mike Hamill after turning pro in the mid 1930’s. Ring Magazine did a story on Mickey in 1946, portraying him as an up and coming fighter. After hanging up his gloves in 1952, DaBiere became a licensed referee. He also became this area’s official keeper of the boxing flame, serving as vice president of the National Veteran Boxing Association and organizing several wonderful reunion gatherings and benefits for Amsterdam’s fraternity of former pugilists. Mickey married Rose DeRossi, raised four children and worked for the Fitzgerald Bottling Company here in Amsterdam for 53 years. He passed away in 2001 at the age of 90.
9. Bobby Stewart: This guy just about singlehandedly brought the sport of boxing back to the forefront here in Amsterdam in the 1970’s. Stewart went 45-5 during an amateur career that culminated with his thrilling National Golden Gloves Lightweight Championship in 1974, when he beat the future World Heavyweight Champion, Michael Dokes in the final bout. Amsterdam went crazy and that moment when the referee raised Bobby’s hand in victory after that Dokes’ fight in Denver would be the definite high point of his ring career.Stewart decided to turn pro after his victory in Denver, motivated by the fact that he was 22 years old at the time, with a wife and two boys at home to take care of. Though he went on to have a fine career as a light heavyweight, winning 13 of his 16 fights, he also found out quickly that the pro ranks of the sport were run with a lot less scruples than the amateur side was. He would always regret that he did not continue on as an amateur so he could have competed in the 1976 Olympics. In order to get the fairest shake possible as a young pro fighter you have to begin your career ranked as high as possible in terms of potential. An Olympic Gold Medal got you treated a lot more preferentially by pro matchmakers, promoters, judges and referees than a Golden Gloves title did. As it turned out, his 58 victories in the ring did not end up representing Stewart’s most noteworthy contribution to boxing. While working as a counselor at the Tryon School, a now-closed state-run Fulton County facility for at risk youth, Bobby gave a 13-year old kid from Brooklyn his first boxing lessons. That kid’s name was Mike Tyson.
10. Carmen “Shorty” Persico: There’s no doubt that the fact I personally knew this wonderfully friendly man for many years made it difficult for me to leave him off this list…but…Shorty was also truly a wonderful fighter who deserves such recognition. When he was on a boxing card, regardless if the fight was taking place in the Rug City or one of the many other upstate New York communities that comprised the Adirondack section of the Amateur Athletic Union back in the 1930’s, this young South Sider was usually a crowd favorite. He was built like a fire hydrant, short for a lightweight but packed with muscle. The problem was his short reach. He often fought much taller opponents in his weight class who had longer reaches. He therefore had to work twice as hard as a typical boxer to defend himself and get good punches landed. But round after round and fight after fight he was able to do just that. Its why regardless of what town he was fighting in, the fans took to this condensed dynamo and cheered him on and none cheered harder than his legion of admirers from Amsterdam’s Port Jackson neighborhood. His most famous bout was his 1931 draw with Herkmer’s Lou Ambers who would go on to win the world lightweight title in the late 1930’s. After hanging up his gloves, Shorty became one of this city’s most enthusiastic fight promoters. The tavern he and his wife, the late Phil Morini opened up on Broad Street, became a South Side landmark and a favorite destination of Amsterdam’s entire prize-fighting fraternity.
It was very difficult for me not to include Frankie Marcellino in the above list. Though the great Carl Palombo stood in the way of his quest to capture a district Golden Gloves title as a civilian, Marcellino excelled in the ring during his WWII service in the Navy, winning 21 straight fights. Then there was Cliff Gaskins, who did capture both Golden Glove and Diamond Belt titles before the war, only to lose his life in a stateside truck accident while serving in the US Army. After he captured his second straight Diamond Belt title it looked for a while as if Dom Perfetti might have been as good with his fists as Matt, his older brother.