Readers of “The Chosen 1s” know that I’ve often used this space to talk about the link American Jews have to the world of sports. Honestly, it’s one of the main reasons I wanted to write a column like this in the first place.
The historical connection between Jews and sports, from our time as immigrants to now, has always fascinated me. It must be the son of a history professor in me.
So I must admit, I was a bit surprised to find out that of all those enshrined in the Jewish-American Hall of Fame — 40 in total — there will now be just three who hail from the world of sports: Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg, catcher-turned-spy Mo Berg and now boxing legend Barney Ross. How athletic achievers such as Mark Spitz, Sandy Koufax or even Dolph Schayes aren’t in might be a topic for a future column.
Before getting the official release from the JAHF, I must admit I didn’t know much about Barney Ross, other than that he was a world champion boxer from a time when Jews fared well in the sport. But Ross was much more than that, and his story is one of the more fascinating ones in Jewish sports history. In the ring, he was the first boxer to have three titles in three weight classes at the same time. How he got there, and what he did after boxing, however, is what truly makes him Hall of Fame worthy.
Born Dov-Ber Rasofsky in Chicago in 1909. Ross became a rabbinical student at age 14, poised to follow in his father’s footsteps. That all changed when his father died in his arms after being shot in a robbery and his mother suffered a nervous breakdown as a result.
Ross and his three younger siblings were put in an orphanage or sent to other members of the family. Ross, largely left to figure out things on his own, started hanging around with a rougher element and had a reputation as a brawler and thief. He even worked at one time for Al Capone. All he really wanted was to have enough money to bring his split-up family back together.
At some point, he realized that boxing, not crime, was the way to get there, so he changed his name and became a Golden Gloves champion, earning the nickname, “The Pride of the Ghetto.” Jews looked to him as a hero during a time when Nazism was starting to spread. Tough, smart and possessing incredible stamina, Ross was never knocked out in his career.
He was far from done being a role model for American Jews, though his boxing career alone would be enough to gain him entrance into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, the World Boxing Hall of Fame, the Chicagoland Sports Hall of Fame, the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.
What he did after his boxing career makes him a true hero. Ross joined the Marines during World War II. Typically, great athletes, such as heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey, were basically asked to help with morale, staying in the States as a sports ambassador of sorts. Ross, always looking for a good fight, would have none of it. He wanted to fight.
Ross was sent to the South Pacific where during one action, he, a wounded man and two shoulders got caught in enemy fire while he acted as a stretcher-bearer. Despite being wounded, Ross singlehandedly fought off two squads of Japanese soldiers. Two of his fellow Marines died in the firefight, but Ross carried the surviving Marine on his shoulders to safety. His two purple hearts and the Silver Star he earned were worth far more than any title belt he had in the ring.
But his story wasn’t over yet. As was too often the case back then, Ross became addicted to morphine, while recovering from his wounds. His addiction evolved into a heroin habit. It was just another battle for Ross, who beat his addiction and went on to talk to high school students about the dangers of drugs.
If all this sounds like a movie script, that’s because it ended up being one: “Monkey on My Back” was made in 1957, as a biopic. I may try to add it to the old Netflix queue shortly.
So maybe the JAHF needs to get on the ball to induct more Jews from the sports world. But they certainly got it right by including Ross in their hallowed halls this year.
(Jonathan Mayo, The Chronicle’s sports columnist and staff writer for MLB.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)