The illumination of the Irish people’s champion
The legacy of Buffalo boxer Jimmy Slattery
Book cover of "SLATS" by Rich Blake
The Swannie House is a good place to discuss the blind spots of Buffalo’s history.
The city’s second-oldest tavern (after Ulrich’s) is stationed off the Buffalo River, where shiploads full of grain once regularly traversed from First Ward-set elevators and exited toward the rest of the United States. Buffalo became an international superpower during Swannie’s earlier years, when it was host to Irish grain scoopers and rail workers hoisting whiskey after shifts while shipping magnates took their millions to the mansions on Delaware Avenue.
And when the burgeoning city’s laborers saddled barstools inside local “blind tiger” establishments of the Prohibition era, there was one boxing icon that shone brighter than the others—and he was a kid from the neighborhood.
Jimmy Slattery was “The Buffalo Harp” and the “Will o’ the Wisp,” a fighter who, according to former champion and “Cinderella Man” Jim Braddock, “had a pair of hands that worked so fast you couldn’t see them.” Over a career that spanned thirteen years, the 2006 Boxing Hall of Fame inductee accumulated a career record of 114 wins, thirteen losses, and two championships—one as World Light Heavyweight Champion in 1927, and another as New York State light heavyweight champ in 1930. To the Irish in Buffalo and elsewhere, Slattery was their next great champion, a man fit to follow in the footwork of famed Celtic pugilists like John L. Sullivan, “Gentleman” Jim Corbett, and Jack Dempsey.
But for the man also known simply as “Slats,” it didn’t work out as gloriously as most pundits believed it should have. After walking away from the ring in 1934, he tumbled through decades of hard times, battling a string of personal tragedies, tuberculosis, and alcoholism before dying inside his ten-dollar-a-day room at the Windsor Lane Hotel on Franklin Street in 1960. His final resting place was an unmarked grave in Lackawanna’s Holy Cross Cemetery, not far from the South Buffalo streets he used to roam, and just over four miles away from the South Park Avenue corner that would eventually be dubbed Jimmy Slattery Place.
For many, this type of tragic march to the end would overshadow a promising beginning. But not for a Seneca Street-bred guy like Tom Blake—and not for his son, author Rich Blake.
Born in 1931, Tom never saw Slattery fight, but lived through his past bouts through the secondhand tales told by his uncle—and former Slats trainer—Skitsy Fitzgerald. The ringside stories inspired him to become an amateur boxer and eventually relay animated details to his son, Rich. Intermittently shadowboxing inside their South Buffalo home on Tudor Boulevard, Tom would tell Rich about the victories over Maxie Rosenbloom at Coney Island Stadium and Lou Scozza at Buffalo’s Broadway Auditorium, then show him how the Will o’ the Wisp used to snap lighting fast punches at a cavalcade of overmatched palookas.
Eventually, Rich grew older and enrolled at St. Bonaventure University to study journalism. He wanted to pursue a career in writing, and he did, covering financial items for Trader Monthly and Institutional Investor, as well as authoring two Queen City-set nonfiction books, The Day Donny Herbert Woke Up and Talking Proud: Rediscovering the Magical Season of the 1980 Buffalo Bills. But following Tom Blake’s death in 2002, Rich started to creep toward fulfilling a very specific prediction of his father’s, one he’d often offer his son over their years together:
“You’re going to write a book about Slattery—and it’s going to be called Slats.”
Last May, Rich delivered his father’s wish with Slats: The Legend and Life of Jimmy Slattery. Researched over thirteen years, edited with ESPN’s Ty Wenger, and delivered with exhausting detail, the New York Times-noted effort now stands as the definitive account of a boxer whose meteoric rise from wiry street scrapper to Madison Square Garden-featured fighter has often been overshadowed by his descent into barroom-ravaged mortality. Rich always wanted to write the book with his father, and, in a way, he did. Tom Blake left behind years of scrapbooks, press clippings, and photos. With this treasure trove of information, his son was guided toward constructing the most complete narrative of Buffalo’s greatest champion, as well as providing details of forgotten generosity that helped erode Slattery’s fighting fortune, but establish him as a hero across the city’s Irish enclaves and beyond.
This brings me back to the Swannie House. Now thriving at the corner of a remade Ohio Street and steps away from cyclists crossing the Michigan Street Bridge, it’s still one of the city’s finest corner taverns. And with a framed photo of the neighborhood’s fabled fighter prominently displayed behind its bar, the locale served as the perfect Genny Cream-accented backdrop for a recent discussion with the now New York City-based Blake about the rise, fall and underappreciated legacy of his book’s subject, James Edward Slattery.
Michael Farrell: If you were to have a beer with someone who wanted to know three things about Jimmy Slattery, what would you tell him?
Rich Blake: Number one, he was one of the greatest boxers of all time, with the whole package of defense, punching, speed, footwork, and awareness. Two, he was a larger-than-life character. Nights at Crystal Beach dancehalls with women at his feet, buying everyone at the bar drinks. The guy had fun and lived the life. And three, super generous with a big heart; he was a good man.
MF: Many locals are familiar with famous Buffalo-born athletes like baseball’s Warren Spahn and basketball’s Bob Lanier, but are somehow unfamiliar with a star like Slattery. Why?
RB: I think because Slattery fell into such oblivion by the 1940s, the guys who were writing about boxing just considered him out of sight, out of mind. When I talked with legendary boxing writer Bert Sugar about Slattery, he said, “Sometimes, history has a blind spot.” Slats just kind of fell into that blind spot. Once he was out of boxing, he was at bars by himself. He fell so low that he was just quietly forgotten.
MF: Walk me through the start of your enduring fascination with Slattery.
RB: It goes back to being twelve years old and my dad hearing me talk excitedly about my sports heroes like Joe Ferguson and Gilbert Perreault. He would say, “Buffalo had this great boxer in the 1920s, Jimmy Slattery. He was bigger than any of those guys, nationally known, and went to the top.” I couldn’t relate to his hero, but he kept talking about him so much, and he’d show me photos until the seeds were planted. This made me want to learn more about the guy.
MF: Do you remember the moment you started to fully understand his importance?
RB: Yes. There was an article in the Buffalo News written by Frank Wakefield in 1984, and the headline read, “Slattery career fit for screen.” I loved the Rocky movies and graduated to Raging Bull, so reading the article about Slats and seeing his photo helped everything click. With all my father had been telling me, I realized I had the inside track to a story that could be a movie.
MF: In your book, you note that the name Slattery comes from the Gaelic word slantra, which means strength. Was that a revelation, or simply a perfect tie-in to his legend?
RB: I think I decided to research the last name when I came up empty on my [several years] mission of finding his relatives in Ireland. Not knowing from where his grandfather John came still burns me, but I was pleasantly surprised [the name] means strength. I suppose I never thought about it again, but it’s an apt tie-in. If Slattery was Gaelic for volatile, then it would’ve been perfect.
MF: What impressed you most about accounts of his early bouts?
RB: When he was nineteen or twenty years old, everyone thought he’d eventually gain weight and become the heavyweight champion of the world. It was assumed he would get bigger, but he had real skinny legs and could never get his weight over 170 to fight heavyweight at 175. So he stayed in his weight class and, if the accounts of old sportswriters are to be believed, exhibited [hand]speed that was mind-boggling.
MF: Describe Slattery’s celebrity around Buffalo in the mid-1920s.
RB: No one was bigger. He was bigger than the mayor and was on scale with the likes of Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey to a certain extent. In 1925, Dempsey wasn’t fighting, and Ruth was having the worst season of his life. Slattery stepped into that void. Hard to believe, but he was as big as those guys.
MF: What was his impact on Buffalo’s Irish community?
RB: He made life great. He was all that railroad workers and grain scoopers could talk about. If Slattery was fighting, you had to be there. Little kids would climb to the roof of the old Broadway Aud and sneak through the windows. Conversations in speakeasies and gin mills revolved around who Slattery was going to fight next and how far he’d go. He was like the Bills of the early 1990s. Just such a fun ride.
MF: What moments did you find most prophetic for the good and bad of his story?
RB: He had a tendency to screw up, buckle down, get back, and then screw up again. Early on in his career [in 1924], he lost to Joe Eagan. He was mad at himself, imbibing too much, so he went to Lake Placid, knuckled down and came back for his biggest victory yet against Young Stribling. That established his pattern. But in 1929, he had the biggest fight of his life against Jim Braddock, and he didn’t train for it. That was a turning point. At age twenty-six, biggest fight on the line, he doesn’t train and, instead, was out partying? He was never the same after that loss, and that was certainly a harbinger of things to come.
MF: What should his lasting legacy be in both the boxing and the Irish-American community?
RB: One of the best of all time, but he was basically a child star who had everything thrown at him and couldn’t handle it. His is a cautionary tale, but when you sort it all out—the good, bad, and the ugly—you’re still looking at an Irish-American who reached the pinnacle of a profession that was super competitive and loaded with talent. In the 1920s, there were more great fighters than at any time before or since. To become a champion then, to climb that ladder of success? Slattery was a guy who hammered rivets in a shipyard and sold newspapers—and he made it to the top. You can’t take that away from him. He had an unbelievable life.
Mike Farrell is the author of Running with Buffalo.