Bar­ney Ross

Dou­glas Century
  • Review
By – November 14, 2011

Bar­ney Ross reigned supreme in the gold­en age of Jew­ish box­ing. For those first-gen­er­a­tion Amer­i­can Jews whose paths didn’t lead to the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York or med­ical school, the streets, the stage, and the box­ing ring often offered oppor­tu­ni­ty, and Ross took this oppor­tu­ni­ty with two fists. 

Beryl Rasof­sky had not been des­tined for the ring. His father was a Tal­mu­dic schol­ar who fled the pogroms of East­ern Europe and set­tled in Chicago’s ghet­to, where he strug­gled to feed his fam­i­ly and raised his chil­dren in strict obser­vance of Jew­ish law. An accom­plished stu­dent of Hebrew and Tal­mud, Bar­ney was also adept at street life, fight­ing with the Ital­ian-Amer­i­can gangs, swip­ing fruit from push­carts, and gam­bling on street cor­ners. His father’s mur­der, when Bar­ney was 14, broke up the fam­i­ly and rechart­ed his life. 

Bit­ter and angry, Bar­ney aban­doned Judaism, left school behind, and earned his liv­ing here and there. At 15 he found his way into a fight club and over the next few years made a local name in ama­teur bouts, turn­ing pro­fes­sion­al at 19 and then blaz­ing his way to the light­weight, junior wel­ter­weight, and wel­ter­weight world cham­pi­onships. At a time when cre­ative eth­nic labels were a func­tion of sports­writ­ing and box­ing match­es were often billed as one hyphen­at­ed Amer­i­can against anoth­er, the pride of the ghet­to” rep­re­sent­ed the Jews, suc­ceed­ing Ben­ny Leonard in box­ing and rank­ing with base­ball star Hank Green­berg. 

But his stun­ning box­ing career is not Bar­ney Ross’ whole sto­ry. In 1942, at the age of 33, he talked his way into the Marines and active duty, and on Guadal­canal fought the bat­tle of his life, win­ning a Sil­ver Star. The ter­ri­ble wounds he suf­fered pained him through­out his life and led to an addic­tion to mor­phine. He won that bat­tle, too — the tough­est of his life, he said — and pub­licly cru­sad­ed against drugs. Despite his ado­les­cent anger, Ross led an active and pub­lic Jew­ish life. He spoke out against Nazi per­se­cu­tion dur­ing the war years, an unpop­u­lar posi­tion, and was an open Zion­ist, cham­pi­oning a Jew­ish state.

In this first full-fledged biog­ra­phy of Ross, a vol­ume in the Jew­ish Encoun­ters series, Dou­glas Cen­tu­ry, author of Street King­dom, cap­tures this vibrant and humane man and his era in all its col­or. More than the life of a great box­er, Bar­ney Ross is a vivid por­trait of Jew­ish-Amer­i­can street and sport­ing life — both for par­tic­i­pants and for spec­ta­tors — in the first half of the 20th cen­tu­ry. Appen­dix, bib­lio., chronol­o­gy, photographs. 

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

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