When Hotsy Alperstein was inducted into the University of Maryland Athletic Hall of Fame the other night for his boxing achievements in the late 1930s and early '40s, there was a question that begged to be asked. How did a nice little Orthodox Jewish boy like him ever get interested in boxing?
He laughed and said: "Are you kidding? We were one of just a few Jewish families in a southwest Baltimore neighborhood with a lot of Italians and Germans. We fought our way to and from school almost every day.
"There were eight boys and a girl in our family, and we lived a block from Hollins Market. They called us 'market rats.' We were all born in the same room in the same house. We'd come out for school, somebody would make an ethnic slur, and what are you gonna do? You had to fight. We had a signal. If one of us got into trouble, we'd give a special whistle, and it was like the volunteer fire department. All the brothers came running. We usually did pretty good in those fights, because we wound up outnumbering the competition.
"Down the street there were the Finazzas, the Serios, the Tromberrios, and there was a German gym group that met near there. They were almost as hard on each other as they were us. But you know something? I wouldn't change a thing. It was tough, but it was fun.
"Street fighting was different in those days," Hotsy recalled through an impish grin that said it all. "Nobody had knives or guns. If you got into it, you battled with bare hands until one or the other had enough. Then, maybe you'd do it again the next day, but nobody ever got killed, or even hurt bad.
"When Vince Serio was inducted into the Maryland Boxing Hall of Fame, we took a full-page ad congratulating our former neighbor, and all the brothers attended. He was so touched that he had tears in his eyes."
Wasn't that same area H.L. Mencken's old neighborhood, too? "Sure," said Hotsy, "and concerning all that controversy that came out about him being anti-Semitic, we always figured that was true, but we didn't pay any attention to it. Almost everybody was around there. It's just the way it was then. Mr. Mencken was OK to us. My father had a tailor shop, and as far as we were concerned, Mr. Mencken was just a customer and a neighbor."
Was it difficult supporting that kind of brood with a neighborhood tailor shop? "Sure, it was," Hotsy said. "Looking back, though, we were never poor. We just didn't have any money. We were so close as a family that it made up for an awful lot. As we got older, we all went into the business, and it expanded. Somebody brought in shirts, somebody else slacks, jackets. Then, we started an outlet in Washington and that went very well, so we sold the Baltimore business to Irv Kovens and concentrated on Washington. We've been a family-owned business for 87 consecutive years, and all eight brothers are still partners."
Ranging in age from 87 down, they were all at the M Club dinner to see their little brother honored.
If you are wondering how anybody gets honored for boxing at Maryland, it was once a big sport there, at least as big as football and basketball, maybe bigger, and Hotsy was one of the best. But how do you progress from street fighting to the finesse of the ring?
"That's also a long story," Hotsy said, laughing. "My brother, Benny, preceded me at Maryland. He didn't have any formal training, but he belonged to the National Guard, and he could see that the boxers ate better than the others so he tried it and was just a real natural. Somebody from Maryland saw him and offered him a scholarship, which is the only way any of us could have afforded college. Benny was great. He's in the university Hall of Fame, the State of Maryland Hall, the District of Columbia Boxing Hall.
"Anyway, when he was ready to graduate, he told the athletic director, Geary Eppley, he had a little brother who could fight as well as he could. Eppley took his word for it and gave me a scholarship. We didn't tell him I had never been inside a ring, but I guess it turned out OK."
An understatement if there ever was one. In four years at Maryland, Hotsy lost one dual match, and captained the team for his last three years. Not only that, but he had a distinguished service career in World War II, and if there is a more loyal, supportive alumnus than Hotsy, I don't know who it would be. Not bad for a little Jewish boy from Hollins Street.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention another of the honorees from the M Club banquet. In my sophomore year at Maryland in 1940, I took bacteriology from Dr. John E. Faber and learned a lot because he was a good teacher. But, in addition to being head of the microbiology department, he coached lacrosse for 35 years, winning nine national championships, finishing runner-up seven times; coached football; and assisted in baseball and basketball, among others.
He'll be 88 next month and is still around the university, giving advice and lending class just by being there. Ponce de Leon looked in the wrong place for the fountain of youth. Jack Faber knows where it is -- over near College Park somewhere, but he isn't telling.