Some of us drove out to St. Joseph Hospital the other day to see the old boxer Joe Finazzo in his final hours. But it felt all wrong. There was Joe, lying on his back, which is a place no fighter wants to be found.
''Let's get the hell outta here,'' somebody said to Joe. ''This place is for sick people.''
It was a last, lame attempt to cheer him up. You think of the Finazzos, you think of boxing. You think of strong men who triumphed in a hungry time. You do not connect the wasted figure lying in the bed with the man of fight legend.
For a long time around here, you found Joe Finazzo not only in the boxing rings but in the story books as well: the street kid from West Baltimore climbing into the professional ring in 1927, at age 16; that August night in 1938 at Carlin's Park when the entire fight card was made up of six Finazzo boys; and that March night in 1982 when Joe Finazzo took on that bully on The Block and the bully never knew what hit him.
The bully was making things tough for a couple of lady friends he'd brought into the Midway Bar. Joe, working as a doorman, told him to back off. The bully took one look at Joe and saw a 71-year-old man smoking a pipe. The bully was in his 30s. He decided to get tough with Joe.
''Let's go outside,'' the bully said.
Joe took his pipe out of his mouth, put it in his shirt pocket, and quietly followed the bully outside.
The fight lasted one punch. Joe Finazzo threw a right hook, the bully hit the pavement, and Joe turned and walked back into the bar with his pipe back in his mouth. A couple of people took the bully away. A little later that night, he showed up again and challenged Joe to another fight.
Bad move. This time, Joe threw a left hook. Same result. The bully went down and did not wake up.
''I was afraid I'd killed him,'' Joe said later. ''He was a long time waking up.''
That's the way to remember Joe: with his body still working, a quiet, gentle man who'd turn away from a fight but still knew how to get tough if somebody provoked him.
''But you know something?'' Heine Blaustein was saying yesterday. ''Joe never wanted to harm nobody. He was a quiet fellow who went his own way. He always worked hard, always had a job. But boxing was a way to make a living.''
He should know. Blaustein, 90 years old, out of Eden and Lloyd streets in East Baltimore, managed three world champs in his day: Harry Jeffra, Joe Dundee and Vince Dundee. Also, for a few fights in the '30s, he managed Joe Finazzo.
''See, the game was different then,'' Blaustein said. ''For one thing, the money was different. I used to run fights at the Gayety Theatre after the show. For professionals, sure.''
They fought for three rounds and the winner collected $2.50. That's not a misprint, just a reflection of desperation Depression-era money. They fought four rounds, the winner took $5. A six-round winner collected $50.
That's the kind of money Joe Finazzo found himself fighting for. His ring career lasted 16 years. At St. Joseph Hospital, with his life running out, he said he'd won 78 of 93 professional bouts.
''Which guy hit you the hardest?'' old friend Tony Fernandez asked.
''They all did,'' said Joe Finazzo.
But Mickey McGraw, manager of the Golden Nugget on The Block, stood in the hospital room and remembered a different Joe Finazzo, aguy 30 years ago looking out for a kid he'd never before seen.
''I was 12,'' McGraw said, ''and I hooked school to go down to The Block. Joe was the bouncer at The Midway, except he never called himself a bouncer. He said he was a congenial host.
''So he sees this strange kid -- me -- in the middle of this school day and tells me to go home. Only I go down to The Gayety and sneak in. And you know what? He followed me in and says, 'I thought I told you to go home.' And some guy in the crowd gets up and starts giving Joe a rough time, and Joe knocks him out.
''He put me on the No. 10 bus and sent me home. But I said to him, 'How did you knock that man out?' He said, 'One of the easy things in life is hurting somebody. What's tough is learning to do the right thing.' ''
He and his brothers knew what to do with gloves on their hands. Boxing will never see the likes of the Finazzos again, nor the likes of Aug. 15, 1938, when six Finazzo brothers -- Joe, Vic, Sam, Jackie, Eddie and Johnny, then only 14 years old -- made up the entire card at the old Carlin's Park.
''They were tough kids,'' Heine Blaustein remembered. ''You had to be tough back then.''
Joe Finazzo weighed 160 pounds but sometimes fought heavyweights. He'd hike up his weight, he remembered, by having his manager distract the weigh-in man and then place his fingers in Finazzo's shorts and pull down hard with Joe standing on the scale.
''This wasn't a sport for the Finazzo boys,'' Buddy Ey, the Maryland Hall of Fame boxer, was saying yesterday. ''They fought because they needed money. Brother, you had to fight. Joe was a gentleman, as sweet a guy as you'll know. But he was tough. They were all as tough as you come.''
Ey remembered something opposing boxers used to say about the Finazzo brothers: ''You've got to kill a Finazzo to beat him.''