Donovan stands in as the late Art Sr. enters Boxing Hall

IN HIS CORNER

June 12, 1993|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,Staff Writer

The picture on the wall of the paneled bar at the Valley Country Club shows referee Arthur Donovan Sr. throwing his protective arms around Max Schmeling after Joe Louis had hammered the German to the floor for the third time in the first round of their heavyweight rematch at Yankee Stadium in 1938.

Twenty years later, Donovan's son, "Young Arthur," made history of his own in the same storied ballpark. A surprisingly mobile 300-pound tackle, he was a bulwark in the defensive line of the Baltimore Colts, who beat the New York Giants in overtime to win the NFL title in a nationally televised game that catapulted pro football into a golden era.

"That my father and I helped write a piece of history at Yankee Stadium made it special for a kid from the Bronx," Donovan said.

Indeed. Both father and son became Hall of Famers, something for the trivia buffs to ponder.

Arthur Jr. took his place in the pro-football shrine in Canton, Ohio, in 1968.

Tomorrow, his father, who died in 1980 at age 90, will become the first referee inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y., and Artie will make the acceptance speech, recalling how boxing was a family heritage.

They were called the "Fighting Donovans."

It began with grandpa Mike Donovan, a Civil War veteran and bare knuckles middleweight champion before the turn of the century who once fought 96 rounds for a $500 purse, only to see the promoter flee. Later, he would teach Teddy Roosevelt the art of self-defense.

Mike tutored his son, Arthur Donovan Sr., a middleweight in the 1920s who would become the most famous fight referee in the 1940s.

Then came Arthur Donovan Jr.

"Not me. My sport was football," said Donovan, who almost out-weighed his grandfather and father combined.

"My boxing days ended when I was a kid. I was strictly a punching bag. For 50 years [1915 to 1965], my father taught all these playboys like [baseball owners] Walter O'Malley and Horace Stoneham how to box at the New York Athletic Club. While he was giving lessons, I had to entertain their bratty kids by letting them punch me around. If I beat them, I'd have to answer to my old man.

"My father was the toughest man I've known," said Donovan, who had to lock horns with such notoriously tough linemen as Bob St. Clair, Bruno Banducci and Rosie Brown. "I'd never test my father. He'd have killed me."

He remembers getting a frantic call from his sister in 1967 to come to New York immediately. "She said the cops were going to throw my father in jail," Donovan said.

A neighborhood tough had tried to bum a cigarette from Arthur Sr., and when he got a negative response, he uttered an obscenity and called Arthur Sr. a liar.

"My father was 77 at the time, but he decked the guy with one punch," his son recalled. "The cops told me, 'Your father has to stop beating guys up.' But I could tell they enjoyed it even more than I did."

Arthur Donovan Sr. always will be linked with Joe Louis to the point that several boxing writers in the 1940s labeled him "Louis' referee."

"My father refereed 12 of Joe's title fights," Artie said. "He really respected the man, but he'd never talk to him, except in the ring. He didn't want anyone to start any rumors.

"He didn't talk a lot at home about his refereeing, even though he was regarded as the best in the business. In those days, they were more cautious about the gambling influence.

"My father wouldn't know he was working a fight until the morning of the match. Then he'd call from the the athletic club and tell my mother, Mary, 'Bring my bag. I'm going to work.' "

Arthur Donovan Sr. refereed both of Louis' fights with Schmeling, sporting events that took on great political significance as America's involvement in World War II drew near and Hitler preached of "the master race."

Schmeling won the first encounter, a non-title affair in 1936, handing Louis his first professional loss in 27 bouts with a 12th-round knockout.

As Donovan wrote in his diary: "I remember thinking to myself that Louis had better be careful. Schmeling was a terrific right-hand puncher. In the fifth round, it happened. Louis dropped his guard, and Schmeling clobbered him.

"Louis tried to come back, but he was taking a bad beating. I thought his jaw was broken. I was about to stop it when Schmeling knocked him out in the 12th."

But Louis gained revenge after winning the title from James Braddock in 1937. A year later, Louis met Schmeling at Yankee Stadium with Donovan again the referee and more than 80,000 fans packed into the three-tier stands.

"Only 12 seconds into the fight, Joe staggered the German," Donovan Sr. recalled in the diary. "And then he landed almost 50 straight blows. Someone from Schmeling's corner threw a towel into the ring. It was just what I'd warned those bums about. I threw it right back out. It was my sole responsibility to stop it, and I did after Joe had knocked him down three times in the first round."

When he retired from boxing, Arthur Sr. would spend more time following his son's football career.

"He came to all our games in New York and Baltimore," Artie said. "He'd even spend two or three weeks in training camp with us in Westminster. He'd have a great time telling all his fight stories to the players."

Like how he disqualified Buddy Baer in his first fight with Joe Louis at Griffith Stadium in Washington when Baer's manager, Ancil Hoffman, screamed that Louis had floored his fighter after the bell and he refused to leave the ring.

"My father remained a Louis fan even after he quit refereeing," Artie recalled. "We were home watching on TV when Rocky Marciano ended Joe's comeback by knocking him through the ropes. I could see a tear in my father's eye.

"In 1973, I went with him to the 35th anniversary celebration of the second Louis-Schmeling fight. Joe and Max were both there, and they greeted my father like an old friend. It made me feel so proud. It was like he'd gone home again."

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