A dream of a big fight town

Baltimore Glimpses

December 14, 1993|By GILBERT SANDLER

SOME people help others realize their dreams but never realize their own. One of them was Eli Hanover, who in the 1960s and '70s ran a gym over the Jewel Box club on The Block and trained boxers for short fights on long nights at the old Steelworkers' Hall in Dundalk.

Hanover was a legend in his time -- and beyond. He was a dream merchant, but he sold only dreams he believed in. He promised seamen and steelworkers and bums down on their luck that if they trained in his gym, he would get them the fights, and they could punch their way to glory. A few of them -- Larry Middleton comes to mind -- did exactly that, but Hanover never realized his dream of making Baltimore a major fight town.

One by one, late in the afternoon after a day's work on the docks or in the Sparrows Point steel mills, they would walk up to the second floor gym on East Baltimore Street. In the background would be the bump-and-grind music from downstairs. Strippers and punchers coexisted peacefully at the Jewel Box. Ralph Paladin, Buddy Boggs, Vernon Mason, Josh Hall? Where are they now?

Here, in Hanover's steamy all-male world of wintergreen, alcohol, camphor and sweat, in a ring that dominated his small gym, the fighters would suspend the reality of their lives, don pillowy 14-ounce boxing gloves and go at each other as if this were Madison Square Garden, not The Block. But the cheering over the Jewel Box was a little thin. It came from a handful of off-duty cops, bouncers, nightclub owners, strippers, numbers runners and merchant seamen.

Hanover made good on his promise to get fights for the kids. Eventually, they were on the card at Steelworkers' Hall. The crowds were modest most years, but at least they were crowds.

Meanwhile, the philosopher kings of The Block would watch Hanover in disbelief. All this fever trying to make Baltimore a fight town! They'd say to Hanover that boxing in Baltimore would never amount to much, that it was dead here, that it had seen its best years in the '30s and '40s, when the five Finazzo Brothers and Sixto Escobar and Harry Jeffra and Pete Galiano put on their blood fests at the old 104th Regiment Armory and the Coliseum. Those days would never come again, Hanover was advised.

Then he would give one of his famous lectures on the subject. Hanover, who grew up fighting on the streets of East Baltimore, had been in the game since he was 10. He knew what he was talking about:

"Fighting dead in Baltimore? No way, there's no way. People will always come to see boxing for one reason -- they like to see blood. A guy who sits in the upper deck of a football stadium never knows if a player has a bloody nose. But when he goes to a fight he knows when a guy is bleeding. He knows when a guy is hurt. Boxing here is in a class with baseball."

But for all of Hanover's failed dream to make Baltimore a big-time fight town, he did make a small difference. Mack Lewis, owner of the other major gym in town (Eager Street at Broadway), would give him as much: "Boxing was dead in Baltimore when Hanover came along. He built the Steelworkers' Hall fights up from nothing. He built his own ring over there. Hustled his own tickets. Put in his own seats. The average promoter wouldn't do that." And so with his own hands, Hanover seemed to be expanding the boxing business in Baltimore.

But a new Baltimore was building up around Hanover's world. The Block itself began a gradual decline. Along came the glitz of the Inner Harbor and a generation that liked trendy restaurants and home computers. Contrary to the gospel according to Eli, these folks did not care to see nose bleeds.

On Aug. 19, 1975, Hanover died at 51 in Baltimore County General Hospital. The Referee stopped his fight in the middle rounds. Might have been a good thing, too. He probably would have been clobbered.

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