A man of letters and leather gloves

City Diary

April 26, 2000|By RAFAEL ALVAREZ

NO ONE WRITES like this anymore, not with a straight face.

"I just got back from Tijuana ... went down with King Tut and a couple of broads in his car ... gee, boy - talk about me getting a thrill! All the booze you want ... gambling and each bar had a four-piece jazz band ... I guess you read about me stopping Eddie Mahoney with a punch in the second round. I might box Mushy Callahan or Jackie Fields in a few weeks."

Written in 1927, the letter was sent by one Baltimore-born Italian-American who changed his name to get ahead in the United States to another local Italian-American boy who changed his name to make it.

Posted from the Chelsea Hotel in Los Angeles to a Fawn Street rowhouse, it is one of a hundred or so handwritten letters surviving a correspondence spanning the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, World War II and a gone but golden age of boxing.

Though only one side of the correspondence has surfaced, the dispatches from hotels, taverns and gyms around the country detail a friendship struck at the Grand Theater on Conkling Street during the Coolidge administration.

It is the story of Vince and Paulie, a couple of Mobtown mugs with big ideas in their heads and olive oil in their veins.

Born in Palermo, Vince Lazzara grew up a fruit-vendor's son near the Belair Market to become Vince Dundee, a lean but savvy boxer who charmed crowds, won 40 amateur fights in a row and claimed a middleweight crown in 1933.

Nicola Mugavero, from the 900 block of Fawn St. in Little Italy, was nicknamed Paul and took the surname Baker in deference to his family's trade.

Vince's route to the ring - where he won 89 bouts, lost 20 and fought to 13 draws - was paved by his older brother Joe, who became the world welterweight champ in 1927.

While Vince traveled through Europe with his fists, Paulie rarely wandered beyond Irvington, where he bought a home with wages earned selling tickets at Penn Station and cashing tickets behind a mutuel window at Pimlico.

Vince's letters and anecdotes of his childhood friendship on the streets of Baltimore have been preserved by Paul Baker's namesake son, whose only memory of his prizefighting godfather is sitting on the ex-champ's knee as a young boy.

Mr. Baker has read the letters as much for clues about his father as news about the rise and fall of Vince Dundee.

"I would say that my father idolized Vince, and my dad wasn't the type to idolize anybody," said Mr. Baker, a former college basketball coach. "My father was negative toward everyone, particularly toward strangers. He always used the word stranger."

Asked if he and his father were strangers upon the older man's death in 1995, Mr. Baker choked and said: "Somewhat."

Mr. Baker hoped the letters might bring him closer to his father, whose presence he still feels. But while the Penn Station ticket agent is mentioned in them often, he remains silent.

Only Vince speaks.

In 1932, as Dundee chased the middleweight crown in the teeth of the Depression, he wrote:

"It's tough when your money's not safe even in a bank ... all in all, I had $2,500 of blood money in there, all the cash I had. ... I've been pretty busy the last three weeks, boxing Bucky Lawless [and two others]. I won all very easy, well, I won't say easy because no bout is easy."

He captured the crown on Halloween Eve in 1930, beating Lou Brouillard in 15 rounds in Boston. In 1934, he lost the title but took a $25,000 purse in a brutal 15-round decision to Teddy Yarosz in Pittsburgh. A year later, after hurting his knee in training camp, Dundee was knocked down 11 times, had his jaw broken and suffered a concussion in a Seattle fight against Freddie Steele that was stopped after three rounds.

After this, Dundee began to have chronic pain in one of his eyes and was operated on to save his sight. By age 27, he was finished. He started to distance himself from the boxing world and began signing letters to Paulie as "Vince Lazzara."

In 1941, he wrote Paulie from his last home in Glendale, Calif., where he'd bought a tavern.

"It's an old, old story, but it hits the spot - when you're on top, everybody is right with you. When you're through being the champ and [out of] the limelight, they forget you damn quick. I can count on one hand the real, honest-to-goodness friends I do have in this world."

Buddy Ey taught several generations of rookie cops to box at the Baltimore police academy. Now 72, Mr. Ey saw Vince Dundee ringside at the old Coliseum on Monroe Street in 1942.

By then, Dundee - who'd fought all the great middleweights of his era - was suffering from years of hard knocks, injuries from a traffic accident with a freight train and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

"It was like a great man revisiting his glory," remembers Mr. Ey. "He'd been a master boxer but the poor guy was in a wheelchair and in real bad shape - terrible, pitiful."

Vince Dundee died in 1949 at the age of 40, his life is chronicled in letters written to a childhood friend. In our era of abracadabra e-mail and cheap long distance phone calls - an age when it seems only writers write and everyone else goes about their business - the Dundee-Baker correspondence is a treasure.

A few years before his death, while reminding his "long-life friend" Paulie not to forget him, Vince wrote: "I don't correspond with anyone in my family anymore since my dear mother went to heaven. See, I don't have that feeling to write as I used to ..."

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