Samuel Portney keeps alive his brother's boxing legacy

May 28, 2002|By MICHAEL OLESKER

SAMUEL PORTNEY is the keeper of his brother's memorial. The brother was Jack Portney, gone 11 years now, whose image lingers among the dwindling generation that watched him throw combination punches out of his southpaw crouch at old Oriole Park many summers ago.

The boxing game was different in Jack Portney's time. Jack came off of West Baltimore street corners in 1926, when he was 16 years old, and lasted a dozen years trading punches. They called him the Baltimore Buzz Saw for his relentlessness, which came out of sheer hunger.

He fought 165 fights and won 150. You could look it up. Four times, he fought guys who had been world champs. He was never knocked out, and never even knocked down. But he had a manager who hit him when he wasn't looking, and thus never saw a payday where he made more than $2,000. And sometimes it was a few hundred bucks for a night of controlled violence.

His family swelled with pride while hating the game. Sam Portney, now 87 and confined to a wheelchair in his apartment on Park Heights Avenue, remembers watching his brother climb into the ring and thinking, "`Just don't let him get hurt.' All I did was sit and pray for that."

The parents, Nathan and Mary Portney, took it worse. They had arrived here from Russia, looking for the good life, and never imagined taking punches for a living was the way to do it.

"My mother chased Jack with a broom when she found out he'd started boxing," Sam Portney remembered.

The family lived in an alley off a cobblestone street that doesn't exist anymore. Money was so tight that Jack was hustling newspapers when he was 10, fighting off bigger newsboys who wanted his piece of turf. By the eighth grade, he dropped out of school.

In 1926, claiming he was older than 16, he won his first fight. He was a lightweight, 5 feet 5, 140 pounds. For his third fight, his father went with him to Hagerstown. The father was a tailor. Jack knocked the other guy out in one round. But they missed their ride back to Baltimore, had dinner at some dive at 2 in the morning and then caught a train back to Baltimore at 4 a.m.

Sam Portney was 12 years old then. He remembers leaving for school at 8 the next morning and hearing his father moaning in his bedroom. Indigestion, the doctor said. At 10 a.m., Sam was called back home. The father had died of a heart attack. He was 46.

Now it was up to Jack to support the family. There were six boys and two girls. Jack would train for fights by running through Druid Hill Park every morning, whatever the weather.

Sam Portney remembers all of it, remembers the screams of the fight night crowds and the pictures in the newspaper the morning after. His brother beat legends like Tony Canzoneri and Barney Ross, and guys with names vanished from all memory. Sam still has the old newspapers, and old photos of Jack knocking out guys from here to Australia.

They loved him Down Under. When Jack couldn't get fights against big-name lightweights here -- they hated fighting him for his unorthodox left-handed approach -- he went all the way to Australia for a couple of big fights.

"You see?" Sam Portney says.

He still has copies of The Sydney Morning Herald from 1974, when Jack went back to Australia. Sam is the keeper of Jack's history. There's Jack, 63 years old by then, with his mug all over the sports pages.

"Give me a month to get down to 160 pounds, and I'll fight any pro today for three rounds," he laughed then. "And when I'm still standing, I'll give my share of the purse to charity."

He had a little money by then. He took a few hundred bucks from an early fight and sank it into a pool hall. The place made money, so he kept buying more pool halls, 40 of them before he was done, which evolved into a line of Jack Portney Sporting Goods. It was a landmark around here for decades.

"He was a tremendous asset to the city of Baltimore," Sam Portney says.

Sam did all right for himself, too. Unlike Jack, he stayed in school, graduated City College and later became a pharmacist with a store at Edmondson and Fulton. He married and raised a family.

Sam leafs through stacks of old newspaper clippings now, remembering when his brother brought the big crowds to their feet. He moves around the room in his motorized wheelchair. Diagnosed with lymphoma in 1997, he survived with heavy doses of chemotherapy. But, with follow-up medication, he suffered loss of sensation in his arms and legs, and the inability to walk a year later.

"But I don't want to talk about me," he says. "I want to talk about Jack."

"Why?" a man asks.

"Because he was a public figure, I'm not. Because he meant a lot to this city, and people shouldn't forget. Because I loved him. Because he was my brother."

And now, he tends his brother's memorial.

Sam Portney is our reminder of yesterday's glories. He is his brother's keeper.

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