Harry Blitman never won the world title, but he was one of many outstanding Jewish fighters in the 1920s and 1930s.
Blitman was a smooth-boxing lightweight. His family was from North-Central Philadelphia but he trained out of Jimmy Coster’s gym in South Philadelphia. He was a teenage sensation and my dad knew him from their days at Central High School.
In 1928, when he was 18 years and undefeated in 32 fights, Blitman boxed New York’s future Hall-of-Famer Tony Canzoneri in front of more than 25,000 fans at the old Baker Bowl, then the ball park of the Philadelphia Phillies. Canzoneri was the featherweight champion of the world but his title was not at stake in this over-the-weight match. Champions often engaged in non-title fights in those days to help pay bills without risking their crown.
“I didn’t know it, but this was the real peak of my career,” Blitman once told the Saturday Evening Post. “For three rounds I clearly outboxed the champ. I was a southpaw, which seemed to confuse him, and I kept fooling him with a snapping right hook. In the fourth round I had Canzoneri’s left eye cut and almost closed. Then I bounced a left off his midsection. When he sagged, I shot a left to his jaw. Tony was staggering at the bell.
“I yelled to Max (Boo Boo) Hoff, my manager, ‘I’ll knock him out in the next one!’ Max sponged me off, then he told me not to take any chances, to keep my left high and keep jabbing and hooking with my right.
“I thought something was wrong with this (strategy). But Boo Boo was my manager and my boss. I followed instructions. I won every one of the 10 rounds, the limit a bout could go in Pennsylvania when an 18-year-old was involved.”
A few days later, word on the street was that Hoff had promised Canzoneri’s manager, Sammy Goldman, that his boy (Canzoneri) “wouldn’t get hurt” if he signed for the match.
Hoff had one of the largest stables of fighters at that time, but it was a “front” for his bootlegging, gambling and hijacking businesses. He had grown from a neighborhood cigar salesman into Philadelphia’s No. 1 public enemy. An estimated five million dollars passed through his hands in a single year, but when he was found dead by his second wife of a suspected overdose of sleeping pills in 1941 in his Larchwood Avenue apartment he was flat broke. An autopsy claimed he died of a heart ailment.
But in 1928, everything was rosy for Blitman and Hoff.
“At 2.15 am after the Canzoneri fight, the phone rang in my room at the Adelphia Hotel,” Blitman said. “It was Boo Boo calling from the Turf Club, on Spruce Street near Broad. The club was Philadelphia’s gaudiest gambling joint, with roulette wheels on three floors and the sky the limit on bets. I was tired, my body hurt, I needed sleep. (But) when the little man-Hoff was 5-foot-2-said come, you came. He always carried a .25 caliber Colt revolver in each hip pocket and he would use them, even on his friends.
“I wound up the night of my victory over Canzoneri-and most of the next day-at the Turf Club. I was the Golden Boy.”
The good times did not last long. Hoff informed Blitman of a September showdown with another Philadelphian, ex-featherweight champion Benny Bass. The winner would box Canzoneri with the world title at stake.
“That summer, when we signed to fight Bass, I was 142 pounds and growing,” Blitman recalled. “The contract limit was 126 pounds and we had to post a $5,000.00 forfeit to guarantee I could make the weight. Three days before the fight I was 132 pounds and the only water I could drink was the quickly snatched handfuls I could scoop from a toilet bowl in my bathroom at training camp in Springfield, PA. The faucets on the sink had been plugged by Boo Boo’s entourage.”
Blitman was one-half pound under the limit at the weigh-in the day of the fight. He was guaranteed a $25,000 purse (his share was 65%) and another crowd of 25,000, including my father and his father, was on hand at Shibe Park.
Though he had only 11 knockouts on his 34-1 record-he had K0d Len Benner than summer in Allentown, PA-Blitman decided to slug with Bass.
Blitman was down in the second and out cold in the sixth.
“Benny was punching me at will,” Blitman said. “I got up at the count of eight on the last knockdown, but I couldn’t stand and slumped to the canvas. I tried to push myself up by my finger tips, but I couldn’t do that either. I cried my heart out in the dressing room and, after Boo Boo and his gunmen had gone, in walked Ty Cobb.
“Cobb was in his last year of baseball, with the Philadelphia Athletics. I guess he was feeling lonely, too, coming to the end of his great career. He smiled and told me not to take it too hard. He reminded me I was young and that I would snap back.”
The day after the fight, Hoff sent two of his men to accompany Blitman to the old Franklin Trust Company at 15th & Chestnut Streets to pick up his purse in cash. Hoff was in a hurry since he had financial obligations after having invested in the Florida land boom.
“I figured my cut (of the $25,000.00 purse) was $15,000.00,” Blitman said. “But Boo Boo had a list of (alleged) expenses and I wound up with $9,500.00, still a fortune for a kid in 1928. I proceeded to rip through most of it.”
After Blitman won his next two fights, Hoff sold his contract to Robert North, a New York stockbroker. Blitman kept winning, but the purses got smaller. Still, following the loss to Bass, Blitman went 25-5-2, but he didn’t like what taking punches was doing to his body and soul. He went into the Army in 1932 “to get away from it all,” but was discharged within a year thanks to some political pull he had in Philadelphia. He resumed his career, briefly.
“In 1934, a young boxer named Mike Marshall did me the great favor of convincing me that I was finally washed up,” Blitman said. “It was at the Cambria Club in Philadelphia, where I had fought often on my way to the big time. The bout was a 10-rounder. My purse was $300.00. In the last two rounds he gave me a beating and took the decision. I told him he was the last man who will ever lick me.”
Blitman’s final record was 61-10-3, 23 K0s.
He wrote a series of articles on old-time fighters for the Camden Courier Post, then worked as a stevedore at the Ford Motor Company’s riverfront plant in Chester, PA. He was a physical training instructor in the Navy at the outbreak of World War II, but received a medical discharge after one year.
He later went to work for the old Philadelphia Record, then the Philadelphia Daily News. He became an advocate for stricter medical examinations for fighters.
Harry Blitman died in 1972. He was 62 years old.