Like most Jewish fighters in the early part of the 20th century, Lew Tendler was tough as nails but he was scared of his mother.
“My mom was against boxing,” Tendler once recalled. “One night I fought at a small club and got a shiner. I tried everything to get the swelling down before I went home, but nothing worked. I got 10 bucks for the fight. When I got home I thought Mom was going to collapse. The tongue lashing I got was worse than the fight. When she finally held her head in her hands and sat down, I went over and put the 10 bucks in her lap. When she asked where I got the money, I told her I wasn’t fighting for peanuts. ‘It’s all yours, Mom’, I told her. ‘The shiner don’t hurt.’ Mom wiped her eyes, looked at the 10 bucks and said, ‘Lew, you’re a great son. When’s your next fight?’ ”
No one was tougher than Tendler, a left-handed Hall-of-Famer who was unlucky to come along at the same time as Benny Leonard, another Jewish boxer and perhaps the greatest lightweight of all time.
Born Sept. 28, 1898, Tendler was raised at 6th & Reed Streets in South Philadelphia. He began selling newspapers by the time he was 6. Those were the days of the circulation wars. There were eight Philadelphia dailies-Ledger, Item, Bulletin, Inquirer, Record, etc.-and papers hired “tough guys” to peddle their papers at prime street-corner locations.
“I was crazy to become a fighter,” Tendler said. “Mickey Brown, another newsboy, was going great guns at the Broadway AC and I knew I could lick him.” By the time he was 15, Tendler had beaten Brown to win the mythical Newsboy Championship of Philadelphia. He weighed 102 pounds.
Boxing was so big then there were fights almost every night of the week. Tendler fought at the National AC, 11th & Catherine; Olympia, Board & Bainbridge; Broadway, 15th & Washington.
Tendler beat the best in the city, then gained national attention in 1916 when he whipped bantamweight champ Pete Herman, of New Orleans, at the Olympia. This was during the “No Decision” days in Philadelphia. Any fight that went the limit was rendered “No Decision” but the newspapers carried their own verdict the next day. Tendler was virtually unbeaten in his first 100 fights-that’s right, first 100 fights.
Tendler became a local legend Aug. 11, 1919, when he met Willie Jackson, of New York, at Shibe Park, later known as Connie Mack Stadium. Jackson, the only man to knock out featherweight champion Johnny Dundee (who had 330 fights), dropped Tendler twice in the first round. But one of Tendler’s corner men managed to get close enough to the ring to throw water on the groggy fighter. It helped Tendler survive the round and go to earn the Newspaper Decision in the next day’s papers.
When he fought world champion Leonard on July 27, 1922 at Boyle’s Thirty Acres, Tendler needed a knockout to win. He staggered Leonard in the eighth round. But Leonard whispered something to Tendler in Yiddish and by the time Tendler translated it, Leonard was off the hook. The fight went 12 rounds to a No Decision-with Leonard winning the newspaper verdict.
They met again before 63,000 people the next year in New York’s Yankee Stadium. That’s how big boxing was! Leonard gained the 15-round decision.
One year later, Tendler lost again in a title bid, dropping a 10-round decision to welterweight champion Mickey Walker at the Baker Bowl in Philadelphia.
One of the greatest never to win a world title, Tendler remained near the top until he retired in 1928 after 174 fights. He was stopped once-by Jack Zivic-and he avenged that loss. He boxed nine undisputed world champions 14 times.
Tendler rates among the best lefties of all-time and among the 20 best-ever from Philadelphia.
After boxing, Tendler became a well-known restauranteur. Lew Tendler’s, Broad & Locust, was a favorite spot for sportsmen and politicians in its heyday. It closed in the early 1970s. Tendler opened similar restaurants in Atlantic City and Miami Beach. He was married to the former Celia Lasker for 50 years.
Tendler died from a clogged artery Nov. 7, 1970 at Shore Memorial Hospital in Somers Point, NJ. He was 72.
(written by JRP in 2004)