I’m sure somewhere up in heaven the late, two-time world boxing champion Carmen Basilio is making the rounds, regaling people with his salt-of-the-earth sense of humor – and impishly doling out a playful punch or two.
Over the course of the 30-plus years I knew Carmen, I laughed often at his corny jokes and incurred a few bruises from those playful punches - "love taps" he called them. (Even into his late 60s, early 70s the ex-Marine still packed quite a wallop. I can’t imagine what it must have been like being on the receiving end of his not-so-friendly fists during his boxing prime.)
Carmen always was so down-to-earth, so genuine, a true character. I never met a boxer or any other athlete as accomplished as him for that matter who was so perpetually jovial. He truly loved life and loved people. I had witnessed the ring’s ravages on so many other boxers, how too many punches to the noggin had scrambled their minds and altered their personalities for the worse. Fortunately, Carmen, who had endured some of the most brutal bouts in boxing history, escaped many of the deleterious effects of pugilistic savagery.
In tribute to his passing yesterday at age 85, I offer the following excerpts from interviews I conducted with him through the years. The first is from my “Memories of Yankee Stadium” book. The second is from my book, “Jewel of the Sports World: The Hickok Belt Story.”
RIP, Carmen. And go easy on the "love taps."
While picking onions on the family farm as a boy growing up in upstate New York, Carmen Basilio would often day dream. A huge fan of heavyweight champion Joe Louis and the New York Yankees, Basilio fantasized about what it would feel like to box for a title in front of a huge crowd at the Stadium. On September 23, 1957, he found out, winning a punishing, 15-round split decision against the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson in front of 38,072 fans to become the middleweight champion of the world. The battle between the tall, stylish Robinson and the short, iron-jawed Basilio was named the fight of the year by Ring magazine and earned the "Canastota Clouter'' his biggest boxing payday ($211,629) and the 1957 Hickok Belt as the top professional athlete in America. To many boxing fans, Basilio, who finished his ring career with a 56-16-7 record, was a real-life Rocky Balboa.
"Of all my fights - and I had some pretty good ones in my day - that one was the most special because it fulfilled a life-long dream of mine. And the check I received for that one didn't hurt either. When I was young, my father and I would listen to Joe Louis fights on the radio, and that's what planted the seed in my head about become a boxer. People told me I was foolish to want to become a boxer because it was a brutal occupation, but I didn't want to spend the rest of my life picking onions in the hot summer heat. To me, that was more brutal than boxing.
"Yankee Stadium was the captial of boxing back then. It became a place where a lot of the really big matches were fought back in the '20, '30s, '40s and '50s. Guys like Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis and Rocky Mariciano and Sugar Ray fought there. Plus, being a fan of Yankees like Joe DiMaggio and Yogi Berra, made fighting there special for me, too.
"But there's one other reason why that win was so important to me. It helped me settle a grudge, and pay Sugar Ray back for snubbing me the way he did when I was just an up-and-comer. I remember standing outside the Statler Hotel in Times Square with my wife in 1952 when Robinson and his crew pulled up in this big, pink Cadillac. I was a boxing nobody at the time, and Sugar Ray was king. I told my wife, 'I'm going to introduce myself to him.' I said, 'Mr. Robinson, my name is Carmen Basilio, I just fought my second television fight.' Before I could get another word out, he just blew by me. He made me feel like I was dirt beneath his feet. I was really pissed. I went back to my wife and said, 'One of these days I'm going to fight that son-of-a-bitch and I'm going to kick his ass.'
"I wouldn't say I kicked his ass, but I did beat him up pretty good. My corner was worried that he was going to be awarded the victory because he was the champ and they say you have to knock out the champ in order to take the title away from him. They told me not to celebrate after the 15th round ended. But I wasn't worried. I knew I had convinced the judges that I controlled more of the fight than he did.
"One other thing that night memorable: I got to dress in Casey Stengel's office for the fight. Through the years, I got to know Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle, and some of the Yankees would come to my fights in the off-season. New York was a great sports town and a great boxing town back then. The people there always supported me well. I think they liked the fact that I was Italian and that I came from the working class and wasn't afraid to take a punch in order to land one. I think more people in that crowd at Yankee Stadium that night could relate to me than they could to a natural athlete like Sugar Ray. I was the underdog, and I was a guy who kept his mouth shut and let my fists do my talking. Sugar Ray was a great fighter, but he was arrogant, and that turned a lot of people off. I know it turned me off. But I was able to make him eat his words. He knew who the hell I was after that fight.''
On January 14, 1958, Basilio would pull off another upset when he won the Hickok Belt. Many thought Lew Burdette’s spectacular World Series pitching performance would catapult the Milwaukee Braves’ ace to the top spot. In fact, when he was contacted about the banquet, he assumed that he had won. But the majority of the voters assumed differently, casting 48 first-place ballots and 218 points for Basilio to 32 first-place votes and 186 points for Burdette. Williams, the Boston Red Sox slugger, finished third (22 firsts, 129 1-2 points). When master of ceremonies Jerry Flynn called Basilio to the podium to receive the belt from Ray Hickok, the Manger Hotel crowd of 670 – including a few dozen from the boxer’s hometown, two hours to the east – rose to its feet and applauded loudly. “It’s the happiest day of my life,’’ he said, in a quavering voice. Basilio tried to go on, but he couldn’t. He began bawling, and as the tears of joy streamed down his cheeks, the appreciative dinner guests rose to their feet and cheered once more. “Of all the dinner moments that one was my favorite,’’ Flynn recalled years later. “It was like Carmen had reached the top of the mountain after a lifetime of trying and he couldn’t have been more grateful.’’
The banquet had gotten off to an emotional start when Rev. Bill Howard delivered the benediction. He had attended the first dinner in 1950 as one of the children afflicted with polio. The head table was even more star-studded than the year before. In addition to Basilio, Burdette and Brown, it featured Yankee stars Whitey Ford, Moose Skowron and Elston Howard; former heavyweight boxing champion; former Rochester Red Wings and future Baseball Hall of Fame broadcaster Jack Buck, and Dr. Joyce Brothers, a young psychologist who received national recognition in 1955 after winning the top prize on the popular television quiz show, The $64,000 Question. (Interestingly, Brothers, a noted psychologist, won, based on her knowledge of boxing history. She wound up providing color commentary on CBS’ telecast of the Basilio-Robinson title fight and is believed to be the first woman to serve in that capacity on a boxing broadcast.)
Basilio was much more relaxed after receiving the award, signing autographs for fans and chatting with reporters. He chuckled each time someone told him he looked pretty good for a guy whose intrepid, always-on-the-offense boxing style resulted in him being the recipient of many punches to the head. “I hear that a lot,’’ he said, when asked about the ‘you-look-pretty-good-considering’ comments. “People see my pictures after a fight or while I’m fighting on television, and they figure I’m pretty well beat up. To begin with, I’m not what you call photogenic. Pictures that were taken right after a fight show bruises on my cheekbones and maybe puffiness around my eyes. And my nose swells up. If you add a cut eye or maybe some bleeding from the mouth or nose, it looks like I just lost a train wreck.’’ At one point during his conversation, Burdette stopped by to congratulate him. “If I had to be second to anyone,’’ the pitcher said, “I prefer it to be to you.’’