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Jimmy Slattery - Table of Contents

Jimmy Slattery
An excerpt from Against the Grain, pp. 147-151
by Timothy Bohen

Reprinted with permission.

Each generation in the Ward was bestowed with a homegrown celebrity and the generation of the 1920s was no exception.  If the first generation had Fingy Conners and the second generation had “Wild Bill” Donovan, the next generation had Jimmy Slattery.  While the first two Ward luminaries, Fingy Conners and William Donovan, seemed to outgrow their Ward beginnings, Jimmy never outgrew his.  For this reason people still seem to mention Jimmy Slattery first when asked about First Ward idols. 

First Warders have mostly negative feelings about Conners because of his anti-worker sentiments in the grain scoopers strike in 1899, and then his move to the elite Protestant enclave of Delaware Avenue in Buffalo.  General William Donovan became a man that many of the people in the Ward could not relate to: an Ivy-League educated Republican who married into a wealthy WASP family.  Jimmy Slattery was different. 

Slattery, the two-time national light heavyweight boxing champion, was a man connected to his fellow First Warders even at the height of his fame.  One Ward memoir remembers that Jimmy never forgot his “old gang.” 

James Patrick Slattery was born on August 25, 1904 at 589 Fulton Street in the First Ward of Buffalo.  Jimmy or “Shamus” as his family called him was the son of a city fireman named John Slattery who worked at firehouse Engine 22. 

One of the earliest stories about the young, lanky Jimmy Slattery deals with his accidental start as a boxer.  Harp Griffin, a 210-pound neighborhood brawler, saw the young Slattery at the corner of Elk and Louisiana Streets with a box of chocolates which was Jimmy’s gift for his mother on Valentine’s Day.   Griffin, however, wanted the chocolates for himself so he stole Jimmy’s chocolates out of his hand.  Rather than back down, the much smaller Jimmy challenged the bully to a fight.  Witnesses say that close to two hundred people from the neighborhood gathered and watched Slattery, the budding pugilist, crush his much larger opponent in about thirty minutes in front of Gene Murphy’s gas station.  

Jimmy’s father recognized his son’s gifts, so he set up backyard boxing matches and took him to the First Ward Athletic Club.  Jimmy’s meteoric career to national fame was about to begin.

In 1921, at the age of sixteen, the 128-pound Jimmy Slattery’s pro career started with an impressive 35 straight wins against several boxers who were much bigger than him.  It is reported that he wore green trunks for every fight of his career to honor his Irish heritage.  On October 3, 1924, Slattery won a six-round decision—the fight was limited to six rounds because of Slattery’s age—against Jack Delaney at Madison Square Garden in New York City.  People outside of Buffalo were now taking notice of him.  A few months later on February 13, 1925, again at the Garden, Slats fought the 4-to-1 favorite Jack Delaney in a regulation match.  The 5’11” Slattery who danced on his toes in the ring and had one of the most effective left punches in the sport stunned the boxing world by beating Delaney again.  It was this fight that put Jimmy on the world stage of boxing. 

After a 17-1 record the following year, Slattery put himself into contention for the National Boxing Association title.  Finally, on August 30, 1927, in Hartford, Connecticut, Slats or the “Buffalo Harp” as some called him, defeated “Slapsie” Maxie Rosenbloom in 15 rounds to win the World Light Heavyweight Championship and sit alone atop of the world.  From accounts in the newspapers and memoirs, residents in the First Ward went crazy when the news of his championship arrived in the Ward. 
Meanwhile, across the country, boxing experts, sports writers, and his fellow boxers could not contain their praise for Slattery’s abilities.  He was the favorite boxer of Paul Gallico, the sports editor for the New York Daily News and another New York sportswriter referred to Slattery as a “darling of the gods.”   The champion James Braddock, also known as the “Cinderella Man,” in a 1959 interview, proclaimed that “the greatest boxer in my time was Jimmy Slattery.”   Braddock went on to say that “Joe Louis was a fine boxer, but Jim Slattery was far better.” 

In 1992, Boxing Illustrated ranked Jimmy Slattery the seventh slickest boxer of all time behind greats such as Sugar Ray Robinson, Gene Tunney, Muhammad Ali, and Sugar Ray Leonard.  Others even compared him to one of the greatest of all time: Jim Corbett.  The champion Tom Loughran stated that fighting Jimmy Slattery was like “fighting a ghost with three hands.”  Aside from being a darling of the press and his fellow boxers, fans loved him as well.  Slats regularly fought in front of sold-out crowds in Madison Square Garden and Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. 

But while his boxing prowess was incomparable, on a personal level all was not well.  With Slattery’s increasing success came a desire for the fast life of women and alcohol.  The latter would be a battle that Jimmy would face his whole life, and the demon that would eventually lead to his downfall.

While Jimmy enjoyed basking in the glory of national success, he never forgot his roots or the people in the Ward.  There are countless stories of his charity and magnanimity, which ranged from buying rounds of drinks for folks in his favorite taverns to giving away his cars to people in need.  When he was in town Slattery would go to one of his favorite places like Kearn’s Tavern and buy everyone drinks.  

Joe Marren, whose family roots are in the Ward and Valley, related two stories concerning Jimmy’s generosity.  The first one involves Joe’s grandfather, who owned a candy store in the Ward.  Apparently, Slattery had just purchased a new Pierce-Arrow automobile and he needed to get rid of his Cadillac.  Rather than sell it, he just gave the Cadillac away to Joe’s grandfather with no strings attached.  The other story involves Marren’s father, who suffered from polio.  Slats encouraged Joe’s father to work out for free with him at his gym to help strengthen his limbs.  

There are other stories of his donating a new altar for his church, buying books for an elementary school, and even dropping money out of his car during the Depression for children to grab.  Some referred to him as a sucker for a good sob story and he regularly gave money for medical operations, shoes, coal for heating homes, and funeral expenses.   One First Ward memoirist referred to him as a “good Samaritan with a heart of gold.”   However, between his charitable acts and his high living, Jimmy managed to squander away $400,000 in earnings, which would be equivalent to over $5.3 million in 2009 dollars.  By 1931, Slats was broke and his slow descent began.

There is a general consensus that if Jimmy had trained harder and stayed away from alcohol that he could have become a legend for the ages.  The stories of his drunkenness are legendary.  One of Jimmy’s close associates refuted the rumors and claimed that Jimmy refrained from drinking around the time of his fights and that his drinking really started after his career was over.  However, too many other accounts dispute this claim. 

After losing the title to Tom Loughran, Slattery tried a comeback in 1930 and was in contention to win a second title if he could defeat Buffalo’s West Side Italian legend Lou Scozza.  In front of a sold-out crowd at Broadway Auditorium in Buffalo on February 10, 1930 that is exactly what Slats did.  For a brief time, he was once again on top of the world with his New York State World Light Heavyweight title.  Unfortunately, in that fight Slats took a left punch from Scozza to the throat that left him hoarse for the rest of his life.  Hoarseness, however, was not his only worry. 

His struggle with alcohol persisted and soon took its toll on his boxing.  Slattery lost his title only four months after regaining it when he lost to Maxie Rosenbloom at Offermann Stadium in Buffalo.  Apparently, Slats partied at the Palais Royale on Main Street in his hometown until 2:30 a.m. the night before the fight.  Two busboys, Al and Leo DiGuilio, had to help him into a taxi.  

Slats retired from boxing in 1934 and his troubles with alcohol and the law accelerated.  In fact, in June 1935, he was put on probation for charges related to drinking and a month later he crashed his car as a result of booze.  His legal problems mounted with new charges ranging from robbery to assaulting a police officer.   Through the Great Depression years Slattery was arrested at least ten times for crimes that involved either alcohol or fighting or both. 

In 1942, Jimmy suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis, which was the same disease that killed his father and brother.  Jimmy was lucky to have friends who paid for his recuperation in Arizona and assisted him in obtaining a city job in the Buffalo Parks Department where he tended to flower beds at Delaware Park.  Slats was now a long way from the chanting crowds that filled Madison Square Garden to see him fight. 

In 1946, former heavyweight champion Jimmy Braddock came to Buffalo to host a fundraiser to assist Slattery with his medical bills.  Jimmy’s troubles didn’t end there.  His marriage eventually fell apart and he was forced to sell his house, but he still couldn’t break his love for Scotch which he consumed regularly at the House O’Quinn on Chippewa Street.  Finally, one night in late August of 1960, Slats collapsed at House O’Quinn and was taken to his flat which was close by; the next morning his lifeless body was found on the floor of his boarding house on Franklin Street. 

Slattery was so poor that he was buried in an unmarked grave in Holy Cross Cemetery, and a life which read like a Shakespearean tragedy was now complete.  Despite his downfall, a fellow First Warder, Mayor Jimmy Griffin, retold how Slattery was an idol in the Ward in the 1930s and 1940s.  Griffin remembered how those in the Ward loved the way he fought, drank, and took care of the less fortunate. 

Slattery’s trouble with alcohol was far from unique when it came to other Irish immigrants and their descendants in Buffalo.  We know that in the 1840s and 1850s Bishop Timon wrote and preached exhortations encouraging the Irish to imbibe less alcohol at wakes and the St. Patrick’s Day parades which had the reputation of being alcohol-fuelled engagements.  Timon even brought Father Mathew, the famous temperance preacher from Ireland, to Buffalo to preach to the faithful about abstaining. 

One local historian has detailed the family problems including family dissolution and premature death that resulted from alcohol abuse by Irish immigrants in the mid-19th century.   The first person executed after Buffalo’s incorporation as a city was Irish immigrant Michael Kelly who in 1835 stabbed his wife under the influence of alcohol.

Two of the most famous Buffalo executions—both carried out by Grover Cleveland—involved two other Irishmen, Patrick Morrissey and John Gaffney, both of whom were drunk when they committed their crimes. 

A central theme of Buffalo Bishop Stephen Ryan’s reign from the late 1860s to the early 1890s was intemperance among his flock.  Ryan preached about the evils of alcohol throughout his diocese and claimed that morality, virtue, and religious duty were all easier when someone abstained.   In fact, when Bishop Ryan administered the sacrament of confirmation, he made the boys pledge to avoid alcohol until manhood. Alcoholism in the Ward was a problem which remained private and not openly discussed over the years.

Mayor Jimmy Griffin in an interview about Slattery had this to say: “Jimmy liked to drink. Let’s face it.  We all do. I like to drink.  There’s no shame in that.”  Griffin went on to say, “What he [Slattery] did with his life, he enjoyed himself. That’s the way I’ll remember the guy.  Down in the First Ward, people didn’t have a hell of a lot.  They worked hard down there, and they played hard. Still do.”   While most people could handle their alcohol, people like Slattery who couldn’t suffered dearly.  Despite his demons with alcohol, Jimmy Slattery will always be remembered as Buffalo’s first authentic athletic celebrity.

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