By Jody Diperna
Pittsburgh Current Lit Writer
Carnegie and J & L Steel dominated Pittsburgh’s landscape, not UPMC and Google. Italian, Croation, Polish and Slovak was spoken all through the streets. The air was muddy with cinders and sulfurous foundry smells. And Harry Greb was the toast of the town.
As much as Pittsburghers love our sports heroes, not many know the Pittsburgh Windmill, the 1923 middleweight boxing champion, except for a few boxing history fans. And there were few of these boxing aficionados as passionate and knowledgeable about the Pittsburgh fight game as Roy McHugh. Certainly, there was no finer chronicler of the sport.
McHugh wrote for the Pittsburgh Press, back when Pittsburgh was a two-daily-paper kind of town. He was a sports writer, editor and columnist, as well as a general columnist for more than 30 years until his retirement in 1983. He died this past February at the age of 104, much admired by his peers, respected by the boxing industry and beloved by many others. In 2011, McHugh co-authored Ruanaidh: The Story of Art Rooney and His Clan, with Art Rooney, Jr.
But after his long and illustrious writing career, he left behind one piece of unfinished business: his complete, but unpublished, chronicle of Pittsburgh’s boxing history.
Friend and fellow-boxing historian, Doug Cavanaugh, has just published McHugh’s pugilistic magnum opus, When Pittsburgh Was a Fight Town, posthumously, with an assist from David Finoli, author of numerous Western Pennsylvania sports histories. A freelance writer based in Los Angeles, Cavanaugh has written for boxing magazine, The Ring. He and McHugh formed a friendship around their shared love of Pittsburgh boxers.
Like sportswriting legends Grantland Rice, Damon Runyon and Shirley Povich, McHugh had the ability to capture something essential and unspoken about his subjects while simply getting out of the way of a good story. To open his chapter about Greb, the kid from Garfield who was champion in both middleweight and light-heavyweight divisions, he wrote:
“Once upon a time in Pittsburgh every neighborhood saloon with a sports-minded clientele had a picture of Harry Greb on the wall, an unchanging presence behind the bar. The one in Frankie Gustine’s restaurant on Forbes Avenue in Oakland, a blown-up, hand painted photograph, belonged to Art Rooney. There was something oddly haunting about it. Almost absent-mindedly, Greb had assumed a fighter’s stance, but with no hint of combat-readiness in his attitude. The lowered head, the preoccupied gaze were suggestive, rather, of peaceful contemplation. He appeared to be thinking sad, profound thoughts.”
Sitting at his typewriter, later a keyboard, McHugh resurrected a lost time, painted a technicolor portrait of a place, and breathed life back into fighters like the great Billy Conn. The original Pittsburgh Kid was light-heavyweight champion, one of the best fighters the city ever produced, but he was best known for his 1941 loss to heavyweight champ, Joe Lewis. Conn once ruefully said that everybody remembered that 13-rounder, but nobody remembered his 64 victories.
McHugh lovingly writes of the convivial welterweight champ, Fritzie Zivic, who had a nose like a squashed tomato and “a flair for after dinner speaking.” With elegant prose, he breathes life back into the memories of lightweight Sammy Angott, middleweight Billy Soose, and featherweight Jackie Wilson, champions all.
“Pittsburgh was a rabid fight town,” Cavanaugh recently told the Current. “Everybody wanted to see a poor kid from the neighborhood make good — not having to be enslaved to the foundries and the coal mines. You could see one of your own make it and it inspired all these people who were breaking their backs everyday.”
Bob Smizik, former Press and Post-Gazette sports columnist, described McHugh as a meticulous craftsman. “Most guys would sit down and start typing. He would type a sentence, then you would see him just sitting there thinking,” Smizik says. “It might be five or ten minutes. Then he would type another sentence.”
McHugh was what we used to call a man of letters. He read both daily papers cover to cover and some out of town ones, too; he read novels, histories and memoirs. In one of the final chapters he examines, “Why boxing?” He then takes the reader on a trip through the philosophy of boxing, from writers as varied as Paul Theroux, A.J. Liebling, Lord Byron and Joyce Carol Oates.
“My favorite anecdote about Roy,” said Post-Gazette sports columnist Gene Collier, launching into a story of a long ago late-night walk through the Press newsroom. A cantankerous sports desk editor was asked to edit a story. How long is it, he asked? 55 inches [roughly 2,500 words], he was told. “He stands up, throws something down on his desk and says, ‘the best writer who ever walked in this building never wrote more than 20 inches!’ He was talking about Roy McHugh.”
When Pittsburgh Was a Fight Town is now available through Amazon.