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The sad legend of Jimmy ‘Slats’ Slattery, boxing champ from Buffalo’s First Ward

SLATS:The Legend and Life of Jimmy Slattery

By Rich Blake

No Frills Buffalo

374 pages; $19.95

By Dan Herbeck

One October night in 1957, a young Buffalo Police officer named Thomas F. Higgins was on foot patrol in the Chippewa Street neighborhood when he found a drunken and bloodied man, sprawled on the pavement near a popular tavern. The injured man had tumbled face-first into a fire hydrant, smashing his nose and skull.

Higgins – who would one day become the sheriff of Erie County – rushed to call for an ambulance. He knew immediately the fallen man was no ordinary drunk.

He was 53-year-old James “Jimmy” “Slats” Slattery, the pride of Buffalo’s First Ward. He was one of the greatest athletes in the history of Western New York, and at one time, one of the greatest boxers in the entire world.

In this fast-moving book, Rich Blake tells the heartbreaking story of how “Slats” started as an unknown knocking around Buffalo boxing gyms, fought his way to national stardom, and wound up dying alone in a city rooming house.

The story focuses not only on Slattery, but on Buffalo itself, which in the 1920s was an exciting city with a bustling downtown, six daily newspapers and a wild and woolly boxing scene.

Blake, a Buffalo native who covers the world of finance in New York City, who knows a compelling tale when he sees one and tells it vividly.

Slattery was born on Aug. 25, 1904. His parents, Buffalo Firefighter John “Sloak” Slattery and his wife Mary, lived in the upper half of a “rickety wood-frame dwelling” at 323 Fulton St., between Alabama and Hamburg streets in a section of Buffalo called the First Ward, Blake writes.

A few years later, when the Slatterys moved to Marilla Street, Sloak  would set up neighborhood boxing matches for kids – including his son –in his backyard..

“Fight, ye little devils! Fight!” Sloak would bellow as the lads pounded away at each other.

In the neighborhood, young Jimmy was viewed as a skinny kid with little interest in fighting, but Sloak knew otherwise. He’d sometimes take his son into one of the local taverns, plop him onto a bar stool, and yell, “Here’s the future champion of the world!”

Amazingly, he was right. Young Jimmy made his first real splash as a fighter at age 15 – not in the boxing ring, but on a street corner near St. Stephen’s Church on Elk Street.

On Valentine’s Day 1920,  Blake writes that the “bony and feeble-looking” Slattery was goaded into a fight with one of the neighborhood bullies, a much bigger boy named Harp Griffin. With scores of South Buffalo youngsters watching, Slattery battered the 200-pound Griffin until he begged for mercy. A legend was born.

Over the next few years, the hard-working young Jimmy – with the help of his manager and mentor Paul “Red” Carr – became the best of many good boxers in the Queen City.

He turned pro in 1921, and within a decade, had won and lost the world’s light heavyweight championship twice. He compiled a record of 111 wins and just 14 losses. He knocked unconscious 48 of his opponents.

Slattery took his first major step toward stardom at age 18, when he knocked out a famous boxer named Willie “KO” Loughlin in an intense Buffalo bout. It was reported that, with two successive punches, Slattery dislocated, and then reset, Loughlin’s jawbone.

The win was a turning point for Slattery, but also the beginning of a life of partying and woman-chasing that eventually led to his demise.

“Everywhere, admirers sought out the dashing young prizefighter. Slats suddenly had friends he never knew he had,” Blake writes. “And they all seemed to be singing the same siren song...’Come on, Slats, let’s have a drink.’”

Demon alcohol did him in, but not before the Buffalo belter realized some true moments of glory in the ring. In August 1927, he defeated Maxie Rosenbloom to win his first title. Boxing experts were touting him as the sport’s next superstar.

The Chicago Tribune ran a three-part series on Slattery, calling him an “athletic phenomenon” who was “rising like a meteor.” A Brooklyn reporter called him “the most talked-over boxer in the world today.” Experts were suggesting that, in time, Slattery could put on enough pounds to become a heavyweight and take on Jack Dempsey, the most feared fighter of the day.

But less than four months after winning his title, Slattery lost it. He won it again in February 1930, but lost it again by the end of that year. By 1934, Slattery had fallen so far that he found himself digging sewers for the city of Buffalo at $18 a week. It was reported that he made and lost $400,000 – a huge amount of money in those days – during his pro boxing career.

When a reporter asked him what went wrong, Slattery shrugged and said, “Just another ex-champ, I guess.” “Slats” got married and divorced, and fathered a son he didn’t spend enough time with. He got arrested numerous times for traffic infractions, a strong-arm robbery, and one minor crime after another – almost all of them related to his drinking problems.

“You are your own greatest enemy,” a city judge told him.

In August 1960, Slattery passed out in his favorite bar. Some friends revived him and took him to the nearby room he rented. He was found there the next morning – dead and alone – just five days after his 56th birthday.

Pulmonary tuberculosis was listed as the cause of death, but Blake writes that chronic alcohol abuse, a lifetime of fights, car accidents and “assorted mishaps” were contributing factors.

“When you dance, you have to pay the fiddler,” Slattery once told a reporter from the paper then known as The Buffalo Evening News. “That old fiddler always had his hand out. And I guess I did plenty of dancing.”

Dan Herbeck is a veteran News reporter and the co-author of “American Terrorist.”