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Monday, May 25, 2020

A Look Back: Kid Kaplan and Family

The Jewish Boxing Blog is continuing a series called "A Look Back" in an effort to link the past with the present through a profile of notable former Jewish boxers.

Click here to read part 2 or scroll down the page
Click here to read part 3 or scroll down the page

Before Vasiliy Lomachenko and the others of the 2012 Ukrainian Olympic team turned professional and rose to prominence, The Ring declared Louis "Kid" Kaplan the greatest Ukrainian boxer of all time. Kaplan never fought a bout in the country. In fact, he may never have even lived in Ukraine.

Louis Kaplan was born on October 15, 1901 in Kyiv, the current capital of Ukraine, which was part of the Russian Empire at the time. He immigrated to the U.S. when he was five years old. Or so the story goes...

New Information on Kaplan's Early Life
Leiser Kaplan was born to Abraham and Scheine Kaplan probably on October 15, 1902 . His twin sisters Basse and Feige were three years old when the third of eight children arrived. As of this writing it isn't known where Leiser was actually born, but it likely was not Kyiv. An article by Westbrook Pegler in the Atlanta Constitution on August 25, 1925 describes Kaplan's original hometown as Omsk, Russia. It could not be confirmed that Kid Kaplan spent his formative years in the Siberian town of 1,100 Jews (or 3% of the Omsk population in 1897) near the border of what is now Kazakhstan.

Pegler wrote on December 14, 1925 in The Washington Post that Kaplan "knew the name of the town where he was born but couldn't pronounce it because he couldn't play a saxophone." Explaining his roots, Louis told Pegler, "Somewhere in Russia- a hell of a name to say. The Cossacks come and the Kaplans take it on the leg when I'm about six years old." We know Leiser was three when his brother Hirsch appeared and another brother, Neach, came two years later.

The Kaplans' last permanent resident in Europe was Mazyr, which is now in southern Belarus near the Ukrainian border. It's possible that Leiser and his siblings were born in this small town of 5,600 Jews, which accounted for 70% of the town's population. Perhaps he was from an unpronounceable shtetl nearby. It's possible that the Kaplans were from somewhere else, perhaps near Omsk, and then moved to Mazyr after the alleged Cossack attack. We don't know for sure.

In the summer of 1912, Scheine and the kids traveled from Mazyr to Liverpool where they boarded the RMS Adriatic. A huge ship, the Adriatic had rescued some survivors from the Titanic back in April. A new baby, Muscha, joined her five older siblings on the voyage to the United States. Their father's immigration to America cannot be accounted for at this time, but he probably had already made the seven-to-ten day journey across the Atlantic Ocean. Scheine listed her husband "Abram" as her contact and Meriden, Connecticut as their destination.

Leiser, who of course became Louis, was nine years old when his family arrived at Ellis Island on August 16, 1912. Unlike his mother, who soon adopted the name Sadie, and his two older sisters, Feige (Fannie) and Basse (Bessie), Louis could neither read nor write. Nor could Hirsh (Isadore) or Neach (Noah). Musche (Mary) was not yet a year old that summer day.

In Meriden, Louis's dad found work as a junk dealer. The family was initially so poor that Louis wore his elder sisters' hand-me-downs. He briefly attended the Willow Street School until fifth grade when he got a job delivering fruit for five cents a day. Louie learned to fight when he was framed for stealing; he thrashed his framer so thoroughly that a police officer, who had come to arrest the true thief, suggested he should try boxing. Around 1914, Louis took the officer's advice and entered Lenox Athletic Club in town. His sister Frieda was born that year, and David rounded out the family in 1915. An amateur for four years, Louis began boxing professionally in 1918 under the name Benny Miller so that Sadie wouldn't find out. When he discovered his son's new trade, Abraham was more supportive than his wife.

Early Boxing Career
Louis was 15 years old when he stepped into the ring for the first time as a professional on March 7 at the same club in Meriden where he trained. His youthful age could also account for the fake name and for the discrepancy in birth years. It's possible Kaplan gave himself an extra year on Earth in order to be eligible to fight as a pro. He alternated between 1901 and 1902 as his birth year on official forms for the rest of his life.

Regardless of his age or moniker in the ring, Kaplan's performances were decidedly mediocre early in his career. "Benny Miller" was Willie Curry's sparring partner in 1919 and they fought each other in front of World War I veterans in July in Staten Island, New York. In the contest, Curry knocked down Miller, who was known for participating in boxing exhibitions around New England.

After fighting regularly for two years with mixed results, "Kid" Kaplan started to develop an effective style. He went on a 24-fight undefeated streak until losing on points to Eddie Wagner on June 9, 1922. He beat Wagner in the rematch as part of a seven-fight win streak before losing to the man who would become his most familiar rival, Babe Herman. Herman was an American of Portuguese heritage who at 5'4" stood two inches taller than his Jewish opponent. Kid would finish with a 2-1 record in seven battles with Babe; four were deemed draws. Each fight went the distance, 86 rounds in all.

Kaplan dropped their first meeting on December 18 but won the rematch on March 8, 1923. In that second bout, Kaplan scored a first round knockdown. Six days later, he lost a decision to Al Schubert. From June 2 to July 3, Kaplan and Herman faced off three times, all ending in hard-fought draws.

Meanwhile, Louis's brother Isadore also entered the pro ranks. He went by the name Izzy Kaplan- not to be confused with the noted sports photographer of the era. Izzy was 2-0-1 when he lost to the undefeated and more-experienced Sheikh Johnny Leonard, a rare sheikh from Warsaw, Poland. According to BoxRec, the fight with Leonard was his only contest from September 1921 until October 1924.

While Izzy stayed away from the prizefighting ring, Kid's career was gaining clout. He beat Allentown Johnny Leonard- who was not a Polish sheikh like his namesake but was from Allentown, Pennsylvania- and was robbed in Pittsburgh against Cuddy DeMarco in settling for a draw. He drew once with the Mexican Wildcat Bobby Garcia before beating him by decision on June 9, 1924. His brother Noah also mulled over making a living getting hit in the face, but no record has yet surfaced that the younger Kaplan followed through.

Part 2

The Tournament
Johnny "Scotch Wop" Dundee was the featherweight champion of the world in 1924. Kaplan accepted a fight for the title in June, but the champ backed out. Dundee suffered from ephebiphobia, which is a fear of children, but in Dundee's case was a fear of Kid. More than one newspaper at the time believes Dundee vacated his title because he was scared of Kaplan.

To crown a new featherweight champion, a tournament was devised and scheduled to be held in Madison Square Garden in the late months of '24. Kaplan was ready. He had spent five years perfecting his craft. Standing at 5'2", Kid was nicknamed the Meriden Buzz Saw, which gives an indication of his style in the ring. Kaplan fired wild shots from the outside which were designed not to hit the opponent but to confuse him long enough to allow the strong stout Jew to get inside. Once in close, Kaplan punched ceaselessly wearing down the other man. He had a thudding left hook and was a punishing body puncher. What set Lou apart was his training. He'd run ten miles and loved working the speed bag in the gym. Besides Kid, Mike Dundee, Bobby Garcia, Danny Kramer, Jose Lombardo, and Lew Paluso were also participants in the tournament with Babe Herman and Billy DeFoe waiting as alternates in case one of the first six missed weight.

Kaplan drew an old foe, Bobby Garcia, in the first round. The Mexican Wildcat was a U.S. soldier stationed in Maryland. Kaplan and Garcia fought the only interesting bout of the tournament's first round on November 21. Giving up four inches in height, Kid managed to control the bout and nearly knocked out Garcia in the tenth and final round. Lombardo beat Paluso and Kramer beat Dundee- both won by decision- but the evening was marred by Dundee's manager, Dick Curley. The newspapers agreed with the referee in awarding Kramer the decision, but that didn't convince Curley, who ran over and kicked referee Patsy Haley in the face as Haley was bent down talking to reporters. Curley was banned from New York boxing for life.

In the semifinals, Kaplan was selected to fight Lombardo, a native of Panama. Kramer initially secured a bye to the finals. Then the New York commission became hellbent on bringing back Dundee and Garcia to fight each other with the winner facing Kramer. The managers of the three first round winners threatened to boycott and possibly move the event elsewhere. The NY commission backed down. In the fight on December 12, Lombardo, who nearly called off the contest in the dressing room due to illness, bloodied Kaplan's nose in the first. He started out the second effectively too with a body attack. But Kaplan came back and won most of that round. By the third, Kaplan was in control. In the fourth, he landed a left hook that sent Lombardo down. The Panamanian champion rose at the referee's count of seven, but after eating a few more head shots, a short left hook put him through the ropes and out for the count.

By the time the finals rolled around on January 2, 1925, rumors were swirling than Danny Kramer, a Jew from Philadelphia who was backed by the mob, was going to be gifted a decision and thus the featherweight championship in the event the fight went the distance. Kaplan understood his mission: score a knockout to win the championship or lose. He launched hard left-right combinations on his way inside throughout the bout. It quickly became clear this was less a competitive match than a test of Kramer's courage. His left eye was cut and his right was closed. At least his eyes were in better shape than his nose. Fans started begging the referee to cease the slaughter in the eighth, but it took over a minute into the ninth round before Kramer's manager Max Hoffman threw in the towel, which was then used to staunch the blood pouring from the beaten fighter's face. Leiser, the diminutive illiterate from Russia, was featherweight champion of the world!

Featherweight champion
Kaplan's life changed in an instant. The famous promoter Tex Rickard triumphantly claimed Kaplan was the second coming of Battling Nelson, a legendary lightweight champion from Denmark. Louis took a vacation in Montreal before heading west to fight in non-title affairs. Meanwhile, Johnny Dundee sailed back from France to America to declare that he, not Kaplan, was still the featherweight champion. Dundee, who had held the featherweight and junior lightweight title concurrently, defended only the latter title. In his two years as 126-pound king, he never once fought as a featherweight. By this point though, he wasn't considered a serious threat to the featherweight crown at least and was ignored.

In his first defense of the championship, Kaplan met Babe Herman in Waterbury, Connecticut on August 27. Herman was at first ecstatic to get the chance. Gradually though, Babe's excitement dimmed. The ring was 12 by 12 feet, the perfect size for the shorter infighting champion and not exactly legal for a championship fight. The Connecticut Boxing commissioner, who happened to be a friend of Kaplan's, disagreed with the scale at the weigh-in and announced that his neighbor "weighs exactly 126 pounds!" The scale futilely argued for a higher number. Nevertheless, the fight went on and Kid came out flat. In the eighth he broke a finger on his right hand and couldn't punch with it anymore. It looked as if Kid's moment in the sun was done, but then the fight was shockingly declared a draw, allowing Kaplan to keep the title, and frustrating Babe to no end.

Nearly four months later, Kaplan gave Babe the rematch in Madison Square Garden. This would be the last time the two men faced in the ring. By all accounts, Kid was the deserving victor in a bruising yet uninteresting fifteen round match.

In 1926, Kaplan beat Billy Petrole on points. He was knocked down in the fifth round in Baltimore against Tommy Herman, a Jewish fighter who- like the unrelated Babe- adopted his surname for the ring, but won the fight comfortably otherwise. He also traveled to Montreal and KOed the reigning Canadian featherweight and future Canadian lightweight champ, Leo Roy. On June 28, Kaplan defended the featherweight title for the third and final time when he stopped a familiar dance partner, Bobby Garcia, in the tenth round. A week later, Kaplan relinquished the title because he could no longer make weight.

Before abandoning the belt, Kaplan was offered $50,000 by the mob to give up his title in the ring. They asked him to take a dive against a mob-controlled opponent. After all, they reasoned, he'd no longer have his crown either way. Why not make a lot of money in the process? Kaplan steadfastly refused. "Every time I fight, my friends bet plenty on me and what about their dough? I wouldn't do a thing like that for a million bucks," he allegedly declared.

Part 3

Lightweight Contender
After moving up to lightweight and decisioning Tommy Cello in back-to-back bouts, Kaplan suffered his first defeat in nearly four years. Billy Wagner, who fought out of Philadelphia, floored Louis four times in the fifth round of their December 2 fight in Cleveland. Kaplan was counted out following the fourth fall. He came back to win his next eleven fights, including a victory against a young Jackie Fields in June of '27 at the Polo Grounds. The Chicago teenager had been pro for only two and a half years when Kaplan won a slow bruising fight. Louis had been a vertically challenged featherweight; as a lightweight he was minuscule. Giving up nearly half a foot to Fields, Kaplan won with pressure and volume punching. Jackie's jab and right cross were his only weapons, but they failed to halt Kaplan's rush to smother the younger man.

On October 18, 1927, Kaplan- a newly naturalized American citizen- fought another legend, the future two-division world champion, Jimmy McLarnin. Kaplan scored a flash knockdown in both the opening and second rounds and broke McLarnin's jaw, but the Canadian came back to score a knockdown in the third and another in the fifth. In the eighth round, Kaplan was put down for the ten count, his second KO loss in a twelve month span. McLarnin, who faced the likes of Barney Ross, Tommy Canzoneri, and Sammy Mandell, would later call this battle with Kaplan the hardest of his career. Two weeks later, Kid won a twelve-round decision over Mike Dundee.

On April 15, 1928, Abraham Kaplan died. His gravestone in Meriden states he was 65 years old. Louis's heart broke at the loss of his father. But he had made a lot of money in the ring and invested wisely in the market to at least help with the finances of his family. He went 11-4 over his next 15 fights, a respectable record, but not at the level of his featherweight rise through the ranks. On October 29, 1929, the stock market crashed; Kaplan lost his fortune. He took out his frustration the next day on Eddie Wolfe in Chicago, rattling his teeth loose with a right uppercut in the seventh before Wolfe quit at the start of the eighth.

By 1930, Kid's younger brother Izzy was a decent club fighter who didn't travel much beyond Connecticut for a prizefight. The Sheikh Johnny Leonard fight in '23 would be his only bout scheduled for as many as ten rounds. He lived with his mom Sadie and his four younger siblings: Noah, Mary, Frieda, and David in a rented apartment for which they coughed up $50 a month. The family took on a 34 year old boarder named John White. Providing lodging would be a needed source of income for a family that had lost its patriarch one year and suffered from the onset of the Great Depression the next. Sadie had been listed as 35 years old in 1912 but was marked down as 60 in 1930. Between raising eight kids in a new country and suffering the personal and national tragedies of the late 1920s, she must have felt like she aged that fast.

Izzy spent the immediate aftermath of the stock market crash toiling for change in four fights in Florida. He came back to Connecticut in April of 1930 and fought four more times before taking a year away from the ring. In an incredibly prolific span, he fought five times beginning on September 4, 1931 and ending six weeks later. He posted an impressive 4-1 mark in that run. Izzy took ten months off before losing his last professional fight on August 1, 1932. The knockout loss to an unheralded pug convinced the welterweight to find other work. He finished with a record of 19-10-10 including 8 KOs, one newspaper decision victory, and two stoppage losses.

While Izzy's older brother was a heralded contender as a 135 pounder, successive champions steadfastly avoided Louis. It didn't help that once he started gaining momentum, he'd suffer a setback. He lost to a Jewish southpaw from Baltimore, Jack Portney, early in 1930 in Maryland. Having won six fights in a row since the Portney loss, Kid faced another Connecticut legend. Battling Battalino of Hartford was the good looking featherweight champion of the world and the favorite in a fight just over the 126 pound limit. Kaplan pulled the upset and won nearly every round in earning a decision victory. He followed up that impressive showing with a loss to the highly-regarded Justo Suarez of Argentina.

A year after his loss to Portney, Kaplan won the rematch in Connecticut. That started another ten-fight win streak which included a points win over the former lightweight champ Sammy Mandell. But on November 20, 1931, Louis ate a right from Eddie Ran in the first round that knocked him out. He finished his career fifteen months later on February 20, 1933 with a loss to Cocoa Kid, the second defeat in his final three bouts. Louis was something like 120-23-16 as a pro. He scored 27 KOs and was stopped just 3 times. For the latter part of his career, he couldn't see out of his right eye.

In 1958, Nat Fleischer ranked Kid Kaplan as the tenth best featherweight of all time. In Burt Sugar and Teddy Atlas's 2010 The Ultimate Book of Boxing of Lists, Mike Silver placed Kaplan as the fifth best Jewish fighter ever although Silver docked him two spots in his own book six years later.

Life After Boxing
After his boxing career ended, Louis stayed in Connecticut, specifically Hartford, with his wife Bessie and his young daughter Roseanne. He briefly tried his hand at selling insurance and then worked for the Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles. Kid moonlighted as a boxing referee in Connecticut until the late 1940s. Isadore worked for the Royal Typewriter Company after his boxing career and also lived in Hartford with his wife and son. He was active in social and political organizations including the Farband and the employees' union.

In 1940, Sadie- listed as 65 years old- still lived in Meriden with two of her sons, Noah and David. The family continued to take in boarders. In this year it was Sarah Abraham, a nonagenarian. Noah eventually moved out but remained in Meriden. He married a woman named Lucy and owned a cafe. David left for New Haven, married a woman named Flore and owned a hardware store. Older sisters Fannie and Bessie got married and stayed in Meriden. Fannie married a man named Julius Grossman. Bessie married Abraham Hurwitz. Mary moved to New Haven, Connecticut and was living with the family of her husband, Murray Kugell in 1940. She became a U.S. citizen in 1946 and worked as a clerk in a retail store. Frieda was the only sibling to move out of state. She lived out in Arizona and then Alabama, first acquiring the surname Brown and then Reuben.

Sadie Kaplan died on October 21, 1961. Her gravestone in Meriden says she was age 83. Bessie passed five years later. On her gravestone, her birthday is listed as December 15, 1898 while her twin Fannie's is recorded elsewhere as January 14, 1899, which is less than one month apart. Perhaps they spent a lifetime arguing over which birthday was correct or maybe they just wanted their own special days to celebrate.

Kid Kaplan remained in the public's consciousness after his career ended. First in the 1930s and '40s, when one of his fierce rivals retired, they invariably recalled the short strong Jew as one of their toughest battles. When some opponents died, Kaplan received a mention in their obituaries. He was adored in Connecticut sports circles and whenever local boxing hero Willie Pep made the papers, Kid Kaplan would too. Whenever the featherweight title was on the line, the names of the past champions, including Kid Kaplan's, would be revived.

In 1965, the state of Connecticut banned boxing. Jewish life in Mazyr, which had been so robust when the Kaplans lived there before sojourning to the United States in 1912, would've been unrecognizable to the family in 1965. By the 1920s, the town was firmly within the Soviet Union's orbit. Jews remained, but Jewish life disappeared from public life. The Jews of Mazyr suffered unimaginably during the Holocaust. On August 22, 1941 the Nazis took over the town and pushed the Jews into a ghetto. Five months later, all of the 1,500 Jews in the ghetto were killed, 700 by drowning in the Pripyat River. Jews had made up 70% of the town when Leiser Kaplan was born. In 1965, they were less than 10% of the population and unable to openly practice their faith.

Around this time, Louis developed lung cancer. By 1969, he couldn't speak or maneuver his limbs. When spoken to, he could only nod. An old friend said, "It hurts to see him this way." Louis died on October 25, 1970, ten days after what was probably his 68th birthday.

Louis's siblings were of hardy stock. Noah passed fifteen years later. Isadore joined him in 1989. Frieda followed in 1995. Mary was 90 when she died in 2000. Fannie lived through the birth of great-great-grandchildren, but at age 102, she did not live long enough to see her little brother who used to wear her old clothes make it to the boxing Hall of Fame. David, the youngest, died later that same year, 2001.

Louis "Kid" Kaplan was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2003. His Hall of Fame profile incorrectly begins, "Born October 15, 1901 in Kiev, Russia, Kaplan and his family emigrated [SIC] to the United States when he was five years old..."

Blady, Ken. The Jewish Boxers Hall of Fame. 1988.
Brady, Dave. "Kaplan's Kind Hard to Find." The Washington Post. May 25, 1969. C4.
Kluczwski, David. "The Mediren Buzz Saw: Kid Kaplan Pulls Himself Up by His Boxing Gloves." Connecticut Explored. 2009.
Pegler, Westbrook. "Kaplan and Herman Battle Friday for Money and Glory." The Washington Post. December 15, 1925. pg. 15.
Silver, Mike. Stars in the Ring: Jewish Champions in the Golden Age of Boxing. 2016.

Notes on sources: The sources listed here were invaluable, particularly the more recent ones. Kuczwski's article provides wonderful color to Kaplan's early years. Silver's book is like holding a beautiful jewel. Blady's engrossing book is the original far-reaching chronicle of Jewish boxers. It's indispensable. I've relied on it for nearly every "A Look Back" profile on this site. However, there were contradictions between these sources.

Most of the recent profiles of Kaplan state his birth as October 15, 1901 in Kiev and claim he immigrated to the U.S. when he was five years old. They make no mention of his birth name, Leiser. I was able to find his family's immigration form from Ellis Island, which casts doubt on this narrative. This took some fortuitous detective work. In attempting to research Izzy, whose real name is incorrectly recorded as Israel or Harry in some sources, I came across his obituary in the Hartford Current, which names his siblings. That allowed me to find the family in the 1930 U.S. census. In that census, their year of immigration is listed as 1912. "Izzie," Noah, and Mary (all born before 1912) were listed as born in Russia while the younger siblings (born after 1912) were listed as born in Connecticut.

I was able to find the Kaplan family's 1912 immigration form because of blessed Bessie. Bessie is the only Kaplan sibling whose new name somewhat resembles their old name in the old country. The ages provided on the immigration form match up with the ages of the Kaplans in the 1930 census and in their death notices within reason. To his credit, Blady lists Louis as "born in Russia sometime in 1902" which is correct. He does write that he was 69 years old when he died in 1970, which was the same age The New York Times reported Kaplan's obituary.

I don't know the origin of the Kyiv/Kiev myth. Mazyr is 150 miles from Kyiv, so perhaps Louis just told people he was from the closest recognizable city. Otherwise, I could only find sources published after 2000 claiming his birthplace as Kyiv. I don't believe he is from Kyiv.

I can't explain the myth that the Kaplans came to America when Louis was five. It dates back at least to Blady's book. Every profile thereafter mentions the same incorrect immigration date. Don't blame Blady. Trying to find the year the Kaplans- a very common surname- emigrated from Russia- a very big country- at Ellis Island in the 1980s would've been like trying to find a needle in a haystack, especially without their original first names. The 1930 census wasn't released to the public until well after his book was published. Izzy was still alive then.

Kluczwski mentions that Kaplan "took up boxing at the Lenox Athletic Club in 1919," which would have been after he had already become a professional prizefighter. Blady states that Kaplan was an amateur for four years, so I adjusted Kluczwski's date.

Finally, I mentioned Mike Silver ranked Kaplan as the fifth best Jewish boxer of all time in 2010 and seventh in 2016, a notable shift since all those involved in the shuffle have been dead for decades. The Mozambican author Mia Couto once wrote, “The history of any country is no more than a text of juggled paragraphs. Only the future will put them in any order, retouching their account.” As it is for ranking Jewish boxers. As we've gleaned from this profile, new information emerges, and thoughtful evolution should be encouraged.

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