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Monday, May 11, 2020

A Look Back: Tommy Herman

Since boxing matches have been postponed for the foreseeable future to staunch the spread of coronavirus-2019, The Jewish Boxing Blog is continuing a series called  "A Look Back" that initially ran from 2010-2013. "A Look Back" was an effort to link the past with the present, by producing a short biography of notable former Jewish boxers.

A lightweight and welterweight contender in the '20s and '30s, the transient and at times unintentionally controversial Tommy Herman faced multiple world champions throughout his career but never in a title bout.

Isaac and Dora Gilbert immigrated from Russia to the United States in 1905 with their two sons, 13 year old Philip and six year old Jacob. Their third son, Abraham Gilbert, was born on January 28, 1909 in Baltimore, Maryland. Abraham, who went by Albert, stayed in Baltimore with his parents while his older brothers relocated to Chicago at some point before 1920. Albert learned to box as a member of the Young Men's Hebrew Association. He won the AAU championship as a flyweight in 1923. A couple months later, at the ripe old age of fourteen, Albert Gilbert became a professional boxer assuming the alias Tommy Herman. It isn't known why he fought under a different name, but perhaps Albert- as was the case with many fighters of that era- was more afraid of his mother Dora finding out about his new trade than he was of his opponents.

Tommy Herman was quite the fresh-faced sensation in Baltimore when he started in the summer of '23. Undefeated after his initial twelve fights in Maryland's largest port city, a document was discovered in early February 1924 that showed Tommy- as did a lot of fighters in his day- had lied about his age. In Maryland, boxers had to be at least 17 years old. The Maryland Boxing Commission briefly banned him from the sport until he became of age. But Herman fought back and the 15 year old was quickly reinstated.

At the same time former lightweight Joe Tipman bought Tommy's contract from Max Prock for $500. Tipman quickly ran into a problem. One of Tommy's older brothers dragged him out of Baltimore to Chicago's West Side for an education at the expense of his nascent boxing career. Herman managed to slip in two fights in the Chicago area that spring before he was forced to take a year off. Tipman was out $500 with nothing to show for it.

Herman soon grew into a lightweight.  For public appearances, he parted his hair slightly left of middle, slicking it towards the back with his hair cut well above the ear. He took his thick legs and squat body type into the ring with Phil McGraw late in 1925 and while there was no official decision, the newspapers sided with the Greek immigrant based in Detroit because of his talent at infighting.

On January 18, 1926, Herman returned to Baltimore for the first time since his brother had schlepped him west. He had noticeably improved his game while in the Midwest. Meanwhile,  his would-be manager Joe Tipman continued to petition for his missing $500 but acknowledged Tommy deserved no fault in the matter. Considered a live dog before his bout with Bobby Garcia, Herman lost his first official fight that day to the Mexican Wildcat. Two months and four fights later, the 17 year old Herman was in tough with world featherweight champion Kid Kaplan in a non-title fight scheduled for lightweight. Kaplan swung wildly from the outside but dominated on the inside. Herman couldn't keep the 5'2" champ off him.

In the fifth, Herman launched a short right that landed on the champion's chin and Kaplan fell to the canvas. The Baltimore faithful exploded in delight! Herman captured momentum and kept landing the right over the next three rounds. But the wily champ took the last five rounds to win on points. In his career, Tommy would fight just twice more in his hometown of Baltimore, both resulting in wins in 1926.

Herman moved camp to Philadelphia where he briefly adopted the nickname of "Kid." He beat the Canadian featherweight champ, Leo "Kid" Roy first on points in July and then scored a second round KO over Roy, also the future Canadian lightweight champ, in the August rematch. Philadelphia remained his base until 1928. In February 1927, Tommy was knocked out in the tenth round in a rematch against Bobby Garcia. It was his first stoppage defeat. Four months later, Herman got his revenge with three knockdowns in the first round. Garcia managed to stay on his feet for the entirety of the second but then suffered ten knockdowns in the third. Finally, after hitting the canvas for the thirteenth time in under nine minutes of action, Garcia could no longer rise before the count of ten.

In August 1927, Herman traveled back to Chicago for one fight, a bout against the South American lightweight champion, Stanislaus Loayza. Lightweight champion Sammy Mandel, an Italian immigrant with a Jewish name, claimed to want a piece of the winner. Loayza punished Tommy on the inside, exposing a weakness Herman possessed against world class opposition. Bloodied by the third, Tommy came back to have a nice tenth, but he had been pulverized and lost his shot at the title. Despite the win, Loayza didn't get a bout with Mandel either.

Herman lost four of five fights at the end of 1927. He was trailing in his lone win when his opponent, Billy Petrolle, suffered a debilitating cut in the seventh round. Herman then all but disappeared from the ring, fighting only twice in fifteen months- both in July 1928 in Philadelphia. He resurfaced during the spring of '29 as a "chunky" and "well-built" welterweight in the South. After a swing through Florida, he traveled to Atlanta, Georgia where The Atlanta Constitution ran a profile of Tommy "Kid" Herman of Chicago.

The newspaper was led to believe that Herman was a 1924 Olympian in the bantamweight division. He wasn't, but the great Jackie Fields of Chicago was. An article in The Washington Post from 1924 claimed that Herman had turned pro after winning his 1923 AAU championship because he "would have been a 100-1 shot to go over to the [O]lympics as the American representative in his class." The Atlanta paper goes on to claim Herman returned from the Paris games and focused on his education refraining from boxing for a year, an assertion that contains only a sliver of truth. Furthermore, the article states that Herman was currently studying "physical culture" as a student at the University of Illinois where he also worked a janitor. The rest of the article accurately describes his previous ring battles.

Perhaps, the short stocky puncher with the powerful right hand did take off time from the ring to move back to Chicago and enroll in school. He was 19 years old when he took off most of 1928. He also stayed out of the ring from September 1929 until June 1930, which would leave him time to focus on his schoolwork. This second layoff happened to coincide with the onset of the Great Depression, however.

Tommy fought seven times in the second half of 1930 including against the now former world lightweight champ Sammy Mandel. Herman was floored in the first and Mandel coasted to an eight-round points win. After six more months off, Herman showed up in California. His first fight back came against future Hall of Famer Young Corbett III, a points loss in San Francisco.

Herman shifted his base once again, this time to Los Angeles, where he became a villain among Mexican-American fans through no fault of his own. He received a controversial points victory on June 30, 1931 against the Mexican welterweight champ, Alfredo Gaona, a former bullfighter who was creating buzz on the West Coast. In the rematch a month later, Herman earned a draw from referee Benny Whitman, who was later punished for his judging. Both decisions caused a near riot at L.A.'s Olympic Auditorium.

The decisions worried Herman's next opponent, David Velasco, a southpaw from Mexico City. His team made a stink about choosing the referee before the fight. It didn't help. Herman was awarded another disputed victory in his September fight with Velasco and then another questionable points win in the rematch in November. By this point, the Mexican-American boxing aficionados of L.A. were praying for justice against Tommy from a pugilist with roots south of the border. In Herman's next bout, Mexican-American Bert Colima prevented a riot with a points win at the Olympic. It was the first of three consecutive decision losses to fighters of Mexican heritage.

In March of 1932, Herman stopped future Hall Of Famer Ceferino Garcia in the tenth round of the first fight of their trilogy. Six months later, he defeated another future Hall of Famer named Freddie Steele in a four-round fight, only the second of Steele's five total career losses. But the Tacoma Assassin, who ultimately finished with 123 wins, won the ten-round rematch by decision. Herman next faced world welterweight champ Jackie Fields in a bout over the weight. There's no evidence that Fields knew of Herman's attempt to usurp his Olympic glory three years earlier in Atlanta, but Fields certainly beat him like he'd heard about it. The champ won by second round knockout.

Herman lost his last six fights, including two to Ceferino Garcia. He was stopped in three of his last four fights, all in 1934, including both losses to Garcia. Following the disputed fights with Velasco, Herman finished his career 6-14 in his last 20 fights including a points loss to Gaona in Mexico City on February 18, 1933.

According to BoxRec, Herman completed his career with a record of 55-30-9, including 15 newspapers decisions in which he went 10-3-2. He scored 21 knockouts and was stopped eight times. Tommy was ranked as the number five welterweight in the world by The Ring in 1932. Boxing historian Mike Silver rates him as a top ten all time Jewish boxer from Baltimore. Herman, of course, moved from his hometown of Baltimore at age 17, stationing in Chicago and then Philadelphia before settling in Los Angeles, where he lived after retiring from the ring at 25 years of age.

Keeping his adopted name, Tommy Herman played bit parts in boxing movies, sometimes as a fighter, but  mostly as a ref or another official. His first gig came in the 1934 film Personality Kid where he played a boxer. In 1936, he started as an amateur coach at East Side Arena in L.A. He soon went into business with actor Bert Wheeler; he trained a fighter the film star managed and served as his stand in on set. By 1940, Herman was am actual boxing referee. Only he, Benny Whitman, and a third ref passed a written test administered by the California commission for boxing referees in 1941. His name occasionally dotted the newspapers in the 1940s and 1950s as a referee and as a boxing judge of notable fights in California. Herman's last spot in a flick was in the film adaption of Budd Shulberg's novel, The Harder They Fall, released in 1956.

Tommy lost his eldest brother Philip in 1967. Albert Gilbert, better known as Tommy Herman, died on March 26, 1972 at the age of 63 in Hollywood, California.

"8 1923 Champions to Defend Titles in A.A.U. Tryouts." The Washington Post. April 2, 1924. S3.
"Herman Starts Training Here." The Atlanta Constitution. Sept. 15, 1929. A4.
Much of the information here comes from countless articles in the The (Baltimore) Sun, Chicago Daily Tribune, and Los Angeles Times. While many articles were unattributed, others were. Marco Polo for The Sun, Walter Eckersall for the Chicago Daily Tribune, and Kay Owe for the Los Angeles Times wrote multiple articles used for this post. These articles were accessed through the ProQuest Historical Newspapers database.
Family information comes from the 1910 and 1920 U.S. censuses.

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