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Wednesday, November 15, 2023

The Tale of Long John Silver

Jack Silver participated in two of the biggest fights in California after the state legalized boxing, helping to enhance the sport's popularity on the Pacific Coast.

No Silver Spoon
Jacob Silverstein was born on August 16, 1903 and grew up in the Portola district of San Francisco, California. His father Morris, an immigrant from Vienna, was a tailor specializing in women's clothes. Jack was the sixth of eight children. His younger brother Joey also became a professional boxer.

At eight years old, Jack started hawking papers to help supplement his family's meager income. Newsboys typically had to fight to take control of a profitable corner, and many professional boxers of the era earned early fighting experience as newsboys. Silver first engaged in organized fighting during his two years in the Navy. He rapidly improved and captured the lightweight championship of the Pacific Fleet.

Quite a few pro boxers of the era got their start in the U.S. Navy. These Navy men, also known as gobs, often used easily identifiable noms de guerre. Fighting under the name Sailor Silver, Jack took on opponents such as Sailor Ashmore, Sailor Joe Fisher, and Sailor Wagner to name just a few.

In addition to the Navy, the other major factor that defined Silver's career was California's legal stance on boxing. In 1914, professional boxing essentially became illegal in the state. Four-round bouts were permitted and amateurs could receive small payments for their services. This period is know as the California's four-round era. Before there was Butterbean, "Long John" Silver was the king of the four-rounders.

Silver turned pro in 1922 and his popularity soon skyrocketed among San Francisco's boxing fans. Beginning in the winter of 1923, he spent twelve consecutive weeks headlining the main event at Dreamland Rink. As his legend grew, that number increased to 52 consecutive weeks. Silver almost certainly didn't reach that mark, but he had another seven-week streak that summer and his name graced the marquee the majority of Dreamland's weekly Friday shows that year.

At 5'9", Silver was a tall and rangy fighter. Besides the nod to his history as a gob and the literary reference to Treasure Island, his other nicknames were "The Human Lollipop, "The Human Bean Pole," and "The Hebrew Flash." A cerebral boxer who was often overly cautious, he was still a tremendous draw, acting a precursor to Floyd Mayweather Jr. After professional boxing was legalized in California again on January 1, 1925, Jack fought Joe Benjamin in a bout so big, it would be celebrated for decades.

Benny Leonard and Jack Silver (Blady, pg. 157)

The Joe Benjamin Fight
Joe Benjamin, another Jewish boxer popular in the Bay Area, was a ten-year pro when his fought Silver on February 23, 1925 at Recreation Park in San Francisco in a ten-round affair. Twenty thousands fans came out to watch Long John Silver fight "The Sheik of San Joaquin" in the first major fight since legalization. The winner would continue forward in a massive tournament to decide the lightweight champion of the world, a position which Benny Leonard had vacated the previous month.

Just before the fight began, a moment of silence was held for Sam Berger, the first ever Olympic heavyweight gold medalist and a fellow Jew who had died earlier that day. Benjamin wobbled Silver with a right in the first round and floored him in the third. Jack worked his way back into the fight, but Benjamin finished strong and took the decision. Jack felt he deserved no worse than a draw, but few agreed with him.

The fight would be remembered in California boxing circles for decades. In addition to Jack and Joe and Jack's little brother Joey, boxing luminaries such as Jackie Fields and Mushy Callahan attended the fiftieth anniversary celebration of the fight, which was seemingly remembered in the papers on February 23 every year.

The Mushy Callahan Fight
Silver took part in another huge fight a year and a half later. He had fought about twenty times since the Benjamin loss when he faced Mushy Callahan on July 5, 1926 at Ewing Field in San Francisco. Benjamin had fought only once after defeating Silver before he retired, so Silver was the hottest thing in the Northern California. Meanwhile, Callahan, also a Jewish ex-newsie, had become a big shot in Los Angeles. The fight between Silver and Callahan was billed as North vs. South.

On a cold and windy July day, 7,559 people watched Silver dismantle Callahan through a thick fog. It was a repeat of the Civil War except this time the North had little trouble. Silver dropped Callahan at the end of the first. Callahan, a two-to-one favorite, maybe won one round, the eighth, in a ten-round contest, but otherwise Silver made him look amateurish. Silver, the Pacific Coast lightweight titlist, looked like a genuine world title contender.

In the past, Long John had received criticism for clinching too much and fighting only in spurts. Against Callahan, he let his hands go, fighting every minute of every round. The win looked even better when on September 21, Callahan beat Pinky Mitchell to win the junior welterweight world championship.

Silver Lining
A week after Callahan won the title, Silver fought future two-time welterweight world champion Young Jack Thompson at the Olympic Auditorium in L.A. Thompson battered Silver, breaking his jaw. Silver's corner threw in the towel in the eighth to stop the carnage. It was Silver's first KO loss. Less than three months later, Silver fought another future two-time welterweight world champion, Jackie Fields. Fields pummeled Silver so thoroughly, referee Toby Irwin halted the bout in the fourth.

Following the disastrous fight against Fields, Silver fired his manager. He fought on until the beginning of 1930, but he was never the same. In retirement, Silver's life mirrored his one-time rival, Mushy Callahan. Jack moved to L.A. and became a stuntman in Hollywood. Like Callahan, he worked as a boxing instructor for movie stars, teaching Ronald Reagan and James Cagney the finer points of pugilism. Jack and his bride, Bess O'Connor, were married for 56 years. For 25 of them, he served as a respected boxing referee and judge. Like Callahan, Silver converted to Catholicism. On July 26, 1994, Jack died at the age of 90.

BoxRec lists Silver's record as 63-22-34. Author Ken Blady contends his record was actually 201-7-29. Regardless, many contemporaries acknowledge countless bad decisions went against Long John. No matter, numbers matter less than one's legacy. Silver served his country before raising boxing's popularity in California to new heights. And that's Jack's silver lining.

Blady, Ken. The Jewish Boxers' Hall of Fame. 1988.
Hank Kaplan Archives, Brooklyn College.
Oakland Tribune's coverage of the Callahan fight found in July 6, 1926 edition on page 29.
San Francisco Bulletin's coverage of Benjamin fight found in February 24, 1925 edition on page 17.
San Francisco Bulletin's coverage of the Callahan fight found in July 6, 1926 edition on page 13.

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