Monday, January 26, 2009
The crowds were enormous. Friends and admirers and entire families arrived at Flynn Memorial Home on Ludlow Street in Yonkers, N.Y., afternoons and evenings for three days to pay tribute to Michael Joseph Hogan, better known as Shamus O'Brien (image left), the alias he used in the boxing ring throughout his long and illustrious career. A rugged, battle-scarred lightweight boxer who fought the great champion Benny Leonard (image right) at least three times, Shamus was lovingly hailed as the “Yonkers Favorite.”
He came from the Gold Coast of Ireland as a young lad to seek his fortune in America. He was my grandfather, but I knew him only casually from a few chance meetings long after his fighting days were over. When I knew him his leathery, battle-scarred face was pleasant and friendly. His cauliflowered ears made his profession obvious.
At his wake, I was a young man of 24 when I stood amazed to see the outpouring of love for this man, long after his days of glory. I watched, and greeted young and old as they paid their respects to my grandfather day after day at the memorial home.
Later, as I watched the mile-long funeral procession motor through Getty Square, I began to understand just how much impact this young Favorite Son of Yonkers had had on the city. In those early days after the turn of the 20th Century, prizefighting was to millions what radio was in the 1930s and 1940s, and what television became later to people everywhere.
(In the fight poster reproduced below, Shamus is pictured on the left and Eddie Smith, his opponent in the headline match, is shown at right.)
I remember Shamus' eldest son, John Hogan, my uncle, who followed the young fighter's exploits closely, telling me that it was Shamus’ wish to have the cort'ege meander through Getty Square before heading out to St. Joseph's Cemetery on Truman Avenue in Yonkers. It was a wish that opened my eyes to the depth of his love for the "City of Gracious Living" on the Hudson River and its denizens.
It was through my uncle John that I learned my grandfather had died of pneumonia on April 13, 1959 at the age of 68. Shamus, who was born on Aug. 5, 1890, had entered St. John’s Riverside Hospital with heart disease and arteriosclerosis.
At that time, I was a first term student at New York University in Washington Square. It was only two months before my marriage to Ruth Dugdale of Darien, Connecticut. Uncle John took me along with him to the Yonkers Herald Statesman in Larkin Plaza where he told Shamus’ story to an obituary writer.
Based on available records, Michael "Shamus O'Brien" Hogan (image right) was the son of Michael Hogan and Ellen (Meade) Hogan, one of five children. The family lived in a thatched cottage near the Atlantic Ocean in Dungarvan in an area once known as Wyse's Point, or just "The Point."
As a boy in Dungarvan, Shamus was well-known in Gaelic football, emigrating from Ireland in 1906 when his uncle Patrick, who worked at the Alexander Smith carpet factory in Yonkers, reportedly paid his passage on the RMS Umbria destined for New York.
According to an article by Eddie Cantwell written for the Waterford County Museum in Dungarvan, Ireland, Shamus became a household name, not only in Yonkers but also in Pennsylvania and many other venues around the United States. Many of his more than 400 bouts, an unusually large number in any fighter’s career, took place in the Irish section of Harlem, N.Y.
Rugged in appearance, and good looking, Shamus "would hang around the street corners with his friends after work." He was "scrapping all the time" and he embraced the lifestyle of the time. After only a few years in the new world, undoubtedly catching many of the boxing matches that were held in those days around New York, he took part in a volunteer boxing exhibition staged for the prisoners at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, N.Y.
Shamus' career has an uncanny resemblance to the great champions of the world of boxing portrayed in a number of Hollywood biographical films. In many parts of the United States, he became a household name in boxing circles, but the great championships eluded him. He battled often against the best fighters in hundreds of matches in various weight classes.
While his career spanned nearly two decades, the Irish stalwart's record, given in one estimate as 24-44-12, failed to reflect his toughness and tenacity -- or even his potential. It's generally felt that his achievements could have been far greater had his career been managed better.
“Hogan’s life story could well be scripted for a film,” Cantwell said. "Indeed, his career bears quite a remarkable resemblance to some of the more popular boxing films of recent years.”
My fondest memories of my famous grandfather came on those occasions when, as a young boy “hanging around” Getty Square (image left, early 20th Century), Shamus and I would meet by chance. Getty Square, where Shamus was a familiar figure in the 1940s, was a bustling shopping area marked by three five-and-ten cent stores at a busy five-way intersection. Whenever he saw me, Shamus, with obvious delight, would take me into Nedick’s to buy me an orange drink and a hot dog.
Shamus' appearance marked him as a prize fighter, his face revealing the scars of his trade, along with battered, cauliflower ears. He looked to be down on his luck, but even then I could see his eyes light up when he saw me. He'd shuffle in his pockets for coins that seemed to me to be his last dime. For me, these were memorable moments. I had heard on the grapevine that he was staying at the time in a bunk at the Salvation Army – one of the many reasons that I have such a high regard for that truly charitable organization.
Michael "Shamus O'Brien" Hogan was married to Adelaide Searles (my grandmother) with whom he had eight children, John, Michael "Mitch", Edward, William, Elena "Helen" Torpey (my mother), Mary "Mae" Dropauer, and two infant twins, Gilbert and Adelaide, who died in the tragic influenza outbreak of the early 1900s.
Shamus began his boxing career in the bare-knuckle days when boxing matches were fought “to the finish.” The great John L. Sullivan (image left) was perhaps the best known fighter of the bare-knuckle era. Prize fighters in those days frequently fought to “no decision,” and Shamus was no exception. Shamus often went up against the best fighters of his era – and he competed in a number of weight categories, although he was fundamentally a lightweight .
"Money was lost and fortunes made on the backs of combatants who fought until only one was left standing," said Mr. Cantwell of the Dungarvan Museum. "Many of Hogan's fights were fought at the Raven Athletics Club in New York City, where he had done his training."
My uncle John told me that Shamus could take a lot of punishment but getting him to go down was rare indeed. Shamus went up against legendary lightweight champion Benny Leonard three times or more, including at least once to a "no decision" on Feb. 11, 1916 in Syracuse, N.Y. He was KO'd by Leonard, however, only five weeks later on St. Patrick's Day in New York City. Bouts in those days were often extralegal, resulting in incomplete record keeping and another reason that fighters used an alias.
In his obituary, Shamus was reported to be a “trial horse” for up and coming young fighters. He developed into an opponent for champions, a tough contest for any of them. In addition to Benny Leonard, the undefeated lightweight champion, Shamus, at 135 pounds, fought any and all comers, including welterweight Mickey Walker (early In his career), whom he defeated in two out of three contests by "newspaper" decisions, middleweight Rocky Kansas, welterweight champ Pete Latzo, featherweight champ Johnny Dundee, Pinky Marshall, Jack Britton, George KO Chaney and negro champ Leo Johnson – all to the finish in “no decision” fights. Shamus was widely considered “a good fighter, win or lose .”
The 1913 boxing poster became available to me a few years ago after my daughter, Catherine, noticed it on the wall of Archie Moore's Restaurant (image left) at 188-1/2 Willow St., New Haven, Conn. The restaurant, which has been in business for more than a century, has no connection, surprisingly, with its namesake, the famous light middleweight. Of course, I rushed to the restaurant for dinner, anxiously inquiring of the owner, Bob Fuchs, how the poster featuring my grandfather happened to be displayed in the dining room. As it turned out, the owner's grandfather, "Irish Paddy," was one of the fighters listed in the preliminary fights. (Note: In the poster (two separate images, below) Shamus is pictured on the left side, not on the right side, where his opponent, Yorkville lightweight champion Eddie Smith, is shown.)
Much of Shamus’ training, according to my Uncle John, took place in upstate New York in the town of Newburgh, where Shamus had been a bartender in his later years. Earlier he was an iron worker and had been employed in construction.
After fighting in various locations around the country, he hung up his gloves in 1928, but not before returning to Ireland to win the lightweight title in his native country.
One copyrighted report in the New York Times of Jan. 3, 1912 reports on a tough contest between Shamus and Young Sam Langford of Mount Vernon, N.Y. The match was termed "one of the best bouts ever held" at the local sporting club. Shamus floored his opponent midway through the 10-rounder, but Sam, who was literally "saved by the bell" in the fifth round, came back strong. The fight ended in a draw.
Throughout the 1940s, I had lived with my grandmother, Adelaide Hogan, Shamus' estranged wife. I was sent to live with "Nana" across town in south Yonkers after my parents, Joseph C. and Elena "Helen" Torpey, apparently found me too much to handle after I was left back in second grade for excessive truancy. By then, Shamus was no longer in the picture. It's a story I don't know, although I was told of one large purse won by Shamus that resulted in turmoil at home when my grandmother learned that Shamus, apparently in the excitement of the moment at ringside, had donated the entire amount to charity.
It was while I was living with "Nana" on Warburton Avenue in Yonkers that my uncle John came to the house one day to deliver the bad news: Nana's son, Bill Hogan, who had signed up for the Navy after Pearl Harbor, was presumed lost when his ship, the USS Gregory, was reported to have been sunk near Guadalcanal on Sept. 5, 1943. Uncle Bill's story is told elsewhere on this blog. I remember that Uncle John had brought with him a copy of the New York Daily News featuring a picture of the ship. It was somewhere near this time that Shamus knocked on our door persistently, but his apparent attempt at reconciliation had been unceremoniously rebuffed.
Shamus was a communicant of St. Peter’s Church at the corner of Riverdale Avenue and Ludlow Street, across from Flynn Memorial. It happens that I was born on Ludlow Street in 1935 and graduated from St. Peter's School in 1950. Shamus was an honorary member of the National Sports Alliance, the Raven Athletic Club and the Billy Gray Association.
His father, Michael Hogan, died when Shamus was just 6 years old after his life boat crew attempted to rescue people who were drowning after their ship broke its anchor in a storm off the coast of Ireland in 1896. There were 25 people aboard: the ship's 23-man crew and two passengers, the captain's wife and daughter. Only five survived. The story of the sinking of the ill-fated Moresby in Dungarvan Bay is recorded in the Website of the Waterford County Museum In his rescue efforts, Michael was thrown overboard in the storm. He was severely injured and dragged to shore. He succumbed to his injuries 17 days later.
After arriving in the United States from Ireland, the Hogans eventually settled in Yonkers, where the giant Alexander Smith carpet factory, located on Nepperhan Avenue, housed some of its large number of employees. My father, Joseph Torpey, had been a weaver there in the 1930s and early 1940s. After World War II, when Eastern Aircraft began building airplanes in Tarrytown, N.Y., my mother, Helen Hogan Torpey, worked as a riveter. She often proudly proclaimed herself to be a "Rosie the Riveter."
According to family members, Shamus was known by many as “friendly” and “outgoing.” It's clear he was "well liked." He nevertheless disappointed his family in Ireland, especially his mother, by his failure to visit or even contact them. His great great grandson, John Hogan, is carrying on his legacy as an amateur boxer in Yonkers. Young John recently participated in the Long Island Amateur Boxing Championships and fought in the Golden Gloves. He trains in Yonkers under the sponsorship of the PAL (Police Athletic League.)
In photo below, right: Mrs. Michael J. ( Adelaide) Hogan with their eldest son John at left, William F. Hogan held in her arms and Helen Hogan Torpey, standing. Photo was taken about 1920.
Update and details on Yonkers memorial for Michael J. Hogan aka Shamus O'Brien on August 22, 2011.
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