Saturday, March 26, 2016

George Brown, Theodore Anton, and Other Early Greek-American Boxers



GEORGE BROWN, THEODORE ANTON, AND OTHER EARLY GREEK-AMERICAN BOXERS


Published in The National Herald, March 12-18, 2016 Issue
Authored by Steve Frangos
TNH Staff Writer

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We are excited to announce that The National Herald has given Hellenic Genealogy Geek the right to reprint articles that may be of interest to our group. 



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CHICAGO - Incredibly, the first generation of professional Greek boxers is, today, only known to historians and avid connoisseurs of the sport.  Far from mere punch-drunks or has-been palookas professional Greek boxers such as George "Knock Out' Brown and Theodore "The Greek" Anton were long-time champions and holders of professional titles recognized across the nation.  It is an effortless matter to learn of the careers of such men as Brown and Anton by no more than scanning the sports pages of the early 1900s.

What in fact is so striking about reading such accounts is that reporting on the fights and careers of these two men or any of the popular Greek boxers is not limited solely to big city newspapers.  Mid-size cities and even small hamlets proved to be the daily venues for professional boxers (and other sports figures) during the early 1900s.  From this distance in time it is hard to determine which audience - those in biggest cities in North America or those in locations so small they are literally unheard of except by locals - enjoyed the presence of these athletes, their antics or their contests in the ring more.  I say this because it is difficult to assess, given the high-volume of news coverage found in the public press - no matter where the boxing matches took place.

Let me stress that the mighty Brown and the tragic-heroic Anton were far from the only boxers of Greek descent to make a professional name for themselves during the early 1900s.  A short list of Greek boxers who appeared professionally from 1900 to 1930 would have to include (but is not limited to) Billy Angelof, Angelos Angeloupolos, Pete Ankelos, Theodore Antonopoulos, Chris Booras, George Brown, Jack Burns, John Chagare, George Cordosh, Andy Dans, Frank Driscoll, Joe Gavras, Chris George, Lou Jallos, Mike Kutchos, Antone LaGrave, Phil McGraw, Jack Milo, John Pergantes, Gus Placos, Hugo Ryder, Nick Stratigos, Nick Sugar, Chris Vlackas and Frankie Zunner.  Given the time period it was not uncommon for professional athletes to both wrestle and box.  Consequently noted Greek wrestlers of this early period such as Greek George Costaky and Peter James would also on occasion accept challenges from professional boxers.

Aside from the role of these individuals in the history of American professional boxing their presence also served to boost the spirits of local Greek immigrants around the country.  Many news accounts report on the sensation of the appearance of these Greek ethnic boxers caused among the local and usually sedate Hellenic collectives and communities through which they would travel.

Professional boxing and wrestling during the early 1900s up until World War II in many ways stressed the ethnic divisions that the massive influx of migration from 1880 to 1920 had produced in the United States.  Matches were frequently advertised as being contests between nations.  So playbills would showcase that one opponent was from Greece and the other from, say, Poland.  This niche marketing was intentionally geared to draw an audience from very specific ethnic groups or minorities to be found in specific cities and small towns.  Such was the advertising focus of the local and national sports promoters that arenas (and other such venues) in a specific neighborhood were also the locations for very limited contests.  If say within a heavily populated Hispanic neighborhood then the local "champions" would be of Hispanic extraction and the challengers always from some other ethnic group.  If long standing grievances existed back in an immigrant groups' country of origin, say between Russians and Ukrainians, then in a Ukrainian neighborhood or arena area Russian wrestlers or boxers appeared on a regular basis.

Professional sports is a business.  And racism aside if the native-born promoters could make money by presenting ethnic boxers and tickets could be sold on a regular basis then they would showcase as many ethnic fighters as the public would support.

As professional boxers many of these early Greek immigrants were extremely well-known to the American public.  Given the celebrity status a number of these men enjoyed their exploits outside the ring were also a matter of public record.  As volunteers for the American Expeditionary Force in World War I both George Brown and Kid Greek (a.k.a. Gus Placos) were hailed across the country.  As both men were foreign born and not citizens they were technically exempt from service.  Each waved this exemption by quickly volunteering.  Placos was especially noted for his sustained efforts to train his fellows in the 'sweet science' of boxing.  Regrettably this all too brief account cannot even begin to outline the careers or later lives of this exceptional group of men.

The short account of Greek boxer Frankie Driscoll must then serve us here as an example of the kind of life many of the early Greek immigrant boxers experienced.  Driscoll was born Photios J. Suerkides, on the Greek island of Samos on November 16, 1892.  At the time of his birth Suerkides/Driscoll was born a slave of the Ottoman Empire.

During a February 24, 1935 interview Driscoll offer the following:  "In the summer of 1904 after school had closed and for a vacation, my father took me in a small boat to Piraeus, the seaport for Athens, where I was put on a ship in which my brother was in charge," he recalled.  " I was only 12 years old and that ship, though it would look very small alongside some of our present-day boats, certainly looked like the biggest ship in the world to me."

The voyage was a simple trading one to Russia for grain.  "We passed through the Dardanelles, Constantinople and the Black Sea, and there in the Black Sea I met adventure that I'll never forget as long as I live," Suerkides said.

The trip across the Black Sea passed uneventfully.  The tramp steamer loaded the grain from Russia and began what was planned to be a long voyage to the French port of Marseilles.  But as the ship was sailing back across the center of the Black Sea, a storm broke.  "Giant waves forced our small boat to pop around like a top in a tub of water," Suerkides vividly described.  "The waves carried away two members of the crew; two of the four lifeboats were washed away.  The big smoke funnel was bent."  The passengers and crew were forced to abandon ship.

Suerkides and 11 other men spent five days in an open boat without food or fresh water.  On the evening of the sixth day, when several crew members "were on the brink of madness," they saw smoke on the horizon.  The men tied burlap bags to their oars and began waving them frantically.  A British tanker started to come toward them.  The crew was so weak they had to be carried on board."  And all this, long before Suerkides' ever arrived in the United States!

Suerkides boxed professionally under the name Frankie Driscoll from roughly 1908 until 1914 but after hanging up his gloves he was far from done in sporting circles.  In the 1920s and 1930s, everybody in Lehigh Valley region knew Driscoll as an extremely prominent boxing promoter.  Lehigh Valley is the Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton, A-NJ Metropolitan area.  A sharp-dresser with an easy smile Driscoll was especially remembered for staging the Joey Kauffman-Bucky Boyle bout at the Bethlehem Steel Corporation field.  The fight brought in 10,000 fans, the largest single boxing gate ever recorded in the Lehigh Valley.

So much more could be said of this collective of professional athletes - it makes one wonder why they are so ignored in our collective histories of Greeks in the United States.



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