By Tom Deignan, Contributor
August September 2005
As James J. Braddock was rising out of boxing obscurity, and winning over the hearts of a Depression-ravaged nation, the legendary journalist Damon Runyan famously dubbed Braddock “Cinderella Man,” because of the fairy tale nature of Braddock’s comeback.
That moniker was later used as the title of Jeremy Schaap’s brilliant book about Braddock, and Ron Howard’s wonderful movie starring Russell Crowe and Renée Zellweger.
Braddock, however, was more commonly called “Irish Jim” rather than Cinderella Man, Indeed, Schaap’s book and Howard’s movie make a clear effort to convey the importance of Braddock’s ethnic background.
The shamrock that often adorned his shorts did the same thing.
Some critics accused Cinderella Man of being simply sentimental, but this is a bit like dismissing Niagara Fails as simply large. In the end, isn’t that enough? How could a fairy tale, rags-to riches story such as Braddock’s be anything but a wonderful affirmation of humanity and nobility, not to mention old-fashioned love of family.
As director Ron Howard said at the film’s premiere, “When you do the research about Jim and Mae Braddock, it’s this great love story about a married couple. That is a really rare thing in movies. To have the chemistry and the high-octane power of Russell Crowe and Renée Zellweger, I knew we’d have something great on screen.”
One thing the film was unable to touch upon, however, was Braddock’s equally fascinating Irish history. You wouldn’t know it from the film, but Braddock had a sprawling family of brothers and sisters, and immigrant parents.
Braddock’s parents, however, did not come to the United States from Ireland. Instead, like so many others (including my own grandparents), they came from gritty, heavily Irish urban enclaves of England.
“[Braddock’s] parents, Joseph and Elizabeth O’Toole Braddock, had been born in England and immigrated to the United States in 1889, but they were both more Irish than English or American,” Schaap writes in his 2005 book. Schaap does add, however, that “there is no evidence that either ever set foot on Irish soil.”
Schaap continues: “They were raised in impoverished Irish enclaves in and around Manchester, where the Braddocks and O’Tooles clung to their Irishness — mostly because the English never let them forget where they came from.”
Braddock’s dad came to the U.S. at the age of 22. He found work as a laborer on the heavily Irish West Side of Manhattan, by then so infamously rough and tumble the area was known as Hell’s Kitchen.
“Dad was a fighting Irishman who used to relish taking part in battles himself,” Braddock once said. Later in life, Braddock even made a friend of notorious West Side Irish gangster Owney “the killer” Madden, who encouraged Braddock to buy his own taxi company as an investment.
Elizabeth O’Toole, meanwhile, came to the U.S. from Manchester at the age of 23. The two married in 1893 and by the time James was born on June 8, 1905 he already had two sisters and three brothers.
Not long after James’ birth, the family packed up and crossed the river to the oddly named New Jersey neighborhood of West New York. There, James attended St. Joseph’s Catholic school.
“It was on the St. Joseph’s playground that James J. Braddock developed both his skills and his passion for Boxing,” Schaap writes.
Braddock himself once said: “There were thirty live boys in my class and every one of them could fight a bit.”
Braddock was, by all accounts, nearly as likable as the lad depicted by Russell Crowe in Cinderella Man.
At the Cinderella Man premiere, Braddock’s son Howard said, “[Ron Howard] said he wanted to portray my father exactly as he was, and he did.”
Howard Braddock still lives in New Jersey, where he worked heavy construction equipment for Local 802 and raised three children with his wife Elsie.
All of this seems like a classic Irish-American story. There is, however, another reason that Braddock wore his ethnicity on his sleeve. Ethnic rivalries have always loomed large in the world of boxing.
“Much of the sport’s appeal,” Schaap writes, “was rooted in its ethnic and racial rivalries, which were exploited by promoters and relished by fans, many of whom were immigrants and first-generation American.”
Schaap adds that it was not uncommon for fighters to change their names to those which were more explicitly ethnic, so that fans would automatically root for — or against — them.
As for Braddock, if he captured the nation’s heart, he was particularly close to the millions of Irish Americans who were struggling through the hard years of the 1930s.
New York Daily News boxing columnist Bill Gallo recently told a wonderful story about how he and a few boyhood pals snuck into the Madison Square Garden bowl in Queens on June 14, 1935, the day after Braddock beat the odds and won his championship fight against Max Baer.
Gallo’s pals decided to reenact the previous evening’s match.
“I’ll be Braddock,” said one kid, “because I’m Irish.”
The list of heavyweight champs from the 1880s to the 1930s often reads like roll call at an Ancient Order of Hibernians meeting: Corbett, Fitzsimmons, Burns, Dempsey, Tunney and, of course, Braddock, the last of the champion Irish heavyweights.
Braddock did not start out as a heavy-weight, however. Though a sturdy six feet, two inches tall, Braddock had trouble keeping weight on-this frame. So, when he got his first title shot at Yankee Stadium in July of 1929 (just months before the stock market crash) it was as a light heavyweight. Braddock’s opponent was fellow Irish pugilist Tommy Loughran. Braddock, never known as a particularly graceful fighter, was clumsy at times and unable to inflict much damage. He lost the 15-round decision.
Little did Braddock know that within months, he — along with millions of Americans — would lose a whole lot more.
The Depression scenes from the film are gut-wrenching and tear-jerking, as Braddock and his wife Mae (nee Fox) struggle to literally keep their three children alive.
Jim works sporadically on the docks, despite a battered right hand. It was that hand injury, as well as a car accident, which contributed to what many believed to be the end of Braddock’s career in the ring. After his title bout loss to Loughran his record was a horrible six wins and 16 losses.
At the same time, Braddock’s taxi investment failed, and the Depression deepened.
It was former manager Joe Gould (portrayed in the film by Paul Giamatti) who kept trying to talk Braddock back into the ring. True to real lite, when a last minute cancellation in 1934 left heavy-weight contender Art Lasky without an opponent, Gould sought out Braddock. If nothing else, he was a known name who would attract some attention. He would also be willing. He needed the money.
According to the movie, Braddock was given exactly one day’s notice to accept the fight. I knew, of course, this had to be a Hollywood invention. After all, boxing could be the most physically demanding of all sports. Over the course of 15 three-minute rounds not only do fighters take a beating, but they are always moving. True, Braddock’s dock work also was physically demanding. But only someone with superhuman strength could fight a 15-round bout with just one day to train.
Sure enough, Schaap’s book provides the true details. Braddock did not have one day to train. He had two.
Of course, Braddock shocked the world, beat Lasky and later beat Henry Lewis, setting up his famous bout with Max Baer.
One thing critics have right when it comes to Cinderella Man is that Max Baer is treated unfairly. Depicted as a boor as well as a brute in the film, most agree Baer was nearly as likable a fellow as Braddock.
Meanwhile, the fact that Baer killed two men in the ring is used as a device to haunt Braddock’s wife. The problem is, only one of Baer’s opponents died right after a fight with the hard-hitter. Even then the supposedly heartless Baer actually paid for the fighter’s funeral.
Another Baer opponent died several years later, and most agree that Baer’s punches played a marginal role in that fighter’s death.
Even Braddock’s son Howard said: “My father thought an awful lot of Max Baer. The portrayal in the movie isn’t really true to life. And I would like to apologize to Max Baer’s son, because he wasn’t really like that. He was more of a gentleman than they portrayed him.”
After beating Baer, Braddock held onto the title before losing to Joe Louis two years later.
Braddock knocked Louis down in the first round but was knocked out by Louis in the 9th — the only time Braddock was knocked out in a fight. Louis would hold onto the title for 12 years, and refer to Braddock as one of the toughest opponents he ever faced, and out of respect he always called him “The Champ.”
True to his good-guy form, Braddock was the first white fighter in nearly three decades to give a title shot to an African American.
Amazingly, boxing would prove to be just one part of Braddock’s long life. He (along with Joe Gould) later enlisted and served abroad in World War II. He and Mae then settled in North Bergen, New Jersey to raise their children Howard, Jay and Rosemarie. Braddock operated a successful machinery company, which later helped construct the Verrazano Narrows Bridge between Brooklyn and Staten Island. Braddock was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1964 and died ten years later. Mae passed away in 1985.
Still, family remains important to the Braddock clan.
Braddock’s daughter Rosemarie died in 1995. Her daughter (also named Rosemarie) plays Sara Wilson (Irish actor Paddy Considine’s wife) in Cinderella Man.
Meanwhile, James Braddock III (son of Jay, who died in 2001) runs jamesjbraddock.com, an informative web site dedicated to the life and legacy of the Cinderella Man, better known as Irish Jim Braddock. ♦