The next time I caddied for Al I described my meeting with Gilda Gray. I told him I never wanted to shine her shoes again. He laughed so hard the players ahead of us turned around to see what was so funny. "In a couple of years you'll feel different," Al assured me. "You'll want a dame like her."
He played until early afternoon, then motioned for me to wait on a bench and walked away toward the clubhouse. He came back with two triple-decker sandwiches, a bottle of beer for himself, and some soda pop for me. We ate the sandwiches sitting side by side. I felt very close to Al. Suddenly I heard myself asking, "Can I join the gang when I'm bigger?" He smiled and rumpled my hair. "You're part of it now, ain't you? You're my caddie." "I mean for real," I said, "and carry a gun like the other guys." He shook his head. "Nothing doing, Kid. I want you around a long time all in one piece. You might get hurt. Most guys in my line of business do. So stay just like you are, O.K.?"
Looking back on it, I guess if he'd said yes, I would have ended up like the rest of them—in jail or dead. I'm grateful to him now for turning me down. But at the time the danger and the glamour of it all was the most thrilling life I could imagine.
I'm not sure when my sister Babe became Al's regular girl. He was crazy about her from the beginning, no doubt in my mind about that. He kept giving her expensive presents, furs and jewelry. Mom ordered her to give them back, but Babe just hid them. She took me up to her room once, making me promise I wouldn't tell if she showed me something. I promised and she fished out a cigar box from under some lingerie. Inside was a diamond bracelet, a pair of diamond drop earrings, a pearl necklace—all from Al.
He began calling at the house and he was so polite and kind and generous that in the end he won over Mom and Pop. He came often and they'd make him stay for a meal. Babe knew Al had a wife and son, of course. Anybody who read the newspapers knew that. But he kept telling Babe how much he loved her, that he'd get a divorce if she'd marry him. I don't guess he really meant it. Deep down he was too much of a family man. I don't think he would ever have walked out on Mrs. Capone and their boy, Sonny. Anyhow Babe refused. She said she was satisfied with the way things were. He went on treating her like a queen.
Sometimes when they went to a restaurant or a show they'd take me along. I'll never forget the thrill of riding next to the driver in Al's bulletproof Cadillac. It was all red leather inside with gray curtains. There was a machine gun mounted behind the driver's seat. When Babe and I stared at it nervously, Al waved his cigar like he was brushing something away. "Nothing to worry about," he said. "Just a little insurance. Look out the windows." Through the curtains we could see in back a limousine filled with Al's boys and another one ahead.
He took us to see his favorite movie star, Al Jolson, in The Singing Fool. Babe sat between Al and me and in the row behind us were two of the bodyguards, watching Al more closely than they watched the movie. Al and Babe held hands through the whole picture and when Jolson sang Sonny Boy—I couldn't believe it—tears were running out of Al's eyes.
Caddying and shining shoes weren't my only jobs. For a while I hung around one of Al's Burnham breweries, which produced about a thousand gallons a day. At first I just ran errands like fetching delicatessen sandwiches for the foreman. A lot of times the conveyor belt that carried those big five-gallon cans to and from the trucks went too fast for the regular workers and they needed an extra hand to take some of the overload. So they'd yell and I'd come running and pitch in. I never got any wages, but on payday the men would pass the hat and I'd collect maybe $5. The place fascinated me. The men never drank water, just that needle beer and by the end of the day most of them would be pie-eyed. They were specially nice to me after Al, who used to drop in once a week, let them know I caddied for him. They kept Dad supplied with all the beer he could drink.
The Burnham Elementary School was a big, red-brick building, four stories high, with a well-equipped gym—Johnny Patton saw to that. Al worried a lot about his overweight and he started playing volleyball a couple of times a week to shed a few pounds, he and a bunch of his bodyguards. It was some sight.
Meanwhile, I'd taken up boxing—or rather Al pushed me into it. It happened when I was 16. There was this big lout of a classmate, Howard Reed, a head taller than me, who hated my guts for some reason and was always picking on me, tripping me in the corridors, twisting my arms, sadistic little tricks like that. I was scared of him at first. Then I realized I had to stand and fight back or he'd really hurt me someday. So next time he laid his hands on me I just waded into him, swinging. I was too mad to be scared. I didn't even feel the blows. I just hit out and damned if all of a sudden he didn't go down like an empty sack. He never bothered me again.
That victory got me interested in boxing and I started working out regular. I was a middleweight. I had a fair left jab, not the hardest punch in the world, you understand, but fast, and I was light and quick on my feet. I fought in a school tournament that Al came to watch. And who do you suppose came with him? Bat Nelson—Oscar Matthew Battling Nelson, the Durable Dane, one of the finest lightweight champions. He'd retired about 15 years before. Ad Wolgast had pounded him to a pulp in a fight that lasted 40 rounds. "Battling" was no nickname, by the way. His old man had been so sure he'd grow up to be a prize ring champ that he christened him that back in Copenhagen where he was born. Bat lived in nearby Hegewisch, and I'd seen him around many times but never talked to him. He hadn't been doing too badly in retirement. He owned some apartment buildings and a training gym. Physically, though, he was a mess, small and skinny, his face flattened like a truck had rolled over it, ears all mashed and metal clamps inside his nose to keep it open so he could breathe.
I won by a KO the night Al and Bat came to see me and when I got down to the locker room, they were waiting for me. "I didn't know you could fight, Kid," says Al. I didn't either, to tell the truth. Then Bat asks me: "How would you like for me to be your manager?" Matter of fact, Al and Bat decided to manage me together.
I practically lived in Bat's house in Hegewisch and worked out in the basement. There was this housekeeper of his, Mrs. Winsdom, who used to be a trick rider for Buffalo Bill's Wild West show and she had a beautiful daughter, Dolly, a year younger than me. I fell hard for Dolly and with her around I looked a lot better training than I felt inside. I felt scared most of the time. I was never really cut out to be a boxer.
Bat was no great manager, either. Those terrible beatings he took had left him pretty punchy. He tried to make me fight the way he used to, never taking a backward step, always plunging in. But my style was to keep jabbing, getting my man off balance, then going for him with both fists. Frankly, I didn't care to stop more punches with my face than I had to. Al liked my style and he told Bat to let me fight my own way.
Came the first big test. One day this beat-up Swedish fighter, or ex-fighter, name of Johnson, turns up after hitchhiking from New York. Old friend of Bat's. Once went a round with my hero, Jack Dempsey, who flattened him. He was dead broke. He wanted a handout and a bed for a few nights. So Bat made a deal. He agreed to board and feed him if he'd fight a bout with me. Now, Johnson weighed over 200 pounds and though I stood six feet tall, I only weighed around 160. I was terrified. But Bat insisted the time had come to show what I was made of. He'd fixed up a regular ring in another house he owned two blocks away and the big event was scheduled for a Saturday night. For good luck Bat gave me his old trunks to wear, the same ones he wore when he kayoed Joe Gans back in 1908. Al and his gang showed up. So did Dolly, or else I guess I would never have gone near the place. I went to my corner, walking between Al and Bat, shaking like a bowl of jello.
The bell sounds and Johnson comes at me like a locomotive. I didn't wait. I hurdled the ropes and tore down the street toward Bat's home, with Bat, Al, the gang and Dolly all after me. Not even Al could persuade me to face that gorilla again. It was Dolly pleading with me that did it, because I was crazy about her. I went back like a man going to the gallows. "Don't let the bum scare you," Al kept whispering. "He's an old man. He's clumsy and punchy. Just stick out your left and let him run into it." And that's the way it happened. Every time Johnson would come roaring at me, I'd step aside and tap him on the nose with my left as he breezed by. It was a three-rounder. Nobody got knocked down, but the judges gave me the decision on points.