I met a lot of boxing greats through Al and Battling Nelson—Young Stribling, Jack Sharkey, Jack Johnson. They knew them all. Al threw a party whenever one of them came to Chicago. One night Bat took me to the McVickers Theater to shake hands with the idol of my youth—Jack Dempsey. The old Manassa Mauler had been out of the fight game some three years. He was touring the vaudeville circuit in an act his manager, Jack Kearns, had helped him work up. It was built around his famous last fight with Gene Tunney at Soldier Field in 1927. The long count—remember? Jack knocked Gene down in the seventh, but the referee didn't start counting for seven seconds. That gave Gene an extra breathing spell and he lasted the round. He came back in the eighth and ninth to hammer Jack so hard they gave Tunney the decision. Well, at the climax of this vaudeville skit Jack is sitting in a roadster in a gas station while the rube attendant fills 'er up. "That's it," says the rube, "15 gallons." Jack disagrees. "Wrong count," he says. "Well," says the rube, "ain't the first time you got a wrong count." And the audience breaks up. Bat took me backstage afterward and introduced me to the great man. "I think he's gonna make a good fighter someday," he says, and Jack gives me a big grin and a slap on the back.
Al arranged fights for me in some of the smaller clubs around Chicago. I did all right—22 wins altogether, 19 by KOs. There wasn't any money to speak of. It was smalltime stuff. I think Al just got a kick out of managing his own boy. Anyhow my heart was not in it and I gave it up. In 1929 Al went to jail in Philadelphia on a concealed-weapon rap. Most of us who knew the score figured he'd framed himself so his enemies couldn't get at him. It was soon after the St. Valentine's Day massacre and the Bugs Moran mob was out to kill him on sight. Al's mistake was his timing. I guess he thought the judge would pass a light sentence. But he handed him a full year.
Babe and I wrote to him often while he was away, but he never answered. I ran into him in Burnham again a few days after he got out. He looked worn and tired. All he could talk about was how the government was trying to destroy him. But by the fall of the year, that is, 1930, he had pulled himself together. The golf bug bit him again and he was out on the course a lot.
It was a terrible year for most of us. The Depression had set in deep. My old man, along with a lot of other heads of families, was laid off without an hour's notice. Small businesses closed down, hundreds of them. Families doubled up to save rent. In Burnham there were exactly three people outside of city hall with steady jobs—the mailman, the milkman and a schoolteacher, and the schoolteacher only got paid every three or four, months. Mom got work as a scrubwoman at the school. And now when Al and the boys came around for volleyball he'd slip her $10 and apologize for dirtying up the floor she'd just been washing. I hung on to my shoeshine stand for dear life.
The breadlines. The soup kitchens—Al ran his own in Chicago. Beggars coming around to your back door for a crust of bread. Food was cheap enough, but nobody had money to buy it. The corner drugstores sold cigarettes two for a penny. Who could afford a full pack? There was always a long line in front of the roll-your-own cigarette machine. If you rolled them thin enough, you could get 50 cigarettes out of a 10-cent package. We practically lived on the three-day-old bread Dad brought home from a bakery. A gunnysack full cost 25-cents and we kids would rummage through it, hoping to find a sweet roll or two.
Christmas 1930. I'll remember it as long as I live. None of the kids expected any presents. But maybe a chicken dinner. We still had a few hens scratching around the backyard. Then the miracle happened. We were gathered around the Christmas tree—such as it was, just bare branches—when there comes a loud knocking on the front door. Dad opens up and it's Santa Claus, whiskers, red suit and a big bag on his back. I yelled "Al!" and threw myself at him. He clapped his hands and six of his boys came in, each lugging a box of groceries that could have fed the whole neighborhood. They helped Mom stack them neatly on the pantry shelves. There were expensive gifts for everybody—a watch set in diamonds for Babe, slipover sweaters for my brothers Edward, Sam, Don, and me. Don got a wind-up train and a whole set of tracks. My sister Kathy got the most beautiful doll I ever saw, with a whole wardrobe. And the turkey with all the fixings. I never tasted anything so good in my life.
About two years later Al was on his way to Atlanta, and two years after that, to the Rock. I never again saw him alive.
Mount Olivet Cemetery lay under a thick carpet of snow when they buried Al. My wife and I were there, standing on the edge of the small crowd. Jake Guzik was the only one of the old bunch I recognized. Babe wasn't there. She'd married a roadhouse manager and left the area. Though I'd never seen a picture of her, I knew the tall, beautiful, blonde woman at the graveside must be Mrs. Capone.
As I say, my feeling was I wanted Al to know his old golf caddie was there, mourning him.