Shaver O'Brien's biggest fight.

... who knew that it would be with arithmetic?

by Joe Sullivan

With no TV in Shaver's day local boxing matches were popular, frequently held and well attended.

An unexpected benefit of my marriage turned out to be my father-in-law. Amby Heffernan, balding, in his late sixties, and easy going would turn out to be a cherished friend. Accepting me into the family required some adjusting. It took awhile. I wasn’t from his home town South Boston. Not even close by, like Dorchester, I was from some place even farther away than that, Malden.

That attitude was okay by me. I loved his daughter and underneath it all I knew that I could make him like me. So I just kept being nice and gradually we became father-and-son type pals. When his first grandson, Tony, came along it was a done deal. There was just too much there for him not to like.

The tip-off that I had been accepted unconditionally came when he started to tell me stories. He had a mellow voice that came out with an almost consoling tone. This soft delivery was in contrast to the stories themselves and God, they were funny.

Most of them would be about his pals who were in their late twenties when they were scrambling to get along during some of the meanest days of the Depression. He, despite these hard times, had a good job. Amby and his brother Bob had a carpet distributing business in Boston. Bob would manage the business from it’s Canal Street store front while Amby sold the line by calling on retailers in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont.

He made all those sales calls in his hefty Buick long before there were any Interstates like I-93 or I-95. He told stories about those calls, too, but the ones I liked best were about his Southie pals while they waited for things to get better in the job market.

Their names were what really got to me. Keelo Coyle, Bullets Falvey, Jabber Burke, Donuts Feeney, Beef Stew McDunna (McDonough), Shovel Head Conway and Staggers Fanning are the ones I remember. I have no idea how the nicknames were earned. The only one I ever saw in person was Jabber Burke and that was because he would collect the seat money at the 11:30 mass at St. Brigid’s .

The money changer in the temple.

Like Amby he wore glasses, and likewise, was balding and in his mid sixties. Dressed in a dark suit, white shirt and tie  he was totally unlike what I expected a rogue in one of Amby’s stories to look like.

Seat money was 35 cents. To collect it, Jabber stood behind a little waist-high table with a green felt top. In anticipation of his most frequent transaction, making change for a dollar, he had built a number of little stacks each made up of two quarters, a nickel, and a dime.

When the heavy traffic hit just before mass Jabber would snatch each extended dollar and swish over one of  the 65-cent stacks to the parishioner. On the little green felt table top where the transaction took place it looked like something out of a Vegas black jack game. Jabber, it seemed to me was more fastidious than fierce.    

Efforts to establish a relationship with him went nowhere. I’d put down my dollar on the little table where Jabber made change and say, “Hello, Mister Burke.” He’d look up mildly irritated that I had distracted him and say, “Hi, kid.” I was almost thirty then.

The man in the middle.

Jabber was never a central character in an Amby story anyway. That designation went to Keelo Coyle who was involved in almost everything. He must have been something. If my mother-in-law was present when Keelo’s name came up she would look up at the ceiling, roll her eyes, indignantly blow through her nose, and mutter, “Oh, my God.”  No fond memories for her, that was for sure.

One of Amby’s pals’ ventures was that they managed a fighter, Shaver O’Brien. He was a Southie guy who fought professionally as a club fighter. Club fighters plied their trade in front of smaller audiences. Fights were held in places like armories or anyplace that could accommodate two or three hundred customers.  

Promoters would set up a series of matches that usually involved a main event lasting ten rounds and two or three bouts that preceded the main event. This latter group consisted of matches that lasted only three or sometimes five rounds. They were called the “preliminaries” and these events were where Shaver made his money.

Collectively the bouts of the evening were known as "The Card." There was no TV in the thirties. The only way to see a fight was to be at one. The result was a lot of smaller events that drew local crowds.  

There were big prize fights, too. You could hear these on the radio. The guys involved in those fights would become well known. Lou Ambers, Art Aragon, Fritzie Zivic were fighters whose names most fight fans knew but had never seen fight. Their names were familiar from the radio or newspaper coverage or from magazines you would only see in a barber shop. Police Gazette or Ring Magazine, for instance.

Lou Ambers, a headliner, won the Lightweight Campionship in 1936. Although he and Shaver were contemporaries they were never adversaries.

Once in awhile there would be a big fight at Boston Garden but it was big because it involved a well-known headliner fighter who would draw a crowd.

Shaver was on a lot of Cards but none took place at the Garden. His fights would be at places like Dilboy Field in Somerville or The Mechanics Building in the South End, places that were cheap to rent and lessen the promoter‘s financial risk. Even in these smaller venues Shaver would be fighting in the preliminaries. Not a main event talent, he did bring his own crowd, Southie guys who came to cheer him on and who were reliable ticket buyers for the promoter.

On-the-job training.

The good thing about Shaver was that he did not need a lot of preparation. He worked down the docks as a longshorie. Every morning he showed for the shapeup, a process where the gang boss selected the guys who would unload the ships. Shaver walked to the shapeup from his flat in Southie carrying the tool of his trade, a wood-handled baling hook. Hauling and shoving bales and crates was what kept Shaver in fighting trim.

Shaver lived on the top floor of a three-decker on F Street and Fourth with his mother. The first and second floor tenants were his cousins, aunt and uncles. The gag was that Shaver got his roadwork in by walking up three flights four or fives times a day.

People would say that he didn’t look much like a fighter. A beefy-looking five ten or so he could have won an award for looking inconspicuous. He was quiet. “Can’t get two words out of him.” was a frequent description. That’s where Keelo Coyle fit in. He set up Shavers’s fights with the promoters. Shaver would sit quietly while Keelo did the talking. Agreement was reached in the negotiation when Keelo looked over and said, “Okay, Shave?” Shaver would nod his head yes and the deal was done.

Keelo’s intercessions were not only because of Shaver’s reticence. Shaver was not the smartest guy in South Boston. Keelo kept Shaver from being on the short end of a deal with the promoter. Some of the money involved came back to Amby’s pals, but there was never much to go around.

There were up-front expenses. They had to pay for a guy to tape Shaver’s hands before the fight and they needed a corner man who would flip the stool up onto the ring surface for Shaver to sit on between rounds. He also sponged Shaver off and, when necessary, spread a Vaseline-like substance called colodian over Shaver’s face. This would staunch any bleeding supposedly, and unsporting enough, make the other guy’s gloves slide when he hit Shaver.

A bloody crowd pleaser.

In Shaver’s case colodian was almost always necessary. Shaver was a bleeder. By the second round there would be cuts on his face. No heavy blood flow, but a trickle down to his jaw. The  blood would eventually get  smeared over the rest of  his body and added to the drama of Shaver’s fights.

Shaver was no boxer. He was a straight-ahead fighter whose style was continually shuffling forward, paying the price to get a shot at the other guy. In the early going the other guy would be dancing around sticking Shaver with solid punches. Eventually in the late rounds when the other guy was getting tired, Shaver would begin to score. In the final round Shaver would be nailing the guy with body shots and the Southie guys would be on their feet screaming, “Southie! Southie! Southie!  

When the final bell sounded a blood-smeared Shaver held his hand up to salute the screaming partisan crowd. Win or lose the truth was evident. Shaver was good for business.

Shaver didn’t win them all, but one thing was for certain. At the end of the fight Shaver was always standing. No opponent ever knocks him out. When the fight is over, win or lose, Shaver was on his feet.

This talent gained him an unanticipated reward. A promoter, putting together a big-time bout at Boston Garden was matching up a nationally recognized headliner with a local fighter. Because of who the headliner was the promoter expects a sellout.

But there was a risk. The headliner may be in top shape and could take out the local guy in two rounds. This leaves the promoter with an unhappy crowd. Nobody wants to pay big money to see a fight that only lasts two rounds and so, if you are the promoter, does Shaver O’Brien come to mind?

Because there is going to be some nice money involved Keelo asks Amby to come along to the meeting with the promoter. Keelo will do any negotiating but said he would feel better if there is someone there to back him up when the numbers start flying around. Amby said yes, and on meeting day, he, Keelo and Shaver head over on the streetcar to Scolly Square where the promoter has his office.

Seated around the promoter’s beat up desk the negotiating starts to zero in on the number one thing that’s on everybody’s mind. The money. Shaver had fought in God-knows-how-many preliminary fights with their short money payoff for the fighter. This negotiating, however, was about the main bout, the one that will be preceded by the preliminaries. The main bout is about big money. And, of course, everybody sitting around the desk, had a a number in mind .

The heart of the matter.

After some verbal dancing with Keelo the promoter finally says what the payout will be. “Twelve hundrit.” and then after a pause, “Dollars.”

Keelo has to look unimpressed but he practically faints when he hears the number, it will be Shaver’s all-time payout, by far. Hundreds of dollars, by far.

There will be no back-and-forth about this number. Keelo intended to grab it before the promoter had a chance to form another thought. When Keelo looks over to get the nod of agreement from Shaver he is stunned by what he sees. Shaver is grim faced, his eyes sparkling in indignation, he is furious.

Keelo mystified, leans over to look into Shaver’s face. Holding up his hands in supplication he begs, “Shaver, twelve hundred?”

Shaver practically spits his answer, “I ain’t fightin’ nobody for less thanna’ thousind!”

Photo research by Don Norris.

April 5, 2013





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