In Praise of a Prizefighting Leatherneck
As a kid I collected baseball cards. I would pour over the statistics that were usually printed on the reverse side of the picture. Often it would have the player’s entire professional career represented, even the minor league years. I was fascinated by the stories conjured in my imagination just from reading those statistics. A little later in life I found a similar fascination with looking at the records of professional prizefighters. This is a completely different realm, and, unlike baseball, the figures are frequently incomplete and far less detailed, but reading the names, dates, locations, and results conjures up all sorts of dramatic possibilities for an imaginative mind. The record of a boxer, especially one from generations past, is the sort of teaser that can feed the mind of a historian—with or without an interest in the sport itself.
A few years ago I had the privilege of editing Leatherneck Sea Stories by Dave Easton (Canopic Publishing). Among the many entertaining stories contained therein was an anecdote involving a Marine who hired a gondola to bring him back to the ship following a fleet landing in Italy. He arrived just as the gangplank was being raised. For reasons never explained, the Marine was not only on the verge of being deemed AWOL—he was also sans trousers.
Tony Baldoni was well known in the battalion for his antics and escapades before this incident and it just became another part of the story. No one I know of ever learned what had happened or how Tony lost his pants. All Tony would say was he was glad his ass wasn’t still in them. Tony went on to become a professional boxer and was doing pretty well in moving up in the rankings—until he ran into a guy named Tiger Jones. I watched that fight on television and it was the last time I ever saw Tony or heard his name.
Since writing those words, Dave has heard Tony Baldoni’s name plenty, mostly because his editor took an interest in learning more about this prizefighting leatherneck. If he fought Ralph Jones, I correctly figured that his boxing record, or at least part of it, would not be too difficult to locate. A quick visit to BoxRec.com was all it took, and just like the back of those old baseball cards, I found my mind reconstructing the man’s life based on only a very few statistics and details.
The first thing I noticed was that Baldoni’s professional boxing career had actually begun in 1947, before he joined the Marine Corps. If the birth date provided is correct, then he was barely sixteen years old when he made his debut as a welterweight. He won his first four bouts, three of which were in the vicinity of his home in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. In his fifth bout he went in against undefeated Hy Metzer on the undercard of an Ike William’s main event at New York’s Madison Square Garden. That was undoubtedly a tremendous occasion for Baldoni. For a boxer, getting the opportunity to compete in the ring at Madison Square Garden is akin to a baseball player getting a chance to play at Yankee Stadium. Judging by his record, Metzer, who took the decision that night, was apparently a fairly skilled boxer. He would go on to win 41 professional matches—all but four by decision.
The Metzer fight was followed by three straight victories and another bout in the Big Apple, this time at the St. Nicholas Arena. Baldoni dropped a decision to Billy Wyatt that night, but it must have been a close fight because a rematch occurred just a month later, this time at the Garden—with the victory going to Baldoni. He was making his way, and likely had other bouts around this time that were not documented. Most boxers of his era fought frequently, sometimes in unsanctioned “smokers” in bars or other locations. The emphasis was on learning the craft while getting a little exposure, and, hopefully, making some cash in the process. It was a noble sport but a rough and unpredictable way to make a living. Exposure was the key to getting more lucrative fights, and young Baldoni was definitely attracting some attention.
By August of 1949 he had grown into a middleweight with a record of 15-2-1, including seven wins inside the distance. Losing a couple of fights in those days was considered part of the learning process, and Baldoni was likely considered a legitimate prospect. His success earned him his first main event against Brooklyn’s Harold Green, a proven veteran sporting an impressive 60-10 ledger that included victories over Rocky Graziano and Fritzi Zivic. Baldoni was apparently in over his head against this vastly more experienced opponent, and he suffered a TKO loss in the fifth round. Two tough decision losses followed, but he closed out 1949 with an impressive victory over veteran Tommy Bazzano. As 1950 began, Tony Baldoni had proven himself to be a young man with a future in the prize ring—yet he wouldn’t fight again until 1954. Whatever else may have been going on in his life, sometime after the start of 1950 Tony Baldoni became a Marine.
There are thousands of stories of young men in their athletic primes being drafted or otherwise having their potentially successful athletic careers interrupted by military service, mandatory or otherwise. There is a tendency to assume that athletic accomplishments suffer as a result of this sacrifice, and many times this is undeniably true. Not only are prime physical years lost, but the sort of serious injuries that can result from the rigors of training and, of course, from combat very often mean the end of serious athletic pursuits. But what is often overlooked is that the discipline and physical demands of military service have also enabled many athletes to return to their sport stronger and more prepared to perform at a peak condition. I suspect that Tony Baldoni falls into this category of development.
With no disrespect to the other branches of military service, the intense training and discipline of the United States Marine Corps are superlative. Further, the Marine Corps of the Korean War era ranks among the most formidable combat units in modern history—due in no small part to the fact that veterans of the Pacific theatre of World War II provided an unyielding foundation upon which to build a superior fighting force. Barring serious injury or combat wounds, any man returning to civilian life in 1953 after serving honorably as a Marine would likely be in extraordinary mental and physical condition. When Tony Baldoni returned to the ring on March 30, 1954, it’s likely that he was more than prepared to resume his career as a prizefighter.
Baldoni’s record shows seven victories against no defeats during his first year back, traveling to various clubs from Baltimore to Youngstown. His success earned him a return to Madison Square Garden, this time as an opponent for Hardy Smallwood, a prospect who had been featured in the “New Faces” section of the prestigious Ring magazine. Baldoni scored an upset by knocking Smallwood down twice en route to a fourth round TKO. The victory set up a high profile ten-round co-feature bout against Ray Drake in Syracuse, New York. Baldoni, again in the underdog role, managed to score a majority decision over Drake in what was likely an exciting fight. The victory caught the attention of matchmakers for the televised Gillette Cavalcade of Sports “Friday Night Fights,” and Baldoni was subsequently matched against Ralph “Tiger” Jones for a televised main event.
Tiger Jones was a popular television fighter who had already gone in against many of the best welter and middleweights of the 1950s. Although he was frequently in the “opponent” role in his bouts against the top contenders, he always went the distance, and he more than occasionally pulled off an upset victory. His biggest claim to fame was a unanimous decision over Sugar Ray Robinson in 1955, but his career ledger also includes wins over Johnny Bratton, Kid Gavilan, and Joey Giardello, just to name a few. He was an excellent boxer who never gave anyone an easy night. A victory over Jones would establish Baldoni as a bona fide contender for the world middleweight title, then held by Robinson. He put up a spirited and competitive fight, but fell to Jones in the sixth round. Despite the outcome, losing gallantly to a top contender stands out as the pinnacle moment in his boxing career.
As something of a consolation prize, the televised loss did make Baldoni marketable as an opponent for other prospects and contenders. His very next match was against Joey Giardello, a top contender who was climbing up the rankings on the way to eventually winning the world title. But this time Baldoni fell in the first round, and his marketability faded with the crushing loss. He bounced around in the club scenes around Scranton and Baltimore after that bout, winning a few and losing a few, before getting one more shot at the big time in 1960—this time against Sugar Ray himself. At 39, Robinson was well past his prime but still brought considerable skills and ability into the ring. In his most recent fight he had lost the world title to Paul Pender by split decision. Baldoni was expected to be a good tune-up to help keep the ex-champ sharp for his rematch against Pender.
According to a contemporary report, “After a feinting a few punches, Robinson delivered a stiff punch to Baldoni’s ribs, and the ex-Marine began to sag. Sugar Ray did his best to hold him erect, but finally let Baldoni drop to the canvas and be counted out after only 41 seconds had expired.” The view of the commentator seems to be that Baldoni just showed up to collect a paycheck, but the commentator didn’t take a punch to the body from Sugar Ray Robinson. To be sure, nothing about Baldoni’s life story up to that night would suggest he would take the easy way out, and there is no shame in being knocked out by the man for whom the phrase “greatest pound-for-pound fighter” was invented. This loss to the best middleweight of all-time proved to be the capper on the boxing career of Tony Baldoni.
There are many famous boxers who were also Marines. Gene Tunney, Ken Norton, and Carmen Basilio come immediately to mind, but the list is long and storied. Tony Baldoni is a fine representative of the breed. Had he avoided enlistment into the service, he might have had a more glorious ring career. Maybe. But I suspect he never regretted the decision he made to become a Marine. After coming across his name in Dave Easton’s book, I tried to locate Mr. Baldoni, but thus far I have had only enough success in my research to suspect that as of 2012 he is still alive. Therefore, at least for this casual historian, the details of Tony Baldoni’s life and career remain a matter of speculation—just a few facts on a boxing record combined with a couple of anecdotes from his Marine days. The only thing I have been able to determine beyond doubt is that he was a prizefighter and a leatherneck—and he served both roles well.