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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group


Rocky Marciano's Fight for Perfection in a Crooked World

Mike Stanton




The Terrific Three

Rocky Marciano wore out a pair of shoes the way he wore out his opponents in the ring.

Running tirelessly through the streets of his childhood in Brockton, Massachusetts, he chased a dream while fleeing the tedium of a life in the shoe factories. Rocco was a familiar sight around town, his feet pounding through the Italian second ward with its triple-deckers and grape arbors, past the sandlots where he played baseball and the woods where a one-legged gambler ran a Sunday dice game, through the bustling downtown with its impressive architecture, church spires, and movie palaces where a boy could sit in the balcony and daydream. Some days he ran through the West Side, where the factory managers and Brockton’s well-to-do lived, past their fieldstone mansions and elegant white colonials where he delivered the Brockton Enterprise and occasionally filched a bottle of milk left by the dairyman. On workdays, when the factory whistles blew, he ran by the sprawling brick shoe plants to bring his father his lunch. His father, Pierino Marchegiano, an Italian immigrant, worked at one of the city’s several dozen shoe factories, laboring over a backbreaking machine that formed the heels and toes, helping produce the twelve million pairs of shoes that Brockton sent the world every year.

When Rocky became a famous boxer, the Doyle Shoe Company started giving him ten pairs of black Vici kid road shoes a year. He returned one pair after running seven hundred miles in them, worn through on both soles. He thought nothing of walking twenty miles to see a Brockton High School football road game, or thirty-five miles to Providence, Rhode Island, after he started boxing there.

The shoes Rocky wore when he trained fared little better. He wore a hole in the left front sole, illustrating the force with which he pivoted on the ball of his foot to launch his wrecking ball of a right hand. In 1951, when he beat Joe Louis to establish himself as the top heavyweight contender, Webster’s dictionary marked the first use of the expression “shoe leather,” for “basic, direct or old-fashioned methods.” Rocky’s shoes were the size of an ordinary man’s, 10½, but the width hinted at his broader stature—EE.

Two other local shoe factories made the shoes that Rocky wore when he stepped into the ring, carrying the hopes of Brockton on his squat shoulders. For each fight, the Howard & Foster Shoe Company made him two pairs of some of the lightest boxing shoes ever produced, attaching black yellow-back kangaroo uppers to a lightweight sole manufactured by the Potvin Shoe Company. After Rocky became champion, the women in the stitching room asked if they could sign their names in his shoes. They were allowed to sign one pair. It was a perfect marriage of form and function, Rocky wearing out Brockton’s shoes with the industry that made him and his city great. Brockton made shoes, shoes made Brockton, and Brockton made Rocky Marciano, who would become its most famous export.

“The important thing,” said the vice president of Howard & Foster, “is that our employees feel as though they’re helping Rocky in the ring.”

* * *

IN THE EARLY 1920s, Rocky’s grandfather Luigi Picciuto bought a simple white-shingled cottage at 80 Brook Street in Brockton’s Ward Two. His daughter and new son-in-law moved in upstairs. He planted grapevines in the side yard and strung lights in the backyard so that the men in the neighborhood could come over on Saturday nights to play bocce and drink his homemade wine.

Luigi was a muscular, broad-shouldered man, six foot two and 220 pounds, with a flowing black mustache and dark, sensitive eyes. He was a commanding presence, a natural-born leader back in his native Italy and in Brockton, where everyone in the neighborhood called him mastro, master artisan.

“Everything about him was big,” Rocky recalled. “He played big, he worked big, he gambled big, he drank big, he ate big, he talked in a big voice.”

Luigi was a blacksmith from the Italian hill town of San Bartolomeo in Galdo (“in the clouds”), a tiny village perched on a mountainside near Naples with houses clinging to the steep slopes. He was a respected man in his community, a local cavour, or leader, who mediated disputes in the absence of any formal government. But Italy was racked by corruption and poverty, and in 1914 Luigi joined the tide of four and a half million Italians who immigrated to America between 1880 and 1920.

Luigi’s blacksmith skills made it easy for him to get a job with a railroad in New Jersey, and he soon brought over his two oldest daughters, Carmella and Pasqualena. The women went to work in a garment factory in Newark. Within a year, Luigi was able to bring over his wife and their four younger children. The family settled in Bridgeport, Connecticut. There, tragedy struck. Luigi’s nine-year-old son Nicholas was run over and killed by a truck while riding a wagon that Luigi had built him for Christmas. Heartbroken, Luigi said that he couldn’t bear to stay in Bridgeport. He took his family to Brockton, where Carmella had moved after getting married.

Luigi’s second-oldest daughter Pasqualena, or Lena, born in 1902, was a bright, vivacious, dark-haired young woman who had inherited Luigi’s exuberance, determination, and strength. As a girl in San Bartolomeo, she walked down one hundred steps every day to fetch water from the village well, balancing the jugs on her sturdy shoulders as she climbed back up. The curious and quick-witted Lena was not content to fulfill the traditional role of a woman of her times. She wanted an education so that she could become a schoolteacher. That put her in conflict with Luigi, who saw no reason to waste money on schoolbooks for a girl. When he caught her sneaking off to a school in a neighboring village, he grabbed a wooden chair in his blacksmithing shop and broke it over Lena’s head. The chair shattered into pieces as a sobbing but unhurt Lena protested her father’s stubbornness.

In Brockton, Lena got a job in a corset factory. When she was eighteen, she began to notice a quiet young man whom she had first seen at a friend’s house. He was not loud and boisterous like the other boys in the neighborhood. His name was Pierino Marchegiano, and he worked in a shoe factory. He was seven years older and had emigrated from Italy to America a few years before Luigi.

Pierino was born in 1894 in Ripa Teatina, a village on the Alento River in Italy’s Abruzzi region near the Adriatic coast. Despite its placid beauty, the region had a history of association with great fighters. Warriors who fought with Achilles in the Trojan War were said to have founded the nearby city of Teate. For centuries, the region resisted conquest by the Roman Empire. As a boy, Pierino played in the shadow of two medieval watchtowers, monuments to a lawless age when mercenaries had protected the village. Pierino liked to use a phrase coined by a nineteenth-century diplomat to describe the region’s beauty and people—forte e gentile, strong and gentle.

Pierino was a strong boy with large hands who spoke little of what must have been a painful childhood. He never knew his own father, Rocco, who died when the boy was young. His mother died when he was twelve, and his grandmother raised him. When he was seventeen, Pierino set sail for America alone. An uncle knew the owner of a construction company outside Boston, who agreed to offer Pierino a job. Eventually he settled in Brockton and found work in a shoe factory.

Pierino was proud of his adoptive country, and when America entered World War I, he was one of the first Italians in Brockton to enlist in the U.S. armed forces. He joined the U.S. Marines, and fought on the Marne and in the Argonne during some of the war’s bloodiest battles. In the spring of 1918, his brigade repelled the last great German offensive of the war at Château-Thierry, fifty miles from Paris. When shrapnel from a grenade pierced his left cheek, Pierino spit out three teeth and kept fighting. Later, when a tank exploded near his trench, more shrapnel pierced his right leg; subsequent surgeries left that leg shorter, forcing him to wear a platform shoe on his right foot and walk with a limp.

But the worst injury Pierino suffered was from being gassed, one of the horrors of modern chemical warfare introduced during World War I. The mustard gas poisoned his lungs and left him weak and frail and gasping for breath for the rest of his life. He sucked on Life Savers to mask the bitter taste in his mouth. A photograph of Pierino when he entered the U.S. Marines shows the squat, muscular physique of his firstborn son, the future heavyweight champion. But when he returned to Brockton in 1919, he had lost his youthful strength and vigor. Had it been worth it? For the rest of his life, he would remember the parting words of his commanding officer: “Pierino, you can be proud to call yourself an American.”

The war may have shattered Pierino’s constitution but not his toughness. He went to work at the E. E. Taylor shoe factory in Brockton, in one of the plant’s most physically demanding jobs, operating a No. 5 bed laster. Pushing the pedals of the clattering machine with his feet, tacks in his mouth, Pierino shaped the shoe leather around a mold, or last, to form the toes and heels of the shoe, then used a hammer to tack the pieces of leather together for stitching. The smell of leather was overpowering, especially in the summer, when the factory became a sweatbox.

One night at a church social, Pierino met Lena. They embarked on a traditional Italian courtship, the ever-vigilant Luigi chaperoning them everywhere. Once, at an amusement park, Luigi panicked when he briefly lost track of the couple in the Tunnel of Love. Pierino stole a first kiss on the Ferris wheel, when Luigi couldn’t see, and proposed at a concert.

They were a study in contrasts, the thin, serious Pierino and the plump, vivacious Lena. They married on August 7, 1921, at St. Patrick’s Church in Brockton. She was nineteen and he was twenty-six. At their wedding reception, Luigi raised a glass of wine in a toast to his new son-in-law and pronounced, “May you and my beautiful daughter live to be a hundred—and may your firstborn be very famous.”

* * *

ROCCO FRANCIS MARCHEGIANO entered the ring for the first time shortly after one a.m. on September 1, 1923. At twelve pounds, ten ounces, he was a natural heavyweight. Dr. Josephat Phaneuf, who delivered the baby on the second floor of Luigi’s cottage on Brook Street, recalled that it was a difficult delivery because of the size of the head. Years later, Dr. Phaneuf would tell patients, “I was the first one ever to hit him.”

Someone sent a card that Pierino would cherish always, with a drawing of tiny boxing gloves, inscribed, “Hail to the Champ.”

His parents were elated. It was Lena’s second pregnancy; her first had ended the year before, with the birth of a thirteen-pound son who died the same day. Worried that her job at the corset factory had contributed to the loss of the baby, a distraught Pierino insisted that Lena quit and stay home when she became pregnant again.

It was a rare victory for Pierino in a household dominated by his forceful wife. Pierino wanted to stop at two children, so they could afford to give them everything and send them to college. But Lena insisted on six, telling Pierino that the children could share. In the years that followed, Lena gave birth to Alice in 1925, Concetta in 1927, Betty in 1931, Louis (or Sonny) in 1933, and Peter in 1940. She also suffered two more miscarriages.

Not long after Rocco was born, the fates seemed to be conspiring to take him away. During the cold, rainy March of 1925, when he was eighteen months old, Rocco came down with pneumonia. He was sick for more than a week. His parents took turns sleeping on the floor beside his bed, listening for the raspy sound of his breathing. His fever climbed to 105. Dr. Phaneuf came and went, doing what he could, but there were no antibiotics and not much that could be done for pneumonia, which killed many babies in the 1920s. Ultimately, the doctor told Pierino and Lena that it was up to the baby’s spirit to fight the sickness. If he survived, Dr. Phaneuf said, he would probably grow up to be a very strong man.

Leaning over her son, watching the life drain from his still, pale body, Lena repeated, “Figlio mio, figlio mio. Cuore della mia vita.” While other women consoled her, male relatives and friends stood vigil in the kitchen with a disconsolate Pierino and Luigi.

One woman dipped her finger into a teaspoon of olive oil and dropped it into a bowl of water, chanting an incantation to remove the malocchio, or evil eye, that seemed to hover over the child. Frantic, Lena took off her most valuable possession—a diamond solitaire ring from Pierino—and hung it on a statue of Saint Anthony as an offering to cure her son.

The next day, the baby’s great-aunt Paolina Mangifesti, a gnarled woman in her nineties, came to pay her respects. She found Lena and the other women gathered around the listless baby, clutching their rosary beads. But she had seen pneumonia in babies before, back in Italy. She took one look at the listless Rocco and called for some warm water and a teaspoon. Parting the baby’s lips, she dribbled the liquid into the baby’s mouth. Almost immediately, Rocco made a big noise in his chest, his eyes fluttered open, and his lips moved.

He was dehydrated, Paolina explained. Give him some chicken broth. If he doesn’t want it, force it down. Lena followed her instructions, and the fever subsided. Before long, the baby had regained what would become a prodigious appetite.

In the joy of Rocco’s recovery, and the bustle of taking care of him and cooking and cleaning, several days passed before Lena remembered her offering to Saint Anthony. She checked the statue. Her diamond ring was gone. She refused to believe that one of the friends or relatives who had been in and out of the house during Rocco’s illness would have stolen it. Saint Anthony had taken it, in answer to her prayers.

* * *

THEY CALLED THEMSELVES the Terrific Three: Eugene Sylvester, Izzy Gold, and Rocco Marchegiano. They were three Depression-era boys running through the streets of Brockton—playing baseball at James Edgar Playground, fighting for their honor behind Petti’s garage, sneaking under the fence at the Brockton Fair, bumming day-old doughnuts from the friendly baker at Bob’s Lunch on Crescent Street, washed down with quarts of fresh milk swiped from the doorsteps of Brockton’s affluent West Side.

The three friends modeled themselves after a trio of street urchins in the popular 1930s comic strip Red Barry. The syndicated strip chronicled the adventures of a square-jawed, hard-punching detective who fought crime with the help of three boys—the Terrific Three. Red Barry was inspired by Sherlock Holmes and Dick Tracy, but he fought crime with his fists, not his brains or fancy gadgets.

Eugene, Izzy, and Rocky banded together when they were around twelve. Izzy, a tough, wiry Jewish kid who liked to gamble and take risks, had just moved into the neighborhood from the East Side, Brockton’s poorest neighborhood. Eugene and Rocky had grown up near each other. Eugene, tall and thin, with dark black hair and a handsome face that he highlighted by pushing back the brim of his baseball cap, was an impish wiseacre always stirring up trouble. Rocky was the strong, silent one, good-natured and shy but a fierce competitor and sore loser. Often, he was the one called on to bail his fast-talking friends out of a scrape.

Summers and after school, the boys lived outside, in the parks, on the streets, banging through their kitchen doors to eat and sleep, then hurrying back out to play ball or chase some mischief until their parents sent a brother or sister to fetch them home. There was little extra money for entertainment. But despite the Great Depression, it was in many ways an idyllic childhood. Families scraped by and looked out for one another. Despite layoffs and cutbacks, the shoe factories remained open; Pierino kept working. Mothers saw to it that there was enough food on the table, supplemented by fruit and vegetable gardens, wild mushrooms and dandelion greens, and public assistance provided through the “bean line,” the daily dole of baked beans, a slab of pork, and brown bread. Lena cooked generous Italian meals that her eldest son gorged on, and always made sure that her children had a dollar for the Brockton Fair.

The Brockton of Rocky’s youth was a melting pot of Italians, Irish, Lithuanians, Swedes, Poles, Germans, and French Canadians. The immigrants had helped build a thriving manufacturing city defined by the name of its leading newspaper—the Brockton Enterprise. Wrote one local nineteenth-century historian, “You could always tell a Brockton man by his smile. He was just about the most thoroughly alert and modernized commodity that New England has to show.” In 1883, Thomas Edison chose Brockton for a historic breakthrough, throwing a switch that illuminated downtown through the world’s first three-wire underground electrical system. The city also boasted the nation’s first electric fire station and trolley system. The stately downtown, walking distance from Rocky’s house, had impressive brick blocks of department stores, elegant bank buildings, a modern train station, and a graceful stone city hall and public library. Rocky lived across the street from James Edgar Playground, named for the Scottish immigrant who had founded one of the city’s biggest department stores. In the 1890s, Edgar had started dressing up as Santa Claus to entertain shoppers at Christmastime, creating a phenomenon that drew visitors from Boston and inspired department stores in larger cities to follow suit.

The shoe factories spread out from downtown, and the men and women who worked there moved into neighborhoods built nearby so they could walk to work. When he was little, Rocky stood on the street corner and waited for Pierino to trudge home from the factory.

If Pierino didn’t enjoy his grueling work, or felt put upon by the Irish foremen, he and his co-workers took pride in their craft. Shoemaking had been respected in Massachusetts since colonial times, when Puritan judges spared the life of a cobbler who had been sentenced to hang for stealing his neighbor’s corn. Colonial cobblers shod George Washington’s bedraggled troops during the Revolutionary War. After the war, returning soldiers set up cottage industries making shoes by hand in several towns on Boston’s South Shore. With the Industrial Revolution, nearly a dozen factories sprang up in Brockton, then called North Bridgewater, twenty miles south of Boston, and the immigrants flowed in. The city, known for its tolerance, became a major stop on the Underground Railroad; down the street from Rocky’s school was a white buttonwood tree known as the Liberty Tree, a rendezvous spot for fleeing slaves where the abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison had spoken. During the Civil War, the city churned out boots for the Union army. As the city prospered and immigrants flowed in, the leading citizens decided that their city needed a new name. They rejected a proposal to call it Standish, after Myles Standish, the Pilgrim leader from nearby Plymouth, who had bought the land from the Wampanoag Indians in 1649. Instead, a local businessman suggested Brockton, after a town he had visited in Canada. It was modern, strong, forceful.

Brockton had grown to about sixty thousand people when Rocky was born. The city’s different ethnic groups clustered in different neighborhoods, fostering turf rivalries, but for the most part got along. Brockton was small enough that children traveled easily from one neighborhood to another, playing pickup baseball or sledding in winter near the reservoir in D. W. Field Municipal Park, named for a local shoe baron who had donated the land. When they got older, they came together at Brockton High School. The city’s only high school forged a working-class immigrant identity manifested in its powerhouse sports teams, particularly football. The entire community proudly supported the Shoe Men.

“It didn’t make any difference if a kid was Italian or Irish or Jewish or Negro—we all worked with our hands or our folks worked with theirs,” recalled Rocky.

Still, cultural differences existed. Leo Ball, one of the few Jewish kids in Rocky’s neighborhood, remembers being taunted by the Italian boys as a “Christ killer.” After they got to know him, he was “okay for a Jew” and became one of the gang. Leo lived around the corner from Rocky, who was four years older. One day, Rocky and Eugene Sylvester approached him about his new bicycle, the first in the neighborhood. Rocky persuaded Leo to let him borrow the bike; for every minute he rode it, Leo could give him one kick in the pants. But then Rocky disappeared down the street, Eugene running alongside, and never returned. That night, Leo’s furious mother walked over to the Marchegianos and retrieved the bicycle. Leo overheard her tell his father that Rocky’s house reeked of garlic and olive oil. And so Leo learned the source of “that strange, exotic smell my friends constantly carried with them.”

Despite their relative comfort in Brockton, opportunities for Rocky, his friends, and their families were limited by hostile outside forces. In Massachusetts, where foreign-born workers outnumbered the native-born in factory towns like Brockton, Lowell, and Fall River, the prosperous surrounding communities put up signs saying NO ITALIANS OR IRISH NEED APPLY. Three Harvard University graduates whipped up nativist sentiment when they founded the Immigration Restriction League, which successfully lobbied Congress to slam the doors on immigrants from southern and eastern Europe in the early 1920s. Prominent authors and government officials described Italians as “a race of pickpockets,” an “indiscriminate horde of unfit foreigners,” and a group that should be “catalogued, photographed [and] finger-printed.” Federal agents were rounding up suspected Italian anarchists and deporting many with little or no proof. The harshest reminder of anti-Italian prejudice struck close to home, when two Italian laborers and anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, were arrested on the Brockton trolley not far from Luigi’s house. Despite a lack of evidence, the pair was convicted of participating in the robbery of a shoe-factory payroll in a neighboring town in which a guard and paymaster were shot dead. Their case became an international cause célèbre, but after a trial marred by conflicting evidence, recanted testimony, and blatant prejudice, they were convicted. The week before Rocky’s fourth birthday, in 1927, they were executed in the electric chair. Luigi, outspoken as ever, lamented that there was no justice for Sacco and Vanzetti; he even spoke of moving back to Italy. As Rocky’s friend Izzy Gold put it, “America’s a cruel place if you don’t know your way around.”

* * *

LUIGI PICCIUTO WAS the patriarch of Rocky’s family. He and his wife lived on the first floor of his cottage on Brook Street, with the growing Marchegiano family crowded into four rooms upstairs. Lena and Pierino had one bedroom, and the girls shared the other. Sonny slept downstairs with his grandparents, and Rocky slept in the living room on a folding cot. He liked to sleep beneath an open window, even in winter, because he loved the fresh air. (When Peter arrived in 1940, he would sleep in his parents’ room.)

The house had no central heat, hot water, or bathtub. Two coal stoves on the first floor provided heat. Every Saturday night, Lena heated water on the kitchen stove and washed the children in a large tin washtub in the kitchen, the girls one week, boys the next.

Lena’s outsize personality filled the tiny rooms. She was a short, stout woman with a vivacious smile and sparkling eyes, who spoke broken English with a heavy Italian accent. She was loud like Luigi, strict but indulgent, intelligent but superstitious. She feared the malocchio—the evil eye—and lit candles in church to ask the saints to watch over her family. Although she never realized her dream of becoming a schoolteacher, she loved to read and had a wide-ranging curiosity about the world. She was also the neighborhood letter writer for the illiterate. Fiercely proud of her Italian heritage, she insisted that her children attend twice-a-week lessons in Italian language and grammar at the Novelli Club, a neighborhood social club. Rocky learned to speak Italian fluently, though he could not write it.

Lena loved opera. She liked to sing and dance to her favorite Italian songs on the radio while she did housework, sometimes grabbing a child or relative and whirling them around gaily. She was up early, cooking simmering Italian dishes that took all day, like her chicken dumpling soup and pasta fagioli. She was a terrific cook and could improvise with dandelion greens, wild mushrooms, and other odds and ends to stretch the thin family budget.

Lena wanted Rocky to become a singer or dancer; she signed him up for accordion lessons, but he quit after a couple of sessions when his parents found out how much an accordion cost. Rocky played the bugle and marched in the American Legion children’s band. He wasn’t good enough to play solo but liked to join in.

Lena spoiled her children, sparing them many of the chores that other children had to do. During the Depression, she never let them know how precarious the family’s finances were, quietly borrowing money so that she could give each child a dollar for the Brockton Fair. But she was strict if they misbehaved. She hated when they got into fights and punished them by grounding them. But if Rocky broke someone’s window playing baseball, she just shrugged and said, “That’s nothing. When you have children, you know you’re going to have to pay for windows.”

Rocky didn’t fear anybody, his brother Peter said, “except maybe Mom.” Rocky may have inherited his father’s toughness and large hands, but he drew his strength and determination from his mother.

“She was a very dominating personality, and I think a lot of the things that Rocky did in his life had to do with the strength that Mom had,” said Peter.

The house was always filled with family, friends, and neighbors. Luigi’s Saturday night gatherings to play bocce and drink wine could get quite boisterous. This was during Prohibition, when wine was difficult to get, so he made his own. (An exception for homemade wine had been written into the federal law establishing Prohibition.) He carried on a spirited competition with his neighbor Luigi Colombo to see who made the best wine.

The bocce game in the backyard was noisy enough, but the nights grew rowdier after the men moved into the basement to drink and play an Italian card game called scopa. The winner was called the boss, and he chose a second boss, sometimes by playing a finger-pointing game called morra. The two bosses decided who could drink and who couldn’t. They made one guy the goat, meaning he couldn’t drink. As the night wore on, the other men grew drunker and drunker, and the goat got madder and madder. Soon, they were all hollering at one another, then pushing and shoving and fighting. Rocky witnessed some “terrible, terrible fights” that he had to help break up. When these old Italian men got really mad, he said, they didn’t fight with their fists—they butted heads like goats, lowering their heads and taking a running start at one another across the dirt floor.

“You’d think they’d kill each other, but I never saw anyone laid out on the floor with a busted head,” said Rocky.

Luigi was semiretired and spent much of his time tending his small vineyard. Given the large quantity of wine he made—a dozen or so barrels—he also bought an annual consignment of 175 crates of grapes from a local vendor. Sometimes, Rocky and his friends would steal a crate or two from the back of the truck as it drove slowly through the neighborhood, and carry it into the woods to feast.

Then Rocky and his friends hurried back to Luigi’s to help lug the heavy crates down to the basement, where a large wooden winepress stood in a corner. Rocky was thirteen and fanatical about physical fitness. He raced to carry more crates than his friends. They dumped a crateful of grapes at a time into the vat, then Rocky took turns with the other boys pulling the heavy handle to force the press down onto the grapes and squeeze out the juice. It was hard work, and most of the boys had to rest after two or three crates. Rocky, switching between his right and left arm, prided himself on doing twenty crates without a break, muscles rippling beneath his T-shirt.

Luigi belonged to a club with about twenty other men who gathered every month at someone’s house for impressive eating contests. Before the eating began, the men placed bets. Luigi Colombo’s son Mike was always the favorite. One night, Rocky watched him eat forty-two meatballs. Another time, he put away sixteen pounds of spaghetti. But the occasion that stood out was the time that Mike and his rival du jour each devoured twenty-one chickens. “When [Mike] started eating the bones,” said Rocky, “the other guy quit.”

Inspired by his elders, and spoiled by Lena’s cooking, Rocky also was a prodigious eater. When his mother cooked a big pot of spaghetti for supper, everyone in the family filled their plate, then Rocky got everything left in the pot. For breakfast, he ate a large bowl of cereal with a quart of milk and six bananas cut up on top. He loved fruit cocktail and could eat two cans at a sitting. One time, after he polished off two large cans, Lena scolded him that he had brothers and sisters who also needed to eat. “Aw Ma, I had a good feed,” he replied. “Next time they can have it all.”

One Sunday, Lena roasted a large chicken for company that night. When she went to the icebox later to take it out, Rocky had eaten it down to the bones. Another time, she brought home six large pies from the bakery. Rocky devoured four. But the boy was health-conscious, avoiding fried foods and constantly asking if something was good for him. He avoided meat on Friday; if Lena slipped and cooked spaghetti with meat gravy on a Friday, he’d scold her and say, “What kind of Catholic are you?”

Not surprisingly, Rocky was a stout boy.

“When I go to buy him pants,” Lena recalled, “I would say, ‘You better give me double-seat pants.’”

When he was little, Rocky would follow his mother around the house as she did her chores, promising that someday he was going to make her rich. As the oldest son, he helped as best he could, getting a paper route when he was seven years old and giving his earnings to his mother. If one of his siblings got into trouble at school, Rocky accompanied his parents, who were self-conscious of their broken English, to the meeting with the teacher.

His generosity set an example for his brothers and sisters, especially in the depths of the Depression. When his teachers asked for donations of food for the less fortunate, Lena would give Rocky a paper bag with four potatoes, but he usually managed to sneak in something extra. When he was thirteen he took his nine-year-old sister Concetta, or Conge, downtown to go Christmas shopping. Lena had given Conge fifty cents to buy something, but when they passed the Salvation Army bucket on Main Street, Rocky told her to put the money in. She protested. He insisted, squeezing her hand until she dropped the coins in.

He was a protective big brother. Once at Edgar Park, an older boy threatened to beat up Sonny if Sonny didn’t give him his baseball bat and let the older boy hit. Rocky, who was nearby, saw this, ran into the park, and grabbed the boy. “For the next hour, you’re going to pitch to him,” Rocky said. “And if you open your mouth, you’ve got problems.” The boy obeyed and pitched to Sonny without a word. Another time, when a boy hit Sonny, Rocky confronted him on the street and “whacked me on the arm,” the boy said. “I felt it for a week.”

Rocky hated being teased by the other boys when his mother made him take his sister Alice with him at night to fetch something from the market, because she didn’t want the children walking alone. One night, his parents went to the movies and left Rocky to babysit his sister. He wanted to practice football instead, so he took Alice to Edgar Park, sat her on a crate under a streetlight, and told her not to move. Alice obeyed, but when her brother and the other boys moved off into the darkness at the other end of the field, she began to cry. Annoyed, Rocky came over and slapped her. Later that night, after Alice had gone to bed, her big brother woke her up and apologized.

* * *

ROCKY’S FIRST LOVE was baseball.

He and Eugene Sylvester, of the Terrific Three, were good ballplayers. They played for the Ward Two team, and also for their St. Patrick’s CYO team. Eugene was a good pitcher, and Rocky could mash the ball. In one pickup game, he drove the ball out of the park into the street, where it bounced once and smacked into the side of a house five hundred feet away.

When it rained, snowed, or sleeted, and the other boys’ parents wouldn’t let them outside, they could look out their windows and see Rocky, alone in the park, hitting a baseball. If he had a baseball game, the customers on his afternoon paper route would have to wait. His uncle Johnny, Luigi’s son, would pitch to him for hours, paying Rocky’s sister Alice and brother Sonny a nickel to chase the balls. It was hard to dislodge Rocky from the batter’s box, where he could seemingly hit forever. When the priest who coached his CYO team chastised him for monopolizing batting practice, he replied, “Gee, Father, I got to get my whacks.”

With his short, squat frame, Rocky was a prototypical catcher. Errant pitches didn’t get by him, and neither did runners trying to score when he blocked the plate. But he couldn’t run. When he played for Brockton High School, he hit a four-hundred-foot drive to the fence against New Bedford that another player would have easily turned into an inside-the-park home run; Rocky lumbered into second base with a double. His style resembled one of his favorite major leaguers, the all-star catcher Ernie Lombardi of the Cincinnati Reds. A fellow Italian American, Lombardi was a powerful hitter and superb defender who ran so slowly that an opposing manager joked he looked like he was carrying a piano—and the man tuning it.

Rocky had big-league dreams and trained fanatically. He borrowed his uncle Johnny’s exerciser, with straps and springs, repeatedly stretching it across his chest and over his arms. Self-conscious about his friends knowing that he used the exerciser, he swore his sisters to secrecy. To strengthen his wrists and forearms, Rocky did chin-ups every morning and evening from the limb of a cherry tree in the backyard. At night, his sisters in bed in the next room could hear him “bouncing around” as he worked out. When he got older and he and Sonny shared a bedroom, Sonny would wake in the night to see Rocky squatting on the floor in the catcher’s position, lifting a heavy wooden chair over his head one hundred times with each arm.

His uncle Johnny, a bachelor who lived downstairs, encouraged Rocky’s interest in sports. With Pierino too tired after work and enfeebled by his war injuries, Johnny took on a father’s role of participating in sports activities with Rocky. He took him swimming at the YMCA and brought him to Red Sox and Braves baseball games in Boston. Johnny had a crippled left arm and was a shy man who kept to himself, more comfortable around his nieces and nephews than other adults. He was generous, buying the children secondhand skates and bicycles, paying for tap-dancing lessons for one niece, and buying a new Flexible Flyer sled that was big enough for all the children to ride together.

Though Rocky was slow to anger, it was inevitable that he would be involved in neighborhood fights. Fistfights were part of the code of the streets of his youth, a way of settling differences, proving yourself, defending your honor. But they passed quickly, like summer storms. There were no grudges, no knives, no guns.

When Leo Ball, the Jewish boy whose bicycle Rocky had “borrowed,” and his best friend Mike developed a crush on the same girl, Rocky found out and arranged for them to fight for her affections. A crowd of boys gathered around the combatants as they fought. When Leo won, Rocky took him over to the girl’s house to announce the results. The girl tossed a note from her window, which Rocky picked up and read: “I love you both very much, but I love Mike more.” Rocky put his hand gently on Leo’s shoulder, said, “Sorry, Leo,” and sauntered away with his friends. Later, Rocky arranged for Leo to fight another Italian boy, a fight that Leo saw as having racial overtones. The half-Jewish boxer Max Baer, wearing trunks with the Star of David, had recently beaten the Italian champion Primo Carnera for the heavyweight title, which “cast quite a pall over our neighborhood,” said Leo. With Rocky serving as his corner man, the Italian boy ended the fight quickly, recalled Leo, “preserving the integrity of Italy, and sending me back up Brook Street, lip bloodied.”

When Rocky was ten years old, he was walking home from school with his friend and neighbor Vinnie Colombo, the two boys taking turns bouncing a small rubber ball. Soon they started arguing over whose ball it was. Exchanges of “It’s mine” and “No, it’s mine” escalated to pushing and shoving. The boys started rolling around on the cobblestones in the middle of Brook Street, wrestling and throwing wild punches. Finally, bloody and dirty and crying, they separated and staggered home. The ball lay forgotten in the gutter. A few hours later, Rocky was outside Vinnie’s house, calling up to the window for him to come out and play as if nothing had happened.

But when a horrified Lena saw Rocky’s torn school clothes, bloody lip, and tear-streaked face, she demanded to know what had happened. He said Vinnie had punched him and taken his ball. Rocky frequently ran to his mother after getting into fights, and he had a reputation as a crybaby. On this day, his uncle Johnny stood quietly behind Lena, listening to his nephew’s latest plea for sympathy.

“Rocky, don’t come home crying and bother your mother,” Johnny said. “Fight your own battles.” Rocky slunk into the house, too embarrassed to answer.

The next day, Uncle Johnny took some canvas he had scrounged from the fairgrounds and had it stitched together into a bag. He took the bag to a lumberyard and filled it with sawdust, then hung it in the basement, near Luigi’s grape press. He instructed Rocky to hit the bag for a half hour every day, drilling him to use his left hand as well as his right. Johnny also gave the boy his first pair of boxing gloves. Rocky went to the cellar faithfully every day and attacked the bag. Because the basement ceiling was low, he had to crouch down to hit the bag solidly with an uppercut chop—an unconventional style that would serve him well years later.

The family also hung a punching bag in the backyard for Rocky to use. Even the family dog, Prince, liked jumping up to scratch at the swaying canvas bag.

Rocky’s first “official” boxing match took place when he was around eleven, in a makeshift canvas ring in a nearby backyard. His friend Allie Colombo matched him against a bigger, older boy from the neighborhood. They wore oversize gloves, so nobody could get seriously hurt. The fight was set for three rounds, but neither boy was tired so they kept going for ten, aggressively trading blows. There were no knockdowns, and the fight ended in a draw.

Recalling his childhood, Rocky said, “You really had to get me mad to fight.” But he hung around with smart alecks like Eugene Sylvester, who ran his mouth and would get into fights, “then he’d holler for me and I’d just back him up. I got in a lot of fights that way.”

That’s how Rocky wound up in an epic fight when he was fourteen with a black boy named Julie Durham, who had a reputation as one of the toughest fighters in the neighborhood. Julie, who was a few years older, was tough and strong, and served as ball boy for a semipro baseball team that played at Edgar Playground. Since baseballs were precious, Julie’s job was to chase down any foul balls before one of the boys lurking behind the backstop could grab it.

One day, when Izzy, Eugene, and Rocky were hanging around watching the game, the batter fouled back a pitch into the woods. The boys ran after the ball. Izzy got there first and stuffed it under his shirt. Julie ran into the woods and demanded the ball. Izzy denied having it. Eugene said they would help Julie look. But Julie wasn’t buying it. The argument escalated. Julie threatened the smaller Izzy. Rocky told Julie to pick on someone his own size. The two boys started shoving, then swinging. Julie jabbed Rocky in the nose with a hard punch. Startled, Rocky stumbled and fell down in the leaves. When he got up, his nose was bloody. The two boys circled each other, Rocky holding his arms up clumsily, unable to block the quicker Julie’s accurate punches.

News of the fight spread quickly. The people who had been watching the baseball game abandoned the bleachers and formed a circle around the two boys. Julie kept tagging Rocky, who was too slow and awkward to land a good punch. Leo Ball, who was there, recalled Julie “hitting, dancing, taunting, until Rocky was frustrated to tears.” Then Julie took his eyes off Rocky for an instant to say something to a friend. Like a bolt of lightning from a blue sky, Rocky swung hard with an overhead right that caught Julie on the jaw and sent him toppling to the ground. He stood over Julie, his right fist cocked. The small crowd, which by then included some of the players from the baseball game, cheered. Rocky seemed almost as surprised as Julie. But it had felt good. The fight cemented Rocky’s reputation as the toughest kid in the neighborhood. But he respected his adversary; he and Julie became friends and later played football together at Brockton High School.

* * *

NEIGHBORHOOD FISTFIGHTS REFLECTED the fight culture dominant in America in the 1930s. Boxing was second only to baseball in popularity, and its appeal filtered down from big-city arenas to small-town fight clubs. In an age of machines and skyscrapers, the boxing ring was a place where the individual could still shine by displaying courage and heart, cunning and toughness, skill and determination. The ring was a showcase for ethnic rivalries and provided an escape for immigrants struggling to find their place in a harsh new world. Immigrants sought acceptance and assimilation in the ring—there were many Jewish, Irish, and Italian fighters, and African Americans soon followed. The great John L. Sullivan, America’s first heavyweight champion, who had dragged the sport from the bare-knuckle era into the mainstream, had retired to a farm in West Abington, a few miles up the road from Brockton.

It was enough to make a boy dream. On the night of June 29, 1933, when Rocky was nine, Ward Two erupted in shouting and singing after Primo Carnera knocked out Jack Sharkey in New York to win the world heavyweight title. As Rocky watched the glow of the celebratory bonfires in Edgar Playground, he thought, “If I could win the title, I’d come back to Brockton and throw a party for the whole town.”

Shortly thereafter, Carnera came to Brockton to referee the boxing matches at the Brockton Arena. Uncle Johnny took Rocky to see the man who was known as the Ambling Alp. After the show, as the six-foot-six, 260-pound Carnera walked past them, Rocky reached up and touched the champ on the elbow. He gushed about it later to his father.

“I saw Carnera and I touched him. I really did,” he said. Pierino asked how big Carnera was. “Bigger than this ceiling,” answered Rocky. “And you should see how big his hands are!”

Rocky was too young and innocent to see the darker side of boxing. He didn’t realize that his boyhood hero was actually a Mafia stooge, a clumsy, lumbering ex–circus strongman plucked from obscurity in Italy and fattened up with a string of fixed fights against dubious opponents. Four months before Carnera won the title, he had knocked out Ernie Schaaf in a dull, controversial fight that had the crowd booing and shouting “fake.” Then Schaaf collapsed and died a few days later. Investigators concluded that he had suffered brain damage in previous fights and never should have been allowed in the ring. Prior to Carnera’s title fight against Sharkey, mobsters hung out openly at both fighters’ training camps. Sharkey was knocked out without putting up much of a fight. Carnera’s undistinguished reign lasted one year, until the lords of boxing had squeezed every last dollar out of him and sent him into the ring to be destroyed by Max Baer—the fight that upset Rocky and his Ward Two friends.

On those occasions when Uncle Johnny didn’t have money for tickets, he and Rocky climbed onto the roof of the shabby, cavernous Brockton Arena and watched the fights through the skylight. When Rocky and Izzy were in junior high, they started getting into the fights for free by working. One of their jobs was to help the fighters get their gloves on and off. The fight promoter only had two pairs of gloves, so the entire fight card had to share. Rocky and Izzy would cut the laces off the gloves of one boxer as he left the ring, take the gloves to the next boxer, and lace them up for him before he stepped into the ring.

One night when the boys were working, another champ, Joe Louis, made an appearance at the Brockton Arena as a guest referee. Louis, the first black heavyweight champion in twenty years, had beaten Carnera en route to the title and then became an American hero by knocking out Hitler’s strongman, Max Schmeling, in the epic 1938 fight that reflected the growing tensions between Nazi Germany and the United States. Rocky and Izzy were starstruck; they loved Louis, and they especially loved how hard he punched. They followed the Brown Bomber everywhere he went that night, even the bathroom. When the champ went into a stall, Izzy later recalled, he boosted Rocky up for a better look. Louis was good-natured about it and gave each boy fifty cents when he left the bathroom. The boys stammered their thanks.

* * *

THE TERRIFIC THREE were always hustling. Izzy and Rocky shined shoes downtown. Izzy helped Rocky with his paper route. Their clubhouse was the dirt cellar of the triple-decker where Izzy’s family lived, outfitted with a punching bag, a dartboard, and pictures of baseball heroes like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig hanging on rusty nails.

One day, in their basement clubhouse, Eugene said, “We’re blood brothers.”

“Yeah,” Izzy responded. “But we haven’t crossed blood.”

They got a razor, made small cuts in their wrists, and rubbed the cuts together. The initiation to be in their club, Izzy said, was to jump from the rooftop of one downtown building to another—a distance of about ten feet, four or five stories above Brockton. “If you fell, if you didn’t jump far enough, you were gone,” said Izzy. “That was the deal. You had to jump them roofs to make it in our gang, which we did.”

Most of their downtown treks were less hair-raising. When their mothers gave them twenty-five cents for a haircut, they spent it at the movies instead. When they could, they saved their quarters by persuading a friendly usher to let them slip into the Modern Theater for free, or wedging open the back door atop the fire escape behind the Rialto. Rocky would wolf down a quart of ice cream filched from McCann’s market next door. The boys also gobbled peanuts, which they paid less for by sneaking a finger underneath the scale to hide the true weight.

Money was often on their minds. “We had a thing in our head, we were going to make it big time, you know, we’re going to get rich,” recalled Izzy. Gambling was the way. Like boxing, games of chance were part of the culture that Rocky grew up with. It was a world, said Izzy, where kids “grew up fast.” Rocky and his friends played blackjack on the bleachers in the park for pennies. Once, Rocky remembered, his friend Angie picked up a penny under a tree in Edgar Playground and ran it up to forty bucks in a blackjack game under another tree.

But the Terrific Three’s big score involved a small-time hood from Providence, Rhode Island.

Every Sunday morning after church, about thirty men gathered in a clearing in the woods off Dover Street, behind Edgar Playground, to shoot craps. The game was run by a heavyset one-legged bookie from Providence called Peg-Leg Pete. Every Sunday morning, Pete would show up in the Gamblers Woods, as the spot was called, open a folding chair, sit down heavily, and spread out a chart on the grass that had the odds printed on it. He pulled a pistol out of his pocket and laid it on the ground. He was open for business.

The stakes were small, quarters and dollars, but could add up fast. Rocky’s uncle Mike—another of Lena’s brothers—came home once with $200. Another time, a player lost all his money and walked out. He returned a half hour later wearing a mask and pointing a gun and held up the crap game.

The Terrific Three plotted how to profit from Peg-Leg Pete’s game. Izzy hatched the idea of hiding in the woods and throwing stones until the gamblers, who didn’t want to draw attention and the police, gave them a few bucks to stop. The plan worked the first few times, but there were some tough men in the group, and they threatened to come after the boys if they didn’t stop.

Now Eugene had an idea. They would call the cops, and when the gamblers fled, the boys would swoop in and grab the money in the pot, maybe fifty or sixty bucks. The plan worked, sort of. When the gamblers heard the police, they scrambled into the woods, leaving their money on the ground. But the boys could only scoop up a few dollars before the police were on them, and they had to flee, too.

When they got older, Izzy started rolling the dice himself. His stake was a few bucks earned from his paper route or selling empty bottles or his bleacher blackjack winnings. The men liked to see him coming. He was usually no threat and invariably lost his money. After he lost, they teased him about the evils of gambling, then tossed him a quarter to buy himself an ice cream.

When the boys starting missing Sunday Mass at St. Patrick’s, their CYO baseball coach, Father Jeremiah Minnihan, stormed down to the Gamblers Woods as Rocky was shooting the dice. The priest called Rocky a heathen and threatened to toss him and his friends from the baseball team. Rocky apologized. He and his friends started showing up at church more regularly. But they didn’t stop gambling.

Then, one steamy summer Sunday, Lady Luck shone on Izzy Gold. As Eugene and Rocky watched, transfixed, he started rolling sevens and made five straight passes. The gamblers grumbled about wise-ass luck. Izzy cleaned out the crap game, and the boys found themselves stuffing a few hundred dollars under their shirts in crumpled bills. They didn’t want their parents to know they’d been gambling, so Rocky said they should hide the money. They retreated to their clubhouse in Izzy’s basement, where Rocky dug a hole in the dirt floor with a coal shovel and buried the loot in cigar boxes.

The boys decided to spend their windfall at the Brockton Fair in September, more than a month away. Worried that something would happen to the money, Rocky checked it frequently, sometimes reburying it in a different spot.

When the fair opened, Rocky, Izzy, and Eugene dug up the cigar boxes and went on a weeklong spree. They rode the rides; attended the sideshows; gorged themselves on hot dogs, cotton candy, and candied apples; and lost money at the roulette games and on the horse races. Rocky loved not only the excitement but also the thrill of seeing the vagabond lifestyle of the wandering carnival folk. One day, one of the performers, the famous burlesque dancer Sally Rand, was rehearsing her balloon bubble dance when the wind blew away one of her balloons. Rocky chased it down and returned it to her, receiving a warm smile of thanks.

By the end, the boys were broke but happy. For one week, the Terrific Three had known what it felt like to be rich, to have the world at their feet.

* * *

WHEN ROCKY REACHED Brockton High School, he was more interested in sports than books. Even in class or while talking to a teacher, it wasn’t unusual for him to be tossing a baseball idly in his hands. He wasn’t stupid, but he didn’t care. All he wanted to do was play professional baseball.

As a sophomore, Rocky tried out for the Brockton High School football team. On the first day of practice, the coach looked him over and saw a boy who was stocky and rugged, with a thick torso, heavy legs, and a wide, flat nose that looked as if it had been pushed in by a lineman.

“What position do you play?” the coach asked.

“I’m a back,” Rocky replied. “I can pass pretty good.”

“Well,” said the coach, “you’ll do your passing between your legs. From now on you’re a center.”

Rocky became one of the only sophomores to start for the varsity team in 1940. He was strong, a terrific athlete, and, not surprisingly, he hit hard. But he couldn’t run fast. That was evident in the play that proved the highlight of his high school career, when he intercepted a pass in the Columbus Day game against New Bedford. He lumbered sixty yards down the sideline and barely made it into the end zone as a would-be tackler came from way back to catch him at the one. Rocky stumbled across the goal line with the player hanging on his leg. He played nearly sixty minutes a game for the Shoe Men his sophomore year, a bright spot on a team that saw its twenty-two-game unbeaten streak snapped and finished a disappointing 5-4-1.

After football season, a decision loomed. The Brockton High School baseball coach had a rule that his players couldn’t play for other teams in town. That was a quandary for Rocky and his friends, who played for St. Patrick’s and for other sandlot teams around town. Without baseball, he saw little reason to stay in school. He was discouraged by his low grades, his football coach said, and was not enthusiastic about the effort it would take to raise them. “I just didn’t care for the books,” Rocky said.

As the oldest son, Rocky also felt a duty to drop out and go to work to help support the family. He had seen how the shoe factory seemed to drain the life out of his father, and so he told his parents at dinner one night that he was quitting school. Uncle Johnny could get him a job on a coal truck, he said—and he would still have time to pursue a major-league baseball career.

Both his parents worried. Lena had dreamed of being a teacher and saw education as the path for her children to a better life. Pierino fretted that Rocky would wind up like him, in the shoe factory.

“No, no, figlio mio,” Lena said. “You got to finish school. We want you to graduate.”

As Rocky later recalled, he told his mother, “Look, I ain’t a good student and I don’t like school. I can make twenty dollars a week and play so much baseball that I can be in the big leagues in a few years.”

“Hah,” Lena shot back. “Who’s done good in baseball around here? Everybody plays, but nobody makes any money at it.”

Just then, Uncle Johnny walked in. Lena started in on him for encouraging her son to quit school. The two of them argued back and forth until finally Rocky cut in, striking a conciliatory tone.

“Mom, let me go to work,” he pleaded. “I want to help out. Maybe things will pick up later, and I promise you I’ll go to night school and maybe even graduate.”

Reluctantly, Lena relented.

Rocky went to work on a coal truck, for fifty cents an hour, delivering coal to the basements of Brockton houses. He liked the work, the sense of freedom riding around town, being outdoors, and using his muscles. But he grew to dislike climbing down into the dank coal bins, inhaling the chalky black dust that coated his skin and his clothes. After four months, he quit and found a better-paying job in a candy factory. But now he felt trapped in a room with windows that didn’t open, inhaling the sicky-sweet smell of the candy eight hours a day. He told Izzy it felt like being in jail.

He quit the candy factory and drifted through a series of dead-end jobs. He worked in a beverage plant and a shoe factory, neither for long. He felt cooped up. He complained to Izzy about the noise and smell of the shoe factory; even his food tasted like leather. The bosses were always yelling at him to work harder. He wondered how their fathers could stand it for so many years. Next was a job as a short-order cook at a diner. But the owner let him go because of his monstrous appetite, saying, “I’d rather clothe you than feed you.”

Rocky gravitated to outdoor work. He dug holes for the Brockton Gas Company and worked as a laborer for the city, building and repairing sidewalks. He loved the backbreaking work, developing his strength, being outside. When he wasn’t working, he practiced baseball and played on a series of local semipro teams. He played with such intensity, Vinnie Colombo recalled, that the crowd used to ride him for being so serious, which he hated.

In December 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and America went to war. As it was for millions of Americans, Rocky Marchegiano’s fortunes would be changed by the global conflict. At first, it meant better defense jobs close to home. He cleared land for a factory in South Weymouth, hacking away underbrush with a sickle. He worked on the construction of a blimp hangar. From his first job, which had paid fifty cents an hour, he was now earning $1.25 an hour, with plenty of overtime. One week he brought home his sealed pay envelope and handed it to Lena. She counted out $150, a small fortune.

“I felt sorry for Pop that day,” Rocky recalled. “He sort of hung his head when he saw me, a seventeen-year-old kid, come home with all that money. The most he ever made in a week was about forty bucks.”

With money in his pocket, Rocky continued to gamble, betting on the dog races, shooting dice, and finding local card games with Izzy. But they were no match for the experienced players and invariably lost their money. When they were working a construction job, Rocky and Izzy would get paid on Fridays, then shoot dice that night and wind up broke and have to borrow money from Rocky’s uncle. After a few weeks, they discovered that the man who ran the game was using loaded dice. “Rocky went up and broke his jaw,” recalled Izzy. “Tipped him upside down and took whatever he had.”

The war intensified, and life moved on. In March 1942, Rocky’s grandfather Luigi died. That spring, Rocky found work helping to build Camp Myles Standish, a nearby army embarkation center. He worked there for a year, hurrying home at night to throw on his baseball uniform, then wolfing down a large Italian sub as he headed to the game. He also played football for a semipro team sponsored by the Young Men’s Lithuanian Association. In one game, his friend Vinnie Colombo was running with the ball for the other team when Rocky hit him. The next thing Vinnie knew, he was lying on the ground and regaining consciousness to see a concerned Rocky standing over him, asking in his soft voice, “You all right, Vinnie?”

Life was good. Then, in the winter of 1943, at the age of nineteen, Rocky was drafted. He would soon face his own private battles, as the fortunes that carried him away from Brockton set him on a new path.

Copyright © 2018 by Mike Stanton