The Champ

Abe Atell

Abe Atell

Baseball is full of people who made major impact on the game without ever playing at the big league level. Some were people who made positive impacts. Some of them made impact in quite the opposite direction. One of the latter was Abe Atell.

Abraham Washington Atell was born in 1883 (his grave says 1884, his passport 1883) in San Francisco. Although Jewish, he grew up in a primarily Irish neighborhood. He was small, from the wrong ethnic group for his neighborhood, and bullied. He retaliated by becoming a fighter. He was good enough that he got a chance to learn the ropes of professional boxing. Being small, he became a featherweight. By 1900 he was good enough to have his first professional fight. He won by a knockout.

He spent much of his early career boxing on or near the West Coast, establishing himself as an excellent tactical fighter, especially on defense. He seldom took a solid punch and was famous for waiting on the other fighter to make a mistake that could be exploited for effect. At the beginning of his career he scored at least 11 consecutive knockouts (the exact total is in some dispute).

He was 18 when he became the Featherweight Champion of the World. He held the crown for a year before losing to Tom Sullivan in a decision. Atell regained his title in 1906 with a decision over Jimmy Walsh. He would hold the title through 18 defenses (a record that stood until 1985) before losing the championship to John Kilbane. Between 1909 and 1910 his brother Monte was Bantamweight champion, marking the first time two brothers held world boxing titles at the same time.

As with many former athletes, he was restless in retirement. He opened a shoe store that was generally successful, but he wanted back in the ring. He did a little vaudeville, but he seemed to need to continue his boxing career. He fought a handful of times (generally successfully) before facing his final bout in November 1917 (he won by decision).

Atell now turned to managing fighters. He managed one to 33 wins against 11 losses, but gave up the fight business to go back to the shoe store. Along the way he’d met Arnold Rothstein. It is here that Atell begins to intersect with baseball.

Hollywood's version of Atell (Michael Mantell)

Hollywood’s version of Atell (Michael Mantell)

Throughout his career Atell was famous for his betting, as was his entire family (including his mom who made a lot of money betting on her sons to win). There is no evidence he ever bet on himself to lose, although there is ample evidence he bet on himself to win. There is some question as to how often he extended a fight in order to make money on bets concerning how long the fight would go. He also made a lot of money for other gamblers, including Rothstein.

After retirement he went to work for Rothstein doing various jobs including placing bets and collecting Rothstein’s winnings. In that role he became involved in the 1919 Black Sox Scandal. He served as a go-between who worked with Rothstein and funneled money to the eight players involved in fixing the 1919 World Series. He evidently skimmed some undetermined amount off the top to place his own bets on the Series. When things blew up in 1920, Atell headed for Canada where he remained for a year before returning to the US to stand trial. As with the other gamblers, he was acquitted.

After the acquittal, he moved through both the underside of sports and the “good” side of American life. He was arrested in 1929 for scalping tickets (he was again acquitted), then in 1931 was involved in a bootlegging ring. By the late 1930s he settled down to own and run a restaurant, “Abe Atell’s Steak and Chop House.”  Apparently nobody asked him how he got the money.

He retired, was interviewed for Eliot Asinof’s Eight Men Out, and died in February 1970. For his boxing career he had 125 wins, 18 losses, 21 draws, and eight no decisions. In a number of “Greatest Featherweights Ever” lists he still makes the top five after 100 years. He has been elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990. He is buried in Rockland, New York.

Atell's grave from Find a Grave

Atell’s grave from Find a Grave

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6 Responses to “The Champ”

  1. The Baseball Bloggess Says:

    Just finished Charles Fountain’s Black Sox book “The Betrayal” which you recommended. It really was much better at laying out the facts and details than “8 Men Out.” But, now I think I’m done with corruption, cheating, and dirty trickery for awhile … oh, wait … it’s election season now isn’t it?

  2. wkkortas Says:

    Speaking of corruption in baseball…I found this out wholly by accident, Edythe Wright, who was the singer with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra for some years in the mid-to-late 30’s, was Hal Chase’s niece, and actually lived with him for a while. I know this interests no one but me, but…

    • verdun2 Says:

      Do you suppose that Uncle Hal got to play in the orchestra softball games? Do you further suppose he shaved runs if he got to play?
      Had not heard of her so looked her up. Nice looking girl singer.

  3. glenrussellslater Says:

    Of course, the fact that he was a Jewish boxer wasn’t at all unusual. There were many Jewish boxers, and good ones, too, until about the 1950s, when Jews started disappearing in basketball too. The Jews AND the Irish pretty much dominated boxing and basketball until the 50s. Pretty much, it was the flight to the suburbs that changed that.


    • wkkortas Says:

      That’s interesting, certainly in the fact that I’d never thought about Jewish basketball players disappearing–after the generation of guys like Sonny Hertzberg and Nat Holman, Red Holtzman and Danny Schayes, Jewish players were pretty few and far between–and I’m thinking the flight to the suburbs had a lot to do with that. No parks, no top-flight street ball.

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