By Tom Talbot
The world became a little less bright last month. One of my favorite sports heroes passed away at the age of 85 from pneumonia. Of course, he fought off illnesses the last few years of his life just like he fought every fight of his life – aggressively and with integrity.
Not many of today’s sports fans know the name Carmen Basilio, but back in the 1950s, he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated three times. I have one of those covers signed flawlessly by one of the kindest men, honored Marines and pugilistic punchers of all time – the man that beat the best pound-for-pound fighter of all time, Sugar Ray Robinson.
“The Champ” will surely be missed, as he still attended every boxing event, dinner and even the Hall of Fame induction ceremony each year. And I never saw him turn down an autograph. Never. His wife, Josie, would turn a few away, but only after the same guy would ask for dozens and dozens of autographs at one sitting. Carmen couldn’t say no; his dear wife Josie would tell persistent hounds when enough was enough.
Basilio was my impetus for this whole autograph-collecting obsession that has brought so much joy to my life, whether it’s watching my sons scurry from table to table at our local card show searching for the next great jersey card, writing all the columns I have over the years for various magazines or just opening up a long-lost box stored under my basement steps and finding autograph after autograph – each reminding me of the charity dinner or road trip responsible for the signature. I still love this hobby, and much of it stems from meeting Basilio at least a dozen times. I must have 20 signed Basilio items buried in boxes: Gloves, pictures, cards, you name it. He would sign anything and would only stop to throw a few jabs at you, sometimes connecting. The man could still hit in his 80s.
One time, my brother dropped his pen and while he bent down to grab it, Carmen tagged him a couple times. That’s probably one of the most hysterical things I have ever seen. My brother had no idea what to do.
I first wrote to Basilio probably 15 years ago when I discovered that he lived in Irondequoit, N.Y., one town over. I sent a few cards and told him all the stories we had heard from my father. One of my dad’s part-time jobs was filling vending machines, and back in the day, he would fill the machines at Genesee Brewery. Basilio was a spokesman for the company and dad would run into him at the brewery.
Of course, in those days there were taps sticking out of the walls and employees would drink freely from the tap at all hours of the day. Dad had a few cold beverages with Carmen several times when they would discuss boxing and his famed bouts against Robinson, whom Basilio described as “obnoxious.”
When the envelope returned from Basilio with his picture-perfect signature, there was also a note enclosed from Josie asking me to call her. I did call her, and she invited me to bring over my twins to meet Carmen in person and see the trophy room in his house!
We went there, along with my father who took the day off from work, only to discover that no one was home. I relayed the story to Josie but never managed to get back over to the house, though she did extend another invitation. Perhaps he was sick that day or forgot about an appointment. No matter – it was cool just to see the simple house that Basilio lived in and discover that it was only about 10 minutes from my own house.
Books could be filled with the life stories of Carmen Basilio – and they have been – but I only have space for a few of my favorite moments here.
Basilio was one of 10 children, raised on an onion farm in Canastota, home to the International Boxing Hall of Fame, built to honor its hometown hero and boxing legends worldwide.
Every year my father, brothers and 20 of our closest friends go on a yearly fishing weekend to Alexandria Bay on the St. Lawrence River. Basilio was an avid hunter and fisherman and would train for his bouts in A-Bay. He’s a hero there, too, and his autographed pictures adorn the walls of every restaurant and bar in the area.
On our way there, we usually stop off at the Hall of Fame in Canastota and eat lunch at the town’s top boxing hangout, Graziano’s. During induction weekend, fans and boxers alike pack the place to all hours of the morning. Basilio will be sadly missed in that establishment, though his memory will live on in pictures, stories and accolades. The Hall and its community are a special place and can be seen right off the New York State Thruway past Syracuse.
One local there told me a very funny story concerning Basilio’s post boxing days when he used to pitch in a very competitive fast-pitch softball league. There was a big old boy at the plate, and he was getting very upset about this little pitcher who kept pitching inside. He said to the catcher, “If this little guy comes inside on me one more time I’m going to go after him.” Needless to say the guy had no idea who this little guy pitching was. So as fate would have it, Basilio’s next pitch was high and inside knocking the guy off the plate. The guy charged the mound and never even touched Basilio. Three quick shots from the lightning-quick fists and it was over.
Another story concerns his integrity. Back in the 1950s, the mob controlled much of the boxing world. Basilio was asked to take a dive, but he would have none of it. Many times this would decide who would get a title shot. Carmen finally got his chance and did so legitimately. He came through by beating Tony DeMarco in 1955. ESPN did a documentary titled Fighting the Mob: The Carmen Basilio Story, and there’s a new screenplay just completed by Dr. Lou Buttino titled Shadowboxing the Mob.
I’ll miss you Carmen. The sports world will miss you. My boys will always remember the time they met the legendary boxer and got his autograph. Rest in Peace, Champ.