For I am the Lord your God who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, “Do not fear; I will help you”—Isaiah 41:13
BRADDOCK, THE “CINDERELLA MAN”
In 1935 James Braddock won the world’s heavyweight boxing championship by beating Max Baer. The following day Damon Runyon declared Braddock “the Cinderella Man.” Runyon was one of America’s great sports and fiction writers. His style was so unique that even today his name is used as a descriptive adjective— “a Runyon character” or “Runyonesque.”
Runyon was not a Catholic, but his wife was and they were married in the Church. According to his son, Damon Runyon, Jr., in his book Father’s Footsteps, his parents were
wed in the rectory since [his] father was not Catholic…[who] now and then dropped into a [Catholic Church} because, as he said, “they put on the best show.”
Runyon’s moniker stuck when first published in the New York American after Braddock’s unbelievable underdog victory over Max Baer, the reigning heavyweight champion. In typical Runyonesque prose he declared:
…and so ends the fistic fairytale…with the poor abused hero finding his pumpkins of failure turned into prancing white steeds of glittering success and his feet incased in the glass slippers of happiness…so ends the strange story of James J. Braddock “the Cinderella man” of fistiana.
“one of the most pro-Catholic films Hollywood has produced since the 1940s Bing Crosby-Ingrid Bergman classic, “The Bells of St. Mary’s.”
Howard’s film received three Academy Award nominations for supporting actor (Paul Giamatti), editing and makeup and two Golden Globe awards for actor (Russel Crowe) and supporting actor (Paul Giamatti). The film was a commercial success. The movie was based upon Jeremy Schaap’s 2005 book of the same name.
Unfortunately, Schaap’s book gives few details of Braddock’s Catholic upbringing and involvement with the Church. These accounts are to be found in archival sources. In fairness to Howard, he did include several scenes depicting Braddock’s interface with the Church.
BRADDOCK’S EARLY LIFE, CATHOLIC FAITH, RISE AND FALL
Braddock was the youngest of seven children born to his Irish-Catholic immigrant parents. As a young man he dreamed of playing football for Notre Dame but later jokingly admitted he “had the brawn but not the brains.” As a kid, Braddock loved to fight. B. Tanaka in a 2013 article in Catholic Nerd relates that at fourteen he knocked a schoolmate out and the nuns at his parochial school (St. Joseph’s) “came to an agreement with Jimmy’s father that he had probably had enough formal education” and he was expelled. His education ended in the sixth grade.
Besides being dubbed the Cinderella Man by Runyon, another era sports writer, Grantland Rice, dubbed Braddock the Miracle Man. It all happened in the space of a year. Associated Press sports writer Edward Neil described Braddock’s rise and fall in a 1935 article in the Washington Evening Star. As a fighter Neil relates, Braddock “came up the hill with tremendous speed, and went down just as fast.”
BRADDOCK’S FALL AND DESPAIR
He lost the world light-heavyweight championship in 1929 and broke his right hand in the process. From that point on his career sputtered. Over the next five years he fought 36 times and lost 16 of them—winning only three by knock outs.
On top of that in 1929 he lost his life-savings when his bank failed in the stock market crash which inaugurated the Great Depression. At the time there was no FDIC bank depositor insurance. Soon thereafter his investment in a New York City Taxi Company also went south. He was suddenly busted.
Desperate to make a living, he fought fights with broken ribs, a broken collar bone and broken hands— “he was getting licked so regularly that the experts shook their heads [in disbelief],” wrote Neil. On one occasion he deliberately broken his hand in a fight “so that [fight] doctors could reset it [because he couldn’t afford the $1450 to do it in a hospital],” added Neil.
By 1933 with three kids and a wife, Braddock was forced to take day work as a stevedore on the New Jersey docks. Things got so tough he went on relief at $24 a month. He was unable to train but, according to Neil, “[he] saved carfare [by] walking three miles…to the [New Jersey] docks each day.” If he couldn’t find work on the Jersey docks, he walked another two miles to the West New York docks looking for work there. He walked between 10 and 12 miles a day looking for work. Unbeknownst to him, the walking kept him in boxing shape—looking for work and working the docks prevented him from the ordinary gym work outs typical to the boxing game.
A review of “The Cinderella Man” by Jim Hague, Fighting for Faith and Family, told how Braddock’s Catholic faith supported him in this time of despair:
“In moments of despair, Braddock turned to the priests of St. Joseph of the Palisades [who]…told him to keep his faith, that God will provide him with the strength to carry on.”
At the same time his sore right hand gradually healed. But the injured hand forced him to rely on his left hand for lifting railroad ties and heavy bales which only served to strengthen his left hook—again unbeknownst to him.
THE COMEBACK; PAYING BACK RELIEF; GIVING TO THE CHURCH
Finally, at age 29 the down and out Braddock got a fight against Corn Griffin, a fighter who was being hailed as a heavyweight contender—he needed a sucker fighter to show off on. With only two days of training Braddock won by a TKO in three rounds. Tanaka relates “his left hand, previously an almost useless weapon, was now…as powerful as his right.”
After Griffin, Braddock got two more fights—winning both. Suddenly he found himself signed for a fight against the worlds heavyweight champion—Max Baer.
With an advance he received to train, Braddock paid back $367.24 in relief he had received (13 months’ worth) from the New Jersey Emergency Relief Administration. The unnecessary payback was widely reported by the Associated Press and only added to the “Cinderella Man’s” image and reputation. Dragan Nikolic in an article published in codepen.com adds
“He always remembered the humiliation …of accepting relief money…[and] was inspired by the Catholic Workers Movement…[which] helped the homeless and hungry…[Braddock] made frequent donations to various Catholic Worker Houses.”
An article in Historica adds that “he fed homeless guests with his family.” A practicing Catholic, Braddock was a Knight of Columbus and according to Jessica Traynor in her 2018 article in the Irish Times, he “supported the Catholic Workers Organization [throughout his life which] had supported him in his time of need.”
AT THE TOP, AND AFTERWARDS
Carole Bos sums it up best, writing
“[Braddock] captured America’s imagination. In Braddock, Depression-weary Americans saw a family man who, like them, struggled against common enemies of unemployment and poverty, and he did it with grace and courage.”
With his winnings in the Baer fight, Braddock’s wife, Mae, told the Associated Press she hoped “maybe we can have a nice one-family house.” At the time they were living in a “hot…third floor apartment in the Palisades of the Hudson.” She got her wish when they purchased a home in North Bergen, New Jersey.
Two years later Braddock lost his championship to Joe Louis. To insure his future economic well- being the fight deal required that Braddock get 10% of Joe Louis’ winnings for the rest of his life. Louis retained his title for the next twelve years. With his winnings Braddock invested his money in heavy construction equipment, which he operated at various construction sites throughout the New Jersey-New York area.
He died in in 1974 and is buried in Mount Carmel Catholic Cemetery in Tenafly, N.J. He was 69. His “loving and understanding” wife, Mae, died in 1985 at the age of 79. She is buried next to her husband.