Two men, one meeting. Newly sworn-in parole commissioner Lou Gehrig on one side
of the desk, 19-year-old repeat offender Thomas Rocco Barbella (future alias Rocky Graziano, boxing Hall of Famer) on the
other. Many years and crimes brought them to that point.
In 1931 Gehrig was dug-in as the Iron Horse, swinging with the fire power of an
assault tank, while scrappy budding-criminal Rocco was waiting out his first of several stays in a Coxsachie, NY, reform school
after corrupting a gum machine. Throughout the 30s, Gehrig would beef up his impressive career track record, while Rocco would
steal "anything that wasn't nailed down," including equipment from Yankee Stadium.
Then came 1939. Baseball was no longer an option for Gehrig, nor was staying with
the Yankee organization. New York City mayor LaGuardia gave Gehrig a job as a parole commissioner because he believed Gehrig's
stellar reputation and brave fight against overwhelming opposition (ALS) would inspire the many troubled youngsters serviced
by the parole board.
"Only a small percentage of men have to go back to prison," Gehrig said. "We don't
want anyone in jail who can make good - but we don't want people out there who are a danger to the rest of the community."
Among the troubled, of course, Rocco Barbella, who had discovered boxing that
year, and it refocused his energy for only a blip of time. Unwisely, Rocco shelved his boxing gloves and went back to the
rough Lower East Side Manhattan streets on which he was raised and many times arrested.
When Rocco was jailed in 1940 while on probation on the charge of statutory rape,
Gehrig was assigned his case. Rocco knew who Gehrig was and didn't give a rat's furry posterior about him or his position
within the law, but he tried to contain his thoughts during the meeting with the decrepit legend.
"How old are you?" Gehrig asked him.
"19," Rocco said.
"Do you like sports?
What's your favorite?"
Gehrig grinned, though he may not have believed the boy. "You've been in your share
of trouble, haven't you?"
"You've caused your mother a lot of grief, haven't you?"
I've reviewed your probation record carefully." Gehrig looked at him sternly. "You have violated your probation, and you'll
have to go back to reform school."
Rocco's containment dissolved instantly. "Go to hell, you bastard!"
Undoubtedly the young man had other choice clauses to hurl at Gehrig. "I felt
like killing him," reflected later in life. But whatever Rocco yelled, Gehrig took it in stride. He was used to angry boys
and their angry reactions, and he knew that eventually the boy would calm down and realize that the punishment was for his
In Rocco's case, Gehrig himself didn't realize how right he was. Off the streets
once again, Rocco did have time to settle down, and he found time to slip the boxing gloves back on. Maybe, howsoever briefly,
it occurred to the punk ass kid how Gehrig kept his stride right despite situation, condition and punk ass kids telling him
to go to hell. That's wishful thinking that can never be proven true, though. What can be proven true is how Rocco immersed
himself into boxing, changing his name to something with a little more impact - Rocky Graziano. In 1945, he began to cause
a ruckus in the boxing world. Two years later he earned the title of middleweight champion of the world, and in 1991 he was
voted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. He would go down in history as a boxer with hoards of chutzpah who fought
on despite handicapping injury and often being rated the underdog.
Rocky's biography turned out to be as Hollywood as Gehrig's, as evidenced by the
feature film Somebody Up There Likes Me, based on his 1956 autobiography of the same name, starring Paul Newman.
What's more, some believe that the famous Rocky movies were based loosely off of Graziano's life, citing a troubled
youth, poor English, the name Rocky and other incidental examples as too closely similar between man and character to be coincidence.
When asked about Gehrig, Graziano recalled thinking, "[I] probably should shake
Gehrig's hand for straightening me out. But it was too late. I found out he was dead." So bad-seed Rocco did respect Gehrig
after all. Gehrig had done well by the boy.
At Graziano's funeral, fellow boxer Vito Antuofermo delivered a eulogy including
a line that could have easily applied to Gehrig too: "He was tough, could hit like a mule and had all the guts in the world."