Life threw some sucker punches at Gary boxing great Tony Zale, but he never whined or grumbled during his final years at Fountain View Nursing Home in Portage.

That was just Tony being Tony, spirited and upbeat while battling Parkinson's and early dementia.

"The man never complained. He was always smiling and was loved by everyone there," said Armand Lopez, a nephew through marriage. "My wife and her sister went every week to see him. I used to cut his hair, take him for little strolls in his wheelchair, every week for six years.

"With all the (health) problems he had, Tony was such a gentleman. He was a Christian man who'd say: 'This is what God wants of me.'"

A two-time world middleweight champion nicknamed "Man of Steel" after the city he was born in, Zale made Ring Magazine's list of 100 greatest punchers of all time.

His three brutal title bouts with Rocky Graziano over a 21-month period, with Zale winning two, are legendary.

Zale fought professionally from 1934 to 1948, compiling a 67-18 record with 45 knockouts, and was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1991.

He died March 20, 1997, at age 83.

Antoni Florian Zaleski was a World War II veteran, former steelworker, deeply religious, street tough, and quick to help others less fortunate.

That private side of the Gary Froebel grad is the focus of a new book "Tony Zale The Man of Steel: His toughest battles weren't fought inside the ring" co-authored by nephew Ted Zale and boxing historian Clay Moyle.

Ted Zale calls it a "Rudy story" sure to inspire all.

"Tony was the second youngest of five boys and two girls. (Dad) died when he was 2 years old," Ted Zale said. "He was on his way to pick up some medicine for Tony and was hit by some speeding cars and killed instantly.

"Tony carried that for the rest of his life. He blamed himself, nobody else did. As he was growing up in Gary, he would often see somebody riding a bike and run in and tell (mom) that Dad was coming home."

The Zales lived on Gary's East Side, near 8th and Virginia. Tony's brothers taught him how to box because as they went from neighborhood to neighborhood, they were often confronted by other street kids.

With their primary wage earner gone, the family fortunately had rentals which provided limited income until the 1929 Stock Market Crash knocked the entire country on its backside.

"Tony was able to struggle through with the guidance of his brothers, who were 11-12-13 years older than him, and neighbors -- one of them being Hank Stram's father," Ted Zale said.

"Tony was part of the Stram household, growing up. That's how he and Hank got together."

Stram eventually went into coaching, led the Kansas City Chiefs to the Super Bowl IV title in 1969, and later wrote the foreword to Ted Zale's book -- which includes nearly 900 hours of taped interviews, has 490 pages and more than 400 photographs.

Zale's first 27 pro fights came in a span of six months for the strong body puncher, who wore opponents down before knocking them out.

"What's more important is what really happened after it was all done and he left boxing in 1948," said Ted Zale, a 1967 Andrean grad who is now a financial adviser for Morgan Stanley Wealth Management.

With a costly divorce ending Tony Zale's first marriage, a cousin convinced him to invest his life savings in the new Tucker 48 automobile, produced in Chicago in 1948. A year later, the company folded with only 51 cars made.

Zale lost every last cent.

"So he ended up being a CYO coach with the Chicago Park District with not much income coming in, doing everything he possibly could," said Ted Zale.

"He was in the Navy reserves after he got out of World War II and joined the Army Reserves, to boot, so he had some income to pay for his kids (support) after the divorce and settle with his attorneys."

Youngsters from struggling households became Tony Zale's life at the 26 city gyms he worked. He'd drive them to school; gave them direction and purpose, and asked only three things in return: Follow the 10 Commandments, love your parents, get an education.

Tony Zale once approached Chicago Tribune editors about telling his story but Ted said since there was no "sex, payoffs or dives" involved, they weren't interested.

"As we left the Tribune building, Tony said: 'Someday, someone will tell my story,'" Ted recalled.

"And now, nearly 30 years later, I finally got it done."

0
0
0
0
0

Sports copy editor

Jim is a copy editor for The Times who works out of Valparaiso. A South Central High School (1984) and Ball State ('89) grad, he’s covered preps most of his career. He received the Indiana High School Wrestling Coaches Association’s Media Award in 1997.

Sports Director

Hillary has covered prep, pro and college sports -- and even a Dixie Baseball World Series -- for newspapers north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line since 1995.