The new Billy Conn biography Sweet William tells the rousing story of the real "Pittsburgh Kid." | Book Reviews + Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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The new Billy Conn biography Sweet William tells the rousing story of the real "Pittsburgh Kid."

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When contemporary sports fans hear the moniker "Pittsburgh Kid," they're quick to think of McKees Rocks fighter Paul Spadafora.

Spadafora is the former boxing champion and ex-con whose legal woes, substance-abuse problems and troubles outside of the ring have sadly dwarfed his accomplishments inside it.

But as trainers teach aspiring Steel City pugilists how to throw crisp, punishing jabs, they should also give them a copy of Andrew O'Toole's Sweet William: The Life of Bill Conn, a biography of the city's original "Pittsburgh Kid." It's the story of a true local legend -- a straight shooter to be emulated not only as a great fighter but also as a colorful local character who found greatness by maintaining painful honesty, unflinching integrity and an unfaltering pride in himself and his family.

O'Toole's opus is an ode to a typical blue-collar Pittsburgh guy who took part in one of the greatest fights in history -- a 12-round masterpiece which took him to the cusp of dethroning previously unsinkable heavyweight champ Joe Louis.

"I'm going to knock that sonofabitch out," Conn told his legendary manager, Johnny Ray.

Unfortunately for Conn, the fight wasn't 12 rounds. Instead of playing it safe with a lead in the 13th round, he tried to knock Louis out. O'Toole writes:

 

With a broad grin creasing his face, Billy met Joe in the middle of the ring. The dancing had stopped; Conn was measuring Joe for the big blow. ... Then it came. Billy hit Joe with a left to the body and one to the head, allowing Louis the chance he needed. A devastating right hand to the mush stunned Billy visibly ... For the first time all evening, a look of bewilderment filled his once[-confident] eyes. He had lost his ring sense and Joe knew it. ... It happened that quickly.

 

After the fight, O'Toole describes Conn sobbing in the shower but pulling himself together to face the music, and the reporters. When asked why he didn't just dance with Lewis and run back to Pittsburgh with the win, Conn said: "What's the sense in being Irish if you can't be dumb."

But O'Toole's portrayal of Conn fighting his way through the 1930s and 1940s describes not an Irish dummy from East Liberty, but a proud Pittsburgher whose honesty and likability was as direct as his left jab.

Conn's boxing career -- from a young prelim fighter making $2.50 to a headliner fighting for a share of a $2 million purse -- is the focus of this tale. The details are stark, pulling information from both family members and the plethora of media accounts of the time.

Still, if Billy Conn was big news in his day, it wasn't always for his ring moves. Some of the best moments in O'Toole's story chronicle Conn's life with his family, and his colorful courtship of his wife, Mary Louise Smith.

Smith, an 18-year-old knockout, was the daughter of former major-league baseball player and local businessman "Greenfield" Jimmy Smith. Conn was able to woo the daughter, but the father refused to let her marry a fighter. Finally, the two eloped, but Smith wouldn't speak to or see his son-in-law until a christening party for the couple's first child. Steelers owner Art Rooney, a friend of Conn's, brokered the truce -- one that would end with punches thrown and an ensuing media circus.

O'Toole explains how Greenfield Jimmy needled Conn about not attending church.

 

"Hey, Jimmy, just leave me alone," [Conn responded.] Smith wouldn't let up though. "You're afraid of me aren't you?" "I'm afraid of no man living," he said as he leapt from his roost on the stovetop and threw a left, which skidded off the side of Jimmy's head."

 

That punch would break Conn's hand and put him out of his upcoming rematch with Louis.

Another anecdote has Conn and his father arguing on Thanksgiving Day at the family's Shadyside home, on Fifth Avenue, that Conn had purchased with the proceeds from his fights. They went to a lot next door, stripped off their shirts and began to duke it out. Soon, Conn's two brothers joined in, and the four put on an impromptu show for their Shadyside neighbors until cops came to break it up.

Unapologetic, fearless and uncompromising: That's the Billy Conn, and that's the city of Pittsburgh, that O'Toole portrays in Sweet William. The book is a great read for sports fans and local historians alike. Family dustups notwithstanding, Conn is the "Pittsburgh Kid" that Pittsburgh kids should learn about and look up to.

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