Not long after his release from prison, Nick Mancino pulled aside his stocky ten-year-old son, Lenny:
“I have to go,” he said.
“I’ll go with you,” said the boy.
“No,” said Nick. “You have to stay here and take care of your mother.”
Lenny cried all that day and through the night. He cried so much that by the next morning, he knew he’d never cry again.
Nicola Mancino, son of Leonardo Mancino, of the Sicilian fishing village of Bagheria, left his ancestral home in the summer of 1913 and arrived at Ellis Island aboard the SS Palermo1 on September 5. He was eighteen, and slightly built at five foot two. After assuring the immigration officer he could both read and write, Mancino, a surname that translates as “lefty” or “southpaw,” was designated a “labourer” in the ship’s manifest. With twenty-five dollars left, he was headed for the stretch of mill towns that pocked the land from western Pennsylvania to northeast Ohio.
Youngstown, Ohio, the city in which he would settle, was home to U.S. Steel’s Ohio Works, Truscon Steel, and the Youngstown Sheet and Tube on the east side. Trumbull Steel, eventually absorbed by Republic Iron & Steel, was in nearby Warren. Not long after Mancino’s arrival, the Mahoning Valley had become second only to Pittsburgh2 in the production of pig iron, those rectangular ingots liquefied in a furnace to make steel.
The by-products of such mass production included slag heaps and a permanent cloud of smoke and soot hovering about six thousand feet above the city. Pilots landing in Youngstown3 typically did so with dirty faces. There were also regular bouts of industrial violence. For example, shortly after 4 P.M., on January 7, 1916, a single revolver shot from a crowd of well-armed, though not sober, picketers elicited a volley of rifle fire from guards stationed at Sheet and Tube’s Poland Avenue entrance.
“What followed,” according to one account, “was sheer anarchy4 . . . the torch was put to building after building by a frenzied mob that poured gasoline on the fires to intensify the flames. Building fronts were battered in to provide draft to speed the blaze. . . . Not until 2,100 infantrymen and machine gunners were brought in toward morning was anything like order restored.”
• • •
On December 12, 19175, at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church, Nick took a wife. Annie Cannazzaro was American by birth, but her family also hailed from the village of Bagheria. Her mustachioed, broad-faced father, Beneditto, drove a horse-drawn cart bearing fruits and vegetables. She grew up with brothers named Michael, John, and Paul, and an older sister, Margaret, at 410 Lansing Avenue, on the east side, where children were bathed in a zinc basin in the kitchen. Annie was fifteen.
Though the groom is again described as a laborer in their marriage license application, Nick would soon discern new and more profitable opportunities. The Volstead Act was passed in 1919, the same year his son Lenny was born in the Cannazzaro home on Lansing Avenue. Better known as Prohibition, it would prove a windfall for men with the inclination and balls to violate it.
Youngstown’s immigrant classes, most of them from southern and central Europe, didn’t share the Anglo-Saxon concept of vice. They played the numbers, known locally as the bug. They played a dice game of Turkish origin called barbut. And they drank. In 1910, a city with a population of 79,066 had 324 grocery stores6 and 345 saloons. By 1930, ten thousand gallons7 of illegal beer were being brewed each day in Youngstown.
The typical mill worker did twelve-hour shifts8, six days per week, at twenty cents per hour. Strikes were periodic occurrences, like changing seasons. Hence, it didn’t take much for Nick to figure he’d do better as a bootlegger. Not only would the new family man have money in his pocket, he’d have respect.
Family photographs show a man unlike his Cannazzaro in-laws: no pork-pie hat, no rolled up sleeves, no work boots. Nick Mancino has the unmistakable air, by stance, demeanor, and attire, of a padrone. His suit is three pieces and well tailored. His tie is fastened by a stickpin. His hands are clasped behind his back, his gaze calm but unnaturally direct.
One can imagine what an outsized presence Nick Mancino was to his son. Even as an adult himself, Lenny would often remind his own children. “Grandpa Nick,” he’d say, wagging his finger, “what a great man he was.” On the east side, there was little stigma making a living from liquor or numbers. The only shame was in doing it dishonorably. Nick’s progeny would take great pride in the fact that he never snitched.
There were two kinds of illicit activities in Youngstown: those committed under the aegis of mafia interests in Pittsburgh or Cleveland, each of those cities being approximately 75 miles away. Nick was affiliated with the Cleveland crew, which could count on him for months at a time of reliably discreet incarceration. If only his young bride had been so loyal.
In 1929, upon his last release, he’d learned that Annie, variously described as “a free-spirit,” “kind of a flapper type,” and “one of those women who liked to party,” had become involved with another dapper man. His name was Valentine Pavone, better known as Slick, sometimes known as Slick Marino. Slick wore suits and ties and kept his hair parted and plastered back like one of the Dorsey brothers. For an aspiring patriarch like Nick, Annie’s dalliance was an intolerable blow, the resulting complications and shame outweighing even the tearful supplications of his now-ten-year-old son who begged him to stay.
Lenny never spoke of the circumstances that led to his dad’s departure, at least not to any of his pals at Gumbo’s pool room or the Pearl Street Mission or the bare-ass beach, as it was called, down by Jackson Hollow. All they knew is every once in a while he’d go off to Buffalo to visit, as John Congemi, a friend of Lenny’s, put it, “his real father.”
“My father was basically a bootlegger in Youngstown and came to Buffalo to work in the same capacity, probably numbers, too,” says Vincent Mancino, the first son of Nick’s second marriage. “He used to always say the judges were his biggest customers. Anyway, once the country went back to drinking, he went into construction.”
Neither the separation nor his father’s new family did anything to diminish him in Lenny’s eyes. If anything, the boy became more awestruck by the great man. “Lenny loved my father more than anything else,” recalls his stepbrother.
Meanwhile, custody of Lenny was effectively awarded to a committee of Cannazzaros: mother, grandparents, aunts, and uncles, the most memorable of them then known on the east side as “Firpo.” Paulie Cannazzaro’s namesake was Luis Firpo, the Wild Bull of the Pampas. Famous for knocking Jack Dempsey through the ropes in their 1923 title bout at the Polo Grounds, the real Firpo was six foot two and a half. Uncle Paulie was about the same, another heavyweight, and caught rail at Truscon Steel, literally catching pieces of railroad track as they came off the line. If any man were naturally suited for such a vocation, it would be Firpo, whose nephews would recall his hands the size of baseball mitts9. He could hold a gallon jug of wine upside down, his meaty fingers like clamps around the bottle’s circumference.
As generous as he was gregarious, the bachelor Firpo would treat the Cannazzaro children to haircuts, ice-cream cones, and cherry sodas. In particularly rough times, he would show up in his Buick with a week’s worth of groceries, declaring he had just hit the bug.
Yes, Firpo, known to sleep off a hard night in the pool room on Albert Street, was always amenable to a sporting proposition. Once the Depression arrived, he even volunteered his services as de facto street-corner matchmaker.
“My nephew will fight your boy,” he’d say.
“They got a kick out of it,” says Congemi, who recalls Firpo among the fraternity of older brothers who used to make the kids fight.
My boy against yours. How much?
“The boys weren’t even mad at each other,” says Congemi.
Sensing reluctance or poor odds, Firpo would hype the wager himself, raking his huge paw across Lenny’s mouth.
Lenny could feel his face redden, as if it were on fire.
“Look,” said Firpo. “The kid don’t even cry.”
• • •
In May 1932, Mayor Joseph Heffernan described Youngstown’s plight in the Atlantic Monthly. “The Hungry City,” as the piece was titled, cited the “hundreds of homeless men crowded into the municipal incinerator, where they found warmth even though they had to sleep on heaps of garbage.” It closed with a mention of Charles Wayne, fifty-seven, father of ten and a hot mill worker at Republic Steel, who “stood on the Spring Common bridge this morning . . . took off his coat, folded it carefully, and had jumped into the swirling Mahoning River. . . .”
“We were about to lose our home,”10 sobbed Mrs. Wayne.
By 1933, a third of Youngstown’s workforce11 was unemployed. It is unknown whether Lenny figured in this tally, but at fourteen, his formal education had already come to an end. The family account would have him advancing as far as the fifth grade at Lincoln Park Elementary School. It wasn’t unusual for a child of the Depression to be found hanging around on the streets of Youngstown. The United States Bureau of Education would issue a scathing report12 on the local school system, detailing a plague of inefficiency, mismanagement, poorly trained teachers, and substandard curricula.
Diversions were plenty for truants on the east side of Youngstown. Lenny spent most of his days helping his grandfather on the horse-drawn wagon, selling fruits, vegetables, milk, and probably a little bit of hooch. His idle hours might be spent watching the dice games and high rollers who came to the Albert Street pool room all the way from Newcastle, or to watch a fight (there was always a fight in Youngstown) at the Rayen-Wood Auditorium. He could raid the local farms for apples and pears or could hang out at the Royal Oaks, the diner on Lansing Avenue. Or he might play football for the Pioneers, a team organized by one of the many local missions.
But Lenny, who’d grow to a height charitably listed as five foot two, wasn’t much good at football or baseball. His true talent had been discerned early on by Uncle Firpo. “He was so tough that nobody wanted to fight him,” says Congemi, recalling an afternoon at the pool hall. “My brother Dukie comes in and says three colored guys were giving him a hard time by the Royal Oaks. Lenny says, ‘Let’s go.’ He lays all three of those colored guys out.”
More than seven decades later, Congemi contemplates his own fists, now gnarled with age, in wonder of Lenny’s. “Man, he had clubs.”
Unlike other Depression-era dropouts, he already had his destination clearly marked, a vocation, even a calling. Lenny Mancino began his amateur career as a flyweight, having to eat a bunch of bananas just to make the 108 pound minimum. “My mother would hand make13 my trunks,” he’d say, recalling the diminutive stature that belied his natural ferocity. “I couldn’t get a pair of ready-mades.” By 1936, his physical virtues had become more apparent. Broad, stocky, vigorous, and durable, he earned some local repute as a featherweight in the Ohio Golden Gloves tournament.
Lenny could punch, especially to the body, but his skills were less impressive than his desire. Lenny’s inclination—unnatural even by fighter’s standards—was to literally push through pain and brutality, to always move forward.
Talent is honed by circumstance, of course. Deprivation breeds pugilists. In that respect, it was an advantage to come of age in the Hungry City. What’s more, as every fighter must drink from a reservoir of untold rage, the Oedipal drama didn’t hurt Lenny, either. By the mid-thirties, Slick fancied himself Youngstown’s most dapper boxing trainer, insisting on coat and tie even in a fighter’s corner. In fact, he was a beater who treated Annie as an opponent.
“Lenny’s mother was nice looking,” recalls Congemi. “Slick used to give her a hard time.”
“An ex-pug with a short man’s complex,” says Lenny’s cousin, Benny D’Amato. “One of the meanest men I ever met.”
As Lenny himself would look back and say: “I should’ve killed the sonofabitch when I had the chance.”
• • •
The summer of 1937 saw greater Youngstown become a battlefield in an industrial war, known as the Little Steel Strike. About thirty-two thousand workers went out against local producers like Republic and Youngstown Sheet and Tube, both of which had been hiring armed guards14 and stockpiling munitions in anticipation of the riot that finally broke out June 19. That’s when police opened fire at a crowd of picketers outside Republic’s Stop Five gate. Casualties included15 two dead strikers and twenty-three wounded. A month later, Ohio’s governor called in the National Guard.
As Lenny’s pal Red Delquadri16 would recall, the fix was in: “The National Guard was there in the street to keep the workers from going after the scabs. They were working for the company.”
It would be another four years before the Roosevelt Administration could compel Little Steel to recognize the unions. Meanwhile, with no real work to be had, Lenny would find work under the auspices of another presidential initiative, the Civilian Conservation Corps, a public works program for unemployed, unmarried, and unskilled men between eighteen and twenty-six. For a standard wage of thirty dollars a month—twenty-five17 dollars of which was sent back to the enrollee’s family—Lenny lied about his age and signed on in Shreve, Ohio.
The new conscript in Roosevelt’s war on poverty was sixteen and barely one hundred pounds. After a year or so, he was transferred to Ely, Nevada, Indian Springs Camp, Company 2532, an outfit charged with the construction of cattle fences for the Department of the Interior’s Division of Grazing. He worked mostly as a cook.18 Photographs taken at the camp show Lenny holding a shovel at the base of a mountain, or posing in the scrub with the bill of his cap turned up at a jaunty angle. In each, he smiles for the camera: a short, thick-set teenager on the verge of manhood.
“We used to call him bear,” says George DeLost, another member of Company 2532 by way of Youngstown. “He was like a little bear.”
But that grinning, cublike quality could disappear at the slightest sign of a threat, a confrontation, or unwanted authority. “He would fight anybody,” says DeLost. “Like one night, we was at this place called the Copper Club in Ely, and they had one of those hillbilly bands there. They had a big bass drum, one of those you hit with your foot.
“Well, during the intermission some of us guys were monkeying around with it, and some big, tall hillbilly said something to Lenny. Like, ‘get away from those instruments.’ So Lenny puts his foot right through that big drum. Then all hell broke loose. We broke the joint up a little bit.
“I think it only cost us seven or eight dollars to fix the drum, put a new skin on it. But then they made an agreement we weren’t allowed back into the Copper Club.”
It wasn’t an isolated example of Lenny’s talent for raising hell. On July 26, 1938,19 the camp’s superintendent wrote to his commanding officer:
“Numerous complaints have been received from our Foreman in regard to enrollee Leonard Mancino . . . It is also recommended that disciplinary measures be taken in regard to the disgusting language and names which he has used to Foreman Harry Oeters.”
Might’ve been worse for the foreman if Lenny didn’t have a place to channel his aggression. As it happened, there was a makeshift ring in the center of camp: bare planks with posts of pipe or wood in the corners, as DeLost recalls it. At six feet, about 190 pounds, DeLost had almost a foot and sixty pounds on Lenny, who was already fighting in local smokers in nearby mining towns under the name of Tony Manchucho.
Don’t worry, Lenny would assure him, we’ll just be going light.
“But every once in a while you’d sting him a little bit, and he’d lose his head,” recalls DeLost. “Then you’d be going toe-to-toe.”
That didn’t last long. Soon, another enrollee would be trying to go a couple rounds with Lenny. Then another. And another. And so on.
“Soon as you ran out of gas, you took off the gloves and handed them to the next guy,” says DeLost.
Hours would pass. Lenny stayed in the ring until he had finally exhausted his supply of sparring partners.
“Sometimes,” says DeLost, “he’d go thirty rounds.”
Without ever taking a step back.
• • •
Lenny would credit his twenty-seven months in the CCC for having endowed him with invaluable vocational experience. Later, he’d seem glorified, even sanctified, in telling the stories of those smokers to his own family. His progeny would envision him proudly, their patriarch as a ferociously stubby teenager whacking out those big cowboys in Nevada.
Lenny was probably home on furlough when he made his pro debut, September 21, 1937, in a four-rounder at Youngstown’s Rayen-Wood Auditorium. The card was headlined by sensational featherweight contender Henry Armstrong, who knocked out Bobby Dean of Washington, DC, just sixty-two seconds after the opening bell. Frank B. Ward, ringside for the Youngstown Vindicator, noted that Armstrong’s twenty-first consecutive knockout victory left Dean “writhing on the canvas,20 and as completely out as though he had been hit with a sledgehammer.”
Armstrong’s finale concluded a show that began four bouts earlier with Lenny, who’d been suddenly rechristened Mancini.
“Got a better ring to it,” said the promoter, Al Zill, born Angelo Zielli, indicating that the subject was not up for discussion.
If Lenny’s new name anticipated some success, then so did his opponent, Emil Tanner, another 128 pound local lad, already 1–5. “Mancini’s execution is a little ragged, but he is busy and a hard worker and carried the fighting from start to finish,” wrote Ward. “Tanner appeared a little perplexed by the bruising tactics of his opponent, and during the four rounds landed but two solid punches.”
Ward finished his ringside dispatch with a reminder that Youngstown—just a couple months removed from the Little Steel conflagration—remained immersed in the Depression. “The show was an artistic success, but a financial flop,” he wrote.
Despite a healthy crowd estimated at two thousand five hundred,21 one of the best indoor turnouts of a year or more, the gate amounted to only one thousand six hundred dollars.
In other words, economic circumstances didn’t bode well for a kid like Lenny Mancini. Hell, if the great Henry Armstrong had to make ends meet running a shoe-shine stand, then what was Lenny to do? Head back to the CCC, of course.
More than a year would pass before Lenny had another sanctioned bout, and he’d have to face a 141 pounder22 just to get it. That was Halloween night, 1938, at Rayen-Wood, when he outpointed Pat Murphy, a former Marine, in six rounds. But with fewer than 650 fans in attendance, the Vindicator noted that “Promoter Zill took23 a worse beating—financially, of course—than any fighter on last night’s card.”
With paydays so scarce, Lenny was better off as a cook in Ely. “I stay here, I’ll starve,” he’d begun to say. It would be almost four months before his next fight.
Again, he proved the star of a Rayen-Wood undercard, displaying an entertaining style one newspaperman called “short on stature, but long on stamina.” He was also relentless to the body of his opponent, described as “a colored boy” from nearby Warren. From the Vindicator: “The Lenny Mancini–J.D. Williams24 six-rounder at 135 pounds was the best. The ex-amateurs tossed caution to the winds as they slugged it out with Mancini scoring a well deserved victory.”
More fortuitous, at least for Lenny, was that evening’s main event, a rematch between Newark’s Johnny Duca and Billy Soose, who left his opponent “blinded by blood streaming from cuts above his eyes.” A fine middleweight from nearby Farrell, Pennsylvania, Soose was trained by the great Ray Arcel, who had already worked with champions like Frankie Genaro, Sixto Escobar, and Jackie “Kid” Berg. It was Arcel who heard Lenny’s appeal.
Their conversation, as replicated in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, went like this: “I was pretty fair25 in the amachoors here,” Lenny explained, “and I did all right in fights out in a CCC camp in Nevada, and I’d like to get a chance to go to New York and fight for the dough. Could you help a young fella, Mr. Arcel?”
“If you can get to New York,” said Arcel, “I’ll get you the right kind of manager. And if you’ve got the stuff, you’ll get somewhere.”
• • •
Twenty-two days later, Lenny made his New York debut. The venue was the Broadway Arena, 944 Halsey Street, Bushwick, Brooklyn. The opponent was Charley Varre, a promising lightweight with a record of 7–1. Again, Lenny won on points, though not before Varre broke his jaw.
“I’ll be back26 in six months,” he told his manager.
“Sure,” said the manager. “Sure, you’ll be back.”
If the manager, one Frankie Jacobs, seemed less than sanguine about the prospects of Lenny’s return, he wasn’t alone. “The fight mob,” that fraternal order of pugilistic cognoscenti, had seen this before: Kid arrives, Kid gets busted up, Kid goes home. There was nothing special about Youngstown Lenny. As one old hand27 remarked: “Nobody expected to see him again.”