New York City’s Sports Bars
What is a sports bar? Well, of course, the core of the definition is that sports are the main form of entertainment – through video monitors, dozens of them showing all kinds of sports simultaneously. In those prehistoric days before ESPN and other dedicated sports networks the sports bar proprietor would establish these multiple feeds by themselves. Otherwise, only radio connections could be established. So, if you needed to know what was going on in the world of football and basketball and didn’t want to miss news of a baseball trade, you went to a sports bar.
Back in the biblical days of sports bars, you could even expect some of the stars to come out and mingle with the patrons. Sports bars were usually located close to arenas and stadiums, as boasted by the fine linen postcards below published by the Belvedere, Garden Cafeteria and Sportsman Cafe. Cliff Johnston’s place on Court Street in Brooklyn Heights was just down the block from Brooklyn Dodgers Headquarters. You could buy a drink for Duke Snyder and say, “Thanks for that RBI in the sixth inning.” The establishments encouraged those kinds of expectations.
In many cases the bars themselves were owned by sports heroes who avidly greeted their patrons. Yes, you could feel the grip of Jack Dempsey’s (1895-1983) right at his joint in Times Square. Wilt Chamberlin, (1936-1999) who had taken over Small’s Paradise in Harlem, would hang out at his club and try to meet young women. He was a legendary voluptuary as attested by many seductresses who were seeking assignations with just that type of guy.
Sports bars have their own special foods – number one is steak. It’s very hard to find one weighing less than 9 or 10 oz. If you want something light, maybe you can be tempted by a 5 or 6 oz lamb chop. Otherwise, it’s hamburgers, hot dogs or sea food, maybe a lobster, a crab on the West Coast, a plate of shrimp and a few dozen clams or oysters. Then, maybe a flounder or trout fillet for your date.
If you want a vegetable on the side, there’s potatoes – get them baked, mashed, sliced or French fried. The only kind of ethnic cuisine that has ever penetrated the sports bar is Italian, maybe a dish of manicotti or lasagna, or some spaghetti or linguine underneath those meatballs, chicken cacciatore, or veal parmigiana can keep you fueled.
But, if you haven’t figured it out yet, food is not the main event at a sports bar. It’s conviviality and camaraderie, a bit of boisterousness, lots of beer-powered bravado and liquor-fueled loquacity. People around you might be fans of the Red Sox or the Eagles, but they keep it discreet.
Let’s take a deep look at the postcards issued by New York’s most memorable sports bars:
The most important New York sports bar wasn’t even located there. It was in San Francisco, the city where he grew up, and owned by one of New York’s greatest sports heroes, Joe DiMaggio (1914-1999). Strictly speaking, Joe DiMaggio’s Restaurant wasn’t even a sports bar. Shared with his baseball-playing brothers Vince and Dom, this Fisherman’s Wharf landmark recalled the occupation of the Yankee-Clipper’s father as a fisherman – a French and Italian seafood restaurant. DiMaggio was known for the longest hitting streak in baseball – 56 games in 1941, a record that still stands. He was also known for conspicuous devotion to his deceased second wife to whom he was married for less than a year, Marilyn Monroe, sure to send a half-dozen red roses to her crypt three times a week for 20 years.
New York City-born Al Schacht (1892-1984) spent most of his baseball career as a right-handed pitcher and third base coach for the Washington Senators and Boston Red Sox. His hip-swinging style as a mimic earned him the moniker of the “Clown Prince of Baseball,” especially for his memorable imitation of the Jack Dempsey-Gene Tunney fights of 1926-27 and for his devotion to raising morale and money during World War II.
He came back home in 1942 to set up the Al Schacht Restaurant at Park Avenue and 52nd Street where he promised, “When it comes to food, I’m not clowning,” except when he took the stage to reprise his old routines for his sports star and celebrity guests. Yiddish-speaking and proud to have once studied to be a rabbi and cantor, Schacht’s postcard promotions feature sections of his restaurant named for parts of a baseball stadium: The Bull Pen, Upper Grandstand and Left Field are featured below.
Jack Dempsey’s Restaurant was clearly the most prolific postcard publisher in this genre. It was hard to leave the place often without a greeting hand-signed by the owner himself. You would think that he even won the fights against Gene Tunney. He didn’t.
Dempsey, whose ring career spanned the years 1914-1927 was boxing’s heavyweight champion from 1919-1926 – a sport’s superstar, with a legendarily strong punch. During the years when radio technology was bringing live action to ever larger populations, Jack Dempsey was able to attract ever larger winning purses to the sport and turn the fights into ever larger public spectacles. Fights against Jess Willard (1919), Georges Carpentier (1921), Luis Firpo (1923) and Gene Tunney (1926-27) attracted huge audiences as well as controversy related to adherence to emerging boxing rules and possible involvement of underworld figures. In demand as an entertainer through exhibition fights, Dempsey was a high-living spendthrift who married four times.
Jack Dempsey’s Restaurant opened in 1935 and stayed vital until 1974 in one of two Times Square locations. The outbreak of the war also allowed the boxer to burnish his restored reputation as a patriot and advocate for clean living. His postcards illustrate his concern with being a positive role model: A Message to the Boys. How to Be A Champ. Live Clean – Work Hard, Don’t Drink – Don’t Smoke. Get all the Education you can. “If you do this, ”You Can’t Miss.”
Back to 125th Street in Harlem, we encounter postcards published by two more establishments created by boxing champs: Joe Louis (1914-1981) and Sugar Ray Robinson (1921-1989.) As youngsters, they were neighbors growing up near each other in Detroit, but their boxing careers took distinctly different turns.
Joe Louis had the longest tenure as world heavyweight champion from 1937 to 1949, a record which still stands. He was also the winner in 25 consecutive title defenses, a record for all weight classes. However, he will probably always be best known for his victory in what will always be regarded as the most significant sporting contest of all time – his first inning knockout of the German boxer Max Schmeling in 1938 on the eve of the Second World War. After a surprise loss in their first encounter, Joe Louis returned to the ring representing not just Blacks or Americans but standing for the entire civilized world in his quick dispatch of a contender who had become emblematic for the Nazi Party and Adolf Hitler.
Schmeling and Louis later reconciled and became close friends. Indeed, the German boxer served as one of the pallbearers at Joe Louis’ 1981 funeral.
Louis was also influential in advancing the sport of golf, but his financial failures and misadventures were also legendary. He could hardly ever extricate himself from monies owed to financial managers and government tax authorities. His outside business ventures, including his Joe Louis Restaurant and a marketing and public relations venture were not successful.
Known as “Pound for Pound, the best boxer of all time,” welterweight and lightweight Sugar Ray Robinson was also the first celebrity athlete – well connected to New York’s partying club scene after his boxing career tapered off in the 1950s. He put away dozens of prize fighters as his career was building through the 1940s but today seems remembered mostly for his rivalry against “Raging Bull” Jake La Motta against whom he contended six times, winning five. In one of his last public appearances, Robinson served as best man for La Motta’s 1986 wedding.
The boxer looked like he had it all, a great dancer, good looks, a personality made for Hollywood – when his money ran out, Robinson was able to cash in by making a few movies. Sugar Ray’s Café located at 7th Avenue and 124th Street was an expression of his flamboyance, with his pink Cadillac parked in front and his indomitable entourage, which included a secretary, masseur, voice coach, and a bevy of beauties, trailing along caring for his every need. Sugar Ray’s was the place to be in Harlem and everyone showed up: Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, Nat King Cole, Lena Horne and all the other A-listers. His second wife Edna May Holly (married 1944) was a noted dancer who performed at the Cotton Club and toured Europe with Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. She ran a lingerie shop next to the Café.
We can’t close this survey of New York’s great sports bars without stopping in at three more boxer-owned nightspots: Inn Braddock’s Corner located at 157-160 West 49th Street, near Broadway, was owned by James J. “Jimmy” Braddock (1905-1974) world heavyweight champion from 1935 to 1937. Born in Hell’s Kitchen, New York’s Irish slum, Braddock was called the “Cinderella Man” by Damon Runyon for his lucky comebacks and hopeful second chances. At his heavyweight championship fight against Max Baer, Braddock represented all the dads that had been impoverished and unemployed by the Great Depression. Declining to fight Max Schmeling, Braddock fought Joe Louis and suffered his only career knockout against the Brown Bomber in 1937. Jim went on to service in World War II and after victory joined the “Greatest Generation” entrepreneurs that built the highways and bridges and propelled the United States to world leadership.
The 2005 bio-pic The Cinderella Man, about Braddock, was directed by Ron Howard and stars Russell Crowe as the fighter, Renee Zellweger as his wife Mae, and Paul Giamatti as his manager Joe Gould.
A child of Italian grocery owners, born in New Orleans but brought to Staten Island by his parents who moved their business to Brooklyn, Tony Canzoneri (1908-1959) was a diminutive but solid winner in the ring. Winning his first championship, the featherweight in 1928, he went on to gain prizes as well in the lightweight and light-welterweight divisions. Tony Canzoneri’s Restaurant Bar and Grill at 236 West 50th St. was his post retirement reward and hangout. It didn’t last as long as anyone expected when a massive heart attack took him out at age 51.
Born to a Russian-Jewish immigrant family of garment workers with eight children on New York’s Lower East Side, at that time an impoverished Jewish Ghetto, Benny Leonard (born Benjamin Leiner, 1896-1947) fought his way through tough streets and a hazy future. Becoming a professional boxer in 1911 at the age of 15 was the newly minted Benny Leonard’s way of breaking out to make it on his own. Known for his grace and strength, Benny fought a succession of Lower East Side boxers eager to move uptown, winning the World Lightweight Championship in 1917. “My mother deserves all the credit,” was Leonard’s humble expression of gratitude to his “Yiddishe Mamma” (Jewish Mother.) Benny Leonard’s Restaurant on the West Side at 72nd Street at Broadway was an effort to cash in starting in the late 1930s. This Lumitone Photoprint postcard promised he is “always here to greet you.” It didn’t last long. Like Canzoneri, Benny Leonard was felled by a heart attack at the age of 51 in 1947.
Sports bars have come a long way since their origins in New York City of the 1930s. They may seem like video jungles nowadays, but they keep some elements of their local origins. They stand for the pleasure of competition, the joy of winning, stardom and the disappointment of defeat, leavened by teamwork, persistence and striving for perfection. They stand for a bit of excess and braggadocio, for second chances and comebacks, for the human condition.
Good Article. Thanks
Didn’t know there were so many sport bars! Great article
Very interesting article. I happen to have a P/C of Micky Mantle in his Yankee uniform standing in the dugout of Yankee Stadium advertising his restaurant in NY. Micky was not there on the day I dropped in.
I’ve never seen this postcard. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. If I had a copy I would have included Mickey Mantle’s in my story. It was a very nice place on 59th Street opposite Central Park. I visited there several times but never saw him there. Of course, Mickey Mantle was one of my childhood heroes.
I can send you a photo of the card if you would like.Just need to know where to send it. jim
Detailed and fascinating article on a topic I knew little about. Thanks!
I noticed that the postcard of the DiMaggio brothers’ restaurant identifies it as being on “Fishermen’s Wharf”, as opposed to the usual “Fisherman’s Wharf” spelling.
Great cards, super stories as always Hy, but this time with a personal twist. Growing up in San Francisco in the 1950s, we called him “Joe!” or “Dimaggio!” always with a waver of awe in our voice. He was truly a local hero. He also stood a chance of being my father-in-law as he dated Janet’s mom when she was first widowed. With family, or biking around the Wharf, I’d wonder if I could see Joe! at the restaurant. Looked in a couple of times with no luck and went on to eat at our usual, No. 9.
Great memories! Thanks, Hy.
Lots of fun history – thank you Hy!
Wow. Very cool cards and a history I knew nothing about. Thank you
Nice! No idea that there were sport bars back in the day – l just thought that they were regular places owned by sport figures. I did see Dempsey standing outside his place many years ago.