Saturday, May 24, 2008

Steel City vs. Motor City: "Get Dressed Grandma, This Bingo Game is Ready to Roll!"

“What’s the sense of being Irish if you can’t be dumb?"
-- Billy Conn, the Pittsburgh Kid

If Philadelphia's Flyers were paper thugs, ersatz contenders like Sylvester Stallone's Rocky Balboa, Detroit's Red Wings are the real deal. Like Joe Louis.

The Penguins go from Rocky Balboa to Joe Louis.

From Philadelphia's thugs on ice and louts in the stands to Hockeytown, with octopi tossed onto the ice at Joe Louis Arena and a rich tradition of class and grace surrounding the franchise and its fans.

Unlike Pittsburgh-Philadelphia (Penguins-Flyers), there is no animosity between Pittsburgh and Detroit. In fact, for these two great cities built long ago in part as French colonial fort outposts, there's a sense of kinship forged in the historical socio-economic connection of history and industry (Pittsburgh's steel building Detroit's automobiles) and cemented in the February 2006 Super Bowl where Les Detroitois embraced and welcomed more than 100,000 visiting Steelers fans who adopted the city as their home away from home, as the Steelers prepared for and won Super Bowl XL.

But Detroit had no stake in that game, except as host city. Once again Detroit plays the host, but this is a different story. This is the Stanley Cup Final. And it starts in Hockeytown.

"Oh, woe is me, tut-tut, how will the Penguins ever compete?"

The Red Wings, one of the NHL's most storied Original Six franchises, have won 10 Stanley Cups to the Penguins two. The Wings have been to the Stanley Cup Final four times in the past 11 years, the Pens not once since 1992. The Wings had the NHL's best record this past season and bring a distinguished and accomplished corps of veteran stalwarts and future Hall of Famers to this Final. The young Penguins open on the road and are led by a 20-year-old. It's been speculated that if somehow the Penguins win this series, juice boxes will be handed out in the winning locker instead of champagne.

If the powerful Red Wings are Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber, the plucky Penguins are Billy Conn, the Pittsburgh Kid. And we all know how that one turned out. Let's hope the Pittsburgh Kids come out on top this time, and let's hope the series will turn out to be be every bit as entertaining as that legendary fight (see the excerpt, below, from Frank Deford's classic article in Sports Illustrated).

Other Perspectives:
A great column from the Post-Gazette's Bob Dvorchak, who notes the historical connections between the two cities:

The teams never have collided in the playoffs and meet sporadically during the regular season because of the unbalanced schedule. And at first glance, this series is a blank slate. There is no contempt bred by familiarity. No known grudges. No coaching feud. No insults or trash talk. Just a best-of-seven played out in two cities with blue-collar legacies between two teams with world-class forwards, team-based defenses and high-caliber goaltending. In short, it could be a classic and the best ad for the new NHL that the suits could have hoped for.

But from the long view, the two cities -- both of which share roots as French forts before there was an America -- have hockey bonds that rival those between father and son, and sports traditions that intertwine.

The Pirates won their first World Series title in Detroit in 1909, with Honus Wagner outplaying Ty Cobb. Billy Conn, an upstart light heavyweight from East Liberty, was nine minutes away from becoming heavyweight champion of the world in 1941 when he got greedy and was knocked out by Detroit's Joe Louis, for whom the Red Wings' hockey arena is named. Detroit's NFL team has endured the Curse of Bobby Layne stemming from his trade to the Steelers in 1958. Pittsburgh won its last major title in Detroit at Super Bowl XL, when the city welcomed Steelers fan with open arms. Former Pirates skipper Jim Leyland now manages the Tigers.

And, as far as hockey goes, the sport wouldn't exist in Pittsburgh without Detroit. The relationship goes back to 1936 when a minor-league team called the Detroit Olympics was sold, relocated to Pittsburgh and operated as a minor-league team for the Red Wings. That team became the Pittsburgh Hornets, denizens of the old Duquesne Gardens, who shipped NHL players to Detroit the way the old Pittsburgh mills shipped steel to the Motor City to make cars.

Helene Elliott of the Los Angeles Times is one of many across North America who says "Pens vs. Wings: Just What the NHL Needs," but she says it well ...

"The face of the NHL is scruffy, Sidney Crosby's attempt at a playoff beard having resulted in fuzz more befitting a high school prom king than a player who carried the Pittsburgh Penguins from near-extinction to the Stanley Cup finals.

"Crosby, a few months too young to legally drink adult beverages, will take on the biggest challenge of his career starting tonight at Joe Louis Arena. The final between the Penguins and Red Wings is the most eagerly anticipated in years, promising world-class skills, smart defense and the grit that sets the hockey playoffs apart from other postseason tournaments."


More on Billy Conn vs. Joe Louis:

"The Boxer and the Blonde," Frank DeFord's classic article on Billy Conn, in Sports Illustrated, courtesy of

June 18, 1941, The Polo Grounds, New York ...

Billy Conn crossed himself when he climbed into the ring that night.

And ... the fight began, Joe Louis’s 18th defense, his seventh in seven months.

Conn started slower than even he was accustomed to. Louis, the slugger, was the one who moved better. Conn ducked a long right so awkwardly that he slipped and fell to one knee. The second round was worse, Louis pummeling Conn’s body, trying to wear the smaller man down. He had 30 pounds on him, after all. Unless you knew the first rounds didn’t matter, it was a rout. This month’s bum.

In his corner, Conn sat down, spit and said to his cornerman, “All right, Moon, here we go.” He came out faster, bicycled for a while, feinted with a left and drove home a hard right. By the end of the round he was grinning at the champ, and he winked to Jawnie Ray, his trainer, when he returned to the corner. The spectators were up on their feet, especially the ones who had bet Conn.

The fourth was even more of a revelation, for now Conn chose to slug a little with the slugger, and he came away the better for the exchange. When the bell rang, he was flat-out laughing as he came back to his corner. “This is a cinch,” he told Jawnie.

But Louis got back on track in the fifth, and the fight went his way for the next two rounds as blood flowed from a nasty cut over the challenger’s right eye. At Forbes Field in Pittsburgh the crowd grew still, and relatives and friends listening downstairs from where Maggie lay worried that Billy’s downfall was near.

But Conn regained command in the eighth, moving back and away from Louis’s left, then ripping into the body or the head. The ninth was all the more Conn, and he grew cocky again. “Joe, I got you,” he popped off as he flicked a good one square on the champ’s mouth, and then, as Billy strode back to his corner at the bell, he said, “Joe, you’re in a fight tonight.”

“I know it,” Louis replied, confused and clearly troubled now.

The 10th was something of a lull for Conn, but it was a strategic respite. During the 11th, Conn worked Louis high and low, hurt the champ, building to the crescendo of the 12th, when the New York Herald Tribune reported in the casual racial vernacular of the time that Conn “rained left hooks on Joe’s dusky face.” He was a clear winner in this round, which put him up 7—5 on one card and 7-4-1 on another; the third was 6—6. To cap off his best round, Conn scored with a crushing left that would have done in any man who didn’t outweigh him by 30 pounds. And it certainly rattled the crown of the world’s heavyweight champion. The crowd was going berserk. Even Maggie was given the report that her Billy was on the verge of taking the title.

Only later would Conn realize the irony of striking that last great blow. “I miss that, I beat him,” he says. It was that simple. He was nine minutes from victory, and now he couldn’t wait. “He wanted to finish the thing as Irishmen love to,” the Herald Tribune wrote.

Louis was slumped in his corner. Jack Blackburn, his trainer, shook his head and rubbed him hard. “Chappie,” he said, using his nickname for the champ, “you’re losing. You gotta knock him out.” Louis didn’t have to be told. Everyone understood. Everyone in the Polo Grounds. Everyone listening through the magic of radio. Everyone. There was bedlam. It was wonderful. Men had been slugging it out for eons, and there had been 220 years of prizefighting, and there would yet be Marciano and the two Sugar Rays and Ali, but this was it. This was the best it had ever been and ever would be, the 12th and 13th rounds of Louis and Conn on a warm night in New York just before the world went to hell. The people were standing and cheering for Conn, but it was really for the sport and for the moment and for themselves that they cheered. They could be a part of it, and every now and then, for an instant, that is it, and it can’t ever get any better. This was such a time in the history of games.

Only Billy Conn could see clearly—the trouble was, what he saw was different from what everybody else saw. What he saw was himself walking with Mary Louise on the Boardwalk at Atlantic City, down the shore, and they were the handsomest couple who ever lived, and people were staring, and he could hear what they were saying. What they were saying was: “There goes Billy Conn with his bride. He just beat Joe Louis.” And he didn’t want to hear just that. What he wanted to hear was: “There goes Billy Conn with his bride. He’s the guy who just knocked out Joe Louis.” Not for himself: That was what Mary Louise deserved.

Billy had a big smile on his face. “This is easy, Moonie,” he said. “I can take this sonuvabitch out this round.”

Jawnie blanched. “No, no, Billy,” he said. “Stick and run. You got the fight won, Stay away, kiddo. Just stick and run, stick and run. There was the bell for the 13th.

And then it happened. Billy tried to bust the champ, but it was Louis who got through the defenses, and then he pasted a monster right on the challenger’s jaw. “Fall! Fall!” Billy said to himself. He knew if he could just go down, clear his head, he would lose the round, but he could still save the day. “But for some reason, I couldn’t fall. I kept saying, ‘Fall, fall,’ but there I was, still standing up. So Joe hit me again and again, and when I finally did fall, it was a slow, funny fall. I remember that.” Billy lay flush out on the canvas. There were two seconds left in the round, 2:58 of the 13th, when he was counted out. The winnah and still champeen. . . .

“It was nationality that cost Conn the title,” the Herald Tribune wrote. “He wound up on his wounded left side, trying to make Irish legs answer an Irish brain.”

On the radio, Billy said, “I just want to tell my mother I’m all right.”

Back in the locker room, Jawnie Ray said not to cry because bawxers don’t cry. And Billy delivered the classic: “What’s the sense of being Irish if you can’t be dumb?”