There have been many tough guys in sports in Pittsburgh. No matter how fierce, none of them can match Billy Conn. Tall and handsome with curly dark hair, the young boxer became a favorite of Irish Americans across the nation. His fans dubbed him “The Pittsburgh Kid”. Over the course of his career (1935 to 1948), Billy won 63 fights, lost 12 and had 1 draw. He reigned as the Light Heavyweight Champ from 1939 to 1941. Although Conn had a string of victories, it was a loss that he is most noted for. It was one of the greatest boxing matches of the century.
William David Conn, Jr., was born on October 8, 1917, in Pittsburgh. He is the son of William Sr. and the former Marguerite McFarland, an Irish immigrant. Living in East Liberty, Conn’s father worked for Westinghouse for 40 years. When Billy was still a kid, his father took him to the plant where he worked. William told his young son that soon he would be joining his father working for Westinghouse. Young Billy was horrified. He was determined to fight to avoid that fate—literally. By the time he was 13, Billy was a renowned streetfighter. He wasn’t much of a student and was therefore, asked to leave Sacred Heart Elementary School. Conn was once asked if he had to fight his way out of the streets to be come a boxer. He replied, that he had “to fight his way out of the alley to get to the streets first.”
Billy dropped out of school and began to train at a gym in East Pittsburgh, under the tutelage of former boxer Johnny Ray. After training for three years, he began his career as a welterweight. In 1935, he won twelve out of 18 fights. The next year he went undefeated, winning 19 matches—including one against fellow Pittsburgh boxer Fritzie Zivic. By 1937, he had moved up to the middleweight division. Billy defeated four ex-champs in that weight class, and he kept on winning. Then, in 1939, he won the Light Heavyweight championship by beating Melio Bettina.
On his way to boxing stardom, Conn had crossed paths with Greenfield Jimmy Smith, a professional baseball player from Pittsburgh. A perpetual bench jockey for the New York Giants, Smith played until 1922. It was then that he realized that he could make more money as a bootlegger during Prohibition. Smith, also a boisterous Irishman, took a liking to the young Billy Conn. During the summer of 1938, he invited Billy over for a visit while vacationing with his family on the Jersey Shore. During the visit Greenfield Jimmy introduced Conn to his beautiful 15-year-old daughter, Mary Louise. After spending the evening with the beautiful teen, Conn who would soon be 21 declared to Mary Louise that he was going to marry her. They began to secretly date.
The summer of 1941, it seemed as if all the plot line in Conn’s life built to a crescendo. Greenfield Jimmy found out about his daughter’s relationship. He decided he would send her away to a private Catholic women’s college in Philadelphia called Rosemont. Instead, Billy and Mary Louise, who was 18 now, drove north of Pittsburgh and took out a marriage license. Greenfield Jimmy did everything he could to put a stop to the marriage. He went so far as to visit the bishop and implore him to forbid any of the priests in the diocese to marry his daughter and Conn.
On top of that, Conn’s mother, who was only 40, was dying. A few days before a big match, Conn went to see her. “I gotta go now,” Billy said as he kissed his mother goodbye. “But the next time you see me,” he said, “I’ll be the heavyweight champion of the world.”
“No, son,” his mother said, “the next time I see you will be in Paradise.”
Billy, with his life in turmoil, left for New York for the boxing match nobody would forget.
On June 18, 1941, Conn readied for his big match at the Polo Grounds, in New York City. He squared off against the Heavyweight Champion of the World: “Brown Bomber,” Joe Louis. All eyes were on this heavyweight match. So much so that the Pittsburgh Pirates suspended game play during the boxing match so that the crowd could listen to the fight over the Forbes Field public address system. The fight lived up to the hype.
Although Louis had 25 pounds on Conn, “The Pittsburgh Kid” held off the champ for 12 rounds. He was leading on all scorecards. All Conn needed to do was to continue to hold him off a bit longer. However, known for being brash, Conn decided to go for the knockout in the 13th round. Things didn’t go as planned. Joe Louis knocked him out instead. Afterward in the locker room, Conn said to his companions, “What’s the sense of being Irish if you can’t be dumb?” A rematch was instantly proposed.
A few days later, Billy’s mother passed away. The day after her funeral, Billy and Mary Louise drove to Philadelphia and found a priest who agreed to marry them. Upon learning that his daughter had ran off to elope, Greenfield Jimmy called the state police to intercept the pair. By that point, the pair was already honeymooning in New Jersey.
That proposed rematch with Joe Louis would have to wait as war broke out all over the world. In November of 1941, Conn and Mary Louise, who was now pregnant, were in Hollywood as Conn was filming a movie loosely based on his career. The Pittsburgh Kid would tell the story of a streetfighter from Pittsburgh. Conn, with his movie star good looks, was touted as having a movie career if he desired. But he hated Hollywood and after the attack on Pearl Harbor, they returned to Pittsburgh. Once home, the Conns purchased a home in Squirrel Hill. Billy fought three more matches before entering the service. Joe Louis went to war as well.
In May of 1942, Conn received a three-day pass to come home for the baptism of his firstborn, Timothy. In an attempt to mend fences with Greenfield Jimmy, the christening party was held at the Smith house. As he was wont to do, Greenfield Jimmy began needling his son-in-law. Soon Conn exploded, and a brawl ensued. Billy threw a punch, catching his father-in-law on the top of his skull. He broke his hand in the process, thereby nixing any hope of rematch with Joe Louis anytime soon.
For much of the war, Conn was stationed overseas in Europe and put on exhibition matches for the troops. Once, a plane he was traveling on developed engine trouble over France. Facing death, Billy promised God that if he lived, he would donate a lot of money to charity. He survived and he kept his promise. Friends with Pittsburgh Steeler owner Art Rooney, Conn kept his first promise which was to give $5,000 to Art’s brother, Dan, who was a missionary. He also donated another $5,000 to Sacred Heart parish to build a statue of the Blessed Virgin and enshrine it there.
The war had taken a lot from both Joe Louis and Billy Conn, but with Conn’s hand fully healed, a rematch with the champ was scheduled. The rematch took place nearly five years to the day on June 19, 1946. Taking place in Yankee Stadium, this was the first heavyweight title match ever broadcast on television. Louis defended his title ably, knocking out Conn in the eighth round.
Conn fought two more matches in 1948, and won both. After that, he but hung up his gloves.
In 1985 legendary Sports Illustrated writer the late Frank Deford wrote a profile of Billy Conn’s life, career, and devotion to Mary Louise. “The Boxer and The Blonde” was one of the most popular pieces to ever appear in Sports Illustrated. It is often considered one of the best pieces to ever appear in the magazine because it captured what Pittsburgh was like in the early part of the last century.
Although Conn’s boxing career was over, decades later his punches still packed a wallop. In 1990, when he was 72, he broke up a robbery in a convenience store by decking the robber. That same year, he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
Billy Conn died on May 29, 1993, at the age of 75. Upon his death, he was buried in his hometown in Calvary Cemetery. A true Pittsburgh Kid, Billy lived in the same town in which he was born and resided in the same house he purchased in 1941. Billy and Mary Louise remained married until his death. Mary Louise died in April, 2017, at the age of 94.
By Janice Lane Palko