A golden age of boxing

First slide
First slide
First slide
Previous Next

Pete Cilinski is 85 years old and lives at an assisted-living residence in Manassas. He's an old man, but if you ask him to assume a boxer's stance, he will and you'll see the fire that made him - and other members of the St. Mary's Boys Club Boxing Team - champions.

The 1940s often are called the heyday of professional boxing. Fighters like Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta were household names, as popular and well-known as any NFL or NBA player is today.

There was big money in professional boxing. Louis, arguably the greatest boxer of all time, won more than $4 million in his 17-year professional career from 1934 to 1951 - most of it going to unscrupulous handlers. Boxing was big time.

Amateur boxing was popular then, too, with many local teams competing for national honors. Two governing bodies, the Golden Gloves Association of America and the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), sanctioned these competitions.

Sports always have played an important role in the parish life of St. Mary Church in Alexandria. In 1888, Father Dennis O'Kane built the parish lyceum that hosted many sporting events including basketball and boxing. Baseball and softball teams were sponsored by the Knights of Columbus, and the teams played other Catholic schools in the Richmond Diocese and produced championship teams. Those other sports were played for decades, but boxing was short-lived - just 14 years - but it produced champions.

In 1938, Father Joseph Leitch was the associate pastor at St. Mary and was looking for a way to keep boys off the streets. He started the St. Mary's Boys Club Boxing Team in a room at the back of the lyceum lall and had it outfitted with donated gym equipment.

Father Leitch persuaded a local boxing coach, Naaman Massey, to coach the boys. Massey brought on an assistant, "Flick" Meade, and the men set out to create a winning team. They accepted no pay.

The team was undefeated in its 14-year run. Boxers like Louis "Bananas" Pavone, Reno Workman, Richard Nutt, Frank McGregor, Bob Schwarz, Gilbert Mayo and Pete Cilinski brought fame and glory to St. Mary Parish.

Boxing team individuals went on to glory at Golden Gloves and AAU competition. In 1944 and 1945, Pavone fought in what sportswriters at the time called the greatest amateur bouts in the history of Madison Square Garden. Schwartz and Mayo trained together and won local Golden Gloves championships. In 1939, Schwartz fought at Boston Garden and defeated Vince Pellegrino in the 175-pound category, taking the Eastern All-American Championships. Mayo had the fastest knockout in Golden Gloves history when he floored Eddie Joyce in 26 seconds in the first round of the 1939 Golden Gloves championship.

Cilinski, whose son is Father Robert C. Cilinski, pastor of All Saints Parish in Manassas, was only 11 years old when he joined the St. Mary Boxing team. Eleven was too young to box, but Father Cilinski said his father told the other boys, "I'm an altar boy and Father Leitch will let me fight." He was right - the priest let him fight.

In 1941, when Cilinski was 14, Massey told the organizers he was 16 so he could fight in the Washington, D.C., championship. He did and won the championship that earned him a spot in Madison Square Garden where he lost in the finals to a local New York boxer in a disputed decision.

Cilinski went on to win five D.C. Golden Gloves Championships and five D.C. AAU titles.

Father Cilinski said his dad never talked about his amateur boxing career. When Father Cilinski was about 10 years old he found his father's boxing memorabilia.

"I found a box he had with clippings, trophies and robes," he said.

Cilinski never turned pro. He took time out from amateur boxing to fight in World War II and went on to work for the Washington Gas Light Company and Safeway Stores, raise a family, and watch boxing for fun. In 1981, almost three decades after the last boxer threw a punch in the lyceum, Cilinski was inducted into the Washington Boxing Hall of Fame.

In 1944, The Washington Post sportswriter Shirley Povich wrote, "The big shot among the St. Mary's boys is a little Polish lad, Pete Cilinski, who isn't a big shot at all, except that he's the best fighter on the team."

The Polish lad, now a respected senior citizen, can revel in his awards and in his life beyond boxing.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2011