Boxing and sculpture were Joe Brown’s oddly matched passions. His gift was recognizing how much the human spirit infused both.
America’s greatest sports sculptor grew up in Devil’s Pocket, an Irish neighborhood in South Philly then rife with tap rooms, touts and toughs. He was an anomaly. Devil’s Pocket bred boxers, not sculptors and Ivy League art professors.
Yet Brown became all three.
For better or worse, Brown’s hometown has become the unofficial capital of sports statuary. Philadelphia is home to the controversial Rocky statue, a hunk of pop-culture kitsch that is now a leading tourist attraction. The Eagles’ memorable Super Bowl play, the “Philly Special,” was instantly memorialized in bronze. The 76ers have added a near roster full of sculptures honoring former stars at their Camden practice facility.
And recently a statue of Kate Smith, which had stood unassumingly among the statuary there for 22 years, was removed from the South Philly sports complex over concerns about racist songs the “God Bless America” singer once performed.
If it’s suddenly a red-hot genre, it’s one Brown helped pioneer.
Though he sculpted authors, musicians and statesman too, most of his 400 works were of athletes, classically inspired tributes that, as Inquirer columnist Tom Fox noted in 1985, “mirrored the spirit of man with the throttle on.”
Brown was drawn to sports by the kind of humanity he witnessed at a championship boxing match on Feb. 17, 1941. That night he was one of 15,982 fans assembled at Convention Hall to watch a game but overmatched South Philly pug named Gus Dorazio battle heavyweight champion Joe Louis.
It was no battle. Louis knocked out the challenger 90 seconds into the second round. Then, as the disappointed crowd stood and booed the premature conclusion and the spotlit ring filled with people, Brown noticed referee Irving Kutcher bending low to cradle and comfort the battered loser.
He quickly sketched the tableau, and three years later, by then a boxing coach and creative arts professor at Princeton, he recreated the scene in bronze. His “Pieta,” as moving in its own way as Michelangelo’s, would win the National Academy of Design’s Barnett Prize.
“If Joe Brown’s devout belief that strength and sensitivity can exist together demands proof,” wrote sportswriter Red Smith, who also was at Convention Hall that night, “then look at his `Pieta.’ ”
Undefeated in nine light-heavyweight fights as a young man, Brown repeatedly found inspiration in boxing.
In his “Dropped Antaeus,” this Rodin of the ring portrayed a stupefied boxer staggering to his feet. When poet Robert Frost saw the piece on a visit to the sculptor’s Canal Road studio in Princeton, he asked if the fighter was going to get back up.
Brown, whose work was often intentionally ambiguous, said, “I don’t know.”
“Good,” said Frost. “Keep it that way.”
He created the haunting image of Robert “Tiny” Maxwell for the college football award that was presented to Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa on March 8. The four large statues of generic football and baseball players outside Citizens Bank Park are Brown’s. His “Two Athletes,” a 19 ½-foot-high portrayal of gymnasts, long stood at Temple’s McGonigle Hall.
Brown did the Jesse Owens’ statue at Ohio State, one of Lester Patrick for Madison Square Garden, others of Arthur Ashe and Bill Bradley. His “Discus Thrower” is displayed at Boston’s JFK Library. Museums and private collectors continue to covet his work.
“Not bad for a half-blind Jew from Devil’s Pocket,” Brown said a year before his death in 1985.
Born in that working-class Irish neighborhood in 1908, the youngest child of a Russian-born Jewish tailor and his wife, he learned to fight early.
Following one brawl, he tried to explain his motivation.
“I told my mother I had to fight them,” Brown recalled in 1981. “I said, ‘They called me a Jew, and I’m proud to be Jewish.’ ”
“`Don’t be,’ my mother said. `You had nothing to do with it. Don’t be ashamed, either. But don’t be proud until you’ve done something to be proud of.’ ”
The pugnacious Brown graduated from South Philadelphia High and enrolled at Temple to study psychology and physical-education. He was on the boxing and football teams there. But after seeing the money older brother Harry was earning in the ring – Brown once saw him drop $2,400 onto the family’s kitchen table -- he left in 1928 to fight professionally.
In one bout, outdoors at 13th and Bigler, Brown, nearly blind at the end of his life, won $600 but had both eyes shut by aptly named opponent Wild Bill Kent.
“Another time I won a fight, and the next day the newspaper said I slaughtered the guy,” he told Fox, the columnist, in 1981. “I couldn’t even eat my soft-boiled eggs while reading the story. I realized, if this was how I felt when I slaughtered somebody, how would it feel when somebody slaughtered me?”
So he retired and re-enrolled at Temple, where he developed an interest in anatomy. After graduation in 1931, Brown posed for artists – at $1 an hour -- at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. There he found a mentor, R. Tait McKenzie, the Canadian-born sculptor who taught at Penn.
By 1938, when he was both a boxing coach and instructor at Princeton, he was an accomplished artist.
His academic colleagues "always argued that I wasn’t a scholar in the traditional sense,” he said. “Hell, I’m not a scholar in any sense. And I’m not proud or ashamed of it.”
In the 1980s, his vision failing, Brown managed to finish his last major work, the statue of young Ben Franklin at a printing press that’s located just north of City Hall.
Despite his singular background, Brown was an art traditionalist. He hated the “Rocky” statue, noting that the movie prop’s location at the Museum of Art made him “sick in my stomach.” And he thought Maya Lin’s stark Vietnam Memorial wall in Washington was too abstract.
But he was no sentimentalist either.
“Our world,” Brown said, “surely is not one of sweetness and light.”