Pint-Sized Shea an uncrowned champ
By Nails Florio
He fought under an Irish monicker, as many boxers of yesteryear did. But Eddie Shea, a battling uncrowned champion of years gone by, was as Italian as pizza and pasta.
Edward Michael Donofrio (that was his real name) first saw the light of day on November 5, 1905 in Sunny Italy, the sixth of 12 children in the family of Pasquale and Filomena Donofrio. Little did his parents, who 18 months later were to emigrate to the land of promise, realize after the attending midwife had presented them with their cherubic new offspring that in their midst was a son who two decades later would find his name in bold faced headlines on sports pages throughout the United States.
“He had quite a career,” reminisced Joey Donofrio, now 67 and the youngest of the Donofrio brood. “He was truly the uncrowned champion of his days. He took on a lot of greats, champions and near champions, and had more than his share of success.”
The little Windy City slugger of yesteryear, who fought as a bantamweight, featherweight and junior lightweight from 1920 to 1934, compiled a record of 175 wins, only 20 losses and seven draws.
Although only 5-3 in height and 126 pounds in natural weight, Shea packed a lot of power and found many of his foes exiting via the knockout route. He was referred to in his hey day as the “Sheik of Pugdom” and “Sultan of Swat.”
“He was a great body puncher,” kid brother Joey recalled. “He had started his boxing career as a crouch fighter but later became a stand-up slugger. He was aggressive in all his fights and seldom backed away from his opponent.”
“When he was in New York in 1925 preparing for his bantamweight title bout against the champion, Charley “Phil” Rosenberg, he had trouble keeping sparring partners as he pounded them all mercilessly. The New York sportswriters who saw him work out in Stillman’s gym for the title bout dubbed him the ‘Junior Toy Bulldog.’ Old time boxing fans will recall that ‘Toy Bulldog’ was the name given to the great middleweight champion of the time, Mickey Walker.”
Tony Savoy, currently in the towel machine business in Chicago, gives credence to the fact that the Chicago fisticuffer was rough on his sparring partners. He was one himself.
“Eddie was a hard hitter, no question about that,” Savoy recalled. “But you know we made more money sparring against Shea than we did in regular bouts. At the time we were getting 25 dollars a round and that was pretty good money in those days.”
Shea’s title fight in Gothamtown against defending champion Rosenberg, a scheduled 15 rounder, had to be one of the low points in his exciting fistic career. While Shea was the clear winner of the first three rounds he suffered a knockout in the fourth round. And while it was never proclaimed officially, rumors were rampant at the time that unsavory elements had made certain threats that prevented Shea from performing his best in that all important bout. Another possible reason for Shea’s “poor showing.” According to some accounts, was that Shea as a natural featherweight and too weakened by weight loss to be at his best. Shea fought the championship bout at 118 pounds.
While Shea’s quest for Rosenberg’s crown obviously went awry, the loss didn’t prevent him from continuing to please ring devotees from coast to coast with his hard punching and all around ring savvy. Among his many triumphs were wins in overweight bouts over such champions as featherweight “Bat” Battalino, bantamweight Abe Atel Goldstein and flyweight Fidel LaBarba. In 1930 in St. Louis Shea fought junior lightweight champion Benny Bass, needing a knockout to west the crown from Bass. While Shea won a “newspaper decision” the crown remained on Bass’ head. Bud Taylor and Kid chocolate were just a few more of the champions of the day with whom Shea traded punches.
Among the many who had an especially high regard for the power in Shea’s punches was Tony Canzoneri, who was to become a featherweight champion in 1928 and a lightweight champion in 1930.
“Canzoneri had served as Shea’s sparring partner in his early pre-title days,” Joey Donofrio explained. “But when Canzoneri owned the featherweight title he was leary of fighting my brother. I guess he had had a taste of Eddie’s jarring punches.”
When did it all start, the boxing career of this fair haired, curly headed and green eyed little Italian-American from Chicago’s Italian community near Taylor and Halsted Streets?
It may have started in the neighborhood streets where Eddie, despite his pint-size, more than held his own against the neighborhood toughs. But it got its biggest impetus at the boys’ reformatory in St. Charles, Illinois where Shea had to spend 18 months because of a minor theft. But let’s let brother Joey, holder of the Shea archives, tell the story.
“While at St. Charles Eddie got in several scraps with fellow internees and two of them were with a hefty negro whose name was Seal Harris. Apparently Eddie and Harris started a fight in the reformatory ward. Well the rule was that once you got into a fight, you had to don the gloves and get into the ring, and, that’s what happened. Would you know that Harris who was almost twice Eddie’s size, was knocked out by Eddie. If I recall, Harris, who weighed about 210 pounds and was about 6-1 in height, later became a highly regarded heavy-weight fighter.”
While Shea learned to box at St. Charles under the tutelage of the school’s gym supervisor, Tom Parks, he later picked up more ring savvy at Kid Howard’s gym in Chicago. It was at Howard’s that he caught the eye of Ray Alvis who was to be his first manager. It was under Alvis that Shea got his first professional bout, in Aurora, IL against Joey Franks. Shea won handily and was embarked on what would be an exciting and lengthy fistic career.
Shea stayed with Alvis during half of his career. The second half was with Joe Glaser.
While championships eluded the feisty diminutive Chicagoan with the power laden fists, Shea was happy in the knowledge that he had met the best of his time, champs and near champs, and defeated a lot of them. And of course he took pride in the fact that he provided great financial help to the big Donofrio family, especially during the Depression years of the late 20’s and early 30’s.
Ironically, Shea, who had survived so many ring battles, as well as an Army stint in the Pacific during World War II, died suddenly and unexpectedly of a heart attack at the young age of 41 in 1946.
When the remaining members of the Donofrio clan (Nick, 90; Louise, 77; Tony, 75; Margaret, 70; and Joey 67) get together these days they often recall the exciting ring days of their battling brother. Tony was the only other Donofrio brother to don ring togs, and had a successful 15-1 pro career. But he was dissuaded from continuing in the obvious rough sport by his famous brother.