By Keith Terceira
He was born in the Lower East Side of New York ,December 23 1909, Barnet David Rasofsky. Barnet would grow up in Chicago, dreaming of being a Talmudic Scholar and Hebrew teacher. Those dreams would come crashing down, when at age 14, two men shot and killed his father, while robbing the Rasofsky’s family store. That event would ultimately link Barnet with elements in the underworld that would haunt him throughout his life. As was the norm for many Jewish fighters at the time Barnet took another name, Barney Ross, so he could hide his boxing from family and to get more fights. He would also use the name Barney Rasof at times during his life.
Barney’s mother, distressed and depressed by her husbands death , would suffer a nervous breakdown forcing the family to be divided, sending Barney and brother Morrie to live with family , his three younger siblings into an orphanage. At this time Barney angry at a god that could allow this to happen turned to the streets. It was in these streets that he would join first the Miller, then the Capone crime family. It was at this time that he would befriend one Jack “Sparky” Rubenstein.
Sparky and Barney had common interests and common problems. Both men’s mothers had suffered breakdowns, both needed to survive the harsh world of Gangland Chicago. Jack had been through the foster system with his siblings after the split of his parents, same as Barney’s siblings. Barney needed funds to reunite the family and support them. Both Sparky and Barney would run errands for Al Capone.
Al’s brothers, Ralph and Matty Capone, Frank Nitty, Murray Humphries, “Tough Tony” Capezio, and “Machine Gun Sam” Hunt were close followers of Ross’s often sponsoring his amateur career and present while a pro. Ross also said in an interview that Sparky to “was almost always present when he fought both as an amateur and as a professional “ When Ross began his career he trained at the Kit Howard Gym in the loop area of Chicago. Al Capone would often purchase all the tickets for the gym, giving them away to the fans that supported Ross. The gym had 125 seats at a cost of a quarter a piece. Big money during that time.
Sparky followed all Barney’s fights even his out of town championship bouts. “The Pride of the Ghetto” Ross would start his pro career in 1929, winning his first title against Tony Canzoneri in Chicago in 1933. In total he would earn three belts in three classes. In his last fight, he lost to another Hall of Fame fighter Henry Armstrong In 1938. In 1934, Ring voted him the Fighter of the Year. When fighting in California, Sparky and Barney would often get together according to Jack’s sister Eva and brother Hyman.
In 1942, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and at the age of 33, Barney and Sparky parted company when Ross joined the Marines. During his participation in the Invasion of Guadalcanal Ross would receive wounds that would pain him for life. While on patrol, November 20, 1942 he and his attachment ran into an advance party of Japanese, while most of his patrol was wounded Ross attacked alone, for 12 hours. Using up his own ammunition he fought with ammo left from the wounded. For this act, he was awarded a Silver Star, Purple Heart, and a Presidential Citation. He also was among 3200, First Marines to suffer from malaria on Guadalcanal, his fevers nursed by Chaplin Frederic Gehring, forever known as the “Padre of Guadalcanal”. Nine days after the attack on Ross, General Vandegrift would receive orders to send the 1st Marine Division to Australia for rehabilitation.
Father Gehring passed away in April of 1998 at age 95. A lifetime friend of Barney’s after their meeting in Guadalcanal, Father Gerhring often retold the tale of Christmas Day 1942. The Christmas Mass that Father Gehring said in a rain of shells from the Japanese to a group of soldiers. Before an altar and cross made of Shell casings, a man played a little reed organ doing Christmas carols, he was an Orthodox Jew named Barney Ross. Father Gehring would recall “At the end of the Mass, Barney said I’m going to play something for your mother and my mother, wondering where we are tonight, “My Yiddishe Mama” Everybody was nearly in tears” At sometime, Barney had made his piece with his God and during his tour in the Pacific, he would celebrate the Seder doing Pessah broadcasts over the armed-forces radio frequencies.
During his evacuation for treatment of his wounds he was treated with morphine, over zealous medics hoping to ease his hurt ultimately would cause his addiction. Ross would eventually need drug treatment and entered a hospital. Whether Sparky or the crime families of Chicago provided drugs for a habit of over five hundred dollars a week we don’t have concrete information. But Ross kicked the habit, even though Hollywood would insult him in creating the movie “Monkey on My Back”. Though Ross filed suit for much more, he settled for $10,000.
Ross reportedly attempted to provide arms in 1948 to Israel, as the state struggled with Egypt over a Jewish homeland. We don’t know if he was successful it is reported he was not, or if Sparky was involved in making the connections for the arms Ross was trying to find. Years later, guns and arms would be part of both their lives. In February 1944 , Sparky would earn a sharpshooters rating for his firing of an M1 .30 caliber carbine. After attaining the rank of PFC and receiving a good conduct medal Sparky was honorably discharged from the service.
Ross would state in later years the Sparky idolized him, and that he was “well behaved”, never a troublemaker, and would avoid clashes if at all possible. Sparky was tough and often had sparred with Ross. Others report that Jack had a lightning like temper which may have been where he got the nickname Sparky. Sister Eva thought the nickname came from a comic strip of a slow moving horse named “Sparkplug”. They would hang together as adults in the Lawndale Restaurant and Pool hall. Sparky later moved to Dallas, and Barney to New York where he worked at Milton Blackstone Advertising Agency. Over 10-12 years while Sparky was in Dallas, they talked often by phone.
What many boxing historians leave out is that Barney’s friend, Jack “Sparky” Rubenstein, was none other than Jack Ruby.
Barney Ross underwent several interviews with the FBI, testified to the Warren Commission, and even appeared as a character witness for Jack Ruby. Anyone who reads the FBI interviews will see that though Jack and Barney were friends, Ross attempted to distance himself from his friendship but could not abandon Jack in the end. To the extent that he did not come totally clean to the FBI about their relationship in his first statement to agents. While Ruby was suspected of being involved in the running of guns to Cuba. Ross was suspected in the late forties and early fifties of trying to run arms to Israel.
Ross tells the FBI in his statements on June 4, 1964 that even though he stated in his autobiography that he worked for Al Capone, he never really worked for Capone. Later in the testimony he contradicts himself stating that he was given envelopes to deliver by Capone for money. Others who ran such errands were Jack Ruby, Ira Colits and Lou Koppel. Barney believed that the envelopes were empty, a way for Capone to give them money while making them think they were working for it. Usually, the pay was a dollar.
Both Barney Ross and Jack Ruby suffered from and died of Cancer. Ruby died in jail, incarcerated while awaiting his retrial for the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald. Both gentlemen are buried in Chicago. Barney Ross was a legend in the Ring, a survivor of the streets of Chicago,, drug addiction, malaria, The Fightingest Marine on Guadalcanal, a hero in the struggle for a Jewish State, and despite all of the publicity surrounding the assassination of both Kennedy and Oswald a friend of Ruby’s for life. No movie script compares to his life. From Capone to Guadalcanal to Jack Ruby this man endured and overcame.
Forty years have passed since JFK was laid to rest, and in researching this article a eerie coincidence was discovered. One of the survivors of the sinking of PT-109, John F Kennedy’s ship was a lieutenant by the name of Barney Ross.