Fighter became 'prize husband' to one woman

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Berdie Merenbloom's mother slapped her face when she found out Berdie was dating Jack Portney.

"A prizefighter?" her mother said. "You're going out with a prizefighter?"

The year was 1929 and the name Jack Portney was starting to mean something in Baltimore. He was a left-handed welterweight with the chance to be somebody some day, the chance to be a contender, the chance to be a champion.

Which is not quite the way Berdie Merenbloom's mother saw it.

"A bum!" she said.

"A nice guy!" Berdie said back.

"A bum!" her mother said and slapped her face. "Nice guys sell shoes."

Berdie probably could have picked a better time to deliver the next piece of news. But she was 17 and headstrong and very much in love.

"Mom," she said, "yesterday Jack and me got married."

This time, her mom did not slap her. This time, her mom fainted to the floor.

Berdie, who next week will turn 80 , laughs a tinkling laugh remembering it now. She remembers everything about that day and the night that preceded it. She remembers that Jack took her to see Milton Berle at the Hippodrome and how afterward he drove her to Patterson Park "and sat so far away from me you could have fit two people between us, that's how much of a gentleman he was."

And she remembers Jack Portney, only 18, turning to her and saying: "I am going to be a champion some day, Butch. And I need a girl like you by my side."

Berdie -- Jack always called her Butch -- married him the next morning as soon as the license bureau opened and as soon as they could find a rabbi to perform the ceremony.

"Then I became Jack's trainer," Berdie said. "I wanted him to be in shape. I would get up in the morning and drive out to Patterson Park, and I would park the car and get out the bicycle and pace Jack as he ran. In the winter even! With snow!

"And every single day he would go to the gym at Baltimore and Gay streets, upstairs, second floor, and I would sit and watch him work out. And I could tell from the way he punched the bag whether he was in shape or not.

"And when he was in training, no sex! We slept in separate bedrooms. And I had a lock on my door!"

"Honey," Jack would say outside her door on not a few of those nights, "let me in, I've got something to tell you."

"Tell me in the morning," Berdie would say.

"I'll forget."

"I'll remind you."

Berdie never saw Jack fight. She couldn't make herself watch Jack get hit. "Friends would sit with me, and I would listen on the radio," she said. "He fought 12 years, 165 fights, and was never knocked off his feet and never knocked out. I am not making this up. You can check this in Ring Magazine, the bible of boxing."

Berdie's mother and Jack's mother wanted to have the marriage annulled. Their kids were just kids, after all. But Berdie and Jack asked for a chance to make the marriage work. It lasted 62 years. "And let me tell you," Berdie said, "it wasn't an ordinary marriage."

Jack had grown up tough, selling newspapers on the streets of the Baltimore, learning to fight to protect his corner from bigger newsboys who wanted his territory.

Berdie grew up a romantic. When she was 10 or maybe 11, she saw a picture of the Taj Mahal and fell in love with the story behind it. "That a man would build that for his wife," Berdie said, "that was amazing to me. And I would tell my girlfriends: 'Someday I will go to the Taj Mahal with the man I love.' "

"Send us a postcard when you do, Berdie!" her girlfriends would say, teasing her.

"But I always had dreams," Berdie said. "I always had big dreams."

Jack dreamed, too. He dreamed of the day he would fight in Madison Square Garden, of the day he would be champion of the world. The reality, as reality often does, turned out a little differently.

"He would fight in North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, all over," Berdie said, "and I would drive him. I was about 18. I would drive all night to get him to the weigh-in the next day and then I would stay in the hotel room and they would have the fight. And Jack would call me from the dressing room right after the fight to tell me he wasn't hurt.

"He was pretty good, you know. He was fast on his feet and clever and strong as a bull. He was a gorgeous man."

Jack was left-handed, which made it hard for him to get fights. Right-handed fighters are not used to the stance of southpaws and the fact that they lead with their right hands instead of their left. (In "Rocky", Apollo Creed is warned by his managers not to fight Rocky Balboa for this reason.)

So Jack fought whom he could and where he could, including Australia. "It was 1934 or '35," Berdie said, "and Jack went to Australia for six months and beat everybody. I've got all the newspaper clippings in albums. My mother wouldn't let me go with him, but if a month had 30 days in it, I got 30 letters from Jack. The letters started with him getting up in the morning and told me everything he did until he went to bed. And in the picture they took of him him standing next to the Australian champion, Jack is holding my photo in his hand."

Berdie remembers almost all of Jack's fights and names few people remember anymore. "Alf Blatch," she said. "Jack knocked him out. I have pictures of Alf lying on the floor. Herb Bishop. And Phil Furr from Washington, D.C, Jack boxed him in Baltimore and won the Southern Welterweight Championship."

Which was not quite the same as being the champion, as Jack and Berdie knew. "I have the belt on my wall today," Berdie said. "All fancy and engraved. And that and 75 cents can buy me a cup of coffee."

Jack did fight in Madison Square Garden and was rated as high as the No. 3 welterweight in the world. But he could never get TC shot at the title, and in 1938 he hung up his gloves.

He ran a string of pool halls for a while and then he and Berdie opened a sporting goods store at Howard and Lombard streets. The two of them worked side by side there for 33 years.

Jack kept up on boxing. Many people still remembered him. He would go to military bases and referee fights. He worked with the police boys clubs, helping to train kids. And in 1976, he was inducted into the Maryland Athletic Hall of Fame.

Then Berdie began to notice that Jack was having some memory problems. She is convinced, however, this had nothing to do with his fighting. "That man was smart after he left the ring," she said. "He was a businessman. He had a shrewd mind. Don't blame this on the fights!"

For the last seven years, Jack had been in a nursing home, diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. For the last two years, though Berdie visited him every day, he did not know who she was. "It used to kill me," Berdie said. "That was the worst."

He died on Feb. 11 of this year. His obituary ran 13 paragraphs in The Sun, which is not bad considering.

We do not know what occurs in the minds of Alzheimer's victims. To us, they seem to recognize nothing, remember nothing. But, perhaps, locked deep in their minds they have their memories still. Perhaps that is where they are living.

Perhaps this is where Jack Portney lived:

In 1960, Berdie and Jack took an around-the-world vacation. They had made some money and Berdie always was a good saver. They were in India when a reporter from the Indian Express came up to them and introduced himself. "You are Jack Portney, the Baltimore fighter?" the reporter asked.

Jack was amazed. "I haven't boxed in years," he told the reporter.

"We are wanting a story and a picture nonetheless," the reporter said. "Many people know you still."

So the reporter did the story. Berdie has it, of course. It ran under the headline: "Prize Fighter Who Knew When to Quit."

But it is the picture that is most intriguing. Berdie is sitting in her cotton dress and Jack is sitting beside her in a suit. His arm, as always, is wrapped tightly, lovingly around her.

And in the background there is no mistaking the Taj Mahal.

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