Joseph O'Connell Sr., who as a boxer 50 years ago slugged his way into prominence as the "Legend of Pigtown," died Sunday of cancer at his daughter's home in Glen Burnie. The Hanover resident was 72.
At the age of 10, the Baltimore native was sent to St. Mary's Industrial School for orphans and wayward boys. At St. Mary's, ++ he eschewed formal boxing lessons given to the school's stellar boxing team, preferring the rough-and-tumble, bare-fisted brawling.
After leaving school at 16, he worked in his uncle's coal yard, shoveling coal for 15 cents a ton.
Known as "Wild Man" O'Connell and later "Sailor Joe," he turned professional in 1942 when someone asked if he wanted to make some easy money boxing.
He fought often at the Coliseum on Monroe Street, where he thrilled crowds with his "kill or be killed" style of brawling.
"He was my idol," said Buddy Sauerhoff, an amateur boxer and longtime friend. "He was a taker and a great puncher. He got floored seven times in a fight and got back off the floor and eventually knocked the guy out in the third round. He was a great crowd-pleaser."
Ray H. Leonard Jr., former Marine Corps boxing coach and president of the Veteran Boxers Association Inc., International Ring 101, said, "When he was in the boxing ring he gave it his all. Joe never liked to train and hated roadwork, and most of his fights were fought on guts and heart alone.
"He was not a quitter and was really a Baltimore version of 'Rocky,' though he didn't win a championship or reach the Top Ten. Maybe with the proper training and management he could've went a long way."
During World War II, he joined the Navy and served aboard the USS Robinson, where he boxed several exhibitions with Jackie Conn, the brother of heavyweight contender Billy Conn.
Mr. O'Connell was discharged in 1945 with the rank of seaman third class.
His boxing career ended in 1948, and he went to work for the Baltimore sewer department. He retired in 1983, the year he was inducted into the Maryland Boxing Hall of Fame.
Services will be held at 11 a.m. tomorrow at the McCully Funeral Home of Pasadena, 3204 Mountain Road.
Survivors include his wife of 43 years, the former Dorothy Minnix; two sons, James L. and Joseph R. O'Connell, both of Pasadena; two daughters, Gladys Plemones of Baltimore and Dorothy Hackman of Glen Burnie; a sister, Eileen Rider of Baltimore; a stepbrother, Joseph D. O'Connell of Annapolis; and 10 grandchildren.
Memorial donations may be made to the American Cancer Society, P.O. Box 1412, Pasadena 21122.