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Born Alfred Valine, Fought As Tommy O’Leary, Sacramento Fight Fixture Lived Colorfully

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Tommy O’Leary was born Portuguese in 1901, with no hint of any Irish ancestry until he began fighting on the Sacramento fairgrounds and a handler thought the alias might lead to a greater following. The name stuck, and although O’Leary would admit throughout his life the one regret he had in boxing was not fighting as Alfred Valine – the name on his birth certificate – Tommy O’Leary is the name by which he became known and traded upon for nearly 50 years of what was a colorful life. He was a Valine for legal purposes only, matters of matrimony, for example, or the occasional incident involving police.

O’Leary engaged in between 126 and 287 fights, depending upon who is telling the story, and for a while was considered the featherweight champion of Sacramento. He is remembered as a crowd-pleasing scrapper, whose fights never lacked for action, engaging in a series of contests with California Joe Lynch, Georgie Lee – who fought Pancho Villa twice, including a 15 round decision loss in Manila; and Babe Herman – a Sacramento native who made his way to New York, challenging for the featherweight championship of the world. 

He fought at a feverish pace as a young man, often two or three times a week, regularly in locations with little or no newspaper coverage – which helps contribute to the confusion about how active his career might have been. Many of these fights were four or six rounds in length because ten round fights were illegal in California until 1924, but O’Leary still took on a heavy workload. 

Clark Adams provided a great example of his grandfather’s resilience with a story about him fighting one July 3rd in Jackson, then driving 390 miles to Weed for a fight on the 4th, followed by another 230 miles on the road to fight on the 5th in Vacaville. 

O’Leary might have been a crowd favorite, but he was no Benny Leonard, the lightweight champ who received more coverage when in Sacramento for a few vaudeville performances than did any of the local professionals preparing for fights a couple days after Leonard left town. “The little local mick,” as one reporter labeled him, was king of a small world.

He lost a decision to Babe Herman a year before Herman challenged Louis Kaplan twice for the world featherweight title. Local reporters thought O’Leary deserved a draw, which was a regular verdict in those days when there was no clear victor in a fight. And he split four fights with fellow Sacramentan Georgie Lee – two draws and a win for each.

On the undercard of Lee’s four round rematch with Pancho Villa in Sacramento, O’Leary was beaten by Pete Sarmiento, Villa’s stablemate and the “champion of the Orient.” Sarmiento was so impressive in what turned out to be the fight of the night that one reporter – identified only as R. B. – was inspired to write, “No tiger stalking its prey through the jungle ever moved with greater precision or more perfect muscular control than did that perfectly built brown boy from the Orient.” It almost makes you wonder what was on R.B.’s mind. 

By the time O’Leary stopped fighting in 1930, because the younger guys were “too fast for him,” he was employed as a bartender, which would be his profession for the remainder of his working days. But O’Leary still hung around the gyms, and was a frequent guest at boxing festivities, such as the La Salle Club’s annual boxing night, attended by both the local heroes relatively unknown outside of town, as well as those heroes with more worldly fame, such as former heavyweight champion, Max Baer.

Born and raised in the Freeport-Clarksburg agricultural area south of Sacramento, O’Leary’s family originally came from the Azores. The Valines, like many immigrant families to America, would become established citizens in only a couple of generations, owning land and ranching among their enterprises. O’Leary, however, was something of a contrarian to this familial effort, and when retired from boxing would still find himself comfortable in the lower ward once called the Tenderloin but by then known as the West End, between 10th Street on which the state Capitol was located and the Sacramento River, home to speakeasies, pawnshops, gambling joints, cribs, sex resorts, boxing gyms, and the L Street Arena where fights were held. 

You could find fun, or trouble, or maybe both, in this neighborhood.

My long-time friend Javier Alcala, who knew O’Leary in the 1960s and still refers to him as “Mr. O’Leary,” admits he was a bit rough around the edges. O’Leary knew his boxing, though, and had working relationships with all major figures in Northern California. The scar tissue over his eyes and the overgrown knuckles that develop from a lifetime of throwing punches were evidence of his experience. And he was a good trainer, too. Not in the same league as Jackie McCoy or Eddie Futch, who were both working in Southern California at the time, but in the tier below them.

He laid the groundwork for Pete Ranzany’s career, taking him from scratch and developing the style which would allow Pete to become a two-time bronze medalist at the national AAU tournament and a finalist in the Olympic trials before he began a fine professional career. O’Leary died in 1970, but Javier believes if O’Leary had lived long enough to have had an impact upon Pete as a professional that he could have been even more successful. Once guys like Leonard and Hearns matured, and Benitez and Duran had grown into the welterweight division, Pete no longer had a chance to become champion. But before that, with competition like John Stracey and Carlos Palomino, whom Pete beat as an amateur, he could have won a title.

Being in the alcohol distribution business in the 1920s and into the 1930s, in the era of prohibition and the Volstead Act, could be dangerous work, not for the faint of heart. One could not always call the authorities when trouble arose in an establishment that wasn’t supposed to exist, so one often had to be self-sufficient in that regard.

O’Leary proved to be self-sufficient on a regular basis, which is why Alfred Valine’s name would sometimes appear in the newspapers. He would be noted for “subduing” a local miscreant in one report but be arrested for bootlegging out of a J Street joint in another. He would endure robberies and was once stabbed in the chest trying to break up a fight between four men at another place on K Street. O’Leary recovered in the hospital but was unable to identify, for police, the knife-wielding assailant.

In further testament to O’Leary’s fortitude, law enforcement was disappointed to not discover any liquor at “one of the few remaining thirst emporiums of the Volstead Era in Sacramento,” upon their arrival. Which could only mean O’Leary managed to hide the evidence before seeking help.  

Providing door security one night at an upstairs café, a potential patron didn’t appreciate O’Leary not allowing him entrance. “Don’t you know who I am,” the patron asked, in a non-questioning tone, before taking a right hand powerful enough to roll him all the way down the stairs to street level. 

While staying at the West End’s Shasta Hotel, one of the what are now called single room occupancy hotels, where O’Leary would at times reside during periods of domestic strife – a couple of divorces and a remarriage hint that life with O’Leary might not always have been a fairy tale – he was once arrested for expressing his frustration, in a physical manner, with a former neighbor for “interfering in his marital affairs.”

O’Leary married for the first time in the spring of 1921, a couple of months before his wife, Mildred, would be found guilty of an unspecified crime that involved jackass brandy – now more commonly known as prison wine – for which a six month sentence in County jail was suspended upon her promise to leave town. That didn’t happen, as she and O’Leary would bring three children into the world – Alfred, Yvonne, and Donna – during their union.

Mildred (Myrtle) Clark had something of a rough beginning into adulthood. O’Leary was her second husband, having been married while a teenager to Eugene Klays, with whom she had a daughter, Doris. Klays filed for divorce because he had to cook dinner and care for the baby when he came home from work, a claim the then Mrs. Klays didn’t deny. 

The custody battle for the child lasted longer than the process of dissolving the marriage, possibly at the insistence of Klays’ mother, Tilma Monical, for the judge’s decision – to award the father custody – was based primarily upon Mrs. Monical’s testimony. “I want my baby back,” Mildred Valine cried, but to no avail.

Mrs. Monical and her husband, Raleigh, Eugene’s stepfather, would raise Doris, for Eugene soon had more pressing problems than caring for his child. He was arrested for entertaining someone else’s teenage child one night at the Golden State Hotel on the 900 block of K Street. The Golden State was well-known by police as a safe haven for where grown men could take underage women. The hotel clerk had also been arrested for selling morphine and cocaine.

The girl’s father filed statutory charges, which Eugene avoided by offering his hand in marriage, although he would be “through with her” after six weeks of matrimony. A divorce would soon follow. It doesn’t appear as though there was much love lost between Eugene and his stepfather, for when Eugene died in 1939, no mention was made in his obituary of any father, biological or otherwise. And when “Rollo” Monical passed away in 1958, you were not informed of his having raised a son, either.

Mildred and O’Leary lived in the 12th and J Streets area while their children were growing up. O’Leary took over the gym in the basement of the YMCA building at 5th and J when he retired from bartending, the same gym where he had learned to box in 1919, hoping to establish a solid amateur boxing program as a gateway to professional boxing once again becoming a thriving business. As promoter Babe Griffin said, “I’ve always thought Sacramento is the best fight town in California. You give the people an attraction, some good boys to follow, and they’ll turn out.”

That was O’Leary’s dream, to develop an attraction, at least one good boy to follow, so “they’ll” turn out. And with Ranzany, it was a dream that was close to coming true for O’Leary, before the harshness of reality would wake him, with its call to death. O’Leary never got to see the final product, but he was there to make the initial cuts, to mold the form for whom others would provide the final polishing. 

Ranzany will forever be one of Sacramentos’ brightest fistic lights, and O’Leary is due a measure of credit for that.

The Sacramento boxing business was struggling in the late 1960s. Top amateur Robert “Sweet Pete” Peterson had joined the Air Force upon receiving his draft notice. “Preacher” Lewis and Freddie Roots were main event fighters serving tours of duty in Vietnam.  

O’Leary’s dream was struggling at first, too, in part due to Sacramento’s ongoing urban renewal process by which the West End area was eliminated in favor of riverfront commercial development, while hundreds of businesses were closed and thousands of people displaced.

The West End was a diverse, densely populated area, an integration of ethnicities not appreciated elsewhere in the city. As the renewal process marched eastward from the riverbank, destroying most everything in its path, including the stately and once-stately Victorian houses Sacramento was famous for, it left a new form of blight behind – dozens of Soviet-style architecture government buildings and an interstate that ran parallel to the Sacramento River, separating it from the city, sequestering neighborhoods from their roots and from one another. A conscious strategy to divide and conquer could not have been more effective.

The YMCA and boxing gym were marked for demolition, to make way for a Weinstock’s. O’Leary and his nephew, Ray Valine, a onetime amateur boxer, were looking for a site for a new gym but, as O’Leary complained, “Everybody wants too much rent.” They finally found what would become known as O’Leary’s Gym on the corner of 8th and L, about a five block walk from the old gym. 1208 8th Street had once been a beautician school, and was on the second floor above the Torch Club, which had been one of the first bars to open in 1934 as prohibition was repealed. It was where politicians often chose to drink when in town.

Pete Ranzany’s father had abandoned the household when the children were young, and Mrs. Ranzany had struggled to maintain for her family. Ranzany grew up in the rougher, less affluent parts of town, and had, in his words, “his share of street fights.” As a “tall, slender” 16-year old, inspired by local amateur standout “Sweet Pete” Peterson and all the boxing magazines he read, Pete stepped into the office of the state Athletic Commission to inquire about becoming a professional boxer.

The Commissioner, Roy Tennison – once informed of Ranzany’s age and complete lack of amateur experience – recommended that Pete find O’Leary at his gym above the Torch Club. Everyone knew where the Torch Club was. The rest is, as the saying goes, history, because, when a shy, sensitive, fatherless teenage boy climbed the stairs to the boxing gym where Tommy O’Leary took him under his wing, Ranzany found a home. 

O’Leary and Valine were struggling to keep that home open. Valine, a banking executive, was funding the gym for his uncle, but “it is almost impossible to make the operation break even,” he said. With the Vietnam War there was, at one point, only four pros regularly training at O’Leary’s – Bill McMurray, Jerry Jacobs, Freddie Short, and Bobby Nunez – and one amateur, Ranzany. 

Heavyweight McMurray was the only main event fighter in town, and an established professional. He had beaten Thad Spencer, but lost to Eddie Machen, Floyd Patterson, Sonny Liston, and Earnie Shavers, and could no longer be promoted as a hopeful future champion.

The gym was busy with excitement for a week when the self-proclaimed Irish heavyweight champion Pat Stapleton was in town to fight McMurray. Stapleton sparred a couple of rounds with recent Olympic champion George Foreman, preparing for his first professional fight. That session didn’t go too well for Stapleton, whose manager Mike Pusateri had to then explain to reporters that his guy wasn’t much of a gym fighter, and that the fight with McMurray would be a different matter. It was, too, as Stapleton lasted a round less with McMurray than he did with Foreman.

There were rumors of increasing activity. San Francisco heavyweight Henry Clark would make noise about wanting to move to Sacramento, saying “this is my favorite city.” His manager Joe Herman did business with O’Leary, including having co-managed lightweight Georgie Page, so the idea wasn’t completely unreasonable.

And Bay Area promoters would bring in white heavyweights, or near heavyweights, to test the waters, trying to gauge what kind of following they could develop. San Jose’s Matt Cusimano and Half Moon Bay’s Harold Dutra being two examples. But both of these guys proved to be better at landing punches than they were at avoiding them. And in Dutra’s case, testing the waters against Ken Norton might not have been the best decision in the world.

But rumors don’t pay bills, at least not for long, and Valine constantly talked of closing the gym. He explained that promoters used to help by contributing $25 whenever they promoted a show – something Don Chargin did regularly, others less so – but that “the current promoters have shown twice and we have received nothing.”

O’Leary was very excited about his youngster, though, claiming Ranzany to be one of the best prospects he had ever seen. Pete had fast hands and a wicked left hook, especially to the body, was winning amateur fights by knockout, won the San Francisco Golden Gloves, and was being written about in the newspapers as much as the local pros. In addition to boxing, he was attending continuation school so he could work full-time as a busboy to help provide for his family. Pete made for great copy.

But then this story was interrupted, as O’Leary died of a heart attack in May, 1970. Valine closed the gym not long after that, which is how Pete found himself in the Army, an experience that wouldn’t take him to Vietnam but would have him serving as a clerk on his way to becoming an all-service boxing champion. 

Valine, local reporters, and boxing figures kept tabs on Pete’s progress while he was away. Valine was attached to Pete, as if he were the godparent to O’Leary’s role as surrogate father. He felt ties as well as responsibilities. The feeling was mutual. Pete understood and appreciated the concern. As he would later say, “When Tommy O’Leary died, Ray told me he’d help me any way he could. He’s done that and more.”

Pete’s military service and amateur boxing career would come to an end at the same time, with the professional world excited for his arrival. He had an outstanding amateur record. Of his four losses, three would be to a group whose members won two Olympic gold medals and two world titles – Carlos Palomino, whom he would beat in a rematch, Ray Leonard, and Sugar Ray Seales.

Being stationed on Oahu’s Schofield Barracks, Pete had undoubtedly boxed in Hawaii and been noticed by Honolulu promoter “Sad” Sam Ichinose, who was interested in working with Pete professionally. But so was Jackie McCoy, already training Palomino, who turned professional the year before Pete.

Allen Moore of Oakland had trained former heavyweight contender Rex Layne and middleweight champion Gene Fuller, and was currently managing state middleweight champion George Cooper. Pete was disinclined to relocate to Los Angeles because he didn’t want to be away from his family, of which his mother was the center. Oakland, only 80 miles west, was less of a problem in that regard, and Moore looked as though he would be who Pete signed with.

This is when Valine’s paternal instincts took over. He and Sacramento Bee boxing writer Ben Sews organized a handful of local businessmen into forming a corporation that would fund Pete’s early career with a salary and the covering of his expenses – similar to the Cloverlay corporation that was created to help Joe Frazier at the beginning of his career. The corporation was designed to receive revenue once Pete achieved main-event status and began making larger purses for his fights, by taking a percentage of those purses. Local attorney Anthony Kennedy drew up the contracts for the corporation, not long before being appointed as a federal judge for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Pete might have benefited from basing his professional career in Los Angeles – McCoy took Palomino – someone of equal potential – to fame, riches, and a world championship. And the marketing potential of a handsome, talented, aggressive white welterweight in Southern California would be difficult to overestimate. 

But Ran-Sac, as the corporation was named, allowed Pete to stay home, to concentrate on boxing as he wanted without needing a job to support himself, and to take college courses as he had time, which was important to him. He was close, both to his biological family as well as what was left of his boxing family, of which Valine was head, after the loss of O’Leary. Valine said about the creation of Ran-Sac, “ I thought I owed it to my uncle.” And Pete said of Valine, “I trust him to the fullest.” In the end, Pete had a good career, easily fulfilling the promise O’Leary had seen in him from the beginning.

The Valines did right by Ranzany.

As Pete’s career wound down and he fulfilled his financial obligations to Ran-Sac with its dissolution, Valine would remain by his side, not just as a financial advisor, but for boxing matters as well. Managing himself by then, Pete would keep Valine and trainer Herman Carter with him.

The first of Ray Valine’s three heart attacks occurred in the dressing room of Memorial Auditorium following Pete’s victory over Wilson Bell in early 1980. He would recover from this, and accompany Pete to the end, including the loss to Nino La Rocca in Italy in July, 1983, which would be Pete’s last fight. Valine’s final heart attack would occur on Thanksgiving Day of that year. 

It is fitting, I guess, in some poetic sense, that the finish line for Pete’s boxing career would come together with the end of the line of his boxing family. “He was like a father,” Pete said of Valine at the funeral.

 

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