Dunkirk’s Muscato family had boxing, winning in their blood

FIGHTING CHANCE

Joe and Phil Muscato were known nationally in for their achievements in boxing in the 1940s.

Joe and Phil Muscato were known nationally in for their achievements in boxing in the 1940s.

I hope you find this story as interesting as I did. Dunkirk’s Mayor of Central Avenue told it to me one afternoon in February. That gentleman is Joe Muscato.

I sat down with Joe at The Studio, the beauty salon that he and his wife, Sally, have operated for nearly 54 years. He detailed the story about one of the most prominent sports families in Dunkirk’s history. I believe it’s a story that few have heard until now.

Angelo Muscato was a steel worker, a barber, and Joe Muscato’s uncle. Angelo and his wife had five children. Joseph, Phil, Sammy, Vincent, and the sole daughter of the family and youngest child named Anita. The birth of Anita led to difficulties that forced her mother to be institutionalized for the little mental care that was available in the early 1900s.

After a very difficult family time had passed, Angelo decided to put his children into the St. Mary’s Orphanage and Asylum on the old Bennett Road, now Route 60. It sat on the site which is currently the JCC North County Center building. That building still has a cross at the top from it’s previous use as St. Joseph’s School for Exceptional Children.

The plan to put the Muscato children in the orphanage was altered somewhat when a new eventuality emerged for Vinnie and the baby Anita. Dan Lutz, of Dan’s Moving and Storage, proposed to adopt Vinnie, later renamed Paul Lutz, and Anita.

Central Park: the current fairgrounds with the old Floral Hall.

Central Park: the current fairgrounds with the old Floral Hall.

Angelo agreed and the two youngsters became part of the Lutz family.

As time passed, Angelo remarried and decided to take the three boys and begin a new life in Buffalo. At that time, the Queen City was a national hot bed of boxing. Fast money was available for the young men willing to brave the ring.

The Muscato boys would take on that opportunity with notable success.

Joe, who was born in 1919, had 55 amateur fights from 1938 to April 1941. He took to the ring as a professional heavyweight on Sept, 22, 1941, when he knocked out Jim Boyle in one round. In 1942, he had 16 fights from Chicago to New Jersey and was knocked out four times. Compare that formidable schedule with today’s top heavyweights who might have at most two fights a year.

Sgt. Joe joined the Army in 1942. He originally fought other service boxers and trained other Army boxers. In March of 1945, while stationed on Iwo Jima, he got hit with shrapnel in both legs from an attack by Japanese bombers. Despite the wounds, he resumed his boxing career in 1945 and continued until 1949. He became the seventh ranked heavyweight in the world at the peak of his career.

From Barker Museum, is the Central Park Fern Lake, which was located toward Brigham Road.

From Barker Museum, is the Central Park Fern Lake, which was located toward Brigham Road.

Joe Muscato went on to an undistinguished professional wrestling trial for seven years. He remained in wrestling for many years as a noted and popular referee officiating matches at Buffalo’s Memorial Auditorium. I myself saw him many times in black and white on a 10 inch TV screen broadcasts from Buffalo’s Channel 4 Friday Night Wrestling.

As a janitorial products salesman, he met my father Anthony who was the superintendent of the 200 employee Van Raalte women’s lingerie plant in Silver Creek. Joe became a friend of dad’s and visited our home many times when I was a young lad to sip a little vino. Buffalo lost one of its most popular athletes when he died on Dec. 8, 1977.

Joe was a frequent referee for pro-wrestling events at Floral Hall. Many noted wrestling personalities came to Dunkirk to entertain raucous crowds. One night in 1950, more than 2,000 fans gathered to see Sunny War Cloud, Steve “Mr America” Stanlee, Farmer Doc Marlin, Johnny Barend, and Kay Bell. Bad guy Bell stirred such ire during his bout, that on his way back to the dressing room escorted by police officer Clem Lutz, a young boy attacked Bell with a knife which nearly started a riot. A few nights later, the great Gorgeous George appeared at Floral Hall and beat Notre Dame great Jumping Joe Savoldi with a leg lock in the main event.

Let me digress with a bit of little known local history. I came to discover that the original Floral Hall was a featured structure of the former Dunkirk-Fredonia Central Park which is now the fairgrounds. This park contained a race track, a grandstand, baseball diamond, football field, and lacrosse field. There were walking paths, horse and buggy trails, and a natural amphitheater that could seat 10,000 people with mobile benches. There was a multi-acre lake called Fern Lake that harbored steel boats for rides. The original Floral Hall, which may have been known in the vernacular as The House of Flowers, partially collapsed under a heavy October snowfall and was replaced by the current structure in 1931. It’s hard to imagine our area being so vibrant as to sustain such a beautiful park halfway between two sister communities.

Now back to the Muscatos. Phil Muscato was born in 1923 and became Buffalo’s greatest heavyweight fighter. He became the second-ranked heavyweight in the world behind Billy Conn at the peak of his career in the mid ’40s.

St. Mary’s Orphanage, which is now JCC North.

St. Mary’s Orphanage, which is now JCC North.

A humorous story was told to me by the current Joe Muscato about his own boxing highlights. Joe started boxing at St. Mary’s school on Fourth Street when he was in eighth grade. He got to be a pretty decent boxer, at least among other young Dunkirk boxers.

When he was 16 years old, he got a call from cousin Phil Muscato’s friend and agent Hank Jarvis. Joe’s cousin Phil was in town and would like to spar with his younger cousin. So 16-year-old Joe went to the third floor of the American Legion building on Central Avenue. He strapped on the gloves and head gear and went in the ring to show his 27-year-old famous cousin what he had.

Dunkirk Joe made the mistake of catching Phil with a pretty good blow to his nose, which unfortunately got Phil’s irate attention. Within a few minutes, Joe was a mass of welts and bruises and convinced that his boxing skills were never to be further pursued.

Phil had 31 main event fights in Buffalo drawing as many as 11,541 fans to see him fight Joltin’ Joe Matisi in 1948. This was a grudge match because Matisi had hurt his older brother Joe in 1946. Many observers of the fight believe Phil could have knocked out Matisi but decided to punish him for 10 rounds.

Lee Oma was Phil’s opponent on March 8, 1949. Oma had friends in Dunkirk where he attended a small gathering at the Third Street Columbus Club that day sharing a few drinks. He was driven by car into Buffalo by his Dunkirk friends and later that night he defeated Phil Muscato in a 10-round decision.

As Phil’s career came to a close, he took some fights that had a big payday but were probably not physically advisable. He lost his last seven fights, including two knockouts to Archie Moore and the great Rocky Marciano. Rocky was most famous for pounding his opponents arms and Phil went down under that kind of onslaught in the fifth round, Dec. 19, 1949. He ended his career in 1950 after losing to a much bigger 230-pound Harry Matthews. Phil died on July 7, 1991, at the age of 68.

The younger Sammy Muscato had an undistinguished career as a middleweight fighter. He ended his 31 fight career in 1953. Paul Lutz is believed to be living in Florida. Joe has lost contact with the only sister of the Muscato bothers, Anita.

This is a summary of the little known story of one of Dunkirk’s noted sport’s families. I thank Joe Muscato for this fascinating family history. Drop in for a visit with Dunkirk’s unofficial mayor and historian at The Studio. He has a wealth of other good stories to share.

I also want to acknowledge other individuals who assisted me in gathering information on Floral Hall and the Dunkirk- Fredonia Central Park. Stephanie Pulvino and James Hurtgen of the Dunkirk Historical Society, Dorothy Derby of the Darwin Barker Museum, and Michelle Henry of the Chautauqua County Historical Society.

Nin Privitera is a Fredonia resident whose column appears on the second Sunday of each month. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com

COMMENTS