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My Grandfather, Boxing Champ of L.A.’s Eastside

I remember my grandfather as a gentle man who carried me in his arms after work every day to buy candy from the ranch market at First and Lorena. He was 52 years old at the time of my birth in 1959, a man devoted to his mother, children, and Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Bobby Herman, prize fighter
Bobby Herman, Eastside prize fighter

He had not always been the gentle grandfather of my childhood memories. Occasionally, as I worked with him around his house on Saturdays, he would drop hints of a past life that I am still piecing together today from old news clippings and family anecdotes. These scant sources tell the story of a man I hardly recognize, a story of ego and male bravado – the story of a prize fighter named Bobby Herman.

In his youth, from the 1920s through the early ‘30s, my grandfather was a legend of the boxing ring. His illustrious career as a lightweight and featherweight champion took him from coast to coast. Newspapers wrote of his triumphs, although much of the coverage distorted the facts of his life; some articles refer to my American-born grandfather as being from Mexico City. One calls him “the lightweight champ of Spain” – a country my grandfather never even visited, to my knowledge.

This is not a boxing story but an attempt to reconcile, reflect, and piece together the life of a prize fighter whose career I only know secondhand. As a grandson, my personal interest in his story is obvious, but the urban planner in me also finds much of interest in how boxing shaped the working-class landscape of Los Angeles. The sport in the 1920s brought working-class people together in armories, halls, fairs, open fields, and venues that are today largely lost if not completely forgotten.

El Paso

My grandfather was born in El Paso, Texas, in 1907 as Victor Sebastian Griego, the eldest of 10 siblings. He attended AOY Elementary School in EL Paso’s second ward, or El Segundo Barrio as it was known to its Mexican residents. He only attended school through the third grade; when his father passed away, my grandfather was forced to begin working at an early age.

My late uncle William Griego wrote of him: “Little is known of when or why he wanted to box. Perhaps he was an athlete, or he went along with the crowd. This was the time of Dempsey, Leonard, and Mexican Joe Rivers. Maybe he could be like them. In any case he began his training in that little ram shack of a gym or garage in EL Paso, Texas.”

Rumor has it that my grandfather was a fast skinny kid but a class act in the ring. My uncle also wrote that “there is a story about him standing on a handkerchief and bobbing and weaving to punches thrown at him without being hit. This was without him stepping off the handkerchief.”

It’s unclear if he started professional boxing in El Paso or Los Angeles, but I have an old battered newspaper clipping with handwritten note that says “Bobby’s first fight.” The year was 1922. He was a teenager.

To Los Angeles!

Displaced by the armed conflicts of the Mexican Revolution, many thousands of Mexicans left their homes and traveled by way of El Paso to Los Angeles, the land of opportunity. During the 1920s, L.A.’s Mexican population swelled from 33,644 at the opening of the decade to 97,116 at its close.

Bobby Herman news collage

My grandfather was part of this great migration that earned Los Angeles the title “the Mexican capital of the United States.” When his family moved to East L.A. in unincorporated Los Angeles County, just beyond the city boundary along Indiana Street. Surrounded by agricultural lands, East L.A. was a Mexican neighborhood back then, just as it is today. My grandfather never left this area.

Boxing may one of the oldest sports in the world, but it was fairly new to L.A. at the time of my grandfather’s arrival. A boxing scene had emerged around the turn of the 20th century, centered around venues like Hazard’s Pavilion at 5th and Olive and Naud’s warehouse at Main and Alameda. By the the 1920s, the city’s growing population – and to some extent its Mexican population – was hungry for cheap entertainment. Across the Los Angeles Basin, movie theaters, dance halls, and boxing rings sprang up to meet the demand.

The region’s open landscape, its extensive public transportation system, and cheap land allowed numerous boxing venues to flourish. Los Angeles County’s small agricultural hamlets provided the perfect venues for a sport that required very little infrastructure. My grandfather’s first recorded fight in L.A. took place in Covina, of all places, which was in the middle of orange groves at the time.

My grandfather told me that back in the 1920s you could see live boxing six days a week in Los Angeles at various places across the L.A. Basin. I always wondered where these places were and what they were like. Unlike the movie palaces, elaborately designed and located in the urban hubs, most boxing locations were simple structures that began as armories, barns, and warehouses. Many were located in out-of-way locations in industrial or sparsely developed areas. Notable venues included the Grand Olympic Auditorium, Eastside Arena, Hollywood Legion Stadium, Wilmington Bowl Ascot Park, Vernon Coliseum, San Pedro’s Chief Petty Officers Club, and the Pasadena Armory. My grandfather’s news clippings confirmed that he actually boxed at many of these venues, which are now long gone or have changed uses. The Olympic Auditorium is today a Korean Church, the Hollywood Legion Stadium a gym.

At the same time that crowds poured into the larger boxing halls, L.A.’s Eastside neighborhoods hosted local, underground rings known as Smokers. These Smokers, also known as pot-lucks, were weekend venues where neighborhoods came together to box their best talent. Boxers would win five dollars and all the food they could eat. My grandfather was the rumored to be the champ of the First Street/Indiana neighborhood. When he boxed, shops closed.

Unlike the East Coast where Irish, Italian, and other immigrant youths took up boxing for easy money, on the West Coast Mexican, Filipinos, and to some extent Jewish youth formed the local boxing talent and fought for not just money but also neighborhood pride. One of my grandfather’s life long friends was the Eastside-raised Max Solomon, lawyer for gangsters Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Cohen.

fight_extra.jpg
Telegram to Bobby Herman
A telegram from Fred Winsor to Bobby Herman

From Victor Sebastian Griego to Bobby Herman

In the City of Angels – to many, also the city of dreams – my grandfather found his fortune in boxing. He adopted a ring name: Bobby Herman. I don’t know exactly why he choose this non-Spanish name, but his light skin, black hair, deep cleft chin, and Cary Grant good looks made it possible. Maybe he wanted to please his large Jewish Eastside following. Maybe it had something to do with discrimination; he later told me that in many of the small towns he visited as a boxer there were segregated restrooms for Mexicans. Or maybe he simply wanted to re-invent himself.

News clipping with Bobby Herman
News clipping with Bobby Herman, by nmasters

My grandfather trained at the Main Street Gym, and his career took off when he was picked up by Fred “Windy” Winsor, the notorious boxing promoter who discovered Jack Dempsey.

Under Winsor, “Bobby Herman” was part of stable of three boxers that also included Fred “Dummy” Mahan and Tony Escalante. Boxing was then a wildly popular local sport, and cities were eager to box their local champs against others. Like a vaudeville act, these three Mexican boxers toured the country from coast to coast, squaring off against local talent. They would barnstorm up the coast, playing venues for eager audiences from Ventura to Pismo Beach to San Francisco and all the way to Tacoma, Washington. My grandfather went as far as New York City and Philadelphia. While on tour he would write his wife (my grandmother). She saved his many dispatches that read like love letters not only to her but also to his Eastside neighborhood.

My grandfather would always tell us the tragic story of his friend Fred Mahan, who lost his hearing in a childhood accident. Mahan believed that parachuting out of a plane would cure his deafness. One day in San Francisco he boarded a plane and jumped, but his parachute did not open. He fell to his death.

He shared more pleasant stories, too, like the time he boxed for one of the movie studios. He said that when he went to lunch at the commissary, he saw many movie stars in costume.

Victor Griego
Victor Griego, James Rojas' grandfather, who boxed under the name Bobby Herman

The life of prize fighter was fast, furious, and short. Many saw their careers washed up by their late twenties. Many boxers, my grandfather told me, suffered mental problems from being hit in the head too much. His own career apparently took a turn for the worse after a tragic car crash in 1926. According to family lore, he was driving and crashed into a streetcar. He was never the same after the accident.  

With the birth of his first son Bobby in 1934, my grandfather stopped boxing and began working various odd jobs, including one on a WPA concrete paving crew, before he finally got a good job with the phone company on Olive between 4th and 5th. A few years later he and my grandmother bought their home on 2nd and Lorena, a few blocks west from his first L.A. home. It was also a few blocks south of his beloved First Street, where through the 1950s local men continued to recognize Victor Griego as Bobby Herman, boxing champ of the Eastside.

Special thanks to Billy Griego for providing the research archives.

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