Rich with sports history
April 22, 2008
Imagine the fear grown men felt when they stepped in the boxing ring with Roaring ’20s fighting legend Jack Dempsey.
Dempsey, known as “The Manassa Mauler,” won 51 fights by knockout and sent opponent after opponent to the canvas, into a world of hurt.
Now imagine a 4-year-old boy taking the ring against the champ in his prime.
That’s what Incline Village’s Buddy Garfinkle did, posing for a picture against Dempsey at a gym in Reno where his father worked as a fighter and boxing promoter.
“I didn’t want any part of that picture at first; he was so big,” said the 81-year-old Garfinkle, 77 years removed from the 1931 photo. “But my dad told me to get in the ring, and I did.”
Garfinkle knew Dempsey as a youngster through his father, and the champ would often take Garfinkle on car rides, calling him “the little champ.”
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The photo ” which shows a tiny but serious looking Garfinkle squaring off against Dempsey ” still hangs in Garfinkle’s home and adorns the cover of a 2007 book entitled “Dempsey in Nevada.”
The picture captures the beginning of Garfinkle’s life in sports, a life that’s included a tryout with the New York Yankees, a tennis match against Bobby Riggs and a career in Reno that included two state basketball titles as a coach.
Garfinkle grew up during the Great Depression, shuttling between family in Reno and Salt Lake City. From a very young age until 12 years old, Garfinkle made the trek from Salt Lake across Nevada to Reno by hitchhiking.
Once he turned 12, though, he set up shop on the back porch of a relative in Reno to finish school.
“It’s hard to explain what the Depression was like for people; it was just hard on everyone, all the time. I think it made you a survivor, because that’s what you did,” Garfinkle said.
His knack for athleticism got him through high school, where he starred in football, basketball and baseball at Reno High.
While Garfinkle boxed occasionally, he said ball sports appealed to him more than the ring.
“I liked boxing well enough, but I figured I’d much rather go chase a ball around rather than get hurt every time you fought,” Garfinkle said.
He recalls vividly watching his father fight, which he said was painful.
“It’s tough watching someone you care about fight. Seeing them get hurt just isn’t easy,” Garfinkle said.
He saw other evidence of boxing’s dark side, as he watched an old boxer named “Battling” Dozier turned punch-drunk from years of boxing. He said Dozier would wobble and act confused after fights and later in his life turned into an alcoholic living on the streets.
But high school brought out the brighter side for Garfinkle, who served as class president and captain on various sports teams.
He spent parts of his summers playing baseball in town, sometimes in men’s leagues that featured players much older than he. As a 15-year-old, Buddy played second base in a game against a Negro League team and faced a future Hall of Fame pitcher. That pitcher was Satchel Paige, widely considered one of the best baseball players ever, Negro League or Major League.
And the teenage Garfinkle managed a hit off of the legend.
“At that time the black guys couldn’t play in the major leagues, so I had no idea who he was,” Garfinkle said.
After high school Garfinkle signed up for the Navy, seeing the tail end of World War II in the South Pacific. He spent some time in the military playing baseball, and when Garfinkle left the service he came back to Reno to continue a life in sports.
While in the service, though, Garfinkle’s baseball game attracted the attention of a scout for the New York Yankees.
“In 1946 a fellow saw me play as a second baseman, and I could hit with power, which is something a lot of second baseman can’t do,” Garfinkle said.
The acquaintance arranged a tryout for Garfinkle with the Yankees, who took a liking to the Nevada two-bagger. They liked Garfinkle enough to invite him to spring training in 1947, a year in which the Yankees were aging and needed young talent.
“What they told me was that in a couple of years the Yankees could use a new second baseman with the club getting older,” Garfinkle said.
But, as the winter dragged on, Garfinkle decided against going into baseball, citing his first wife as a reason for turning down the job. The position was eventually filled by Hall of Fame manager Billy Martin.
So Garfinkle enrolled at the University of Nevada, Reno, on the G.I. Bill. There, he took up coach Jake Lawlor on an offer to join the Wolf Pack basketball and baseball teams.
Garfinkle played out his eligibility at UNR in both sports and went into coaching at his alma mater of Reno High School, where he coached JV football, varsity basketball and JV baseball.
In 1954, Garfinkle coached Reno High to the state basketball title before repeating in 1955 as state champs.
“I love to coach because it’s a lot like teaching,” Garfinkle said.
In 1955 he decided to quit coaching and joined the ranks of Washoe County’s school administrators, spending the better part of the next 30 years opening various schools across his growing hometown.
They weren’t spent without sports, though, and athletic opportunities came his way more than once during his time as an administrator.
Garfinkle originally served as a youth sports instructor, more or less as a roving physical education teacher for the Reno schools. He then took various administrative jobs and held one through the 1950s, when Lawlor came calling on Garfinkle again.
“Lawlor called me and said he was stepping down at UNR and wanted me to become the basketball coach,” Garfinkle said. He said he thought about the position, but phoned Lawlor back to decline.
“I love the coaching but as a college coach you have to be a recruiter as well ” there isn’t much time for family; it’s a round-the-clock type of job,” Garfinkle said.
The University of Nevada system called a short time later, this time to offer Garfinkle the job of athletic director at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
“I flew down to Vegas and took a look around and thought about it,” Garfinkle said. “But, I just couldn’t live in a place like Las Vegas.”
With a laugh, he added, “Now I think, what if I would have taken that job and held on to some property down there for awhile?”
Garfinkle stayed in the Washoe County School District until his retirement in 1982.
Before he retired, though, he took a tennis trip with some friends to Hawaii. It was there that sports introduced Garfinkle to his future wife, Betsy.
He describes his wife as shy and says he knew she was into running and asked her if she wanted to go on a morning run.
“I asked her how far she wanted to go, and she said five miles. I’m not sure I ever ran that far, but she was used to it because she was a runner,” Garfinkle said.
The two ran from their hotel to a nearby volcano, and Garfinkle said he let Betsy set the pace while the two ran, which was exhausting.
“I couldn’t let her beat me, though, so after being behind her pretty much the whole time I picked up the pace and she did too, but I beat her,” Garfinkle said.
The two hit it off, and they’ve been married ever since.