What began with a series of medical mishaps eventually enabled a local sportswriter to write a new biography about the most famous athlete to come out of Hudson County.
Last July, Jim Hague, the long-time sports columnist for the Hudson Reporter newspaper chain and the municipal reporter for North Bergen, Guttenberg and Weehawken, was hospitalized after a host of operations, beginning with reconstructive ankle surgery.
He had some extra time to conduct interviews for his stories for the North Bergen Reporter.
“I knew that filming had begun on The Cinderella Man in Toronto, which was the life story of James J. Braddock, the famous heavyweight champion of the world in the 1930s,” Hague said last week. “I figured that people in North Bergen would be interested in learning about the movie, so I decided to call the champ’s grandson, James J. Braddock III. [I wrote] a story about the movie and about the Web site the grandson put together to honor his grandfather.”
Four days after Hague’s story appeared in July’s North Bergen Reporter, Hague received a phone call from Carlo DeVito, an executive editor from Chamberlain Brothers, a subsidiary of Penguin Books.
“They told me that they read the article I wrote about Braddock online and were wondering whether I would be interested in writing a book about Braddock,” Hague said. “I thought someone was pulling a practical joke on me. I didn’t believe it. I had some bad experiences in the publishing business in the past and didn’t know what to expect with this call.”
About a month later, Hague received a written commitment from Chamberlain Brothers and began work on what would be his first published book.
“Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man,” hit all major bookstores earlier this month. It is also available via Amazon.com and bn.com.
“It really is an amazing tale, how this down-and-out boxer, who was so poor that he had to file for Welfare relief, could make it back and win the grandest of all titles, the heavyweight championship of the world,” Hague said. “I had a lot of fun doing the research, learning a lot about Braddock, but also learning a lot about the time period, namely the Great Depression.”
A dedicated sports fan and Hudson County resident since childhood, Hague has covered Hudson County sports since 1986. The Jersey City native was familiar with Braddock from childhood.
Braddock, who lived most of his life in Hudson County, started in West New York as an aspiring boxer, then spent his last 40 years in a North Bergen in a house that overlooked the park that was eventually named after him – North Hudson Braddock Park.
Braddock captured the heavyweight title on June, 13, 1935, defeating the unbeatable Max Baer in a 15-round decision on Long Island.
Fighting to survive
The victory came just nine months after Braddock was left on the scrap heap, fighting for as little as $250 per fight, while collecting $24 per month on the Welfare books, just to keep his loving wife and three children fed. Braddock was also found trying to find daily work on the Hoboken docks as a longshoreman.
Braddock was a huge underdog when he fought Baer, as much as 10-to-1 in some betting circles. But he managed to pull off “the greatest fistic upset since the defeat of John L. Sullivan by Jim Corbett,” as famed sportswriter John Kieran of the New York Times dubbed it. Braddock was given the name of “The Cinderella Man,” by another famous sportswriter, the legendary Damon Runyon.
“It’s really an unbelievable story, the quintessential underdog story, long before Rocky Balboa was made famous on the movie screen,” Hague said. “There is one major difference. Jim Braddock’s life was real. His story is true. It was a joy for me to get to research and put his life together for this work. I’m really happy with the finished product.”
The book, “Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man,” is a breezy, informative read. It is written in Hague’s usual energetic, plain-language style.
Crowe and Zelwegger
The movie The Cinderella Man, starring Russell Crowe and Renee Zellweger and directed by Ron Howard, will be released June 3.
While writing his book, Hague became friendly with Cinderella Man screenwriter Cliff Hollingsworth, who spent nine years working on the screenplay. Hollingsworth had culled information from the boxer’s sons Howard and James Jr.
Hague had to navigate around roadblocks set up by Ron Howard’s production company.
“I tried to interview [Braddock’s son] Howard, but he has an exclusive not to talk to anyone else about his father before the movie comes out,” Hague said.
Instead, Hague spent hours in the Newark Public Library and the Internet compiling his story, which he said has a broader focus than the movie.
“It’s a true story, so it’s similar, but mine is different in that it encompasses his whole life,” Hague said. “The movie focuses on the two years leading up to the Baer fight, and the fight itself.”
Hague hopes this leads to future projects.
“Biographies about sports such as this are fun,” said Hague. “I had a lot of fun doing the research, learning about the era. It’s more in-depth about boxing, and about a slice of Hudson history. I just hope I don’t have to get sick again for it to happen!”
“Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man” (paperback, $9.95) and should be easily found in all book stores. Hague will have book signings and lectures over the next few months prior to the movie’s release. Dates and times are to be announced shortly.