Jack Fiske, S.F. ring raconteur and boxing hall of famer, dies

Jack Fiske and Jacob Finkelstein were both delivered mail at the same San Francisco address.

Fiske had a boxing jones he satiated with a lifetime around the ring as a coach and, most notably, a boxing writer illustrious for prose as quick and hard-hitting as a haymaker from Sugar Ray Robinson.

Finkelstein was an unrepentent New York Jewish intellectual and card-carrying member of the ACLU who wrote out hundreds of checks to Jewish charities and passionately sermonized about the need for social justice.

Of course, Fiske and Finkelstein were the same man, who died Jan. 24 after a long and painful battle with Parkinson’s disease at age 88.

“The boxing game he covered was a microcosm of life for him. He championed the underdog,” said his son, David Finkelstein of San Francisco.

“He’d sit here at this table, the same one I’m sitting at now, and write out hundreds of $25 checks to Jewish causes, retirement homes for boxers — the whole table was littered with contributions.”

Fiske was born in 1917 in New York City in an era when Abe Rosenthal’s Semitic moniker was deemed unworthy to grace the front page of the New York Times. The aspiring writer studied journalism at the University of Alabama, where he saw enough racism and anti-Semitism that he decided to Anglicize his name.

Fiske liked to note that both Chuck Connors and Lloyd Bridges were his contemporaries at U of A, and, while serving as an undergraduate boxing coach, he gave some tips to a feisty young featherweight named George Wallace. The left-wing writer and the future segregationist couldn’t have been more diametrically opposed politically, but Fiske would later praise Wallace’s ring capabilities.

After serving as an Army medic in the South Pacific during World War II, Fiske was hired on by the San Francisco Chronicle as a boxing writer. San Francisco hasn’t been a boxing town since the times when Jack Johnson trained at the Cliff House to beat “Great White Hope” Jim Jeffries at the dawn of the 20th century, but Fiske captured an international audience, becoming perhaps the most well-respected boxing writer in the nation.

Following his death, boxing Web sites teemed with readers’ recollections of the extraordinary lengths they went to to read his twice-weekly column, “Punching the Bag,” in a pre-Internet era. Readers posted memories of waking up early on Saturdays and running across the highway to a liquor store to buy a Chronicle, or having their family snip out Fiske’s columns and mail them overseas.

In an era of florid sportswriting, Fiske was well-known for his direct writing style; numerous eulogizers have employed the word “concise,” including his son, Finkelstein.

The unadorned, to-the-point style matched Fiske’s personality. Stewart Katz, a Sacramento-area lawyer, former boxer and boxing promoter, and a friend of Fiske’s for 30 years, described the writer’s moods as “Uncle Jack” or “Mr. Cranky.”

“He was brusque, a straightforward, honest guy. Before I got married, I’d take a girl to meet Uncle Jack and get his feedback. I don’t think I ever got into an argument with him, but he was blunt enough that if he thought I was doing something wrong, he’d tell me,” said Katz, who noted that Fiske always took extra pride in Jewish boxers, though “I was a lousy boxer.”

“But he really looked out for me. He got me jobs — if I was in the city I’d be on his couch. And I think he did that for a lot of people.”

Fiske was elected to the Boxing Hall of Fame in 2003. But after leaving the Chronicle in 1993, the loss of his status as Mr. Boxing hurt Fiske, as did the sudden and rapid deaths of a number of close relatives in recent years, friends and relatives said.

Jack Fiske is survived by son David Finkelstein of San Francisco, daughter Linda Guerrero of San Jose, and two granddaughters. His ex-wife, Betty, died in 1978.

Donations in Fiske’s memory can be sent to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, Grand Central Station, P.O. Box 4777, New York, NY 10163.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is a columnist at Mission Local. He is also former editor-at-large at San Francisco Magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.