Tribute to a Forgotten Man

Frankie Campbell in Los Angeles - 1928
The Footnote:
The short life of Frankie Campbell has become almost a footnote attached to the early boxing career of Max Baer. The two mens' names are forever linked together like ghost lovers in an ethereal endless waltz. Almost 80 years ago, in what was quite possibly one of the most savage battles never broadcast, the titanium fists of a Max Baer we have never witnessed on film, a brute who once pleasurably fought with the barely concealed savagery of a wild animal, took the life of Frankie Campbell. The massacre occurred on the 25th day of a warm August evening in 1930. The setting was a squared circle situated over home plate at Recreation Park in San Francisco, California. The bout was supposed to be an elimination tournament for the unofficial title of Pacific Coast Champion. It was to be a test of whether 26 year old Frankie Campbell had the ability that would allow him an eventual shot at the World Heavyweight Championship. Instead, it ended almost to the day, the six short years of Frankie's meteoric rise in professional boxing.

To date, little has been written about Frankie Campbell. Most boxing fans are familiar with the fight in which his life was ended, but know nothing about the first path, and then the second one, that brought him to that fateful Summer night in the first place. Let it be remembered however, that once upon a time, this forgotten man possessed perhaps the potential to don the crown and secure the belt of the Heavyweight Champion of the World onto his fine physique. Instead, this bright young fighter, who had the brass ring within his grasp, entered the grave entirely too soon.

From Italy to Little Italy:
Frankie Campbell was born Francisco Camilli, in April or May of 1904 in the town of Hibbing, Minnesota to Alezzio "Alex" Camilli and Albena "Eliza" Tassi. Alex Camilli was 23 years old when he emigrated to America from the town of Sasso Ferrato in the Province of Borgo Ancona, Italy, leaving behind his parents Bastiano and Catarina Bargotti Camilli. Alex arrived at the port of New York on May 21, 1899 aboard the S.S. La Touraine. Eliza Tassi was 5 years old when she and her Mother, Felicia Larini Tassi left a village near Rome, Italy for America. They arrived at the port of New York on June 24, 1889 aboard the S.S. La Bourgogne and made their way to MIchigan, where Eliza's Father, Achilles Tassi was a miner at Iron Mountain in Dickinson County.

Alex's brother Giovanni "Joseph" Camilli and his wife, Anetta Ferranti also lived at Iron Mountain. Alex moved in with his brother's family and promptly applied for his citizenship papers in Dickinson County. In what family members believe was an arranged marriage, Alex Camilli met and married Eliza Tassi in the first half of the year 1900. Francisco's brother Alberto was born at Iron Mountain in 1901, and their sister Laura was born in 1902. Alex's brother, Joseph and his wife, Anetta were bakers. They operated a bakery out of their home, in whatever town their home happened to be in. Family legend has it that Alex and Joseph delivered Eliza and Anetta's baked goods door to door by horse and wagon. The Camilli families spent a short time in the town of Coleraine, in Itasca County, Minnesota, before they moved to the town of Hibbing in Stuntz Township, St. Louis County, Minnesota. It was in Hibbing, Minnesota that Francisco Camilli drew his first breath, in the Spring of 1904.

The two Camilli families continued to live in Hibbing through 1906. Alex opened a mercantile business in town, and it is presumed brother Joseph continued to deliver his wife's baked goods. A natural disaster 3,000 miles away was the most likely reason Alex Camilli parted from his brother's family, uprooted Eliza, the children and her parents, and moved West to California. After being devastated by the 1906 Earthquake and Fire, the City of San Francisco, California was in desperate need of workers to rebuild. While there is no record that Alex acquired building skills in the Upper Midwest, it is possible the Camilli's homesteaded in the newly burgeoning towns where they settled in Michigan and Minnesota, and Alex learned the building trade by osmosis. Some time in 1906 or early 1907, Alex, Eliza, Albert, Laura and Francisco Camilli moved to San Francisco, where Alex entered the carpentry trade, specializing in home building. The youngest Camilli son, Adolph "Dolph" Camilli, who would later become a famous professional baseball player, was born on April 23, 1907 in San Francisco, and youngest daughter Florence was born in the City in 1911.

Bernal Heights neighborhood, with the San Francisco
Bay in the background- circa 1928

Hard Times in the 'Hood:
Francisco "Frankie" Camilli grew up in Bernal Heights, south of the Mission District, in San Francisco, California. Prior to the Great 'Quake of 1906, Bernal Heights had remained largely undeveloped. As people from every corner of the globe swarmed into the area to obtain good paying jobs related to the rapid rebuilding of the City, the pastureland around the Bernal Heights Hilltop was developed for workers' homes, and a commercial corridor on Cortland Avenue filled in with shops. Bernal Heights quickly became an ethnically diverse neighborhood. It is possible that the first seeds of Frankie's future career were germinated out of racial tension. "All over America in the 1920s, kids from different backgrounds met on the streets and in schoolyards and hurled at each other the taunts and slurs they had learned from their elders. Tempers boiled over, fists flew, and if a boy didn't learn to fight back quickly, he was soon an outcast or an invalid...If a kid was strong and tough, there was little chance in those days to make a living out of football, or basketball, but there was at least the illusory prospect of earning money in a sport that could be practiced year round, perhaps in front of thousands of paying customers. There were no scholarships to win, no scouts to impress. All a boy needed was a few dollars to buy a license and a jockstrap and the ability to stand the sight of his own blood; he was in business for himself overnight."

But racial tension and success in defending himself were not the only challenges Frankie was exposed to at a young age that perhaps hardened his body and mind to a degree suitable for a future fighter. According to Camilli family memories, Frankie's Father Alex was a terrible drunk. With little inclination, Alex beat his wife and beat his children. One day, without a word to Frankie or Dolph, their Mother, Eliza took their 2 sisters and ran. When Frankie was 15, he walked in on Alex beating Dolph. Frankie hit Alex in the head, took Dolph, age 13, and they too fled the house. The brothers worked at a neighborhood grocery store, stocking shelves and tidying up. The owner let them sleep on cots in the storage room. They were told to help themselves to the food lining the shelves, but perhaps not wanting to impose and aware of their precarious position, they ate only canned beans. A year later, Frankie got a job as a taxi driver up North in Eureka, where his brother Albert lived. For reasons unclear, Dolph could not go with him. Dolph went to the Catholic church for help and was taken in. He slept on a cot at night and helped with the upkeep of the church until he was able to make his own way in the world. The brothers would not see their Mother and sisters again for almost three years. When Dolph was 17, a chance meeting with Eliza on the streets of Little Italy, where she was living with her daughters and her parents, re-established solid and loving contact, but the brothers never spoke to their Father again.

In 1929, Frankie told a reporter from the Los Angeles Times it was beatings by his Father and forced manual labor beginning at a young age that helped make him the fighter he became. Frankie stated that Alex brought his "Old World ideas on how children should be raised, over to America." As soon as he and his younger brother Dolph were old enough to handle a pick and shovel, Alex made them do a man's labor. "It was work, work, work all day until I felt as though I would drop." he remembered. "I and my brother Dolph both used to love to play ball and we’d sneak away from work for a game. Always we’d return to the inevitable beating my Father would give us. My Father was a big man and oh how he could hit ! Still, we loved athletics and we’d run away to play ball.” Alex's opinion that athletics was a waste of time seemed only to drive the brothers towards sports. Frankie thought Alex's beatings taught him how to take punishment in the same way he was able to take heavy punches in the ring. “I actually grew to hate my Father during those terrible days," said Frankie, “but I can see now where his treatment of me played no little part in the building up of my body. Our family moved to San Francisco when I was young, but I finally rebelled from my Father and ran away from home. I have been knocking around in the world ever since and had to learn to fight for myself in a section where only those who could and would fight got along.”

Copyright 2016 Catherine Johnson. All rights reserved.