Andrew O’Toole is a freelance writer and the author of several books on sports, including Smiling Irish Eyes: Art Rooney and the Pittsburgh Steelers. His new book Sweet William: The Life of Billy Conn will be published in January 2008 by the University of Illinois Press.
The genesis of Sweet William came while I was sitting on a couch in Tim Conn’s home. I was interviewing Tim about his godfather, Art Rooney. (I was researching the life of Rooney for a biography, which would become Smiling Irish Eyes.) In addition to owning the Pittsburgh Steelers, Rooney was a boxing promoter in town who had developed a close friendship with Conn. I was visiting Tim hoping for a few stories about Art. I got what I went for and much more. I saw the family scrapbooks, photos, and, across the room from me, hanging framed on the wall was Billy’s light-heavyweight championship belt. I was mesmerized by it.
Still, I didn’t leave the Conn home that day thinking, “I’m going to write the life story of Billy Conn.ï¿½ï¿½? I had a working knowledge of Billy’s career as any self-respecting Pittsburgher would. But I certainly wasn’t an expert on Conn, or boxing for that matter.
I am not much of a boxing fan. I haven’t watched a fight since Sugar Ray Leonard was in the ring (before his first retirement). If I were to choose a boxing subject it would have been Ali, but that had already been done a time or two.
But Billy Conn kept popping up. As I scrolled through reel after reel of microfilm searching for information on Rooney, the smiling mug of Billy Conn appeared, and appeared, and appeared. For an eight-year period, Conn seemed to make the Pittsburgh sports pages on practically a daily basis.
After wrapping up my Rooney biography, I began to give Conn some serious thought. I was interested in telling Billy’s life story, but I was also drawn to the era. Boxing was in its Golden Age, and the characters surrounding Conn were compelling. Billy, obviously, is the star of the piece. But there is also his brother Jackie, his father Westinghouse, his mother Maggie, and an eclectic mix of local boxing promoters and area fighters. There’s Mike Jacobs and Joe Louis, Greenfield Jimmy and his lovely daughter, Mary Louise. Conn’s is a story of sport, celebrity, death, and love.
I am quite certain that I will never again have the chance to work on a project so filled with colorful characters and so many compelling story lines.
As an author I find it intriguing to learn where other writers find their ideas. There are questions that are asked before pursuing a topic. Had the subject been tackled previously? If so, is there fresh insight or an interesting perspective that I could bring that will set my work apart? In the case of Billy Conn, the only substantial piece published in sixty years was Frank Deford’s brilliant Sport Illustrated portrait, The Boxer and the Blonde.