By Lenina Mortimer
THOUGH you probably have never heard of him, Hank Kaplan might go down in boxing history as the greatest of all time. Not for his boxing skill, but for amassing the largest archive of boxing memorabilia and artifacts in existence.
Upon his death in 2007, at age 88, Kaplan donated the collection — valued at $2.94 million and gathered over 60 years — to the Brooklyn College Library Archives and Special Collections.
“What makes this collection so unique is its sheer volume and the time span the material covers,” says professor emeritus Anthony Cucchiara, the chief archivist when the collection landed at the college in 2008. “You will not find a collection like this anywhere in the country or the world.”
The collection contains material dated to 1814 and includes information on little known local boxers and international boxing stars. Some standout pieces include Muhammad Ali’s punching bag and a 75-pound book, GOAT: A Tribute to Muhammad Ali, filled with 3,000 images of the champ. The collection, which is open to the public, also includes 2,600 books and 500,000 photos, newspaper clippings, artwork and scrapbooks.
Kaplan, born in 1919, grew up in the Hebrew American orphanage in Brooklyn, and joined the military before becoming a scientist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Miami until his retirement at age 55. “Hank just had a passion for this sport,” says Cucchiara. “He was a collector — you know how people collect mayonnaise jars or paper clips? Well, he just wanted to document the sport.” An avid boxer himself and now retired, Cucchiara played a pivotal role in bringing Kaplan’s collection to the college.
While his own boxing career was short- lived — he won his one and only match — Kaplan was most concerned that unknown local boxers would be lost to history. “So he was committed to making sure they would not be,” says Cucchiara. Over the years, Kaplan’s collection grew with the help of friends in the boxing community, including trainer Angelo Dundee and boxers Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston. Kaplan also spent many hours in secondhand stores. “He would come up to NYC with his son and they would scour used bookstores, picking up magazines, brochures, programs, memorabilia — anything related to boxing,” Cucchiara says.
“Pure coincidence” is what Cucchiara calls the circumstances surrounding his introduction to Kaplan. “I didn’t know Hank and it was Kaplan’s friend, [sportswriter] David Margolick, who finally put us in touch,” says Cucchiara. David Smith, the supervising librarian at the New York Public Library, who works regularly with authors, learned of Kaplan’s collection through Margolick. The two met while Margolick was doing research on his book, Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and Smith reached out to Cucchiara to inform him about Kaplan’s collection.
Cucchiara first set eyes on the collection in 2006, when he visited Kaplan at his Kendall, Fla., home. “It was just overwhelming to say the least, every nook and cranny of the house was filled with boxing material,” says Cucchiara.
“He took me through the living room and dining room, which he called the processing center, where he prepped material for archiving,” says Cucchiara. “The dining room table was covered with clippings and photos. He also had boxes of stuff stacked floor to ceiling in the closets of two bedrooms. And another bedroom was converted into a library with floor-to-ceiling shelving crammed with books and magazines about boxing, and that was only the beginning of it.”
Kaplan led Cucchiara through an alleyway that led to a 1,500-square-foot, two-car garage where 40 to 50 tall file cabinets were organized into rows and floor-to-ceiling shelving filled with material. Billboard-sized posters were stashed on the back porch.
Cucchiara credits divine intervention and Kaplan’s dedication with the preservation of the collection. “He was a natural born archivist, but it was a miracle that this collection survived with very little damage,” he says.
“He was really fearful that with one storm, a lifetime of work could be wiped away. So it was his dream to have his collection available to everybody in a major research institution,” says Cucchiara.
At the time, Kaplan was willing to part with the collection for $300,000 even though it was later appraised at $2.94 million. “He wasn’t interested in the real value, he just wanted to recover some of the cost he put into it,” says Cucchiara.
In 2008, about 2,000 cartons were removed from Kaplan’s home and brought to Brooklyn. It took more than two days and a tractor-trailer truck to empty out the house. And with the help of a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, the collection was made available to the public in 2010.
Since then, the boxing collection has become a magnet for archives of other collectors, including Rocky Marciano’s trainer Freddie Brown. It has also drawn interest from researchers around the world. “We’ve had scholarly researchers come in because they’re writing books, but then we’ve had the more offbeat requests, like one to do research for a boxing video game,” says acting Chief Archivist Marianne LaBatto.