By Pete Ehrmann Special to Published Mar 27, 2015 at 7:55 PM

When Orville Pitts was elected Milwaukee alderman in 1968, his political future looked as bright as the one that had seemed in store for Pitts in the boxing ring a decade earlier.

But unlike his KO by second-ranked light heavyweight contender Tony Anthony in 1958, Pitts’ downfall in the political arena was self-inflicted and a drawn-out process featuring, in random order, booze, drugs, hookers, the devil and Richard M. Nixon.

Orville Edwin Pitts died Tuesday at 81, after a long illness.

A genuine boxing prodigy, Pitts was one of Milwaukee’s most accomplished amateur fighters. Representing the Urban League gym, Pitts won two bouts in the 1947 Golden Gloves tournament before it was discovered that the 6-foot featherweight was just 13 years old. He was excused and told not to come back for three years.

A middleweight in 1950, Pitts won the state Golden Gloves championship in his eighth fight and went to the quarterfinals of the National Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions in Chicago.

He went to the semi-finals in ’52 and in 1954 he won the 175-pound national Golden Gloves title at Chicago Stadium along with the All-Services light heavyweight championship. One year later Pitts dropped down to 165 pounds and won the Pan-American Games championship.

His mother wanted him to become a lawyer, and in 1955 Pitts enrolled at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He joined the renowned UW boxing team and went through the season undefeated, winning all his bouts by knockout (with two draws).

In UW’s final dual meet before the ’56 NCAA championship tournament in Madison, the Badgers traveled to Baton Rouge to face Louisiana State University. Even boxing was strictly segregated in Louisiana then, and Pitts won his match by forfeit when LSU would not let its white light heavyweight enter the ring.

In the opening round of the national championships at the UW Field House a week later, Pitts’ opponent was LSU light heavy Malcolm Buhler.

"As far as I’m concerned," said the Milwaukee boxer, "this is the championship bout."

He beat Buhler easily and went on to win the 175-pound national title.

That qualified Pitts for that year’s U.S. Olympic Trials in San Francisco.

At the Cow Palace, Pitts stopped three opponents to make it to the finals against Jim Boyd. For two rounds he handled Boyd with ease, knocking him down twice. But in the third round Pitts was cut over his eye and the fight was stopped, which sent Boyd to the Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.

The legendary Archie Moore was the world light heavyweight champion then, and behind him was a queue of contenders so undistinguished that Pitts decided he might as well turn pro. He knocked out his first three opponents in 1957 in a total of six minutes and 30 seconds.

"Obviously, Pitts is not getting much experience fighting beginners like himself," wrote Evans Kirkby of The Milwaukee Journal. "(He) might as well take on any good fighter he can get into the ring with him."

So, in Pitts’ fourth pro fight and first 10-rounder, out of the other corner at the Milwaukee Arena came ninth-ranked light heavyweight Jimmy Slade, 44-fight veteran who’d fought Moore, Floyd Patterson, Harold Johnson and other top heavyweights and light heavies.

Slade won a split-decision but afterwards said of Pitts: "He’s going to be a great one. All he needs is experience. He has the poise of a Ray Robinson and fights evenly balanced. He’s not awkward, despite his lack of professional experience."

After Pitts beat veterans Joey Rowan and Art Swiden, both heavyweights, he rolled the dice against Tony Anthony. For three rounds it was all Pitts, but then Anthony took charge and Pitts went out in the fifth.

"I really don’t like boxing as a boxer should," Pitts told Sports Illustrated in early 1959, when the magazine named him "Most Likely to Succeed" in the 175-pound class. "I’ve always wanted to go to school…"

After winning two more bouts that year Pitts put away his boxing gloves and picked up his schoolbooks. He graduated from UW in 1962 and three years later earned his law degree.

Soon, he became the second African-American ever elected to the Milwaukee Common Council.

The man with the poise of Sugar Ray in the ring had it on the campaign stump, too. "When Pitts strides to the microphone," The Milwaukee Journal once noted, "he immediately gives the event a lift… Pitts remains an imposing figure. His size, presence, arresting voice and oratorical flair make him the field’s most impressive speaker."

But his political honeymoon was short. "When you first get (to City Hall) they make you feel like one of the boys," Pitts said. "You can deceive yourself into thinking you are white. After five or six months I realized I wasn’t doing what I was capable of, so I began striking out."

The result was that "people who once liked me as a fighter now may call me an s.o.b. as an alderman."

Chief among them were leaders of the Milwaukee Eagles Club, to which many city officials belonged despite its Caucasians-only membership policy. (A latticework behind the downstairs bar was decorated with wooden carvings depicting famous scenes in sports history. The boxing one was taken from the famous photo of Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston in their second fight in 1965. Only the Ali figure was painted white.)

After several unsuccessful attempts to join, Pitts filed suit against the Eagles, and in his biggest political victory a federal court eventually took away the club’s tax-exempt status.

In 1972, Pitts joined the Republican Party because he "resented being taken for granted" by the Democrats. Pitts endorsed and became a prominent black spokesman that year for the re-election of President Nixon. His reward appeared to be the U.S. ambassadorship to Trinidad and Tobago, but at the last minute the appointment went to someone else.

"Nixon was a man who not only deceived Orville Pitts, but 61 percent of the American people," grumbled Pitts in 1976, referring to the percentage of the vote won by Nixon in ’72 and the Watergate scandal that drove him out of office two years later. "He let us all down."

After two terms Pitts left the Common Council, became a family court commissioner and a Democrat again.

In 1982, he stunned observers by almost winning the party’s primary election in the solidly blue 5th congressional district. The close-but-no-cigar result represented the apex of his political rise. Then came what Pitts himself called a "steep and precipitous … fall from grace."

In 1988, he went public about a decade-long "brush with the devil" during which he drank more than a quart of vodka every night, dabbled in cocaine and was, for all his outward trappings of respectability, "just another street bum."

"My hands have been dirty, and so has my soul," Pitts said.

That was behind him now, Pitts said, and he was studying to become a minister.

It didn’t happen. In ’93, Pitts was tried for possession of cocaine after the cops were called when Pitts and a prostitute – who said they’d smoked 22 bags of crack – got into an altercation.

Convicted of possessing drug paraphernalia, Pitts agreed to become a "speaker and crusader" against alcohol and drug abuse in exchange for a suspended sentence. Ald. (and future Mayor) Marvin Pratt appeared as a character witness and wept as he said, "If there was a bright, shining star in the community, it was Orville Pitts. He was one of my first role models."

Not long after that Pitts lost his $65,000-a-year court commissioner job due to frequent absences from work. He made the police blotter again in 1997 when he and a female companion were charged with disorderly conduct for fighting in a motel room.

In his last political pronouncement, Pitts wrote a 1994 newspaper column in which he once again embraced Nixon. Those who knew Pitts thought he could’ve been describing himself when he said, "(Nixon) was an exceptional man who was both brilliant and flawed … He was also shy, insecure and always watchful. The people he trusted were few, and his reservations led him to strike out against those he perceived as his enemies. He was a Greek tragedy. He was heroic and base."

"My father made some mistakes," said Pitts’ daughter, Kim Kess, "but he was a tender heart. He was also a proud man with an array of abilities and talents that were boundless. People who are super-talented, they’re pulled in a thousand different ways, and that was one of my father’s problems. He was just brilliant. And he was always there for me."

Visitation will be April 4 from 10 to 11 a.m., followed by a funeral service, at Krause Funeral Home, 21600 W. Capitol Dr. Brookfield.

Pete Ehrmann Special to
Pete Ehrmann is a sports historian whose stories apear at His speciality is boxing.