Biography of Jimmy Hoffa, Legendary Teamsters Boss

Black and white photograph of Jimmy Hoffa testifying before a Senate committee.

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Jimmy Hoffa was the controversial boss of the Teamsters Union when he became nationally famous for sparring with John and Robert Kennedy during televised Senate hearings in the late 1950s. He was always rumored to have substantial organized crime connections and eventually served a sentence in federal prison.

When Hoffa first became famous, he projected an aura of a tough guy who was fighting for the little guy. And he did get better deals for the truck drivers who belonged to the Teamsters. But rumors about his links to the mob always overshadowed whatever legitimate accomplishments he achieved as a labor leader.

One day in 1975, a few years after his release from prison, Hoffa went out to lunch and disappeared. At the time, he was widely believed to be planning a return to active involvement in the top ranks of the Teamsters. The obvious assumption was that a gangland execution had put an end to his ambitions.

The disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa became a national sensation and searches for his body have periodically popped up in the news ever since. The mystery about his whereabouts spawned countless conspiracy theories, bad jokes, and enduring urban legends.

Early Life

James Riddle Hoffa was born in Brazil, Indiana, on February 14, 1913. His father, who labored in the coal industry, died of a related respiratory disease when Hoffa was a child. His mother and Hoffa's three siblings lived in relative poverty, and as a teenager Hoffa left school to take a job as a freight worker for the Kroger grocery store chain.

In Hoffa's early union days he showed a talent for exploiting an opponent's weakness. While still a teenager, Hoffa called a strike just as trucks carrying strawberries arrived at a grocery warehouse. Knowing the strawberries wouldn't keep for long, the store had no choice but to negotiate on Hoffa's terms.

Rise to Prominence

The group Hoffa represented, known locally as the "Strawberry Boys," joined a Teamsters local, which later merged with other Teamsters groups. Under Hoffa's leadership, the local grew from a few dozen members to more than 5,000.

In 1932, Hoffa moved to Detroit along with some friends who worked with him at Kroger to take a position with Teamsters locals in Detroit. In the labor unrest during the Great Depression, union organizers were targeted for violence by company goons. Hoffa was attacked and beaten, by his count, 24 times. Hoffa picked up a reputation as someone who wouldn't be intimidated.

In the early 1940s, Hoffa began to establish links with organized crime. In one incident, he enlisted Detroit gangsters to run off a rival union from the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Hoffa's connections with mobsters made sense. The mob protected Hoffa, and the implicit threat of violence meant his words carried serious weight. In return, Hoffa's power in the union locals let mobsters intimidate local business owners. If they didn't pay tribute, the truckers who made deliveries could go out on strike and bring business to a standstill.

Connections with mobsters became even more important as the Teamsters amassed a vast amount of money from dues and payments into pension funds. That cash could finance mob ventures, such as the building of casino hotels in Las Vegas. The Teamsters, with Hoffa's help, became a piggy bank for organized crime families.

Sparring With the Kennedys

Hoffa's power within the Teamsters grew in the early 1950s. He became the union's top negotiator in 20 states, where he famously fought for the rights of the truck drivers he represented. The rank and file workers came to love Hoffa, often clamoring to shake his hand at union conventions. In speeches delivered in a gravelly voice, Hoffa projected a tough guy persona.

In 1957, a powerful U.S. Senate committee investigating labor racketeering began to hold hearings focused on the Teamsters. Jimmy Hoffa came up against the Kennedy brothers, Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts and his younger brother Robert F. Kennedy, a counsel to the committee.

In dramatic hearings, Hoffa tangled with the senators, parrying their questions with streetwise quips. Nobody could miss the particular dislike Robert Kennedy and Jimmy Hoffa had for each other.

When Robert Kennedy became attorney general in his brother's administration, one of his priorities was to put Jimmy Hoffa behind bars. A federal case against Hoffa finally did convict him in 1964. After a series of appeals, Hoffa began serving a federal prison sentence in March 1967. 

Pardon and Attempted Comeback

In December 1971, President Richard Nixon commuted Hoffa's sentence and he was released from prison. The Nixon Administration included a provision with the commutation that Hoffa not become involved with union activity until 1980.

By 1975, Hoffa was rumored to be exerting influence within the Teamsters while officially having no involvement. He told associates, and even a few journalists, that he was going to get even with those in the union and the mob who had betrayed him and helped send him to prison.

On July 30, 1975, Hoffa told family members he was going to meet someone for lunch at a restaurant in suburban Detroit. He never returned from his lunch date. He was never seen or heard from again. His disappearance quickly became a major news story across America. The FBI and local authorities chased down countless tips but actual clues were scant. Hoffa had vanished and was widely assumed to have been the victim of a mob hit.

The Disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa

As a peculiar coda to such a tumultuous life, Hoffa became eternally famous. Every few years, another theory about his murder would emerge. Periodically, the FBI would receive a tip from mob informants and send crews to dig up backyards or remote fields.

One supposed tip from a mobster grew into a classic urban legend: Hoffa's body was rumored to be buried under the end zone of Giants Stadium, which was built in the New Jersey Meadowlands at roughly the time Hoffa disappeared.

Comedians told jokes playing on Hoffa's disappearance for years. According to a New York Giants fan site, sportscaster Marv Albert said a team was "kicking toward the Hoffa end of the stadium" while broadcasting a Giants game. For the record, the stadium was demolished in 2010. No trace of Jimmy Hoffa was discovered under the end zones.