Friday, September 22, 2017

Jack Dempsey and the Long Count in Chicago

Jack Dempsey, the Manassas Mauler, rose from hobo to one of the most popular Heavy Weight Champions of all time.

How big a deal was the second Dempsey-Tunney Heavyweight Championship fight that was held at Chicago’s Soldier Field on September 22, 1927?  Big.  Huge. Gargantuan.  Oh there had been fights with greater attendance—120,000 squeezed into Philadelphia’s Sesquicentennial Stadium 364 days earlier on September 23, 1926 to see Jack Dempsey defend his title against top contender Gene Tunney, his first title bout in three years.  Tunney had stunned the nation by handily whooping the popular champ on points.  Interest in the re-match was astronomical.  Only 104,000 bodies could squeeze into Soldier Field—but they shelled out $2,658,660, about $22 million in today’s dollars, the first $2 million gate in entertainment history and a record that would stand for 50 years.
The fight attracted celebrities of all stripes, politicians, millionaire businessmen, and many of the best known writers in America.  Fight promoter Tex Rickard boasted to a reporter before the bout with only a little hyperbole, “Kid, if the earth cam’se up and the sky came down and wiped out my first 10 rows, it would be the end of everything. Because I’ve got in those 10 rows all the world’s wealth, all the world’s big men, all the world’s brains and production talent. Just in them 10 rows, kid. And you and me never seed (sic) nothing like it.”  In big cities around the country crowds gathered on streets to see round by round summaries of the action posted, just as they gathered for the results of World Series games.
Despite losing his belt decisively the year before, the draw as Dempsey, the famous Manassa Mauler, a brawling former hobo from out West who had become the People’s Champion.
Jack Dempsey was born in Manassa, Colorado on June 24, 1895, his father was a down-on-his-luck sometime miner and laborer who bounced from town to town, and job to job or job hunt around Colorado, West Virginia, and finally Utah.  The whole family sometimes rode the rails and jungled up at hobo camps.  When he was about 5 his mother converted to Mormonism and cajoled her husband to join her.  Jack was baptized at age 8, the age of consent in the faith.  The connection to the Latter Day Saints brought the family to Salt Lake.
By the time he was a teenager Dempsey was helping to support his family by entering saloons and announcing, “I can’t sing, I can’t dance, but I can lick anyone in the house.” He was already a powerful puncher and could take a pummeling, too.  He made a living from the bets on the bar brawls he almost always won and was soon fighting in amateur matches, then as a low grade pro on the club and smoker circuit.  His early record is hard to keep track of because he boxed under his own name and as Kid Blackie. 
From 1914 to early ’17 Dempsey fought 36 times under his own name mostly in Utah, Colorado, and Nevada, but with a trip to New York in 1916 as he gained a reputation.  His record was 30 wins—most by knock-outs—six draws or no decisions, and just two losses.
With the outbreak of World War I, Dempsey got a good job in a California ship yard making real money without having to rely on his fists for the first time in his life.  He would later be taunted as a draft dodger for not entering the Army.  In fact, as we shall see, this was an issue in his fights with Tunney ten years later.  Dempsey had actually tried to enlist but was rejected because of injuries associated with boxing.  Whether or not he need to box for the money, he loved the game and fought several times in California on the weekend including some bouts against nationally ranked fighters like Willie Mehan.
By 1918 he was well enough known to tour and fight about every two weeks in Racine, Wisconsin; Buffalo, New York; Milwaukee; St. Paul; Denver; Joplin, Missouri; Atlanta; Harrison, New Jersey; Dayton, Ohio; back to San Francisco for a rematch with Mehan (his only loss in this stretch; Reno; New Orleans; multiple times in Philadelphia and other Pennsylvania cities; New Haven.  It was a brutal, grueling schedule, but after the loss to Mehan, he had ten straight victories all but one by a knock out.  The boxing world was abuzz about the brawler from the west and Dempsey had earned his shot at the reigning champ.
Dempsey connects with the much larger champ Jess Willard in his upset win of the Heavy Weight Championship.
Jess Willard, the Pottawatomi Giant, had been the final Great White Hope and the man who finally defeated the first Black Champ, Jack Johnson.  He had held the title for four years, but had defended the title only once back in 1916 preferring to rake in purses from non-title bouts and appearance fees for exhibition bouts.  He towered over Dempsey and outweighed him by almost 40 pounds.  He was and remains the biggest fighter to hold the heavy weight belt. 
But with a devastating attack and flurries of punches to the head, Dempsey knocked the champ down 5 times in the first round, battering his face into a swollen mess.  Although there were no more knock downs, Dempsey dominated the next two rounds.  Willard could not answer the bell at the beginning of round four.  Dempsey was World Champ.  The power of Dempsey’s punches was so terrific, charges of doctored gloves, bandage wraps covered in plaster of Paris, or even that he was clutching an iron spike in one glove were bandied about.  All charges were disproved by witnesses who saw Dempsey’ hands unwrapped and by fight film showing him pushing Willard away in clenches with his glove open.  Willard himself said:
Dempsey is a remarkable hitter. It was the first time that I had ever been knocked off my feet. I have sent many birds home in the same bruised condition that I am in, and now I know how they felt. I sincerely wish Dempsey all the luck possible and hope that he garnishes all the riches that comes with the championship. I have had my fling with the title. I was champion for four years and I assure you that they’ll never have to give a benefit for me. I have invested the money I have made.
The brawler defended his title five times over the next few years beginning against Billy Miski 14months later.  Ray Brennan at Madison Square Garden gave the champ his toughest fight going 15 rounds before being KOed on body punches.  His fight with French Champion and World War I hero Georges Carpentier at Boyle’s Thirty Acres in Jersey City resulted in the first million dollar gate and the Frenchman hitting the canvas in the fourth round.  The fast on his feet Tommy Gibbons went 15 rounds in a fight at remote Shelby, Montana.  Dempsey won on a decision.  The Champ said, “Nailing him was like trying to thread a needle in a high wind.” The defense against another giant, Argentine Luis Fripo had to be held at the Polo Grounds, home of the New York Giants to accommodate the crowd.  The 1923 bout was not a close fight.  Dempsey had Fripo down multiple times.  But Fripo could take a punch and came back to land a lucky one against Dempsey which sent him sailing through the ropes onto the ring side press table.  The Champ got back in the ring and nailed Fripo in the second round.  Probably the most famous sports painting of all time was by George Bellows showing Dempsey landing on that table.

The most famous boxing painting, maybe the most famous sports painting of all time--Fripo knocks Dempsey through the ropes.  Copies hung over hundreds of bars.
After the Fripo fight Dempsey took an extended break from defending his title.  He took time off to marry actress Estelle Taylor and appeared with her in a short run Broadway production called The Big Fight.  He also had a nasty break up with his longtime manager Jack “Doc” Kearns that resulted in a bitter, expensive, and time consuming law suit.  Mostly Dempsey was just enjoying the fruits of being Champ and one of the most famous and popular men in America.
But as time dragged on criticism mounted for his failure to defend the Title.  The main reason seemed to be that the top contender, Harry Willis was Black.  After first winning the Belt at a time when the wounds to the White American psyche from the dominance of Jack Johnson was still fresh, Dempsey had told a reporter that he would not allow a Negro to fight him for the championship.  Now he publicly claimed to be willing to face Willis.  And it may be true.  Promoters and venues fearing race riots were not eager to take the risk.
Enter a new rising contender, Gene Tunney.
Tunney was born on May 27, 1897 to Irish immigrant parents in New York City.  He was big and exceptionally fast for his size and established himself as an amateur and club fighter as a highly skilled ring man.  He is known to have lost only two fights.  He enlisted in the Marine Corps and fought in France where he also became American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) Champion.
After the War he became a lumberjack in Ontario for a while, seeking solitude and recovery from what was likely combat caused post-traumatic stress syndrome before turning pro.  Then he quickly moved up through the ranks beating top boxers including Carpentier and Gibbons.  By 1926 he was a popular fighter tagged the Fighting Marine and a reasonable White alternative top contender.  A bout with Dempsey was inevitable.
Promoter Tex Rickard wanted to stage the bout in Chicago.  But Dempsey got word the Al Capone was a big fan and was ready to bet big money on the fight.  Dempsey was still stung by those early charges that his Title win against Willard might have been rigged in some way and knew that gambling and fight fixing  were eating away at public support.  He insisted the fight not be held in the Windy City.  Instead the two fighters met in Philadelphia.

Gene Tunney became Dempsey's nemesis and then life long friend.
This time public sentiment had swung to Tunney both because of Dempsey’s long lay-off and because charges that he was a draft dodger were resurrected and compared to the challenger’s status as a war hero and veteran.   Many boxing experts thought Dempsey would be rusty and thought that Tunney was a technically more proficient fighter.
It turned out that those experts were right.  Tunney out fought Dempsey for 10 rounds and won a unanimous decision.  It was Dempsey’s graciousness in defeat and a widely reported quip to his wife, “Honey, I forgot to duck,” that help him win back the admiration of the fans.
After contemplating retirement, Dempsey came back to win a bout with another top contender, Jack Sharkey at Yankee Stadium in 1927 for the right to face Tunney again.
As the challenger, Dempsey could not keep the fight out of Chicago.  And as he feared, Capone bragged about putting down $50,000 of his own money on him.  The public followed, betting heavily on the challenger.
As champ Tunney got sports first million dollar pay day, while Dempsey was guaranteed about half of that.  During negotiations on the terms of the bout, someone from Dempsey’s camp insisted on using the new, but optional, rule that required fighters to retreat to a neutral corner after a knock down before a count could begin.  It is a mystery why Dempsey’s people would make such a request since their fighter’s aggressive style including standing over prone opponents ready to slam them as they struggled to their feet.  This was highly effective, and a deterrent to a groggy fighter even considering getting back up.  They also agreed to a larger than standard ring, an advantage to the mobile Tunney and a disadvantage to Dempsey who liked to pin his opponents in a corner and pummel them with a flurry of blows.
Once again Tunney dominated the fight.  He was well ahead on points in the seventh round when Dempsey recovered and unleashed a torrent of hits sending Tunney to the canvas.  For what seemed like several seconds, Dempsey loomed over Tunney as the referee tried to push him away and told him to retreat to a neutral corner.  It was as if he forgot or never knew the rule.  The count did not begin until Dempsey finally did.  On the count of nine, Tunney got up and closed on Dempsey.  The round ended but in the next round he dropped Dempsey for a count on one—but the referee began that count before Tunney reached the corner.  The Champ outscored Dempsey through the final two rounds and won a unanimous decision.

Tunney is down but the ref won't start the count until Dempsey goes to his corner.  At the end of the famous Long Count, Tunney  got to his feet and pummeled Dempsey.
The fight became celebrated in boxing lore for the Long Count.  Just how much extra time Tunney had to recover was controversial.  The official time keeper had the total time Tunney was down as 14 seconds.  In a film of the fight a clock was superimposed that recorded Tunney’s time on the floor as 13 seconds, from the moment he fell until he got up.  But most of the public never saw that film until years later when the ban on interstate transportation of boxing films was lifted.  But at the time the public imagined a much longer break for Tunney and sympathy swung to Dempsey who some thought was robbed.
Neither of the fighters saw it that way.  After the fight, Dempsey lifted Tunney’s arm and said, “You were best. You fought a smart fight, kid.” Tunney later said that he had picked up the referee’s count at two, and could have gotten up at any point after that, but waited until nine for obvious tactical reasons. Dempsey said, “I have no reason not to believe him. Gene’s a great guy.”
Dempsey may have lost the fight, but he emerged as a beloved hero. 
Tunney defended his title just once and then retired undefeated in 1928 at the request of his wife, wealthy socialite, Mary “Polly” Lauder.  He and Dempsey became great friends and were close through the rest of their lives.  The couple had several children including Democratic Senator John V. Tunney of California.  He died at age 81 on November 7, 1978 in Greenwich Hospital in Connecticut.
Jack Dempsey and his famous New York restaurant were featured in MGM's Big City in 1937 with Spencer Tracy and Louise Rainer.  Dempsey and other sports legends including Jim Thorpe, former White Hope Jim Jeffords, and popular wrestler of the day Man Mountain Dean join Tracy in a climatic street brawl between independent and union cab drivers.  Don't ask....
Dempsey enjoyed a long retirement and became the proprietor of a popular New York night club.  He made several films, usually playing himself including Big City with James Cagney and appeared on several top radio programs.  He fronted several charities, including one to raise money for his friend Joe Lewis when he was down on his luck. 
During World War II he finally put the old draft resister canard behind him by enlisting in the Coast Guard and rising to the rank of Lt. Commander.  Although he spent much of his time selling War Bonds and making moral boosting visits to the troops, Dempsey also instructed sailors in self-defense and saw sea duty and action aboard the attack transport USS Arthur Middleton) for the invasion of Okinawa. 

Lt. Commander Jack Dempsey of the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II.
In 1977 he wrote an autobiography Dempsey in collaboration with his daughter Barbara Lynn.
On May 31, 1983, Dempsey died of heart failure in New York City at age 87 with his second wife Deanna at his side. His last words were “Don’t worry honey; I’m too mean to die.”
Almost Jack, almost.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Speaking for Themselves—First National Negro Convention in 1830

An early Negro National Convention.

As ever, it was harddangerous and hard—to be Black in early 19th Century America for Freemen as well as for slaves.  Take the Northern state of Ohio, for instance.  It had entered the Union in 1803 under an 1802 constitution that abolished slavery.  Although technically a Free State, Ohio was culturally Southern having been settled predominantly by frontiersmen moving west from Virginia and the Carolina through Tennessee and Kentucky before, during, and after the American Revolution and the widespread Indian wars that followed.  This was especially true of Cincinnati, which rapidly became the busiest port on the Ohio River.
Farming in Ohio was not naturally suited to the plantation system which relied on large numbers of slave laborers, so the lack of slave mostly affected those in domestic service or hired out as laborers, craftsmen, and river men.  It was not a huge economic loss to forgo them and in actuality most masters effectively kept their personal servants in bondage for their life time.  But the white citizens were fearful that as a Free State Ohio would become a magnet for Free Blacks and for escaped slaves who would compete for wages and land.  Thus in 1807 the state enacted strict Black laws.
Similar to laws passed in border and other Northern States like Illinois, the 1807 act was meant to discourage migration to the state by requiring Blacks to prove that they were not slaves and to find at least two people who would guarantee a surety of $500—a prohibitive fortune worth years of income to small farmers, craftsmen, or merchants who might employ them—for their good behavior. The laws also banned marriage to Whites and forbad gun-ownership in a region where hunting was an important source of food, regulated occupations, and imposed numerous petty restrictions.  Needless to say the rights and privileges of citizenship were denied to any Blacks who could jump through all of the hoops.  
In the early years of the century, the Black laws did discourage migration.  But it never eliminated it.  As circumstances and economic realities changed enforcement became lax, then spotty, and finally rare.  Part of that was due to a major shift in population.  The threat of Indian warfare finally ended after the War of 1812 and the British evacuation of Ft. Detroit and the end of sponsorship of hostile tribes and helped open up the mostly unsettled northern half of the State.  That accelerated greatly after the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 made Lake Erie a major route to the West.  Most of the new settlers were decedents of the New England diaspora by way of New Hampshire, Vermont, and Up State New York.  These Yankees were in general anti-slavery and their influx was changing the political balance in the state.
But more importantly, the introduction of practical steam boats on the Ohio River created a boom in the trade on the river.  The larger steam boats required larger crews, especially deck hands and boiler stokers, as well as armies of dock laborers, warehousemen, and teamsters. 

A sketch of early steamboats and warehouses in bustling Cincinnati circa 1830 when Free Blacks were competing for jobs with White laborers.
Cincinnati and other river ports had no choice but to use Free Black labor or be undercut by the slave labor used at Virginia and Kentucky river towns like Wheeling or Louisville.  By the late 1820 the Queen City had a large Free Black population.   White laborers became increasingly resentful of competition from Blacks which undercut wages.  Under pressure, Cincinnati began to try to apply the long dormant Black Laws on local Freemen.  When that was not effective in driving out the population major rioting against Blacks broke out in July and August of 1829.  After bloody rampages and the burning of Black neighborhoods, churches, schools, and businesses 1200 Blacks were driven from the city and many resettled in Canada.  Not only were casual laborers affected, but a small but growing elite of Black businessmen and skilled craftsmen were devastated.  Many appealed to other Black communities, especially well established centers like Philadelphia and Baltimore for financial assistance for re-location schemes to Canada. 
Eventually a Baltimore Free Black leader and activist, Hezekiah Grice issued an appeal to major communities to a national meeting to plan assistance for a major Canadian resettlement.  He argued that the U.S. would never be safe for Blacks and noted that there were already communities of former slaves who were freed during the American Revolution by the British and evacuated to the North along with Tories after the war.  A small number of escaped slaves were trickling into British North America as well, a number that would grow exponentially with the regular establishment of the Underground Railroad.
Grice found an ally, host, and a venue Philadelphia, home to the largest and most sophisticated population of Free Blacks in the U.S. thanks to the Quaker tradition of tolerance and relative proximity to slave states.  

Bishop Richard Allen, pastor of Mother Bethel and founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Bishop Richard Allen was the most important Free black leader of the first half of the 19th Century.  Born in 1760 as a slave to Benjamin Chew in Philadelphia, Allen and his family were sold to a Delaware Plantation owner.  While in bondage there he began to attend Methodist camp revivals and eventually became a lay preacher to his fellow slaves.  As a skilled carpenter Allen was able to purchase the freedom of himself and his family and rode circuit as a saddle bag preacher before relocating to his home town.  There he was invited to preach for the Black community at St. George’s Methodist Church.  Eventually restrictions on his community, especially segregated seating in the balcony and numerous snubs from White congregants caused him and his people to leave the church and establish their own Methodist community.  After meeting in homes and rental properties, Allen purchased, moved, and physically rebuilt an old blacksmith shop  his first church—the first African-American congregation worshiping in its own building in the country.  Eventually he was regularly ordained as a Methodist minister and his Bethel Church—now revered as Mother Bethel--became the nucleolus of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first Black Protestant Denomination.  Allen became its presiding Bishop.
But his influence went far beyond his fervent religious activity.  He realized early on that he was de facto the leader of his community.  His first step was to for the Free African Society in 1787 to support community and aid recently manumitted slaves. It offered financial assistance to families and educational services for children or adults seeking employment.   As part of the effort Allen began the first school for Black children and Adult literacy and Bible classes at his church.  He also published a Freemen’s newspaper, and numerous pamphlets and tracts on religion, temperance, and Black issues.

The Bethel AME Church--Mother Bethel--in its second building in which the National Negro Convention met.

Forty delegates, all Blacks from nine states attended the National Negro Convention at Mother Bethel from September 20-24, 1830.  Not surprisingly, Allen was elected to preside.  Debate focused on Grice’s Canadian resettlement proposal.
A minority were interested in the schemes of the American Colonization Society (ACS) to re-settle Blacks in Africa.  Supported by some well meaning religious folks, mostly Quakers and philanthropists it also drew support from “enlightened” Southern planters in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson who found slavery philosophically irreconcilable with liberty but were terrified by the prospect of freeing “savage and ignorant” slaves who would become violent and prey on White womanhood.  Convinced that Blacks and Whites could never live peacefully forever, shipping them back to their supposed homeland seemed the easiest solution.  Members of the convention recognized that for the virulent racism it represented.  Most of the established Freemen considered themselves culturally American and after generations had no connection at all to Africa.  Moreover the Colonization Society plan disregarded Africa’s ethnic and tribal divisions and the rights of native Africans to their own land.  By the end of the convention the Colonization Society plan would be flatly rejected.
But there was not total unanimity around the Canadian plan, although it was generally popular.  Canada offered a similar culture and climate and a common language—English—they already knew.  And with vast lands available for possible settlement, it seemed amenable and hospitable.  But many delegates were firm for striving for citizenship rights in American, which they considered home.
In the end, the delegates endorsed the Canadian plan and pledged to work towards it, but also decided to advocate more broadly for Freemen in the United States, and offer sympathetic support to those still in slavery.  In the U.S. Free Blacks would demonstrate their worthiness for citizenship by undertaking a program of moral up-lift, temperance, strong families, chastity, education, hard work, and building black businesses and institutions.  Although sympathetic to those still in slavery, they took pains to separate and elevate themselves as Freemen.  Their political program was not radical, their method gradual.  It spoke only in general terms of a possible total end to slavery and held out the hope to sympathetic Whites.
James Forten, leader of the American Moral Reform Society.

Allen was elected President of a new organization, American Society for Free Persons of Color to follow up on Canadian colonization and other parts of the program.  A second, parallel organization was established to promote dignity, morality, and respectability in the Black community.  American Moral Reform Society, led by Philadelphia businessmen James Forten and William Whipper emphasized temperance and virtue.
Bishop Allen did not long survive the Convention.  He died on March 26, 1831 at the age of 71.  But his work was carried on by others.
The scheme for Canadian resettlement eventually fizzled for lack of resources to promote large scale emigration and the establishment of Black communities.  Many Blacks, who did re-locate, found their welcome far less hospitable than expected and concluded that there was not much difference between White men on either side of the border.  Work turned more to American reform and rights and with the rise of a vigorous mostly White led abolitionist movement and the establishment of the Underground Railroad.  By the 1850’s a much more radical generation represented by Fredrick Douglass transformed the movement.
The 1830 Convention was the first of many Black Convention held in the years before the Civil War.  Philadelphia was the most common site, but gatherings were also held in New York City, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati.  National and state conventions were held almost yearly through 1864 and their proceeding reflected the growing changes and militancy in the Free Black movement.  New organizations were spawned and publications launched.
In 1859 a White newspaper observed, “colored conventions are almost as frequent as church meetings."
And it all began in Philadelphia.