Dempsey 2

In the episode of the television series Taxi in which Jim Ignatowski is hired as a driver for the Sunshine Cab Company, the first scene takes place in Mario’s, the cabbie hangout. The core group of drivers on the show are there to celebrate the fact that one of them, Tony Banta, has finally won a prize fight. Their excitement isn’t dampened at all by the fact that Tony won by default when his opponent fell while climbing through the ropes and knocked himself out. After all, Tony argued, he had to make it through the same ropes. In that scene, one gets a fleeting glimpse of a framed print among the clutter behind the restaurant bar. It is a reproduction of Dempsey and Firpo, the 1924 painting by George Bellows. The painting portrays the incident a year before when 80,000 people were admitted to the Polo Grounds in Upper Manhattan—the baseball park had a capacity of 55,000— to watch Jack Dempsey defend his world heavyweight boxing title against the popular Argentinian Luis Firpo.

Dempsey 1

The fight lasted only into the second round, and both men took their licks. In the first round, Dempsey knocked Firpo down seven times; that was made possible by the rules that prevailed at the time, permitting a boxer to stand over a floored opponent and knock him down again as soon as he got up, and also by the fact that three knockdowns in one round were not yet considered a technical knockout. A rule adopted later required a boxer to go to a neutral corner when his opponent was knocked down.

Later in the first round, Firpo landed a right on Dempsey’s chin and knocked him through the ropes and into the ringside seats. What happened next generated one of those exquisite controversies that arise in sports. The sports writers sitting at ringside helped Dempsey back into the ring. Analysis of the film of the fight indicates that the referee had counted only to four when Dempsey was back on the canvas, but observers who were checking their watches claimed that as many as fourteen seconds had elapsed when Dempsey was ready to continue.

JACK DEMPSEY

JACK DEMPSEY

Because of the count, and because Dempsey didn’t get back into the ring under his own steam, the argument arose and has persisted that Firpo should have been awarded a knockout and crowned heavyweight champion of the world. If Dempsey had been out of the ring for twenty seconds, the rule in place at the time would have resulted in a TKO. As it turned out, Dempsey knocked out Firpo in fifty-seven seconds of the second round, and Firpo never did win the title. Dempsey who was a wild and wooly character, often involved in controversy, earned enormous amounts of money as a fighter. He later operated a popular restaurant in Manhattan. Firpo became an automobile dealer and a large-scale rancher. He and Dempsey later jointly managed an Argentinian boxer named Abel Cestac who became the heavyweight champion of South America.

I don’t follow boxing any more, but when I was younger I had a conflicted relationship with the sport. I enjoyed its history, its characters,  and its ritual, and I admired boxers such as Archie Moore, Carmen Basilio, Rocky Marciano, Ray Robinson, and Floyd Patterson. On the other hand, I thought, and still do, that boxing is fundamentally barbaric.

Boxing was a subject that interested George Bellows, who did a number of works that portrayed amateur fights. He may be best known for his scenes of New York City life. He promoted American intervention in World War I and the war, including atrocities attributed to German troops, provided him with some riveting subject matter. When he was criticized for painting images of a war he did not witness, he asked rhetorically if Leonardo had attended The Last Supper.

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JOE GANS

Prize fighting was part of my growing up.

My parents associated with some people who were connected to the boxing game: a promoter, a ring announcer, a cut man. At times, Mom and Dad would attend fights; I remember Mom coming home after one of those occasions with flecks of blood on her pink suit. Apparently they were at ringside.

In those days, the 1950s, we could watch fights on broadcast television, and we saw Carmine Basilio, Ezzard Charles, Jersey Joe Walcott, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Archie Moore.

Then, as now, I was a little schizophrenic when it came to boxing. I liked watching fighters like the ones I named, but I didn’t approve of boxing and thought it should be banned. I thought, and think now, that an enterprise in which the object is to knock your opponent senseless has no place in a civilized society.

WILLIAM GILDEA

Boxing was, in fact, illegal in most of the United States in the period discussed in William Gildea’s book, The Longest Fight. Where it was legal, one of the most prominent practitioners of “the sweet science” was Joe Gans, Gildea’s subject, the lightweight champion of the world and the first African-American to hold a world boxing title.

Gans held the lightweight title from 1902 to 1908 and he won the welterweight title as well in 1906. A native of Baltimore, he was strikingly handsome, well spoken, witty, courteous, and charming. Those qualities plus his nearly matchless skill in the ring attracted a large following, including white folks in numbers that were unusual for a black athlete in the days when Jim Crow was in such full vigor that racial epithets and garish cartoon figures of black Americans were commonplace in daily newspapers.

A postcard promoting the first Gans-Nelson fight.

Gildea recounts that Gans put up with plenty of abuse during his career, but he had learned the wisdom of restraint, and he practiced it in and out of the ring. When a white opponent spat in Gans’s face while the referee was going through the ritual of instructions, Gans bided his time until the fight began. His demeanor in everyday life was disarming, and he won over many people who otherwise would have included him in their overall prejudices about black people.

Gildea reports that people such as promoters and managers took advantage of Gans, because they knew a black athlete had no recourse and often was risking his life just by climbing into the ring with a white boxer.

”BATTLING” NELSON

In what was arguably the biggest fight of Gans’s career — the “long fight” referred to in the title of this book — the manager of Oscar “Battling” Nelson insisted that Gans submit to three weigh-ins on the day of the contest, and under unheard of conditions. Gans just stood for it. No one, he knew, wins at the weigh-in.

That fight took place in September 1906 under a broiling sun in the Nevada desert town of Goldfield. Gans defended his lightweight title against Nelson, whom Jack London called “the abysmal brute” for both his free-swinging style and his penchant for dirty tactics like groin punches and head-butting. Nelson was also an unapologetic racist who made no bones about his revulsion for Gans and black people in general. It was a fight to the finish, and the finish didn’t come until the referee disqualified Nelson for a low blow in the 42nd round, after two hours and 48 minutes of combat.

By that time, Gans had beat the tar out of Nelson whose face, Gildea writes, was almost unrecognizable, but if Nelson had one positive attribute it was that he could take punishment, so he was still standing when the referee made Gans the winner.

Gans during one of the three weigh-ins before the fight in Goldfield.

Gildea describes the “fight to a finish” in episodes running through the book, interrupting the account from time to time to relate other aspects of Gans’s career and private life, including the two dives he acknowledged, his warm relationship with his mother, his romantic ties, his establishment of a Baltimore hotel and saloon that was a drawing card for a stylish crowd, both black and white, and his early death.

Gildea, whose carefully crafted narrative makes this book especially enticing, clearly explains the quality that made Gans a perennial winner.  He blocked his opponents’ punches, moved as little as possible, threw a punch only when he saw an opening. And when he did punch, the blow was short and direct — in fact, Gildea writes, Gans introduced the technique of reaching out to touch his opponent and freezing the distance in his mind.

Gans is largely forgotten today, but as Gildea demonstrates, he was an important figure in the history of boxing and, more significantly, in the history of black citizens in the United States. Like the black men and women who were the first to venture into other fields, Gans took a barrage of slings and arrows for the team, and he did it with style.

Books: “Wonder Girl”

August 31, 2011

If ever an athlete embodied the  phrase sic transit gloria mundi, it was Babe Didrikson Zaharias. There are a couple of generations of adults among whom she is virtually unknown, and yet she was such a combination of natural ability, hard work, and results, that she has no peer.

I’m not an expert on this subject. I had only the vaguest idea of who Babe Didrikson was until I read Don Van Natta’s excellent book, Wonder Girl. But thanks to Van Natta’s scholarship, his journalistic discipline, and his entertaining and literate writing style, I now know plenty about Babe – and I’m glad I learned, even at this  late stage of my life.

Babe Didrikson died of cancer in 1956, when I was 16 years old. In those days, I followed baseball and boxing, so I had  only the slimmest knowledge that she was a prominent golfer. What I learned from Van Natta’s book is that Babe Didrikson would have excelled at almost any sport she chose and that she made a considerable mark in both track-and-field and in basketball before she turned her whole attention to golf.

I’ll mention only one particular  performance, because every time I think about it I am impressed all over again. Babe, who gave up on education before she finished high school, took a job with a Dallas-based insurance company, but not because she was interested in actuarial tables. Some companies in those pre-television days sponsored amateur sports teams that competed with each other around the country and acted as living advertisements for their employers. Babe’s principal job at the insurance company was playing basketball and track, both of which she did at a championship level. She was so extraordinary, in fact, that in 1933 her boss and coach sent her to the American Athletic Union’s national championship meet in Illinois.

DON VAN NATA JR.

I mean that literally. He didn’t send the rest of the team — only Babe. And competing against squads from around the U.S., she entered eight of the ten events and won the gold medal in broad jump, baseball throw, shot put, javelin, and the 80-meter hurdles and tied for first in the high jump. She collected a total of 30 points; the second-place team scored 22. In that meet, Babe qualified for the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, where she won two gold medals and a silver and set two world records and an Olympic record.

I had to tell that story. But Van Natta’s book isn’t engrossing only because it reports on that and Babe’s many other achievements. This book tells the story of an American life. Babe’s parents were faithful and hard-working natives of Norway who settled in Texas. They had a large family, and they lived from hand to mouth. Babe loved this family and she remained loyal to her parents and siblings and other connections, always including their financial well being in her reasons for driving herself so hard.

Babe was a tomboy, and when she grew older she was perceived as mannish. This plus the fact that she remained single for so long led busybodies, including prominent sports writers, to speculate about her sexual orientation. She also was the target of verbal abuse from sports writers and others who believed, as Joe Williams wrote in the New York World Telegram, that “it would be much better if she and her ilk stayed at home, got themselves prettied up and waited for the phone to ring.” The rough-and-tumble Babe broke through the barrier of snobbery that surrounded amateur golf at that time; she was a founding member of the LPGA.

She put an end to much but not all of that talk when she married popular  pro wrestling villain George Zaharias in 1938. The marriage lasted a lifetime, but it was tumultuous. Zaharias was a compulsive promoter, and he insisted that Babe keep up an exhausting schedule of competition and personal appearances, even when she would rather have taken a break.

An important factor in the story of Babe Didrikson’s life was her complicated personality, which was at the same time endearing and obnoxious. She was a bold braggart, constantly tooting her own horn. Van Natta reports that Babe would walk into the clubhouse before a golf match and announce herself by saying, “Babe’s here! Who’s gonna finish second?” And when she wasn’t bragging and even lying about her prowess, she was needling and annoying her opponents, deliberately trying to throw them off their game. But it is part of the genius of Van Natta that while he tells a great deal about this  aspect of Babe Didrikson, he tells it in the wider context of her life, so that her braggadocio does not define her in the reader’s mind.

Babe Didrikson was diagnosed with rectal cancer and underwent a permanent colostomy. There would still be enough greatness in her to resume her golf career and win tournaments. But the cancer prompted her to rise to the occasion in another way. She became a tireless campaigner for funds to support cancer treatment and education, and she made a point of visiting cancer patients, especially children, to encourage them to go on with their lives.

Babe Didrikson: a life worth remembering.

WARREN SPAHN

Since it was our 47th wedding anniversary, Pat and I went to dinner Monday night at that great Italian place in Clinton. We ate on the patio. In the opposite corner was a family of four — parents and a teenager of each gender. Before we got there, some guy who was riding a bike along the sidewalk recognized the family and stopped to talk. In fact, he parked the bike and sat down on the brick wall and made himself comfortable. The father in the family act, pretty much ignoring everyone else at the table, spend the time shooting baseball trivia questions at the visitor. I found this a little off-putting, both because he was talking loud enough for us to hear and because of the quality of the questions. What left-handed pitcher won the most games lifetime? Puh-leez! Give me something I can work with, will ya? (By the way, that was Warren Spahn with 363, which is also the greatest number of wins by any pitcher who spent his entire career in the live-ball era.)

Now, me? I would have asked him about Allen Travers, capisce? I was thinking about Travers the other night when the announcers on the Yankee broadcast were obsessing over the fact that Phil Hughes had thrown 106 pitches in a game for the first time this season.

EDDIE ROMMEL

Besides making me worry that Hughes might have to spend the rest of his life with a prosthetic arm, that conversation got me to thinking about all the great performances that would never have taken place if the pitch count had been a part of baseball from the beginning.

I was thinking, for example, about Eddie Rommel — later an American League umpire — who spent 12 years pitching for the Philadelphia Athletics and supposedly invented the knuckle ball as we now know it. In 1932, Rommel came in in relief against the Indians in the second inning, behind 3-2. He pitched 17 innings, gave up 29 hits and 15 runs, and won the game 18-17. The 29 hits allowed is still the single-game record.

Travers was a different matter. He was a student at St. Joseph’s College in Philadelphia in 1912 when Ty Cobb of the Detroit Tigers went into the stands at Hilltop Park in New York to pummel a New York Highlanders fan who had been verbally abusing him during a game. It turned out that the fan had lost one hand and several fingers from the other hand in an industrial accident. Ban Johnson, president of the American League, suspended Cobb indefinitely. When the Tigers were supposed to play the Athletics in Philly a couple of days later the team announced that they wouldn’t take the field until Cobb was re-instated.

Fr ALOYSIUS TRAVERS

The League told the Tigers they faced a $5,000 fine and would forfeit every game until there were players. To avoid the penalties, the Tigers enlisted Allen Travers — non-playing manager of the St. Joseph baseball squad — to round up a team off the streets and sandlots of Philadelphia. The nine guys were signed by the Cardinals. Travers was on the mound, and no one counted his pitches. He pitched eight innings and gave up 24 runs, which is still the major league record. The Athletics won the game, 24-2.

Travers later became a Jesuit and taught in college and high school in New York and Philadelphia. The 24 runs allowed wasn’t his only record. He was also the only major league player to become a Catholic priest.

But who’s counting?

You can read a fuller account of Father Travers’ experience by clicking HERE.