When Sports Mattered

Jack Johnson in the Ring with James Jeffries

Dear Reader,

For this week’s contribution, I shall direct you to another website where I wrote a short piece on the race riots which broke out over the Fourth of July in 1910 after Jack Johnson successfully defended his crown again Jim Jeffries. You can find it here.

I missed the first week of class this semester, as I was hospitalized having lost the ability to swallow. They did some testing and determined I wasn’t aspirating, and so they stopped there. I’m still struggling to drink even water and I cannot eat anything solid. It takes 10-15 minutes for me to drink a 16 oz bottle of water. Given that the disease I have causes my body to dry out, I have to consume a gallon a day or I risk dehydration. And I can no longer drink that much.

You would think that doctors would take it seriously, but they don’t. Each specialist tries to pawn me off on a different specialist. I’ve asked for a feeding tube, but they say no since I have no evidence of aspiration. It’s just a matter a time before this causes a serious, if not fatal, complication. It’s so bad that I have left written instructions for my wife to insist they take slides of my brain after I die because, as some of the doctors suggest, there is a neurological cause. (But several neurologists refused to test me for anything because I “don’t fit the profile” for someone with a neurological disease.)

I’ve seen over 20 different doctors, including some in the Houston Medical Center, where you can get some of the finest health care in the world. But they just don’t seem to give a shit. After all, it’s not them who is suffering. It’s me. And as an added bonus, when I got home Tuesday, my right arm stopped working. As in, I can’t raise it. The pain is centered in the shoulder joint. I know enough anatomy to know that it is probably the rotator cuff. It hurts like hell. There’s nothing I can do, though. I cannot, under any circumstances, have a rotator cuff surgery as that would mean I have to sleep in a recliner for weeks and due to my spinal injuries, I have to sleep flat on my back. Sitting down or reclining is absolute murder. So I’ll just have to suffer through it and learn to use my left hand.

Then again, given the rapid progression of my swallowing issue, I probably won’t be suffering for long. I apologize for sounding so gloomy, but everything I say is true. My body is shutting down and the doctors don’t care. I’m just hoping to make it through to the end of the semester.


Opening Day Revisited


Dear Readers,

On Opening Day of the 2018 season, I wrote about my experience following multiple games here. As we are now in the month of October with playoff baseball in progress, I thought I’d revisit my experience.

After watching the Red Sox blow a 4-0 lead to the Marlins to lose 6-4 on the first day of the season, I have to say that their completion of a 100+ win season came as something of a surprise. However, in their first game of the ALDS against the Yankees, they went up 5-0 only to give up four runs and make it a much closer game than it should have been. I listened to said game on the radio, as I always do. You could feel the energy of the Fenway crowd coming through the speaker on my phone. (I use the SiriusXM app and follow the Red Sox home feed.)

In May right after I finished teaching for the semester, I had surgery and spent another 8 days in the hospital. (That’s for a total of 6 weeks since late November if you are keeping track). Luckily, the hospital has excellent Wi-Fi coverage and so I was able to have one game going on the TV, one on my computer via my MLB subscription, all while listening to a game on my phone. Though much of the time I was in a morphine induced fog, it did provide an avenue of entertainment if not excitement.

During the long hot days of summer, I was more focused on recovering from my surgery than on anything else, especially during the month of June. Still, I managed to catch a few games a week. I taught a couple of classes the second half of the summer and would listen to afternoon games on the car radio during my “relaxing” hour drive home. August was an exciting month for the Red Sox, but they seemed to go flat in September which doesn’t bode well for the playoffs.

As much as it pains me to say, I think the Astros are still the team to beat in the American League, though the Yankees are hot too and might very well take the series from the Red Sox despite losing the first game. If this happens, it will be due to the combination of the Yankees hitters verses the Red Sox putrid bullpen. I’m still not sure why they didn’t address this known deficiency either during the last off season or before the trade deadline. But I digress.

So here’s to hoping for an exciting last month or so of the season. May we see great games, regardless of who comes out on top.


Opening Day, 2018

Boston Baseball CO

Dear Readers,

I had a bit of an usual experience this Opening Day as I was off. The college is closed Thursday and Friday for the Easter Holiday, so I set out to follow a few games in addition to the Red Sox game to have a full first day of the season experience.

The Cubs and Marlins started off the season. Armed with my trusty SiriusXM app on my phone, I tuned in to listen to the Cubs radio feed. I don’t much care for all of the pre-game radio talk, so when I tuned in, the Marlins had just taken the field along with the umpires. A few minutes later, on the very first pitch of the entire MLB season, Ian Happ knocked it over the right field fence. More chaos followed in the top of the first. Two players walked. Two more hit by pitches. The Cubs were up 3-0. In the bottom of the first, Anderson singled to right and scored a run for the Marlins. In the top of the second, Rizzo hit a dinger of his own and just like that, the Cubbies were up 4-1 and cruising. Or so I thought. The Marlins tied the game with three runs in the bottom of the third and that is when I had to quit watching to run an errand.

On the way to Wal Marts, I tuned in to listen to the Cardinals play the Mets. As I was focused a bit more on driving than listening, I don’t recall much of what I heard other than the fact that the Mets weren’t having much trouble with the Red Birds. When I reached the store, I noticed a large number of people wearing Astros gear which made me chuckle. I was in my lucky Red Sox shirt and hat and I remember just a few years ago when the Astros were losing 100 games a season and you saw nary a shirt or hat in H-Town. Hell, they gave away tickets and couldn’t get people to go the games. But I digress.

When I got home, I laid down to rest for a while given the myriad of health issues I’m currently battling. At 3pm, I made a cup of coffee and went to sit on the front porch to listen to the game I had been waiting for, the Red Sox and the Rays. Betts hit a hard fly ball to deep center field on the first pitch. Would he match what Happ did for the Cubs? No. The center fielder made a great catch. Benitendi grounded out and Ramirez struck out. Three up. Three down. Still, it’s a long game and a longer season, so I saw no need to get nervous. Sale had the kind of game you’ve come to expect from him. By the end of the 2nd, the Red Sox were up 3-0 after Martinez scored on a Devers ground out and Nunez and Bogaerts scored after Nunez hit an unlikely inside the park home run. When Sale left after 6, with only one hit and nine strikeouts, I thought we were home free.

I’m not quite sure why I thought that, given the Red Sox bullpen’s ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Alas, this is what happened in the bottom of the 8th. Four batters walked. A few hits. And the next thing you know, the Rays, who typically have a somewhat anemic offense, were up 6-4. Oh well, we still had the top of the 9th, right? Nunez managed a double to left field, but Bradley, Jr. grounded out to end the game. I admit to being in a certain state of shock. A four run lead gone in a matter of minutes. Thankfully it is a long season, though I fear if the bullpen can’t get it together, it’s going to seem like a positively eternal season.

After the debacle in Florida, I tuned in to watch the Dodgers play the Giants. The typically outstanding Kershaw pitched relatively well, other than the solo home run he gave up which gave the Giants a 1-0 victory. When he left after six, he’d managed to toss 7 Ks, though he gave up 8 hits. Still, he only let one run score, though that proved to be the difference in the game. Interestingly, Kershaw also went 2-2 at the plate, which the Dodgers were not able to capitalize on.

By this point, I was tired, my back hurt, and my intestines hurt (which I’ll need surgery on before too long). I fell asleep listening to the Indians play the Mariners in Seattle. I traveled to the land of nod shortly after Cruz hit a two run homer in the bottom of the first, which, I noticed after I got up this morning, were the only two runs the Mariners scored. It was enough, as they topped the Indians 2-1.

So what’s on tap for today? I won’t be watching/listening to as many games today, though I’ll be tuning in to the Red Sox game this evening and hoping they can manage a win. With Price on the mound, it’s possible, but they are going to have to have a 10 run lead before I feel comfortable with the bullpen’s ability to get a save.


Football time in Texas


I will not permit 30 men to travel 400 miles merely to agitate a bag of wind!

Andrew Dickson White


August in Texas. When you step outside of the house, it feels as though you are walking into an oven. The heat and humidity sap your soul. A mere walk to the mailbox leaves you drenched in sweat. This can only mean one thing. Football season has arrived with the accompanying smell of a freshly mowed field and the smack of pads on the first day of contact (after 5 non-contact practices). The shrill blast of the coach’s whistle mingles with the sound of the marching band practicing nearby. The rules are a lot different than when I was in school. High school teams rarely have two practices a day for ten days before school starts. New rules prohibit that to prevent heat related issues (though that was never a problem when I was in school). But on the first day of practice, all things seem possible. Every team has a shot at making the playoffs or reaching the state championship, or at least they can dream of it.

It is no exaggeration that football is a civil religion in the state of Texas, particularly high school football. It brings people of all backgrounds, religions, and races together. I live in a town where things shut down on Friday nights in the fall when the team is playing. My house is a few blocks from the stadium and I can hear the PA from the stadium from my front porch. I grew up in the Golden Triangle area of Texas (Beaumont, Port Arthur, & Orange) which is often called the football capital of the world given all the professional players who come from there. Truthfully, football provides people an escape from the area, which if like me, you grew up in Port Arthur, you completely understand.

High School ball has been around for well over a century. For many years, the first high school game was reported as taking place in 1894 between Ball High of Galveston and Texas A&M (a college playing its first game). However, 2001 research uncovered a game between Ball High and the Rugbys of Sealy on Christmas Eve, 1892. It gets a bit muddled though, because Ball High played city teams, YMCA teams, and even college teams and the players didn’t actually have to be in high school. Others point to the first game between school sponsored teams as having taken place in 1900 when St. Matthews Grammar School of Dallas took on the Wall School of Honey Grove. Of course, these early games bore little resemblance to those we watch today, more rugby than football and more brawn the finesse. Source

I married a girl from Missouri. She was an athlete in high school (volleyball). I remember when I took her to her first high school football game in Texas. She said “This isn’t a game. It’s a spectacle.” I suppose it is, with marching bands, cheerleaders, dancing girls, and the game itself. Sometimes the half time shows are better than the games. It was quite different than what she grew up watching in Missouri. Growing up she was a bit of a tom boy and can throw a tight spiral and debate the finer points of a 3-4 defense vs. a 4-3 with the best of them. I actually think she’d make a good coach. Actually, she is a good coach having coached volleyball and soccer at her high school. I mean she’d make a good football coach.

Football, like other sports, has the power to bring people together. When I run into a fellow Saints fan, I have an instant friend no matter our differences in background, skin color, or political beliefs. When I meet a fellow native of Port Arthur, we bond over our mutual dislike of Port Neches-Groves High School. With fellow LSU fans, we discussed our desire to “Fire Les! Win More!” and our dislike of Alabama, though with a new coach in Baton Rouge, I guess we’ll have to have something else to complain about. There are many ways to develop self-discipline, teamwork, and to build character. Sport, be it football or softball, is merely one of those ways. If coached and taught correctly, those lessons, not the actual game, will last a lifetime and provide a basis for future success.

So this fall as you watch your favorite teams on the television, try to take some time on a Friday to catch your local high school game. Most of the kids you’ll see on the field will never play again after their final game of their senior season. At least for now, high school football is free from the influences of agents and television contracts. It’s probably naïve of me to still think of it as “pure”, but at least in a small way, it is. Here are the high schools I cheer for:

Port Arthur Memorial (my hometown)

La Porte (where I live)

Anyone who plays Deer Park

Anyone who plays PNG

I would be remiss if I did not end this by saying “Geaux Tigers! Geaux Saints!” I do not have high hopes for a successful season from either of them this year.

My first team. We won the city flag football league championship in 1985. Our coach, back left, was killed in a car accident a couple of days before the championship game. We won it for him.


I Saw It On The Radio


Dear Readers,

I am decidedly old school in my habits. From my decidedly vintage style of dress to the 1940s to the 1940s music I listen to and movies I watch, my life seemingly revolves around things that went out of fashion a long time ago. Hell, I even listen to Old Time Radio programs from the 40s and 50s (Dragnet and Tales of the Texas Rangers are my favorites). When it comes to sports, well, I listen to them on the radio rather than watch them on TV, though I will watch the highlights after the games are over. There is something special about picturing what is going on in your mind as it is described by a voice coming through the airwaves rather than looking at a picture coming from a box.

I was born in 1978 and thus my early years were spent in the pre-cable era. We did not have cable at my house until 1990 or 1991. Even then, it was nowhere near the 250 channels I get via Dish Network today. As a kid, I listened to as many major sporting events on the radio as I watched. I remember listening to baseball games on the radio with my grandfather and of smuggling a small battery operated radio to bed with me so I could catch the end of the New York Football Giants victory in the Super Bowl in 1986 and again in 1990. Today, when you can order packages that allow you to see any NFL game or any MLB game, I still prefer to listen on the radio which, courtesy of Sirius XM radio, is an easy thing. I can get the home feeds for any team either on the radio I have set up in the bedroom or, even better, via the app on my phone.


I live in the Houston media market but I am not a fan of any of the Houston teams. There are a few reasons for this. First of all, and perhaps most simply, I am not from Houston. I grew up on the Texas/Louisiana border though I’ve lived in and around Houston since 1990. (Presently I reside in La Porte, a great town that reminds me of my native Port Arthur.) Second, in my opinion, Houston has the worst sports fans of any city. They only like their teams if they are winning. For example, when the Astros went to the World Series in 04 or 05, everywhere you went people wore Astros gear and talked about the team as if they were suddenly baseball experts. People I’d known for years who never expressed any interest in baseball were suddenly rabid fans and baseball experts. A few years later, after a few 100 loss seasons, all the fans disappeared. They have not been heard from again, though if the Astros go to the World Series this year, rest assured they will come out of the woodwork. For the final reason, I’ll have to explain why I intensely dislike the Astros and the Texans (the Rockets don’t rate on my radar as I am not an NBA fan). As a kid we lived just on the edge of the Houston market and so we got the Astros games on TV. I did not like the Astros, I liked the Braves for some reason I cannot recall. Anyway, my mother would send me to my room when the games came on because I refused to cheer for the Astros. Thus I hate them with a passion. And as for the Texans, it isn’t the team I hate so much as it is their fans who show a shocking ignorance of football. At the beginning of every season they go on and on about how they are going to win the Super Bowl that year with the latest washed up quarterback they sign. When the Oilers were in town, I followed them and even liked a few of their players. But boy do I hate the Texans. (I’m a Saints fan and have been since Bum Phillips, who grew up in the same area as I did, coached them.)

Forgive the long digression. The Saints rarely play on television in the Houston area, maybe a couple of games a year. So I listen to all their games on WWL Radio. Before I got my satellite radio, I listened via the computer, but now I usually listen via my XM app. The roar of the Super Dome crowd comes through loud and clear and it is as if you were there. I sincerely wish they’d do boxing matches on the radio too. Sirius inked a deal to broadcast some Premiere Boxing Championship bouts and since 2015 have carried exactly one. So much for that deal. I even get my news courtesy of the BBC World Service. They do a much better job with international news than our American equivalents. Just saying.


During baseball season, I follow the Red Sox and listen to as many of their games as I can. There is something decidedly historical about baseball on the radio. Officially the first MLB game broadcast on the radio was a contest between the Pirates and the Phillies carried by KDKA Pittsburgh in August of 1921. A slight dispute exists, however, as WWJ Detroit claims to have broadcast the 1920 World Series. What would baseball be without a little controversy! The merger of the newfangled radio machines with the sport created a true match made in heaven. Whereas football with its pace of action is more suited to television, baseball is made for the radio. When you hear the crack of the bat, you can almost see the ball leaving the park. All the clubs have their regular radio guys and quite a few have become legends, such as the Dodger’s Vin Scully. Even Harry Caray started out as a radio guy with the Cardinals. Though for reasons stated above, I dislike the Astros, their long term radio broadcaster Milo Hamilton was excellent. Since his retirement (and death), the replacement team just isn’t as good. His catchphrase, and all radio guys have them, was “Holy Toledo! What a play!” Joe Castiglione of the Red Sox uses “Can you believe it?” which he used during the final out of the 2004 World Series.

To get a feel for baseball’s history with the radio, check out this YouTube page which has tons of vintage radio broadcasts of games from the 30s through the 70s. The Golden Age of Radio coincided with the Golden Age of Baseball, and on this page you can listen to the legends of the diamond play games called by the legends of the broadcast booth.

If you are a baseball fan, I would urge you to pick one game this season played by your local team and rather than watch it on television, listen to it on the radio. In so doing, you’ll have a connection with the history of the game which television lacks. I even know people who go to games with small radios and listen while they watch! That’s dedication to the radio that even I lack. Also try picking out a vintage game on that YouTube page and give it a listen. You won’t be sorry.

“Swing and a ground ball stabbed by Foulke. He has it. He underhands to first. And the Boston Red Sox are the World Champions! For the first time in 86 years, the Red Sox have won baseball’s world championship! Can you believe it!”

Joe Castiglione on WEEI Boston, Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2004


From Glory Days to Empty Nights: The Decline of the Sweet Science



Tomorrow marks the birthday of the late champ Muhammed Ali. He passed on to that great gym in the sky last June, so he can now spar with the likes of Jack Johnson. La Dolce Scienza has fallen a long way since the heady days of the 1920s and 30s, though it certainly showed flares of a comeback in the 1960s and the great era of Super Bouts in the 1980s and early 90s. Ask a random American today who the heavyweight champion of the world is, and you’ll probably get a blank stare. In fact, with so many sanctioning bodies, a pugilistic enthusiast may first inquire from which body said champion won the belt before they can answer. How far the sweet science of bruising, as it was called by Pierce Egan, the Shakespeare of the London prize ring, is a matter of great dismay to those who have witnessed its decline firsthand.

If Egan was its Shakespeare, then A.J. Liebling was its Herodotus. Liebling observed television was useful for “selling razor blades”, but little else. In the 1950s, he spoke of the deleterious effect this modern contraption would have on boxing specifically and society generally. I wonder what he’d say about the pay-per view fights of today. Just as boxing discovered television, so too did professional football. When the Giants took on the Colts in what is billed as the Greatest Game Ever Played, television audiences got to watch what they might have only heard on the radio before. And speaking of the radio, while other professional sports have maintained their radio ties, boxing has completely severed them. In April of 2015, Premiere Boxing Champions inked a deal with SiriusXM to carry some fights via satellite radio. To my knowledge, they’ve carried exactly one fight.


Part of boxing’s appeal in the radio era was because it reached a nationwide audience and was free of charge. All you had to have was a radio. Bert Sugar, the fedora wearing, cigar chomping Potentate of the Prize Ring, once wrote that to understand boxing, you had to understand its roots. This is true of just about anything, I suppose, but particularly boxing. I’ll now add the Hutch Corollary to the Sugar Thesis, that is to say, to understand its decline, you must understand not only its roots, but also its move away from said roots.

The Good Book doesn’t say money is the root of all evil. It says the love of money is the root of all evil. Therein, Dear Reader, lies the problem with sports in general, and no sport more than the Sweet Science. The first Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling contest, which saw a Louis defeat, while a big fight, set up the most epic of all rematches. After some backroom chicanery, Louis matched up with Braddock, of Cinderella Man fame, next and won the world heavyweight championship. This set up the rematch between the Brown Bomber and a man seen as Hitler’s guy. The fact that Schmeling was not, in fact, a Nazi enthusiast and had, in fact, irritated them by refusing to fire his Jewish trainer, mattered little to journalists who have never let the truth stand in the way of a good story. Half the country tuned in on the radio to hear the legendary words “Schmeling is down……the count is five!” If you’d been in the interior of Africa, you’d have been able to listen on shortwave radio. In Germany, people packed movie theaters and listened as the radio feed was patched in through the sound system. Much of the world tuned in to hear the fight. Over 70,000 people filled Yankee Stadium to watch the fight which brought in the first million dollar gate in boxing history. Considering it was 1938, that says quite a bit. J. Edgar Hoover and Gary Cooper were present ringside to watch as well. It is, most certainly, the biggest sporting event in American History.


But what if this fight were to take place today? It would be on pay-per view, of course. You’d have to pony up somewhere around $85 for the privilege of watching it. The main event would start somewhere around 9 or 10 pm. Sure, you could get some buddies to split the cost with you and have a fight party. But what of the working stiffs who are unable to take the time off for a frivolous reason such as a fight? What of those who lack sufficient funds for the purchase? Or those who don’t have cable television? They would be, to put it crudely, shit out of luck. After the fight, someone would post it on YouTube and you could find it there, at least until it got taken down. But by then you’d already know the outcome, having read it in the paper or heard about it from those lucky enough to watch it live. And that just isn’t the same.

Once upon a time, even in my childhood, you could watch good fights on television for free. Unfortunately, the slow inroads of pay-per view events also began their slow creep to the top of the sports realm. Whereas you can tune in on television or radio to watch your local sportsball teams play, if you have a satellite radio you can listen to the radio broadcasts from any team around the country, you cannot do the same for boxing. On occasion, you’ll have televised bouts on cable for the cost of nothing but your cable subscription, but title fights or big bouts are nonexistent outside of pay-per view or subscription services like DAZN. If you are old school like me, good luck finding any bouts on the radio.


The big buck associated with pay-per view have taken boxing away from the masses, which gave it popularity in the first place, and instead brought it into the living rooms of the casual fans. Such individuals complained after watching the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight about how “boring” it was. I suppose they expected every fight to end in a knockout. I further suppose they do not know the difference between boxing and fighting. Mayweather is perhaps the greatest defensive fighter of all time, yet the causal fans whined about how he “ran away” all night and should of stood there and fought. While it is true, Dear Reader, that in the ring you want to punch your opponent, it is also essential to avoid your opponents blows. But such a distinction was lost on those who are not students of the fight game.

With the rise of MMA and UFC, really nothing more than a glorified bar fight, boxing has competition which has surpassed it in some ways. Kids gravitate towards those sports rather than a boxing gym, which are getting harder and harder to find. Added to this, you have a growing chorus of voices which calls boxing a barbaric sport that should be banned. This view has been around almost as long as the sport, but it seems to grow louder with each passing decade. The same individuals who want to see boxing banned feel the same way about football, yet they eagerly sign their kids up for soccer. Girls’ soccer is second only to football (and a close second at that) in concussions per capita among high school sports. But I digress. A street fight is one thing, but a fight in the ring, with rules, is an honorable calling for those who choose to pursue it.


If boxing is to experience a rebirth, a return to its heydays of old, it must once again be brought to the masses. Broadcast major bouts on network television, for free. Make your money off of advertising, just as the Super Bowl does. Carry big fights live on the radio, though I imagine you’d have a hard time finding someone to call it since that type of play by play is a lost art. Tell those individuals who think boxing should be banned that, if they don’t like the sport, they are not required to participate in it. Simple as that. Will any of this happen? No, of course not. There is too much money to be made than to give up a chunk of it by making the sport free. However, I think boxing will find that over time, more and more fans in the United States will turn to other avenues since it just isn’t accessible enough. As more fans turn away, then so too do potential fighters. I’m sure you see where I’m going with this. Dear Readers, the Sweet Science is on life support and I’m not convinced it will survive to another generation.

And that, friends, would be a tragedy. I have happy memories of many of the fights I’ve seen in my day, including some great amateur bouts. I hope to be able to see many more, but I fear it will be the exception rather than the rule. And once, just once in my life I’d like to hear a fight live on the radio. I’d also like to be a millionaire. Both are equally unlikely. I’ll leave you with this. The boxing world Ali inhabited bears little resemblance to the one today. It’s a tragedy or a travesty or both. Though he left his legacy on the sport and on society, I think his societal legacy will last longer because his sport may not survive another thirty years. Then again, we can take some small hope in one great truth. Men like to punch each other. That hasn’t changed since Cain slew Abel. So maybe, just maybe, there’s hope after all.


Boxiana: Or When the Ring Was King


Dear Readers,

If you were to poll a random cross sections of Americans and ask them what professional sport was the most popular in the nation prior to the shotgun marriage of television and football, I’d bet dollars to donuts that the respondents would answer “baseball” without hesitation, mental reservation or secret evasion of mind. While it is certainly true that the Overlords of the Outfield did indeed hold sway over the imaginations of the public in the post-war era, it is not the whole truth. By that, of course, I refer to the second great cataclysm to strike the world following close on the heels of the War to End All Wars. Before said war it was not the Bandits of the Bullpen who most captured the hearts and minds of the American people, but rather the Rajahs of the Ring. Yes, Dear Readers, I refer to the sport of boxing.

La dulce ciencia is perhaps the oldest sport known to man, a fighting companion, perhaps, to the oldest profession. No doubt cavemen engaged in fisticuffs as readily as some men do today. The Book of Genesis tells us how Cain slew Able, but it leaves out the method with which Able was dispatched. Given the fact that they were the third and fourth humans, respectively, one can only assume Cain slew his brother with his bare hands. The Good Book details frequent battles between opposing groups, often resulting in the vanquished being “smote hip and thigh”, whatever the hell that means. No less an authority than Homer, the blind bard of antiquity, spoke of the innate desire of one man to smash his face into the fist of another. Odysseus, of whom Homer sang praises, settled things with his fists when the need arose. Indeed, the Pantheon of Boxiana reads like a who’s who of famous writers. Hemingway, who spent time in the ring, Jack London, Joyce Carol Oates, and the great A.J. Liebling, all devoted time to chronicle the Sweet Science of Bruising in a manner worthy of Shakespeare. The question we must ask is why? What drew literary heavyweights to wax poetic (and sometimes wane) about their counterparts in the ring? Just how popular was the fight game in the past? Well, Dear Readers, I shall attempt to answer my own questions.

We need not venture all the way back to the 19th Century to explain the rise of pugilistic parade of boxers turned celebrities, though the Boston Strong Boy might take issue with such a dismissal. No, we should first turn our eyes to the island city of Galveston, which gave birth to the first superstar black athlete, who is a worth early example of the impact of a sport on our society. It took some doing, but eventually Jack Johnson, the Galveston Giant, convinced Tommy Burns to schedule a title fight. Burns had, earlier, defeated then champion James Jeffries. Burns and Johnson touched gloves in Australia in 1907. Fourteen rounds later, Burns was on the mat and Johnson was the champion. That a black man had beaten a white champion shocked the world, no matter how skilled said black boxer was.


This set off a desperate search for a “Great White Hope”. White American fans of the fight game couldn’t stomach a black champion. Surely someone, anyone, could come forward and wrest the title from Johnson’s massive fists. A hope, both likely and unlikely, stepped forward. James Jeffries said he’d give it go, although he had thrown nary a punch in six years. The combatants met in Reno, Nevada. Johnson knocked Jeffries down twice before his corner threw in the towel to prevent him from having a knockout on his record. Jack London, sitting ringside to cover the bout, summed it up succinctly. “Once again Johnson has sent down to defeat the chosen representative of the white race, and this time, the greatest of them all.” The country reacted with shock, nay, horror!

What may have seemed like a simple boxing match was anything but. Riots swept across the United States, with dissatisfied white men storming black communities to set homes and businesses on fire. Some estimates state that around twenty-five people died and a few hundred more injured. Consider the significance, Dear Reader. Have we ever seen nationwide riots after the Patriots win (another) Super Bowl? To my knowledge, the Johnson v. Jeffries prizefight is the only sporting event in the United States to ever touch off nationwide rioting due to the outcome. But alas, Dear Reader that is exactly what happened when Johnson won.

Jack Johnson & Jim Jeffries Boxing

The saga of the Galveston Giant is a great one, but time and space prohibit me from giving it anything more than a light jab on the chin. Eventually, the world found its Great White Hope. In a fight scheduled for 45 rounds, Jess Willard sent Johnson to the canvas in the 26th. Boxing reigned supreme in the 1920s. No less an authority than A.J. Liebling, the Heroditus of the Prize Ring, noted that during a decade known for flappers and prohibition, Jack Dempsey got more headlines than Babe Ruth. And made more money too. It would take over twenty years for another black boxer to challenge the established order of the sports world at the time, but when he did so, he’d do it with, at least on the surface, the support of white America.

When Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber, stepped into the ring on June 22, 1938, he not only carried his own desire to avenge his earlier defeat to Max Schmeling, he also carried the hopes and best wishes of the United States. A couple of weeks before the fight, no less a person than Franklin Delano Roosevelt met with him and gave him sincere wishes for success. Schmeling likewise sallied forth to do battle with the hopes of a nation upon his broad shoulders. A second victory over Louis would be a propaganda coup for Hitler, who could point to it as an example of Aryan supremacy. The media cast this titanic battle as one between Democracy and Fascism, the Brown Bomber and Hitler’s man! Such makes for good copy, but the truth was that Schmeling was not an admirer of Adolf. The manner in which this fight was covered meant that, for the first time, white Americans felt comfortable cheering for a black boxer, even if they would not have wanted him to live next door or marry their daughter.


On that fateful night, the men eyed each other from across the ring whilst millions tuned in around the world to hear the call. 70,000 lucky fans were able to watch what promised to be an epic battle between two noted pugilists. Some estimates have as many as 70 million Americans listening at home on their radios. What makes this shocking is that the population of the United States was around 129 million. That, Dear Readers, is over half of the country. Consider this, even the most watched Super Bowls don’t bring in that percentage. Around the world, people tuned in on shortwave radios as well to hear it live. If people hoped for a long fight, they would be disappointed. Louis dispatched Schmeling in just over two minutes. Had you been at home on this fateful night, you’d have heard the broadcaster say “Schmeling is down……the count is five!” This became one of the most recognizable radio calls for many years to come, indeed, among fans of the sweet science, it is known even to this day.


These are but a few examples of the hold la dulce ciencia had over the American public those many years ago. There are many reasons for boxing’s decline following the super bouts of the 1980s. But for those, like myself, who are fans of the sweet science of bruising, we can look back on a time in which the pugilistic art bouth captivated and repelled us, a time in which in divided us and brought us together, and a time in which it showed both racial division and unity. Some learned historians have called the 20th Century the American Century. If this is true, than at least during the first half, boxing was America’s Sport. Alas, the sport has fallen a mighty long way since June of 1938. It may well never recover.

But among the hardy few pugilists who trade jabs in the ring today, one constant has remained the same since bareknuckle brawler John L. Sullivan plied his trade. Boxing has always been a working class and/or immigrant sport. My own ethnic group, the Irish, became the first great bareknuckle champs in the United States. We gravitated towards the prize ring, perhaps due to the fact that we discovered a way to get paid for something we did for free on a typical weekend. In the 20th Century, we saw black fighters, Jewish fighters, and Italian fighters like the great Rocky Marciano. Today, the Hispanic community has strong ties to ring. While a Mexican-American kid laces up his gloves for the first time today, he or she is following a path blazed by other immigrants who, though they might have had a different shade of skin or language, shared the desire to fight their way to the top of a very difficult world.


I will leave you with this thought. One cannot separate the history of a sport from the history of a country. The two are as entwined as two lovers in a bed. To understand one, you must understand the other. To those who opine that in the grand scheme of things, sports are irrelevant, I only ask them to consider those killed in the riots following Johnson’s victory. Tell those murdered by mobs angered over the outcome of the bout that sports don’t matter. For those poor souls, the sport was life or death.

Don’t drop your guard and remember to stick and move.