Bat Masterson: Boxing Columnist

BY Aaron Tallent ON February 12, 2005
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You have probably heard Bat Masterson’s name mentioned in stories of Wyatt Earp and the Old West. Dime-store novels were written about him. Gene Barry played him in a television show based on his Old West exploits. And he has been portrayed on the silver screen as well. Yet he was never immortalized like Earp, Wild Bill Hickok and other Old West icons. If he were, it would be common knowledge that after his Wild West career, Masterson worked as a boxing columnist in New York City for almost twenty years, covering the bouts of fighters like Jack Johnson and Jack Dempsey.

Born William Barclay Masterson in Illinois in 1855, he was one of six children, three brothers and two sisters. The Masterson family eventually moved to Kansas and built a farm in Sedgewick. This was where Bat spent most of his youth.

In his late teens, Masterson worked as a buffalo hunter. At the age of 20 he found himself in the middle of one of the Old West’s most famous skirmishes, the second battle of Adobe Walls. In June 1874, hundreds of Comanche braves surrounded Masterson and 27 other hunters in the community of Adobe Walls. He and his fellow sharp-shooting hunters barricaded themselves and after several hours managed to drive the braves away. Only four hunters were killed, compared to about thirty Comanches. Masterson is noted for running out of the building under fire to bring water to a dying friend.

Masterson once said, “Always shoot first, and never miss,” and in 1875, he killed his first man in Sweetwater, Texas. The death occurred when he defended a woman from an attack by her jealous ex-lover, Melvin King. King ended up wounding Masterson in the shootout.

After recovering, Masterson left Texas for Dodge City, Kansas, where he served as Sheriff Wyatt Earp’s deputy marshal. Masterson wrote of Earp, “I think it was the distinguishing trait of Wyatt Earp, the leader of the Earp brothers, that more than any man I have ever known, he was devoid of physical fear. He feared the opinion of no one but himself and his self respect was his creed.”

During his tenure in Dodge City, Masterson consorted with a Who’s Who of the Old West, including the Earp brothers, Doc Holliday, Luke Short, Dave Rudabaugh, Bill Tilghman and Mysterious Dave Mather. In 1877, Masterson was elected sheriff and kept the peace with the same vigor as Earp. However, tragedy struck in April 1878, when Masterson’s brother, Ed, also a deputy marshal, was killed in shootout with Jack Wagner. Masterson killed Wagner later that night.

After losing reelection in 1879, Masterson took up poker because, as he put it, “Gambling was not only the principal and best-paying industry of the time, but it was also reckoned among its most respectable.” In 1880 he played cards in the boomtown of Leadville, Colorado. After that he gambled in Tombstone, Arizona, but left town shortly before the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

During the 1880s Masterson played cards and faro in towns like Trinidad, Colorado; Reno, Nevada; and Las Vegas, New Mexico. Along the way he developed an interest in pugilism. Masterson never boxed but frequently served as a referee, as did Wyatt Earp. In the 1890s Masterson wrote his first boxing columns for a Denver newspaper called George’s Weekly. He also promoted boxing through his Olympic Avenue Club.

In 1896 Masterson helped move a heavyweight championship bout between Bob Fitzsimmons and Peter Maher to Mexico. The fight was originally supposed to be held in El Paso, Texas, where prizefighting was illegal. Governor Charles Culberson sent in the Texas Rangers to stop the fight. Masterson shuttled the bout to the border town of Langtry, Texas, which was Judge Roy Bean’s jurisdiction. A ring was built a few hundred yards inside the Mexican territory. For all their trouble, all those involved were not rewarded with much of a fight, as Fitzsimmons retained his title by knocking out Maher in less than two minutes. Masterson made sure Fitzsimmons got his money and then went home to Denver to write about it in his weekly column.

Masterson later found himself in a conflict with Otto Floto, sports editor of the Denver Post, over a boxing promotion partnership gone sour. The two often traded literary shots in their respective columns, but the verbal sparring turned into a street brawl in July 1900. Masterson whipped Floto with his cane, causing the editor to hire the notorious gunman “Whispering Jim” Smith to deal with Masterson. The two gunfighters, however, never met. Masterson sold his interest in the Olympic and left for New York City in 1902.

When he arrived, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Masterson U.S. Deputy Marshal of New York. Masterson’s second job was as sports editor of The Morning Telegraph, which allowed him to publish a column three times a week. When President William Howard Taft took office in 1909, he abolished Masterson’s position. This allowed him to devote his full attention to covering boxing.

As a writer, Masterson had no flair whatsoever. The ex-lawman spent his whole life bluntly dealing with Old West dregs and his prose reflected that. As he put it, “A sports writer who is not willing to stand by his honest judgment ought to chuck his job and try something else." The lengthy columns were not pretty, but they packed a powerful punch. Damon Runyon wrote in 1933, “I dare and double dare any sports writer of today to say some of the things about managers and boxers that old Bat Masterson used to say in almost every column he produced. Bat had no literary style, but he had plenty of moxie.”

Masterson’s sports columns accounted for more than 4 million words over his career, so he managed to get some witty lines in now and then:

“Every dog, we are told, has his day, unless there are more dogs than days."

"When a man is at the racetrack he roars longer and louder over the twenty-five cents he loses through the hole in the bottom of his pocket than he does over the $25 he loses through the hole in the top of his pocket."

“There are many in this old world of ours who hold that things break about even for all of us. I have observed for example that we all get about the same amount of ice. The rich get it in the summertime and the poor get it in the winter.”

Masterson’s major accomplishment in sports journalism was railing against boxing’s bureaucracy. For instance, when Joe Dragons killed George “Young Ducy” Nuessem with a body shot in July 1912, Dragons was taken into custody, along with his trainers and the fight’s referee. Masterson said the arrests were ridiculous. He pointed out the fact that Nuessem was in a weak condition at the time of the fight. Masterson went on to say that the New York Boxing Commission was responsible for Nuessem’s death because it allowed him to get in the ring in the first place.

Masterson often attacked the Commission during his career. When a new commissioner named Walter Hooke was appointed in 1921, Masterson wrote that he was unqualified. A few nights later at Madison Square Garden, the angry commissioner berated him. In the West, Masterson would have responded with his fists or pistol, but in the East his deadliest weapon was his pen. Masterson wrote about the commissioner’s unprofessional display of behavior and Hooke was removed from his position.

Bureaucrats were not the only ones who felt the sting of Masterson’s column. When describing Al Palzer, an Iowan heavyweight who could have served as a Great White Hope for African-American champ Jack Johnson had it not been for his laziness, Masterson showed him no kindness. He wrote, “Palzer is a dead rabbit so far as his drawing abilities are concerned. He’s just where he belongs – in the muck.”

Masterson was also critical of Johnson’s ring performances, but remained silent about his conviction May of 1913. Johnson fled the country in June of that year but continued to fight in Europe. When Johnson lost his title to gargantuan heavyweight Jess Willard in Havana, Cuba, on April 5, 1915, Masterson was there. His recap of the bout began: “The white race, after a hard pull for the last seven years, recovered the heavyweight championship of the world . . .” Of course those words sadly reflected that era’s view of Johnson. He went on to explain that years of hard living had taken its toll on the “Negro pugilist” and led to his loss.

Masterson did not cut newly crowned champ Willard any slack either, saying he was “a very lazy man” and that it was “only natural to presume that he [Willard] is fat and flabby.” The public was also not too fond of Willard. Americans were still waiting for a heavyweight champion in the vein of the Great John L. Sullivan and they got one when the “Manassa Mauler” Jack Dempsey knocked out Willard in three rounds on July 4, 1919.

While sportswriters and boxing fans lauded Dempsey, Masterson was not too impressed. Throughout Dempsey’s career, Masterson did not give him a great deal of praise, even when he scored first round knockouts.

While those who saw the Willard fight thought Dempsey’s hands were made of cement, Masterson implied that Dempsey could have taped his hands with concrete-lined electrical tape. Masterson also said something must have been askew with the fight because Dempsey had looked pitiful in some of his previous bouts and could not have destroyed Willard the way he did.

But Masterson’s reason for his wariness of Dempsey is not because boxing fans and historians missed the mark. It goes back to a conflict out west. Dempsey was born in the town Manassa, Colorado, and Masterson learned that Dempsey was once managed by his old nemesis Otto Floto. He also heard rumors that Floto still owned a piece of the champ. Contempt for the man who tried to have him killed led Masterson to underestimate one of boxing’s all-time greats.

Had Masterson been able to cover Dempsey’s entire prolific career throughout the 1920s, he might have been able to get past his disdain for Floto and appreciate the champ’s remarkable abilities. Unfortunately he was not given that chance, as Masterson died of a sudden heart attack on October 25, 1921 . . . while typing his column. Masterson slumped over his desk and passed on without a sound, a quiet end to a colorful life.

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