Johnsonâ€“Jeffries (Part 2): Jeff Answers Call of the Wild
After his victory over Ketchel, Johnson had become a great favorite of vaudeville agents. Touring in early 1910, he was guaranteed $1,500 a week, a headlinerâ€™s salary. Asked what he should do, Barney Gerard of the Atlantic CarnivalÂ show told him to just be himself; that meant that he was supposed to act the way the white folks expected him to act: dance, shadowbox, sing a bit, and tell amusing stories, but never, never be seen near any of the white women in the show. Money they gave him, respect no. According to Randy Roberts, Frank Calder, a stage manager, recalled Johnson was forced to change clothes in the bitterly cold cellar of the Cleveland Star Theatre and the Indianapolis Empire Theatre. He rebelled in Terre Haute, arguing that it was too cold to take the stage at the Fairland Theatre in only boxing tights. When management turned down his request, Johnson stormed out of town.
Gerard finally fired him, mostly it was believed, to get out of paying the champion $2,500 in back salary. When Johnson threatened the agentâ€™s life and limbs, Gerard reached for his checkbook. Returning to New York, Johnson became embroiled in an argument with another Black, Norman Pinder, whereupon â€“ Pinder later claimed â€“ Johnson knocked him down, kicked him in the ribs, threw a table and chair on him, and then, in afterthought, pulled out a pistol. Talk about overkill. When Johnson was arrested, he told the police he only wished he had hit Pinder harder. Locked up for four hours, Johnson was released on $5,000 bail when Pinder and two witnesses failed to show in court. Surfacing later, Pinder sued Johnson for $20,000.
All of this, of course, made good copy, and furthered fueled the public's lust to see him soundly beaten.
Meanwhile, relaxing back among the fields of alfalfa, Jeffries read the sports pages, and thought about London's call of the wild. He had grown fat, 302 pounds of it, and was growing fatter, but now, rather than his usual lumbering gait, he began to walk at a faster clip. As he watched his diet, he found himself going more and more out to the barn where he kept an ancient scale used for weighing hay. He cut his consumption of bread and potatoes by a third, while increasing his intake of buttermilk and vegetables, especially beets, which he favored, boiled or pickled. While sitting on his porch at night, he continually clenched and opened his massive fists. Secretly, he had a cobbler fashion him a pair of shoes made with weighted soles in the belief that they strengthen his massive legs.
As Bob Lucas wrote in Black Gladiator: â€śâ€¦Jeffries was as much a victim of racial prejudice as Jack was to become. Both men were caught up in primitive passions that swept them along like characters in a Greek tragedy.â€ť
By February of 1909, the retired champion had just about convinced himself he could fight Johnson and win. He kept his decision a secret. He appointed Sam Berger, a San Francisco hatter and sportsman, as his manager. "Sam," he ordered, "make the best deal you can."
Still, Jeffries harbored doubts about his 35â€‘yearâ€‘old body. After sailing to Europe, he went to Carlsbad in Bohemia (Czechoslovakia), where the mineral baths were "guaranteed to do wonders for man, woman or child." In Carlsbad, were doctors specializing in weight reduction and "making the old feel young," Jeffries took the baths religiously, while submitting to exhaustive medical exams. He was told: "Mr. Jeffries, your body is such it can withstand the strain of losing 75 pounds and still retain its strength and resilience. We feel, however, that the time required (for that) will be not less than one year."
Jeffries bathed in the mineral waters for three months, losing 22 pounds. Bored and body wrinkled, he elected to return home, where he could start serious training. By now, his secret was out. Delighted, Johnson sent him a telegram congratulating him for his bravery and assured him he would do all he could to see the match made. Jeffries made no reply.
Seven months before the fight, a St. Louis boxing writer asked Jeffries if he would talk to Johnson before the fight. "If that fellow comes to see me," said Jeffries, his face a dark cloud, "he will get a cleaning for which he might make a lot of money later on. I don't want to see him. I don't want him sneaking any advertising at my expense. I said I will fight him and that goes, and it won't take me more than five months to get into trim."
There was an unsubstantiated story that Jeffries, a celebrated barroom brawler, and Johnson had met in a saloon while Jeffries was still champion, and that Jeffries had challenged Johnson to a fistfight on the spot. Reportedly Johnson backed down, not for any lack of courage, but because he refused to fight unless he was paid. Neither fighter ever denied or affirmed the story.
All Johnson and Jeffries needed now was a place to fight and a man to promote it. They left it to their business managers to work out the details. The San Francisco hatter Berger negotiated for Jeffries; Johnson's negotiators were George Little and Sig Hart. They called for promoters to submit bids. The bids were scheduled to be opened at the Hotel Albany in New York, but because boxing was illegal in New York, the site was shifted to a Germanâ€‘styled inn, Meyer's Hotel, across the Hudson River in Hoboken, N.J. William Travers Jerome, the NYC district attorney, hastened the parties flight by sending word that he had ordered the police to breakup any boxing meeting. In New York, not only was boxing illegal, but so was even planning to promote a fight in another state.
When the bids were unsealed, Tex Rickard, backed by Minnesota millionaire Thomas F. Cole, who owned gold and silver mines in the United States and Alaska, won with a bid guaranteeing the fighters $101,000 plus two thirds of the movie rights. In addition, he promised each a $10,000 cash bonus when they signed the contract. Of the $101,000, the first offer was for the winner to get 75 per cent; the loser 25 per cent; that was later changed to 60â€‘40. A rumor was circulated that Richard had paid an additional $12,000 to settle one of Jeffries's gambling debts.
Edward R. Moss, sports editor of the ÂNew York Evening SunÂ, estimated that if Jeffries won, he would earn $667,750 and Johnson would make $358,250. If Johnson won, which would knock down the worth of the fight films, Moss guessed that Johnson would then make $360,750 and Jeffries $158,000. "A new era is at hand in pugilism," Moss wrote. "These hornyâ€‘fisted survivals of the Stone Age are...the real moneymakers. Primitive Nature seems to reward her followers handsomely, despite civilization's boasted triumphs."
Moss's estimates with Johnson winning were fairly close. The final live gate in Reno (15,766 folks, mostly white) paid $270,755. Together with their share of that and the movie rights, Jeffries took home $192,066; Johnson earned $145,600.
If ever a man was put on earth to promote this fight, it was Tex Rickard, born, according to legend, in a Missouri farm house next door to Jesse James' mother, was orphaned at ten, and labored as a cowboy, town marshal, gold miner, hustler, oil field worker, saloon keeper, and gambler. "Next to P.T. Barnum," wrote Damon Runyon, "Tex Rickard was the greatest showman who ever lived." Added Paul Gallico: "He knew that next to women, nothing is as stimulating or interesting to men as money, and he used its sparkle as bait...Each of his shows had the aura of gold about it, and the huge guarantees he offered his performers, the prices of the tickets, and the magnitude of it all produced a feeling of excitement that made his productions practically irresistible."
Bob Edgren of the ÂNew York Evening WorldÂ said Rickard was "tall, lean and (as) sinewy as a cowboy, darkâ€‘tanned from exposure to the sun and wind, and had a sharp eye, thin lips, straightâ€‘nosed countenance, and was as alert as an eagle,"
When asked if he would referee the fight, Rickard, who had never refereed a fight, replied: "If I am alive on July 4th, I will be the referee. You can state that on good authority."
No advertising brain trust was needed to market this fight, and Rickard, promotional genius that he was, had no qualms about exploiting the race issue. Jeffries became "The Hope of the White Race"; Johnson the "Negroes' Deliverer." It was shameless exploitation of an explosive situation. When the fight site was first announced as San Francisco, an editorialist for The Current LiteratureÂ observed the fight as "casting its shadow over a palpitating world. England and France, China and Japan, Australia and Hawaii, are even now starting their delegations toward the Golden Gate." In a cartoon in the New York GlobeÂ entitled "Relative News Values," Jeffries and "Masta Johnson" loomed large over the figures of Teddy Roosevelt and William H. Taft, while completely dwarfing men such as Charles Evans Hughes, House Speaker Cannon, and William Jennings Bryant. Every public move Johnson and Jeffries made was photographed and recorded, sometimes accurately. Politically, it may have been the most important athletic event in American history.
One of the meaningful side issues was over the selection of the referee. (Johnson, Jeffries and Rickard had already decided that Rickard would be the third man in the ring, but they kept that a secret for the time being). Someone suggested that H.G. Wells, the British novelist and historian, would make an excellent choice, but that idea was quickly abandoned. Then Irving Jefferson Lewis, managing editor of the ÂNew York Morning Telegraph, Âwired Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, suggesting he be the third man. Doyle was an astute boxing fan and had written many popular tales of the ring. Happy to generate publicity anyway he could get it, Richard said he was all for Doyle. A sensible man, Holmesâ€™ creator would have none of it; he telegraphed his regrets. In his memoirs, Doyle wrote: "I was much inclined to accept this honorable invitation, though my friends pictured me as winding up with a revolver at one ear and a razor at the other. However, the distance and my engagements presented a final bar." The ever-enterprising Richard even went so for as to ask President Taft to referee the fight.
Publicity for the fight was hardly underway when Johnson was arrested for speeding (one ticket of the many he collected) at 12th St. and Michigan Ave. in Chicago. Using the outlandish "darky" language reporters made-up for Johnson, The ÂInterâ€‘OceanÂ had the champion saying: "Stand back, Mr. White Offisah, and let dem colored peoples hab a look at me." Johnson, in the soft accents of his Houston, Texas birthplace, spoke the standard language of a grade schoolâ€‘educated American, seasoned with patois of the theater, the prison, and the sports world. The linguistic libel created by the media seemed to wash over him.
Gentleman Jim Corbett, the exâ€‘champion, handled the psychological warfare and trained Jeffries. "Take it from me," the San Francisco Irishman was quick to tell newspapermen, "the Black boy has a yellow streak, and Jeffries will bring it out of him when he gets him into the ring." Corbett, of course, did not have to fight Johnson.
In 1982, Jeffries had made $60 a week as Corbett's sparring partner. Corbett was in training for his fight with Bob Fitzsimmons, who would knock him out with his famous solarâ€‘plexus punch. After that title fight, Jeffries said he could have beaten them both. He never fought Corbett; but he knocked out Fitzsimmons twice: once in the 11th round to win the title June 9, 1899; again in eight rounds, July 25, 1902, in his second title defense.
The fight dispatches from the two training camps had started out on the sports pages, but they were soon shifted to the front section, where even the folks who had no early interest in the fight were overwhelmed by a steady assault of narrow column after narrow column on the fight, all carried under headlines about "the valiant White Man" and the "sullen Black." Racial rivalry was the thread of every story, and anyone even marginally literate was as defenseless against the flood of words as a movie fan in a tightly packed theater exposed to an unsought but raging cold virus.
A few educated Blacks did what they could to deflate the idea that Rickard's show symbolized a struggle of race against race. The Rev. Reverdy C. Ransom of the Bethel African Methodist Church in New York City said: "No respectable colored minister in the United States is interested in the pugilistic contest between Johnson and Jeffries, from the standpoint of race. We do not think Jack Johnson thinks or has ever thought of holding the championship for the Black race. Johnson is not trying to win the Negro championship, but to hold and defend his title against all comers, regardless of race or color."
(Actually, Johnson won the world â€ścoloredâ€ť championship with a 20-round decision over Denver Ed Martin in February of 1903, and successfully defended it 17 times.)
In a fashion, Rev. Ransom was correct. It was not his rivalsâ€™ color that kept Johnson from fighting a Langford or Jeannette. Taking on either of that dangerous pair would have been much more of a risk than fighting an old Jeffries â€“ but the white fighter ÂlookedÂ huge and dangerous, and for all the white public's conscious or subconscious fears of Johnson, Jeffries, himself a giant, appeared to be the prayedâ€‘for giantâ€‘killer they all sought. It was all about money; Johnson wanted Jeffries as much for his color as much as Jeffries wanted him for the same reason.
Not all Blacks in the U.S. took Ransom's position; many took great satisfaction in the idea of a symbolic champion, just as almost all whites found satisfaction in the same idea but from the opposing view. The Chicago DefenderÂ was the first highly successful crusading newspaper founded by and for Blacks, and it quickly adopted the theme of racial rivalry implicit in the match between Jeffries and Johnson. The ÂDefender's publisher, Robert Sengstacke Abbott, lived in a mansion, maintained a box at the opera, carried a goldâ€‘headed cane, and wore a silk hat, longâ€‘tailed coat, striped trousers, and spats. Like his martinis, he believed in keeping his readers well stirred.
Abbott's gift for sensationalism rivaled that of William Randolph Hearst. A few weeks before the fight, the Defender, ran a cartoon of Johnson shaking hands with Jeffries in a ring; the front rows were occupied by men exhibiting a sign that read: "JIM CROW DELEGATES." The referee had the face of Satan, was bearded and dressed like Uncle Sam, and was labeled "Public Sentiment." The referee was saying to Jeffries: "We're with you this time â€“ go ahead." Standing beside Jeffries were three menacing figures labeled "Race Hatred," "Prejudice," and "Negro Persecution." Above the cartoon was the legend: "HE WILL HAVE TO BEAT THEM ALL" and below: "The future welfare of his people forms a part of the stake."
The ÂDefenderÂ also carried an article pointing out, because of Johnson's preference for white blonde woman, and the publicity over his affair with Etta, that suddenly there were, in the current sessions of legislatures in Wisconsin, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, New Jersey, Michigan and New York, nearly identical bills outlawing interracial marriages. Commented the ÂÂDefender: "If more of our men were as considerate of our women as Jack Johnson is, what a great race of people we would be." The ÂDefender was ready to defend Johnson no matter what: for example, when Johnson's dog bit a man, who then sued the champion, the paper labeled it racial persecution.
Another storm broke in California, where Rickard by now was erecting an arena in San Francisco. The reformers rose up to do battle. The moment the fight was announced, they began a campaign to get it stopped. They sent letters and telegrams, held public meetings, were happy to grant private interviews. Gov. James C. Gillett, who dreamed of one day going to Washington, began to feel the heat. Hoping to head off a disaster, he said that so far as he knew it was merely a "sparring contest" and he could find nothing in the state law to forbid it.
Then up to bat stepped one George Rockwell of Cincinnati, claiming he represented a "national organization of businessmen and church people to prevent this outrage." Rockwell ordered one million postcards with Gillett's address and the message: "STOP THE FIGHT. THIS IS THE 20TH CENTURY." Rockwell's attack was as much against professional boxing as it was the color of Johnson's skin.
From old clippings: American reformers wanted the match to be held outside of the United States. After the fight was banned in San Francisco, the zealots turned their collective zeal on Reno and Nevada's Gov. Dickerson. On Sunday, June 26, Rev. L. H. Burwell, the pastor of Reno's Methodist church, delivered a sermon he called "Reno's Disgrace." In Cincinnati, Methodist ministers passed a resolution calling on Dickerson to follow Gillett's exemplary example. The pressure was as intense as it was useless. Dickersonâ€™s tent was anchored into bedrock. Most God-fearing Americans wrote off Reno as a national disgrace. Wrote one columnist for the ÂIndependent magazine: "Reno reproaches the whole country. But we tell Nevada that this is its last time thus to serve the devil...Just as universal condemnation and disgust compelled Mormonism to get a new revelation on Polygamy, so will Nevada be plagued into decency." In Chicago, a Baptist minister named M. P. Boynton became a footnote in boxing history when he suggested: â€śThere should be some way by which our nation could recall the charter of a state that has become a desert and moral menace. Nevada has not right to remain a part of our nation.â€ť
Two powerful forces were at work. First, there was the battle perceived as a struggle for racial supremacy, an emotional newspaper-selling fire storm that brought Black and white journalists quickly into the fray. Jackson Stovall of the DefenderÂ wrote: "On the arid plains of the Sage Brush State, the white man and the Negro will settle the mooted question of supremacy." On the other side, Max Balthazar, a white writer for the ÂOmaha Daily NewsÂ, asked whether "the huge white man, the California grizzly, could beat down the wonderful Black and restore to the Caucasians the crown of elemental greatness as measured by strength of brow, power of heart and lung, and withal, that cunning or keenness that denotes mental as well as physical superiority."
Roberts suggested that white racist reformers wanted part of the answer to Balthazar's question. Just to permit the fight to take place was to admit a sort of equality; it suggested that Blacks had an equal chance to excel in at least one arena of American life. Realizing this, the Black journalist A.G.F. Sims took on the white reformers: "Just because a Negro has an equal chance, that in itself, in their opinion, is enough to constitute a national disgrace." Sims added that he hoped Johnson would win â€śto make the national disgrace even sweeter.â€ť
The white reformist group looked upon the fight as a noâ€‘win situation. Win or lose, if the fight took place Johnson would have achieved a symbolic victory for his race. And if Johnson won, the whites were sure there would be a race war. "If the Black man wins," trumpeted a New York TimesÂ editorial, "thousands and thousands of his ignorant brothers will misinterpret his victory as justifying claims to much more than mere physical equality with their white neighbors." In the South, whites feared a Johnson victory would increase the possibility of physical contact between proud young Blacks and willing white women.
Whites were not alone in predicting violence. Conservative Blacks feared the same. As early as March of 1909 Emmett Jay Scott, Booker T. Washington's personal secretary, wrote J. Frank Wheaton, a successful Black New York attorney, about the need for Johnson to be more humble in public. Scott, and by extension, the political suits in Washington, wanted Johnson to shut up, or, as he put it, to "refrain from anything resembling boastfulness." It was feared that Johnson challenged an order they wished to placate and that his emancipated life style would cause a violent white reaction. E.L. Blackshear, principal of the Black State Normal and Industrial College in Prairie View, Texas and a disciple of Washington, warned that if Johnson defeated Jeffries, "the antiâ€‘Negro sentiment will quickly and dangerously collect itself ready to strike back at any undue exhibitions of rejoicing on the part of Negroes."
Like the white reformers, conservative Blacks wanted this fight to go away.
Then there was the other force, the force against change in the old order, which was under full frontal attack. In Mexico, a heroic cataclysm was underway; the following year, Porfirio Diaz, for 45 years the oppressive symbol of order and authority, would be forced to resign. In England, militant suffragettes were challenging the order of sexes. They had smashed windows at the traditional home of the Prime Minister, and chained themselves to the railing at Parliament Square; poured acid into postal boxes; slashed pictures in public art galleries; and, when arrested, went on hunger strikes.
Everywhere, here and in Europe, the old guard fought to hold on to their world of Christian morality and puritanical virtues. In Johnson and boxing they saw the evil manifestation of everything they opposed, feared, and hated. They embraced traditional, rural and puritanical values, and boxing, they argued, was as alien to those cherished virtues as, say, the son of illiterate â€śimmigrantsâ€ť from somewhere in Africa. Professional boxing was viewed as an immigrant sport that attracted Irish, Italian and Polish Catholics, Russian Jews, and other such undesirable sorts. The closing argument always included that the sport had close ties with saloonkeepers, gangsters and Democratic (Irish Catholic) urban political machines.
To them, the epitome of the evil boxing world was Johnson. He drank, supported white prostitutes, and shook the very social and racial order of rural Angloâ€‘Saxon Protestant America. He was not a fellow they desired as a son-in-law.
John L. Sullivan had been bad enough, but he was at least white, (in the insular view of the hymn-singing Wasps, the downside to Sullivan was that he was a drunk, a womanizer, and an Irish Catholic), but as long as he and his untamed ilk did not try to move in next door to them, they were willing to bask in his glory.
Speaking of inveterate old scoundrels, Rickard loved the furor and the publicity, both in San Francisco, and later in Reno. Merrily, he continued to build the $35,000 yellowâ€‘pine San Francisco arena that would hold 25,000 spectators. But Gillett was beginning to cave in. It did not help when he got up one morning to find fifty ministers praying outside his bedroom window for him to stop the fight. Gillett rolled over with his feet in the air when the Washington politicians joined the fray; Congressman William S. Bennett of New York, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, wired William R. Wheeler, of the San Francisco Board of Trade, saying that the prospective fight stood in the way of San Francisco's landing the Panama Pacific Exposition of 1915.
"Good Lordâ€ť said Gov. Gillett after he learned of Bennett's threat. He telephoned U.S. Webb, his stateâ€™s Attorney General, from Chicago and told him: "Go to San Francisco and tell Richard to get out of my state. Tell him to take Johnson and Jeffries with him."
The next dayâ€™s headline of The Police GazetteÂ blared: â€śGOV. SAYS BIG FIGHT IS A FRAME UP"
"I believe it is a frameâ€‘up," Gov. Gillett was quoted as saying, taking the easy route out. "There was no chance to get Jeffries in the ring again, in my opinion, unless he was assured in advance of victory. Johnson has little to lose. He needs money, and if he can be made independent by allowing Jeffries to win, he will do it. I don't think the crowd would stand for the Negro being returned the winner, and I am confident that Johnson would fall down and knock himself out if that was the only way he could let Jeffries win."
Jeffries was trout fishing the narrow San Lorenzo River near his training camp at the tiny village of Rowardennan in the Santa Cruz Mountains with Walter Kelly, a vaudevillian and the future uncle of Grace Kelly, when he received word that the fight had been driven from his home state. "I should tell them all to go to hell and go back home," he told Kelly. "If it wasn't for Tex, that's just what I would do."
Later Kelly wrote: "In my soul I believe that incident was the blow that whipped Jeff."
Ask to comment on the frame-up charge, Jeffries said: "I am inclined to believe Gov. Gillett was misquoted."
Every metropolitan paper in the country carried the headline, or some variation of it: "GILLETT VETOES THE BIG FIGHT."
John I. Day, an obviously creative writer for Interâ€‘OceanÂ, claimed that he had interviewed a "dusky fan," whom he quoted: "Dat dah white trash fighter, he is a friend of Goveno' Gillett, an' dah Goveno' he done stop dah fight, so Jack can't beat his haid off."
The next day the New York TimesÂ editorialized: "Governor Gillett has assumed national stature. He deserves the heartiest praise of all good citizens."
For a few days this praise was echoed in church and reform circles. With election time nearing, the California chief executive, a priggish teetotaler who had originally run and won on a reform platform, decided it was time he established greater distance between himself and the heavyweight champion. Followed by a motorcade of writers and photographers, the governor led the way to Johnsonâ€™s training headquarters, a beachfront resort named Seal Rock Home, where he and his media guests were taken into a room where the champion, as naked as the day he was born, lay stretched out on a rubbing table. The oily administrations of a naked masseuse held the rapt attention of a dozen stylishly gowned white women.
â€śThis is too much,â€ť snapped Gov. Gillett after he had regained control of his stomach. â€śI want to talk to you but I want these women out of here first.â€ť
Johnson smiled at the pompous little man. â€śThe ladies is most welcome here, and so is you, govâ€™nor.â€ť
That said, Johnson reached out with one large, muscular arm and pulled the struggling and sputtering Gillett close. He winked at the photographers, who, while the giggling white ladies gathered about, quickly carpeted the marble floor with burned out flashbulbs.
A few weeks later, Gillett and his committee for a cleaner California slumped in silence, waiting for state caucus returns to come it. Early news reports had not been good and when the returns came in they were as bad as they could get: Gillett had failed to get his partyâ€™s nomination by a 3-to-1 margin. The publicâ€™s indignation over the circulated photos of the governor seemingly consorting with the naked champion and a party of white women had been too big an obstacle to overcome. Johnson had turned the prude into a prune.
â€śWhat do I tell the press?â€ť Jack Overland, one of Gillettâ€™s public relations people, asked.
According to several reports, the former governor replied: â€śTell them that if that Black ape ever returns to these parts, I will have him roped and castrated.â€ť
With bowed head, Gov. Gillett then slipped into his topcoat and obscurity.