Ballpark Fights

BY Ed Schuyler ON May 31, 2006
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In the good old summertime, back when boxing rivaled baseball as the most popular sport in the nation, major heavyweight fights took place in the New York ballparks of Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds, home of the Giants.

The undisputed king of the ballpark fighters was Joe Louis, who fought at Yankee Stadium eight times from 1935 through 1940, twice in 1946 and once each in 1948 and 1950. He fought twice at the Polo Grounds in 1941. He lost to Max Schmeling and also scored his legendary first-round knockout in the rematch in Yankee Stadium. One of his two wins at the Polo Grounds was his 13th-round knockout of Billy Conn in their first fight.

It was at Yankee Stadium that Jack Dempsey was pushed back into the ring by sports writers after being knocked through ropes by Luis Angel Firpo. Of Rocky Marciano’s six title defenses, three were in Yankee Stadium and one was in the Polo Grounds. Schmeling made history at Yankee Stadium when he became the only man to win the heavyweight title on a foul. Floyd Patterson made history at the Polo Grounds, knocking out Ingemar Johansson to become the first man to regain the heavyweight title.

There also were championship fights involving the lower weight classes in the two ballparks and at Ebbetts Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, in the period of 1922-31 and at Shea Stadium, home of the Mets,  in the 1960s. It was the heavyweight fights, however, that stirred the Big Apple and rest of the country.

Outdoor heavyweight fights were a happening.

Louis came to national attention when he made his New York debut with a sixth-round stoppage of former champion Primo Carnera before some 40,000 fans on June 25, 1935, at Yankee Stadium.

“In the gathering were leaders of all walks of life in the city, state and nation,” the New York Times noted. “Postmaster General Farley watched the proceedings, as did John and James Roosevelt, sons of the President. Mayor La Guardia was one of our city executives present. Four former holders of the title which Louis seeks were there and were introduced from the ring – Dempsey, Tunney, Max Baer and Jack Johnson. James J. Braddock, current titleholder, was present as were lesser ring champions. Baseball, golf, tennis and yachting were represented to the gathering.”

Representatives of yachting are not seen much at fights any more, although some members of boxers’ entourages do wear hats associated with naval officers. I have no idea why.

Louis surely was impressive in beating Carnera because an estimated crowd of 95,000 packed Yankee Stadium to see him knock out Max Baer, another former champion, in the fourth round on Sept. 24. 1935.

Louis won 10 fights at Yankee Stadium, including his 25th straight successful title defense with an 11th round knockout of Jersey Joey Walcott on June 25, 1948. His two losses there the knockout by Schmeling on June 18, 1936, and a unanimous decision loss to Ezzard Charles on Sept. 27, 1950, when he tried to regain the title 2½ years after he had retired.

The Louis bandwagon lost a wheel or least wobbled when as 8-1 favorite he was knocked out in the 12th round by Schmeling for his first defeat before an estimated 45,000 fans. An estimated crowd of 80,000 had seen Schmeling win the title when Jack Sharkey was disqualified for a low blow in the fourth round on June 12, 1930, at Yankee Stadium.

The fight against Louis was Schmeling’s 12th in the United States and ninth in New York in 8½ years, and the German had built quite a following. “Hundreds of people were gathered before the hotel (after he beat Louis),” Schmeling wrote in “Max Schmeling: an Autobiography,” published in Germany in 1977 and in the United  States in1998. “As I appeared they began to applaud, and it took some doing to get to the elevators.”

Schmeling was seen as a representative of Hitler when he returned for his rematch with Louis on June 22, 1938. He often was mocked on the street with stiff-armed Nazi salutes. “Joe Louis, who had yesterday been celebrated by Harlem as a hero of the underclass, was now suddenly transformed into the symbol of freedom and equality for all people and races against the Nazi threat,” Schmeling wrote.

Louis, a 2-1 favorite, needed 2:04 to knock out Schmeling before 70,694 fans at Yankee Stadium in what was the fourth defense of the title he had won on an eighth-round knockout of Jim Braddock on June 22, 1937 in Comiskey Park, then the home of the Chicago White Sox.

The dispatching of Schmeling was the first New York ballpark heavyweight fight since Louis won a decision over Tommy Farr on Aug. 30, 1937 at Yankee Stadium in his first title defense.

The big outdoor show in New York in 1937 was the Carnival of Champions on Sept. 23 at the Polo Grounds. Lou Ambers retained the lightweight title on a decision over Pedro Montanez. Barney Ross outpointed Ceferino Garcia for the welterweight title. Harry Jeffra won the bantamweight title on a decision over Sixto Escobar. Fred Apostoli stopped Marcel Thil in the 10th round in what was recognized in Europe as a middleweight title match. The New York State Athletic Commission, however, recognized Freddie Steele as middleweight champion.

Before Louis beat Farr there had been seven outdoor heavyweight championship fights in New York City, but only three were in ballparks.

On Sept. 11, 1923, some 90,000 people, more than 85,000 of them paying customers, squeezed into the Polo Grounds to watch Jack Dempsey knock out Luis Angel Firpo in the second round. It was the first of two ballpark fights for Dempsey, but his only championship bout.

Shortly after opening bell Dempsey was knocked to a knee. “He was up again before they could more than start counting, and as he got on his feet 90,000 people got to their feet, too, and not one of them sat down before the round was over,” reported the New York Times.

Dempsey knocked down Firpo seven times before he was knocked through the ropes and on to the heads and shoulders of sports writers, who pushed him back on to the apron from where he managed to get back into the ring before being counted out. The round ended shortly thereafter, and the screaming fans were able to sit down again, but only briefly. In the second round, Dempsey knocked down Firpo twice, the second time for the count.

The first heavyweight title fight at Yankee Stadium was on July 26, 1928, when Gene Tunney, who had outpointed Dempsey outdoors at the Sesquicentennial Stadium in Philadelphia and at Chicago’s Soldier Field, ended his career with an 11th-round technical knockout of Tom Heeney. Schmeling succeeded Tunney as champion when he beat Jack Sharkey on the foul blow in Yankee Stadium.

After Schmeling beat Sharkey, New York’s next four heavyweight title bouts were held outdoors at the Madison Square Garden Bowl in Long Island City in the Borough of Queens, just across the East River from Manhattan. Sharkey won the title on split decision over Schmeling before an estimated 70,000, and Primo Carnera knocked out Sharkey in the sixth round before about 40,000 in 1933. In 1934, Max Baer stopped knocked down Carnera 11 times and stopped him in the 11th round before some 56,000 paid spectators, and Jim Braddock upset Baer on unanimous decision before a crowd estimated at 30.000 in 1935.

From then on, Joe Louis dominated the ballpark boxing scene.

Louis’ first fight in the Polo Grounds was his now almost mythical defense against Billy Conn, which he won on a 13th-round knockout before 54,487 on June 18, 1941.

Interestingly, the New Times said that no trouble was expected. Then the newspaper reported, “The police detail was the largest ever assigned to a boxing event in this city. A total of 2,250 of New York’s finest patrolled the Polo Grounds inside and out, and the streets of Harlem.”

On Sept. 20, 1941, Louis stopped Lou Nova in the sixth round at the Polo Ground in what, because of World War II, was the last outdoor fight in New York until June 19, 1946, when Louis knocked out Conn in the eighth round at Yankee Stadium. That was the first fight with a $100 ticket for ringside Other ticket prices were $50, $30, $20 for reserved seats, $10 for reserved seats in the bleachers and $4 standing room. Perhaps because of the ticket prices, but also because of national radio hookup and limited television, only 45,266 fans attended.

Louis 25th, and last, title defense was an 11th-round knockout of Jersey Joe Walcott watched by 39,827 fans  in Yankee Stadium on June 23, 1948. His last championship fight, a unanimous decision loss in a title bid against Ezzard Charles on Sept. 27, 1950 at Yankee Stadium was watched by a crowd of 22,357.

There were a total of seven heavyweight title fights at Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds from 1953 to 1960. Such events were being killed by the rise of television. Because of such things as programming schedules and now the scheduling of satellite time there is no such thing as a rain date as there was back in the good old summertime.

Rocky Marciano’s final fight in his all-winning 49-bout career was watched by a crowd of 61,574 on Sept. 21, 1955, when he stopped Archie Moore in the ninth round at Yankee Stadium. Ingemar Johansson surprised an estimated crowd of 30,000 by knocking down Floyd Patterson seven times in the third round and winning the championship on June 26, 1959, at Yankee Scandium. Patterson became the first man to regain the heavyweight title when he knocked out Johansson in the fifth round before 31,892 on June 20, 1960, at the Polo Grounds.

There would not be another outdoor heavyweight title fight in New York until Muhammad Ali scored a unanimous decision over Ken Norton on Sept. 28, 1976 at Yankee Stadium, where 31,892 fans paid for the privilege of having the chance to get mugged by hooligans, who were able to gate crash because of a police strike.

That was the last of the New York ballpark fights . . . probably for ever.

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