HALL OF FAME RING ANNOUNCERS — Late in his life, ring announcer Jimmy Lennon acquired an appendage. Folks started referencing him as Jimmy Lennon Sr., an acknowledgement that there were two of them. Jimmy died of heart failure in 1992 at age seventy-nine, by which time the son that he had groomed to succeed him was an established ring announcer. In age father and son were 45 years apart, but they bore an uncanny resemblance. Never was a transition so seamless.
Junior got his start announcing 4-rounders on shows where his old man handled the more important stuff. At the annual Hall of Fame Weekend in Canastota this coming June, they will be reunited once again when Jimmy Sr. is posthumously inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in the non-participant category. The younger Lennon, entering his 26th year as the ring announcer for SHOWTIME Championship Boxing, got there ahead of him. He was voted in with the class of 2013.
Although Jimmy Lennon Sr. was involved in a far greater number of shows and played himself in more movies, he never achieved the international recognition that would fall to his son. Jimmy the Elder was there during the early years of television and the shows that he worked, if televised at all, were aired on regional networks. But for four decades Jimmy Lennon Sr. was the face of boxing in southern California, a fertile territory for exponents of the sweet science.
Jimmy Lennon Sr. is a worthy addition to the roster of luminaries enshrined in the IBHOF. However, the ring announcer that he supplanted, the long forgotten Dan Tobey, had a career that was no less noteworthy.
Born in 1878 in the little town of Ulysses, Nebraska, near Lincoln, Dan Tobey (pictured) began announcing at Naud’s Junction, an arena in Los Angeles that took its name from the informal name of the streetcar stop. Several internationally important fights were staged at Naud’s Junction, which opened in 1905 and closed in 1913. Tobey also worked at the Vernon Arena which opened in 1908 and housed numerous shows during California’s 4-round era (1915-1924) when the state law dictated that all matches be conducted under amateur rules.
Before this onerous law took effect, Vernon, an independent municipality five miles south of downtown Los Angeles, was the site of many big fights. None aroused as much debate as the July 4, 1912 scrap between Ad Wolgast and Mexican Joe Rivers, a lightweight title match that ended with simultaneous knockout punches in the 13th round. Tobey would call this the most exciting fight with which he was ever involved.
The first iteration of the fabled Hollywood Legion Stadium, originally an open air facility, opened in 1919. During its heyday, the arena housed weekly boxing and wrestling shows. As would be true of Jimmy Lennon the Elder, Tobey handled both enterprises.
The motion picture crowd wasn’t big on wrestling, but turned out in droves for the weekly boxing shows. Hollywood celebrities mingled with everyday folk before, during, and after the matches, giving the cozy arena a special glow, even on nights when the bill of fare was straight from Palookaville.
Writing in 1925, Damon Runyon observed that Hollywood was so thick with celebrities that farmers absent-mindedly hitched their horses to them. Dan Tobey, it would be written, introduced more famous people than any person in history. In addition to all the movie stars, the list included such notables as Gen. John J. Pershing, Theodore Roosevelt, Charles Lindbergh, Will Rogers, and Babe Ruth.
Of all the famous people that he introduced, none gave him a warmer feeling than the legendary baseball manager Connie Mack. “I’ve always been daffy over baseball,” said Tobey, explaining his choice.
Tobey’s workload increased when the Olympic Auditorium opened in 1925. The Olympic ran shows on Wednesdays, the Hollywood Legion on Fridays, and Tobey worked both venues. The Olympic Auditorium attracted a different crowd than Hollywood Legion Stadium – far more blue-collar, somewhat more rowdy, and eventually overwhelmingly Mexican – but Tobey was comfortable in both worlds.
Los Angeles Times sportswriter Steve Springer made an interesting observation about old-time ring announcers. “(They) sounded like auctioneers,” he wrote, “like the old newspaper vendors who yelled out headlines from street corners.” Dan Tobey was like that, which didn’t make him inferior to any of the current practitioners, merely different. He was well-equipped for his role, a role he assumed before the advent of electronic voice amplification. Dan Tobey, someone said, was born with a megaphone in his lungs.
Snippets from old movies (check out Tobey playing himself in “The Prizefighter and the Lady,” the 1935 MGM release starring Max Baer and Myrna Loy) reveal another facet of Tobey’s announcing style that sets him apart from the moderns. He was more animated; he didn’t stand in one spot.
Tobey wasn’t nearly as svelte as the Lennons – the first digit of Tobey’s waist size was undoubtedly a “4” – but he was very light on his feet. He had a bounce in his step and when he welcomed a dignitary into the ring to take a bow, he had a rather fiendish expression on his face that said there was no other place in the whole wide world that he would rather be at that moment.
Of course, the top ring announcers today have no choice but to stand rigidly as they rattle off the particulars. They are on TV and must look into the camera, even if that means facing only one quadrant of the audience.
Dan Tobey didn’t customarily wear a tuxedo (Jimmy Lennon Sr. would be erroneously credited with starting this practice). At times Tobey was pictured inside the ropes in a gray business suit, at other times wearing a dark suit jacket with white slacks, but finding nice duds was never a problem. During the daytime hours, he was the floor manager of a high-end men’s clothing store.
Dan Tobey was 74 years old when he retired in 1952. On Jan. 23, 1953, he was feted at a banquet arranged by California sportswriters. The highlight of the evening was the reading of a telegram from Connie Mack who had retired following the 1950 season after a 50-year run as the manager of the Philadelphia Athletics. Mack complimented Tobey on his outstanding body of work.
The master of ceremonies that evening was Jimmy Lennon. Somewhere – perhaps buried in a trove of old Lennon family photos – there must be a photograph of Jimmy the Elder and Dan Tobey standing or seated side-by-side. If such a photo exists, it would be a remarkable artifact. Between the two of them, they brightened the southern California boxing scene for an uninterrupted span of almost 90 years!
Jimmy Lennon was a pip, a worthy addition to the IBHOF, but let’s not forget Dan Tobey.
Check out more boxing news on video at The Boxing Channel