Friday, January 13, 2012

Boxers to Otto: "Stee-rike!"

by Pete Ehrmann

Editor's Note: Following up on Dennis Pajot's biography of Milwaukee Brewers owner Otto Borchert, contributor Pete Ehrmann brings us this remarkable chapter from Borchert's earlier career as one of Milwaukee's premier boxing impresarios.

"Louisville Fans Crow In Victory," headlined the Wisconsin News after the Milwaukee Brewers lost their first game of the 1925 season, 3-2 to the Louisville Colonels. But April 14 was a wunderschön day for Brewers owner Otto Borchert anyway. Also president of the Cream City Athletic Club, one of the biggest organizations promoting professional boxing in the country, Herr Otto must've done some crowing himself when the Wisconsin Athletic Commission threw out charges that he had "connived, aided and abetted trickery and deceit in the promotion of boxing contests" and exerted a "baneful influence" on the sport.

In the first half of the decade known as "The Roaring Twenties," there was no bigger story in Milwaukee sports than the knock-down, drag-out feud between the CCAC and a consortium of boxers, managers and rival promoters united in their hankering to topple Borchert as house promoter at the Milwaukee Auditorium.

It resulted in the formation of a labor union for boxers and managers. The "American Boxing League" actually went out on strike against the CCAC, after insisting that Borchert had boycotted local boxers first.

The protracted war, wrote A.J. Schinner of the Wisconsin News in 1927, "almost wrecked the boxing game here."

When Otto Borchert became president of the CCAC in February, 1919, it was already Milwaukee's premier boxing club and had been since the sport was legalized in Wisconsin six years earlier and the Queensbury Athletic Club — it changed its name to Cream City Athletic Club in 1914 — was granted a license to promote boxing at the Milwaukee Auditorium on N. 6th and W. Cedar (now Kilbourn Ave.) Sts.

The guiding force behind the CCAC was Thomas S. Andrews. Born in Canada, Andrews came to Milwaukee with his parents when he was one. He played baseball and football in his youth and at the turn of the century he was sports editor of the Evening Wisconsin.

In those days no code of ethics prevented newspapermen from having a hand in creating the news they reported on, and Andrews openly promoted boxing cards in public when local authorities allowed it (and in private when they didn't). He was also one of boxing's first historians and record-keepers, recognized globally by the early 1900s as an authority on the squared-circle. (Andrews was no slouch when it came to baseball, either, and at various times was mentioned as a candidate to run the American Association and the Federal League.)

While other clubs promoted boxing on the city's south side and elsewhere, thanks to its exclusive lease on the Auditorium, Andrews' CCAC dominated the field and made Milwaukee as renowned a fight town as New York City in an age when boxing and baseball were the deluxe entrees on the sports menu.

The Auditorium was key to its success. Back then the 12,000-seat facility was regarded with the same awe as Miller Park is today. "It is a dream," wrote C.J. Murray in the Buffalo (NY) Commercial newspaper in 1914, "the last word in construction — luxurious to the extreme, a wonderful paradise for boxing fans."

When Otto Borchert succeeded retiring Milwaukee Journal sports editor J.A. Ermatinger as president of the CCAC in 1919, he was identified as "a real estate operator" and a "100% (boxing) fan, having attended local fistic attractions for some 20 years." Years later, Milwaukee Sentinel sports editor George Downer would write, "To tell the truth, we never could quite understand why any man with Mr. Borchert's money should waste even five minutes promoting fights. Otto explains that by saying that he likes the game."

Less than a year after Borchert joined the CCAC, secretary and matchmaker Tom Andrews left for a two-year stint in Australia with a troupe of American boxers. He recommended that Borchert hire a temporary matchmaker to run the CCAC in his absence, but instead Otto took on the job himself. At the end of that year Sam Levy, the Journal's boxing writer, hailed the "proverbial self-made man" for his "colossal success."

In 1920, Borchert bought the Milwaukee Brewers, and a familiar face joined the boxing promotional wars. Cedarburg native Frank Mulkern owned the Yellow Cab Co., and had promoted fights and managed boxers in the first decade of the century. Now he was getting back into boxing with the intention of grabbing a piece of local boxing's crown jewel — the Auditorium.

Over the years the CCAC had used its political clout to keep other boxing clubs out of the Auditorium. But Mulkern had connections, too, and one of them turned out to be Otto Borchert, whose objections to letting Mulkern in were strangely muted. Breaking precedent, the Auditorium's board of directors granted Mulkern's National Athletic Club access to the building in 1922.

Andrews was not happy to come home and find Mulkern with a foothold in his once exclusive bailiwick. Suspecting collusion between Borchert and Mulkern, Andrews sold his controlling shares of the CCAC to Borchert for $3,500, and in mid-'22 Andrews opened up shop at the Castle Ice Garden at N. 35th and W. Wells Sts.

Over the next year boxing flourished in Milwaukee as the rival clubs presented popular cards featuring such local talent as Richie and Pinkey Mitchell, Joey Sangor, Joe Jawson and Johnny Mendelsohn. In terms of overall gate receipts, 1923 was the third most lucrative year for boxing in Wisconsin since 1914.

Andrews' suspicions that Mulkern and Borchert were playing footsie were confirmed in -'23 when Mulkern dissolved the National Athletic Club and became matchmaker for Otto's club, making the CCAC once more the Auditorium's exclusive boxing tenant.

Perhaps because of the glut of boxing cards, in 1924 attendance fell off dramatically. Reasoning that fans had grown tired of seeing the same old faces in local rings — and complaining that the local pugs wanted too much money to fight anyway — the CCAC began using mostly out-of-town boxers on its cards.

In June, Tom Andrews shuttered the Castle Ice Garden and said he wanted to promote again at his old downtown stomping ground.

"I can give Milwaukee the best cards in the country if I have the facilities," he declared. "I was the first promoter to hold bouts in the Auditorium, and nothing should prevent me from having a second lease on the building."

The Sentinel's George Downer agreed, writing on November 12: "Every day emphasizes the need of another club to promote boxing in Milwaukee. The existing Auditorium club has taken a high hand with boxers who have asked more for their services than the promoters in their wisdom (?) have deemed fair. There are today several boxers in Milwaukee who are practically banned from employment here because they have, by asking for what they deemed a fair payment for their services, offended the big club bosses" — i.e., Borchert and Mulkern.

"Rather than give them bouts, the local club put on a show featuring a full card of outside boxers… Cutting out the local lads, in the manner in which it has been done here, is distinctly unfair, but so long as one club holds a monopoly of the local promotion field, there is nothing to be done about it."

Less than a week later, the Sentinel reported that "Managers of practically all the professional boxers in Milwaukee met last night at the Republican Hotel to form an organization for the protection of their interests and for the advancement of boxing in Milwaukee."

Passed at the November 18 inaugural meeting of the American Boxing League was a resolution charging that Otto Borchert "has openly boasted that he can make or break any local boxer that he desires"; that boxers "have been deprived of their purses" by the CCAC; and that Borchert and Mulkern had "entered into contracts with contestants and modified them at will to satisfy their selfish demands."

Heading the new union — which filed for affiliation with the American Federation of Labor — was Billy Mitchell, loquacious manager of his boxing brothers, Richie and Pinkey. "The Fighting Mitchells," as they were known, had been butting heads with Otto since 1919, when Borchert decided that Richie — Milwaukee's most popular fighter and a top lightweight contender — was no longer welcome to fight at the Auditorium unless he agreed to take a cut in his percentage of the gate receipts from 33 1/3 to 25. (In a 1928 memoir, Richie wrote: "Otto was a splendid fellow in many ways, and he did me a lot of favors after I retired from the game. But he was stubborn as a balky mule.")

"The Fighting Mitchells"
L-r in front: Pinkey, Richie and manager Billy.
"Monopoly always leads to abuse," Billy Mitchell told the press after the first meeting of his union. "The (CCAC) promoters are high-hatting the local boxers to death and we have been forced to organize for our protection."

Two weeks later, members of the American Boxing League voted unanimously to go on strike against the Cream City Athletic Club.

Borchert took the high road, at least publicly. "We wish it understood that no matter what's said or published in contravention, the arena of the Cream City Athletic Club is open to any local boxer," he said. "We are always willing to talk terms and it is our endeavor to reach an amicable agreement with any of the local boxing fraternity."

Frank Mulkern was less diplomatic. "The yelp that local boxers are not receiving the proper terms is all applesauce," he snorted.

On December 18, Tom Andrews formally applied for a license to promote fights at the Auditorium. The boxers' union heartily endorsed his application. Every member of the Milwaukee Chamber of Commerce recommended its approval, as did Mayor Daniel Hoan and City Attorney John Nevin.

But on January 21, 1925, Andrews' bid was rejected. Auditorium Manager Joseph Grieb said the policy regarding boxing clubs was no different from the one that allowed just "one radio show, one auto show, and one home builders' exposition in the building each year."

Within days, Billy Mitchell appealed directly to Gov. J.J. Blaine, and that's when the three-man Wisconsin Athletic Commission, which oversaw boxing since its legalization, finally intervened in what Journal sports editor Manning Vaughan called "nothing but a mud-slinging contest."

A formal hearing was scheduled at the commission's Milwaukee office on March 10-11. Two days before, Otto returned to town from the Brewers' spring training camp in Sanford, Florida. Though he complained that the hearing had been purposely timed to inconvenience him, Borchert said, "I would have come from China had the boxing commission ordered it. If there is anything wrong with our way of doing business and if it is not legal, we want to hear of it and we want it rectified."

The hearing was run just like a trial, with Borchert and Mulkern as defendants. Heading up their legal defense team were high-powered attorneys Henry Killilea, J.V. Quarles and Raymond Cannon. They called the charges against the CCAC "trivialities and nothings."

On the witness stand, Otto flatly denied ever saying that the boxers would accede to his terms or "I will starve them out."

But when asked if Joseph Grieb, manager of the Auditorium, received stock dividends from the CCAC — a practice actually started by Tom Andrews when he ruled the Auditorium roost — Borchert refused to answer.

He was loud and clear about one thing: "I shall protect the interests of my club. No one else will get a lease in the Auditorium while I have a club in it, and while those who sold their interests to me are trying to get back in the building."

Representing the American Boxing League, Atty. Frank Fawcett urged the commission, "Let it not be said that after you have rendered your decision that the prophecy that 'Otto Borchert can do anything with the commission' be held true."

Commission chairman A.J. Schinner — also sports editor of the Wisconsin News — personally favored opening the Auditorium to a second club, but wrote, "The whole affair is as sordid on one side as on the other, with none of the principals so vitally interested in the dear, patient public that it would not harpoon the hoi-polloi to gain what it wants."

"What a splendid humanitarian organization the boxers' league would be," he added, "if it had any viewpoint in mind other than to increase the percentage of its membership through the medium of a second club at the Auditorium!"

Except for a couple technical points, the commission's April 14 decision exonerating the CCAC was a Grand Slam for Otto. Frank Fawcett called it a "triumph for trickery" and said, "The commission has a double standard — one for the promoter with wealth, one for the boxer without."

Down but not out, the boxers' union lobbied in Madison for a bill that would allow outdoor boxing in Wisconsin. On June 24, Gov. Blaine signed one into law, and with Frank Fawcett in charge the Badger State Athletic Assockiation was formed to promote boxing at State Fair Park in West Allis.

A week before the first card there on August 14, Tom Andrews left Milwaukee for Los Angeles, to become matchmaker for the new Olympic Auditorium.

"My opponents in the promotion field here think that I have thrown the towel into the ring — that I intend to give up my fight for another lease in the Auditorium," he said before departing. "But they're wrong. They'll wake up some morning before next New Year's afternoon and discover another boxing club in the downtown arena."

The two cards promoted at State Fair in August and September were financial busts, and the site was written off as a poor fight venue. But the eight Auditorium cards promoted by the CCAC since January 1 hadn't done so great, either.

When Frank Mulkern said the CCAC would use any local boxer who wanted to work, several members of the American Boxing League defected from the union to fight on Auditorium cards.

On March 31, 1926, Tom Andrews returned to Milwaukee and announced his intention to "obtain a lease on the Auditorium, with intention of running a fight club."

Otto Borchert had a better idea. He granted the Badger State Athletic Association a lease to promote fights at Athletic Field, home of the Brewers, that summer, and didn't even object when Tom Andrews was made matchmaker.

But the three cards held at the ballpark were not moneymakers, and in November Andrews bought an existing boxing franchise operating out of the Empress Theater in downtown Milwaukee. He made it clear, though, that he would keep pressing for a lease at the Auditorium.

"I'll fight them to the end," he said, "and if there is any word like 'justice' left in the dictionary, I'll beat them."

A few weeks earlier, Journal sports editor Manning Vaughn had reported that Otto Borchert wanted out of the whole mess because "the trickery, the petty bickering, the double-crossing and the politics of the sport give him a large pain in the neck."

The bickering continued into 1927. Two years earlier, Andrews and the boxers' union were up in arms because the CCAC didn't use enough local ring talent; now Andrews was upset because the CCAC wouldn't keep its mitts off Milwaukee fighters.

"If the larger club would adopt a hands-off policy and not use small-time windups," Andrews said, "I think I would be able to produce some new fistic talent. The Auditorium club, one of the largest in America, ought to devote its attention to promoting important bouts and leave the 'home-grown naturals' for me and my Empress theater club."

So it went until April 27, when Otto Borchert dropped dead while giving a speech at the local Elks club.

Calling him a "square-shooter all the way," boxing commission secretary Walter Liginger recalled that Borchert "had many tiffs with the boxing commission, but his arguments were always fair and never other than sincere. He did much to increase the interest in boxing as president of the Cream City boxing club, and helped put the game on its present high plain."

Two days later, at Tom Andrews' card at the Empress Theater, the lights were dimmed as the timekeeper rang the ringside bell 10 times in tribute to the late boxing and baseball magnate.

On August 24, Andrews bought controlling interest in the CCAC from Ruby Borchert, Otto's widow (his attorney in the Wisconsin Athletic Commission hearing, Henry Killilea, had purchased the Milwaukee Brewers from her at the end of the 1927 season).

"Followers of boxing in Milwaukee are hoping that the new arrangement in the Auditorium club means the end of the promoters' feud that has held back the sport (here) for nearly a decade," wrote Jim Delaney in the Wisconsin News.

Not for long. In January of 1929, Billy Mitchell, having run out of boxing brothers to manage and his boxers' union having faded away, started promoting fights in the Antlers hotel ballroom. A few months later, Mitchell applied for a lease at the Auditorium. With Tom Andrews egging them on, the Auditorium directors said nothing doing. "Within the desired portals again, Andrews was as interested in protecting his rights as Borchert ever was," said the News.

Boxing's popularity waned throughout the 1930s. Tom Andrews got out of the promoting business and in 1941 he died. In the midst of a resurgence in local boxing, in late -'43 a new owner of the Milwaukee Brewers decided that the sport offered another opportunity to exercise his fertile imagination and "have some fun." He applied for a promoter's license.

By then, three different clubs promoted fights at the Auditorium. The owner of the ball club demanded an exclusive lease there like the ones Andrews and Borchert had in their day. When the boxing commission vetoed that, Bill Veeck said "Applesauce!" — or probably a scatological variation thereof — and stuck with baseball.

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